Forgotten makes No76: Graham-White

Simplicity itself

The aircraft industry had a bad time immediately after the Armistice of 1918, orders for military aeroplanes having been cut drastically but civilian air services having scarcely begun. To combat this slump, many hitherto busy companies turned to motor manufacturing.

In Kingston-upon-Thames, for example, Sopwith's newly-formed Hawker Engineering Co Ltd, with some of the war's best fighters (the Sopwith Pup and Camel) behind it, went in for car bodies, making these for the Brooklands ACs and for the 200-Mile Race Talbot-Darracqs as well as for the less successful Hawker motorcycles. Up in Manchester, the pioneering Avro concern also made bodywork for Model T Ford, Hampton and other chassis, and had a brief shot at an 11.5hp light-car in which Crossley Motors had a controlling interest. The Blackburn Aeroplane Co was another to try car bodywork, and also made the 3.1-litre Coventry-Simplex-engined Blackburn Six, augmented by Eric-Campbells.

At Crickkwood, Handley-Page assembled Bean cars and was later to rent its assembly space to Armstrong Siddeley Motors, for use as a service and repair depot. Short's, too, made bodywork, as did Bristol's, the latter having a brief flirtation with the Henderson powered Reid monocar before making Armstrong Siddeley saloon bodies for a time. The Nieuport Aviation people rented their hangarage to Smith's Instruments.

Conversely, the Siddeley-Deasy Car Co acquired the name and the goodwill of Sir WG Armstrong-Whitworth & Co, and began to build aeroplanes, starting with the exciting AW Siskin biplane fighter.

Following the mainstream trend, however, was Claude Grahame-White, who prior to the war had turned Hendon into London's great sporting and social flying centre. He was to make a few more aeroplanes in 1919, but business was virtually at a standstill and he was forced to think about trying to rapture a slice of the motoring boom, making a few bodies for Rolls-Royce, Daimler and similar chassis, including his own concept of a lightweight all-weather body.

When it came to car manufacturing, Grahame-White did not hedge his bets. By 1919 he had ready a light-car which he proposed to sell as a two-seater for £350, and the GW Buckboard, priced at £95, and he took Stand 44 at the first post-war Motor Show at Olympians which to publicise them.

The Grahame-White light-car had a four-cylinder 64 x 85 mm 1094cc Dorman engine. Making gearboxes would have been difficult for an aeroplane constructor, so the transmission was by friction, with the distinction that there were three discs; one on the rim of the flywheel engaged a second parallel with the chassis side-members, from whence a third provided the indirect speeds. For top gear, however, these discs were disengaged and a cone clutch transmitted the drive.

Front suspension was by a transverse spring and radius arms, with quarter-elliptic springs at the rear. The wheelbase was 7ft 10in, the track 3ft 10in, and 710 90 tyres were fitted. Torque-tube final drive, rack-and-pinion steering and a flywheel-driven dynamo figured in the specification of the car, which was made at the London Aerodrome, Hendon, in north-west London.

A chassis and a two-seater appeared at the Show, together with three GW Buckboards. Presumably it was hoped to sell the latter if the light car failed to catch on. It is possible that Grahame-White had got the idea from the Orient Buckboard, which had appeared in America in 1902 and was sold here by the Blackfriars Motor & Engineering Works of Stamford. Around the 1920s there were some incredibly simple cyclecars around, but none more so than the Buckboard!

The 1905 Orient had for a chassis a flexible hickory platform sprung on full-elliptical springs. A seat was mounted on this, and at the rear a 4hp air-cooled engine drove via a two-speed gear. This vehicle weighed about 500lb, cost £90 devoid of lamps and horn and was said to do from 3-35 mph.

The GW Buckboard had a 3hp rearmounted, 74 x 91mm (348cc) two-stroke single-cylinder Precision engine with a kickstarter, driving through a two-speed gear giving ratios of 6:1 and 10:1, with chain final-drive. It was supposed to seat two, the riders protected by a small nose-cowl like a coal-scoop, and it had direct wheel-steering and 610 50 tyres, the track being a mere 3ft. With lamps and horn, it weighed 23/4 cwt.

Claude Grahame-White did his best to publicise the quaint little vehicle, and persuaded the staff of Light Car & Cyclecar to organise a demonstration run. Arranged for a December Saturday, the route was from the Hendon works to the Hyde, along the Edgware Road and Collingdeep Lane to Golder's Green, then along the Finchley Road to Swiss Cottage, and up the notorious Fitzjohn's Avenue to Hampstead Heath. It returned by way of the Great North Road. GW produced seven Buckboards for this run, driving one himself; he scared one of the writers when showing him that the thing would not skid on the very slippery roads. The paper had mustered seven trilby-hatted men to conduct the experiment, possibly, by bringing in the advertising staff. It is worth remembering that in 1919 the route they were use was virtually in the country, the roads all but deserted bar the buzzing Buckboards.

As they set off, it was seen that the single headlamp and a small cylindrical petrol tank were incorporated within the body cowl, with side-lamps on the front mudguards. Trade plates, from H-1-GW upwards, made the Buckboards legal, and a speed of 35 mph was attained. One or two drivers had engine trouble, but only one Buckboard had to be abandoned; its driving chain came adrift, a nut and bolt having been used to join it instead of a spring-link.

Only the machine carrying two people made Fitzjohn's Avenue in top gear, but another required a change-down for a few yards only and then reached Hampstead Heath in top. The conclusion was that some springing should be provided for the plank "chassis", as well as for the seat, that the latter should be widened to give more elbow room for two-up, that the engine needed better cooling and that a single-lever carburettor and improved brakes were desirable.

Grahame-White's attempts to make a truly simple vehicle coincided with the announcement of the £100 Carden, and no more was heard of the Buckboard. So he set about turning it into a slightly more sophisticated cyclecar. The same 31/2hp engine was moved to the front, a new chain-and-dog transmission gave ratios of 6:1 and 12:1 and incorporated a clutch on one of the sprockets, the back axle had no differential, and the frame was of ash, with aeroplane-type bracing.

The prototype had wire-and-bobbin steering, and I think it was this one that was known as "the silver car" and was tested around The Crescent at Hendon by Mr Carr (who had been with Grahame-White from before the war) with his four-year-old son sitting on his knees,. This G-W cyclecar was ready early in 1920, and so traffic-free was London's West End in those days that several were lined up in Regent Street, surrounded by interested passers-by. No doubt this was the idea of Mr AH Brackensey, the Grahame-White sales manager from Buckboard times . . .

The Dorman-engined G-W was dropped and all efforts concentrated on the cyclecar, which appeared on Stand 25 at the 1920 Motor Show, priced at £164.4s (or at £265 with a 7hp flat-twin Coventry-Victor engine and a more conventional friction transmission than the light-car had). The two-seater body had been improved from that of the prototype, and now had a vee-front. The tyres were 24 204 Palmer Cords, a six volt accumulator could light the tiny lamps, and the throttle-control for the Amal carburettor was on the steering wheel. The Show models consisted of a "twin" in red with dark brown upholstery, and a single-cylinder car in yellow.

Over the aforementioned journal's standard Surrey test route, the single-cylinder 4 cwt cyclecar managed the hills in bottom gear, giving 51 mpg under these adverse conditions. The tester said that after climbing Ranmore Common, near Dorking, it was possible to lay his hand on the cylinder without discomfort, so one wonders why he waited ten minutes "to give the engine a breather" before tackling Coombe Bottom.

They say the camera cannot lie, and a photograph exists showing at least 19 of these GW cyclecars outside the factory at Hendon Aerodrome in 1920. Yet nothing more was heard of them! WB