Forgotten Makes: No. 92: The ABC

Not exactly forgotten perhaps — certainly not by me, because my first (£5) car was an ABC, even if, with its oil-pump inoperative, it only lasted three days before a rod came out, causing the errant big-end rollers to escape and run smoking down the hill towards High Wycombe — but not very well remembered. The Georgano Encyclopaedia is unkind to the ABC, saying its engine, built down to a cost, was noisy, hard to start, inefficiently lubricated and liable to breakdowns. This is only partially true. Many owners got good results and many ABCs did quite well in trials and speed events, in the 1920s, in the hands of presumably satisfied owners.

The car was designed by the somewhat eccentric engineer Granville Bradshaw who was already famous, or notorious, for his war-time aero-engines, such as the 170 hp and 200 hp seven-cylinder air-cooled radial ‘Wasp’ and 295 hp nine-cylinder ‘Dragonfly’ of the war years. The latter was a disaster, suffering severe torsional vibration that could break its crankshaft, and equally severe overheating. However, Bradshaw’s small two-cylinder horizontally-opposed pre- and post-war aeroplane engines were more successful and it was on these and on the interesting ABC motorcycle with its ohv transverse engine, car-type suspension, four-speed gearbox and shaft-drive, that the ABC car was based. Incidentally, the initials stood for All-British Engine Company.

The ABC car was made at Hersham Road, Walton-on-Thames. It had its public debut at the first post-Armistice London Motor Show, at Olympia in 1919. At that time there was little prejudice over air cooling, although it formed the subject of long pro-and-con articles in the weekly motoring papers. The war had shown people that this form of cooling was effective for powerful aero-engines, motorcyclists transferring to four wheels were accustomed to it, and it was sometimes preferred at a time when anti-freeze was virtually unknown and hoses, waterpumps, even radiators of liquid-cooled engines, were apt to leak.

Moreover, Granville Bradshaw was ingenious. Although his ABC engine was air-cooled, his car was far removed from the cyclecar concept. It had a dummy honeycomb radiator to disguise the simple method of cooling the two cylinders of its 1200cc flat-twin engine, and the wheelbase measuring 8′ 6″, was about the same as that of well-established larger engined light cars and helped to give the ABC good handling qualities, although its worm-and-nut steering formed merely a compact extension of the steering-column and the springing was by a quarter-elliptic springs front and back.

The engine had futuristic ‘square’ dimensions, of 92 x 92 mm (1223cc). Cooling was augmented by a simple fan with six metal blades, driven off the nose of the crankshaft, the starting-handle plugging into an extension of its boss. Later a safer two-bladed wooden fan was fitted.

This flat-twin ABC engine had roller-bearing big-ends and its aviation ancestory was evident in the steel cylinders, push-rod actuated overhead valves, and aluminium pistons. It was set well back in the chassis, which had a neat subframe, good attachments for the road springs and a long bonnet in which the air-scoops for the cylinders were not too apparent. Ignition was by a magneto atop the engine crankcase. Granville Bradshaw’s ingenuity showed up again in his provision of a four-speed gearbox, at a time when all too many small cars struggled along on three forward speeds, and in what looked like a truly massive back-axle, at a period when the durability of this component was often distrusted. In fact, the big tapering axle tubes were formed of wafer-thin steel, which did make for a light axle.

Another unusual feature was the vertical gate for the central gear lever (I recall that when going from third into top gear this gave a pleasantly seductive feel to the palm of one’s hand!), although I am not sure that this wasn’t a feature of a proprietary gearbox, which may have been used. It certainly saved space in the cockpit, and apparently the Vinot car helped pioneer this non-transverse gear shift . . . .

Another less practical feature was the provision of a big petrol tank in-line with the side-members, and immediately above the engine. It was replenished via the cap of the dummy radiator and in spite of ‘petrol-only’ marks, there was the very likely and dire possibility that an ABC owner would be too late to stop the good intentions of a garage-hand with a watercan!

At the time of its 1919 announcement the ABC was priced at an estimated £195, for a two-seater with Sankey steel artillery wheels shod with 710 x 90 tyres. This was hopelessly optimistic and by 1921 the prices, even after a recent reduction, were 330 gns, for the sporting model and 365 gns. for the standard two-seater. A chassis was available for 295 gns.

A representative from The Light Car & Cyclecar (that jolly 4d. weekly with the full photographic front cover) had been to the ABC factory and was impressed by the thorough inspection made of every machined part. But at this time of moulders’ strikes and other labour troubles, not all the castings, stampings and forgings supplied by Harper Bean of Tipton were immune from trouble. The ohv gear was apparently suspect, too, the rocker-arm movement so big that the fulcrum-pins wore quickly, and tappet clearance suffered; rumour has it that if you saw a shop-window shatter, the cause was not from terrorists (unlikely in the U.K. of the 1920s anyway) more likely it was due to a push-rod having been catapulted from an accelerating ABC . . . .

Be that as it may, the claim that the ABC engine was force-lubricated was suspect when a small motorcycle type pump was found optimistically fulfilling this ideal. Nevertheless a large number of people bought these cars, a tribute perhaps to the work of HH Vaughan-Knight who had been appointed Sales Manager. He drove an ABC in the MCC Exeter, Lands End and Edinburgh trials, and was followed by many others, including SCH Davis, who was to have his share of seizures and similar troubles. Deliveries of ABCs did not begin until well into 1920, however, a production rate of 40-a-week being aimed for by the end of that year.

By 1922 some of the early shortcomings had been eliminated. The inlet pipe had been shortened, the carburettor was more accessible, a larger oil pump had been installed, with a lever to control its output, copper gaskets replaced reliance on aluminium flanges to seal heads to cylinders, the inlet pipe hot-spot was rendered quieter by altering the exhaust off-take that surrounded it, and two exhaust pipes now led to a rear-mounted silencer. The costly roller-bearings for the torque-tube fork were replaced with plain bearings, the brake gear altered, and changes made to the back axle.

The standard two-seater with dickey now cost £383 5/-, the carpetless, doorless, sports model on 710 x 80 tyres £346 10/-. Disc wheels were now standard and the differential had bevel, not spur, pinions. The engine size was down to 1198cc. The prices were competitive, although a similar-capacity four-cylinder Calthorpe cost £28 less and those who didn’t mind chains with their two cylinders could get a GN for £225.

It was as a poor person’s sporting car that ABC Motors could hope to find buyers, when for instance, a Brescia Bugatti sold at £750, because the family men could buy a Morris Cowley for £376. Eric Gordon England began to champion the ABC at this time, racing one at Brooklands before devoting his attention solely to the Austin 7. In 1921 that car-keen monarch, King Alfonso of Spain, went to the ABC works on his way to watch racing at Brooklands, a visit arranged by Gordon Watney, the London ABC agents; the royal carriage seems to have been a Crossley.

Gordon England also made special bodies for the ABC and his racing version with airship-nosed body lapped Brooklands at 75.80 mph, suggesting a top speed of well over 80 mph. It was 14th in the 1921 JCC 200 Mile Race, sixth in the 1922 race and fourth in the 1100cc class in the 1923 race, but by then it had a Bristol Cherub aero-engine — not, be it noted, an ABC Scorpion aero-engine!

Although ABC Motors soon ceased to take a stand at Olympia, their cars proved popular on account of good performance for a low price. Unfortunately the demand resulted in careless inspection so that faults were all too rife with the racing-type engine. In 1924 that changed after further improvements had been made. The chassis was thought to be alright but the engine was virtually re-designed. The crankshaft had originally been too small for the roller big-ends, the steel cylinders too thin and the valve-gear called for too frequent adjustment. So thicker cast-iron cylinders and a larger hardened crankshaft with larger, double-row big-end rollers, were now used and the valve-gear was enclosed, positively-oiled, and given enlarged rocker surfaces. To overcome the hard-to-start complaint, the magneto was provided with an impulse-starter. The lubrication shortcomings were erradicated by a dry-sump tank below the engine, and more power was obtained by increasing the engine-size to 1326cc, the cylinder bore enlarged to 96mm.

The improved ABC was ready towards the end of 1924. As a privileged motoring writer, Sammy Davis, who had been running the fourth car to leave the Hersham factory, known as “Grandfather”, now with 48,000 miles to its credit, did some of the testing, having had the new crank and cylinders on his car since 1922 . . . . As if to endorse their value, a new 12/40 hp Super Sports ABC with single-door, pointed tail body was introduced, at £275. On a 4.5 to 1 axle ratio it could do well over 60 mph, yet climb Reigate Hill in top gear. The older, smaller-engined ABC was now called the 12/27 model and its price was down to £225 by 1925. SCH Davis had a Super Sports for test early in 1925 but it was apparently too new to be extended on Brooklands. The new engine still had a vibration period at 35 mph, but it was better balanced in feel to early engines which had seemed to want to whip themselves out of the chassis!

The 12/40 ABC did 10 to 30 mph in six seconds in third, in nine seconds in top gear. The gear ratios were 13.75, 9.5, 6.5 and 4.5 to 1, the unladen weight 12 1/2 cwt.

Twin Zenith carburettors were now fitted on separate short inlet pipes, as on the 1923 Sports models, partially to cure the former flat-spot and a tendency of ABCs to catch fire. A refinement was the speedometer drive taken from the gearbox.

MOTOR SPORT had its go in a Super Sports ABC by 1926 and wrote of speeds in the gears of 30, 40, 50 and 60 mph without fuss. 0-55 mph occupied 14.2 seconds. We found the vertical-gate gearchange very quick, aided by the light plate clutch, the springing ‘quite good’, and the Sports body to give ‘ample comfort’. The noise factor was wrapped up by saying, “In the matter of silence, the ABC does not compare very favourably with some of the more quiet (sic!) four-cylinder light cars, but one must remember that it is a special type and its performance is so attractive that one is willing to sacrifice a little in the way of silence.” Ah! Even Davis had admitted that the new engine was noisy.

This was against Granville Bradshaw’s unusual little car in the 1920s, and it was soon out of production, the end coming in 1927. The smaller but faster Brooklands Super Sports A7 was available from Gordon England for ten pounds less and small French sports cars for less again. Remember the ABC, though, as a sporting car of its time; of the dozen that started in the 1923 Land’s End trial, five gained gold medals. EM Magee had also taken a gold medal in the 1922 Scottish Six Days trial, and Donald Healey commenced his great competition career with one of these cars.

As for the Sales Manager, he seems to have gone over to the Windsor, another forgotten make!