The Genius Lanchester

Author

W.B.

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Earlier this year Dr. F. W. Lancheter died in Birmingham at the age of 77. Thus it is opportune to review the history of the company which Dr. F. W. and his brothers formed at the very beginning of the Industry. In doing so one encounters such genius of design, such sanity of purpose and such perfection of detail as to engender a feeling of pride that cars bearing the name of Lanchester emanated from a British manufacturer.

Frederick Lanchester built his first horseless carriage in 1895, and it ably reflected the skill and foresightedness that was to develop apace in subsequent cars. Indeed, this initial Lanchester possessed features peculiar to itself and yet so satisfactory and ahead of their time as to feature in all subsequent Lanchester models, even those produced after the Kaiser War.

This first Lanchester was a very short wheelbase, flat-twin air-cooled vehicle of 6 h.p. It was cooled by a fan, had wick carburation and was partially balanced by reversed flywheels, while transmission was by planetary gears and steering by tiller, features of later Lanchester models. It had final chain drive and bucket-type seating. This car ran before the passing of the Act of 1896.

The next car which F.W. built had a 2-cylinder opposed engine of the double crankshaft type later to become so famous. This arrangement was adopted to overcome vibration. Worm final drive replaced the chain but H.T. ignition was retained. Lanchester’s third car showed another great advance, having magneto ignition and clutch and brakes as on his later production models, and a long wheelbase and double suspension; the worm drive and other characteristic features were again retained. A later version of No. 3, with further detail improvements, took a gold medal in the Richmond trials in 1899.

In 1901 Lanchester completed the model with which he went into production, introducing more speeds, making minor improvements to the engine and abandoning the double suspension for a new system of springing in conjunction with a notably long wheelbase. Models of 10, 12, 14, 16 and 18 h.p. were introduced (the larger engines being water-cooled), a system of standardisation being adopted to ensure interchangeability of parts. The smallest engine gave its maximum output at 750 r.p.m.

So ingenious was the design and construction of these early Lanchesters that it is absorbing to examine the 10 h.p. in some detail.

The horizontally-opposed cylinders were finned and cooled by two centrifugal fans made up from aluminium sheet and driven by friction wheels which were held against the flywheel by a pair of spring-loaded metal straps. Each fan ran at five times engine speed and drew air through wind scoops on each side of the car, and delivered it into a casing set round the cylinders, the hot air being exhausted into a chamber isolated from the engine. So effective was this cooling that the makers used a standard car engine to drive machinery in the coach-building department at Armourer Mills, and this engine ran satisfactorily in spite of operating under most adverse conditions.

Two crankshafts were mounted one above the other and carried in plates uniting the cylinders on each side — there was no enclosed crankcase of the usual sort. Each piston was coupled to the crankpins by three connecting rods, two going to one pin and the remaining rod to the opposite pin. As one piston ascended the other descended, and two power strokes occurred one revolution and none the next, the torque effect being a cross between that of a single and normal two-cylinder engine. Each crankshaft carried its own flywheel and the action of the connecting rods was such that these revolved in opposite directions. This resulted in perfect engine balance and also obviated sidethrust on the cylinder walls. In order to offset free play occasioned by wear, the crankshafts were geared together to keep them in perfect step, as it were, for they also carried balance weights to offset the inertia of the reciprocating parts — this gearing, incidentally, was not a feature of car No. 2.

Because there was no crankcase, lubrication had to be carried out in a special manner, but Lanchester was quite equal to the problem. Lubricant was contained in a tank carried on two pillars screwed into the cylinders. Along the bottom of this tank were a series of ports from which pipes conveyed the oil to the working parts of the engine. A spindle running longitudinally through the tank and driven by worm and spiral gear from the half-time shaft, had a series of depressions cut in it corresponding to the ports and thus, as it revolved, oil flow through the ports was controlled. The tank pillars themselves were hollow and fed oil to the cylinders, where it accumulated in a hollow in each piston and ran to the gudgeon pins. The big-ends received their supply centrifugally from the main bearings. Ignition, carburation and valve gear were equally unconventional, for Lanchester held in contempt current automobile practice and sought perfection unafraid of complexity. Each cylinder head contained only one valve, this being operated by a form of o.h. camshaft. This valve served as both inlet and exhaust, a feed-valve in an adjoining chamber determining which passage communicated with the main valve. The feed-valve, in other words, shut either the inlet port or exhaust port communicating with the main valve. It was operated by an inertia governor, so that up to a certain engine speed the valve functioned normally, but if the speed tended to become excessive the governor blade missed making contact with the valve, which then failed to uncover the inlet passage, so that the engine missed a firing stroke. This happened regularly about nine revolutions out of ten, keeping engine speed within decent limits. The governor itself was extremely ingenious and overcame the sluggishness and tendency to “hunt” often experienced with centrifugal governors. It consisted of two levers, one directly driven from the mainshaft, the other floating in such a manner that at high rates of oscillation it caused the trip for the valve to move out of line and fail to open the valve. This action was further controlled by springs, one tensioned by a band control and the other by the accelerator, so that accurate control of the speed at which the governor operated could be obtained. It seems probable that Lanchester adopted one poppet valve for both inlet and exhaust with a view to letting the mixture cool the valve, as was done many years later in the Monosoupape aero-engine.

For ignition, a flywheel magneto was used, in conjunction with L.T. type plugs making and breaking within the cylinders. One flywheel carried two bar magnets and these revolved round an armature supported by the mainshaft and consisting of four coils wired as two coils in series to give independent circuits.

Even in 1904 it was possible to state that six year’ experimenting had gone into the igniters. These consisted of a hollow steel plug screwing into the cylinder and carrying the insulated ignition wire. The exposed end of the igniter carried a strip steel spring which bore at one end on the ignition wire, the other end being actuated by a “tweaker” formed on the engine camshaft. Current from the flywheel magneto was conveyed to the igniters through insulated steel rods and spring clips, no wires being used. When the ignition wire was in contact with an anvil at the inner end of the igniter plug, current flowed not only through the wire but also through the igniter spring and “tweaker.” As the “tweaker” overran the spring the current flowed only through the wire and anvil and then, as the spring broke contact here, a strong spark resulted. It was claimed that this “double break” allowed sparking even if the internal contacts were dirty. If the spark occurred only between spring and “tweaker” the time had come to adjust the gap between wire and anvil, which was effected by moving the bracket round in relation to the igniter, for which purpose an adjustable worm on the former engaged teeth on the body of the latter. The igniters were screwed hard down on to their seats in the cylinders by most ingenious threaded locking handles which, by engaging grooves in the cylinder bosses, enabled the igniters to be screwed home or released by a slight back and forward movement of the handles. These handles were insulated and remained in place on the engine after the igniters had been secured. The ignition timing was normally fixed, but automatically retarded itself for starting.

As with Lanchesters right up to (and I believe for a short while after in some instances) the 1914-18 war, the carburetter was a wick vaporiser, warmed by air drawn from longitudinal pipes passing through the silencers. The petrol tank formed the main cross-member of the chassis and the vaporiser was above it. Fuel was fed from tank to vaporiser by a hand pump, the ringed handle of this extended directly upwards to a position beside the driver. It is interesting that no automatic feed was provided, the pump requiring a stroke or two every few miles, although the vaporised tank held about a gallon of fuel. Lanchester’s preference for a wick carburetter was on account of its ability to cope with almost any grade of petrol and its immunity from the adverse effects of water, except in considerable quantities. Even the fuel gauge was typical of Lanchester – a rod, with a metal saucer at its lower end which normally sank but which could be lifted clear of the fuel, emptied by spinning the rod between finger and thumb, and then floated on the surface of the fuel, so indicating the level by the length of rod exposed.

The engine was set transversely across the car, between the front and rear seats. At right angles below it and driven by helical gears from the lower crankshaft, was a countershaft carrying the clutch and epicyclic gear trains. The driving gear was keyed to a hollow shaft which carried one member of the cone clutch, and inside this shaft ran a free shaft, which carried the other clutch member, and a universal joint coupled to the final-drive propellor shaft. Direct drive was obtained through the clutch and intermediate speeds by locking the drums of the appropriate epicyclic train. The clutch could be moved over to function as a transmission brake, this, curiously, being a lubricated cast-iron drum. The clutch was controlled by a central lever via a pair of parallel shafts, geared together and operating a ball-thrust block. The rear axle was of Lanchester worm type, soon to become famous, the worm being of steel, with a 45° angle, mating with a phosphor bronze gear. This axle was in marked contrast to the chain drives then popular, and the car was said to coast “like nothing else in existence except a free-wheel bicycle.” Steering was by a right-hand tiller, the lever of which was shaped so that the driver’s arm rested along it. As late as 1919 such steering was offered as an alternative to wheel control. The suspension of the 1901 Lanchester, too, was employed for a very long period, particularly in its application to the rear axle, and was used also by Siddeley-Deasy under royalty. It consisted of full cantilever springs all round, having radius arms beneath them to take torque reaction, and links above them to locate the axles laterally.

The central engine position allowed of a decking between the seats on which luggage could be carried. Between the front seats was located the control panel of the car, reminiscent of that of a ship, on which were carried two gear-levers working in separate quadrants and having ratchet handles for locking them in varying positions, a gear-change trigger, the fuel pump ring, two levers for setting each cylinder’s governor, and the vapour-regulating lever for the carburetter. Gear-changing was really rather a business and it is surprising that the driver remembered the petrol lever every few miles. Bottom gear was obtained from second gear by first raising the trigger lever, then moving the low-speed gear lever to its free position and then fully forward. To obtain second gear the lever was set forward, but with the trigger lever set horizontal. To go into top gear the lowspeed lever was moved to its free position and then the high-speed gear-lever was moved forward, so engaging the clutch to give direct drive.

To gain access to the engine the front seats and decking could be removed. A leather apron was fitted ahead of the front seats and the rest of the “body” was made up of the rear compartment, entered through a door in the rear panel and obtainable, if desired, with a detachable brougham top. Mudguards were either “streamline” folding type running end-to-end of the car, or of separate pattern. Cars supplied to the War Office had a reversible hood for the tonneau, which could be swung forward in front of the passengers to serve as a non-transparent screen in a storm!

That, then, was the original production-model Lanchester. Although design was by no means stereotyped in 1901, a current description of the Lanchester comments that: ” . . . the car is an education in all that is ingenious in design. The very originality of the whole construction is, in itself, most fascinating, and although differing so widely from the usual automobile practice, the ever-increasing popularity and success of the car demand interest and attention. The car differs (from others) in appearance, in detail and in many places in fundamental principle, even making a new, and hitherto an uncopied, departure in motor-car construction . . .”

In short, the early Lanchester was the essence of unconventionality. But it was one of these cars which captivated Kipling and by 1904 many notabilities were using them, including the Marquis of Anglesey, His Grace the Duke of Portland, the Most Hon. The Marquis of Zetland, and Major Lindsay Lloyd, R.E., on behalf of the War Office. One satisfied user wrote to the makers, of his car: “Its only fault is side-slipping on greasy roads and this, I understand, is common to all pneumatically-wheeled cars” — which must have pleased Mr. Dunlop and his colleagues no end!

As the years went on, Lanchester dropped some of his unique features of design, but the originality remained. Just before the Kaiser War popular models were the 20, 25, 28 and 38-h.p. cars. The first two 4-cylinder, the latter two 6-cylinder. The cylinders were now in-line and had two valves in each head. However, these valves were unusual in being set horizontally, one on each side, and in being operated by long rockers rising vertically in a plane with the cylinder bores from a camshaft on each side of the engine. These camshafts were above the crankcase and, while the cams were enclosed in oil reservoirs from which the lower ends of the rockers protruded, the shaft itself was exposed. The valves were closed by long leaf springs placed outside the rockers with their lower ends bolted to the cam-cases. Gone were the counter-rotating crankshafts and L.T. ignition. Instead, a beautiful, forged shaft ran (on the “six”) in seven white metal bearings having tinned brass shells, while a “magneto-machine” provided H.T. ignition. Steel pistons were used and, thus early, Lanchester machined and balanced their nickel-steel connecting rods. Gone was the comic system of lubrication, a horizontal, gear-type, submerged pump driven from the crankshaft providing pressure lubrication — even to the little-ends via passages in the con. rods, which wasn’t bad for 1912. A separate purnp fed the gearbox, clutch and brakes; although early cars relied on the engine pump for these parts, a second pump feeding oil back to the crankcase. The engine now occupied a normal position in the chassis but Lanchester still evaded a bonnet, for the front passengers set their feet down either side of the engine and the decking between them carried the famous “ship’s control panel,” now carrying two lubricating “tell-tale” buttons, Bosch dual coil, throttle and ignition levers and vaporiser regulator. The wick-vaporiser was retained but petrol feed from the 16-gallon tank beneath the driver’s seat was now automatic, although the pump was merely driven by spring belt from the engine. The patent “spin-the-saucer” fuel gauge remained.

The flywheel was on the front of the crankshaft and the 3-speed and reverse epicyclic gearbox was now located normally behind the engine. Direct drive was still via the clutch, and this was now of the multi-disc type, with numbers of “interns” and “externs” (lovely description!) engaging one with the other, the brake now being separate and also of multi-disc type. The engine crankshaft extended through the gearbox to drive the driven clutch discs. An ingenious gear control was devised, whereby the shank of the gear-lever slid on its shaft to select the required gear or apply the brake, movement of the lever then effecting the actual operation. This was subsequently discarded in favour of a right-hand lever in a visible gate and a normal clutch pedal, the pedal being depressed as a gear was selected and then released to effect the change. The clutch was not, of course, a clutch in the ordinary sense, disengaging automatically and only being used when top gear was required.

Tiller steering could be had as an alternative to wheel-steering, up to the war, and naturally the full cantilever suspension, improved in detail, and the worm final-drive was still a feature of all Lanchesters.

These remarkable designs were, of course, the work of Fred Lanchester, but just prior to 1914, George took a hand, evolving a side-valve, 40-h.p. 6-cylinder car with a normal bonnet. Half-elliptic springs replaced the Lanchester cantilevers at the front, but the 3-speed epicyclic gearbox, with the clutch behind it for direct drive, was still found behind the new engine. 78 b.h.p. was developed, at 1,800 r.p.m., from a capacity of 5 1/2 litres. A Smith carburetter was used.

After the 1914-18 war a similar chassis was used to accommodate the new o.h. camshaft 40-h.p. engine of 6-litre rapacity, which gave 96 b.h.p., and still drove via an epicyclic box and worm rear axle. Later the 21-h.p. car was added to the range, but this had a sliding-pinion gearbox and the old series really terminated with the straight-eight 30-h.p. car of 1930. These post-war Lanchesters were referred to in Motor Sport for October, 1945.

Fred Lanchester’s early designs were certainly amongst the most brilliant contributions to British automobile engineering. It is pleasing to recall that F. W. Hutton-Stott preserves excellent examples of 1903 12-h.p. 2-cylinder, 1908 20-h.p. 4-cylinder, and 1913 38-h.p. 6-cylinder models. He also has a 1924 21-h.p. and 1930 31-h.p. Lanchester, a few of the post-war cars are still seen on the road, notably Keith Alderton’s 1924 “21.”

[Since writing the foregoing, I have had the pleasure of taking tea with Mr. and Mrs. George Lanchester. Mr: Lanchester confirmed the suspicion we had that the public’s apathy towards the unconventional went against the old Lanchesters; hence the sliding-pinion gearbox on the “21.” Even so, i.f.s., hardened cylinder-liners and front wheel brakes were experimented with well ahead of their time by Fred Lanchester. George Lanchester is still a firm believer in rear-engined cars, properly designed and using a horizontal engine set laterally. He considers motor-racing the finest sport in the world, but of little use for research purposes. It is not generally known that he has lapped Brooklands at 115 m.p.h. in one of the two racing Lanchester “Forty’s” that were built. It is very pleasing to be able to record that both he and Mrs. Lanchester are very well and that Mrs. Lanchester takes as much interest in her husband’s activities as ever. Lanchester’s hobby of carving walking stick handles with a penknife is, of course, pure craftsmanship, and more evidently so, even, than is his association with motor-cars. Their present car is a Lanchester Fourteen. — Ed.]