James Walker- Gasket specialists

More and more owners of vintage, veteran or merely “oneoff” cars and motorcycles are taking advantage of the excellent service operated by James Walker & Co Ltd, Lion Works, Woking, Surrey, for supplying to pattern gaskets for ancient or unusual engines.

Last month we were shown over this fascinating factory by Mr K K Gibbs. The first surprise a visitor receives is of the vast extent of this works, which is concerned solely with gaskets, jointing and packing materials, although this is less astonishing when you learn that the company was founded in 1875 and now has branches, depots and agencies the world over. The other surprise is occasioned by the great variety of materials used in jointing manufacture, each one the most suitable for a given purpose, as discovered after painstaking research in the Walker laboratories.

The actual manufacture of different types of gaskets and packings is of considerable interest, and the extensive dispatch department testifies to the demand for “Lion” products. However, this is a story more appropriate to the pages of a specialised engineering journal so after looking at the history of James Walker & Co, Ltd, we will pass on to the department where motor-car gaskets are made—with the aside that enthusiasts who are restoring steam traction engines might well avail themselves of the company’s steam jointing materials.

James Walker was a Scottish engineer who, realising the potentialites of the triple-expansion steam engine in the late 1800s, and its need for new packings able to withstand unprecedented pressures of up to 140 lb/sq in, set about designing scientifically conceived packings. Thus “Lion” packings such as Automatic, Expanding and Block came into being in a small railway-arch workshop in America Square, Minories, East London, 85 years ago.

Handicapped by lack of capital and production capacity, Mr. Walker arranged for a Liverpool Company to make his new packings on a royalty basis. The leading shipping companies clamoured for them, which enabled their inventor to re-commence manufacture at Love Lane, Shadwell, where he employed seven people. In 1888, Mr George H Cook, late chairman of the company, joined Mr. Walker and sales were expanded to the present national and world-wide foundation. This necessitated another move to larger premises, where packings to meet all engineering requirements could be made.

So in 1898 at a disused rope walk in Garford Street, Poplar, the first “Lion” works was built, later augmented by the Garford works opposite.

During the 1914/18 war a nervous Government, fearful of entrusting its demands to private enterprise, found that James Walker never failed them. The reputation of “Lion” packings for quality and service increased rapidly and in 1926, with some 350 hands working at Poplar, further expansion became essential. This time the present “Lion” works at Woking in Surrey was built, centred round the one-time Royal Dramatic College, a magnificent building that had formerly been the College of Oriental Study. This explains Indian-sounding names engraved in Stones along the outside walls of the office block and the fact that the Boardroom must be the finest in the country, a lofty and enormous hall where Irving once played Shakespearean parts. Stained-glass windows depicting scenes from Shakespeare’s plays let sunlight filter into the rich, warm atmosphere of this magnificent room— but it may be of greater interest to our readers to note that the old Martinsyde motorcycle factory is incorporated in the 10-acre “Lion” works adjacent to the railway at Woking, where 2,090 employees make these famous packings.

In a small separate works not far away James Walker’s make cylinder head C & A gaskets and manifold joints, valve-chest washers, etc, to special order, a service that has in the last few years saved countless old-car restorers from despair. It is not suprising how this came about, for Mr Donald G Cook, a Director and grandson of the late George H Cook aforementioned, is not only a keen participant in VCC events with his 1903 Darracq but still possesses the 16/20 hp Wolseley tourer which has remained in the Cook family ever since Mr George Cook took delivery of it, brand-new, in 1914. This Wolseley was well known at the Poplar factory. and experienced a “near-miss” in the zeppelin raids of the First World War, and it served with the Home Guard in the last war.

So it isn’t so suprising that James Walker decided to meet the need for a specialised motor-car gasket and jointing service, to the efficiency of which many VCC and VSCC members, the Editor of Motor Sport included, can testify. Indeed, most of “Lion” packings are of a specialised rather than a mass-production nature, from tiny copper washers to stern-tube packings for ocean-going liners. It is very refreshing to find that quality is the watchword behind “Lion” products and that a very thorough system of final-inspection, with instant rejection of any packing below standard, is in operation at Woking. For this reason “oneoff” car gaskets are not cheap, but this is usually of little concern to someone who is carefully rebuilding, or servicing, an historic car, and in any case it is the Company’s policy to first submit an estimate to the customer. Not only are these gaskets carefully made by hand but the best-quality materials are used. Best quality soft copper is employed in making cylinder head and manifold gaskets and the filler material is Walker’s “Unilion,” which has great mechanical strength plus excellent water and oil resistance. Altogether a far better proposition than the fragile Asbestos Millboard so often used as a filler in the mass-produced article. For sump and rocker cover joints, etc, “Nebar” rubber-bonded cork is recommended and this material, by virtue of its resiliency and first-class oil resistance, is far superior to plain cork. Incidentally, James Walker recommend fitting head gaskets with vaseline rather than a heavy smear of jointing compound.

The old gasket, or failing that a rubbing, is required, although customers have been known to leave complete engines! Gradually the company is building up data relating to old gasket shapes but if, through a poor rubbing or seriously damaged pattern an error occurs, generous treatment of the customer is the rule. Although a gasket has been made in a day, to meet an urgent vintage competition, to insist on this is hardly fair and normally 10-14 days are requested. Customers are welcome to call and leave an old gasket and collect the new one, just ask for Mr Gibbs. Often if the first gasket proves acceptable, as it invariably does, a following order comes in for spare gaskets, notably in the case of Lancia Lambdas, perhaps because of a certain economy in the matter of holding down studs ! To list all the olcars for which James Walker have supplied their gaskets is impossible, but single cylinder Rovers, bull-nose Morris, Sunbeam, Talbot gaskets for John Bland, Meadows E4D, etc, etc, come to mind. Gaskets are also in demand for 750 MC members who have opened out the valve-side of Austin 7 or Ford 10 engines and then find the standard gasket is a mis-fit. Normally the same thickness is supplied as the pattern, but thicker or thinner gaskets can be made. It is a service for which enthusiasts should be very grateful. It is frequently done in motor-racing, nonchalantly to give the reaon for retirement, after a gaping hole has, pehaps, appeared in the crankcase, as “gasket trouble”, if the gasket was supplied by the “Lion” works you won’t sound at all convincing ! WB.