No. 67, The Seaton-Petter
One of the shortest-lived production cars was the Seaton-Petter, announced in 1926 and gone from the new-car scene a year later. It was the idea of Douglas Seaton, of the British Dominions Car Company of Yeovil in Somerset, and its engine was made and installed at the nearby works of Petters Ltd., the by then extremely well-established stationary engine manufacturers. If Douglas Seaton had hoped to follow the success of the Model-T by offering a go-anywhere utility car of this kind, but one that would not be killed off by the RAC-rating horse-power tax, which had been so hard on the Ford, it seems that he had left it too late.
Before the War, Seaton occupied an important position at Petter’s, travelling as their engineering rep., as far afield as South Africa. He approached Percy Petter with his idea for a car, the prototype of which used their air-cooled engine. This, in Seaton’s words, ‘was a bit of a freak’, and Petter’s engine designer Herbert Sammons helped to design the water-cooled engine.
Petters had been among the pioneer motor-car manufacturers, building a number of primitive models from 1895 to 1898, but clearly these have nothing to do with the Seaton-Petter. The latter has gained some fame as one of the £100 cars, even if short-lived, but in fact it was priced at first at £135 for a chassis and £165 for a complete touring 4/5 seater, this dropping later to £150. The concept was that of a simple car, with a 1.3 litre twin-cylinder two-stroke engine, itself of simple construction. Petters had made two-stroke oil-engines from 1908/9, following their four-stroke horizontal stationary engines, but that used for the car does not appear to have been of their design and was hardly an engine on which their Worldwide reputation could have been maintained. It is possible, however, that, apart from its simplicity – ‘only five moving parts’ – Douglas Seaton chose a two-stroke power unit for his car as being one likely to appeal to Petters’ production engineers.
The engine was a normal crankcase-compression two-stroke, with a bore and stroke of 89 x 106 mm (1,319 cc) for its two vertical cylinders. The crankcase was divided in two, with the centre main bearing of the three bearing crankshaft between the two compartments. On the off-side a Cox-Atmos carburetter fed into a Y-shaped manifold cast, as an inspection plate, and provided with non-return valves made of thin flaps of sheet steel, which opened under induction suction. An exhaust manifold of considerable size cast as a similar inspection plate covered the two exhaust ports on the near-side of the engine. Easy maintenance was visualised, the big-ends being accessible through large inspection plates on the sides of the crankcase while, if the cylinder head was removed, the aluminium pistons, and conrods could be drawn out. The pistons had the deflector tops expected of a conventional two-stroke and lubrication was by the petroil method, a funnel being provided, as with later Trojans, to enable a mixture of half a pint of oil to every two gallons of petrol to be poured into the fuel tank. Ignition was by a Delco coil set, and cooling by thermo-syphon, with a fan for cars intended to be used in hot climates.
I have heard that Model-T Ford components were made use of for the Seaton-Petter chassis. This is not evidence in the use of a three-speed sliding-pinion gearbox, or the all-round quarter-elliptic springing. However, the track of the Seaton-Petter measured 4 ft 8 ins, the same as that of the Model-T Ford, so it is possible that Ford axles were utilised, while it would have been possible to make the springs from the cut-down leaves of the Ford’s transversal springing system. A Dry single-plate clutch and open propeller shaft completed the transmission, and as if to make up for a lack of front-wheel brakes at a time when these were virtually universal, even for inexpensive cars, Seaton arranged for external contracting bands to be applied at the same time as shoes expanded in the small rear-wheel brake drums. The handbrakes applied a contracting transmission brake. Cam-and-lever steering was used, so then again there was no question of this being Ford component, but it is possible that the radiator was adapted from that of Model-T.
A radius member ran from the back axle to the specially strengthened brake cross tube. On early models a long flat belt from the propshaft drove the speedometer. Artillery wheels were shod with 30 in x 3½ in tyres (Ford?) and the wheelbase, at 8 ft 6 ins, was two inches longer than that of a Model-T Ford.
That was the 10/18 hp Seaton-Petter that emerged early in 1926. It was rated at 9.8 hp for taxation purposes (£10 a year). Seaton’s idea was that, with its wide track and a utility body, itself easily removed for access to the chassis, that would take five passengers, and the seats of which could be quickly removed via a droppable back panel, for carrying goods or sleeping when on safari, he had utility or universal light-car. A nitro cellulose scratch-proof paint was used. His method of demonstrating its capabilities was certainly unique. Incidentally, he claimed that the two-stroke engine did not require decarbonising (then a dreaded chore for owner drivers) for at least 15,000 miles, this was probably based on the fact that the head had not been removed from the prototype, which was declared to have covered that distance trouble-free, before production was contemplated.
Back to the demonstrations of the Seaton-Petter. Douglas Seaton used to drive the car at some speed over the debris in a dismantled machine-shop of his Nautilus factory, old bricks, sheets of corrugated iron, great blocks of masonry, and mounds of sticky clay up to some four feet high predominating. Over these obstacles and up 1 in 3 slopes, where there had formerly been steps, Seaton drove unsuspecting Pressmen. One journalist was taken for several laps at around 15 to 20 mph, which ended after some blocks of masonry had been charged so fast that the car hit some spiked railings. Undeterred, Mr Seaton slammed in reverse and shot away so quickly that he burst a front tyre, but without stopping, he swung round on full lock on such a steep slope that the car scraped along the side of a galvanised-iron shed. Those subjected to this treatment said that the ride remained free from undue jolting. So, perhaps the designer had a point!
There is evidence to suggest that this prototype car was registered YB 4646. The British Dominions Car Company took premises at 17, Berkeley Street, W1, which suggests they hoped to attract good business. Dropping the price by £15, they began to advertise that agencies were still vacant. There is a suggestion that young Seaton-Petter (long since deceased) had hoped to distribute his cars through Ford agents. Some time ago, in our V-E-V columns, I told of a Seaton-Petter that was bought by a Welsh farmer, with rather unhappy results, and as this one was supplied by a Ford agent, and as the British Dominion Car Company became M.D. Seaton Motors, run by Clive Seaton, and is today a big Ford agency, there could be truth in the rumour. The Westland Aircraft Company’s sheet-metal department made the bodies for Seaton, and the cars were assembled in the old Nautilus Factory. It is said that in all, 70 cars were made.
At least one enquiry is known to have been made as to the new car’s suitability for Colonial conditions, but it did not appear at the 1926 Motor Show, nor in competitions, and it soon faded away. However, not before Douglas Seaton, Director of the Company, had taken delivery of a very fine 40/50 hp Delage, with closed coachwork by Hill and Boll of Yeovil, its instrument panel carrying a total of 42 instructions and switches. Presumably, there were other irons in the fire, more profitable than the short-lived Petter light car.
Even now, the story is not quite finished. Harold Penrose, OBE, now the well-known author of aviation books, but then test pilot at the Westland Aeroplane works, says that the overwhelming problem, with the little Seaton-Petter was that, if you stopped it suddenly, the two-stroke engine back-fired, reversed direction, and you shot off backwards. He recalls the Westland Works-Superintendent buying the prototype for £5, painting it an awful stippled finish, and using it for several years. Until the day, that is, when he gave Penrose a lift, hit a bump at the car’s top speed of about 20 mph, and the entire bottom on the passenger’s side collapsed, leaving the test pilot to toboggan along the road in a shower of sparks. W.B.