No. 98 The North-Lucas
Every so often some inventor or abnormally ingenious designer comes up with an unconventional car and in recent years we have become accustomed to seeing “dream” creations on the Motor Show stands of the more ambitious manufacturers. Such an out-of-the-common-rut car was the little North-Lucas of 1922.
It had no association with the great Birmingham electrical components’ manufacturer, its name deriving from those of Mr OD North who designed it and Mr R Lucas of Blackheath who commissioned it, he himself having been responsible for the Lucas valveless engine. The appearance was fully in keeping with the advanced specification of the North-Lucas, because the saloon body was so formed that the car appeared almost the same at both ends, a streamline theme perhaps fostered by the German Rumpler, although that streamlined saloon was much larger and of more flowing, smoother outline — open streamlined Rumplers were also raced, as we described some time ago.
The engine of this startingly “different” North-Lucas was a five-cylinder air-cooled radial of 70 x 76mm (1460cc). Quite why such an engine was chosen and from where it originated if Mr North did not design it, constitutes something of a puzzle. The only virtue of installing in a car a radial engine with the cylinders fanned out around the crankcase would seem to be the very short crankshaft, a space-saver under bonnet or boot; except that space saved lengthwise would be offset by the extra height of such a power unit. Anyway, in the North-Lucas, the engine was mounted with the crankshaft vertical. Even so, some degree of compactness was claimed by mounting the engine above the gearbox/rear-axle unit, with the flywheel topping this decidedly odd power-pack.
Radial engines have been used in other cars, a three-cylinder in the Cosmos, Lafitte and Kendall, a five-cylinder one in the Enfield-Allday. Odd nevertheless. That of the North-Lucas was a side-valve type, long pipes connecting the inlet valves with the inlet manifold, which must have caused some starting problems one would have thought. These inlet pipes and the valves were uppermost on the aluminium crankcase, and inclined sparking plugs were set above the inlet valves, fired by a magneto. Above all there was the coned flywheel which carried small blades to cool the cylinders and exhaust-valve pockets, admirably placed to cut off one’s hand when the engine was running..
The thing may have been faintly familiar to those who had been flying behind rotary and radial aero-engines, but not to car users. A vertical shaft driven from the bottom of the crankshaft operated the valves through an ingenious cam-ring. Four of the five con-rods were pinned to the master rod and lubrication was by forced-feed from a Rotoplunge pump via the drilled crankshaft to the bearings and up the aforesaid vertical shaft to the cam-ring. Mounting a radial engine in a car is not easy but in the North-Lucas the whole engine/transmission unit was bolted to the rear seat bulkhead of this rear-engined car.
The single-plate clutch was beneath the engine, and the three-speed gearbox beneath that had vertical shafts, lubricated with some difficulty to the designer by utilising a screw-thread on the layshaft inside a bronze casing, so that oil from the reservoir in which it was submerged, was taken into the box, to flow over the constant-mesh and other pinions. Another reservoir on the gearbox-casing contained the engine oil. Final drive was by a vertical worm, half submerged in oil, and there was a differential, and inboard rear brake drums. Still not content, Mr North devised all-round independent suspension for the North-Lucas, by means of attaching the wheels to the body with long arms, connected to short shafts turning in ball bearings and having at their extremities segments of a pinion which engaged the teeth of plungers sliding in cylinders having at one end strong spiral springs and at the other end short pistons acting on oil in the cylinders.
The drive to the rear wheels was through shafts with pot-joints and universals, later familiar in irs designs. As there was no front axle, the steering connections went direct to the front wheels.
The four-window two-door body had a vee-windscreen and oval windows in the bowed rear panel, pointed tail covering the engine, with side access doors. A spare artillery wheel was carried on either side, behind and clear of the doors. The front mudguards were of cycle-type, turning with the wheels, but the running-boards were integral with the body, which was made partly of aluminium panelling, partly fabric. A single central headlamp occupied a box on the pointed nose of this unusual car, inscribed “NLR” for North-Lucas Radial. Construction was undertaken for the sponsor by the Robin Hood Engineering Works Ltd, of Putney Vale, London, SW. This company had been started before the (Kaiser) war by K Lee Guinness, the famous Sunbeam racing driver, to supply sparking plugs more suited to racing cars than those generally available. His mica-insulated KLG plugs became as famous as the cars he drove but the factory had surplus space and was to assemble Malcolm Campbell’s Napier-Campbell LSR car in 1924/5.
The North-Lucas was ready to startle the motoring world late in 1922. It was registered XL 4791 and ran on 710 x 90 tyres. Because of its pointed prow the side lamps were mounted on the roof, which was provided with an openable ventilator. The tax rating, high for a light-car, was £15 a year. By removing the front lamp panel the steering-box was revealed and the front bonnet covered fuel tank, horn and battery. The roof was of a translucent fabric, Lucas lighting was used and the seating was on the two adults/two children syndrome. By December 1922 only one other person, a journalist, besides Mr Lucas, had been offered a drive. He found the car to be vibrationless (that vertical flywheel, he said), the engine like a turbine, and the North-Lucas light, airy, lively, well-sprung and quiet, with a smooth clutch and a definite gearchange. From a cruising pace of 35 mph it picked up well and it climbed the easier side of Guildford High Street to the Hog’s Back in top gear, which was only just impossible in the reverse direction. It proved impossible to overheat the engine, the springing was “really excellent” and on a wet road heavy braking caused no skidding, whereas a car that was following slid sideways. Top speed was 55 mph, and despite a rich mixture some 33 mpg was obtained. In 150 miles this tester “did not have to touch a single part,” which is a sad reflection on his opinion of the reliability of 1922 light-cars! The steering was very light and the suspension almost set a new standard of comfort.
Maybe this gentleman-of-the-Press felt he had overdone the praise a trifle, because he concluded that “he did not pretend the North-Lucas was perfect, for nothing is.” He then criticised the low build which made getting into the seat somewhat difficult, the noise of the speedometer drive above the quiet engine and the fact that he could not signal, because the windows did not slide.
Later no less an expert than H Kensington Moir, the Aston-Martin and Bentley racing driver, defended the North-Lucas against criticism and early in 1923 another tester bestowed similar praise on the North-Lucas, although he found that while the engine would pull away from four mph in top gear, its pick-up was slow (10-30 mph in 2nd took 12.4 sec, 18 sec in top) and on the Brooklands Test Hill the average speed was 10.53 mph, but the car did not seem happy on the 1-in-4 section. It was suggested that the gear ratios of 13.5, 7.27 and 4.4 to 1 were perhaps too high for the weight of 15 cwt 2 qr 18 1b. It was also thought the carburation was not correct — those long induction pipes? The short vee-nose gave the driver the impression of nothing in front of him — just like most modern cars! — except for the very end of the nose, and it would have been nice, he said, to see nothing at all. The geared-down starting handle made it easy to swing the five-cylinder engine.
Mr Lucas had not intended to go into production with his advanced car, but after so much praise he began to contemplate it, at a price of £600; nothing more was heard of the project, however. I wonder what became of that lone North-Lucas? — WB