Walter Wilson: Portrait of an inventor

by A Gordon Wilson. 173 pp. 9″ x 51/2″. (Gerald Duckworth & Co, The Old Piano Factory, 43 Gloucester Crescent, London NW1 7DL. £9.95)

Written by a son of the inventor, and edited by Rodney Dale of Self-Changing Gears Ltd, this book tells primarily of the birth and development of the well-known Wilson pre-selector gearbox. This author is not biased in favour of his father, explaining his difficult character, which lost him friends, as well as his undoubted engineering genius. The foreword is by Colonel PH Horndern DSO, who, perhaps thinking the son was unusually frank, makes it very clear what a great benefit the Wilson gearbox is, not only in military warfare, but on cars, buses, lorries, motor-boats, railway vehicles — and racing cars.

The author enlarges on the racing theme, and mentions Pierre Wimille bringing a Bugatti to the Coventry factory to have such a gearbox fitted. The story of the struggle to get the gearbox accepted is fascinating: Vauxhall was interested until the GM takeover killed the idea, and the patents were filched from Wilson by Daimler and in later times by Alvis, but he persevered until his death in 1957 (so that Self-Changing Gears Ltd is now a thriving concern transferred last year from British Leyland to Cummins Engines Co, as the tailpiece by its MD explains).

Largely the book is the story of the tank, from its inception in 1915 to the present, because Walter Wilson was very closely associated with this. But the early flying experiments of Percy Pilcher, the Wilson-Pitcher and Armstrong-Whitworth cars and the Hallford lorry figure in the early part of the biography, as does Wilson’s association with the Hon CS Rolls.

Members of the Armstrong Siddeley and Daimler& Lanchester owners clubs will find much of interest here. Sir JD Siddeley was perhaps the kindest of those linked with the revolutionary gearbox venture. R-R folk will note that there was a move at one time to use two Rolls-Royce Phantom car engines in a tank, a machine which for many years used very prirnitive prime-movers.

Gordon Wilson writes with a sympathetic, if never quite forgiving, understanding of his father’s character. His book is a reflection on the changing face of the motor industry from WW1 to today, and on the changing social scene. Wilson’s many homes are referred to, as is the Darracq he used until 1908.

The subject of this biography retired as MD of Self-Changing Gears in 1956. Those early days with tank transmissions, and his work on his own jet engine at the same time as Whittle, make fascinating reading; as a reviewer I have to read too many books, but I just couldn’t put this one down. WB