The Clyno

Some makes are more forgotten than others and because the Clyno was a popular car in its day many may still have recollections of it. But its origins, rapid rise to popularity and its demise are likely to be less well known. The Clyno Engineering Company dates back to 1909, when Frank Smith, later to become works manager at the Star Company, and his cousin, formed it to manufacture motorcycles from the Pelham street works in Wolverhampton.

These motorcycles were very satisfactory, both as large 5/6hp sidecar outfits and 2 3/4hp twostrokes. In fact the big Clynos were equipped with machine-guns on their sidecars by the British, allied and Russian armies during the First World War, a rather vulnerable form of attack one might think. After the Armistice, with a successful business in operation, the desire to expand into the car market became irresistible. It had been left a trifle late, as it was not until 1922 that the first Clyno light-car was ready, by which time Austin had got an even smaller car launched on the market. But the post-war boom was ripe for the new smaller cars, more roomy than the famous Austin Seven. Clyno’s was designed by A B Booth, who much later was to go to Singer and produce the well-liked and competition successful “Le Mans” sports-cars, and then on to work for the Rootes Group.

This original Clyno was quite a simple little car, with a 66 x 100mm(1368cc) four-cylinder Coventry-Climax side-valve engine in a chassis sprung on quarter-elliptic springs front and back. Rather surprisingly, it had no differential: in this it was in the good company of Louis Coatalen’s 8hp Talbot-Darracq, which also had this not altogether beneficial cost-saving feature. But there was electric lighting and starting for £10 extra on the Clyno two-seater, not always available on the more simple cars, which sold for a price of £265. The new make was ready to exhibit at the 1922 Olympia Motor Show in London, at a time when some of the alarm and despondency of the earlier 1920s was diminishing and crowds flocked to see the cars on display, many with money to spend. So there on Stand 179 were the two-seater and a four-seater priced at £335, including the electrics. The Company had been re-formed as the Clyno Engineering Company (1922) Ltd, but it could not guarantee delivery of its new product until November. It had adopted dark blue as its standard colour, with black leather upholstery. The de luxe Clyno models had good all-weather equipment, which implied sidecurtains to supplement the hood, but this increased the cost of the two-seater by £50. The Popular models had single-pane windscreens, the de luxe cars double panes. Note however that you could have gone along to the Morris stand and ordered a 1547cc Morris-Cowley two-seater for £255, with half-elliptic front springing, threequarter elliptic rear suspension, and a differential. . .

Frank Smith had appointed Jimmy Cocker, who had ridden Singer motorcycles in trials, as his Sales Manager and he not only served Clyno well in this capacity but drove their cars in all manner of important events, from the six-day Scottish and Welsh Trials, and the MCC long distance trials, to lesser ones, with many successes. For example, starting with the Worcester Spring Selling Trial of 1923, Cocker won his class in a 10.8hp Clyno, in the Midland CC’s Small Car Economy Trial he did well, trilby-hatted, his passenger wearing a bowler hat, gaining a gold medal, and in the elaborate JCC General Efficiency Trial, with tests at Brooklands, Cocker finished fifth in his class. In the 1923 Land’s End Trial three Clynos started, and they took two gold medals and a bronze. In the tough Scottish Six-Days Cocker climbed all the hills and won a silver medal. In the MCC Edinburgh Trial he won a “gold”, as in the 1923 and 1924 Land’s End trials. It was an age when almost every light car of note was campaigned by a works driver, and competition was keen. For what was essentially a non sporting car the Clyno was notably successful along the years — but space precludes a full list of Cocker’s and other drivers’ performances, although a broken clutch withdrawal fork put him out of the important 1924 Welsh Six-Days Small-Car Trials.

Frank Smith was fortunate to have the Rootes distributorship behind his Clyno car, as the Rootes brothers entered seriously into the Motor Trade. Early in 1923 he brought out a new model with four seats, costing £255 with a starter motor, economy being achieved by having but one door, on the near-side, the front passenger’s seat falling over with its squab behind the upright squab of the driver’s seat to give access to the back seat. At this time many makers were able to do quite well with well-made cars on the light-car theme. Had Frank Smith and his Board followed such a line, like AC, Calthorpe, Riley and others, they might have achieved much greater commercial success. But the policy was massproduction, as Smith was determined to compete with William Morris, a foolish move in retrospect, because his Pelham Street factory hadn’t the space for big-scale production. The cars themselves were attractive, roomy, inexpensive and could have perhaps succeeded, otherwise.

Points in their favour were good brakes with adequate-sized drums, and very smooth steering, of worm-and-sector type, as found on Sunbeam cars — could someone from that factory have been responsible for the fine Clyno steering, both makes coming from Wolverhampton? (From personal experience of a 10.8hp Clyno I bought in 1951, from a motorcycle dealer who had taken it in part-exchange for a sidecar outfit and didn’t deal in cars, I can vouch for the powerful wellbalanced 4WB and the pleasant steering, which contemporary road-test reports also confirm.) Incidentally, by now other leading manufacturers had their own house-journals to encourage the customers to believe in the merits of their cars, such as the Austin Advocate, Morris Owner and Riley Record. But Clyno relied on a four-page Clyno Gazette inserted into the advertising pages of the weekly motor journals.

The light soon dawned and a differential was fitted to the 11hp model, but for the onslaught on Morris a new car was produced, the earlier ones having been a trifle crude, having plunger-pump splash lubrication, a two ballbearing crankshaft and no speedometer. Now a plain-bearing Coventry-Climax 13hp 60x100mm (1496cc) side-valve engine was introduced for 1929, in a chassis with half-elliptic springing and a wheelbase 2in longer than before. Clyno continued to be faithful to the economical Cox-Atmos carburettor. The gear ratios for the 13hp Clyno were 15.7, 8.45 and 4.55:1 with 710×90 tyres. The aim was to make at least 100 cars a week, but this was soon improved to 150 a week and 3000 cars were turned out in the first half of 1924, rising to a peak of 350 cars on the more productive weeks, the work-force reported to be a happy band which scarcely recognised the industrial General Strike of 1926.

The advent of the new 13hp Clyno did not stop development of the 11hp car, which was improved in details such as more petrol capacity, better bearings, and the central ball-gate gear change being moved to the right-hand side. The gear and brake levers were now well within reach of the driver. As well as the “Popular”, there was a “De Luxe”, boasting balloon tyres and less cramped bodywork, and a “Royal” Clyno, which added leather upholstery, more instruments, a screenwiper and an electric horn. In 1925 the respective prices of these models in two-seater form were £175, £195 and £225, but the top-of-the-range coachbuilt four-door saloon set the purchaser back a heavy £345.

Although the Clyno was undoubtedly a utility car, the prevailing fashion of including a sports model in the range affected even the hardpressed Pelham Street factory, though not to any great extent. Some manufacturers translated this move as ‘requiring only a sports body on a standard, or very modestly-tuned, chassis and Clyno had a mild flirtation with such a car on the 10.8hp chassis, in 1924. It had a mildly tuned engine but retained the three-speed gearbox and 4.55:1 final drive ratio, although a four-speed gearbox could be provided for an extra £20. To attract the more full-blooded youngsters wire wheels shod with the newer 26×3 tyres, a copper external exhaust-pipe and a vee-windscreen were provided, and the finish alone should have alerted them, green mudguards being allied to Chinese-white paintwork. The cost in three-speed guise was £290. But how many were made, let alone sold? At the time a balanced crankshaft, aluminium pistons and a raised compression ratio were spoken of but they were possibly confined to the Clyno with which R Abbott, another well-known campaigner with these cars, won a race at an Essex MC Brooklands meeting in 1924, managing to average 70.74mph, implying a top pace of around 75 to 80mph. I believe Cocker had found 70mph possible from a fourspeed 4WB 10.8hp sports Clyno with a 3.7 axle ratio at the Track, but nothing much more was heard of it, although customers were to have had it with a solid or a differential-with-lock back axle.

By now C J Lloyd-Davies had been appointed as the new Sales Manager, perhaps to permit Cocker to concentrate on the competition activities of the Company. He certainly had well-liked and popular cars to sell. (I recollect a tour from London to Cornwall when I was a schoolboy, in what must have been a quarter-elliptic, backbraked 10.8 tourer, loaded with four persons and much camping-kit, with me up beside the driver of course, which made light of load and distance). The road-test reports were mostly extremely favourable. For instance, when the man from The Light Car & Cyclecar approached the London distributors, Mebes and Mebes of Great Portland Street, for a test car he was provided with one which not only been used for competition work but which had run some 18,000 miles. The tester noted that the Coventry-Climax engine of this ageing 10.8 tourer was apparently assembled by Clyno themselves, that the separate gearbox had ratios of 14.5, 7.8 and 4.3:1, and that there was an ML magneto and Rotex electrics. The clutch-stop had worn away, slowing the change with a central lever placed too far forward (this was rectified on later cars and the lever moved to the right, with the brake lever; do I recall rather short movements across the gate?). It is a reflection on how moderate testing sometimes was in those in was in those days (this in 1923), that in a week-end this one only covered 400 miles, and South Harting was the only hill attempted, an easy middlegear climb. Top speed was 45mph with a bit in hand, mpg 33-38, and the simple suspension was better with a reasonable load.

In 1924 an Overseas model was added to the range, based on the recent 13hp Clyno that had celebrated its introduction with a good showing in the Victory Cup Trial, driven of course by Cocker, who took a silver medal, in company with Marseal and Morgan three-wheeler drivers but missing the “golds” won by Rhode and two A7s, and the top car award gained by H Denley in another Rhode. The new model retained the splash-lubricated Coventry Climax 1 1/2-litre but fan-cooled engine, had a speedometer, and 700×90 tyres to increase ground clearance to 8 3/4in. Mr Mebes took delivery of the first Overseas Clyno. Charges for shipping such a car to Australia, India or S Africa varied from £16 12/6d to £18 12/6d — the days of a British Empire on which the sun would never set!

Soon Clynos were a frequent sight on English highways and byways. They were sold with full equipment including a spare petrol tin, a tin of Castrol oil and by April 1924 you could have a r h gear lever for £3 extra, although by then the central lever had been repositioned to fall into a recess in the seat squab in the lower gear slots, for easy manipulation. A coupe model was now available, and Abbott was out in his hotted-up Clyno, which completed the Land’s End John O’Groats Run, took part in the Skegness speed trials and endorsed its Brooklands’ win with a second place there. The move away from coachbuilt bodies came in the summer of 1925, when a Weymann fabric saloon at £294 was announced. At Wallasey the local Agent paraded five cars, each one adorned with a big letter, the fleet effect being to spell “C-L-Y-N-O”. Rootes sales were now in full swing with these cars, and a test report of a De Luxe Eleven tourer was full of praise, especially of the steering, unspoiled by low-pressure tyres. The price of this model in 1924 was £210. The r h gear lever was spring-loaded to the first and second positions, but it was an easy change. For 1925 the prices ranged from £175 to £345.

The best years for the Clyno Company were probably 1925 and 1926. Birmingham even had a fleet of 11hp taxis and in 1926 the rod-operated efficient front brakes were extended to other models, and half-elliptic front springs were used for the 11hp car. Moreover, the “Popular” two-seater Clyno’s price was down to a competitive £160 10/-, but with only rear-wheel anchors. But even Morris could only equal, not undercut, that. The 4WB were improved still more in 1927, by which time Rootes were going great guns with Clyno sales from the new Devonshire House Showrooms in London’s Piccadilly, and exports were encouraging. The price war saw the twoseater reduced to £160, to which Morris now responded, his two-seater Cowley £11 10/- less expensive, though also sans front brakes.

It was full steam ahead in Wolverhampton, with the four-door Clyno saloon priced at only £4 10/- more than a two-door Morris Cowley saloon, and the 13hp Clyno redesignated the 12/28, a reminder of its tax-rating/power output. Tests showed this Clyno to be much more accelerative than a Morris Cowley, far better braked and roomier within, and it could equal the Cowley’s top speed of about 50mph.

What a shame that it was to run down at what seemed such an auspicious time. The fact is that the Clyno was an “assembled” car, with many outside firms having to be paid, notably Haywards the body makers, whereas William Morris had sagely bought up supplier after supplier to meet his company’s internal needs. The Rootes Group might have come to Frank Smith’s aid had it not been expanding into making cars of its own, absorbing Hillman in 1929 and later the British Talbot interests, etc. And it was all too apparent that the Pelham Street factory was far too small to cope with car production, good as it had been for the motorcycles up to 1923. Clyno was obliged, at this difficult time, to move into its newly-built Bushbury factory, still in Wolverhampton. Coventry-Climax power-units were abandoned, and the firm began to manufacture its own engine, with three-bearing crankshafts and Ricardo-type cylinder heads. The Pelham Street works continued to make gearboxes and to act as the Service Department for the now very large number of Clyno users.

Difficult times call for drastic measures. The engine size of the bigger car was increased to 1593cc and it was renamed the 12/35. But the coachbuilt saloon at £250 cost the same as the larger 14/28 Morris Oxford’ saloon. Hayward began to assist in economising, by supplying fabric-covered bodies… Underfunding and the recession combined to undermine the company; sales of the 10.8hp Clyno diminished from the 11,000 sold in 1926 and it was finally pensioned off in 1927. That year both Morris and Clyno changed to different radiators, Morris to the “flat-nose” of the Cowley from the distinctive and beautiful bull-nosed one, Clyno making a similar move, abandoning the rounded-top radiator shell for a square-shouldered shape. Whether both changes were to save production costs when new dies were required for the presses or to provide improved cooling is a moot point. On the costing side, Clyno hammered several more nails into its coffin by messing about with a big straight-eight, which Cocker tested but which never made its intended 1930 debut.

In desperation the Company turned to a small car, designed by Booth, who, probably sensibly, moved up from the 750/850cc class with a side-valve 951cc bonnier baby. Though of rather too angular an outline, it could have saved the day, as the A7 had for Austin. It possessed the celebrated Clyno steering and braking, and the by-now acceptable coil-ignition, and cost only £160 in fabric saloon form.

It may have been strong competition in this class or it may have been misjudgement when, in a panic move to meet the rumoured Morris challenge of a £100 Baby Car, it was given a simple fabric tourer body and a three-lamp lighting set, to enable this “Century” version to sell for £112 10/-. It wasn’t exactly welcome; around the Trade the whispered name for it was “The Cemetery”. . . After 300 had been disposed of, it faded away. (Morris actually waited until 1932 before announcing a £100 side-valve Minor, a simplified model with unplated radiator shell and three-lamp set, also soon dropped; but unlike the Clyno Nine the £125 Minor two-seater sold like hottish cakes. . .).

So Frank Smith’s hopes faded, as a receiver was appointed in 1929 and production ceased. He had tried price reductions and making only the Twelves and Nines, but to no avail; even the Clyno Nine, now priced at £130, was no competition for the overhead-camshaft Morris Minor which was a fiver less expensive. The hope of rivalling Morris Motors was never realised. Total sales of Clyno’s 10.8hp model between November 1922 and 1926 numbered approximately 50,000, whereas 141,353 Morris cars were made in that period; 1926 was Clyno’s peak year, when some 11,000 10.8s were produced, but in that year Morris turned out 32,183 bull-noses.

As the dream ended designer Booth hastened off to Singer’s. The Bushbury works were taken over by Alfred Herbert the machine-tool people. Colliers took the remaining Clyno spares and Frank Smith found a job as works manager at Star. That’s it, but I expect many of you now remember the Clyno, with respect I would imagine. WB