Henry Royce and the "Light car experiment"

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Like most makers, Rolls-Royce sampled its rivals’ products. Bill Boddy investigates why one such ‘foreigner’ was a light car, not a limousine

If you are a member of the Rolls-Royce EC – and the membership is growing at a rate any club would be proud of you do not need me to tell you the extent of the highly valuable historic material that is stored and is still being sorted at the Club’s HQ at Paulerspury in Northamptonshire. So great is this gold-mine of RR and Bentley information that new material is still emerging. Such as some papers which Peter Baines, Secretary of the RREC, has kindly shown to me and which are a revelation as to how Henry Royce motored.

They deal with a car owned personally by Royce in the wartime and immediate post-WWI years. We know that, as with other motor manufacturers, Rolls-Royce purchased cars from various sources for examination and estimation against their own famous products, and that at one time Royce drove, and liked, a small Bugatti. But it comes as something of a surprise that from 1917 he was using a 1914 10hp light-car built by the Calcott Brothers in Coventry. Whether the famous engineer had this little car as an economy measure in the austere days following the Armistice, or whether Royce was driving it with a view to exploring the possibility of entering the economy-car market is unknown. But use this little car he undoubtedly did.

Royce had asked his engineer, Ernest Hives, to try the Calcott in October 1917 and that he had found that it ran very nicely, although the gears were noisy, but the car was quiet generally. He had been sent to the factory to get the tools for the car, but the Calcott salesman Elliott was out, and there were only “a very indifferent jack, tyre-levers, adjustable spanner and a screwdriver in the car”, and the fitting shop said they had few extra tools. The rear lamp-glass was missing; Hives refused an offer to replace this and told Royce that if he sent the lamp to Derby they could fix it.

Royce’s demands to keep the 1447cc Calcott in good running order must at times have been a load on the Coventry company, proud as one supposed it to have been that so great a designer and engineer should be using one of its products, even a rather dated one, which would have cost £185 new in 1914. Whatever, we find a memo from Hives to Elliott (“as per Mr Royce’s instructions”; perhaps to avoid embarrassment) telling Calcott’s that two valve stems from inner tubes supplied for Royce’s car were being returned, as a micrometer showed they were 0.105in dia smaller than those on the car. Thirteen days later, Calcott’s not having replied, RR Ltd reminded them that they needed to know whether tubes of the former size were available before returning the ones supplied… Presumably that was cleared up. But five days after this Royce was requesting the return of a broken part in the speedometer drive from a front wheel of his car. At the same time he was telling Hives that he was to send to West Wittering, where the Calcott was obviously in use, the latest all-aluminium aero-engine primer, with 5ft of the correct copper piping, nipples and jet, as on the Eagle engine, as it was the intention to test this on the Calcott, after drilling into its induction pipe. In just two days E told EH that a primer had been dispatched.

There were delays over the speedo part, replacement brake straps and shoes were regarded as unsatisfactory Royce told Calcott’s how to redesign them and he was disappointed there was no effective way of stopping oil from getting onto the back brakes from the axle. Royce asked that he remained anonymous in all this. Before the year was out there was a request for six security bolts for the 700×80 tyres (“Dunlop should know the correct size’), and varnish for the rims. These were despatched, with a CAV starter motor, in 23 days, and RR received a stuffy reply to the brake problem. A further grooved-rubber tyre was needed; the speedometer parts were lost in the post, but luckily Cooper-Stewart in London was able to supply replacements from stock, so by January 1919 Royce had a functioning speedo again. But that March a new aluminium clutch-cone was needed, “before Easter if possible”. Calcott’s wanted the part number, which Mills, who looked after the car, couldn’t find. Two brass lamp nipples (so there were gas lamps) were simply a matter of RR making them; they were charged to Royce’s private account and the blueprints filed for future reference! Calcott’s then said they fitted a malleable cone clutch lined with Thermoid to their post-war cars, which Royce agreed to have, if it would fit.

Royce next reported that the Zenith carburettor disliked No3 Anglo-American petrol, but was cured by changing to benzol, though the engine would then stop through over-richness. Even top engineers cannot always win! Royce remembered that on their worst petrol ever (war-time?) perfect carburation was achieved if the water was approaching boiling point, so induction manifolds should be well heated. By May 1919 Royce asked for the Buick to be sent down to him, as the Calcott was going to London to be sold. Perhaps to replace the Buick as a trial car, a Cadillac was sought in September 1920 and it was thought that Platford might return from the USA with a Marmon which RR had ordered. Thought was also given to sending an experimental Rolls-Royce there for a 10,000-mile test.

That, then, was the light-car motoring experience of one of the world’s most respected motor engineers, at a time when this field was opening up. The Calcott may have been just a runabout; surely with sales of the 40/50hp Rolls-Royce so successful since 1907 and the great demand for RR aero-engines during the war, Royce had no need to economise? If he was contemplating making a light car, I am glad he changed his mind.

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