The Evolution of a Sports Car Early History and Present Programme of the Lea-Francis Factory
IT is a remarkable fact that the firms which are most progressive and up-to-date at the present time are those which are the oldest in point of years, and Lea and Francis Ltd. is a good example of this. The original company was formed in 1896 by Messrs. R. H. Lea and G. I. Francis and they first concerned themselves exclusively with the manufacture of push-bikes. It seems a far cry from the humble pedal driven two-wheeler to the 100 m.p.h. racing car, but there is nothing like beginning gently, and the fact that there are still Lea-Francis cycles 30 years old in constant use speaks well for the workmanship of the
Although Lea-Francis cars were not in full production as we now know them until after the war, the firm started building cars in 1900, and in the following few years produced a remarkable vehicle with a 3-cylinder horizontal engine of 4″ bore and 6″ stroke. On a recent visit to Coventry we had an opportunity of inspecting one of these actual engines which is still kept in the works.
It is a most massive object and looks at first glance more like a small scale locomotive engine than an internal combustion motor. It had, for instance, piston rods running in cross-head bearings, driving the connecting rods after the manner of accepted steam practice, and the massive crankshaft had a flywheel at each end. The overall length was at least 4′ 6″ and we can well imagine that acceleration was not a very strong point on this model ! However, although its great weight is hardly in keeping with modern ideas, the fact that it had an overhead camshaft and many other quite modern features shows that efficiency was being carefully considered even in those days.
Although this car was exhibited at the Crystal Palace Show of 1904 it was somewhat costly, and never went into production in any quantity. The next internal combustion vehicle produced by this Coventry firm was the Lea-Francis V-twin motorcycle, which from 1911 onwards enjoyed considerable popularity, and had a wonderful reputation for silence and smooth running, which was by no means a common attribute of the motorcycle of that time.
Those of us who started our motoring career on two wheels, and most of us did, will remember that this machine was a very long way ahead of its time in many details of design. Fully enclosed chain drive with a transmission shock absorber, and real brakes on both wheels, were things which only came into full use on most machines some years after the war. The war, of course, caused a complete break in the programme and the whole works was turned over to the manufacture of aircraft parts, and other delicate operations which required a very complete machine equipment. Much experimental work was also done for the
Admiralty and some of the complicated and delicate instruments for range-finding and similar work were produced there.
As soon as the works could regain normal conditions after the war, work was started on a 12 h.p. car. This was the real beginning of the Lea-Francis as we know it today, and the 1922 show at the White City saw the first models offered to the public. The firm took full advantage of competition work as a means of research and of demonstrating the capabilities of their product, and in the R.A.C. six-days trial of 1924 Mr. H. Tatlow, the works manager, was awarded a special Gold Medal for his performance. During this
year, and up to the time that manufacturers were barred by the S.M.M.T. from entering in trials, a most formidable list of trophies had been acquired. After the ban there was no lack of keen private owners to carry on the good work, and ever since, this make has been one of the most popular among keen competition drivers. Attention was next turned to the production of a really fast sports car, and this resulted in the supercharged 14-litre model. Being one of the first cars on the British market to fit a supercharger as standard, it sprang into immediate popularity with sports car owners, and proof of the efficiency of this model was supplied in 1928 by
Kaye Don’s victory in the R.A.C. Tourist Trophy in Ulster on a supercharged Lea-Francis.
Since then these cars have figured in all the classic events, and have in fact been the chief British representatives in the 1500 c.c. class against foreign competition. Whether winning or not, Lea-Francis cars have always proved to be among the fastest in their class, and the lessons learnt in racing have been of immense value in keeping all their models up-to-date. For the coming year the 1500 c.c. models have re
mained very nearly unchanged except for detail improvements, as is only to be expected, and these are obtainable both in supercharged and unsupercharged forms. The most interesting model in their range is, of course, the new 2-litre six cylinder model, of which a description and road test appear elsewhere in this issue, and which shows that Lea-Francis have no intention of losing their reputation for being up-to-date in matters of design and performance.