No. 35: THE RICHARDSON
THE Richardson light car was born of that optimism which flourished after the Armistice of 1918 in the minds of these who sought to provide New Motoring for the Millions. Such motoring had to put to shame the Model-T Ford in point of running economy and the cars with which it was to be enjoyed must cost little more, in terms of post-war values.
Amongst the many who attempted what only William Morris and Herbert Austin succeeded in successfully accomplishing were the three Richardson brothers. They ran originally an old family business engaged in the manufacture of children’s toys, such as scooters, puppets, dolls’ houses and Christmas crackers. But, seeking an enhanced fortune, they readily turned, after the Kaiser’s defeat, to making cars. If, they argued, the design was kept simple and light, enormous sales must follow, for the market was surely ripe for low-priced, petrol-conserving light cars!
A factory was taken over at Aizlewood Road, on the south side of Sheffield, the famous steel-town, which had already yielded the Sheffield-Simplex, intended to unseat the Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce which had been developed from the Brotherhood by Earl Fitzwilliam, the coal-magnate, who manufactured it at Tinsley.
The Richardson was at the opposite end of the scale, a simple near-cyclecar, using a proprietary J.A.P. or Precision vee-twin engine. The Finhat factory, however, was quite elaborate, with many turret lathes and milling machines driven by flat belts from overhead shafting, a smith’s forge, a sheet-metal shop, and separate body-building, upholstering and painting departments. Part of it still stands, occupied today by a printer.
It is interesting that a semi-mass-production assembly line was operated in this factory where, half-a-mile away, the more elaborate Charren-Laycock light cars were built. Even in the paint bay three completed cars at a time were run onto planks supported on trestles, to give the operatives an easier task brush-painting them.
The Richardson had either a 980-c.c. s.v. air-cooled J.A.P. or a 1,090 c.c. s.v. air-cooled Precision engine (one of which I acquired by chance a few years ago) set across the chassis, which drove via a patented friction transmission and final chain drive to a differential-less back axle. Semi-elliptic springs front and back, internal-expanding rear-wheel brakes, direct steering from a 16 in.-dia. steering wheel and wire wheels were features of the modest specification. The chassis swept in at the front and the front springs followed the line of the side-members, thus being anchored close together at the front. They passed above the tubular front axle. The engine usually had an M.L. magneto, an Amac carburetter, and drew its oil from a 1-gallon dashboard tank and its petrol from a 6-gallon scuttle tank. The wheelbase was 6 ft. 9 in., the track 3 ft. 10 in., and the wire wheels were shod with Dunlop 650 x 65 extra-heavy voiturette tyres.
Friction transmission was a prominent aspect of this Sheffield-built small car. Many people would quote the G.W.K. as the only other friction-driven car, perhaps adding the Unit No. 1 after some reflection. In fact, there were quite a number of cars using this system of taking the drive from engine to road wheels through variable ratios without the cost, weight and driving-skill that the employment of gearbox entailed. Obviously, the primary reason for the adoption of friction-drive was that it obviated the need for buying proprietary gearboxes by firms without the facilities to machine their own gear wheels and cast their own gearbox casings. Light weight and foolproof ratio changing could be quoted to the customers, even if the noise of crudely-cut or badly-worn pinions was merely exchanged for a peculiar hunt from the discs, “reminiscent,” as The Light Car & Cyclecar put it, “of nothing so much as an L.C.C. tram following close behind.”
In 1920, apart from the well-established G.W.K., the Palladium, C.F.B., Graham-White, Laurence-Jackson, Rubury-Lindsay and the Richardson favoured friction-drive. In America Kelsey and Metz were advocates, while as late as 1927 the 350-c.c. Gnome (or Nomad) cyclecar relied on this transmission system. Lea-Francis had experimented with a tapered-roller version, Horstman had toyed with disc drive, and it was used on the Lafitte in conjunction with a pivoted power unit up to 1928.
Advocates of disc drive would point out that as the conventional clutch relied on friction grip, and the same applied to the adhesion of tyres to road, it must be satisfactory for the transmission system. It was found that compressed paper or cork was the best material to bring into contact with the opposing steel disc. It was usual to have this on the driven disc, but the Richardson brothers favoured putting the friction material on the driving disc, arguing that this prevented flats being worn by careless driving, although replacement of the friction material was rendered difficult. They also went to considerable pains to ensure that provision was made for keeping the two discs exactly in line, and the friction disc 1/20 in. from the recess in the driving disc which constituted neutral. They ensured variable pressure between the discs, from strong grip in low speed to light pressure when in top speed, preferred a cork friction ring, protected the drive by a pan below and the seat cushion above the mechanism, notched the r.h. control lever to give ratios varying from 4.75 to 1/14 to 1, and patented both their flexible sliding coupling enabling the driving shaft to move and their friction drive itself’.
A life of 3,000 miles was guaranteed for the cork ring, but careful users were assured that in their hands it would be good for 10,000 miles, or even 20,000 miles if tension-spring pressure was kept as light as possible. If flats did develop on the friction ring, causing jarring and knocking, they could be trued up with a file, knife-grinding fashion, with the car jacked up while someone turned the back wheels, or the starting handle was wound with low speed engaged. The handbook further stated that if the owner was single-handed and afflicted by flats, the engine could be run while the back of the car was jacked up! Incidentally, this transmission system involved 38 separate parts, excluding the clutch and pedal.
The Richardson was ready for the Press to try before the end of 1919. The Precision engine proved difficult to start but once it was going it propelled the little 6-cwt. car very effectively, even uphill, and the brakes coped well with descents. Road-holding suffered somewhat, however, due to the small-section tyres.
By the Spring of 1920 a car from the showrooms of Cooper & Chalk of Holland Park Avenue, the London agents, was made available to the Press. They found the workmanship of body and chassis commendable and the Richardson very happy pottering along at 20 to 30 m.p.h. Criticisms were confined to the unhappy appearance of the inclined dummy radiator, and a dickey-seat only suitable for children and liable to bounce them overboard at that! The price, at that time, was £250, complete with 4-Volt 3-lamp lighting set, adjustable single-pane screen, a big semi-coupe khaki hood, tool kit and horn.
One of the Richardson brothers went round the country on a sales campaign, organising area dealers and a distribution network. He returned with a full order book and the success of the project seemed assured. Some mild competition successes were gained and the car would out-pace the contemporary Morgan 3-wheeler on initial acceleration, but was no match on corners!
Practically everything was produced on the premises except the engine and electrical equipment. When the early disc wheels were replaced by wire wheels even the wheels were of Richardson construction, as were the patented fuselage-type bodies built on angle-steel frames. Moreover, the brothers were quick to correct their early mistakes. A simple geared-down starting device, incorporating a couple of exposed cogs, was introduced in 1921, and could be fitted to existing cars. A new model with upright radiator grille was announced that summer. Known as the Model-D, it was priced at £235 complete, although a dynamo was £12 extra, detachable disc wheels cost the same amount, and a Stepney spare wheel £10 extra. The steering had been rendered more direct by shortening the drop-arm and the gear ratios increased in range by enlarging the driving disc.
By 1921 production was in full swing. Some 60 employees were engaged and completed cars were tested in the hilly Derbyshire countryside, often on a cross-country run to Buxton and back. The Richardson was catalogued as a “sporting 2/3-seater” and much play was made of its ability to do 50/60 m.p.g. The standard colour was grey.
By the end of 1922 the price was down to £190 but the end was in sight. The prolonged pattern-makers’ strike had taken its toll, and competition from 4-cylinder small cars did the rest. The following year a Receiver was appointed, the tirm went bankrupt, the factory was sold, and the Richardson brothers went their separate ways. But not before nearly 600 cars had been made, it was claimed.
I do not suppose the Richardson I used to see standing in a garden near Clapham Common before the war still exists, but two do survive. One is a disc-wheeled prototype, which had been gradually brought up to 1921/22 specification except for the change to wire wheels, and used by one of the Richardson brothers up to about 1926/27. It was saved from the scrapyard some years ago by Mr. M. P. Clapham of Sheffield, to whom I am indebted for the notes on which this article is based, and it has been splendidly restored by Bob Alexander. Another exists in Leeds. Incidentally, at least one of the brothers is still alive.