Forgotten makes, No 87: The Rhode

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The Rhode was a popular car in its day, with its fair share of modest competition achievements. It was built by William Frederick Mead who had worked for Dr. Lanchester before starting his own business. FW Mead was the youngest son in a family of seven. They lived in Ladypool Road, Sparkbrook, the father a masterbuilder and a craftsman in wood; his three foot high model of a mahogany spiral staircase with no central support was shown in Hall Green Technical College.

Going into partnership with Tom Deakin, an accountant who was not adverse to manual work, FW Mead made the well known Canoelet sidecars before the First World War, starting in the family workshop. The two men had toyed with the idea of making cars and around 1905 had built a 6 hp shaft-drive prototype with water-cooled Fafnir engine. It was sold to a doctor. A four-cylinder light-car was then designed, by which time Mead had married and gone to live at Bidford-on-Avon. A drawing office was installed in the attic of the house and the Rhode was later put on paper. The first 10hp car, called the Medea, was used by the family up to 1921, when they moved to Solihull. That Medea small car, built in the Canoelet works, was a refined little car with a 1244cc Chapuis-Dornier engine and full cantilever springing front and back. It was running well by early 1915 but the war killed production ambitions.

Mead and Deakin then opened a new factory in Blytheswood Road, close to the GWR railway line at Tyseley, with “Home of the Remarkable Rhode” painted in large letters on the wall; it still exists. Mead had an affinity for wood and it is believed that the prototype Rhode had wooden side members. Production chassis were more conventional, using a Z-section steel chassis frame, cross-braced at four points, with 1/4-elliptic springs. All components except the gearbox and electrics of the Rhode were made inhouse, and later even the gearboxes were made in the factory. The four-cylinder 62 x 90mm, 1086cc, engine had an overhead camshaft driven by a vertical shaft and bevels from the front of the crankshaft. The large valves were actuated by rockers which pivotted in pedestals screwed into the cylinder head, on cotter pins retained by split-pins. (On the Rhode I bought for a few pounds in 1938 the split-pins had been replaced by bent nails and when these broke or fell out a rocker would flail harmlessly about inside the cam-cover, causing a long delay before it was cool enough to replace.)

The magneto and dynamo formed a vee at the top of the camshaft drive shaft, being driven by the bevel gear, both being extremely accessible. An unusual feature of the engine was that an oil pump was dispensed with. Instead, the flywheel picked up oil from the sump and fed it to a gallery into which the big-end scoops dipped and also up a hollow shaft to the oh-valve gear, oil dripping onto the rockers from a brass tube through holes restricted by split-pins, surplus oil draining back to the sump via ducts. (This simple system gave no trouble on my neglected and well used Rhode). The cast-iron pistons had two rings each.

The crankshaft ran in two bearings, the Cox Atmos carburettor was on the o/s, and there was no water pump or fan. In unit with this 9.5hp engine was a single-plate clutch and Wrigley “Hall Mark” gearbox driven by a short shaft and controlled by a central lever. The ratios were 13.6, 7.3 and 4.2 to 1, with a 17.6 reverse, and a solid back axle was used. Braking was by a hand-applied transmission brake and a single drum, for the foot-brake, on the back axle. A simple steering box gave three turns, lock-to-look, and worked a transverse drag-link. The lines of the Rhode Occasional-Four were quite pleasing, with the bonnet extending back to the single pane windscreen, although no curved panelwork was involved. The hood covered all the seats and the spare wheel lived horizontally in a tray at the back.

The first car, XH 3247, was ready by 1911. The price was fixed at £275, very good value considering that the performance was lively, although the 19hp engine and the back axle were noisy. Ignore this, and 32 mph in second gear and a top speed of 52 mph were possible. Mr. Mead set about achieving good publicity for his little car. Finance had come from builder’s merchant Harry Mould, who was married to one of Mead ‘s sisters, another sister acting as Mould’s secretary. Another brother-in-law, HB Denley, was appointed Competition Manager and a big programme of participation in trials and other events was instituted. Mebes & Mebes of Great Portland Street, W1 (“The street of cars”) were appointed sole agents for London and the south of England, CJ Mebes becoming one of the trials drivers.

At the 1921 London Motor Show the Rhode Company had a stand at the White City. The engine was later enlarged to 1232cc and by 1924 a 90 mph sports model was added to the range, with high-lift camshaft, lightened con-rods, polished ports and a fine outside copper exhaust pipe. With the new Rhode-manufactured four-speed gearbox, FWB, and wire wheels it cost £345, compared to £495 asked for the side-valve sports Riley. The least expensive Rhode was the standard four-seater at £198 (starter £10 extra) but the deluxe Norwood tourer cost £275. At Brooklands in 1926 BH Norris’ black Rhode lapped at 76.03 mph and Rhodes were prominent in trials, the drivers including B Alan Hill, HB Denley, Moss Blundell (whose trials engine was supposed to be in my car), H Cooper, Woodward, Breese, Farrar-Hockley, Hemmingway, etc.

In the 1922 Scottish Six Days Trials Hill was among those who took top scores, and he got a “gold” in the 1924 Scottish event, as he did with a 9.5hp Occasional-Four in the tough RAC Welsh Six Days Trial that year, Gray also taking a “gold” with his larger engined Rhode; this in spite of the tubular front axles sagging, so that the name “Tishy”, after a knock-kneed Derby horse, was inscribed in mud on the sides of the Rhodes by fellow competitors.

Simple as it may have been the Rhode was no mean performer. At Brooklands, in the test which concluded the aforesaid Welsh marathon, Gray did 54.05 mph over the flying start mile, having averaged 39.4 mpg of petrol and needed only three pints of oil for the tough 1,000 miles. Rhode advertised that normal petrol thirst should be 40 to 50 mpg, oil about 800 mpg and that the Michelin tyres should last at least 5000 miles. The makers liked to emphasize that there were just enough Rhodes on the road to indicate their popularity but never enough to make them common…

For 1926 changes were made. Half elliptic front and cantilever back springs were adopted, the camshaft gave improved timing, the valve rockers were altered and had larger phospher-bronze bushes, the cam-cover was now rectangular instead of semi-circular and slipper-type aluminium pistons were used, along with other improvements. The new model supplemented the older ones and was known as the 11/30. The saloon was rather angular but the 11/38hp sports tourer, with vee-screen and vee-dashboard, was on a par with Alvis and Lea-Francis in looks. The new chassis cost £235, against £400 for the 12/50 Alvis chassis. The Rhode factory was turning out perhaps 50 cars a week, with some 300 workers. There were separate departments for body framing, woodwork, painting and assembly, and there was a well equipped machine shop with power provided by two gas engines. The assembly line was about 18″ off the floor and about two thirds the shop width. Other departments looked after case hardening, building the chassis frames etc. Mr. W Mead thought the prices charged by pattern-makers too high and he would work in the evenings at a bench in a corner of the body shop, making his own patterns. Between 1921 and 1928 the output was put at 5000 cars.

The Rhode concern was not a limited company and the General Strike of 1926 was a mortal blow. There were attempts to reduce costs by using push-rod valve gear, but the oh-camshaft was soon reverted to less sporting models were soon being introduced and after McKenzie, who had previously built his own light-cars in an ex-WW1 munitions factory at Hall Green, which had been closed for many years, joined with Denley, production was resumed in 1928 of a new Rhode Hawk saloon, with the wheelbase increased from 8’6″ to a remarkable 104″, providing good interior space. Grease nipples grouped under the back seat, choice of fabric or metal saloons, and such things as leather upholstery, safety glass and cellulose finish etc were offered as attractions, originally for £285, but the days of this ugly Rhode Hawk with oval quarter-lights and dummy hoodirons, were numbered. The agents for London and the home counties were now Braid Bros. of Great Portland Street. There was a last fling, in the form of the Denley-Rhode Hawk saloon of 1930, which had the twin carburettor Meadows 12/50 engine of sportscar fame. Alas, this gave less than 62 mph, yet the fabric saloon was priced at £375. It was made in the Webb Lane works at Hall Green.

The end came in 1931, but Denley sold spares for all models from his Kings Heath garage for some time to come… Mr. Mead had by now gone to Morris Motors at Adderley Park as Experimental Manager, to which company many of his foremen had already moved. His son Richard was apprenticed there, working on engine assembly and bodywork. Around 1932 Mr. Mead Snr. started Meredith Coachcraft in a hangar on Castle Bromwich aerodrome, making Trinity (three-in-one) bodies on BSA, Wolseley Hornet, Riley and MG chassis, these bodies being convertible as required into open two or four-seaters or coupes. The venture folded by 1934 but Mr. Mead continued in the same building, machining woodparts for the building industry. He then moved to Shirley, making machine wood parts for WO vans during the war, afterwards producing some 80 different wood laminations for the Triumph Renown for Mulliners of Bordsley Green, until he sold up when that car went out of production. Richard Mead renewed his association with the Rhode when he visited Cornwall’s Motor Museum at St. Austell where there is one on show. He has kindly helped with these notes. He now lives in Ireland where he runs a business specialising in coachwork. WB

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