Veteran to classic -- forgotten makes

The Douglas Light Car

Douglas motorcycles were known and esteemed the world over in pre-war days. The famous belt-drive flat-twins were ridden by numerous Dispatch Riders during the First World War. Afterwards Douglases were raced by more riders than I have space to list, but who included Freddie Dixon in the TT and Cyril Pullin at Brooklands, the former the first to exceed 100 mph on a 500cc machine, Bert Denley, Vic Horsman who won his class on one in the 1921 500 Mile Race before going over to Triumphs, Rex Judd, T Eve, the Australian Bailey, Amery, Kickham, Emerson, the Thorpe brothers etc. In fact, a Douglas first appeared at the Track in 1909 and had its first win (Bailey) in 1912 and in 1920 the side-valve 350cc models had their own race, won by Amery at 53-1/2 mph from Mrs Violet Longden. When Speedway became the rage at Wembley, Wimbledon, and Lea Bridge, etc, Dirt Track Douglas made quite an impact. On the road this popular motorcycle appeared in 600cc EW form by 1926 and the famous company at Kingswood, Bristol was active in fact from 1907 to 1956.

Its motorcycles will always be remembered with affection by many people but the Douglas light-car is largely forgotten. Having been so successful with their mainly flat-twin motorcycles and the boom in cyclecars having broken out like a rash in 1912, the Douglas folk looked at the market in inexpensive four-wheelers a year later. The result was a cross between a cyclecar and a proper small car, using a Wilkinson flat-twin motorcycle engine (which is why I still buy their razor-blades, instead of American ones), of square 88 x 88mm (1071cc) dimensions.

The proximity of a terrible war did not help promotion but William Douglas used a coupé version of his son Willie’s design and another closed-body version was favoured by Mr (later Sir) John Alcock, the pilot of the Vickers Vimy that was to make the first non-stop Atlantic crossing by an aeroplane in 1919. Production continued up to about 1916, £184 being asked for a two-seater.

After the war other motorcycle firms such as BSA, Matchless, Ariel, and later AJS and Brough Superior, etc, branched out into car manufacture; Douglas continued in this field after the war with a heavier version of the pre-war four-wheeler. As a boy of about seven I was a keen reader of any issues of The Light Car & Cyclecar that came my way and although I was aware that in the issue dated June 19th, 1920 there was a road-test report on the Douglas, I was far more interested in the story about “The Fastest Cyclecar in the World”, namely Capt AG Frazer-Nash’s GN Kim. Looking back, one sees that this report on the 1920 Douglas light-car was quite informative, especially if one reads between the lines, road-test reports in those days being nothing if not cautious, aimed at procuring advertising and avoiding libel actions. However, the Light Car tester was favourably impressed by the little car from Bristol. It now had a water-cooled flat-twin side-valve engine of 1224cc, the cylinder dimensions again square, at 92 x 92mm. There was a three-speed gearbox with ratios of 12.8, 7.9 and 4.6 to 1, and an enclosed prop-shaft took the drive to a bevel-gear back axle. As before, there was a proper pressed-steel chassis frame. At the front this was sprung on half-elliptic leaf springs but at the back Douglas preferred to use the proprietary AFS system which incorporated helical springs and links to the axle. With a track of four feet and an eight-foot wheelbase, the two-seater Douglas weighed 12cwt. A Zenith carburettor fed the two cylinders and between them was mounted the chain-driven magneto. The dynamo for the CAV lighting and starting set was above the gearbox, driven by a whittle-belt. Engine and gearbox were one unit, with the fabric-faced cone clutch in the aluminium casing. Splash lubrication was used, with a pump to maintain oil level in the troughs. There were two independent back-wheel brakes. The sump held enough oil for some 3000 miles and the petrol tank behind the dash held five gallons and was replenished through a filler which protruded into the dashboard, where it must have severed a few friendships as it dripped onto the girl passenger’s stockings. . .(The Douglas was not alone in this risky matter, however.)

With wire wheels, scuttle-mounted headlamps that economised by using two bulbs each so that side-lamps could be dispensed with, and a bull-nose radiator, the Douglas was quite a nice-looking little car, or would have been if it had not had a rather squashed-flat aspect, emphasised by a longer than usual bonnet. In 1920 it was priced at £500.

If this sounds expensive for such a humble little car of this vintage, it should be taken into account that a shortage of materials, and strikes, had made car manufacture difficult in this post-armistice period and that the magazine that had tested the car was, in the very same issue, debating whether the £250 light car was possible. Also that there were other small cars priced at this or similar figures the Singer Ten and the Mercury cost the same, the Briton, the little Lagonda, the McKenzie, the Swift Ten, the Cotay and the Zebre only five pounds less and several light car far more, such as £525 for the AC, £625 for the Charron-Laycock, £630 for the 11hp Riley, £685 for the 10/30 Alvis and £850 for a 1-1/2-litre Bugatti, at the 1920 Motor Show.

The Light Car tester of the Douglas, which was described as having a sporting two-seater body, although no sports model was listed, was most impressed when it climbed Pebble Combe hill in second gear, the first car they had tested to do this. Of the other Surrey gradients which were the stamping ground of the testers in those days, the Douglas held on to top gear at Ranmore Common until second was required to get round the 1-in-6 hairpin, at 15mph, and the same gear sufficed for the worst parts of Coombe Bottom, in spite of meeting an unusual amount of traffic on this occasion (two cars!), the second climb being a 1-in-5 hazard. Newlands Corner was another, and easy, second-gear hill, before reaching Dorking, described as the village(!), on which part of the route the speed test was taken at a comfortable 35mph, and 40mph on the speedometer on full throttle.

Reading between the lines, the snags were a rather unusual amount of leg room (in other words, a very uncomfortable driving position), the not exactly pleasing sensation that one gets in a boat when there is a bit of a swell on, and the tail was rather inclined to sway (i.e. the patent coil springing was too soft) and the hand brake being absolutely positive; the foot brake, although effective, was not so certain (which meant that coming down hills like White Downs you were advised to keep hauling on the hand brake!). Also, although the second gear ascent of Pebble Combe was the memorable feature of the test, before it had been accomplished the Douglas had conked out, because the petrol feed was taken from the forward part of the tank, so that on a steep hill starvation set in.

For 1921 the radius rods to the back axle had received attention and two new models were introduced, a two-seater with dickey and a four-seater in which access to the back seats was by worming past the front seats, to avoid fitting extra doors. However, this four-seater, which still had a somewhat sat-on appearance, had a four-speed gearbox, and cost £525. When Brooklands reopened after the war a number of people thought the Douglas was what they wanted to race, whether because of memories of good service from Douglas motorcycles or some other reason, I do not know. In that 1920 season those so mounted numbered Capt J R Lane, Capt Vivian Hardie, the London Douglas agent, and Miss Addis-Price, joined in 1921 by Edward Sawers, S L Bailey, and E L Mather who drove for Miss Addis-Price, who after she died in the 1950s got into the papers because she had been a racing motorist and because she left a considerable fortune to her life-long lady companion.

Tuning of these racing Douglases made them far outpace the 40mph of that 1920 test car! Vivian Hardie used aluminium pistons, lightened con-rods and a Claudel-Hobson carburettor for each cylinder. He dealt with the rear suspension by fitting 60 x 90mm tyres on the rear wheels (the production cars had 700 x 80mm tyres) and Houdaille shock absorbers front and back. A hand-pump enabled extra oil to be fed to the cylinders from an auxiliary tank clipped to the steering column and the aluminium body was ugly but efficient, with a brass centre strip to the radiator. Miss Addis-Price drove this Douglas in a 1920 JCC Ladies’ Race, finishing second behind a GN. By 1921 Mr. Sawers was getting 31 bhp at 3250rpm from his Douglas engine and by taking it to 3600rpm he was timed at 75mph over the half-mile, on a 4-to-1 axle ratio and 710 x 85mm tyres. He used a plywood-panelled wood-framed two-seater body which was only 2 ft 4 in wide, and his car weighed 10cwt.

Miss Addis-Price had designed a smarter body for Vivian Hardie’s new Douglas, which she got Mather to drive. During this season Bailey’s saxe-blue Douglas eventually lapped at 78.06mph, Mather at 70.84mph, Sawers at 70.66mph, Lane at 63.19mph. In BARC races these Douglases netted nine places between them, Sawers the most successful, but the only win going to Bailey. After which, like the proverbial Arabs, they stole away, never to race again.

Miss Addis-Price did do another lesser race at the Track in 1922 but it was virtually over for the Douglas car, production ceasing that year. An idea of a 750cc revival in 1932 was still-born. The first Douglas car I saw was at a Bristol MC & LCC old car run shortly after WW2 and I rate them as now very rare indeed. — WB