Readers of Motor Sport are very co-operative in keeping me in touch with odd items of motoring history which appear from time to time in unexpected places. Thus we were recently sent a cutting from a paper with the splendid title of the Black Country Bugle dealing with the short-lived New British light-car. The paper had devoted nearly a page to this forgotten car but its Editor generously gave me permission to use this material and disclosed the source of his information, Frank Furnell of Halesowen, who he thought might have further information to impart. I am indebted to both these gentlemen for their help, which has allowed me to cover yet another forgotten make.
The idea was that of the great manufacturer of chain and lifting-gear, including steam-cranes, jacks and suchlike, Charles Willetts Ltd of Colonial Works, Cradley Heath, near Birmingham, but in Staffordshire. Before the First World War the Company had built an aeroplane but it is thought never to have left the ground, dismantled parts of it were still in the works in the 1920s. The Company prospered with its lifting-tackle during the war and when the Board was looking for new fields after the Armistice it was receptive to the idea of the Founder’s son, Cyril Willetts, that they should have a pick at the forecasted growth in motoring. Incidentally, the straight-backed Charles Willetts, who had started the Company, drove a Model-T Ford and is believed to have used nothing else up to at least 1925.
A prototype was built, using a 12 hp Coventry-Sirnplex engine and a four-seater body, but in the end it was decided that something simpler would sell better. The son, then in his ‘twenties and a draughtsman set about the design of a simple car, assisted by Wesley Ashman. Tom Griffiths, the foreman, had a hand in it, with his son Bill working on the lathes, another son Albert helping with assembly, and a fitter called Matthews also being on hand, while my informant Mr. Furnell, drilled holes with a breast-drill in the various brackets. etc. The firm’s blacksmith made the necessary forgings and final fitting and assembly was the responsibility of Charles Willetts’ chauffeur.
As the Company’s premises had been built in Overend Road on the site of the famous 19th-century New British Iron Company’s complex it was decided to call the new car the New British. The project went ahead in some secrecy, in the corrugated-iron metal-shearing shop. The simple chassis of ash frame, metal reinforced, with a 7′ 8″ wheelbase, was sprung on specially-mounted long 1/4-elliptic springs. A 1,097 cc Blackburne vee-twin engine was mounted transversely at the front, transmission being by friction discs, of which the driven-disc was withdrawn while changes of ratio were being made with the r.h lever, final-drive being by a roller chain. One motoring journalist who had a short run in a New British light-car said the springing was good, but I gather the chain made a terrible noise! There was no differential, in keeping with the simple concept of the car, and the radiator was a simple square-outlined affair, with a square-shape gravity-feed petrol tank under the bonnet. The body was a two-seater with a spacious boot, access to the latter being by lifting up the seat squab, which was described as providing a secret stowage place for the spare wheel and tools, etc.! The wire wheels were shod with 26″ x 2 1/2″ tyres and many components were bought out, like the Tredeleck dynamo and the Vici and Capac carburettors.
A New British chassis with an air-cooled Blackburne engine and a dark blue two-seater with a water-cooled Blackburne engine were presented at the 1921 Olympia Show, to be priced, respectively, as complete cars, at £231 and £243 12/- — someone seems to have done some nice costing! Small changes were made to the minor controls before the final layout was settled, and the oil lamps were replaced by electric lighting. A new Company, Charles Willetts, Junr., Ltd, was formed, to handle production. The little car had a hood that projected well over the windscreen and full-length running-boards, and a spare wheel was fitted, inflating the price from the intended £195. Offices were taken in Warwick Chambers, Corporation Street, Birmingham. But after 1922, when the water-cooled job was offered at £170, no more was heard of the ambitious New British small-car.
Some say that many orders were taken but that the success of the Rover Eight and the advent of the Austin 7 killed the venture, others that an unfortunate disruption at the parent Company stopped car production when only the two had been built, one of which was apparently registered E-556, should there be any trace of it. Incidentally, a near-by bucket-factory had been contracted to make the simple bodywork. It is said: the Willetts’ factory became an industrial site after the next war. As for my informant, Mr Furnell had a flat-twin Douglas motorcycle in 1922, changed for a round-tank BSA by 1926, by which time he was working at the Austin Motor Co. Another BSA followed in 1927 and when he got married, before the war, he got hold of a Royal-Enfield and fitted a sidecar to it. This was followed by a Ford 8 and a Ford Cortina. He still has cups won in boxing bouts at Austin’s. — W.B
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