The Weller

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In last April’s ”Forgotten Makes” feature we discussed the Globe, in the course of which discourse I referred to the Hitchon-Weller cars, remarking that this was another story, to which we might return. Before too much petrol passes through the I jets, let us pick up that thread of remote motoring history. John Weller had designed a very sound car which it was said he had hoped to race and which was exhibited at the Crystal Palace Motor Show of 1903. This 20 hp Weller was a conventional but well-founded design, with a four-cylinder engine having paired cylinder blocks, water cooling, and final drive by side chains. From premises in South Place, Norwood Road, West Norwood, in South-East London, there were plans to market the 20 hp Weller and Weller motorcycles, and a range of smaller cars of 8, 10 and 15 hp was visualised.

However, the production side of the business was found to be less easy to cope with than designing the cars and apparently only the one Weller was made. It seems as if insufficient money caused the demise of the venture, which John Weller had shared with his brother. Apparently they had formed their company with capital of £3000, of which £1100 worth of £1 shares had been issued. But the works had cost £1700, so that there was not much working capital With which to develop the business. When it failed Weller found another backer in Alfred Hitchon, who as Vice Chairman of Howard and Ballough Ltd, a wool-machinery business in Accrington, was later to manufacture the Globe cars. This gentleman lived in the village of Wilpshire and needed a means of getting from there to his factory. He decided that one of the electric cars Popular in America might fill the trill and around 1900 he ordered a Columbia, which I duly arrived at Liverpool. Alas, on the sea voyage the Columbia’s batteries had been damaged and it was six months before replacements were obtained.

The replacement batteries having been landed safely, Mr Hitchon was able to drive the seven miles between his house and his works. But not very satisfactorily, because although the route avoided the town of Blackburn, the distance was enough to almost discharge the Columbria’s source of electrical inspiration and the car would only just breast the final hill. Arrived at his destination, the batteries could be put on charge for the day, ready for the homeward journey. But Mr Hitchon soon tired of having to delay his departure until it was pronounced that there was sufficient charge in the accumulators for him to reach home. His solution was to purchase a 3 1/2hp petrolengined Argyll. (It is said that the disused Columbia Electric remained in the Accrington factory until 1912, when it was broken up and its motor sold).

The new Argyll had the required range but it also had a very difficult gear change. This encouraged Mr Hitchon, who was clearly an engineer, to design a gearbox of his own conception. To obviate difficult and noisy gear changing he made all the lower gears constant mesh, free-wheeling until they were required. A free-wheel between the lower gears and the layshaIt meant that the driver changed out of top gear to second gear by disengaging top, whereupon the second speed pinions ceased to free-wheel, and took up the drive, but the bottom gears continued to free-wheel, until second gear had been disengaged. It was a foolproof system. By the time Mr Hitchon had completed and patented his gearbox it was 1901, and the Argyll had been replaced with a Daimler. To this car a Hitchon gearbox was fitted for test purposes, and other Hitchon gearboxes were tried out in the Company’s lorries. The Hitchon Gear and Automobile Company was formed to exploit this ingenious gearbox commercially, and by 1905 it was recognised as a considerable improvement on the average “crash” gearbox of those times.

The early versions were designed to transmit up to 18 hp but later designs would handle up to 100 hp. Herbert Austin installed one in a four-cylinder Wolseley and the Jowett brothers were said to be interested. Mr Hitchon claimed to have been innundated with enquiries, but he was unable to meet orders for special gearboxes due to the cost of making new patterns, nor would he grant licences for the manufacture of his gearbox to other car makers, being insistant that they must buy the gearboxes from him. In addition, this was an expensive gearbox to make and the presence of the free-wheels destroyed the benefit of engine braking when going down hills, except when in top gear. So, although the inventor claimed that after four years’ use, presumably in his Daimler, no trouble had been experienced, after 1905 no more was heard of this much-needed aid to easier driving of the early automobiles.

The reporting of this history now becomes difficult, because some authorities say that finance for the original Weller car of 1903 came from John Portwine, a butcher with a string of shops in South London. Dear old lock Henderson, the AC public relations man whom I knew quite well, and who in 1952 wrote The History of AC Cars Ltd at the behest of William Hurlock, whose AC Sales Manager he had become, and John McLellen, the AC historian, whose book AC and Cobra was published by Dalton Watson Ltd in 1982, both subscribe to this view. However, in view of the foregoing account of the Wellers’ lack of sufficient finance in 1903, it seems unlikely, although no doubt these two energetic gentlemen, Weller and Portwine, had met at an early motor show around 1900, when John Weller was designing his 20 hp car, remarkably, when he was in his early twenties, and John Portwine was in his mid-thirties: and both had their businesses in West Norwood.

My theory seems to be valid, however, because after the first, and presumably only. Weller car had become still-born, the aforesaid Mr Hitchon engaged John Weller to design cars when he had decided it was time to produce these at his Accrington factory, which had been specialising in cotton-spinning and weaving machinery since 1853, but for which its Vice-Chairman was looking for a buffer in case there was a recession in the cotton trade. Presumably the advanced 20 hp Weller was considered too ambitious.

At all events, the Hitchon-Weller was a single-cylinder car, using one cylinder from the 20 hp Weller. Hitchon’s fellow directors had agreed to the venture into motor-car manufacture, and he started to buy suitable plant and tools, and install these in an old cotton mill, the Moscow Mill, at Church, in Accrington. Weller was not required to find any of the finance, but acted as chief draughtsman and codesigner, with Hitchon, of the Hitchon-Weller. He was engaged in 1903 after the failure of his own company but only drawings and a few specimen parts were ready for exhibiting at the 1904 Crystal Palace Motor Show.

The engine of this new version of the Weller had a bore and stroke of 42 x 5 in, with a side exhaust valve and an overhead inlet valve operated by a pull-rod and rocker. Engine speed was controlled by varying the lift of the inlet valve, accomplished by raising or lowering the rocker’s fulcrum. It is said that at low speeds this resulted in much clatter, due to the excessive rocker-clearance, and that too little water space had been provided round the exhaust port, which was the cause of overheating. This did not deter Weller, who set about redesigning the engine, increasing its compression ratio, so that the outcome was a quite lively little motor-car.

The chassis frame incorporated some unusual and ingenious features, contributed by the inventive Mr Hitchon. For instance, the side members were absolutely straight, as on an Argyll and the 20 hp Weller, and the Argyll’s inverted U-section steel frame was likewise copied. The bottom edges of the frame were doubled over to give rigidity with low weight and, regardless of any infringements, Mr Hitchon patented this form of chassis construction. The rear suspension used two transverse leaf springs, the brake gear was unusual, and a worm-and-wheel back-axle was used. And naturally, a Hitchon patent foolproof gearbox. There were no problems about bodies for these one-lunger Hitchon-Wellers.

In another part of Moscow Mill there was a small coachbuilder, the Mulliner Motor Body Company. It had no connection with the better-known and respected London Mulliner coachbuilders, but had been registered in January 1904 as the AG Mulliner Motor Body Company Ltd, with a capital of £2000, the directors being King and IW Wall, and it adopted an agreement with AG Mulliner and TC Usher for the acquisition of the former Accrington Mulliner Motor Body Company. In addition, other firms, at Colne and Blackburn, were available for the same purpose and later bodied Hitchon’s Globe cars. The Hitchon-Weller venture was very short-lived. Waller parted from Hitchon early in 1904, so it is improbable that more than a handful of cars were made, if more than one. Apparently commercial restraints fell hard on Weller’s ambitious ideas. Nor, it seems, did he get on well with the North Country workers.

However, all was not lost for Weller. No doubt inspired by the Hitchon gearbox, he designed his own silent gearbox, with dog clutches to ease the mesh of the pinions; but this was still-born, like his Weller car. However, it was now, I think, that he got support and financial assistance from John Portwine. They certainly got together to produce, again in West Norwood, a very simple box-van cyclecar, with a rear-mounted, fan-cooled single-cylinder engine, two-speed epicyclic hub-gear in the single rear wheel, and tiller steering.

The experts differ as to when this happened but the most likely date is 1908. Perhaps the butcher thought he might have a business use for such vehicles. The fact remains that they were highly successful, in spite of competition from the Warrick, of which I used to see those used by the Dunlop tyre people popping about near the Motor Sport offices, and on my way there would pass the impressive Warrick depot with its drive-in forecourt at the top of Pentonville Road. The Weller delivery van was known as the Autocarrier, hence AC later on. It had a great following, being used by the L & SW Railway, Maples, Selfridges, the Army & Navy Stores, Whiteleys, Boots the Chemists, United Yeast (who ran a fleet of over 70), the Evening News, Goodrich tyres, etc.

As a boy I remember seeing one used by a Pearly King and his Queen, in all their gypsy finery, going to a carnival, in the later passenger edition, and thought how well this side-by-side seated AC Sociable suited them! The AC Sociable had made its debut in 1910 and cost £85. The directors of the new company of Autocars and Accessories Ltd were John Portwine and John Weller. The name was changed to Autocarriers (1911) Ltd when the West Norwood premises were vacated in favour of the works at Thames Ditton, formerly occupied by the steamengine makers, Willians and Robinson, where Capt A Frazer Nash and Ron Godfrey, of GN fame, had been apprenticed. The name change to AC Cars came in 1922, long after the success of the AC Sociable (even this improbable vehicle was raced at Brooklands) and the advent of the first of the famous AC light-cars. John Weller was to establish his engineering authority with the light-alloy 2-litre six-cylinder overhead-camshaft AC engine of 1919, which was used to take the World’s 24-hour record for AC in 1925, when Gillett averaged 82.58 mph for two rounds of the clock at Montlhery track. This engine became the power unit of the larger of the AC light cars and its design persisted long after World War Two. You could say it had started with that lone Weller car of 1903. W B