Cars In Books, October 1996

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I have been lent by a VSCC member a most interesting book. The Guv’nor, the autobiography of John Howlett, OBE, which I think you should know about. This book, published 22 years ago by Seeley Service, concerns Wellworthy Limited, the once-well known piston-ring maker, now known as A & E Pistons.

The account, as told to Ins Woodford, is written almost as a novel, with lots of dialogue, so is easy to read. John Howlett makes no bones about his humble beginnings, leading up to the founding of the Wellworthy Company. Mr Howlett got a job at Burrell’s of Thetford around 1901 but found that they had fallen behind the times and were turning men off; their manager, 20-stone Walter Wilson enjoyed his motoring, however, in a Leon-Bollee three-wheeler, for which Howlett made a nickel-steel tube to replace the worn-out original platinum one for its hot-tube ignition. That led to a job in the machine-shop of Werner Flederer and Perkins in Peterborough.

Next there was a move to Daimler’s, at 10 1/2d an hour, or £3 a week with overtime (I know those who started for a quarter as much, in the 1930s.) As a charge-hand Howlett saw the racing Daimlers leave for Italy in 1906, as well as the changeover from chain to shaft-drive, adopted, he says, following Renault’s lead. After gaining a good knowledge of chassis erecting, etc, Howlett moved on to Wolseley’s repair depot in London. He says the General Manager at Wolseley’s was then J D Siddeley, later Lord Kenilworth, who had taken over when Herbert Austin, who had run the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing & Machine Co. left to form his own company in 1905, having made his first car in 1895. Siddeley apparently approved of Howlett after he had successfully done an emergency big-end replacement on Queen Alexandra’s 1904 Wolseley. His next move was to become repair shop foreman in a garage run by William Hurlock at Denmark Hill. This involved a trip to Ireland with a salesman who had hired from the garage a little Clement-Talbot for a business tour. On the way to Dublin the differential bolts broke and chewed up the final drive, Howlett did an emergency repair and got back, only to be sacked.

He then saw a job advertised at Farnborough for engineers to join the Air Battalion of the Royal Engineers. Failing to become a pilot, Howlett left and resumed his old job in Austin’s repair shop at North Row in London. At the time the new 14hp model was the Company’s hope, but apparently it was bedevilled by clutch complications. Howlett was called out to such a problem when a car had stopped on Hay Hill and was able to improvise a repair which worked and gave the leather of the cone a longer life. However, Mr Howlett was anxious to run his own garage business. The opportunity came through Mr Siddeley his former boss, now at Siddeley-Deasy, and he commenced with South Coast Garages at Lymington. From Easter Monday 1912 he was manager.

Early work included turning an ancient Daimler into a shooting brake for the Hon Dudley Rider, and we learn that the garage owner was Henry Hamilton Montague Dent, who used to arrive from London in a big white Sheffield-Simplex. The garage used an ancient De Dion Bouton as a hack, and an old 18hp Austin as its hire car, and gained much work from local Austin users due to Howlett’s former association with the Company. The rest of the book is very interesting about business methods, financial problems, court cases arising from them, and the founding of the Wellworthy Piston Ring Co. Numbers of wellknown personalities are met with, such as Louis Coatalen and the way he handled a piston ring riddle and how when he was supposed to be looking at the Budd all-steel body manufactury in America he preferred to remain with the high-life, as Taki would put it, in New York. Also Henry Spurrier of Leyland’s, and Freddie Dixon who is said to have been delighted after testing Wellworthy rings in his TT Sunbeam motorcycle engine. AJS used them for their racing engines, and Sunbeam’s works foreman Greenwood requested them for the 1925 TT machines, and won the team prize in the following year’s loM TT. Boden, who sorted out the Morns complex for Lord Nuffield, and Rolls-Royce top executives also feature — Howlett claimed to have assisted when the Schneider Trophy-winning R-R engine had been burning too much oil. Sir Roy Fedden is also referred to as dependent on Wellworthy for his Bristol aero-engines.

The book runs through both World Wars and many more motoring personalities and should be of interest, if the libraries still hold copies. Howlett acquired the USA patents for making Simplex oil-retaining rings for older engines, and as business increased he became a typical country gentleman and land owner. He earned Beaverbrook’s respect during WW2 over the requisition of the Anna Valley Bus Company’s garage in Salisbury for war production and was with Cecil Kimber when Nuffield sacked him — which MG enthusiasts may ponder. Indeed, the book recalls Personalities rather than cars, although he mentions Mr Whitehead, who was responsible for the aforesaid requisitioning, coming from London in a Rolls-Royce. John Howlett had his first car, a Standard, in 1925, the quality of which Len Lord of Morris apparently approved.

The Guv’nor is really a bit of an advertising campaign for Wellworthy who were said to have made the special rings at 2/(10p) for W O Bentley’s BR rotary aero-engines in WW1. (But the BR2 engines were never used for the Handley Page 0/400, which the books suggests, and it was the V/1500 that was intended for the bombing of Berlin had the war continued.) When the garage had gone over to WW1 munitions, it supplied the Air Ministry with con-rods for the Gnome Monosouloape aero-engine for 5/-(50p) each, when Peter Hooker’s charged 6/-. In later years, Mr Howlett had a £1,200 shoot, where he entertained his customers, including Major Thompson (sic) of Thomson & Taylor’s at Brooklands. W B