In the beginning, albeit with a few notable exceptions, cars normally had rotating-pinion gearboxes. As car ownership increased, particularly after WWI, changing gear quietly was a problem for many drivers.
There had been a few attempts to avoid the embarrassment of crunching cogs. Friction-disc drive, for example, on light cars like the GWK. Some car makers went for epicyclic-gear transmissions, which Henry Ford so sensibly incorporated in his Model-T and which Lanchester adopted for its luxury Forty after the war. GN and Frazer Nash utilised dogs instead of pinions to avoid the cost and weight of a normal gearbox.
There were several other attempts to make ratio-shifting easier, such as the Hayes roller-disc arrangement which Austin tried in the mid-1930s, and the very clever Constantinesco system, from the inventor of interrupter gear which enabled bullets to be fired through propellers without hitting the blades.
The problem was finally solved when Armstrong-Siddeley adopted the Wilson self-change gearbox and Daimler its wonderful fluid flywheel.
Then came fully automatic transmissions, with which drivers could ignore the gear lever. But another way of overcoming gear-changing embarrassment was to eliminate clutch and gearbox and use electric transmission.
In 1907 JG Parry Thomas, the famous racing driver of the 1920s, devised such a transmission which
was used on a Leyland railcar, and on Delahaye and Pipe testing cars. There were the Entz and Stephens systems, too.
The Entz was used under licence in Crown Magnetic cars, known here at first as British Ensigns, with normal ‘boxes. Then an American, JL Crown, who had interests in Entz, became associated with them, after which the name was changed to Crown Magnetic. In 1920 they were handled by the Magnetic Car Co of Lime Street, EC3, and sold by Le Grice Elers in the Brompton Road. The factory was in Willesden.
Various models were announced, one with a Burt McCollum singlesleeve-valve engine, but from 1919 the top version was the six-cylinder 30/50hp Crown Magnetic with a 6226cc light-alloy OHC engine.
The gearbox was replaced by a dynamo and electric motor giving an infinitely variable ratio range, controlled in 12 stages by a steering column lever. A small auxiliary ‘box gave reverse. With the accelerator lifted the engine coasted, and there was a powerful electric brake. This should have given customers who trusted `electrickery’ a preference over other then-conventional cars of aero-type with engines of around 6 to 7 litres, such Lanchester’s Forty, Hispano-Suiza, the Leyland Eight and the Farman. This type-A 30/50 had a wheelbase of 12ft 3.5in.
One satisfied customer was Maj-Gen Sir Edmund Ironside, KCB, DSO, who exchanged an Austin 20 for a Crown Magnetic in 1922. Not afraid of electrics, he found it was light on engine and tyres due to the forgiving transmission and afforded 16mpg. The General said he would never be able to change gear on ordinary cars again!
Mr Crown had by now taken over and the premises were situated at Callow Street, Chelsea, SW3, where the cars were assembled. Mr Gillett was in charge, and it was said that 40 cars had been sold in England at a chassis price of £1500. But by 1922 the place had become dilapidated. The General was able later to buy a smaller Owen-Magnetic, and the two vehicles covered 200,000 miles, until replaced by a Daimler Double-Six in 1929, described as “a fussy car”. The Magnetics had been hard used on military duties, with Ironside’s servant Kosti as chauffeur.
By 1923 the Crown Magnetic was listed in 2.6-litre and straight-eight single-sleeve-valve forms, but probably not sold in any numbers. The next move was the £100 Gillett light car, which was at the 1926 Olympia Show but soon faded into oblivion.