Looking Back

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Recently the simple single-seater cyclecar built by a Mr Dew was recalled, product of the ‘new motoring’ age that blossomed just before the First World War. This was among the better home-built machines that were part of the cyclecar era, of 1912 into the ’20s. However, it was only the practical and ingenious home constructors who came up with exceedingly uncomplicated vehicles in this category.

In fact, it is now quite astonishing, looking back, how uncomplicated, crude if you like, some of these manufacturers’ if such they can be called offerings were. Perhaps the accolades in this sphere of marketable motorcars should go to the Chertsey-built 269cc £95 Xtra, which was little more than a motorised sidecar for two, on three wheels. It actually lasted until 1924. But the Wherwell, made in the village of that name near Andover in Hampshire, ran it close. In an endeavour to get a finger in the pie of cyclecar manufacture a Mr Thompson, who had been chauffeur to Miss Beddington of Longstock Park before his retirement, and his son, who were then living in one of the new buildings on the Wherwell Priory Estate, hired a shed beside the village post office from Mr Spratt the builder, and got to work, in what was then one of the prettiest villages in the county.

What they evolved was a tiny two-seater with a wheelbase of 7 ft 6 in (when the Austin 7 arrived two years later it was seen to be even smaller, with a wheelbase of only 6 ft 3 in), a four-speed friction transmission with reverse, chain final-drive and a chassis sprung on long quarter-elliptic springs at the front, cantilevers at the back, with the additional insurance of helical springs at their front anchorages. To stop the Wherwell, which ran on 26×2 1/4 Dunlop motorcycle tyres, the driver had a foot-applied hand brake on the chain-sprocket countershaft and a handbrake which operated on big dummy belt-rims on the back wheels. The simplicity factor can be gauged by the Wherwell’s weight of 4 1/2cwt unladen.

The engine was quite ambitious for such a light vehicle, being a flat-twin 5 to 7 hp Coventry-Victor of 75x78mm. (688cc). This engine is more usually associated with the three-wheeler of that make which came out in 1926 and persisted into the 1930s, in watercooled form. However, Coventry-Victor had commenced operations from Cox Street, Coventry, as motorcycle makers in 1919, and had made engines since 1911. By 1920, when the Wherwell was mooted, they had the foresight to offer their flat-twin power unit in watercooled form, at £60 a go, but Thompson and his boy opted for the air-cooled version. So when they assembled the Wherwell to sell for £130 without accessories, they must have had a reasonable profit-margin. Orders were taken first and delivery was promised in a month. They used a T-B magneto, a Capac carburettor and lubrication was by hand-pump via a dripfeed. Even a dummy radiator was dispensed with, in the joint causes of good air-flow past the opposed cylinders and economy.

It could have worked, but I think only three Wherwells were made. The claim was made that they would climb the local Hurstbourne hill in the second-speed slot, give a guaranteed 75 mpg and run between 6-50 mph. I have heard that the last one went to a Mr David Young at Westover Farm, Lower Clatford. It was apparently delivered in January 1921 (HO 5157), and it is said that Mr Young accustomed himself to a form of transport new to him by learning to steer with a horse towing the Wherwell round one of his fields. It is, however, probably apocryphal that, when he couldn’t get it to stop, he yelled “Whoa!” at it.

His Bailiff, Mr Fred Mabbit, used to go as far as Salisbury and Winchester in this red Wherwell. It went quite well, although he overturned it once in a ditch. The car was taken on by a nephew, Robert Burnfield, who was also impressed with its performance. It was used until about 1927. The Coventry-Victor engine was removed a year later, but the children played with the chassis for some time after that. It is thought that the builder who rented the works to the Thompsons had a Wherwell and that another was used by a Romsey baker, as his roundsman’s van. It all seems rather a long time ago. W B