Historic Car Brands
Clyno is one of the least-known British car brands, despite the fact that was the third-placed maker in the UK in the 1920s, behind Austin and Morris. In its Camelot-like, ‘one brief shining moment’, Clyno produced some 15,000 motorcycles and close to 40,000 passenger cars. At least 100 cowl/chassis made it Down Under.
1920 Clyno Combination Motorcycle – Wolverhampton City Council
The ‘Clyno’ brand was contraction of the variable-ratio, ‘inclined’ pulley that cousins Frank and Ailwyn Smith developed and manufactured from 1909. Initially the pulley became successful operating belt-driven machinery and, logically, belt-driven early motorcycles.
This system gave motorcycle riders some measure of control over the single-speed belt drives that were then almost universal on motorcycles.
The two-coned faces of the pulley could be moved apart by an inclined plane to give a higher gear – hence the trade name of ‘Clyno’, derived from the incline on the pulley.
This system is similar to the Constant Velocity Transmission (CVT) used in current-day vehicle transmissions and draws a parallel with another automotive forward thinker – Henry Ford, whose epicyclic transmission system on the Model T was a precursor to the modern-day automatic transmission’s planetary gear system.
The Smith cousins stepped up to motorcycle manufacture in 1910 and the variable-ratio pulley helped the brand to trials successes and a full order book.
These 2 3/4hp, single-cylinder, two-strokes were well accepted, both as solo bikes and large sidecar outfits.
World War I didn’t do the company any harm, either, after it developed a machine-gun carrier, sidecar variant, in conjunction with Vickers. The concept was said to be Winston Churchill’s.
During the War, Ailwyn left the company, which suffered a severe sales slump in the aftermath of the War, following War-surplus motorcycle sales, so the desire to expand into the car market became irresistible.
Before WWI there had been only one car for every 600 persons in Great Britain, however by 1919, car ownership had increased spectacularly to one vehicle for every 180 Brits. So Clyno was keen to cash in on a slice of the action.
1916 Prototype Clyno Car – Wolverhampton City Council
Clyno invested in three prototype sports car chassis, to enter the competitive performance-car market, but went belly-up in 1919.
Frank Smith decided to revive The Clyno Engineering Company in 1922, with his father’s support as chairman. The company had been restructured as the Clyno Engineering Company (1922) Ltd, with Stg£100,000 capital.
In an about-face from its sports-car dalliance, Clyno entered the low-priced car market, in direct competition with the Morris Cowley, providing a classier product at a similar price.
The post-war boom was ripe for the new smaller cars, with more interior space than the famous Austin Seven. George Stanley, who had previously worked at Triumph, was mainly responsible for the Clyno’s design, but the fine detail came from the pen of design engineer Arthur G Booth. Booth later went to Singer Motors where he produced the popular and competition successful Le Mans sports cars, and he later worked for the Rootes Group.
The original Clyno was quite a simple little car, with a 1368cc, four-cylinder, 10.8hp, Coventry-Climax, side-valve engine, fitted with Cox Atmos carburettor and three-speed gearbox, housed in a chassis sprung on quarter-elliptic springs front and rear.
Rather surprisingly, it didn’t have a differential – the crown-wheel was traction-adjusted at the hubs – and it was in good company with Louis Coatalen’s 8hp Talbot-Darracq, that also had this not altogether beneficial but cost-saving feature.
However, Clyno soon saw the need for a conventional differential which was later developed.
The Clyno had electric lighting and starting for Stg£10 extra on the Clyno two-seater and that was not available on the average basic car.
The Clyno roadster was priced at Stg£265 and was exhibited at the 1922 Olympia Motor Show in London, at a time when the post-War gloominess of the earlier 1920s was diminishing, so crowds gathered to see the cars on display, many with money to spend.
Clyno had a second model on its stand, a four-seater priced at Stg£335, including the electrics.
The deluxe Clyno models had good all-weather equipment, consisting of side curtains that supplemented the hood, increasing the cost of the two-seater by Stg£50. However, you could have gone to the Morris stand and ordered a Morris-Cowley 1528cc two-seater for Stg£255, with half-elliptic front springing, three quarter elliptic rear suspension and a differential.
Clyno adopted dark blue as its standard colour, with black leather upholstery.
Frank Smith had appointed Jimmy Cocker, who had ridden Singer motorcycles in trials, as his sales manager and he served Clyno well in this capacity. Cocker also drove its cars in all manner of important events, from the six-day Scottish and Welsh Trials, and the Midland Car Club’s long-distance trials, to lesser ones, with great success.
It was an age when almost every light car of note was campaigned by a works driver and the competition was keen. For what was essentially a non-sporting car the Clyno was notably very successful.
Smith was also fortunate to have the Rootes Group as the distributor and later the exporter for his cars. The Rootes brothers were heavily involved in the motor trade.
By early 1923 Clyno had launched a new model with four seats, and a starter motor – no crank-handle needed – costing £255. The cost reduction was achieved by having only one door, on the nearside. The front passenger seat folded to give access to driver’s seat and the back seat.
Points in its favour were good brakes with adequate-sized drums, and very smooth steering of worm-and-sector type, as found on the more expensive Sunbeam cars, for example.
To publicise their wares, leading car manufacturers had their own in-house journals, including the Austin Advocate, Morris Owner and Riley Record, but Clyno relied on the four-page Clyno Gazette that was inserted into the advertising pages of the weekly motor journals.
By March 1923 car production was in full swing, because market acceptance was high and James Cocker had a full order book.
In June a new two-seater, with dickey seat, became available at Stg£248, which agents received with open arms. By Christmas an export department was established and was soon receiving orders from The Continent, India and Australasia. Rootes, having exhibited Clynos in Amsterdam, found they were well accepted and sold well in Holland.
Clyno 13hp chassis – Clyno Cars
In April 1924 monthly sales had increased rapidly to three figures and the company had enough orders to see it through until the end of the year.
An export ‘Colonial model’ had been developed, with higher ground clearance, larger wheels shod with Michelin tyres, plus a wider track and larger cooling capacity radiator, to suit warmer climes and horse-drawn-buggy wheel tracks.
Also in 1924, a slightly larger ’13’ (later, 12/28) model, powered by a 1.5-litre Clyno engine, was released and around 8000 of these were sold.
A month later, because of Clyno’s success in motor sports, a new model was announced and called the Clyno Sports. It had a standard chassis but was powered by a specially-tuned Coventry Climax engine, with taller gear ratios and door-less, streamlined, boat-tail, Swallow-built body, with external copper exhaust and wire spoke wheels.
The colour scheme was white bodywork with green mudguards and was planned for production in mid-August.
Autocar magazine wrote that it would also have four-wheel brakes and a four-speed gearbox, at a retail price of Stg£250.
However, the Sport was short lived, with only 25 finished, before production ceased, due to demands for the firm’s standard products.
Four-wheel brakes became optional on standard vehicles during 1925, for domestic and export models. Morris had just begun to offer them as standard, so Clyno followed suit by also fitting them as standard in 1926. The rod-operated efficient front brakes were extended to other models and half-elliptic front springs were used for the 11hp car.
Moreover, the ‘Popular’ two-seater Clyno’s price was down to a competitive Stg£160, but with only rear-wheel anchors. Morris could only equal, not undercut the price.
By the end of 1925, as many cars were being produced per month as during the entire year of 1923. Work went on day and night to meet the demand and the factory staff was greatly increased to around 1000.
A ‘flow’ system of production was in operation and additional plant equipment was installed in new buildings that gave an increase in floor area over the 250,000 square feet, to a total of over 300,000 square feet.
1926 Clyno Royal Tourer 10.8hp – Bonhams
In 1926 came consolidation and steady growth. Production of the 10.8 reached a zenith point of 13,149 cars, plus 1200 12/28s, so what had been an average of around 225 cars per week had increased in output to a constant 350 per week. This showed up the deficiencies of the old factory.
In May came the British General Strike, but Clyno was able to carry on with only a slight reduction in output – a marvellous achievement that highlighted the loyalty of its staff.
At the New York Motor Show, Stevenson Jacks exhibited a two-seater Clyno, fitted with a patented four-wheel jacking system. By August, Rootes forecast that more than 4000 Clynos would be running overseas within the next twelve months.
At the Olympia Motor Show, Clyno displayed a new four-door saloon at Stg£199/10, with four-wheel,12inch-diameter brakes. Previously only the front brakes had been 12-inch, with the back drums much smaller in diameter.
The company was riding high and was the third largest producer of motor cars in the UK. Its output had increased: 1924 increase over 1923 – 720%; 1925 over 1924 – 260% and 1926 over 1925 – 210%.
However, it was all too apparent that Clyno’s Pelham Street factory was far too small to cope with car production, good as it had been earlier for the motorcycle production. Clyno was obliged, to move into a newly-built Bushbury factory, still in Wolverhampton.
1927 Clyno 12 – Malcolm A
In January 1927, the company unveiled new factory plans. Set in a 70-acre site at Bushbury, near the Star and Guy motor vehicle factories, the new works had a floor area of four acres and thousands of pounds worth of new plant and machinery had been installed.
This new development had not been paid for out of capital, but via massive loans – a significant fact. It was expected to be occupied by early spring.
Yardleys Clyno van
Also, in January 1927, Clyno announced its entry into the commercial field with an eight-hundredweight (8cwt) 11.9hp delivery van, based on the wide-track Colonial chassis. Priced at Stg£172/10s, the new van was used by Yardleys of Bond Street, London, among others.
A good number of these vans were built, some having the 10.8hp Coventry Climax engine. One was in regular use by a Wolverhampton leather merchant, until the early 1960s.
Clyno’s four-wheel brakes were improved significantly in 1927, at which time Rootes was going great guns with Clyno sales from its new Devonshire House Showrooms in London’s Piccadilly and exports were also encouraging.
It was full steam ahead in Wolverhampton, with the four-door Clyno saloon priced at only Stg£4/10 more than a two-door Morris Cowley saloon.
Tests showed the 13hp Clyno to have much better acceleration than a Morris Cowley and with far better brakes. It also had greater interior space and in the performance stakes, could equal the Cowley’s top speed of about 50mph.
However, cost pressures were building up at Clyno, because it was an ‘assembled’ car, with many outside firms having to be paid; most notably its body manufacturer Haywards. In contrast, William Morris had wisely bought up supplier after supplier to meet his company’s internal needs.
In trying to compete with Morris’ lower manufacturing structure, Clyno abandoned Coventry-Climax power units and the firm began to use cheaper Hillman engines to make its own, with three-bearing crankshafts and Ricardo-type cylinder heads.
The engine size of the bigger car was increased to 1593cc and it was renamed the 12/35. However, its coach-built saloon body meant that at Stg£250, it cost the same as the larger 14/28 Morris Oxford saloon.
Hayward began to assist with the economising drive, by supplying fabric-covered bodies. But the cheapening undermined sales of the 10.8hp Clyno, diminishing from the 11,000 sold in 1926, to being finally pensioned off in 1927.
That year both Morris and Clyno changed radiator designs: Morris to the ‘flat-nose’ of the Cowley, from the distinctive and beautiful bull-nosed style, while Clyno made a similar move, abandoning the rounded-top radiator shell for a square-shouldered shape.
Whether both changes were to save production costs when new dies were required for the presses or to provide improved cooling is a debatable point.
On the costing side, Clyno hammered several more nails into its coffin by messing about with a big straight-eight, which Cocker tested, but it was destined never to make its intended 1930 debut.
1928 Clyno Royal – Andrew Bone
In desperation, Clyno turned to a small car, designed by Booth, who moved it up-market from the 750/850cc class to a side-valve 951cc engine.
On the plus side, the 8.3hp Clyno Nine had the celebrated Clyno steering and braking, plus the by-now acceptable coil-ignition and cost only Stg£160 in fabric saloon form.
1928 Clyno Nine – Wolverhampton City Council
These little vehicles sold well and then Clyno attempted to thwart the anticipated release of the Morris Eight by introducing the Nine ‘Century’ – so named for its target price of 100 pounds.
This misjudgement was a panic move to meet the perceived rumour of Morris’ Stg£100 Baby Car. The Century was given a simple fabric tourer body and a three-lamp lighting set, to enable it to sell for Stg£112/10.
Unfortunately, the body styling had a very angular outline. Perhaps, with improved styling, it could have saved the day, as the Austin Seven had for Austin. It wasn’t exactly welcome move, with the ‘trade’ naming it ‘The Cemetery’. Clyno didn’t make much on each car and neither did Clyno’s unhappy dealers. After 300 had been sold, it faded away
(Given the Great Depression slump, Morris actually waited until 1932 before announcing a Stg£100 side-valve Minor, a simplified model with un-plated radiator shell and three-lamp set. Unlike the Clyno Century, the £125 Minor two-seater sold like hot cakes.)
The Rootes Group might have come to Frank Smith’s aid had it not been expanding into making cars of its own, absorbing Hillman in 1929 and later the British Talbot interests.
So, Frank Smith’s hopes faded. He had tried price reductions and making only the Twelves and Nines, but to no avail. Even the Clyno Nine, then priced at Stg£130, was no competition for the overhead-camshaft Morris Minor, which was a ‘fiver’ less expensive.
Smith’s hope of rivalling Morris Motors was never realised. Total sales of Clyno’s 10.8hp model between November 1922 and 1926 numbered approximately 50,000, whereas 141,353 Morris cars were made in that period. Even in 1926 – Clyno’s peak year, when some 11,000 10.8s were produced – Morris turned out 32,183 bull-nosed models.
A receiver was appointed in 1929 to Clyno and production ceased.
As the Clyno dream ended, designer Booth hastened off to Singer Cars. The Bushbury works were taken over by Alfred Herbert, the machine-tool people. Colliers took the remaining Clyno spares, a number of 12/35 chassis and the prototype straight-eight, built form two Clyno four-cylinder engines. AJS acquired the Nine design.
Frank Smith found a job as works manager at Star Motor Company. (The Star Motor Company was a British car and commercial vehicle maker, also based in Wolverhampton and active from 1898 to 1932. At its peak, Star was the UK’s sixth largest car manufacturer, producing around 1000 cars a year).
Clyno was a valiant effort with British Bulldog spirit and determination by a group who fought to establish an automotive manufacturer during the decade of the Roaring Twenties – culminating when the Flapper-music was silenced by The Great Depression.
Engine maker, Henry Meadows. planned to revive the Clyno brand in the mid-1930s, but looming war clouds diverted investment into rearmament projects.
Clyno Down Under
In the fuel consumption trials organized by the Queensland RAC in early 1927, a Clyno 10.8hp car won the 1250-2750cc class, running on benzol.
Garrats Ltd. in Sydney secured the Australian agencies for Clyno, Standard and Hillman cars, forming a company known as Cars of England Ltd, with capital of £250,000. These agencies were, however, all discontinued at the end of 1928.
Rootes, on the strength of its increased export business with Clyno and Hillman, opened a permanent Australian office in Pitt Street Sydney.
It is not known just how many Clynos arrived on our shores, but a considerable quantity did, in chassis and associated running gear guise. (Federal Government import restrictions protected the local motor body building industry at that time.)
Some chassis came to Sydney and bodies were built in the Sydney suburb of Alexandria by Steenbhoms Motor Bodies.
More were shipped to other Australian ports, where local motor body builders fitted them out as a roadster, a tourer or possibly a sedan.
We know, from the then family-company Holden Motor Body Works in Adelaide’s records, that 58 were built up (seven-roadsters and 51 tourers) by them, in 1927.
However, the passage of time means that it has been impossible to accurately establish the total number imported here, nor the total number of other motor-body builders involved.
Rootes Group in the UK hasn’t kept any records back to the 1920s/30s and the British Government has no record of automotive export records that long ago either. The Australian Government records go back only as far as the mid-1940s.
The Clyno Register, which was established in England and to which an Australian chapter was added during the 1960s, lists 20-odd names and addresses, with a description of the owner’s model and body type, from all states, including Tasmania.
Historic Vehicles’ Jim Gibson has traced about a dozen cars, in going-condition or disassembled undergoing restoration in Australia.
There is one car in the Birdwood National Motor Museum in South Australia; another in a private classic car collection in Melbourne; three as restoration projects in central Victoria; two on the NSW North Coast and one in the Sydney metro area.
We have a South Coast NSW restoration Clyno recorded in our Car Restorations section.