Historic Car Brands
The Lanchester story begins at the birth of the British car industry and is very much a story of three eras: the Frederick Lanchester years of incredible innovation; the George Lanchester years when the company produced ‘the finest car in the world’ and the final, Daimler-owned era.
Fredrick Lanchester was the eldest of three brothers and although he didn’t have any formal qualifications, did attend evening engineering classes at a technical college in 1888 and started work as a draughtsman.
His next job was as assistant works manager at a gas engine company, where he soon invented an engine speed governor, followed by an improved gas engine and an engine-starting device that was taken up by Crossley. In his own time he designed a small gas engine, to power part of the company’s plant.
To give himself more research time, Frederick installed his brother George at the gas engine factory and concentrated on R&D. He developed a benzine-fuelled engine and invented a ‘wick carburettor’ for it that he patented.
After proving this engine’s capability in a launch he redesigned it, with twin counter-rotating crankshafts, to negate any vibrations and installed it in his first car, in 1895. Apart from this novel engine design, this vehicle also had an epicyclic transmission, years before Henry Ford adopted the design.
A twin-cylinder version was developed by 1896 and a second version featured Frederick’s innovative ‘cantilever’ leaf-spring suspension front and rear.
This futuristic design had the leaf springs attached to the chassis at the ends and mid points, and to the axles at the outer ends. The rigid attachment of the springs ensured lateral axle location as well as suspension action. To control axial movement under acceleration and braking Frederick provided twin leading links on each side up front and twin trailing links at the rear. This parallel action layout gave the vehicle excellent ride quality and handling.
Little wonder, then, that in 1898 this vehicle won a Gold Medal for its design and performance at the Automobile Exhibition and Trials at Richmond. It became known as the Gold Medal Phaeton.
Lanchester gearing and suspension flexibility on display (right)
In December 1899 Lanchester and his brothers created the Lanchester Engine Company and a Birmingham factory was acquired.
Frederick Lanchester designed a new 10hp, twin-cylinder engine. He decided to use a worm final drive and patented a machine to cut the gears. This machine continued to produce all of the Lanchester worm gears for the next 25 years. He also introduced the use of splined shafts and couplings in place of keys and keyways, and patented that innovation.
Frederick designed a transmission brake that clamped the clutch disc for braking, rather than using a separate braking system as in most cars. This ‘spot brake’ design employed the exact principle of the modern disc brake, which technically isn’t a disc brake, but a spot brake.
The back axle had roller bearings and Lanchester designed the machines to make these.
All these innovations appeared in 1901!
The Lanchester cars were designed with the engine placed between the two front seats rather than at the front and had a side-mounted tiller rather than a steering wheel.
1910 Lanchester Landaulette – Alf van Beem
There were hiccups, of course. Frederick sent a prototype 18hp car to the famous author, Rudyard Kipling, who named it ‘Jane Cakebread’ (after a Cockney drunkard) and it broke down. Kipling sent the following telegram to Lanchester:
‘Jane disembowelled on village green – stop – Ditchling – stop – Pray remove your disorderly experiment – stop.’
In 1905, Lanchester produced a 20hp four-cylinder engine and in 1906 he produced a 28hp six-cylinder engine.
The valve actuation was innovative, naturally, using twin, high-set camshafts, horizontally-disposed poppet valves and flat valve springs.
Although Henry Royce had already tackled the problem of crankshaft torsional oscillation and consequent vibration in straight-six engines, Lanchester analysed the problem scientifically and invented the torsional crankshaft vibration damper, as a solution to the problem of engine balance.
Frederick’s design, patented in 1907, used a secondary flywheel coupled to the end of the crankshaft with a viscous clutch.
Lanchester patented harmonic balancer – Modern Motors
At around the same time Lanchester also patented a harmonic balancer to cancel out the unbalanced secondary forces in a four-cylinder engine, using two balance weights rotating at twice crankshaft speed in opposite directions.
This vibration is generated because the movement of the connecting rods in an even-firing, in-line-four engine is not symmetrical throughout the crankshaft rotation, so, during a given period of crankshaft rotation, the descending and ascending pistons are not always completely opposed in their acceleration, giving rise to a net vertical force twice in each revolution.
Balance shafts are still common fitments in four-cylinder engines more than 100 years later.
But Frederick wasn’t finished yet. He went on to invent an early form of fuel injection and turbocharging. He was the first to employ detachable wire wheels, bearings that were pressure-fed with oil, stamped steel pistons, piston rings, hollow connecting rods and the accelerator pedal.
After a 1904 financial debacle and subsequent interference, Frederick Lanchester became disillusioned with the company’s directors. In 1910 he resigned and became a part-time consultant and technical adviser. He also became a technical consultant for the Daimler Company.
Frederick’s brothers, George and Frank, assumed technical and administrative responsibility for Lanchester cars.
In 1913, Lanchester had announced the Sporting Forty, which was designed by George, but under considerable board-level pressure.
This was a smart-looking model but was let down technically by the directors’ insistence on a side-valve six-cylinder engine and semi-elliptic springs, both of which were considered retrograde steps when compared with the Lanchester models that had preceded it. In the backgound, Frederick was appalled by these of a side-valve engine, because the knew how inefficient its combustion zone was.
However, Word War I intervened and during the War the company made artillery shells and aircraft engines, but some vehicle production continued, with Lanchester armoured cars built on the Lanchester 38hp chassis, for use by the Royal Naval Air Service on the Western Front.
Lanchester had no new model to show when sales resumed in 1919 and the catalogue of the time contains photographs of pre-war Lanchesters. However, the 1914 Sporting Forty set many of the standards for the post-war Forty, including its long bonnet.
For the new Forty, George Lanchester retained the pre-War 40’s semi-elliptic front springs, but reverted to the pre-1914 Lanchester cantilever suspension at the rear.
Lanchester Forty – Hackworth
Depending on the weight of the chosen coachwork, different spring sets were available. These spring sets were developed by Lanchester and were quite different from anything else on offer at the time. Many other manufacturers bought in standard sets for use on their cars, but George Lanchester decided that a dedicated system was better.
Brass inter-leaves, loaded with lubricant, were fitted between the polished-steel spring leaves and the whole assembly was then enclosed in a dirt-excluding leather case. The spring ends were located by means of phosphor-bronze rotating trunnions with four steel rollers in each.
An improved rear axle pivoted radially from a large spherical joint at the front of the propeller shaft, which was enclosed in a torque tube and diagonal tie-rods ran from the spring brackets to the front of the torque tube – an efficient and smooth system that became the envy of rival manufacturers.
George’s engine for the new Forty was a 95hp, 6.2-litre, overhead-camshaft six that was meticulously designed with twin ignition – battery/coil and magneto – and inlet porting that ensured an equal air/petrol mix to all cylinders.
The Forty also broke new bodywork ground, employing welded aluminium panelling over a cast-aluminium frame.
It was the most expensive car in the world, in 1919.
The Lanchester Forty received rapturous press applause and was quickly billed as the best car in the world. However, King George V, on viewing the 1919 London Motor Show exhibit, replete with ornate panelling and upholstery, suggested that:
“Very fine, Mr Lanchester, but more suited to a prostitute than a prince, don’t you think?’
George Lanchester’s reply isn’t recorded, but then Duke of York (future King George VI) bought a Lanchester 40 in 1925 and his daughter, much later to become Queen Elizabeth II, made her first public appearance this car as a child. ‘Georgy Six’ remained a staunch Lanchester supporter and, even after the Daimler takeover, insisted that his Daimlers had Lanchester grilles and were branded ‘Lanchester’.
The Duke of York was not the only Royal to select Lanchester. From India, where several brilliantly-equipped Lanchesters were exported, the Maharajah of Nawanager wrote to the company about three Lanchester 40 models in his care:
“They have run over 60,000 miles, under all sorts of conditions in India and England.
“It would interest you to know that I have a fleet of more than 60 high-grade cars of different makes, including Lanchesters, so I am in a fair position to judge their merits.
“The Lanchester is easily the best car I have under my care.”
Lanchester Forty – fit for a maharajah
After Lanchester appointed US distributors, Henry Ford bought the first Lanchester Forty to cross the Atlantic.
In parallel with the Forty was the lower-priced Twenty One that joined the range in 1924. This car had a 3.1-litre, six-cylinder engine, with removable cylinder head, mated to a four-speed conventional gearbox and four-wheel brakes. It grew to the 3.3-litre Twenty Three in 1926.
A further series of armoured cars was made in 1927, using a six-wheeled version of the Forty chassis.
However, despite upgrades to engine and running gear over the next nine years, the Lanchester Forty ran out of time and George had a new model ready to launch.
1930 Lanchester Thirty – Malcolm
In 1928, the Forty was replaced by the Thirty, powered by a straight-eight, overhead-camshaft 4.4-litre engine.
However, the Wall Street Crash hit hard in 1929 and, despite Lanchester displaying two of the new eight-cylinder cars on their stand at the Olympia Motor Show in October 1930, only 126 Straight Eights were made before the Great Depression effectively killed demand.
Within weeks, Lanchester’s bank forced immediate liquidation of the company’s assets and, because Lanchester was next door to BSA, a sale made sense. BSA bought the assets in a fire sale and production was transferred to Lanchester’s new sister subsidiary, Daimler, in Coventry.
George Lanchester was kept on as a senior designer and Frank became the Lanchester sales director. The first new offering, still designed by George Lanchester, was a version of the Daimler Light Twenty, the Lanchester Eighteen, with hydraulic brakes and a Daimler fluid flywheel.
The Ten of 1933 was an upmarket version of the BSA Ten.
1937 Lanchester 14 – Steve Glover
The 1937 Fourteen Roadrider was almost identical to the Daimler New Fifteen.
Post war, a 10hp car was re-introduced, with the 1287cc LD10 that didn’t have a Daimler equivalent and the four-cylinder 1950 Fourteen / Leda.
Subsequent ownership changes mean that the Lanchester brand is now owned by Indian car company Tata. The Maharajah of Nawanager would have approved, we’re sure.
When Frederick Lanchester left his eponymous company in 1910 he didn’t sit on his hands. He was already committed to aeronautical research and had written extensively on the theory of flight, the design of aerofoils and the implications of vortices on wing design – all this before the Wright Brothers got off the ground.
Based on his discovery of the benefits of contra-rotating shafts, he invented the contra-rotating propellor for aircraft. Several late-20th Century aircraft used this propellor design, including the British Fairey Gannet and the Russian Tupolev ‘Bear’.
Frederick Lanchester was also committed to producing a low-cost car for everyman. To that end, he and brother, George, collaborated on the design of a wooden car in the 1920s.
The third iteration of this vehicle design was powered by a new twin-cylinder engine Frederick had designed. The engine incorporated a primitive fuel-injection system, wherein the fuel was pumped into a mixing chamber upstream of the inlet valve (port injection?) and any surplus fuel was returned to the tank before the next amount was pumped in.
The fourth development incorporated Petrelect electric-hybrid drive that Frederick had originally patented in 1915. In his 1925 version, Frederick’s electric motor was combined with the petrol engine and acted as clutch, generator, gearbox, starter motor and flywheel.
1927 Lanchester prototype petrol-electric car – Thinktank Birmingham
These experimental cars used wooden springs. Two, tapered, three-metre-long Sitka Spruce planks were fitted outside the body/chassis module and clamped to it at their mid-points. The extremities of the planks connected to the axles.
The spruce springs rode and handled well and showed no signs of sagging or failures after some 30,000 test miles.
Frederick Lanchester died in 1946, but the surviving Mark Seven edition has been in the safe hands of the Birmingham Think Tank since 2000, fittingly on display underneath a Hawker Hurricane and a Supermarine Spitfire.
Lanchester car sculpture – Birmingham