Historic Car Brands
The sad story of the Wolseley brand is just another in the litany of British car company disasters. For Wolseley it was virtually all over by 1935, in what must rank as among the steepest upward and downward curves in automotive history. And it all started on the sheep’s back.
Shearing at Jimbour Station 1895 – State Library of Queensland
The English business was founded by Frederick York Wolseley in London in 1889, to capitalise on the potential of his sheep-shearing invention that he’d patented in March 1877. English-born, but Australian-educated, Herbert Austin, who had worked on the product’s development in Melbourne, Australia from 1887, was appointed its manager and received a share of its equity.
Both men had met Down Under. Wolseley, owner of a large sheep station, had set up a business in Sydney called the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company Limited. He manufactured the sheep shearing machinery largely by assembling bought-in components. Impressed by Austin, who managed one of his suppliers and made some machinery improvements, Wolseley employed him at this business.
Following wide demonstrations in eastern Australia and New Zealand in 1887–1888, a wool shed in Louth, NSW, was set up with the machinery and was the first to complete mob shearing with the Wolseley machines. Eighteen more wool sheds were equipped with Wolseley’s invention in 1888.
Both men moved to the UK in 1893, to guarantee supply of quality sub-assemblies from UK suppliers. Trying to do that from remote Australia had proved impossible and the Australian-assembled machinery suffered as a result. They needed to be on the spot.
However, Wolseley resigned in 1894 because of poor health.
Austin had been searching for other products for WSSMC, because sheep-shearing machinery was a highly seasonal trade. During 1895-96 he made his own version of a car design by Léon Bollée that he had seen in Paris and persuaded the directors of WSSMC to invest in the necessary machinery.
1903 Wolseley – Peter Trimming
In 1897 Austin’s second Wolseley car, the Wolseley Autocar No 1 was revealed. It was a three-wheeled, tricycle design featuring independent rear suspension, mid-engine and back-to-back seating for two adults. It was not successful and although advertised for sale, none were sold.
The third Wolseley car, a four-wheeled Wolseley Voiturette, followed in 1899 and another four-wheeled car was made in 1900. The 1901 Wolseley Gasoline Carriage featured a steering wheel instead of a tiller.
The first Wolseley cars sold to the public were based on the Voiturette, but production did not get underway until 1901, by which time the board of WSSMC had lost interest in the nascent motor industry.
The inventor of the machine gun that bears his name, Hiram Maxim, of Vickers Sons & Maxim, had consulted Herbert Austin several times about designing aero and automotive engines and the outcome was the formation of the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company of Adderley Park, Birmingham.
1903 Wolseley 30HP four-seater Tonneau – Richard
The new company was was incorporated in March 1901, to manufacture motor cars and machine tools and the managing director was Herbert Austin, who carried on the original Wolseley name. The association with Vickers helped in general design and in the speed of production and provision of special steels.
The original plan was for two models, of 5hp and 10hp, powered by horizontal engines that kept the centre of gravity low, as well as having the crankshaft positioned across the car, allowing a simple belt or chain-drive to the rear axle. Cylinders were cast individually and arranged singly, in a pair or in two pairs which were horizontally opposed.
Austin’s other reasons for choosing horizontal engines was that they were better lubricated than vertical engines and that, because his Wolseley engines ran at only 750rpm, they would outlast competing engines that ran between 1000rpm and 2000rpm.
The Wolseley range from 1904 included 5hp, 6hp, 7½hp, 8hp,10hp,12hp,16hp, 20hp and 24 hp models.
They were available with Tonneau or Phaeton bodies, or specialised coachwork and with pneumatic or solid tyres. In 1904 Queen Alexandra bought a 5.2-litre 24hp Landaulette with coil ignition, a four-speed gearbox and chain drive.
Wolseley 24/30hpColonial – Peter Turvey
By 1906 Wolseley had built more than 1500 cars, making it the largest British motor manufacturer and Austin’s reputation was made.
However, Herbert Austin absolutely refused to countenance new vertical engines for his Wolseleys, regardless of what the directors wished, so he handed in his resignation, a year before his contract ended and founded the Austin Motor Company Limited, where, oddly, he soon employed vertical engines.
1902 Siddeley 8hp two-cylinder Tonneau – Dominic Alves
Before Austin’s departure, Wolseley purchased the goodwill and patent rights of the Siddeley Autocar Company, owned by John Siddeley, First Baron Kenilworth. This company had a dozen Peugeot-designed models for sale and some of them were built at Vickers’ Kent factory.
Siddeley was appointed manager of Wolseley in Austin’s place and added ‘Siddeley’ to the badge on the Wolseley cars, apparently without board approval. He also replaced Austin’s horizontal engines with the now conventional upright engines.
Italian-assembled Wolseley cars were branded ‘Wolsit’.
1907 Wolseley-Siddeley-Wolsit 22 Coppa Floria Racer
Siddeley and his associate, Lionel de Rothschild, as members of the Wolseley board, gave the business a new lease of life. At the November 1905 Olympia Motor Show, two small 6hp and 8hp horizontal-engined cars were exhibited, but there were also Siddeley’s new 15hp, 18hp and 32hp cars with vertical engines.
This switch to vertical engines brought Wolseley a great deal of publicity and their products soon lost their old-fashioned image, but ‘Siddley’ started override ‘Wolselely’ in publicity material and that displeased the board.
Wolseley-Siddeley badge – Buch T
Also, it was determined that manufacturing was too diversified and the board decided to drop some of Siddley’s models. After heated discussions, Siddeley resigned in the spring of 1909 and Rothschild went, as well.
The Wolseley range in 1909 included: 12/16hp, 16/20hp, 20/24hp, 24/30hp, 30/34hp, 40hp, 40/50hp and 60hp models.
1912 Wolseley 16/20hp Landaulette – German Medeot
After 1911 the name on the cars was again just ‘Wolseley’.
Rationalisation led to a revival in profits and a rapid expansion of Wolseley’s business. The Adderley Park factory was greatly extended in 1912, but even then there was not sufficient space for the new Stellite model that had to be produced by another Vickers subsidiary, Electric and Ordnance Accessories Company Limited.
1914 Stellite by Wolseley – Howard Burrows
The Stellite model had a 1.1-litre F-head engine and a wooden chassis.
Wolseley did not specialise in only car production, but also acted as general engineers for the Vickers Group. Wolseley built double-decker buses, fire engines, War Office vehicles, electric lighting sets and motor-boat engines.
Large engines were made to power petrol-electric railcars, the Delaware and Hudson railroad and narrow-gauge railway locomotives.
Wolseley 12-cylinder 360hp petrol or oil marine engine – Rankin Kennedy
The Brennan mono-rail truck that gave rides at the Japan–British Exhibition at Shepherd’s Bush in 1910 used a 20hp Wolseley engine, to power its gyroscopic stabilisation system, plus an 80hp Wolseley engine for the petrol-electric propulsion of the 22-ton vehicle.
In 1914 Wolseley produced a two-wheeled gyroscopically balanced car for the Russian lawyer and inventor Count Peter Schilowsky. This resembled a huge motorcycle surmounted by a car body, but with the ability to balance when stationary due to the gyroscopic stabilisation mechanism.
It made a number of demonstration runs, but unfortunately with the onset of Wold War I the project was put to one side. It was discovered again in 1938, when workmen uncovered its well preserved remains an it was then transferred into the Wolseley Museum.
By 1913 Wolseley was again Britain’s largest car manufacturer, selling 3000 cars that year and was renamed Wolseley Motors Limited in 1914 and set up a Canadian subsidiary.
Entering Wartime as Britain’s largest car manufacturer, Wolseley initially contracted to provide cars for staff officers and ambulances, but that commitment grew rapidly.
Wolseley ambulance – ‘The Madonnas of Pervyse’
By War’s end Wolseley had produced 3600 cars and lorries; 4900 aero engines; 760 aeroplanes; 600 spare wings and tailplanes; 6000 propellors; firing gear for 200 warships; 1200 naval gun mountings and sights;10 transmission mechanisms for rigid airships; 2,650,000 18-pounder shells and 300,000 Stokes Bombs.
One of the aero engine products was a licence-built Hispano-Suiza OHC model and that gave Wolseley experience with making overhead-camshaft engines.
In 1918, Wolseley began a joint venture in Tokyo, with Ishikawajiama Ship Building and Engineering. The first Japanese-built Wolseley car rolled off the line in 1922. After World War II the Japan venture was reorganised, renaming itself Isuzu Motors in 1949.
Wolseley Ten 1.2-litre – Charles 01
During the war, Wolseley’s manufacturing capacity had rapidly developed and expanded, allowing the Vickers directors to order the manufacture of cars in large quantities at relatively cheap prices.
Wolseley’s planned car programme consisted of a 10hp, four-cylinder, two or three-seater touring car, based on the Wolseley-designed Stellite model; a 15hp, four-cylinder, four-seater touring car and a 20hp, six-cylinder chassis to be fitted with a variety of carriage work.
Examples of all these models were exhibited at the Olympia Show in November 1919. The 10hp and 15hp engines were both overhead camshaft designs, but there was a later side-valve10hp engine to provide a lower-cost alternative.
1923 Wolseley Fifteen Tourer – SV1ambo
Wolseley’s coffers were full after the War, but then the wheels fell off. Government contracts finished at the same time that there was a retrospective tax levied on Wartime earnings. Then Wolseley spent twice its annual profit on a magnificent new office and showroom in Piccadilly.
A lengthy strike in 1919-20 ended on the eve of a general trade slump that saw nearly every Wolseley car order cancelled. Then in 1922, Morris brought in a massive price reduction on its cars that swept up what little business was on offer.
1929 Wolseley 16/45 – Peter Turvey
Wolseley was haemorrhaging money and, by 1926, it was all gone…and more. When Wolseley went, it went big-time, to the tune of two million pre-Depression pounds. It was described as, ‘one of the most spectacular failures in the early history of the motor industry’.
When Wolseley was auctioned by the receivers in February 1927 it was purchased by William Morris, later Viscount Nuffield. Other bidders included the Austin Motor Company and Herbert Austin, Wolseley’s founder, was said to have been distressed that he was unable to buy it.
It is said that Morris acted to stop General Motors, who subsequently bought Vauxhall, but another attraction must have been Wolseley’s two-litre, six-cylinder 16/45, because Morris’ six-cylinder efforts had been unsuccessful.
1934 Wolseley 21/60County – Steve Glover
Morris quickly changed Wolseley’s ‘cheaper car’ policy and kept the 16-45 Silent Six and introduced a four-cylinder version called the 12/32. Then an eight-cylinder, 21/60 was developed.
In September 1928, a six-cylinder, 21/60 Wolseley Messenger was aimed at the export market and remained in production until 1935. The Messenger was noted for its robust construction that incorporated a deep-section frame that flared out to the full width of the body, providing the sill between running board and body.
1935 Wolseley Wasp – Steve Glover
Wolseley’s postwar engines were all single overhead-camshaft, with the camshaft driven by a vertical shaft from the crankshaft. The eight-cylinder 21/60 had that vertical shaft in the centre of the engine, with the crankshaft and camshaft divided at their midpoints.
The smallest 847cc engine was designed for Morris’s new Minor, but it proved expensive to build and prone to oil leaks, so it was modified to a conventional side-valve layout by Morris Engines.
Wolseley Hornet – Alf van Beem
Wolseley’s small six-cylinder, single OHC engine announced in September 1930 powered the Wolseley Hornet and several famous MG models. This tiny engine was made in three different sizes and its camshaft drive evolved to become an automatically-tensioned, single-roller chain.
Morris transferred his personal ownership of Wolseley to Morris Motors Limited as of 1 July 1935 and soon after, all Wolseley models became badge-engineered Morris designs.
1938 Wolseley Twenty Five Super Six – Steve Glover
After World War II, Morris and Wolseley production was consolidated at Cowley, from where the first post-War Wolseley 4/50 and 6/80 models used overhead-camshaft Wolseley engines, but were otherwise based on the Morris Oxford MO and Morris Six MS, with the traditional Wolseley radiator grille.
The Wolseley 6/80 was the flagship of the company and was well balanced, with excellent road-holding for its time. The British police used these as squad cars into the late-1960s.
Wolseley 6/90 UK Police Cars
Following the merger of Austin and Morris into the British Motor Corporation (BMC), Wolseley, MG and Riley sedans shared common BMC engines, bodies and chassis, so the 4/44 (later 15/50) and 6/90 were closely related to the MG Magnette ZA/ZB and the Riley Pathfinder/Two-point-Six.
In 1957, the Wolseley 1500 was based on the planned successor to the Morris Minor, sharing a body shell with the Riley One-Point-Five. The next year, the Wolseley 15/60 debuted the new mid-sized BMC saloon design penned by Pinin Farina. It was followed by similar vehicles from five marques within the year.
Wolseley Hornet – Charles 01
The Wolseley Hornet was based on the Austin and Morris Mini with a booted body style which was shared with Riley as the Elf. The 1500 was replaced with the Wolseley 1100 in 1965, which became the Wolseley 1300 two years later. Finally, a version of the Austin 1800 was launched in 1967 as the Wolseley 18/85.
1972 Wolseley Six – Charles 01
After the merger of BMC and Leyland to form British Leyland in 1969, the Wolseley badge was stuck on the front of the Wolseley Six of 1972 – a six-cylinder version of the Austin 1800.
That ignominy ended three years later and the final insult was the hideous, wedge-shaped, 18/22 series saloon that was sold for only seven months.
1975 Wolseley 18/22 saloon – DeFacto
Thus died the Wolseley marque after 74 years. On a brighter note, the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machinery Company continued trading as Ferguson plc, a plumbing supply company.
Wolseley illuminating radiator badge – DeFacto