Coventry’s Answer to Rolls Royce?
Frederick Lanchester was responsible for building the first four-wheel all-British car in 1895. If archivists at Coventry University get their way engineering pioneer Frederick Lanchester could become the face on the new £50 note. Regarded as one of the UK’s greatest automotive engineers, the magazine Autocar once proclaimed that of the 36 key features in modern cars Frederick Lanchester was responsible for half of them.
So who was Frederick Lanchester and what became of the Coventry car company he founded? A truly visionary mechanical engineer he was responsible for building the first four-wheel all-British car in 1895. Although he lived in Birmingham for much of his life Frederick will forever be associated with Coventry – Coventry University was formerly known as Lanchester Polytechnic.
First Car Built
After five years he left to build his first car, a one-cylinder, five-horsepower model, in 1895. A second model, with two cylinders, and a third led to financial backing for the Lanchester Engine Company (later to become the Lanchester Motor Company), which produced several hundred cars over the next few years. His cars developed a reputation for luxury as they had low vibration, a sleek body shape and a luggage rack.
He studied the possibility of building aeroplanes, looking at the principles of aerodynamics. Lanchester published a pioneering book Aerial Flight (1907-8), which described the boundary layer of still air over an aircraft’s surface, induced drag and the dynamics of flight. He also wrote Aircraft in Warfare in 1914, which with its quantitative study of military forces was an early example of operational analysis. He was elected as a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1922.
Two of Lanchester’s three brothers, Frank and George, were also involved in the company. The third Lanchester car went into production in 1901 and over the next 30 years the marque became renowned for its quality.
One of those modern car features invented by Lanchester were disc brakes and in 1902 Lanchester became the first company to sell disc brakes to the public, beating all others to market by many years. All bodies were made by coachbuilders until 1903, when a body department was set up and up to 1914 most cars carried Lanchester-built bodies.
Lanchester experienced some financial difficulties early on and even though it had a full order book the business ran out of money in 1904. Put into voluntary liquidation, the company was managed for a time by a receiver. A reorganisation and recapitalisation saw it become the Lanchester Motor Company Limited later the same year. The 1904 models had 2,470 cc, four-cylinder, water-cooled, overhead-valve engines. Six-cylinder models joined the line-up in 1906.
Lanchester cars were originally steered via a side lever but from 1908 a steering wheel became an option. Following the resignation of Frederick in 1913, George took control of the company.
Oubreak of First World War
Prior to the First World War the 5.5-litre six-cylinder Forty was developed but few were made before the outbreak of hostilities. During the war the company made artillery shells and aircraft engines, though some vehicle production continued with the Lanchester 4×2 Armoured Cars. In the post-war world Lanchester adopted a single model policy and the Forty was reintroduced with a 6.2-litre engine. It was an expensive car, costing more than a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost.
A smaller car, the Twenty One, which had a 3.1-litre six-cylinder joined the range in 1924. This had a 3.1-litre, six-cylinder engine and grew to become the 3.3-litre Twenty Three in 1926. The Forty was replaced by the Thirty with a 4.4-litre engine in 1928. 1928 saw George’s last design, a 4,446 cc straight-8. A total of 126 were produced before the economic depression hit demand severely.
Lanchester displayed an impressive array of cars at the Olympia Motor Show in October 1930 but just weeks later financial troubles hit big time.
Acquisition by BSA
The company’s bank called in its overdraft of £38,000 forcing immediate liquidation of the company’s assets. Given the company’s proximity to BSA’s Armourer Mills in Sparkbrook, being sold to BSA seemed a perfect fit.
The acquisition was completed in January 1931 for just £26,000, significantly lower than the value of the firm’s assets. Car production returned to Coventry to Lanchester’s new sister subsidiary, Daimler , at Sandy Lane, Radford .
George Lanchester’s services were retained as a senior designer and Frank became the sales director. The reborn company’s first new model, the Lanchester Eighteen – designed by George, was a version of the Daimler Light Twenty.
The Ten, launched in 1933, was an upmarket version of the BSA Ten. The pre-war Fourteen Roadrider of 1937 was a remodelled Daimler New Fifteen. In the wake of the Second World War a ten-horsepower car was reintroduced with the 1287 cc LD10. This did not have a Daimler equivalent.
In 1950 the four-cylinder 1950 Fourteen/Leda was launched. The very last model, of which only prototypes were produced, was called the Sprite in 1955.