This weeks history article is about Lanchester, one of Britain’s first car companies, in fact it was founded as the motor industry was snowballing as many companies had sprung up to satisfy initial demand for motor vehicles. Their first claim to fame was that they built the very first British motor car in 1895 – a few years before the company was formed.
The Lanchester family were instrumental in the formation of the British motor industry. Frederick, Frank and George founded Lanchester as a marque in its own right, but Frederick was an enthusiastic engineer and designed starter motors for gas engines, he developed an early carburettor to control the fuel/air mix going into the engine, he designed the first disc brake system, he built Britain’s first motor boat – basically to test his engine designs before it went into the first Lanchester car and he researched turbochargers and other technical products.
Frederick also developed the Lanchester Power Law that provided the theory of who would win when two opposing forces went into battle. He developed his theory during the First World War to help the Royal Flying Corp, the precursor to the Royal Air Force, manage their aerial combat losses.
George was also a designer and engineer who developed many of the later Lanchesters plus a couple of Alvis cars and gave his name to the Lanchester submachine gun used in the Second World War. This weapon was actually a copy of a German gun captured at Dunkirk!
Frank appears to have been the business focussed one of the three! There was another brother, Henry who followed their father and became a notable architect with buildings all over the world and there was also a sister, Edith, who was a pioneer in womens rights as a suffragette and socialist campaigner.
The Lanchester Engine Company was founded in 1899 after the three brothers had spent a few years creating firstly an internal combustion engine and then a complete car, the Lanchester 5. The first engine was a 1.3 litre single cylinder motor with two crankshafts and two conrods connecting the piston to the two cranks. It was a very smooth motor and first ran in a chassis in 1895.
Lanchester then built a second car (the Lanchester 8) with a two cylinder motor and after the company was created, they built 6 cars with two cylinder 4 litre motors. These were called the Lanchester 10. As with many early car builders they manufactured the rolling chassis and commissioned a coach-builder to create the bodywork. This lasted until 1903 when they brought that skill in-house. This could have been a mistake as within the year they had run out of money and called in the receivers.
However, with their order books filling, they reformed as the Lanchester Motor Company and developed the Lanchester 20, a 2.5 litre four cylinder car with some advanced features (for its day). These included water cooling and an oil lubrication system that was pressurised as on modern cars. From 1906, Lanchester added a six cylinder model, known as the Lanchester 12 and in 1908 a steering wheel was added as an option instead of a rudder along with foot pedals and a gear lever. The modern car was being formed in their factory!
Lanchester then released the 40, a 5.5 litre car with the engine using leaf springs instead of coils for the valves and this was one of their design features that didn’t become a standard in the internal combustion engine. During the war, Lanchester built vehicles and other products for the war effort including an armoured vehicle used by the Royal Flying Corp, the British Navy as well as the Russian and Belgian army. It was fitted with a six litre, six cylinder motor with a modest output of 60 horsepower. It was a very popular armoured vehicle and was second only to Rolls-Royce in usage during the war period.
To follow on from the armoured vehicle, the British Army commissioned a six-wheeled vehicle in the 1920s that was used right up to the Second War. This vehicle also used the 6 litre motor found in their cars and saw action across the Middle East and over into Malaya.
When the war finished, Lanchester re-released the 40 but with a 6.2 litre motor. As this car was more expensive than a comparable Rolls-Royce, they released a second model in 1924, the 21, which had a 3 litre six cylinder motor with a removable cylinder head (remember many engines were side valve until the 1930s and as such didn’t need a removable head). The car also had brakes on all wheels. This car became the 23 two years later with a small increase in engine size to 3.3 litres and then the 40 became the 30 with a 4.4 litre motor in 1928.
The Great Depression was looming and sales were slowing to a point when in the early 1930s the banks called in their overdraft and forced the company into a merger to survive. The Lanchester brothers negotiated with the British arm of Daimler to bring the companies together. Frederick and George became engineers for BSA/Daimler and Frank became the Sales Director.
Daimler had sold licences to a number of companies to use the name on cars and the British arm was founded in 1896 and was bought by Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) in 1910 for their engines. BSA made military equipment and motorcycles and kept the Daimler brand going with cars being a successful business. So in 1931, Lanchester became a part of the Daimler business.
As is so often the case with mergers, badge engineering took over slowly. Firstly Lanchester used Daimler components on the next model, the 18, then the 10 was released which was basically a posh BSA. Lanchesters were being built in lower volumes than Daimler although they were very similar cars.
The final Lanchester models were built in the mid 1950s before being dropped completely. By this stage Daimler was also in decline and it is logical that their efforts were taken up with saving the parent company. In 1960 Jaguar bought the Daimler business from BSA mainly for the manufacturing facilities and with it came the Lanchester name. This marque is now owned by Tata of India, along with the Jaguar, Daimler and Land-Rover brands.