This history article is about Lea-Francis, another bicycle maker who moved into motorised transportation – namely cars and motorcycles.
The company was founded in 1895 as a bicycle manufacturer and as the new car industry was being kick started, the owners, Richard Lea and Graham Francis decided to cash in. During 1903, they developed a car with a four litre, 3 cylinder horizontally opposed motor pumping out 15hp. It was designed by Alexander Craig, a locomotive engineer and they contracted Singer to build it and they created only three cars. Lea-Francis only sold two of them and then went back to bicycle manufacturing.
After the First World War, they had enough cash to have another go at car building. This time with a more conventional design using a two litre motor known as the 13.9. Only 23 were made before production stopped. In 1922 they had another go, Britain was in between war and the Great Depression and life was exciting, several manufacturers were building small sports cars and the business partners thought that this was their nirvana. They built very lightweight cars with supercharged 1.5 litre engines. They were also fast for their day – 90mph top speed.
Around this time the company started to share technology with another manufacturer called Vulcan and even rebadged some of their cars using 6 cylinder motors. In 1924, Francis left the company whilst Lea continued with the company making cars called the Hyper and the Ace of Spades. They continued to experiment with new engines – one being a very complex 1.7 litre six cylinder motor. The problem that the company had was that the cars were very expensive for what they were.
They became known as something of a poor man’s Bentley – poor being unable to buy a Bentley, not poor as in no money! With an expensive hand built product and the onset of the Great Depression, the company teetered on the edge of bankruptcy and in 1931, Lea resigned and the receivers stepped in. They kept production running at a lower rate – building about ten cars a year on average! They finally pulled the plug in 1936.
The remains of the company and the rights to the name were bought by two ex Riley employees who started production again the following year (1937). Riley was being gobbled up by Nuffield and their Chief Engine Designer left to kick start Lea-Francis. He managed to build 80 odd cars before the war intervened and like other manufacturers he switched to making equipment for the war effort.
After the war, with new production skills and lots of cash from supplying the military, they started up car manufacturing yet again. In 1946, the model 14 was released: a four door car fitted with either a 1.5 or 1.8 litre engine. The 14 was developed further into a two door sports car, an estate and then later the 14/70. Along side the 14, they developed another model simply called the 2.5 litre.
The company lasted until 1954 when production stopped. The owners and enthusiasts then got together and encouraged the company’s board to start production again – and that was planned for 1960 with a new model based on Ford Zephyr components – it was too expensive for the market and didn’t get into full production. This model was called the Lynx and did get to be shown at the British Motor Show. Several more attempts were made to revive the brand but none of them got anywhere. Sadly the announcements were made before production commitments were made!
And so it continued, recently the plan to kick start production of a new model was announced. This was to be a retro model in the same mode as other manufacturers who were building similar cars harking back to the 1950s. For Lea-Francis, this was to be the 30/230 that looked very similar to a BMW Z3 with classic styling and was rumoured to be powered by an Opel motor. This car, like all the other attempts, never made it into production.
I did here of another more recent attempt and will update this article when I find the information!