May marked the 100th Anniversary of the car manufacturer Aston Martin: it is astounding to think that in a little over a century the car has gone from a little used and unaffordable product to one which has rapidly proliferated. The early development of the automobile was expensive and precarious, as is shown by the archives of Frederick Lanchester held at IMechE.
From the 1830s steam power and the railways massively improved our ability to move goods and people: this was nothing short of a revolution, opening up trade and travel and totally replacing transport as it then existed. The transport revolution was propelled forwards by the development of the internal combustion engine (or gas engine). Before this ideas had been put forward to develop steam powered road vehicles but there were problems: the state of the roads was poor; investment tended to focus on rail; and The Locomotive Act (1965-1896) held back both speed and efficiency on the road (as well as making car usage massively expensive, you needed three ‘crew’ members) which assured road surfaces were not developed.
Gas engines became viable in 1876 when the Otto four-stroke cycle engine was manufactured under licence until 1890, after this the field was open to other innovators: one of the most prominent was Frederick Lanchester. The Lanchester Motor Company was incorporated in 1899.
Work on the first Lanchester car began in 1895 and road tested 1896. It was significantly, and unusually, designed from first principles as a car and not as a horseless carriage: this was made possible by the gas engine. It had a single cylinder 1306 cc engine with the piston having two connecting rods to separate the crankshafts and flywheels rotating in opposite directions, providing a smooth running. Demonstrators were then built: these had two-cylinder, 4033 cc, horizontal air-cooled engines. Steering was by side lever rather than by wheel. These cars were sold to the public in 1901. In the Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers (June 1937), Lanchester describes these (and subsequent) developments, with illustrations.
In 1904, despite a full order book, the Company ran out of money: following a period of management by a receiver the business was re-organised, re-capitalized and incorporated as The Lanchester Motor Company. Automobiles were still a new industry with long lead times and therefore orders couldn’t be fulfilled quickly enough for payments to come in at regular intervals.
The 1904 models had 2470 cc, four-cylinder engines featuring pressure lubrication (this was very unusual) and were mounted with the epicyclic gearbox between the front seats rather than centrally: the deign meant that the driver sat well forward and the car had no bonnet. The specification then started to become more conventional, with wheel steering as standard from 1911and pedals and a gear lever replacing the original two-lever gear system. Up until this point driving was a very physical pursuit, requiring the pulling of three levers at precise times. The engine then moved further forward to a conventional position in the sporting, side-valve, 5.5-litre six-cylinder ‘Forty’ but very few were made before the outbreak of World War I. World War I didn’t completely see the cessation of car production however: Lanchester 4×2 Armoured Cars were built and used on the Western Front.
From 1918 the company re-introduced the ‘Forty’ with a 6.2-litre overhead-cam engine in unit with a 3-speed gearbox. It was very expensive (more than a Rolls-Royce ‘Silver Ghost’!) and the Company’s only manufactured model until a smaller car, the ‘Twenty One’, joined the range in 1924 in order to sustain the production of the ‘Forty’. The ‘Twenty One’ had a 3.1-litre, six-cylinder engine, with a removable cylinder head, mated to a four-speed conventional gearbox and four-wheel brakes. The Forty was replaced in 1928 by the ‘Thirty’, it had a straight-eight 4.4-litre engine. In 1928 George Lanchester (who had managed the Company since 1913) developed a 4446 cc straight-eight version but only 126 were ever made.
The Wall Street Crash killed demand and by 1930 the Company was again in financial straits: an overdraft of £38,000 forced a sale to BSA. Car production was transferred to Lanchester’s new sister subsidiary, Daimler. George was kept on as a senior designer, thereby maintaining the Lanchester link.