The Last Lanchester – Sprite
In the 1950s Britain’s oldest car manufacturer made a brave last move.
Although the UK Daimler Motor Company rightly claims to be the oldest motorcar manufacturer in Britain, it was the Midlands-based Lanchester Company that produced the first British-built car. This was in 1895 and was the product of the highly-talented Lanchester brothers. Three of the eight Lanchester boys became engineers.
Lanchester was an innovative manufacturer; they consistently produced advanced designs during their years as a leading company. However, by 1930 they were in serious financial trouble and their bankers called in their overdraft. The BSA group of companies, which included Daimler, purchased Lanchester in a search for greater market penetration. It was a sad day for Lanchester because their premises were soon sold off and all machinery was transferred to Coventry, but at least their name would continue, albeit mainly as a ‘badged’ Daimler, for a few more years. The Daimler Board was interested in extending their market from the luxury market to a expanding middle-class sector that was emerging after the Depression and would continue to grow after World War Two.
Enter the Sprite
By the 1950s Lanchester was a Daimler with a different radiator grille – not unlike Rolls-Royce and Bentley in the post-war years. The Lanchester model was always slightly cheaper than its Daimler counterpart. To be fair, the marque had its own clientele who would not change. However, by the 1950s Daimler sales were far from sufficient to keep the Company profitable in the long term and a popular alternative was essential. Sir Bernard Docker, BSA’s Chairman, wanted to break into the mass market with a car that was affordable and would have the pedigree of Lanchester and, by association, Daimler behind it. Unfortunately, BSA/Daimler did not have the massive resources of BMC or the Rootes Group to invest the time and money into such a venture. It was, nevertheless, a brave move that was to eventually flounder.
During 1953 it was noted that a new automatic transmission gearbox was being tested on various Daimler models. This was to replace the famous Wilson pre-selector unit that had been used by Daimler for many years. First though, the unit was going to be introduced on the new Lanchester model that was being developed with a body that bore more than a passing resemblance to the Morris Oxford.
Named the Sprite, it was intended to renew the Lanchester name and earn significant revenue for Daimler. The main selling point was the Hobbs automatic transmission and the basic price of £760 plus purchase tax which made it £1,077 – 15s – 10d (£1,077.79p) on the road. For 1954 that made it more expensive than a Morris or Austin, but it was in a similar price bracket to the Riley or Wolseley and cheaper than a Jaguar or Humber.
The Sprite broke away from the previous Lanchester methods of manufacture in having unitary construction or a monocoque. At the same time, to reduce weight further, light alloys were used for the manufacture of the bonnet, doors and boot lid.
What excited the motoring press, when details of the Sprite were released, was the fact that it had an automatic gearbox. Previously, only larger more expensive cars came with automatic transmission as standard or as an option. The Hobbs gearbox marked a real breakthrough in Britain and caused The Motor magazine to exclaim: ‘It provides two-pedal control (there are, in fact, only two pedals on the Sprite) and the driver can set the small steering column lever to “Automatic” and thereafter control forward motion of the car entirely by the accelerator and brake pedals; a “kick-down” arrangement of the accelerator pedal is, however, provided to over-rule the automatic mechanism to the extent of remaining in a lower ratio beyond the automatic changing-up point or to revert to a lower ratio in advance of the set changing-down speed. Even more important, the steering-column lever may, if required, be used as a clutchless gear-change, and any ratio selected at will merely by moving the lever to the appropriate notch.’
The magazine only had the details released from Lanchester on which to base their write-up but no photographs of the prototype were issued. By mid-1954 there were three running prototype Sprites but none were available for test-driving. A new Lanchester was something to be noted and the magazine report continues: ‘Externally, the new car is of clean, bold outline and incorporates the well-known Lanchester radiator grille as distinct from a merely ornamental aperture bearing no relation to what has gone before. A point of interest is that the entire bonnet and front wings form a single structure which, complete with grille and built-in headlamps, is carried on counterbalanced hinges at the scuttle, and swings up bodily to give access to the engine. True unitary principles are employed in the design of the main structure, stiffeners being used where required to carry the various loads but without resort to an embryo chassis frame.’
The engineers at Daimler-Lanchester worked hard on their first monocoque design to give it strength. A reinforced scuttle was attached to an almost flat floor – the only intrusion being the transmission tunnel – and was strengthened longitudinally by box-formation body sills. Forward of the scuttle, the inner front wing pressings were reinforced by the use of triangulated box sections that formed the frame for the engine and mounting points for the front suspension. These box sections were carried rearwards beneath the scuttle to provide rear support for the engine and transmission unit. Box-section stiffeners at the rear of the car provided mounting points for the semi-elliptical springs with the whole of rear portion of the bodyshell strengthened laterally by a transverse arch above the rear axle and by the boot floor and rear body sill.
It is worth detailing the engine and here is what The Motor reported: ‘The new engine is of modern but conventional design, with a relatively high output for a touring car-unit. Of 1,622 cc, the unit develops 60 bhp at 4,200 rpm, this output, incidentally, being identical with that of the previous Lanchester Fourteen, although the capacity in that case was 1,968 cc. The new Sprite unit is over a hundredweight lighter, care having been taken throughout the design to avoid unnecessary weight.
‘With a bore and stroke of 76.2 mm and 88.9 mm, the unit represents a compromise between the “square” and long-stroke schools of thought, with a leaning towards the former. Push-rod-operated overhead valves are used, the valves being in line and operating at a slight angle in the heart-shaped combustion chambers, with the sparking plugs located in the point of the heart. Separate ports are provided in the head for all valves.’
The exhaust manifold for Nos 1 and 4 cylinders had separate passages from Nos 2 and 3 and two exhaust pipes from the manifold united just below it.
A single Zenith down-draught carburettor was fitted to the Sprite. Aluminium alloy four-ring pistons were used with the lower ring in the form of a slotted scraper. Pinch bolts retained the gudgeon pins and the big ends of the H-section connecting rods were split diagonally. Like the three main-bearings, the big ends had steel-backed white-metal liners and the crankshaft used integral balance weights. Both the engine and the Hobbs transmission unit were joined as a single unit with an open Hardy Spicer propeller shaft transmitting the drive to a Salisbury hypoid rear axle.
For the front suspension, Lanchester broke away from the standard single unit that was popular at the time. The Sprite’s front suspension consisted of a separate unit for each side and these were bolted individually to the main body structure. Pressed-steel wishbones were used at the top and bottom and telescopic dampers were housed within the coil springs. The wishbones were carried on rubber bushes, as were those fitted to the rear spring units. Although Daimler was involved with the testing of disc brakes they would not appear in their production cars for a few years; consequently, the Sprite was fitted with a Girling drum brake system.
The Sprite Mark I had a wheelbase of 8ft 3ins (2.5m), length 14ft (4.3m) and a width of 5ft 5ins (1.7m). The Mark II was very slightly longer by four inches and just under two inches wider. Internally, the Sprite was a four-seater, but could carry five comfortably. In the days before seatbelt laws you could probably get six passengers on board. Although the two front seats were separate, they were individually adjustable and could be placed close together. It would not be that uncomfortable for a short journey. The rear passengers benefited from the fact that the rear wheel arches did not intrude into the rear compartment. Initially, the first three Sprite prototypes, known as the Mark I, had a metal fascia and not wood, as was normal for Daimler-Lanchester at the time.
Not a Success
Although three ‘Oxford-type’ prototype Sprites were built, only one was roadworthy and extensively tested in the area surrounding the Lanchester plant. According to John Box, who was a Daimler apprentice at the time, it was silver over maroon. The other two Sprites were silver over blue and all-over silver and were not road legal. For test purposes, the Hobbs transmission was installed in a bus chassis, a Conquest saloon and a 4½ -litre Daimler saloon, as well as in the Sprite. Although the motoring press had been given technical details of the Lanchester Sprite no date for its launch were given. There was trouble financing the model and also a problem with the supplies of the Mark I bodyshell.
A better course of action was to redesign the Sprite and use as much of the Daimler Conquest bodyshell as possible. This emerged as the Sprite Mark II and ten cars are known to have been manufactured. Testing went ahead and it looked as though the Lanchester name would live on.
Then came the change at the top with the forced resignation of BSA Group Chairman Sir Bernard Docker and General Manager R. E. Smith, who was also Managing Director of Carbodies Ltd., a BSA subsidiary.
The new board, under John Sangster, cancelled the Sprite programme. All the cars that had been manufactured were scrapped, although one example has survived to the present. Also scrapped at the time were some 500 engine and gearbox parts intended for the Sprite.
By the time the Mark II Sprite had emerged it bore little resemblance to the three preceding cars. The body was firmly based on the Daimler and the separate front seats had given way to a bench seat. In place of the metal fascia, walnut burr was the order of the day.
The innovative hinged bonnet and front wings single structure gave way to a conventional opening bonnet.
So what had begun, as a popular car to appeal to a wider market sector had become a slimmed down Daimler. Though the programme was cancelled, Daimler produced a price list for the 1955 Mark II at £1,228 and for 1956 £1,300.
The prices remained on paper in a file, along with a dream of an interesting car with the Lanchester name.
With the project stalled, Lanchester shed some 450 jobs during the coming months and the name disappeared after sixty-odd years. The surviving Sprites were used by the factory as runabouts and ‘hacks’.
Geoffrey Turner, who was an apprentice at Daimler’s Radford plant in the 1960s, remembers driving the surviving Sprites. “We used them to fetch and carry things but the Hobbs units had been taken out and a standard pre-selector gearbox fitted. They were nice cars, nothing special though.”
Given the state of the British car industry at the time it is unlikely that the Lanchester would have made a difference to Daimler’s fortunes. It would have come up against stiff competition from the larger groups with the capacity to produce volume and also with the financial ability to bolster a marque that needed assistance. Daimler simply did not have this ability in 1956, even with BSA backing. As the 1950s gave way to the 1960s many famous names disappeared, such as Armstrong Siddeley.
The Lanchester Sprite is a tantalising model and in a way – with the benefit of hindsight – a car that may have filled a gap in the market had things been different. However, this was not to be and the old name of Lanchester now remains a fragrant memory. Perhaps it is well to remember the excellence of the Lanchester brothers with their superbly engineered and executed cars from the better days before 1930 and not the models that arrived after World War Two.
Author: François Prins
© Text and Images – Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust