Wooden Lanchesters and Petrelect Hybrid Power

When the owners of Daimler acquired Lanchester in 1930, it already had a 40-year history of designing innovative cars that previewed the hybrid technology of today.

Frederick Lanchester

Over a century ago the talented Lanchester brothers produced advanced ideas for cars of the day.

From an early age, Frederick Lanchester showed an inventive interest in all things mechanical and by the age of twenty had invented a Pendulum Governor to control the speed of an engine.  He was one of eight brothers, two of whom – Frank and George – also shared his enthusiasm for mechanical objects.  Frederick continued to invent and experiment and by 1894 had designed and built a three-horsepower single-cylinder internal combustion engine.  He wanted to try it out on a horseless carriage, but due to restrictions on the roads at the time was unable to so do.  The three brothers then joined forces and built a motor launch in which to try the engine.  It was the first all-British motor boat and was successfully launched in 1894.

The following year the brothers began work on a five-seat car, built to Frederick’s designs, but the small engine was deemed not powerful enough, so Frederick designed a five horsepower unit.  This car is generally accepted as the first four-wheeled all-British petrol-engined motor car to be built and driven on UK roads.  Later, in 1899 it was fitted with a new eight horsepower Lanchester engine and driven from Birmingham to London to take part in the Automobile Club Exhibition in Richmond, Surrey.

Building on the success of the first Lanchester car the brothers continued to experiment and develop their ideas and, in 1901, formed the Lanchester Engine Company to produce motorcars.  However, in 1904, largely due to the incompetence of the Directors, they were forced into bankruptcy.  The business was immediately reformed as The Lanchester Motor Company.  They continued to expand the Company and Lanchesters were regarded as among the very best of cars in the years before World War One.  Their models were advanced, mainly due to Frederick’s inventiveness, reliable, stable and elegant, factors that greatly contributed to their popularity.  During World War One Lanchester Motors were heavily involved with military vehicle contracts.  With the coming of peace in 1918, they were soon ready to resume car production.

Experiments with Wood

Plan View of the Lanchester Mark One

Though they went back into the luxury car business, both Frederick and George could see that there was a requirement for a range of simple and affordable vehicles that could compete with the popular motorcycle and sidecar combination.  The outcome was that by 1920, George had commenced work on such a car using Frederick’s designs.  As George later wrote: ‘After the 1914-1918 War, my brother Dr Frederick and I were discussing the possibility of a small two-seat car.  We both had ideas on the subject but decided, rather than divide our effort, it would be better to work together.  The conception was to build a cheap car mainly of wood, to sell at something under £100.’

In 1922, using the garden shed of his Birmingham home as a workshop, George Lanchester began to construct a three-wheel car.  Called the “Heath Robinson car” or “Mark One”, the open two-seater was powered by a rear mounted 500 cc BSA V-twin motorcycle engine.  

Determined to keep it simple, Frederick designed a gearless friction-drive transmission system.  Indeed, the whole vehicle was very basic in all its mechanical aspects and construction, even the six-spoke wheels were made out of wood.  

1922 Lanchester Mark One
Three-wheel wooden car soon after construction

The single front wheel was sprung by two parallel wood planks of tapering thickness mounted as cantilever springs.  These were connected by cross links that were pivoted; the front cross link being the axle.  

To steer, one plank was pushed forwards, which naturally pulled the other one back and thus turned the front wheel.  A middle cross member, to push and pull the right hand side plank, was operated via a link from the steering wheel.  It was not unlike a lozenge-shape arrangement and was actually far simpler than it looks by the description above.

Lanchester’s innovative ‘friction-drive’ transmission was operated by pulleys and drums and while it included a pair of springs to keep everything in place, there were no suspension springs and for the comfort of the occupants, the seats were sprung.  It must have been a bumpy ride in any case and it was rather noisy, as the uncovered BSA engine was located immediately behind the driver and passenger seat.

1923 Lanchester Mark Two

This unorthodox Lanchester was completed and driven by both brothers.  It must have been reasonable as they were encouraged to develop the concept into a four-wheel version.  For this a mahogany boat-like body, designed by Frederick, was commissioned from the famous boat yard of Saunders at Cowes on the Isle of Wight.  

Known as the ‘Mark Two’, the same engine and transmission was grafted whole on to the front section, and being one piece it could not be divided to allow a separate suspension unit to be included for the comfort of the occupants.  

A system similar to the front wheel plank suspension was devised.  This consisted of two parallel planks of Sitka spruce about seven feet (2.1 m) long and seven inches (18 cm) wide that tapered in thickness from two inches (5 cm) at the middle to an inch (2.5 cm) at the ends. They weighed about 14lb (6.4 kg) each.  To the rear of the planks was bolted an open wooden box, containing the entire engine/transmission unit.  At the front of the twin planks a mahogany axle beam, rectangular in section, was firmly attached.  This assembly formed an unsprung foundation frame.  

Lanchester Mark Two with the hood raised.
The Saunders built bow-like front is clearly visible

A transverse trunnion tube was attached near the centre of the planks to which the body was fixed, thus making it quite independent from the frame.  The body was attached to the cross member with bearings that had rubber bushes, and to ensure that there would be no uncomfortable pitching movement, the body was supported by eight solid rubber spring-type mounts fixed in pairs.  

From this description, it would seem that the ride would be harsh but no complaints appear to have been made, so the Lanchester system must have worked.  Wood and rubber may not have been the ideal combination for a production car, as over time rubber can get brittle and wood will contract, especially in wet or humid conditions.  

However, George Lanchester drove the Mark Two extensively and he later recalled: “I drove about a great deal and if I stopped at a shop it immediately drew a small crowd.  Often I was asked ‘where can get a car like this?’ or ‘it’s just the sort of car I want.’”

It is worth noting that the Lanchesters were not alone in experimenting with a simple cheap motor cycle engine-powered car at the time.  One of the better examples was designed and built by aviation pioneer A.V. Roe – the first Briton to make a powered aeroplane flight.  His two-wheeled Avro ‘Monocar’ of 1923 was a single-seater that he hoped would sell for £75.  In the event only a prototype was built.  Roe made another much-improved Monocar in 1926 and used it personally almost daily until his death in 1958.  This vehicle survived and was with the Science Museum for many years.  Currently, it is on loan to Solent Sky in Southampton where it is on display.

Second Attempt

1924 Lanchester Mark Three

By about 1923, the Mark Two model had performed well on tests and the two brothers embarked on another version.  Naturally known as the ‘Mark Three’, the car utilised most of the components from the previous model but the BSA engine was discarded.  To take its place, Frederick Lanchester designed a totally new horizontally-opposed 10 hp two-cylinder engine of compact dimensions.  George Lanchester later wrote that it was: ‘…a flat twin so that it could be housed under a luggage deck, instead of being perched up visibly as was the two-cylinder “V” motorcycle engine.’

The new engine was low in profile and positioned lower at the rear of the car.   The driving pulleys were mounted at either end of an extended crankshaft and the entire engine was encased in a neat box with a hinged opening lid.  The space on top of the lid could be used for stowing luggage.  Frederick remarked that the entire lid could be removed easily and laid to one side for better access to the engine.

Rear view of the Lanchester Mark Three
The exhaust pipe is in the centre
with wooden springs visible on either side.

Frederick also incorporated a newer version of a fuel-injection system which he had patented in 1917 for diesel engines.  For the Mark Three car, the fuel was forced directly from the petrol pump into an internal, air-mixing chamber sited directly behind the inlet valve.  When this was opened the mixture was pushed in and any surplus petrol was pumped out of the chamber before the next amount of mixture was admitted in.  The principals of the Lanchester fuel-injection is not that far removed from the later versions pioneered in Europe and that are now accepted as standard on every modern production motor vehicle.

George and Frederick worked on the Mark Three in the same garden shed that had been the workshop for the previous models.  The transmission was based on the earlier version but now incorporated two friction drums; one driven by the engine and one secured to the tubular rear axle.  Unlike the earlier system, the Mark Three transmission made use of the entire rear axle, which was carried in plummer blocks mounted in eccentric trunnions, so that the entire transmission unit could be raised or lowered in relation to the axle, thereby bringing the friction drum on the engine shaft to bear on the larger friction drum on the axle.  This arrangement provided a clutch for starting the car from rest and a fixed gear ratio of about 5 to 1.

The whole unit was secured by large springs to stop the axle moving of its own accord.  Unlike the lever system used previously, the transmission was operated by the left foot pedal which controlled the degree of pressure applied to the friction drums, this gave an infinitely variable drive with smooth effortless ratio changes.  Pressure by the driver on the brake pedal applied the built-in brake shoes in the friction drums while removing the drive shaft out of contact with the friction gears.

This latest incarnation of the wooden Lanchester was efficient enough for Frederick to use it as his daily transport.  As George put it, “Frederick took this one over entirely for his own use, and I think it was the one in which he crashed into the back of a lorry.”  He drove it for some 30,000 miles (48,300 km) before the accident which reduced the wooden car to several small pieces.  While he was driving the Mark Three he was aware of its limitations with just one forward gear – no reverse was fitted – and its inability to cope with hills.  George Lanchester thought the design good enough and wanted to put it into production, but Frederick, ever the meticulous engineer, was never really satisfied with anything he did.  He always felt that he could improve his designs and would, therefore, hold back from production to further develop the concept.   This insistence on absolute quality did cause problems between the brothers and with their commercial undertakings.  The crash put paid to the production plan but Frederick was soon busy with a further model – the Mark Four – and another scheme that was also years ahead of its time.

Petrelect’ Hybrid Power 

Some time later, George Lanchester said: “Thereafter his ideas became more ambitious, and the petrol-electric busied him.” This ‘petrol-electric’ was called ‘Petrelect’ by Frederick and brought together many of his previous thoughts on the internal combustion engine.  In its simplest form the Petrelect consisted of a large dynamotor/generator coupled to a 10 hp horizontal, twin-cylinder engine with a cooling impeller fitted between the two.  The electrical generator replaced the conventional flywheel.  Two pairs of electrical brushes acted on a large, circular armature.  Current flowed from the battery to the motor at low speed, but with enough charge to start the engine.  When the engine speeded up and the output voltage exceeded that of the battery voltage, the dynamotor then became a true generator.  Frederick fitted a three-position lever mounted on the dashboard to control the engine.

The ‘Start-Reverse-Charge’ Control

To start the Mark Four, the lever was moved to the ‘start’ position and the battery-powered motor revolved.  This rotated the directly-coupled petrol engine which started, as normal, via a coil ignition to a spark plug; both engines would now be operational and if acceleration or low-speed running was required the two engines would keep running.  

For normal cruising – more than 10 mph (16 km/hr) only the petrol engine was used with the lever placed in the ‘charge’ position.  This enabled the electrical apparatus designed by Frederick to charge the large batteries that were located under the front seats.  The third position of the lever was for reverse which simply reversed the electricity to the armature to change its direction and allow the car to travel backwards.  To start from standstill or to travel in reverse, the exhaust valve of each cylinder was opened automatically, so that the petrol engine would turn over unhindered.  His combination engine did not require a final drive shaft and it also acted as clutch, generator, gearbox, starter motor and flywheel.

This was the principle that Lanchester had patented in 1925 and was itself a development of his earlier petrol-electric combination engines (patented in 1915) that he had produced for Daimler and others before World War One.  This type of hybrid engine has been around for nearly a century, but only in recent times has it been practical for production models to be sold to the motoring public.

Changing Times

The motoring scene had moved on rapidly since the brothers began work on their car for everyman, with affordable cars from Austin and Morris and by 1924 they had established a firm market.  George Lanchester later wrote: ‘The car [Mark Four] grew in weight, cost, and complication, so that it no longer was suitable for the market originally envisaged.  Moreover, in the meantime Austin produced their 4-cylinder car of orthodox appearance and completely dominated the small, cheap car market.’   The market of 1920 for a cheap wooden car for the man in the street had disappeared and been replaced by several affordable models that were conventional rather than innovative, but they worked.

Undaunted, Frederick Lanchester formed a new company to develop his Petrelect car.  Work proceeded on a ‘Mark Five’ using many components from the Mark Four but with a developed version of the engine.  He designed a compound-wound dynamotor with a switching system that enabled it to function in four speeds as opposed to just at low speed.  His new motor would work at low speed to start the car engine, travel at higher speeds to charge the batteries, work in reverse and, once the car was moving at speed, it could be disconnected from the battery to conserve energy.  

George Lanchester went on with his own work and left his brother to develop the wooden cars.  Frederick completed two more variants; the ‘Mark Six’ was based on the earlier model and used some components, it was also fitted with various springs made from different types of wood to see which was best.  No real details of this car have survived and we know little more about it.  

Lanchester Mark Seven

The next in line was the ‘Mark Seven’ of 1927, and this was quite different from its predecessors.  Frederick designed an enclosed body, again built by Saunders, as had been the earlier four-wheel models – using some cues and parts from the earlier cars.  The latest example was good-looking with a neat cabriolet hood, opening front windscreen and Celluloid side windows.  These operated vertically and had a clip to hold them partially open for varying the degree of ventilation.  

The interior was quite roomy with a comfortable bench seat for two occupants; the batteries were stowed under the seat.  Like the earlier cars, the entire front section was separate from the rear powerhouse and was mounted on the Lanchester system of wood/rubber springs with a spare wheel neatly housed between the front and rear sections.

The rear deck contained the motor from the Mark Five/Six and looked much the same as before, but the wheelbase had grown to 100 inches (254 cm) and the front and rear track were wider.  

Mark Seven Rear Mudguards Clearly the work of a boat-builder.

Spoked-wire wheels with aluminium rims supported wider tyres of 3¾ in by 19 in in place of the earlier wooden wheels.  Also, the braking system was improved; the single pedal acted as the accelerator for the first part of its initial travel and as it was depressed further disengaged the accelerator and applied the brakes.  It was a development of the original braking system but now the front wheels had their own drum brake shoes.

Following his trials with different suspension planks on the Mark Six, Frederick Lanchester used double spruce springs, the main measuring 9 ft 6 in (2.9 m) and a supplemental leaf 6 ft long (1.8 m), both were 6½ in (16.5 cm) wide and tapered in thickness.  Like the earlier cars they were supported with rubber blocks to give a soft ride over any terrain.  

The wood-rubber suspension system had proven its worth through several models and even though the cars had gained in weight the suspension could cope.  There is no record of Frederick considering conventional leaf springs instead.  Once the car was finished it was driven by Frederick and would attain a top speed of 50 mph (80 km/hr).  He also calculated that the Petrelect engine would return 40 mpg, which was better than most (if not all) other cars of the time.

New Engine and Final Thoughts

Lanchester now looked at the engine he had produced; he was certain that it could be improved upon and made more efficient.  That Frederick was working on such a hybrid over ninety years ago shows how advanced his thinking was.  For the new engine he proposed a completely new car, the ‘Mark Eight’, with four seats and more comfort.  

Lanchester designed and built a 12 hp horizontally-opposed, four-cylinder petrol engine with the fuel injection system he had used on the Mark Seven car.  It had a bore and stroke of 2¾ in and a capacity of around 1,070 cc.  Also carried over was the electrical motor concept but in a more compact form.  Indeed, the entire engine was smaller and neater than the preceding examples.  Two engines were built and bench-testing commenced in 1927, but there is no evidence that either engine was fitted in a vehicle and road-tested.  By 1928 Frederick Lanchester had reconsidered the entire simple, light-wood car concept and come to the conclusion that he had moved too far away from his original idea.  

The Mark Eight was never built and he immediately proposed a ‘Mark Nine’.  This was to revert back to a single-seat model as originally envisaged.  However, it was not built, but he designed a ‘monocar’ with a 7 ft 7 in (2.3 m) wheelbase and a track of 3 ft 2 in (1 m), together with a new 5 hp two-cylinder 400 cc engine of 2½ in bore and stroke.  He calculated that it would return 80 mpg and a speed of 55 mph (88 km/hr).  Equipped with the patented Lanchester Petrelect engine, suspension and transmission it may have been an exciting, if unusual, sight on the roads of the late 1920s and early 1930s.  We can only speculate if it would have been a success; probably not, as by that time there were many small, cheap cars around, but none with the pioneering Lanchester engineering.  

What may have let the Petrelect cars down for the ordinary motorist might have been that power unit.  The internal combustion engine, gearbox, suspension etc., of a standard car of the time could be maintained by anyone with a rudimentary knowledge of mechanics, but the Lanchester combination unit would have posed a problem.  Although from the notes left by both Frederick and George we know that the units and the cars were in general trouble free.  In fact the wood-plank suspension, of the Mark Three, had compressed very slightly in 30,000 miles (48,300 km), not enough to worry about, but what if the Petrelect unit or the innovative fuel injection system required major repairs?  Perhaps this was one of the reasons that Dr Frederick, much to his brother’s annoyance, kept on perfecting his cars and engines and not committing them to quantity production.  Whatever the reason, the project slipped away as Frederick was too busy with other work and by 1929 he had run out of money to develop this very interesting idea any further.

Lanchester Mark Seven from Above.
The separate engine compartment is clearly seen.

What remains is the unique surviving Mark Seven, now with the Birmingham Think Tank.  Unlike the earlier models, which were robbed of parts to build each successor, the Mark Seven was the last of the line and does, however, carry some parts from the earlier models; the rear deck cover and the rear wings look very similar to those of the Mark Three and the sidelamps look as if they were once on the Mark Two.

The two-seater body is built of wood using boat building techniques.  The suspension uses spruce timber springs and some other wooden parts in the quest for cheap construction.  The engine, in contrast, is most unusual and no longer capable of working.  The rear mounted two-cylinder engine has a form of petrol injection and is coupled directly to an electric motor/generator.  A friction drive between the engine and the rear axle acts as a clutch for moving off and gives a single speed drive.

The car carried large capacity batteries so that electric drive was available not just to start the engine but to help the engine on hills or to gain greater acceleration.  Reverse was provided by the electric motor while an exhaust valve lifter eased the problem of turning the engine backwards.  In normal forward drive the car was propelled by the engine and, above about ten miles per hour, the engine recharged the batteries.

A control handle on the dash board selected start/electrical assistance, normal drive/recharging or reverse drive.  The foot pedals are in a curious layout with one for the right foot and one above another for the left foot.  The right pedal works as an accelerator pedal for the first part of its movement but then releases the throttle and becomes the front brake pedal for the rest of its travel.

The lower left foot pedal moves the rear axle in its eccentric housing to apply the rear wheel brakes.  Releasing that pedal allows a ‘freewheel’ while pressing the upper left pedal raises the lower pedal, moving the back axle the opposite way and engages the engine’s friction drive.  The only obvious point in favour of this arrangement is that pushing both feet to the floor applies both brakes, disengages the engine drive and releases the throttle.  A hand engaged ratchet and pawl allows the rear brakes to be set as a fly-off parking brake.

Lanchester Mark Seven OP 13
Underneath the Hurricane and Spitfire
in Birmingham Think Tank

As there was no plan to produce the Mark Seven it was little used and placed in store.  After Frederick Lanchester’s death in 1946, the car passed on to his long time assistant, Bill Sweeney, who had worked on the various cars, engines and other projects over the years.  Later the Lanchester, registered OP 13, was sold and eventually found its way to C. R. Southall, a collector of veteran and vintage cars, sometime in 1952.  It appears to have been roadworthy as Mr Southall drove the Lanchester and some years later told a reporter: “It really is a most extraordinary vehicle. I have driven it and it is very comfortable and quiet for an air-cooled machine, though not too easy to handle!  The car was quite brilliant in many ways. It was a pity that it came to nothing.”

Happily, it survived and by 1961 had been restored and, showing just 757 miles on the odometer, placed on display with the Birmingham Museum of Science and Industry.  When that Museum was remodelled and the entire collection moved to the new Birmingham Think Tank in 2000, the Lanchester Mark Seven went along.  Here it is on display underneath the Hawker Hurricane and Supermarine Spitfire; many examples of the latter were built a few miles away at what is now Jaguar’s main factory at Castle Bromwich.  Frederick Lanchester’s four-cylinder Petrelect engine for the proposed Mark Eight is also held by the Think Tank but is currently in store.

Although the grey-painted wooden car is non-operational, it draws the visitor by its unusualness compared with the other display items that stand nearby, including John Cobb’s Land Speed Record Railton that exceeded 400 mph in 1947.  The Lanchester Mark Seven would not have looked out of place in 1927 and today gives us an excellent idea of Frederick Lanchester’s very advanced engineering ideas for a cheap mode of transport.

Grateful thanks are due to Jack Kirby of the Birmingham Think Tank for granting access to the Lanchester Mark Seven and to Dr Jim Andrew for additional information on the Mark Seven.


Author and Photography: François Prins

© Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust