As I was trudging through my History degree, something became quickly apparent: people like big, great people to be able to focus on in history. In antiquity, there are the commonly known names of Caesar, Alexander the Great, and Genghis Khan, who all made their names famous through military ventures. Today, one is more likely to get written into the history books through peaceful actions, and in the recent century, the new ‘titan of industry’ has been the most recent category of ‘great men’. These men are generally perceived as usually leading the way into more prosperous times using new technology, and include names like Bill Gates, Andrew Carnegie, and the auto industries own Harry Ford.
We have generally been taught that history would be different—and generally worse—than if they had not done what earned them greatness, and so the thought of forgetting someone as who made as many important contributions as one of them seems preposterous. Sadly, history is littered with just such men—people who have done similar things to those remembered, yet are totally forgotten. In an industry as littered with ‘great men’ as the auto industry, it is inevitable people would be left to the wayside. One such group of individuals are the brothers behind the Lanchester Motor Company: their achievements, and the company that bears their name are all but forgotten. The Lanchester Brothers and the Lanchester Motor Company they founded are the focus of this week’s History Hits, in an attempt to help bring some great men back into the historical limelight.
Comparing the Lanchester Motor Company to Henry Ford’s own is across the pond is an apt comparison. Not only was the Lanchester company the first to launch a production car in Britain (an inevitable comparison, despite Ford not making the first American car), the eldest Lanchester brother, Frederick, pioneered many of the same production methods as Ford. Frederick was involved with the burgeoning gasoline motor industry almost from day one, working for the Forward Gas Engine Company at the age of 20 in 1888. By 1893 Frederick had gone to America to further his mechanical education, and had returned to England to practice his trade again.
During this time the two other Lanchester brothers—after Frederick the eldest was George, and the youngest Frank, while an older brother named Henry was never involved in automobiles—started on their own automotive paths. George was helped into an apprenticeship at the company his brother Fred worked at while Frank would eventually use his tact and charm—as well as salesmanship to help found the company.
While Fred was helping George get his feet wet in the mechanical world, he himself was getting wet in a much more literal manner. Already by 1893 Fred had his own ‘wick’ type carburetor, which he fitted to a ‘high speed’—800rpm—motor which powered the first English-made motor boat.
Taking the experience gained from his boating ventures, Fred attempted to produce the perfect airplane. Realizing this was not where his talents lay, he quickly went back to perfecting his engine. He chose to do so using the new, growing, field of personal automobiles. After building two different prototypes, first a single cylinder powered example, and then a twin-cylinder example, Fred felt ready for production.
During this time of inventiveness on Fred’s part, his brothers George and Frank were busy showing of their brother’s hard work. For their efforts, they secured funding to start their own family motor company, dubbed the Lanchester Motor Company, in 1899, becoming the first car producer in the English Isles. George would go on to help Fred with the engineering side of the business, while their youngest brother Frank took over sales and distribution.
Using this funding, as well as technology he had been developing over his life such as the ‘wick’ type carburetor pictured above, Fred was ready in 1900 to launch his first car for serial production: The Lanchester Ten. The Lanchester Ten featured many firsts for the automotive world, including being the first serially produced British car, as well as the first disc brake system. This system featured copper or brass discs—ouch!—and were only present on the front axle. On top of this, the Lanchester Ten took lessons learned from the previous two prototypes, and incorporated interchangeable parts. Not only did this enable Fred to quickly design new, better parts without designing a whole new car, it enabled his brother George to design a production process that enabled relatively unskilled labor to easily install complicated parts: pre-empting Ford’s own assembly-line process by almost 7 years.
The result was similar to the Lanchester pictured above. While not stunning by today’s standards, Lanchester used his model Ten to further develop new technologies. These ranged from small developments like improved nuts and bolts—the M-thread standard of his own design—to a precursor to today’s automatic transmission, the “Lanchester Compounding Epicyclic Gears”.
This gearbox gave drivers an intermediate gear, to enable foolproof engagement of the next desired gear. Not only did this make driving easier, it made the life of the gearbox easier, extending time between breakdowns and maintenance.
The Lanchester brothers would continue to grow the company, yet all was not well, even in these early days. Perhaps pointing to future problems, the company entered liquidation in 1904—even with full order books. This was overcome, and the brothers continued growing on their own paths, much to the overall benefit of the company. Frank became head of sales and marketing, George was given more engineering responsibilities, and Fred made newer and better engines.
This continued unabated until World War One, when Lanchester was called upon by King and country to help in the war effort as a company. This resulted in the armoring of the Lanchester Chassis, as well as the arming of the resulting armored box on wheels. The result was picked up by the Royal Naval Air Service, and was a popular choice among rank and file, due to its smooth and reliable operation.
After the war the company continued its traditions of fine craftsmanship and strong, reliable motors. George took a more active role in design, and a single model was adopted. This Lanchester Forty was a powerful, expensive, model, costing more than the most expensive Rolls Royce of the day.
This business plan was proving impossible to turn a profit with, and when the Depression hit the stock market, the Lanchester company’s fate was sealed. The company entered liquidation for the second time, and was picked up by rival Daimler, in Germany (although purchased by the British-based arm). This marked the end of Fred as head of the Lanchester company, both financially and on a design level. The design responsibilities were taken over by younger brother George, with Frank staying on in sales.
The resulting cars were uninspiring, and sales reflected. The company did not last long, and Daimler’s British operations were sold to the Jaguar group. Here, the brand rests to this day, never ceasing existence. Despite not producing any cars, Jaguar, and now the new parent-brand Tata, have kept the name alive and on the books.
While sights set on a high-end clientele that ceased to exist after the First World War doomed the company, as well as the choice to put all their eggs in one basket with a single model (something Ford did not do, keeping the Model T long after he had developed new and better models), this preservation of the brand preserves some hope for fans. Mercedes has Maybach, Rolls Royce has the Phantom, and perhaps, one day, Jaguar could revive the Lanchester brand to compete once again. Until then, the brand, as well as the historical impact of the brothers, is destined to be doomed to being a footnote of history.
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I recently recieved a degree in History from the University of Nevada, Reno.