Greetings, fellow CCurbivores, and welcome to this third salvo of British Deadly Sins. The pickings are rich, in this land of entrepreneurial inventiveness and eccentricity, mixed with rigid conservatism and class conflict. Over the next three days, we will focus on three rather different automakers: the aristocratic Invicta, the middle-class Standard and the blue-collar Reliant. So let’s kick things off at the top of the heap and examine the most modern post-war luxury car you’ve never heard of, the Invicta Black Prince.
Invicta was the third automobile marque founded by Noel Macklin. Born in Australia in 1886, Macklin moved to England in 1891 and became part of the privileged class at Eton and by 1901 he had already developed a taste for driving his father’s Panhard & Levassor around South Kensington. In 1911, he bought an 18-litre Fiat SB4 racer and lost his license very soon after that. After the First World War, Macklin began to focus his energy into making the type of transport he craved – fast and exclusive. His base was a small workshop in Cobham, Surrey. His first car marque was Eric-Campbell, created in 1919 but built at the Handley-Paige works. Soon, Macklin abandoned the venture and created the Silver Hawk marque: twelve cars were more or less built in his garage when he threw in the towel in 1921. Macklin needed a backer, which he found in sugar baron heir Oliver Lyle, to develop a much more ambitious car. In 1925, the Invicta was born.
The initial Invicta chassis was a carefully-crafted and well balanced one, with a 2.5 litre straight-6 made by Meadows. The price was rather high and competition in the mid-‘20s was fierce, but Invictas soon a reputation for being very quick, especially once the engine was bumped up to 3 litres in 1926. Invicta’s most impressive car, the 4.5 litre, arrived in 1928 and was an immediate success.
The 4.5 litre became one of the hottest British cars of the early ‘30s – particularly in its specially-tuned 140 hp “S” short-wheelbase form, which was capable of well over 100 mph. Rakish sportscars were Invicta’s stock in trade, but not a few 4.5 litre cars were ordered with a closed body.
Great as their cars were, Invicta felt the impact of the Wall Street Crash and the Depression all too severely. Macklin was keen on making a more affordable car, but for that he needed a more affordable engine than the ones Henry Meadows was selling. All Invictas had had Meadows engines up to now, and those cost a pretty pre-decimal penny.
Invicta did try to field smaller model, the 12/45. It had a 1.5 litre 6-cyl. Blackburne engine that soon appeared in the Frazer-Nashes of the period, too. But this was not really a solution to the original problem. Invicta had perhaps gone too small. The production methods were identical to the 4.5 litre cars, so the 1.5 litre cars were also way too expensive for their displacement class – it seems only around 60 were made. The hunt for a more appropriate engine continued…
Macklin found what he was looking for in Hudson’s Essex-Terraplane, the most sporting series-made American car of the ‘30s. But that meant a completely new car. So in early 1933, Macklin sold off Invicta and created his fourth marque, in collaboration with famous racing engineer Reid Railton, called Railton. The chassis was designed by Macklin and various potent Hudson sixes and eights were used – the AC Cobra was pretty much born. Was it such an original idea? Considering that the births of fellow Anglo-American hybrids Jensen and Brough Superior also took place around 1933, perhaps not.
Railton was quite a successful little firm, but as another war drew near, Noel Macklin reverted to another passion of his: power boats. In 1939, he sold Railton to Hudson and started work on a brand new generation of successful series-produced boats called the Fairmile, 800 of which were produced for the Royal Navy. For their part, Hudson were kind of stuck with Railton’s old stock for the duration of the war, after which exchange rates made production unviable.
The same could be said of Invicta. When Macklin sold it off in 1933, the new owners soon found that chassis production was no longer economically feasible. Dates are a little vague as to when production actually stopped, but sales were definitely extinguished by 1938. Only about 600 of the Invicta 4.5 litre chassis made (including fewer than 100 “S” types), but that was enough to keep the fan base alert.
The Meadows connection also ensured that engine and transmission parts were readily available even if Invictas were no longer being made, as the 4.5 litre also found its way under the bonnet of the contemporary Lagonda M45 (above), as well as powerboats and Vickers light tanks.
During the war, a group of investors managed to buy back the Invicta trademark and started work on a completely new car for the post-war era. There was a lot of uncertainty about the future, but some people were determined that Invicta would be part of it. Ads started appearing in 1945 to announce the coming of the new car, which was slated for mid-1946.
And so, as advertised, Invicta was reborn, prominently featuring the knight in armour emblem, which the ‘20s cars had used. The new Invicta went a little further by being called “Black Prince,” giving the little medieval warrior on the radiator an identity. The historic Black Prince was Edward (1330-1376), son of Edward III and heir to the throne, who led the English armies in the Hundred Years War and died before acceding to the throne. It was a bizarrely dark and ominous name for a mid-20th century automobile, though not without some precedent: a 7HP Jowett saloon from the late ‘20s also bore the Black Prince name, as did a series of prototype Churchill tanks (designed by Vauxhall) made in 1944-45. Coincidentally, said tank was slated to use a Rolls-Royce Meteor V12, built by none other than Henry Meadows…
Pre-war Invictas had been a well-made sports saloons and convertibles, but they were not particularly innovative – after all, the chassis were ‘20s technology. The new car would change all that rather dramatically. But at least as far as the engine was concerned, it was in the marque’s tradition: designed during the war by W. O. Bentley, but rejected by its potential client (Armstrong Siddeley), the Black Prince’s 3-litre straight-6 was built by Meadows, just as before. This engine was no pre-war relic, however. It was, at 127hp (gross, probably, though some sources claim only 120hp), relatively powerful for its size and featured a lot of cutting-edge technology: DOHC, all-alloy, twin ignition, triple SU carbs – Alfa and Talbot had better watch out!
The modernity of the power plant was mirrored by most of the car’s other technical attributes. All-round independent suspension with sliding pillars and torsion bars; four built-in electrically operated hydraulic jacks; floor and seats on a separate subframe with silentblocs to increase comfort; all-hydraulic Girling brakes (in-board at the rear); 24-volt electrics; a complicated heater and all the bells, whistles and radio sets one might wish for in 1946. But the piece de resistance was the Brockhouse Hydro-Kinetic Turbo-Transmitter.
Now, I’m going to have to admit my severe limitations when it comes to transmissions in general and automatic ones in particular. So I’ll just transcribe the words that Invicta themselves used to describe this Brockhouse thing: “Turbo torque converter fitted to the rear end of the crankshaft giving infinitely variable gear. Epicyclic reverse gear brought into operation by solenoid controlled by switch on the dash. Divided propeller shaft connected to hypoid axle.” In another brochure, Invicta claim their transmission “contains no gearing, not a single moving part, but merely transmits engine power by means of a centrifugal pump to a turbine.” Is it me, or does it sound like they had a CVT back in 1946? Move switch to forward, infinite gear forward. Move switch to reverse, infinite reverse. Just like with the early DAF Variomatics (and the Cotal electro-magnetic 4-speed gearbox seen on many cars of the ‘30s-‘50s), you can theoretically drive the Invicta at its top speed of 107 mph in reverse. [Edit: according to CC Editor Paul Niedermeyer, the Brockhouse is actually a straight up torque converter, kind of like the Dynaflow, but without a low range.]
The Black Prince needed a body commensurate with its chassis’ lofty ambitions. The first saloon, built by Charlesworth in 1946, definitely cast the car’s styling in the streamlined category. None of the contemporary razor edge design was to be found: the front of the car was kept fairly traditional-looking, as befits an English high-class saloon, but the fastback rear seemed to have come straight off a Pierce-Arrow.
The other obligatory body style was the two-door drop-head coupé. It was featured prominently in the 1947 brochures that Invicta published, and looked every bit as nice as any Bentley or Rolls ever devised at the time. The body was made by Airflow Streamlines, a Northampton firm more specialized in trucks than cars, but whose cheaper wares were sought in an effort to keep the final price within reason. Interestingly, this body was also used on a least one of the few post-war Railtons. Though he had died in 1946 and had no involvement in either Railton or Invicta since before the war, Noel Macklin’s two creations still shared a certain kinship, including a very steep price.
And therein lies the Deadliness of the Sin. Once heavily bodied and taxed (in 1947, Purchase Tax was doubled for cars worth over £1000), the 3-litre Invicta cost in the neighbourhood of £4000 – the territory of Bentley, Rolls-Royce and Daimler. This was very tough competition. These marques had impeccable credentials, a loyal following and truly massive engines. They could charge upwards of £4000 (custom body and Purchase Tax included) for their cars because of the quality of their engineering and fabrication. It seems it was possible to get a new Railton Eight or even a V12 Lagonda circa 1946-48, but these were virtually one-offs.
The new Jensen was a dangerous potential rival, being in the same high-displacement high-luxury class and quite a bit cheaper. The PW’s Meadows straight-8 failed to work properly, so pre-war Nash engines were used initially, before switching to the 4-litre Austin six. It bombed anyway: only 20 made in five years. Cheaper alternatives abounded: the VandenPlas-bodied Princess A120, soon to receive an even larger engine, was only let down by its Austin badge. Jaguars still used Standard blocs and pre-war underpinnings, but they were already incredible value. And below the £1000 mark, quite a bit less refined, there was the 3.9 litre Ford V8 Pilot and the 4.1 litre Humber Super Snipe…
It turns out the most advanced car in the world had a few fatal weak points. It was too expensive to build, buy and run, for one thing. For another, at just under two tonnes, it was a bit too heavy for a 3-litre: acceleration was not as effortless as most of the competition, even though the car’s top speed was decent enough. But the worst thing was that the Blockhaus Hydro-Pneumatic Turbo-Vibrator Westinghouse Tele-Kinetic Radio-Transmitter Brockhouse Hydro-Kinetic Turbo-Transmitter was – shock horror! – a bit on the fragile side. The inverser tended to get stuck in forward gear, and it was possible for the transmission to effectively self-destruct if handled improperly.
Were the Black Prince’s potential clientele scared off by the car’s ambitious technical features, its high price, its reputation for fragility or is somewhat sedate performance? It’s hard to tell. The main problem was that there was no real need for anything so complicated. Not in the austere context of late ‘40s Britain, anyway. It’s safe to assume the cars were made and sold at a loss. With sales remaining in the single digits, it was only a matter of time before production stopped in late 1949. Only 16 Black Prince chassis had been completed, but some were apparently only sold and bodied after liquidation.
The Curse of the Black Prince had struck again. The remains of Invicta became part of AFN, a.k.a Frazer-Nash, in mid-1950. The Black Prince had failed to conquer the hearts of England and died before its time. Perhaps that name was prescient, after all. Incredibly, some of these amazing machines have survived…
For their part, Hudson quietly ended the Railton experiment around 1950 as well. It was only a year after having displayed a new prototype (above) at Earl’s Court, complete with a staggering £4200 price tag and, most fittingly, the same Airflow-Streamlines convertible body as the Black Prince. Only two were made. It’s unclear how else that could have gone, but equally unclear how much Hudson lost financially in the whole affair.
True to its name, Invicta was not yet cold that some were aching to take up the brand. Perhaps inevitably, a new Invicta sports car was finally unveiled in 2003 by a man called Michael Bristow. The Invicta S1 had a Ford Mustang SVT V8, which provided more power than class, unlike the rest of the car, which was entirely hand-made. Prices went north of £150,000 quite quickly with the options list – prohibitively high for an Anglo-American hybrid, but then Bristow’s stated goal was exclusivity: ”We aim to be here indefinitely—and make a profit from building 20 cars a year,” he said at the time. Alas, the 2008 Financial Crisis and rising costs were too much to bear for this fragile re-birth to take hold. The S1 experiment was wound up in 2012.
With a marque like Invicta, one is almost tempted to see most cars as Deadly Sins. The 1.5 litre that cost way too much. The overly complex and mysteriously-named Black Prince that also cost way too much. The bespoke Ford-engined Naughties sports car that cost so much that it was part of the plan all along. They all killed Invicta multiple times. I think there’s an overarching theme here, but I just can’t quite put my finger on it.
But for my money, the star Sin is the Black Prince. It was absolute stark-raving madness to conceive of such a car in 1946. Not dissimilar to the contemporary vicissitudes of Tucker, Isotta-Fraschini or Delahaye, the Invicta Black Prince was a brilliant car on paper, beset by grave technical, production planning and sales-related issues that were fatal to their maker. Still, what bad-ass name.
See you tomorrow, as we explore the marvelously plain world of Standard Cars. TTFN.
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