Have you ever looked at a 1933 Morris Isis and wondered what the lamp assembly on the front quarter was for? Well, wonder no more, Curbside Classic will enlighten you.
But first, let’s take a quick tour around the Morris Isis. The Isis was Morris’s largest car, and invariably fitted with a six-cylinder engine. The first Isis, from 1929, used a Budd designed body built by the Budd-Morris partnership, Pressed Steel, and indeed shared some elements with Dodge models. The chassis and engine were all Morris, of course, either 2.6 or 3.5 litres. For 1932, the Budd body was replaced by a more traditional wood framed body on the same chassis, along with a four speed gearbox with synchromesh.
And the reason for changing the body? Morris and Budd had proved unable to work together – there was insufficient volume just from Morris, whilst other manufacturers saw Pressed Steel as a Morris business and were therefore reluctant to give it business, the quality was unsatisfactory and Morris was having difficulty in buying pressings outside Pressed Steel’s scope from other suppliers. Morris’s offer to buy it all was rebuffed and Budd went alone, and focussed on Rootes Group work initially.
The 1932 Isis endured, with some changes to 1935, when it was replaced by the Morris Big Six.
Back in 1933, signals from one vehicle to another were pretty much limited to hand signals only, with the variations of arm up and down, hand round and round and the like. Not hugely practical, for many reasons, as the arm was needed for steering and gear changing, limitations from the rain and darkness to name but a few. Paul N showed some early solutions to these issues recently, around the time semaphores became popularised or mandated in Europe, and this is part of the same tale.
There was a consensus that a solution was needed, and there were ideas, of which the Wilcot Flashing Indicator was an early attempt, albeit one of many. Finding that common solution was not easy – in fact, at an RAC demonstration in 1929, there were 127 proposals shown.
The Wilcot solution was adopted by Morris for the 1933 range, except the cheapest car in the range, the Minor. In essence, on either side of the car, was a block of three lights looking very like a traffic light with red, amber and green elements. The idea was that the colour or combination of the colours, showing on one or both sides would guide adjacent traffic of the intentions of the Morris.
Combinations were more complex, inevitably, than just flashing orange lights. Ahead of a need to indicate, the driver would activate the system which would start with both left and right amber lights flashing, like modern hazard warning lights, meaning “Caution”, ahead of an indication being given.
The system was controlled by a knob inside the car, with a spring based plunger acting as a time control for any selection. To indicate turning right, the driver would then request the system to show red on the right and green on the left in a way that almost echoes nautical practice; bearing right was amber on the right and green on the left.
You could also indicate an intention to go straight on, by showing green on each side of the car, front and back.
As could only happen in England, the system was designed by a chap called W. S. Thimblethorpe. Wilcot was a minor component supplier to Morris and other manufacturers, and had been looking for an additional product range to broaden their activities, when Mr Thimblethorpe presented his idea.
Unfortunately for Morris and Wilcot, the Ministry of Transport did not share their enthusiasm, arguing that the system was too complicated to manage and interpret. Neither did some other competing commercial interests, including Austin and Lucas, who championed the semaphore type of indicator.
The Ministry determined that flashing lights were not acceptable and that indicators should consist of the illuminated semaphore type, which changed the profile of the car when seen in silhouette. These were mandated from late 1933, in the UK. Often known as trafficators in the UK, they were seen on new cars until the late 1950s, and still occasionally in use now, though many owners have now added flashing indicators for obvious reasons.
William Morris was reduced to not just adding semaphore indicators to his cars but retrofitting them to those cars already sold. Some estimates put the cost of this at £50,000, say £4million now, and the stock ended up as landfill under the Morris Radiators factory.
These photographs, incidentally, were taken at Nuffield Place, Morris’s home for thirty years, in 2019. Hopefully, we’ll be opening the house again for you all in 2021.
Interesting story on the early development on this safety item, and one that is a lot closer to the modern method than what was chosen at the time. These remind me a bit of the indicator flashers on outside mirrors on many cars today. Only much bigger!
Interesting! I’ve always wondered why a ‘going ahead’ signal didn’t become standard. There are MANY corners where curving right or curving left is the expected flow, while straight ahead is the unexpected move that needs a warning.
That’s handy. I’ve got an old photo in the family collection showing the Yarn Market at Dunster with early 1930s cars, one of them a 1932-5 Morris Ten. Looking at the enlargemnt it’s fitted with those very indicators! That helps date the photo then, must be September 1932 at the earliest, but probably not later than 1934.
“Have I ever looked at a 1933 Morris Isis and wondered…” ?
60 years ago I found a photo of a 50s Morris Isis – a car I had never heard of. I still haven’t ever seen one of any year.
The fifties Isis was never common. Dad had a ’54 Oxford, and always wished he’d had the extra to get the Isis. They’re seven inches longer, and it’s all up front to fit the six, but apart from that they look just like an Oxford.
You know what? I would love to read a comprehensive history of turn signals on this site.
Roger, thank you so much for this. After Paul’s vintage hand signal piece, I looked up some of the early types of turn signals, and was amazed by the variety in what seemed to be on the market back then.
I didn’t look into any one device in a great amount of detail, so I thoroughly enjoyed reading about this one. I bet every country’s regulatory bodies took a different route with their approach to turn signals, so in some respects it seems remarkable that it all got sorted out as quickly as it did.
Great to see this weird device get an airing.
According to Harry Edwards in “The Morris Motor Car 1913-1983”, (Moorland Publishing, 1983), p181-2.
“The exercise had cost Morris more than 50,000 pounds, and it is said that many of the unused Wilcot indicators were dumped into a large pit behind one of the factories……
“Another 2,000 sets were bought by Gamages of Holborn who resold them as novelties for 2/6 per set – at the same time as the makers were advertising them at 4 pounds 4 shillings…
“An amusing sequel is recorded by Robert Jackson in his book The Nuffield Story; apparently one of the Morris Motors Ltd. directors (Hans Landstad), seeing the devices on sale at Gamages, bought a set and tried to interest the Morris concern in using them!”.
Fancy a director being so ignorant of the problem Morris Motors had already had in using this device – and after the Minister of Transport had refused to sanction their use!
Edwards devotes several pages of his tome to the intended operation of this device (but I think Roger is clearer), and the consequences of it for the company. And all to avoid paying a royalty of 6d per set for using the German-invented Trafficator!
Neato! This is far enough outside the early end of my main interest in car lights that I had no idea.
Interesting information. When I was a child in the early fifties, perhaps 9 or 10 years of age at the time, we had driven from The Bronx to Manhattan and as my mother’s wont when traffic on the highways got heavy, she would take us on a route that brought us onto Park Avenue. When we got to the ritzy section of Park Avenue, we were behind a Rolls Royce that had a pair of red-yellow-green taillights. When the car brakes, of course we saw red. When the car as in motion, we saw the green illuminated, yet when the car was slowing down, the yellow lights came on! My brother and I were fascinated. Do any of our readers have more information on this device? Was it a Rolls Royce invention or a British setup available for other manufacturers?
There were no vehicles sold new with the setup you describe, but it was available as an aftermarket accessory from the likes of JC Witless—they were a minor fad in the ’50s and ’60s, virtually always as a trinket mounted in the backglass, not on the body as a left/right set of lamp trios. Researchers looked studiously into the idea and found it lacking in merit from a safety standpoint. They found sturdy crash-avoidance merit in the idea of green taillights, red brake lights, and amber turn signals, but although additional research showed no safety problems with traffic containing a mix of cars with red taillights and cars with green ones, this idea was not pushed—red taillights were (and are) far too entrenched to change.
Love the car, but that tricolour system is amazing! We dodged a bullet – in some alternate universe, that would have become the standard UK / imperial system, with hilarious consequences…