Automotive History: Wilcot Flashing Indicators On A 1933 Morris Isis

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.