Carshow Classic: 1934 Lanchester 18 Mulliner 6 Light Saloon – Remembering Dr Fred

Motor manufacturers, perhaps more than many entrepreneurs, have a history of putting their name over the door. Names that are now familiar now, such as Ford, Benz, Daimler, Porsche, Renault, Chrysler, Peugeot, Chevrolet, Buick, Honda, Dodge, van Doorne, Ferrari to name but several. Some of these people were automotive pioneers or engineers in their own right (Benz, Ford, Porsche, Honda, Royce), some were more predominantly business oriented (Morris, Chrysler, Rolls) and others something in between (Austin, Ferrari, Peugeot, maybe Ford).

One name not on the list is Lanchester, though the name is that of one of the key automotive engineering pioneers. Truly, Dr Frederick Lanchester should be better known and regularly recognised, and commonly name checked with compatriots such as Sir Henry Royce, Sir Alec Issigonis, Sir Harry Ricardo and Colin Chapman, recognised with Ferdinand Porsche and Hans Ledwinka as one of the leading European automotive pioneers, and recorded in the line of great British engineers stretching back from Whittle, Wallis and Mitchell to Watt, Stephenson, Brunel, Armstrong, Arkwright and Trevithick. But he was not a businessman; indeed perhaps the best description for him is not engineer either, but polymath. And an outstanding one at that.

Frederick William (known as Fred) Lanchester was born in 1868 to an affluent and professional family in London, and was one of eight children, of whom two brothers subsequently joined him in business. After an education in which he did not distinguish himself as we might have expected, he completed his engineering studies in 1888 at Kensington College (now part of Imperial College and actually a university in its own right), albeit without a formal qualification.

But in the same year, he got a job at the Patent Office and registered his first patent, for an isometrograph, saving draughtsmen tedious work in completing shaded areas.

From 1889, he was, initially, assistant works manager at the Forward Gas Engine in Birmingham, becoming works manager (effectively controlling the operations day to day) in 1890, and patented an accelerometer and a self starting device for gas (coal-gas, not gasoline) powered stationary internal combustion engines, two of the six patents Lanchester took out in 1890.  He had the office and workshop lit by electricity generated from a dynamo connected to one of the company’s Lanchester designed engines.

By 1893, Lanchester had resigned the position of general manager, in favour of his brother George, and became the company’s technical and engineering advisor. But not before he had devised a liquid-fueled stationary engine running at 800 rpm, using his patented wick carburettor, and put it in Britain’s first motor boat, in 1904.

Having built stationary engines, powered dynamos, and the motorboat, the next step was a car. In 1895 Lanchester not only had patents around colour photography but also designed and built at the Forward Gas Engine Works the first all British four wheel petrol car, and it had quite a specification, described by Leonard Setright as “superlatively scientific”.

This vehicle had a twin crankshaft, running in parallel but contra-rotating for smoothness, engine, driving an epicyclic two speed and reverse gearbox with chain drive to the rear wheels, shod with pneumatic tyres. The engine was single cylinder, air cooled and had around 5bhp, and used twin crankshafts, running in opposite directions.

It gave enough issues for Lanchester to replace it in 1896 with a twin cylinder horizontally opposed 2.8 litre engine, also with the twin contra-rotating crankshafts, and now combined with the epicyclic gearbox and shaft drive to the rear wheels. It was ingenious and resulted in a very smooth engine.


The same basic principle has come back into fashion, as used by Neander and Yanmar to tame the vibrations of small diesel engines, making them suitable for applications like outboard motors, motorcycles and such.

(Editor’s note: the benefits of dual contra-rotating crankshafts are greatest for a single cylinder engine or parallel twin. But for an engine with opposed cylinders, the boxer configuration, where the crank arms are 180 degrees apart, results in much the same benefit, canceling out primary and secondary imbalances, without needing the complexity of dual crankshafts (Benz built the first two cylinder boxer engine in 1897).

Setright recounts how Lanchester’s first car was perhaps the first car to be designed holistically. He identifies the stiff semi-unitary body and chassis, long semi-elliptic springs and 4-bar linkages locating the axles as showing that Lanchester had a lead on his contemporaries in respect of understanding chassis design, as well the internal combustion engine.  His thoroughness continued to cover the issue of springing that matched the motion of walking, a body that placed the driver’s eye line at a level similar to that of a pedestrian and factored this into the steering geometry as well. The engine position, low, under and behind the driver, was part of this approach.

By 1899, Lanchester had established a syndicate, essentially a party of investors, to support the development of the cars for the public market under the name of the Lanchester Engine Company, based in Sparkbrook in Birmingham, then the heart of the British engineering industry. His brother George was now working with him, running the business while Fred did the engineering. Later, the third brother Frank would run the London sales operations.

And between 1895 and 1899, Lanchester had also found time to submit patents for two different types of aircraft, ahead of the Wright brothers’ flights of course, and for rack and pinion steering. One count gives him 111 patents by 1899, aged 30. And the resemblance of the wing shape of the Spitfire to this model is no accident either.

The Lanchester 10hp went on sale in 1901, after a lot of pressure from the investors, whilst Lanchester himself would have preferred to spent more time developing and improving the product.  By now, Lanchester was using a 10 hp engine and a worm drive. Lanchester was also the first to use detachable wire wheels.

It also used a system akin to a modern disc brake on the clutch disc for braking. The car had tiller steering, a roller bearing rear axle and the engine was located transversely between the front seats.

The car was built, with some changes, until 1905, by which time Lanchester was well into the development for which he is perhaps best known.

In 1905, Lanchester developed four and six cylinder engines, and in parallel with but separately to Henry Royce, developed the first torsional crankshaft damper. Lanchester continued his work in this field for several years, and it is perhaps the development best associated with Lanchester now.

The Lanchester balancer was another key invention, to offset the vertical forces of an inline engine. It was an engine-driven shaft that employed two eccentric massed (C & D). A balance shaft was used by the Ford V4 in the early ’60s, and a refined version was developed by Mitsubishi in the ’70s, using two shafts, one higher than the other to counteract the second-order rolling couple as well.

The Lanchester Engine Company lasted until 1904, when the persistent cash flow issues finally caught up with it. The business had always been run on a tight cash flow, depending on deposits for cars to pay the wages on several occasions. The company was re-formed as the Lanchester Motor Company in 1905, and the brothers were still there, and the Lanchester 20 was launched.

Lanchester himself was beginning to move on from cars. Having mastered stationary engines, motorboats and cars, he published his first book on flight, after 15 years’ study. This included some of the earliest modelling of wake vortices, and arguably the best early understandings of lift and drag. He followed this in 1908 with a study of oscillation and stalls, naming the study and management of aircraft stability “aerodoentics”. Although not widely studied in the UK, Ludwig Prandtl was sufficiently impressed when his mathematical modelling confirmed Lanchester’s work on vortices.

By 1909, Lanchester had tired of working for the eponymous company and its directors, and left to take a technical consulting role at Daimler. But not before he patented contra-rotating aircraft propellers.  In 1910, BSA bought Daimler, and Fred Lanchester transferred to the new parent company, where he was permitted considerable freedom to work as he wished.

He designed an aluminium aircraft (which crashed) and started studying aerial warfare, ultimately devising the Power Laws, which are still used in military planning and strategy today, and calculating how forces will act under attrition, and how long range weaponry can influence the outcome. These laws were brought together as part of the thinking behind Operations Research, and influence business today.

During the Great War, Lanchester designed and built various armoured cars for the British War Office, including these lined up outside his works. In 1919, Lanchester was granted an honorary doctorate from Birmingham University, his first and only formal qualification.

Lanchester spent the 1920s working as a consultant to BSA, and perhaps the highlight of this period was his 1923 car with fuel injection, and his 1925 Petrelect – a petrol electric hybrid with the engine and motor generator operating on a common shaft.

Fred had also patented, but not used, a hydropneumatic suspension in 1923, whilst at Daimler.

Meanwhile, George and Frank were running the Lanchester Motor Company, and building cars and a reputation to rival Rolls-Royce and Daimler, including gaining some Royal patronage. The highlight products were the Lanchester 40, with a 6.2 litre six cylinder engine and the 21, smaller and with a 3.3 litre 6 cylinder engine. Both were usually sold with coachbuilt bodywork (although Fred had invented the monocoque in 1909) and some welded aluminium joints were used in the bodies of some cars.

Of course, the 1920s were tough economically; the Lanchester Motor Company collapsed in 1930, and was purchased from the receiver by BSA, principally for the real estate assets which were adjacent to BSA’s site. BSA (or Birmingham Small Arms) were then building cycles and motorbikes, as well as a range of armaments and machine tools. BSA bundled Lanchester with Daimler and the activities moved to Daimler’s works in Coventry.

Lanchester products at this time were the 21, 30 and 40, all top end products, and some of the most expensive cars in the UK. A chassis could cost £1300, say £90,000 now, without a bespoke coach built body. For that, you would get a 6.2 litre 8 cylinder engine, and a thoroughly engineered chassis, ready for that coach built body, that might cost the same again. The royal car above was from 1935; Lanchester was a favourite brand of King George VI, and Princess Elizabeth’s first public appearance was in a Lanchester.

Daimler were in a not dissimilar space in the market to Lanchester and Rolls-Royce, and the Lanchester became effectively an entry level Daimler, and our feature car is an example of this, as a 1934 Lanchester 18, evolved from the earlier 15/18. The Lanchester 15/18 was first launched in 1931, as the first BSA Lanchester (or Coventry Lanchester as they are sometimes called) and it was similar to the Daimler Light Twenty. The car won the 1932 RAC Rally, then as now, Britain’s major road rally event.

The car came on a 114 inch wheelbase with a straight six cylinder 2504cc engine, with overhead valves operated off a chain driven camshaft. Power was reportedly around 60 bhp, driving a four speed epicyclic pre-selector gearbox and fluid flywheel. It was priced at £565 for a standard Mulliner (not H J Mulliner, but the separate Birmingham based volume coachbuilder) saloon, or £435 for a chassis. Some cars were bodied by other bespoke coachbuilders as well, out of the total of 1200 built over three years, 1931-34.

The feature car has car been in the same family for many years and has been treated to a restoration, almost entirely accomplished single handed by the current owner, who has handled everything from the wooden frame, the engine re-build, casting covers for interior lamps and hand painting coach lines.

Having seen photographs of this car before and during its restoration, I can only applaud him for the range of skills shown and quality of the work. Truly, an impressive achievement.

The 15/18 was revamped as the 18 from 1934, with a revised radiator shell, dashboard, various mechanical changes and a slightly smaller 2390cc engine, which grew again in 1935 to 2565cc for the model known as the New Eighteen.

Passenger production was suspended in 1939, and when it restarted in 1946 it was with the new Lanchester 10, originally planned for 1940. This was a more compact car, still with a separate chassis, and built in limited quantities – around 3000 in five years.

The successor, the Lanchester 14 (known as the Leda in some markets), was the last Lanchester, as BSA closed the brand in 1954 and concentrated on Daimler. Thai car was effectively a badge engineered Daimler Conquest

Lanchester himself parted ways with Daimler in 1929. He had spent the previous years developing a consultancy business, known as Lanchester Laboratories, under a contract that paid him £3000 a year (£200,000 now) and forbade him from working with any motor manufacturer, and the consultancy business focussed on audio equipment and developments. Lanchester bought out this business when he split with Daimler in 1929. By 1935, he had contracted Parkinson’s disease, published a study on Relativity and some poetry, but was continuing his work on aeronautics. and entered what became increasingly straitened times.

He died in 1946, childless (he married in 1919 to Dorothea, 30 years his junior), essentially blind, and almost penniless, but not before he had published work (written up for him by Dorothea) on the atomic bomb. He was in fact being supported by the Trustees of the SMMT, the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders.

Lanchester as a brand name died in 1954, and Daimler was absorbed by Jaguar in 1960. Unlike many great engineers, Lanchester never found the gifted business partner and manager, like Royce did with Claude Johnson, or even William Morris did with Leonard Lord, for example. But his name lives on – the city of Coventry, Britain’s rival to match Detroit or Stuttgart, has not forgotten the man behind so much of the city’s twentieth century growth and prosperity.

In 1961, the city recognised the need for increased capacity and scope in technical and scientific training and education and founded a new institution, which was named the Lanchester College of Technology, on a city centre site directly adjacent to the historic and modern cathedrals. The college grew; it became Lanchester Polytechnic in 1970 (a polytechnic was an institution offering graduate, post-graduate and research education in parallel and to an equivalent level as a university but focussed on technical and vocational needs and funded differently) and in 1992 became Coventry University.

There are now 29,000 students, in campuses in Coventry, London, Yorkshire and Poland, and there is a network of international study as well. By most measures, it is not only one of the larger universities in the UK, but also comes close to the top of the league tables, and in the top three for mechanical engineering, ahead of many (very) old names. It also has one of the leading transport and automotive design schools in Europe. The graduates, including me, have gone far and wide into British industry and overseas, with over a thousand engineering alumni at Jaguar Land Rover alone.

Notable alumni include Gerry McGovern, director of design for Land Rover (also born in the city with an accent to match), Ian Callum, recently retired from Jaguar, Russell Carr of Lotus, Steve Mattin, previously at Volvo and now at AvtoVAZ, Anthony Williams-Kenny, at SAIC (the owner of MG), and Andy Palmer, recently CEO of Aston Martin Lagonda. The recently retired Chancellor, Sir John Egan, was the Chairman and CEO at Jaguar who took the company public in 1985 and sold it to Ford in 1990.

Many buildings at the university are named after motor industry figures, including the Morris Building so named as it was previously the Morris Motors, Engines Branch factory, but none is more notable than the building that is at the heart of any university, the library.

Coventry has the Lanchester Library, opened in 2000, and when it was built, the largest deep plan naturally ventilated building in Europe, and deliberately challenging conventions. Somehow, you just know Dr Fred would be happier sitting in there than in the boardroom at Jaguar Land Rover. After all, which would be the better place to finalise your patent for the accelerator pedal?