The Wolseley Eight was a badge engineered, upscale version of the Morris Eight Series E, one of Britain’s most popular and numerous cars of the immediate pre-war and post-war periods. So why is this car so well preserved and kept where it is, in the garage of a substantial, but not truly large, and uninhabited house, in a small village with a golf course and not much else, in southern England?
The Morris Eight (not 8) was Morris’s main mid market product from 1935 to 1948, working through three generations. Over 330,000 were built, predominantly between 1935 and 1940 and then from 1945 to 1948. Initially, a complete car was available for £118…. Power came from a 918cc, OHV 4-cylinder engine, driving a three speed gearbox.
So, with the caveat that it is considered by some to be a rather blatant copy, by Leonard Lord before he fell out with William Morris and went to Austin, of the 1932 Ford Model Y, the Morris Eight was a perfectly conventional and technically unremarkable car of its time. It was sold in volume, on the basis of value for money and with at least market competitive, maybe a bit more, ability.
The car went through three generations, with the third version, known as the Series E, coming in 1938, and gaining a significantly more modern style, with a swept back grille, integrated head lamps and the deletion of the running boards. A four speed gearbox was added, along with a true boot, with an external lid. All together, it was pretty much state of the art for such a car in Europe, in 1938. It’s interesting to note, however, that this is the same era as the VW Beetle’s design, and the state of the art was arguably about to move on considerably.
The Wolseley Eight was always part of the Morris Eight Series E plan. Production was originally planned for 1940, but was delayed to 1946. Being a Wolseley rather a Morris was like being an Oldsmobile or Buick instead of a Chevrolet; a different front grille, in a traditional Wolseley style with the famous illuminated badge, a revised boot lid and more luxurious interior marked it out. Mechanically, it was close to the Morris.
But this was still a fairly ordinary and conventional car, albeit sold in much lower volumes than the Morris. A Curbside Classic certainly, may be not a Classic.
But this one is a little different. The car was delivered to its lady owner, a former department store seamstress and the wife of a former cycle shop owner, in May 1946, at her home 20 miles from the factory in Oxford in which it was built, in the village of Nuffield. The clue is in its location, for its owner was Elizabeth, Lady Nuffield, wife of Viscount Nuffield, formerly William Morris (1877-1963), of course, and by then one of Britain’s richest people and (more importantly) Britain’s greatest twentieth century philanthropist. He took his title from the village in which he lived, and where his home, Nuffield Place, is now open to the public, and where I am fortunate enough to one of the volunteer guides.
I won’t go into the full details of Morris’s philanthropy here (he’s not the only motor industry philanthropist, of course), but suffice to say his donations and bequests have possibly left a longer and greater impact on Britain than his car factories did.
He funded hospital building and expansion, education and medical research; he supported nurses and serving forces personnel in simple but extensive and direct ways; he endowed a new college of Oxford University in his own name; he funded the four chairs of medical research in Oxford in the 1930s, including the then emerging science anaesthetics, that are credited by Oxford University as being at the root of its current world class status and expertise in medical research, and the Nuffield Foundation is today one of the largest bodies in the UK devoted to research and grant donation in the fields of education and the alleviation of social disadvantage, two issues close to Nuffield’s heart for many years. And every one who has been through the British education system will recall encountering at least one Nuffield textbook or syllabus at some point.
Nuffield said “What I have been able to do for medicine and teaching in all walks of life has given me more satisfaction than anything else.” There were many, many other, often low profile, donations made too, in all totalling perhaps £1500 million in today’s values, and that is why this statue is at Guy’s Hosiptal in London, and not outside the Mini factory in Cowley (or BMW Plant Oxford as we’re supposed to call it), and why he was ennobled to be a Viscount, the highest rank a commoner can reach. In 1968, the Nuffield Trust still controlled over a quarter of the share capital in BMC, even after the mergers of the early 1960s, and held in them one of the keys to the formation of British Leyland.
Morris spent the last 30 years of his life focussing on his philanthropy ahead of his business; indeed, his business may have suffered from this and the effect of his periodic interventions, such as his stubborn struggle against the 1948 Morris Minor, ultimately consenting to the car but insisting that it used the old Morris Eight engine and famously describing it as a looking like a poached egg, and avoiding any contact or personal recognition of Alec Issigonis.
The Wolseley, which has recently been sympathetically restored, is now kept at Nuffield Place, Lord and Lady Nuffield’s home from 1933, where it is stored in the garage (yes, the richest man in Britian who made his fortune from the motor industry had a one car garage) it was stored in whilst being used by Lady Nuffield in to the 1950s. Such use included, according to Tony, one of my fellow guides, “reshaping it on the gateposts”. He’d know – Tony delivered bread to Nuffield Place with his father in the 1950s.
The house is not an archetypical English stately home – it is a four bedroom country house with a billiard room extension.
But it does have perhaps the best gentleman’s wardrobe (closet) you’ll ever see, and genuinely used by Lord Nuffield for mending his own shoes, among many other things. For the richest man in the country, maybe in Europe, in 1933, it was a very modest purchase.
And Lord Nuffield’s car? A 1939 pre-production Wolsely Eight, is now restored and on public view at the British Motor Industry Heritage Centre. Again, the same very modesty of choice.
But Morris had other uses for his wealth – as he said, shortly before his death “I just want to pass out feeling I’ve done my best for mankind”