Letchworth Motor Industries
A talk by Allan Lupton, June 2002

These are the notes (excluding pictures) that Alan Lupton used to base his talk on, which he has kindly allowed me to use on the website. I am adding some additional information and relevant links to this to the bottom of this page.

When Desmond Rix offered me the task of giving this talk to the 26 Club, things were made much more difficult because he didn’t specify a subject: consequently, because I am interested both in the history of Letchworth and the history of motoring, I have ended up talking about the Letchworth Motor Industry. It was also a talk that could be recycled, and is now being given for the third time. I have lived in Letchworth since 1950 and have owned three cars made in Letchworth and one that was designed here.

Letchworth, as we know, was founded in 1903 which was approximately 20 years after the motor industry and about 10 years after the British motor industry. The original intention for the new Garden City was that it should be self-sufficient in such matters as employment opportunities, and accordingly from the very beginning as much force as was put behind persuading people to relocate here was accorded to industry.

There were factories being built when hardly any houses were ready for occupation, and as early as 1905 the Heatly-Gresham Company, formerly of Bassingbourn was established in Works Road. This company had made a car called the Rational, but I believe that none were made after the move to Letchworth where they certainly built taxi and charabanc bodies. Both Mr. Heatly and Mr. Gresham were members of the North Hertfordshire Motor Club, taking part in Speed Trials in the area. 

When I tell you that trials were held at Poynder’s End, Offley, Gravel Hill, Pegsden and Sharpenhoe you might think this was the centre of Motor Sport before 1910, but remembering that these were held on the public high-way and were not strictly legal, you needed a lot of venues to choose from to keep ahead of the police.

Next in the chronological order in August 1909 came Lacre. More conventionally, this company relocated from London where it had been founded as the Long Acre, later L’Acre Co. Their factory was to survive more or less unchanged until the 1980s when it was occupied by the builders’ merchant Cobb and Ward. It was demolished to make way for the Woodside Industrial Estate.

Lacre offered 18 new models of commercial vehicle in 1910 ranging from 10 cwt. to 5 tons payload, making most of the component parts themselves. Four different engines were used, designed to use as many common parts as possible, which was a common practice then as now. 

Lacre continued in Letchworth until 1926 by which time they had another works in St Albans to which they then transferred the whole operation. Post-war they were renowned for their range of municipal vehicles, notably a road-sweeper which started as a converted small lorry, but soon rationalised into a three-wheeler with a single-seater cab. This was the subject of a famous cartoon by Fitzwater-Wray "Sir Gadabout and the Lacre Monster".

I must diverge from the chronological order for the next company: in 1922 Harry Shelvoke, the Manager of Lacre, and James S. Drewry, the Chief Engineer who had designed the three-wheeled roadsweeper, left to set up on their own. They designed a very basic ‘SD Freighter’ which had extremely small wheels and a transverse engine in the back of the driver’s cab to reduce the loading height, and a tram-like driving system even reverting to tiller steering which had otherwise gone out of fashion in the late 19th century. 

Remember that this was before the advent of driving tests, so any system that made driving easy to learn was worth a try.

SD Freighters got around a bit, and were found in many forms, one of which was the dust-cart. This was to become a staple product of the Icknield Way factory to its end, and is one of my list of Letchworth products which are still good business, but not made here any more. Others are fire appliances (fire engines), also a SD line later in their existence and large fork-lift vehicles.

Back to chronological order, and in 1911 the Phœnix Motor Works opened for business in Pixmore Avenue. The Phœnix Company also moved from London where they had built up a business from bicycle making via motor-cycles and three-wheeled forecars to proper light cars using bought-out engines. Joseph van Hooydonck and A.F. Ilsley were the joint Managing Directors and at the Stanley cycle show they recruited A.E. Bowyer-Lowe (then working for J.A. Prestwich (JAP)) to design them a car which they could make in their new Abbiss Collins built factory. I had one of these, and eventually sold it on to Jim Bowyer-Lowe, grandson of A.E., who has it still.

They continued making the earlier cars in Letchworth, but in 1912 the 11.9 h.p. was their sole product, and continued to be made into the early 1920s. Bowyer-Lowe was not impressed with this idea and designed an up to date replacement, but as the company would not adopt it, he left. He worked on various cars as a consultant, and set up the Bowyer-Lowe Radio Company which was initially sited in “the Sheds” in Nevells Road, but later in a proper works in Spring Road between the railway and Icknield Way.

Phœnix made their own engine, and when William Morris was looking for a new engine supplier after the war as the French-made Hotchkiss engines were no longer available, he negotiated with Phœnix. I do not know why the negotiations were not successful, but guess that Phœnix could not meet either the volume or price that Morris required. Had they been successful, there is little doubt that the company would have survived a lot longer than it did: it staggered on to 1928 with a series of unsatisfactory cars including a six-cylinder that may have been recycled as a Lea-Francis for one motor show at least.

In 1913-15 there was a cyclecar called either Warne or Pearsall-Warne and it was made in a factory in Icknield Way next to the Spirella works. I think it became part of the Shirtliff works later known as the Bijoli works and recently demolished to make way for the Spirella II building. This photo of a corner of the Warne works appeared in The Cyclecar on 27th August 1913 when capacity was said to be six cars a week.

The war stopped new members of the Letchworth motor industry being founded, and seems to have stopped Warne in its tracks. After the war, as I have said, Phœnix continued to produce the 1912 11.9 h.p. whilst, in a works more or less directly opposite the Phœnix factory, the Foster Instrument Co. offered the Autogear in 1922.

As a digression, during the early period of motoring it was generally agreed that gear changing was so difficult that it should be avoided. Ways of avoiding it ranged from the Rolls-Royce approach, which was to have an engine so large and powerful that you could go everywhere (e.g. Edinburgh to London) in top gear, to variable friction drives that at least have no gear teeth to gnash. The next step from this latter was the Autogear which had a friction drive controlled automatically (by a centrifugal governor) at least for the upward changes. 

What seems typical is that the Autogear had a rather small engine which would have made pretty heavy weather even of a 6½ cwt car. The prototype was built and had its photo taken, but the production model which was said to have had chain drive rather than belt, and a Coventry Victor engine in place of the Bovier seems not to have had its photo printed in anything I can find. Foster, together with A.E. Bowyer-Lowe, who had a hand in its design, gained a bronze medal in the 1922 London-Edinburgh run in one of these. Perhaps the world was not ready for the CVT automatic transmission in 1922.

By 1926 the Phœnix works was host to a very interesting car, called the Arab for reasons never quite explained. Two of the engineers concerned were Reid Railton and Parry Thomas: Thomas had designed a magnificent eight cylinder eight litre luxury car for Leyland Motors and, being a sporting man, had ensured that its engine had a good racing potential. Thomas had used similar engine techniques in a couple of 1½ litre Thomas Specials and the Arab’s four cylinder two litre engine continued the line. Railton had workshops at Brooklands and would later make his name with a couple of Napier engined specials for John Cobb, the second of which was holder of the World Land Speed Record in 1938 and 1947.

The Arab was therefore a sporting car, and E.M. Dixon ascended Shelseley Walsh in a very standard-looking tourer during the amateur meeting on 2nd July 1927 beaten only by an eight-cylinder Bugatti. A supercharged version was made for Henry Spurrier jr., son of the Leyland MD which implies a Leyland Connection. Parry Thomas’ death on Pendine Sands during a record attempt in March 1927 brought the Arab project to its pre-mature end. A total of 12 cars were made including some put together from parts by Thompson and Taylor at Brooklands after the company’s demise.

I cannot be sure how Arab and Phœnix occupied the same premises, but the decline in fortune of the latter was well under way at the time and complete in 1928. The Works then became the home of Ascot (no not the geyser company - but we did have Ewarts along the Works Road which was one!) which was the Ascot-Pullin motor-cycle undertaking about to launch into car production.

The first Ascots were made to a design by the Hungarian Fejes whose aim was to make everything possible out of shaped and welded sheet steel, even where everyone else used castings successfully. As one might suppose the technical innovation was not matched by commercial success and by 1930 a conventional 18 h.p. (RAC) saloon was offered. 1930 was not a good time for many manufacturers, and Ascot did not see the year out.

The historical footnote is that after the demise of Ascot the Phœnix works became the Government Training Centre and, rather unjustly in my view, was still colloquially referred to as “The Ascot” in the 1950s.

The other happening in 1928 was the advent of Chater Lea in a factory at the extreme East end of Icknield Way. They had made motorcycles and a few cars in London before the Great War, but their real success in their Letchworth period was motorcycle components and only relatively few complete motorcycles were made here.

By the outbreak of the Second War only SD was making vehicles in Letchworth: war work resulted in a very different vehicle, namely a midget submarine. The post war period saw SD back to their dust-carts and other municipal vehicles and eventually fire appliances. Financial trouble reappeared after earlier troubles had resulted in a take-over and Shelvoke Dempster as it was latterly known closed in 1981.

In 1961 an industrial design organisation called David Ogle, seeking to get its name known, designed and produced eight sporting-looking GT cars based on the contemporary Riley 1.5 floor pan and mechanical com-ponents. The fibreglass body looked quite smart and the car got good revues in the motoring press, but it cost more to make than it sold for, so car number nine was not completed. (I bought the parts and didn’t complete it either). The next Ogle was based on the Mini: in 1962 BMC would not sell the necessary parts so complete second-hand Minis were cut up to make the early cars (I had one of those too, number 11 of about 70 built). Later cars which were made from new parts supplied by BMC, and fitted with engines to the Cooper specifi-cation were called the SX1000.

Ogle was never really set up as a manufacturer, and one-offs like a car for  Triplex Glass with everything above the waistline made of glass and the Popemobile were more their thing. A couple of fibreglass coupes were made for the Daimler SP250 chassis: compared to that Daimler’s own body they looked wonderful (what wouldn’t?) but were poorly thought out in that the attachments to the chassis were provided as an afterthought. The basic body with a modified front treatment was also fitted to a Reliant Sabre 6 chassis and went into production as the Scimitar. Ogle then redesigned the rear to make the Scimitar GTE, probably the first hatchback design. Only prototypes were made in Letchworth, the production being at Reliant’s Tamworth factory (I had one - not as good as I’d hoped).

Another well-known Ogle design was the Bond Bug, a wedge-shaped three-wheeler with entry by hinging the top of the body upwards, rather than doors. With the single wheel at the front, swerve stability was not good. Reliant had taken over Bond by the time the Bug was produced.

I have concentrated on the companies that made whole vehicles, but of course the component manufacturer was quite important. In 1956 the Borg-Warner Company had a large factory built on the nice new Jubilee Road. They had been making automotive gearboxes for a long time, but it was their automatic transmission that they foresaw as the great way forward, and for which the Letchworth factory was needed. Business must have been pretty good, as another factory was soon needed, this time in Wales. Conspiracy theorists worried that the Letchworth factory was to be closed, and sure enough, when the perceived inefficiency of the automatic transmission at a time of increasing petrol price caused Borg Warner to reduce their production, Letchworth lost its factory.

More basic to vehicles were the products of the Morse Chain Co. and the British Bundy Tubing Co. Whilst the chain transmissions of the early cars and lorries hardly survived past the Great War, many engines used chains internally to drive their camshafts and other accessories. One assumes that Morse has not benefited from the change to the toothed belt drive that is now the norm. A staple product of Bundy was brake pipes for hydraulic braking systems.

In summary, Letchworth missed the automotive boat as most of the ten vehicle manufacturing companies were never going to have a world-class product; only Arab and SD could claim that. If you drive a Letchworth-made car in Letchworth nobody realises that’s what it is. If you park it outside its factory of manufacture you have to explain to the security guard what you are doing.

So far as I know, only the Phœnix and Chater Lea works remain in recognisable form. I am not sure about the Foster works in Pixmore Avenue (it should be the SAM Centre if my informant is right) or the Heatly Gresham in Works Road (was between the power station and Ewarts (now the site of Cook UK)). The Phœnix site is due for redevelopment, but a planning condition will be to retain the office building - I would like some of its alterations to be removed before it is preserved, but there is not much hope.

Allan Lupton, June 2002

The Unofficial  Shelvoke & Drewry Site Pictures, History and Links .http://bcarpent.webspace.fish.co.uk/
Ogle Web Site