Phoenix Motors Ltd.,
London and Letchworth
by Allan Lupton

Originally published Journal 50    June 1992


Years ago I was told that the Phoenix motor car, built in letchworth, had vanished after the factory burned down, therefore not living up to its name. Who told me, and why he thought it was true, I can't begin to remember. The only true bit is that the Phoenix was built in Letchworth.

My interest in Phoenix really got under way in June 1991 when I bought a ( probably ) 1914 11.9 h.p. Phoenix light car. I had never seen one before, and as I write have yet to see another, although I know of three others, one each in England, Australia and New Zealand.

The Phoenix firm was started as the Phoenix Motor Cycle Works in Holloway Road, London by Mr. J. Van Hooydonk, originally from Brussels. The reason for the name is unknown, but there are a number of stories , one of which is that Van Hooydonk had been involved as a child in a fire which left him badly disfigured - photographs do not show any sign of that, however. 

The early part of the first decade of the century was devoted to motor cycles and forecarriages known as "Trimos". By 1904 the company was called Phoenix Motors Ltd. with A.F. Ilsley as joint managing director with Van Hooydonk at an address off the Caledonian Road.

An experimental four wheeler based on a Trimo was built in 1905 and exhibited at the Stanley Cycle Show which seems to have resulted in a meeting with A.E. Bowyer-Lowe ( then working at J.A. Prestwich & Co. ) who joined the company for 1906.

A proper light car resulted, but with its two cylinder engine set across the frame at the front and drive to the gearbox and thence to the rear axle by chain. Engines were bought in from Fafnir, (and then the Belgian connection appears again) Minerva and Imperia in turn and by 1912, when the move to Letchworth had taken place, Metallurgique engines were used. 

An attempt to make a shaft-drive version failed due to the twin-cylinder's vibration, but Ilsley commissioned an all-new design from Bowyer-Lowe (whilst Van Hooydonk was in hospital) which was the 11.9 h.p. ready to be shown at the Olympia Motor Show of 1912.

This car was rather more conventional than the twins, although a front radiator had now become a scuttle-mounted device after the style which only Renault persevered with after about 1914.

The engine is a monobloc fixed-head sidevalve four cylinder which is usually recorded as having the classic 69mm. x 100mm. dimensions typical of a 1500 c.c. engine until the 1950's:  mine turns out to be 69.5 mm. bore and I have found a reference which does quote that.

The metal to metal cone clutch runs in oil and is wonderfully forgiving as I found out when I had to lead a parade of cars at walking pace behind a marching band at the Letchworth Street Races! 

The gearbox looks conventional except for its enormous size, but internally turns out to be the reverse of normal, with the constant-mesh pair at the rear. Bowyer-Lowe later claimed that he was not allowed to use alloy steels because of the expense and had to increase the gear and shaft sizes to compensate: it seems unlikely that the result saved anyone anything as the whole thing is about twice the size of a normal contemporary gearbox to handle 20 b.h.p. (which is all there was). The rear axle is an overhead worm-drive which Bowyer-Lowe favoured (with support from F.H. Lanchester) despite Van Hooydonk's opposition.

Brakes are on the transmission (foot) and rear axle (hand) all being the external contract-ing type. There is a compensator at the base of the handbrake lever which splits the force equally side to side - a very early use of this feature which was still completely missing from some cars in 1930 and from some handbrake mechanisms in the 1960's' 

Wooden wheels carry the car on 760x 90 tyres and most were fitted with a so-called three-seater body (which it is if the three persons are slim, for it is little more than a large sofa!) The New Zealand car is described as a "six-seater" which presumably means two of the three-seater sofas are fitted.

Originally the 11.9 hp. had oil and gas lighting. At some stage electric lighting and starting became (separate) options and I presume my example dates from then as it has provision for the electrical equipment. 

It is not clear how many were made, but a production rate of seven a week is spoken of  which could mean nearly a thousand were built pre-war, as production
continued through 1913, 1914 and part of 1915 until munitions work was obligatory.

After the Great War, the 11.9 h.p. continued in production, but was increasingly left behind by the design of its contemporaries. The directors elected to pursue the large car market, but Bowyer-Lowe, who had designed a new 8 h.p., did not agree and resigned. After an abortive period designing the Foster cyclecar, he founded the Bowyer-Lowe Radio Company in 1922 (the buildings for which have recently given way to the Chagny Close development) but that is another story.

A.E. Bowyer-Lowe seems to have been a remarkable man, and it is a great pity that his motor car work did not continue. As I understand it there were negotiations by William Morris for Phoenix to supply engines when their supply was disrupted during the Great War: had that come to anything, association with one of the great mass-producers of the time might well have lead to very interesting cars. Some of the design aspects of the Phoenix 11.9 h.p. are well in advance of its time, although some (like that rear radiator) are not.

After Bowyer-Lowe's departure, Phoenix brought in a designer from Arrol Johnston who brought with him ideas similar to those which more or less finished that company. The resulting 17.9 h.p. was not a success, and the 11.9 hp. was reinstated but with the radiator moved to the front: not a lot else changed. A version with a Meadows engine seems to have been little better, but the same manufacturer's six cylinder engine in the 17.9 h.p. may have improved it. By 1928 the last Phoenix was made, and the works were probably taken over by the Ascot Motor and Manufacturing Company. The Ascot 10 h.p. owed nothing to Phoenix, but the Gold Cup model was said to have been based on the Meadows-engined 17.9 h.p.


11.9 h.p. Phoenix Light Car

The factory, a fine example of early Garden City industrial architecture (who was the architect?), in Pixmore Avenue and unusually for the time was arranged to allow more or less the whole car to be built in house. Only castings, forgings, magnetos, carburettors and lighting sets seem to have been bought out: again the Belgian connection seems to have been relevant, as some of the castings came from there, though others came from Heatley-Gresham (described as "of Bassingbourn", but was that not another letchworth company?) Behind the two-story front of the works was a conventional set of workshops including machine and fitting shops, smithy, body building department, paintshop and engine testing shop. The machinery was driven by two 35 h.p. Tangye gas engines running on producer gas - does this predate Letchworth Gas Works therefore?

After the demise of Ascot the factory became the Government Training Centre, later to be trendily renamed the Skill Centre, and it is now empty and for sale.

I took my Phoenix to its Maker's premises to take some photographs, the factory facade has been simplified, the upstairs windows have been increased in height and a couple of chimneys amputated, but it is still clearly the same place as in the 1911 photograph one always sees. I couldn't imitate that photo, as the fence has become a wall and the trees which had just been planted in 1911 are now so large they obscure the rest of the view of the factory that the wall doesn't!

Envoi: After all this, it seemed appropriate to read that when Letchworth celebrated the inauguration of the War Memorial in 1919, the fireworks were provided by Van Hooydonk!