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John Henry Knight

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First published September 09 1996 in the Car 96 section of The Times. Now reproduced with the kind permission of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu, a founder member of The Brooklands Society.John Henry Knight

As the Continent raced ahead, Britain's fledgling car industry was held back by archaic laws. Lord Montagu of Beaulieu recalls some of the pioneers whose talents and vision started it moving.

First Knight: John Henry Knight a landowner and amateur inventor with his 1895 model - now in the National Motor Museum.
"The first petroleum carriage for two people made in England"
Knight's house at Runfold, just outside Farnham is now a Preparatory school known as Barfield.

Knight and his manager used to drive through the country lanes around Farnham until he was eventually stopped for allegedly speeding up Castle Hill. Legend has it that his was the fisrt English speeding ticket although his manager was driving at the time.

Men who sparked the ignition.
Though we are celebrating the centenary of the British motor industry and its oldest company Daimler, it would have been difficult for the most patriotic of automobilists to have purchased a British-built car during 1896.

Daimler was the first of several companies set up under the umbrella of the notorious company promoter Harry J Lawson's British Motor Syndicate, and spent much of 1896 gearing up for production in the Coventry "Motor Mills". Cars were certainly sold under the "Daimler" banner that year, but these were Continental imports: the first British-built Daimler didn't reach eager customers until early in 1897.

The far-sighted Frederick Simms had established his Daimler Motor Syndicate in 1893 to exploit the internal combustion engines built by Gottlieb Daimler in Germany for industrial use and as power units for launches. But when Lawson, who had made a considerable fortune floating heavily over-capitalised companies on a gullible public, acquired Simms' company at the end of 1895, he relaunched it as a company whose purpose was the manufacture of motor cars.

Lawson had perfected his financial chicanery in the cycle trade, which had enjoyed a huge boom in the 1890s, along with the pneumatic tyre industry, which grew to colossal proportions under Harvey du Cros and his Dunlop company. These two industries should have provided an ideal springboard for a British motor industry to match that on the Continent, but in Britain the development of horseless carriages had been inhibited by laws enacted many years earlier to control the road-destroying proclivities of Heavyweight traction engines.

The Highways and Locomotives Act compelled mechanical vehicles to be preceded by a man on foot and restricted them to a maximum 4mph.

Other provisions, which set down requirements for tyre width and demanded that vehicles be "attended by at least three persons", precluded the development of the kind of light motor carriage becoming popular in France and Germany.
Progress had to wait for the introduction of a Bill in the House of Lords by Lord Salisbury's Conservative government in the spring of 1896 to enable "light locomotives" to be driven on the roads of Britain without breaking this archaic law.

The new Bill had been a long time coming and didn't become law until November 14, 1896, but when it was laid before the Commons in June 1896, one speaker forecast "a vast industry in auto motor cars".

Apart from the activities of Daimler and its cohorts in the Motor Mills, there was little sign of this in 1896. But there were several pioneers working independently to solve the problem of building a viable motor car, most notably the Lanchester brothers of Birmingham. The genius of the family, Fred, had turned his attention to developing a car when told that his work on heavier-than-air flight would ruin his reputation as a "sane engineer".

Work started on the Lanchester car in 1894 and it was completed late in 1895, making its first road run early in the new year. It was a brilliantly original machine, arguably the first all-British four-wheel petrol car. However, the uncompromising Fred Lanchester did not attempt to market his invention, but continued to develop and refine his designs. Consequently, a company to produce and market Lanchester cars was not organised until the very end of 1899. By then, a standard layout for car design had been established and the unique features of the Lanchester vehicles appeared eccentric.

Yet his concept of producing cars from absolutely interchangeable parts proved a profound influence on other manufacturers - most notably Henry Ford, himself a Lanchester owner, and remains the fundamental element of mass-production methods.

A lone experimenter who produced a primitive car during the 1880s was Charles Santler of Malvern Link, Worcestershire, who claimed to have helped Karl Benz build his first car in Germany in 1885-86. After his return to England, Santler began developing a steam car, but fitted it with a petrol engine in the early 1890s.

Since he had no intentions of building cars for sale, to the public, Santler carried out many of his trials on the private estate roads of nearby Madresfield Court to escape attention.

Similarly, when young Frederick Bremer of Walthamstow completed his tiny motor car in 1894, he only ran it after dark to avoid any trouble with the law, even though his original aim bad been to eliminate the tiresome pedalling that took the enjoyment out of cycling as far as he was concerned.

Remarkably, both cars still survive, as does the Knight car of 1895, which has been on display at Beaulieu since the Fifties and was exhibited 100 years ago at the "Horse & Horseless Carriage Exhibition" at the Crystal Palace as "the first petroleum carriage for two people made in England".

While these cars were one-off experiments, others were thinking of series production. Also at Beaulieu is the 1896 Arnold, an anglicised version of the German Benz dogcart built by a firm of agricultural engineers from East Peckham, Kent, who as "Arnold's Motor Carriage Company" had exhibited two cars at the Crystal Palace show in May 1896. However, Arnolds built only a dozen horseless carriages in 1896-98.

Early on the scene, too, was the Anglo-French Motor Carriage Company of Birmingham, an offshoot of a perambulator factory run by Leon L'Hollier (who had been arrested on December 22, 1896 for driving an "autocar or horseless carriage" at between 5 and 6 mph without "a person on foot preceding the said locomotive") and his business partner Gascoine.

Their firm imported Roger-Benz cars from Paris and modified them for the British market: by May 1896 they claimed to be "the best and most successful horseless carriage builders in the United Kingdom", but had ceased production by the end of the following year.

Other early ventures also failed to achieve success: the Britannia Company of Colchester was a successful maker of lathes and engineering equipment and their 1896 catalogue listed a range of "Facile" motor carriages powered by their single-cylinder "heavy oil" engine, though it seems that only electric carriages and bathchairs were actually made. In 1892 J. D. Roots of London built a strange two-stroke tricycle which also ran on "heavy oil": this led to the production of motor cars from 1896 in partnership with Cuthbert Venables, but output remained small.

There seemed no sure recipe. Petters, the Yeovil stationary engine maker, built "an experimental petroleum autocar" in conjunction with a local coachbuilder, Hill & Boll, and boasted "a large number of inquiries". Alas, there were few actual sales, and only a dozen were built.

When a young engineer named Herbert Austin, home from Australia as manager of the British branch of the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Company, visited Paris around 1895, he was astounded by the progress made in France, unfettered by draconian legal constraints. In May 1896 he persuaded his employers to invest £2,000 in the manufacture of motor carriages to his design.

His first three-wheeler car had a curious engine in which two cylinders shared a single combustion chamber, driving a single rear wheel by belt, but this design was soon supplanted by a second three-wheeler with a single front wheel. This was offered for sale as "the Wolseley Autocar Number 1" in a catalogue issued early in 1897, but failed to find any purchasers.

Austin, realising that three-wheelers were a mistake, then built a prototype with four wheels in 1899, and backed by arms manufacturers Vickers, Sons & Maxim, helped to form the Wolseley Tool & Motor Car Company in 1901 before founding the Austin company in 1905.

Lawson's monopoly had proved a sham, and in the late 1890s an increasing number of companies began to explore the possibilities of motor manufacture. Prominent among these was Napier of Lambeth, well-known as makers of printing and coin-classifying machinery, who in 1899 made a new engine for a racing Panhard-Levassor owned by the former London manager of the Dunlop Tyre Company, S. F. Edge. Napier did the job so well that Edge went to his former employer, Harvey du Cros, and persuaded him to finance a sales organisation for Napier cars, which became one of Britain's leading makes in the Edwardian era.

"It is refreshing," remarked Britain's premier motoring Journal, The Autocar, "to be able to add yet another name to the list of English motor builders whose work, when carefully scrutinised, so clearly excels the product of the French usines.

There may have been an element of jingoism in that statement, but it was undeniably true that the new industry was already becoming an important factor in the economic life of the nation.

Last Updated on Saturday, 27 June 2009 07:22