Wolseley Motors Limited owned a British motor vehicle manufacturer founded in early 1901 by the Vickers armaments combine in conjunction with Herbert Austin. It initially made a full range topped by large luxury cars and dominated the market in the Edwardian era. The Vickers brothers died and without their guidance Wolseley expanded rapidly after the war, manufacturing 12,000 cars in 1921, and remained the biggest motor manufacturer in Britain.
Over-expansion led to receivership in 1927 when it was bought from Vickers Limited by William Morris as a personal investment and years later moved into his Morris Motors empire just before the Second World War. After that its products were “badge-engineered” Morris cars. Wolseley went with its sister businesses into BMC, BMH and British Leyland, where its name lapsed in 1975.
Hiram Maxim, inventor of the machine gun that bears his name and by then a member of the combine Vickers Sons & Maxim, had consulted Herbert Austin at Wolseley in the late 1890s a number of times in relation to the design of flying machines, which he was developing and constructing. Maxim made use of a number of suggestions made by Austin in Maxim’s activities at his works in Crayford, Kent. Once the sheep-shearing company had decided they would not pursue their automobile interest an approach was made and agreement quickly reached.
The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company of Adderley ParkBirmingham was incorporated in March 1901 with a capital of £40,000 by Vickers, Sons and Maxim to manufacture motor cars and machine tools. The managing director was Herbert Austin. The cars and the Wolseley name came from Austin’s exploratory venture for The Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company Limited, run since the early 1890s by the now 33-year-old Austin. Wolseley’s board had decided not to enter the business and Maxim and the Vickers brothers picked it up. After his five-year contract with The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company ended Austin founded The Austin Motor Company Limited.
Austin’s Wolseley cars
10hp 2-cylinder tonneau 1903
20hp shooting brake 1903
Austin had been searching for other products for WSSMC because sale of sheep-shearing machinery was a highly seasonal trade. About 1895–96 he became interested in engines and automobiles. During the winter of 1895–96, working in his own time at nights and weekends, he made his own version of a design by Léon Bollée that he had seen in Paris. Later he found that another British group had bought the rights and he had to come up with a design of his own, having persuaded the directors of WSSMC to invest in the necessary machinery.
In 1897 Austin’s second Wolseley car,
the Wolseley Autocar No. 1 was revealed. It was a three-wheeled design (one front, two rear) featuring independent rear suspension, mid-engine and back to back seating for two adults. It was not successful and although advertised for sale, none were sold.
The third Wolseley car, the four-wheeled Wolseley “Voiturette” followed in 1899. A further four-wheeled car was made in 1900.
The 1901 Wolseley Gasoline Carriage featured a steering wheel instead of a tiller. The first Wolseley cars sold to the public were based on the “Voiturette”, but production did not get underway until 1901, by which time the board of WSSMC had lost interest in the nascent motor industry.
Thomas and Albert Vickers, directors of Vickers and Maxim Britain’s largest armaments manufacturer had much earlier decided to enter the industry at the right moment and impressed by Austin’s achievements at WSSMC they took on his enterprise. When Austin’s five-year contract officially ended in 1906 they had made more than 1,500 cars, Wolseley was the largest British motor manufacturer and Austin’s reputation was made.
The company had been formed in March 1901. By 1 May 1901 Austin had issued his first catalogue. There were to be two models, 5 hp and 10 hp. They were both available with either a Tonneau or a Phaeton body with either pneumatic or solid tyres. For an additional outlay of thirty shillings (£1.50) the 10 hp model would be fitted with a sprag to prevent it running backwards. “We recommend pneumatic tyres for all cars required to run over twenty miles an hour. Austin then provided a paragraph as to why his horizontal engines were better lubricated (than vertical engines) and that 750 rpm, the speed of his Wolseley engines, avoided the short life of competing engines that ran between 1,000 and 2,000 rpm.”
The association with Vickers not only helped in general design but in the speed of production and provision of special steels
The Wolseley range from 1901 to 1905.
8hp 2-cylinder tonneau 1904
Engines were horizontal which kept the centre of gravity low. Cylinders were cast individually and arranged either singly, in a pair or in two pairs which were horizontally opposed. The crankshaft lay across the car allowing a simple belt or chain-drive to the rear axle:
1904 Wolseley 2 cyl 20hp shooting brake London to Brighton
20 hp, 24 hp from 1904
in 1904 Queen Alexandra bought a 5.2-litre 24 hp landaulette with coil ignition, a four-speed gearbox and chain drive.
Name plate: Vickers, Sons & Maxim
2.6 litre 14 hp rotund phaeton (tourer) 1908
Austin’s resolute refusal to countenance new vertical engines for his Wolseleys, whatever his directors might wish, led to Austin handing in his resignation the year before his contract ended. Curiously in his new Austin enterprise all the engines proved vertical but there he had to suffer a new financial master. Vickers replaced Austin by promoting Wolseley’s London sales manager, John Davenport Siddeley to general manager. As Austin was aware Vickers had earlier built, in association with Siddeley, Siddeley’s vertical-engined cars at their Crayford Kent factory. The new Siddeley cars began to overtake Wolseley’s sales of “old-fashioned” horizontal-engined cars. In early 1905 they hired Siddeley for their London sales manager and purchased the goodwill and patent rights of his Siddeley car.
8.6-litre 40–50 hp limousine
for the Earl of Leicester 1909
Siddeley, on his appointment to Austin’s former position, promptly replaced Austin’s horizontal engines with the now conventional upright engines. With him he brought his associate Lionel de Rothschild as a member of the Wolseley board. Together they gave the business a new lease of life. At the November 1905 Olympia Motor Show, the first at the former National Agricultural Hall, two small 6 hp and 8 hp cars were still exhibited with horizontal engines but there were also Siddeley’s new 15, 18 and 32 hp cars with vertical engines. This switch to vertical engines brought Wolseley a great deal of publicity and their products soon lost their old-fashioned image.
However a tendency then arose for journalists to follow the company’s full-page display advertising and drop the first word in Wolseley Siddeley — “Siddeley Autocars made by (in smaller typeface) the Wolseley Tool . . .” Certainly it was true the new engines were named Siddeley engines. Meanwhile, under Siddeley Wolseley maintained the sales lead left to him by Austin but, now run from London not (Austin’s base) Birmingham, the whole business failed to cover overheads. A board member, Walter Chetwynd, was set to find a solution. It was decided the business operated from too many different locations. First the board closed the Crayford Kent works, moving the whole operation back to Birmingham and dropping production of commercial vehicles and taxicabs – a large number of which, 500+, were made during Siddeley’s time including an early 10 hp taxicab made in 1908 sold to a Mr W R Morris of Holywell St. Oxford who ran a garage there and hire car business as well as making bicycles. Then the London head office followed. After some heated discussions Siddeley resigned in the spring of 1909 and Rothschild went too. Ernest Hopwood was appointed managing director in August 1909. Siddeley was to go on to manage the Deasy Motor Company and a notable commercial career.
Wolsit racer 1907
Wolseley Italy or Wolsit
Wolsit Officine Legnanesi Autmobili was incorporated in 1907 by Macchi Brothers and the Bank of Legnano to build Wolseley cars under licence in Legnano, about 18 kilometres north-west of central Milan. A similar enterprise, Fial, had started there a year earlier but failed in 1908. Wolsit automobile production ended in 1909, the business continued but made luxury bicycles. Emilio Bozzi made the Ciclomotore Wolsit from 1910 to 1914. A team of Wolsit cars competed in motoring events in 1907.
The Wolseley range in 1909:
After 1911 the name on the cars was again just Wolseley.
Chetwynd’s recommendations soon lead to a revival in profits and a rapid expansion of Wolseley’s business. The Adderley Park factory was greatly extended in 1912. These extensions were opened in 1914 but there was not sufficient space for the new Stellite model which was instead produced and marketed by another Vickers subsidiary, Electric and Ordnance Accessories Company Limited.
Machine tools, buses, rail engines etc
Wolseley was not then as specialised in its operations as members of the motor industry were to become. For other members of the Vickers group they were general engineers and they also handled engineering enquiries directed on to them by other group members. Wolseley built double-decker buses for the Birmingham Corporation. They also built many specials such as electric lighting sets and motor boat engines – catalogued sizes were from 12 hp to 250 hp with up to twelve cylinders and complete with gearboxes. Fire engines too and special War Office vehicles being a subsidiary of a major armaments firm. As befits a company with tool in its name they built machine tools including turret lathes and horizontal borers though chiefly for their own use or for group members. Very large engines were made to power railcars, those made for the Delaware and Hudson railroad powered a petrol-electric system.
While at first Wolseley supplied engines for launches, made for them by Teddington Launch Works, they moved on to small river craft and light coasting boats. The demand for engines for larger vessels grew. It was not uncommon for orders to be booked for 70-foot (21 m) yachts, racing launches and ferry boats to carry fifty or more passengers. These were manufactured by S E Saunders Limited at Cowes, Isle of Wight. Special engines were made for lifeboats. In 1906 horizontal engines of sixteen cylinders were designed and constructed for British submarines. They were designed to run at a low speed. High efficiency V8 engines were made for hydroplanes as well as straight eights to run on petrol or paraffin. Weight was very important and these engines were of advanced design. The airship Mayfly was fitted with Wolseley engines.
A Ferdinand de Baeder (1865–1944), Belgian holder of Aviator’s certificate No. 107, won Prix des Pilots, Prix des Arts et Metiers, Coupe Archdeacon, Prix Capitaine Berger at Châlons-en-Champagne in his Wolseley-engined Voisin biplane on 30 December 1909. By the summer of 1910 Wolseley were able to supply the following specially designed water-cooled aero-engines:
60 hp V8 aero-engine 1910
30 hp 4-cylinder, bore and stroke: 3¾ x 5½ inches, displacement 5.85 litres
60 hp V8-cylinder, bore and stroke: 3¾ x 5½ inches, displacement 11.7 litres.
They were soon followed by a 120 hp version
16-20 hp 1912
24-30 Colonial model 1912
Antarctic November 1911
1905 360 hp 12-cylinder marine engine
Caterpillar tracked tractors were designed and supplied to Robert Falcon Scott for his ill-fated second expedition to the Antarctic. Orders were also received for use by the Deutsche Antarktische Expedition.
In 1914 Russian lawyer Count Peter Schilowsky was supplied with a two-wheeled gyroscopically balanced car for use on narrow tracks in wartime.
From 1912 lorries and other commercial vehicles were supplied. Until the outbreak of war in 1914 Wolseley offered six types of commercial vehicle from 12 cwt delivery van to a five-ton lorry with a 40 hp engine.
Wolseley Motors Limited 1914
By 1913 Wolseley was Britain’s largest car manufacturer selling 3,000 cars. The company was renamed Wolseley Motors Limited in 1914.
It also began operations in Montreal and Toronto as Wolseley Motors Limited. This became British and American Motors after the First World War. In January 1914 the chairman, Sir Vincent Caillard, told shareholders they owned probably the largest motor-car producing company in the country and that its factory floor space now exceeded 17 acres.
Entering wartime as Britain’s largest car manufacturer Wolseley initially contracted to provide cars for staff officers and ambulances. Government soon indicated their plant might be better used for supplies more urgently needed. Postwar the chairman, Sir Vincent Caillard, was able to report Wolseley had provided, quantities are approximate:
3,600 motorcars and lorries including the equivalent in spare parts
4,900 aeronautical engines including the equivalent in spare parts
600 sets aeroplane spare wings and tailplanes
6,000 airscrews of various types
Director firing gear for 27 battleships, 56 cruisers and 160 flotilla leaders and destroyers
“Maybach” six-cylinder water-cooled 180 hp developed from a MaybachZeppelin engine
The Dragonfly nine-cylinder air-cooled radial
Boucier fourteen-cylinder air-cooled radial
Hispano designed V8 known as the Viper. By 1918 sixty of these engine were being produced each week
Airship engines for the British Admiralty
The Scottish Horse Mounted Brigade‘s Field Ambulance developed an operating car, designed by Colonel H. Wade in 1914, which enclosed an operating table, sterilisers, full kit of instruments and surgical equipment, wire netting, rope, axes and electric lighting in a Wolseley car chassis. This operating car was employed during the Gallipoli Campaign at Suvla, in the Libyan Desert (during the Senussi Campaign) and at Kantara in Egypt, before being attached to the Desert Mounted Corps Operating Unit in 1917. Subsequently, taking part in the Southern Palestine Offensive, which culminated in the Capture of Jerusalem.
16–45 2-litre six-cylinder 6-light saloon admired by W R Morris
Thomas Vickers died in 1915, and Albert Vickers in 1919, both having reached their eighties. During the war, Wolseley’s manufacturing capacity had rapidly developed and expanded. Immediately postwar, the Vickers directors decided to manufacture cars in large quantities at relatively cheap prices. Demand was good. They would borrow money, purchase the whole Ward End site and further expand Wolseley’s works. Vickers also decided to consolidate their motor car interests in one company. Wolseley accordingly purchased from within the Vickers group: Electric and Ordnance Accessories Company Limited, the Motor-Car (Stellite Car) Ordnance Department and the Timken Bearing Department and announced Wolseley’s future car programme would be:
1. 10 hp four-cylinder two or three-seater touring car based on the Wolseley designed Stellite car
2. 15 hp four-cylinder four-seater touring car
3. 20 hp six-cylinder chassis to be fitted with a variety of the best types of carriage work
Examples of all these models were exhibited at the Olympia Show in November 1919. The design of the 10 hp and 15 hp engines closely followed their wartime Hispano aero engine using an overhead camshaft. The public considered the 15 hp was too innovative and a new “14 hp” car using the same engine was hastily created to fill the gap.
Debenture stock certificate issued 6 May 1922 Wolseley Motors Ltd
Wolseley duly took over the Ward End, Birmingham munitions factory from Vickers in 1919 and purchased a site for a new showroom and offices in London’s Piccadilly by the Ritz Hotel. Over £250,000 was spent on the magnificent new building, Wolseley House. This was more than double their profits for 1919, when rewarding government contracts were still running. Those contracts ended. The government then brought in a special tax on “excess wartime profits”. There was a moulders’ strike from December 1919 to April 1920, but in spite of that it was decided to continue the manufacture of other parts. Then a short, sharp general trade slump peaked in July 1920 and almost every order Wolseley had on its books was cancelled. In 1920 Wolseley had reported a loss of £83,000. The following years showed even greater losses. Next, in October 1922, W R Morris startled the whole motor industry by a substantial reduction in the price of his cars. In 1924, Wolseley’s annual loss would reach £364,000.
Ernest Hopwood had been appointed Managing Director in August 1909 following Siddeley’s departure. He had resigned late in 1919 due to ill-health. A J McCormack who had been joint MD with Hopwood since 1911 resigned in November 1923 and was replaced by a committee of management. Then, at the end of October 1926, it was disclosed the company was bankrupt “to the tune of £2 million” and Sir Gilbert Garnsey and T W Horton had been appointed joint receivers and managers. It was described as “one of the most spectacular failures in the early history of the motor industry”.
initially a 6-cylinder development of Wolseley’s design for the Morris Minor
Wasp 1069 cc 1935
21–60 2.7-litre landaulette 1933
When Wolseley was auctioned by the receivers in February 1927 it was purchased by William Morris, later Viscount Nuffield for £730,000 using his own money. Possibly Morris acted to stop General Motors who subsequently bought Vauxhall.
Other bidders beside General Motors included the Austin Motor Company. Herbert Austin, Wolseley’s founder, was said to have been very distressed that he was unable to buy it. Morris had bought an early taxicab; another Wolseley link with Morris was that his Morris Garages were Wolseley agents in Oxford.
Morris had unsuccessfully tried to produce a 6-cylinder car. He still wanted his range to include a light six-cylinder car. Wolseley’s 2-litre six-cylinder 16–45, their latest development of their postwar Fifteen, “made a deep impression on him”.
Morris incorporated a new company, Wolseley Motors (1927) Limited, he was later permitted to remove the (1927), and consolidated its production at the sprawling Ward End Works in Birmingham. He sold off large unwanted portions of Wolseley’s Adderley Park plant with all his own Soho, Birmingham works and moved Morris Commercial Cars from Soho to the remainder of Adderley Park.
In 1919 Vickers had decided Wolseley should build relatively cheap cars in large quantity – as it turned out – not the right policy. Morris changed this policy before the Wolseley brand might have lost all its luxury reputation. After lengthy deliberation and re-tooling of the works he kept the 2-litre six-cylinder 16–45 Silent Six and introduced a four-cylinder version calling it 12–32. Then an eight-cylinder car was brought to market named 21–60. In September 1928 a six-cylinder 21–60 was announced primarily aimed at the export market and named Wolseley Messenger there. It remained in production until 1935. The Messenger was noted for its robust construction. A very deep section frame reached the full width of the body – incidentally providing the sill between running boards and body. The body itself was all-steel and its prototype was first in UK to have its whole side pressed in one.
Wolseley’s postwar engines were all of the single overhead-camshaft type, the camshaft driven by a vertical shaft from the crankshaft. The eight-cylinder 21–60 held the vertical shaft in the centre of the engine, and both crankshaft and camshaft were divided at their midpoints. Their smallest engine of 847cc was designed and made for Morris’s new Minor at Ward End with the camshaft drive’s shaft the spindle of the dynamo driven by spiral bevel gears. But it was relatively expensive to build and inclined to oil leaks, so its design was modified to a conventional side-valve layout by Morris Engines, which was put into production just for Morris cars in 1932. Meanwhile, Wolseley expanded their original design from four to six cylinders. That six-cylinder single OHC engine announced in September 1930 powered the Wolseley Hornet and several famous MG models. This tiny 6-cylinder SOHC engine eventually was made in three different sizes and its camshaft drive continued to evolve from the dynamo’s spindle to, in the end, an automatically tensioned single roller chain.
After the war Wolseley left Adderley Park, Morris and Wolseley production was consolidated at Cowley. The first post-war Wolseleys, the similar 4/50 and 6/80 models used overhead camshaft Wolseley engines, were otherwise based on the Morris Oxford MO and Morris Six MS but given the traditional Wolseley radiator grille. The Wolseley 6/80 was the flagship of the company and incorporated the best styling and features. The Wolseley engine of the 6/80 was also superior to the Morris delivering a higher BHP. The car was well balanced and demonstrated excellent road holding for its time. The British police used these as their squad cars well into the late sixties.
After the merger of BMC and Leyland to form British Leyland in 1969 the Riley marque, long overlapping with Wolseley, was retired. Wolseley continued in diminished form with the Wolseley Six of 1972, a variant of the Austin 2200, a six-cylinder version of the Austin 1800. It was finally killed off just three years later in favour of the Wolseley variant of the wedge-shaped 18–22 series saloon, which was never even given an individual model name, being badged just “Wolseley”, and sold only for seven months until that range was renamed as the Princess. This change thus spelled the end of the Wolseley marque after 74 years.
Wolseley often used a two-number system of model names. Until 1948, the first number was engine size in units of taxable horsepower as defined by the Royal Automobile Club. Thus, the 14/60 was rated at 14 hp (RAC) for tax purposes but actually produced 60 hp (45 kW). Later, the first number equalled the number of cylinders. After 1956, this number was changed to reflect the engine’s displacement for four-cylinder cars. Therefore, the seminal 15/60 was a 1.5-litre engine capable of producing 60 hp (45 kW). Eventually, the entire naming system was abandoned.
The 1961–69 Wolseley Hornet was based on the Mini.