Frederick Willliam Lanchester the “Leonardo” of the Machine Age

F.W. Lanchester – the visionary and Renaissance man

To say that the Lanchester was different hardly does justice to one of the most remarkable automobiles of the Edwardian Age. Even in 1910, its bug-eyed, hoodless appearance was so unorthodox that the directors of the Lanchester Motor Company in Birmingham, England, feared it would be spurned. Since the turn of the century, the long hood and cowl had enjoyed wide public acceptance in Europe. The Lanchester possessed neither of these features, and thus flew in the face of fashion. But that was nothing new. It’s inventor was uninterested in how it looked as long as it satisfied his exacting standards for fleet, dependable transportation with optimum comfort for its riders. Frederick Lanchester was a Renaissance man whose visionary automotive achievements are reflected in many modern cars – seldom with any acknowledgment of their origin. His costly and smooth-running automobiles bore what came to be called the “Lanchester look.” Depending on who applied the label, it was either intended to convey contempt or acclaim.

F.W. Lanchester – the inventor

As a young engineer who specialized in the development of gasoline engines, Lanchester’s true interest was mechanical flight. To avoid being branded a lunatic, he wisely applied his considerable genius to an interim problem that he believed would advance the science of aeronautics. In 1895, after two years of careful study and experimentation, he produced the first serviceable four-wheeled gasoline car in England. He did it by studying and then improving upon what had been done on the Continent up to that time. Instead of relying on the components of others, however, he designed and built his own. When he needed a tool to make a part, he built that, too. His objective was to create a car completely from scratch, and in doing so he made history.
He was the first to use the live axle and worm drive – a feature later widely adopted for heavy transport vehicles. He introduced the tubular frame and the intermediate speed, or second gear, in his transmissions. His effortless system of shifting gears foreshadowed the automatic transmission. He was the first to stabilize steering. From the outset, he manufactured interchangeable parts machined to the finest tolerances. He did all of this before 1900, and he still found time to patent a process for color photography (1895) and to study mechanical flight. He perfected and patented the wick method of carburetion, he employed detachable wire wheels, and he invented disc-type brakes (1903), stamped steel pistons, hollow connecting rods, the torsional vibration damper, and the harmonic balancer. To prevent bolts from being jiggled loose from his cars – a common problem in early motoring – he designed and manufactured the finely cut M thread. He was the first constructor to use an accelerator pedal and the first to attach scraper rings to pistons.

F.W. Lanchester – the manufacturer

With the backing of Birmingham businessmen, Lanchester launched his 10-horsepower production automobiles in 1901. Rudyard Kipling was among the early buyers. A loyal clientele soon developed. Contrary to the custom of the times, Lanchester insisted on manufacturing bodies for his cars, instead of offering them as bare chassis to be finished by coachbuilders. Using jigs, he pioneered interchangeable bodies that could be removed in minutes.
A new and improved line of Lanchesters was announced in 1905, featuring models of 20 and 28 horsepower. The car in the Behring Collection is believed to be the only vintage Lanchester in the United States and is one of the few survivors from its period. It is a six cylinder, 28-horsepower Double Landaulet on the long wheel base of 11 feet, 5 inches. Displacement is 3.6 liters. The engine develops 42 horsepower at 2200 RPM, producing a top speed of 54 MPH. The Price was 750 Pounds, or approximately 3,750 dollars. The canopy over the chauffeur’s seat is removable, the windshield tilts backward, and the landaulet collapses, creating an open car. Carried on cantilever springs that were later copied by Rolls-Royce, the car glides along the roadway. Crankshaft vibrations that made the earliest six-cylinder cars shake like a barrel of bones were deadened as a result of Lanchester’s inventiveness. ”I overcame this difficulty,” he said modestly, “by fitting the flywheel at the front end of the engine instead of the rear end, and employing a pressure lubricated multi-disk clutch for the transmission which acted as a damper.” Other six-cylinder manufacturers simply told their customers by way of reassurance that what they were hearing-and feeling-was “the power rattle.”

F.W. Lanchester – the pioneer

The Lanchester automobile owed its unusual appearance to the position of its engine, which sat longitudinally between the two front seats, well behind the axle. While this configuration gave the car greater stability, it also made it look like a motorboat with engine amidships. The gas tank sat beneath the chauffeur’s seat. A small pump fed the famous wick carburetor, which, when opened, resembled a dishpan sprouting stalks of celery. The cotton wicks absorbed gasoline from a reservoir below and emitted the vapor into a chamber above. Heated air carried the vapor into the induction port, where it was mixed with cooler air before entering the combustion chamber. The wick carburetor was oderless, clogless, and in other ways superior to contemporary spray carburetors, which often failed at high speeds. For proper maintenance of the carburetor, the manufacturer recommended that the wicks be removed and washed every ten years.
If this seems like a commendable record of performance, consider the transmission, whose parts often functioned for three decades without replacement. All over England, vintage Lanchesters were still being driven daily during the late 1930s-long after the company had been absorbed by Daimler and its inventor had turned his talents to optics, music, relativity, radiation, and poetry. Frederick Lanchester died on March 8, 1946, at the age of seventy-seven. Much of the framework for modern automobile technology had its genesis in his fertile mind, half a century before.

This article is reproduced with permission of the Behring Automobile Museum of California
and is copyrighted by the Behring Automobile Museum.