The Wolseley name was around at the dawn of the British motor industry, and its history was closely entwined with that of the two dominant BMC marques, Austin and Morris – right to the very end.
Here’s the full story of one of Britain’s oldest carmakers…
Wolseley: A potted history
As any motoring anorak worth his salt will tell you, Wolseley’s first car was designed in 1895 by none other than Herbert Austin, who would go on to found his own Austin Motor Company some 10 years later.
Wolseley had its origins in the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company Limited, set up in Sydney, Australia in 1887 by Frederick Wolseley (1837-1899), the Dublin-born son of British aristocrat Viscount Wolseley. Buckinghamshire-born Austin had ventured to Australia as a teenager with his uncle in 1884 to pursue a career in engineering.
Within a few years Austin had become manager of a small firm which won a contract to supply precision-engineered parts to the Wolseley company; thus, the association was born.
Wolseley comes to Britain
In 1889, Frederick Wolseley moved the business to England, with its registered office in Old Broad Street, London and a workshop off Broad Street in Birmingham. However, such was the quality of the work produced by Austin’s company in Australia that the association was maintained and, by mid-1893, Austin had returned to England to take up the post of manager of the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company.
The year of 1895 was a significant one for the company: as well as seeing the first fruits of their venture into car production, the company also moved to larger premises at Alma Street in the Birmingham suburb of Aston – the so-called Sydney Works, named in honour of the company’s original birthplace. A second Wolseley model was introduced in 1897 and, by the turn of the century, the company was making its first four-wheeled motor cars.
By this time, Wolseley’s car-building activities had the potential to overtake the original business of manufacturing sheep-shearing equipment, and it was clear that larger premises would soon be required if this were to be the case. However, the truth of the matter was that the Wolseley company had little more than a cursory interest in the car side of the business, with all the impetus coming from Austin himself.
Vickers and Austin enter the fray
Meanwhile, the engineering firm Vickers had been set their sights on Wolseley as providing them with a means of entering the emerging motor-car industry. In 1901, Vickers established the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Co. Limited, earmarking as its base a 3½-acre factory site at Adderley Park, Birmingham which they had speculatively purchased a couple of years previously.
Within a month, an agreement was signed between Herbert Austin and the two Wolseley companies, whereby the newly-formed company – with Austin as its manager – purchased the entire car-building activities of the original company, leaving the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company happily to pursue the business its name implied.
At this stage, the future looked bright, but just four years later the company was in crisis. The combination of Austin’s over-ambitious development of cars for motor racing competitions and his stubborn refusal to adapt to emerging changes in engine technology saw the company’s finances slowly crippled, leading to Austin’s resignation in the summer of 1905. That same year, Wolseley purchased the Coventry-based Siddeley motor company, with John Davenport Siddeley (later Lord Kenilworth) replacing Austin as General Manager; for the next five years, until Siddeley himself resigned, the company’s cars were known as Wolseley-Siddeleys.
Management shake-ups and WWI
In the post-Siddeley years, Wolseley’s business continued to grow. Just before the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, the company had been renamed as the Wolseley Motor Company and a programme of expansion had been completed at its Adderley Park works, with the size of its site increasing six-fold. The company had also diversified its business into various related areas, such as building commercial vehicles and taxi cabs, as well as engines for locomotives, boats and aeroplanes. During the war years, car production gave way to that of armoured vehicles, munitions and aircraft components.
This was also a significant period for Wolseley’s overseas development. In 1914, a Canadian offshoot – Wolseley Motors Limited – was formed, with bases in Toronto and Montreal. After the war, the Canadian operation became British & American Motors Limited, and an ambitious globe-trotting exercise saw factory representatives appionted in South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and South America.
And then there was Japan: in 1918, Wolseley signed a contract with Tokyo’s Ishikawajiama Ship Building and Engineering Co. Limited – which had recently ventured into car production – giving the Japanese company exclusive production and marketing rights for Wolseley products in the Far East. Several Wolseley employees were sent over to Japan to assist in setting up the operation and, in December 1922, the first Japanese-built Wolseley model entered production. The company subsequently began building cars to its own designs and changed its name to Isuzu Motors Limited in 1949 – that company is, of course, still going strong today.
Expanding in the Midlands
Back at home, Wolseley had acquired a large production facility called Ward End Works at Drews Lane in Washwood Heath, Birmingham immediately following the war; this was the former Stellite light car works, which had been built on a 65-acre green-field site in 1914 by a company in which Wolseley’s parent-company Vickers had since purchased a controlling interest.
From 1919, Ward End Works was pressed into service producing commercial vehicles and components for Wolseley cars. Confidence was riding high and, in 1921, Wolseley set something of a trend amongst motor manufacturers by opening a prestigious flagship showroom in Piccadilly, in the heart of London’s West End. Designed by the respected architect William Curtis Green RA (1875-1960), the almost-palatial Wolseley House cost close-on £250,000 to build, and was awarded the inaugural Medal for Street Architecture by the Royal Institute of British Architects in 1922.
However, dark clouds were already gathering. Sales of Wolseley’s relatively expensive models were failing to meet expectations, while another venture into motor racing was placing a further strain on the company’s resources; by the mid-1920s, it was once more in financial crisis. Wolseley House had to go; it was sold to Barclays Bank in 1926 (although, in a nice twist, a redevelopment in 2003 saw it reborn as the upmarket Wolseley Café and Restaurant), and by the end of October that year, Wolseley was in the hands of the Receivers. Enter stage left, one William Morris.
Lord Nuffield swoops in
The soon-to-be Lord Nuffield already held the Wolseley sales franchise for the Oxford area, where these cars were sold alongside his own Morris models, so it made sense for him to own the company; he even used a Wolseley as his personal transport, and reportedly continued to do so for the rest of his days.
Above all, though, the fiercely patriotic Morris was determined that Wolseley should not fall into foreign hands. At an auction held by the Receiver in October 1926, he purchased the Wolseley company in a private capacity for £730,000, valiantly fighting off rival bids from the ever-acquisitive General Motors and – surprise, surprise – the Austin Motor Company…
Wolseley was promptly restructured by Morris, becoming Wolseley Motors 1927 Limited. He concentrated Wolsleley production at the Ward End plant, freeing up the Adderley Park works; a relatively small part of the latter facility was set up to accommodate the production of Morris Commercials, while the rest of the site was sold off (along with the former Morris Commercials plant at Soho, Birmingham). Ward End would also later produce engines for the original (pre-war) Morris Minor.
Success under the leadership of Morris
Wolseley prospered under Morris’s stewardship and, by the 1930s, the marque had an enviable reputation within the motor industry. A range of independently-designed new models – such as the Hornet, Viper and Wasp – was introduced over the next few years and, in 1935, Wolseley became a subsidiary of Morris Motors Limited.
In these pre-war years, sales strengthened, production spiralled and it seemed that Wolseley could do no wrong. However, the days of independently-designed models were numbered: by the late 1930s, new ‘Wolseleys’ reaching the market were, in fact, Morris designs with revised front-end styling and more upmarket interiors and, following World War Two, the rationalisation would begin in earnest.
The imposing 400ft frontage of Bromford House, the administrative block fronting the so-called Ward End Works at Drews Lane, in the Washwood Heath area of Birmingham: the home of Wolseley from the late 1920s until the end of 1948. By the time this photo had been taken in the late 1980s, it was home to the newly-independent Freight-Rover company – now gone.
By 1948, production of Wolseley cars had been moved to the Morris plant at Cowley, while Ward End was turned over to the production of Nuffield tractors and other agricultural machinery. From here on in, all new Wolseleys would merely be badge-engineered versions of other cars from within the Nuffield Group (and later BMC).
New stories with BMC in charge
The year of 1948 also saw the launch of the first all-new, post-war Wolseleys: the Morris Oxford MO-based 4/50 saloon and its Morris Six-based sister-car, the 6/80. Although these cars carried imposing Wolseley-style bonnets and grilles (with the all-important illuminated badge, first seen in 1932), the more humble origins were all-too-apparent when viewed from the rear. The next-generation models – the 4/44 and 6/90, launched in 1952 and 1954 respectively – were far more successful from a styling point of view, with the sublime Gerald Palmer-penned lines being shared only with their MG and Riley stablemates.
The Gerald Palmer-designed Wolseley 15/50 in production at Cowley during the BMC days. Although the 15/50 and its sister car, the 6/90 were surely among the most stylish of Wolseleys, Palmer maintained that Leonard Lord used the 6/90 as the pretext in an attempt to dismiss him in 1955, after Autocar had criticised it in a road test. The criticisms of the car were fairly minor – and all could have been quite easily addressed – but it seems Lord wanted Palmer’s scalp, adding the Riley Pathfinder’s combination of high warranty costs and poor service reports to the charge sheet. Lord offered him a stark choice: resign or accept demotion. Palmer saw he had no option but to tender his resignation, although he acknowledged that Lord arranged a not-inconsiderable pay-off of £7500, plus the gift of an MG Magnette. Palmer later took up a position with Vauxhall at Luton and ended up designing the Victor FB.
Of course, 1952 also saw the merger of the Nuffield Group and the Austin Motor Company to form the BMC combine, with the result that the new company now had a total of five marques to manage. Further rationalisation would inevitably ensue: indeed, Longbridge wasted no time at all in producing a mock-up of a proposed Austin version of the Riley Pathfinder, although this never saw the light of day.
The next new Wolseley – the Morris Minor-based 1500, introduced in 1957 – was born out of project DO1058, intended to replace the Morris Minor itself. In the end, only Wolseley and Riley versions were released in the UK, although in Australia it emerged both as the Austin Lancer and Morris Major. In December 1958, the Wolseley brand had the dubious honour of ushering in the brave new ‘Farina saloon’ styling with the 15/60 (just months after the style had been premiered on the somewhat less-crucial Austin A40); dubious, because the car was a Wolseley in name only, having been conceived at Longbridge (and Turin).
Sure enough, the new 15/60 was followed a month later by the Austin A55 Cambridge MkII, with the MG, Morris, Riley and even Princess (later relaunched as the Vanden Plas Princess) versions following in that order during the remainder of 1959.
What might have been: this 1957 proposal for the Wolseley saloon bears the unmistakeable stamp of Pininfarina, suggesting that the rather stodgy, upright car which finally emerged was not quite what they had intended…
Photographed in 1959, this is the prototype for a ‘Wolsleley 6/120 Vanden Plas’, based on the standard six-cylinder model. The idea was scrapped, along with a proposed Austin version, in favour of the (Vanden Plas) Princess 3-litre.
The 1960s saw the Wolseley (and Riley) brands enter new market territory, with the launch of the Mini-based Hornet and Elf twins in 1961. South Africa, meanwhile, did its own thing with the Wolseley 1000, which dispensed with the Hornet’s extended boot. These two brands appeared on the BMC 1100 towards the end of 1965, quite a compliment to the little base-car when you consider that these versions were introduced as replacements for the aforementioned Wolseley 1500 and Riley One-Point-Five.
On to a front-wheel-drive future
The next new Wolseley to appear was the BMC 1800-based 18/85, in 1967. At the time, there must have been those who wondered at the lack of a Riley counterpart. Such a model had indeed been considered, but the stark reality was that, by the late-1960s, the distinctions between the Wolseley and Riley marques had become so diluted that it had become futile to persist with the expensive process of keeping both identities alive.
The demise of Riley was finally announced in 1969, following the formation of BLMC. Quite why Wolseley won out over Riley in this particular battle is not entirely clear, but it may have been seen as standing more purely for ‘upmarket Morris’ than the Riley brand, which had always added sporting overtones to the luxury message. BLMC may also have been influenced by the vocal Riley lobby – enthusiasts of the original marque who justifiably felt that it had been utterly demeaned in BMC’s hands.
However, Wolseley’s somewhat pyrrhic victory would be short-lived. By 1968, with the discontinuation of the 6/110 ‘Farina’ saloon, the range was without a six-cylinder model for the first time in decades, although this situation was remedied some four years later with the long-overdue introduction of the Landcrab-based Wolseley Six.
Changes and the end under British Leyland
By the middle of 1974, when Wolseley 1300 production had ended, the Six had become the sole representative of the once-proud Wolseley marque, and the end was nigh. When the last-ever Wolseley model was launched in March 1975 as part of the adventurous, wedge-shaped 18-22 range, it seemed that the company had resigned itself to persisting with this single-model status for the marque, for there was (thankfully) no prospect of an Allegro-based Wolseley model to sit beneath it.
In retrospect, this hardly seems a sustainable product policy, and so it must have seemed to Don Ryder, whose landmark report, British Leyland: The Next Decade coincided with the launch of the 18-22 and proved to be the final nail in Wolseley’s coffin.
BL’s competitors at the time generally took a quite different approach to marketing their models: upmarket versions of a given car were differentiated by means of different trim and equipment and the application of trim-level badge, rather than the old BMC method of using individual marques and even the odd bespoke body panel (a redesigned bonnet pressing in the case of this latest Wolseley).
The thin end of the wedge
Indeed, around six months later, the separate Austin, Morris and Wolseley-branded 18-22 models were relaunched under the newly-revived Princess marque in standard, HL and HLS trim levels – all sharing the same bonnet design. And so it was that in October 1975, the Wolseley name had made its last appearance on a car, while the Austin and Morris marques survived to die another day.
Since 1975, there have been several occasions giving rise to the notion that the Wolseley marque might be revived. The first of these came with the development of the Princess’s replacement in the early 1980s, when reports emerged that the new car would either be badged solely as a Wolseley, or might at least be offered in a range-topping Wolseley variant.
You can get some idea of how such a car might have looked thanks to this computer-generated image, created by Leyland Princess webmaster Kevin Davis, although it should be noted that a senior BL insider has since revealed that, while serious consideration was given to the idea of using the Wolseley name, the car would not have worn a traditional Wolseley-style grille. In the event, of course, the range was launched as the Austin Ambassador and, in line with then-current Austin-Rover policy, the flagship model was the Austin Ambassador Vanden Plas.
Wolseley’s non-existent comeback
During the era of BMW ownership (1994-2000) there was constant speculation that Bernd Pischetsrieder‘s great regard – even affection – for BMC’s history would lead to a revival of all manner of marques on a range of niche models: a new Austin-Healey, a new Riley, a new Wolseley… anything, it seemed, was possible.
Of course, this never happened, yet even in the shortlived MG Rover era, the speculation persisted: some suggested that MG Rover should have adopted the Wolseley marque in place of Rover, in order to resolve the anomaly whereby its use of the Rover marque was restricted under the terms of a licence issued by BMW.
That was always going to be an unlikely scenario, with so much effort expended on building the profile of both Rover and MG since the dark days of the 1970s. To have to start from scratch in a volume market with a long-dead marque that meant little or nothing to many of today’s buyers would have been little short of asking for trouble – something which MG Rover could clearly ill-afford at the time.
Since pre-war days, Wolseley model designations have tended to comprise two sets of numbers separated by an oblique stroke (eg: 18/85), but the significance of those numbers has varied over the years…
Up to 1948
Wolseley models of this period included the 12/48, 14/60 and 18/85. In these cases, the first numbers (12, 14, 18) reflected the cars’ nominal RAC hp ratings, while the latter numbers (48, 60, 85) represented the true power output in bhp. The RAC hp ratings dated back to the provisions of the Roads Act 1920, and were used to determine which taxation class a car fell into; an annual “road fund” fee of £1 per hp was payable. However, these figures were unrepresentative of the engine’s true power output as there was a fundamental flaw in the formula used to calculate them: it was based on the engine’s cylinder capacity, but failed to take account of the stroke measurement (meaning that manufacturers soon began to exploit this loophole by building long-stroke engines which attracted no extra tax).
The RAC formula was: (diameter-of-cylinder squared x number-of-cylinders) ÷ 2.5, with the final result rounded. For example, the Wolseley 18/85 of this era had a 6-cylinder, 2.3-litre engine with a bore measurement of 69.5mm, or 2.74″. 2.74 squared = 7.49 x 6 = 44.94 ÷ 2.5 = 17.976; hence it was rated at 18hp… but its true power output was 85bhp.
NB: Curiously, the designations of models at the top and bottom of the range included just the RAC hp figures: Wolseley 8, Wolseley 10 and Wolseley 25.
1948 to 1956
In 1948, the hp-based taxation system was replaced by a flat-rate road-tax (initially set at £10 per annum). This move coincided with the introduction of Wolseley’s new Morris-based 4/50 and 6/80 models, with the old RAC hp ratings in the model designations being replaced by the number of cylinders. The second figure still related to the car’s bhp output, though in the post-war models these should to be treated with caution, as they tended to be “rounded” (for want of a better word). Thus, the 4/50 had 51bhp, while the 6/80 actually had just 72bhp to call on.
With the launch of the BMC B-Series-engined 15/50 in 1956, the designation for the four-cylinder models was changed to begin with the engine capacity (expressed in decilitres); thus, the 15/50 had a 1489cc engine outputting 50bhp. Apart from anything else, this change avoided any potential for confusion with the previous Nuffield-engined 4/50 model which had run from 1948-53. Other four-cylinder models followed suit: the Farina-styled 15/60 and 16/60, and the latter-day 18/85 ‘Landcrab’. Once again, the “bhp” ratings were rounded approximations: the 15/60 actually had 52bhp, while the 16/60 had 61bhp. The 18/85 had 87bhp, while the twin-carb 18/85S had 96bhp.
Then there were the exceptions, notably the Mini- and 1100-based Wolseleys, although it’s worth noting that in South Africa the 11/55 designation was used on an uprated version of the Wolseley (and Austin) 1100. Meanwhile, the six-cylinder models continued to follow the previous pattern – 6/90 (95-97bhp), 6/99 (103bhp), 6/110 (120bhp!) – until the introduction of the 2227cc Wolseley Six in 1972.
Post-war Wolseley models
The first new post-war Wolseleys were the hastily-conceived 4/50 and 6/80 (below) models, expedited by grafting a Wolseley-esque front-end onto the rear bodyshell of the also-new Morris Oxford MO. It was powered by a four-cylinder version of the 6/80 engine. Stylistically, the result was less than successful, with the bulbous rear end all-too-readily betraying the car’s Morris origins. The svelte 4/44 couldn’t come a moment too soon…
Six-cylinder counterpart to the 4/50, the 6/80 looked no better in the metal, suffering from the same aesthetic conflict between its upright front and bulbous rear. Its 2215cc engine put out 72bhp (not the 80bhp implied by the name) giving a top speed of 78mph and a 0-60 time of 24.4 seconds. Incidentally, the 4/50 and 6/80 were the first Wolseley models to be built at Cowley, as would all later production Wolseleys.
|Wolseley 4/44, Wolseley 15/50
Gerald Palmer‘s first car for BMC, the 4/44 shared its body-style with the contemporary MG Magnette ZA/ZB, but had the smaller (and detuned) 1250cc engine from the MG TF roadster. In 1956, the 4/44 gave way to the 15/50, marking the introduction of the 1489cc B-Series engine. The 15/50 also gained some cosmetic styling improvements, such as front spotlights; the column-mounted gearshift was also relocated to the floor.
Gerald Palmer’s styling masterpiece, its elegant lines (similar to those of the Riley Pathfinder and 2.6) were a big improvement on those of the 6/80 it replaced. Powered by the 2.6-litre C-Series engine giving 95bhp, the early models had a basic live rear axle, but Series II models (from 1956) gained semi-elliptic springs. The final Series III models (from 1958) had a larger rear window and improved brakes and steering.
The 1500 replaced the 15/50 (albeit with a small overlap in production), and was also available as the Riley One-Point-Five (although there was no MG version to replace the Magnette ZB). Ireland had a 1200cc version, while in Australia there were a couple of bread-and-butter derivatives: the Austin Lancer and Morris Major. Production ended in 1965, when the Wolseley 1100 (and Riley Kestrel) came on-stream.
|Wolseley 15/60, Wolseley 16/60
First of the Farina saloons to reach the market, the 1489cc, 52bhp 15/60 ushered in a new style for BMC’s mainstream models. The 16/60 version of 1961 better justified its designation, with its B-Series engine bored out to 1622cc, developing 61bhp. Believe it or not, the 16/60 remained in production until 1971. Meanwhile, BMC Australia offered a 2.4-litre six-cylinder version called the 24/80, using the ‘Blue Streak’ engine.
|Wolseley 6/99, Wolseley 6/110
Replacing the 6/90, this six-cylinder Farina-styled model followed the smaller 15/60 into production. Unlike previous Wolseleys, this was based on an Austin – the A99 – as all six-cylinder Morrises had been discontinued. Uprated 6/110 version launched in 1961, with a smaller-wheeled MkII version following in 1964. In Denmark, the six-cylinder models were sold as the Wolseley 300.
Upmarket version of the 848cc Mini, sold alongside the similar Riley Elf. A MkII version in 1963 saw the car gain the 998cc engine, with Hydrolastic suspension added the following year, while in final MkIII form (from October 1966) it gained wind-up windows and concealed door hinges. The Hornet name was a revivial of one first used on a small, six-cylinder model during the Nuffield-era 1930s.
|Wolseley 1100, 1275, 1300
Launched to replace the Wolseley 1500, the Wolseley 1100 was briefly offered with a 1275cc engine option during 1967 prior to the launch of the MkII-style 1300 version. Overseas derivatives included the Wolseley Wesp in Holland and the Wolseley 11/55 in South Africa.More…
|Wolseley 18/85, Wolseley Six
Based on the 1964 Austin 1800, the Wolseley 18/85 arrived in the Spring of 1967. A MkII version was launched two years later, along with the 96bhp 18/85S. In 1972, the 18/85 models were replaced by the 2227cc Wolseley Six, which had been in the pipeline ever since the BMC days.More…
BMC in South Africa built this local variation on the Hornet theme for a couple of years in the late 1960s. It had quite a refined specification, including Hydrolastic suspension, opening quarterlights and a three-dial instrument pod… but no sticky-out boot.More…
Wolseley’s last gasp. It seems BL never quite got around to giving it a model name. But then, why bother, when there’s only one Wolseley model left on sale? That situation didn’t last for long, though… barely seven months after the model was launched, the Wolseley name was finally laid to rest. What would Lord Nuffield have thought?More…
Footnote: the company today
It may surprise you to know that the remnants of the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company, which parted company with the car-building activities in 1901, still survive today in the plumber’s and builder’s merchants Wolseley plc.
The company grew and evolved throughout the 20th Century and, by the turn of the Millennium, it had interests in the production of electric pumps and gearboxes, the distribution of tractor parts and accessories, the delivery of cable management solutions and the international supply and distribution of professional photographic equipment, in addition to a raft of industrial manufacturing companies.
In 2000, the company decided to concentrate on its core building supplies activity, and sold all its other interests to private equity company Cinven for an estimated £135m. The subsidiary companies included in the sale were: Sparex; the Vapormatic Company; and BYPY Hydraulics and Transmissions from the Agricultural division. Form Fittings; Powerplan; Astralux; and Cetronic from the Cable Management division. Abbot Brown; Antiference; WH Boddington & Co; Boxmag-Rapid; Dihurst Holdings; Gentech International and HJ Godwin from the Industrial division and, finally, Calumet International and KJP from the Photographic division.