The Great Motor Men : Part One – Frederick Lanchester

AROnline Contributor Martyn Kelham has produced this series on the great motoring men. Here, in the first part, he discusses the great pioneer, Frederick Lanchester.

Frederick Lanchester illustration

If you are reading this, you will be a car enthusiast. I am too, but equally I’m a ‘people’ enthusiast. I am fascinated by the brains, the drive, the ambition and the sheer ‘bloody-mindedness’ of so many of our great designers and industrial leaders. I’m also interested in, and often surprised by, who developed what  and when. The case of Frederick Lanchester illustrates this point probably more than any other of the names in this series.

If we just listed all the things this man developed, patented and used – it turns out to be a very long list of essential theories, components and tools that have lead us to the car in our drive!

Lanchester was from a large family, one of whom, his sister, was a suffragette. Although he was born in London – in October 1868 – his family moved to Brighton when he was very young. He went to a ‘prep’ school and later a boarding school, but he was not considered the brightest of students. He eventually did win a scholarship – and later won another scholarship to a small college – now part of Imperial. (The very same college that has just won the 2020 University Challenge accolade!).

In 1888, following an engineering course at Finsbury Technical College, he left without any formal qualification. His first job was as a Patent Office Draughtsman – reportedly for £3 per week. I think that’s remarkable – the author’s first job was an apprentice in an ‘old established’ furniture retailer – for £5 per week, 65 years later!

First Patents

Frederick was clearly more switched on than the author because it was at this time he registered his first patent – for an ‘isometrograph’ – an instrument for shading and hatching in design work. Marriage came in 1919 – to Dorothea Cooper – and he later had a house built in Birmingham to his own design – which he and his lady wife never moved from.

One of his first ‘inventions’ (in 1888) was a much improved radio and gramophone speaker unit – but, unfortunately, for his newly-incorporated ‘Lanchester Laboratories Limited’ the Great Depression happened – and profits were not forthcoming. Before this, and whilst working for the Forward Gas Engine Company of Saltley as Assistant Works Manager, he invented and patented a pendulum governor – for which he received a royalty of ten shillings for each one fitted. Normally, this would have been the intellectual property of his employer, but having spotted that clause in his contract, he had prudently crossed it out before signing.

Two years later he patented a pendulum accelerometer for recording the acceleration and braking performance of road and rail vehicles.

Works Manager

Following on from promotion to Works Manager, he designed a new gas engine – more efficient than those produced by the company previously. This engine used ‘poppet’ valves and was very economical to run. In the same year, he developed a self-starting mechanism for gas engines – and promptly sold these rights to the Crossley Gas Engine Co.

In a small workshop next to his employer, he developed a small-single cylinder gas engine and this was coupled to a dynamo, which Lanchester used to light part of his employer’s factory.

Dedication to Smoothness of His Engines

Inevitably, there was some controversy about his dual role and in 1893 he resigned – handing over to his younger brother, George. He continued to work on gas engines and his next invention was a carburettor. This was the ‘wick’ carburettor – of the type we see still in use in Veteran and Vintage vehicles today. He patented this in 1905.

His new engine was installed in a boat and was, in fact, the first motorboat built in Britain.

Motor cars were next in Frederick’s sights and he designed a 5hp petrol engine which had two contra-rotating crankshafts – and this was renowned for its smoothness. He developed the epicyclic gearbox many years before other manufacturers used it. His first complete car had its test drive in 1896 – and proved to be most unsatisfactory. This prompted Lanchester to develop a new 8hp air-cooled twin cylinder engine – still with two crankshafts. The gearbox was also re-designed and a shaft drove the rear wheels.

He later upgraded this car to have his own cantilever suspension – and this car received a major award at the Automobile Exhibition of the same year.

Two years later, he developed a water-cooled version of the engine – again fitted to a boat. Meanwhile, his Gold Medal Phaeton (as the car had been called), completed the 1000 miles trial with only one mechanical failure. In 1899, Lanchester, with his brothers, formed the Lanchester Engine Co. and, at this point, started to make cars seriously. Based in Sparkbrook, Birmingham – the company produced a 10hp twin-cylinder motor car with a worm-drive transmission. He designed the machine to cut the worm gears and patented the machine that for 25 years cut all the gears for the company’s cars.

Splined Shafts and Dampers

Lanchester also invented splined shafts and couplings – previously the job of ‘keys’ and ‘keyways’. He also designed the machine to make the roller bearings used in the back axel. His cars also had a ‘disc brake’ that used a clamping mechanism on to the clutch disc – rather than a separate brake disc.

The man also invented the ‘torsional crankshaft vibration damper’ using a secondary flywheel and viscous clutch. It is true that Henry Royce had done a lot of work in this area, but Lanchester’s approach was more ‘scientific’. Lanchester also developed the ‘harmonic balancer’ for four-cylinder engines.

The company suffered from flawed management thinking and then went ‘bust’ in 1904. The Lanchester Motor Co. was formed from the ashes and the work went on with even greater developments for the motor car. Fuel injection, turbochargers, safer accelerator operations were experimented with – and made to work. His was one of the first companies to use detachable wire wheels, pressure fed bearings, stamped steel pistons, piston rings, hollow connecting rods…. the list goes on.

By 1910, Frederick had once again become disgruntled with the company operations and resigned – deciding to act as a consultant not only for Lanchester, but also Daimler Cars. He had a significant input into the Daimler-Renard Road Train and tanks for World War I.

An Early Hybrid

It is interesting to note that Lanchester was involved with the KPL Bus that used a pair of four-cylinder Daimler-Knight engines coupled to a dynamo driving one of the rear wheels – presumably so no differential was required. Unfortunately, Tilling Stevens threatened a court case for patent infringement (although I don’t know the detail) and the bus ceased production after less than a dozen were made, but they were one of the first hybrids!

As we know, BSA (Birmingham Small Arms Co.) bought Daimler in 1910 – Lanchester retaining his status as a consultant. In 1913, Lanchester designed a new cylinder head for the Daimler sleeve valve engine and these powered the Mark I-IV tanks of World War I.

Then came the Wall Street Crash in 1929. Lanchester effectively ‘went bust’ again and BSA completed its purchase of the company in 1931 , moving operations to Coventry. So, the man had done some amazing things with gas engines and cars, inventing or developing and using many of the mechanical devices we take for granted today. Even if we are not actually using the invention – we are using a development of it.

Lanchester and Flight

Lanchester also had a real significance in the aircraft industry! He studied how herring gulls flew – and, after lots of experiments, published his paper on what became the modern aerofoil theory. However, at the time, his efforts were rejected and he was considered ‘mad’ by the ‘authorities’. His efforts to convince society that a modern engine could be made so light that it would enable powered flight, was equally rejected. Three years after the Wright Brothers’ first flight, Lanchester published a book, this time dealing with the ‘problems of flight’ and how to overcome them. He discovered the vortices that occur behind the wings – and his paper was the first to consider ‘lift’ and ‘drag’. A later work covered oscillations and stalls (in 1908) and Lanchester discussed the layout of the aeroplane – which is still accepted as ‘the way’ to this day.

Lanchester also patented contra-rotating propellers in 1909 and in 1914 – before the war started – published various papers on his predictions of aerial battles in the War. Lanchester’s Power Laws consider the effect of how one surface affects the other in combat and this was studied in the US – and eventually became OR (Operational Research).

The Post-War Car

After World War II, Lanchester was the first company to export left-hand drive cars, the first company to offer tinted glass – but time was running out for this ‘forward-thinking’ man and the company he founded. Frederick died in 1946 and the post-War Lanchester, although a ‘little off the wall’ did not sell well and ultimately by the late 1950s Lanchesters became just a smaller-engined, cheaper version of the Daimler Conquest Century – and disappeared quietly from our streets and showrooms.

Not Forgotten

Those around Coventry will know that there was a Lanchester Polytechnic in the 197’s named in honour of the great man, but it changed its name to Coventry Polytechnic in 1987 – and thus became a ’uni’ in 1992. Thankfully, all is not lost or forgotten. Coventry University opened its Lanchester Library in 2000 and, most gratifyingly, the building is as ‘off the wall’ as many of Lanchester’s inventions. In addition, there is a Lanchester Car Monument in the Heartlands area of Birmingham and this is sited where Frederick built his first car in 1895.

What a man!

Frederick Lanchester

[Editor’s note: Material for this essay has been gathered from various websites and from the extensive collection of books owned by the author. However, nothing has been quoted from protected work.]


  1. BSA have a lot to answer for. Lancaster, Daimler, Triumph all dragged down. Lancaster is another British engineer who time has forgot. A bit like Sir George Cayley who most people have forgotten.

  2. And to think half an hour ago, all that Lanchesters meant to me were a few rather posh cars (some as taxis?) I saw in use in the early 1950s! What a man; another Brunel in some ways. Surely he and Tilling Stevens could have seen eye-to-eye over their differences?

    • I don’t know why but my earlier comment with regard to the KPL seems to be missing. I have summarised the issue in the Daimler Company article. Tilling were suing Daimler to prevent them launching the KPL in competition with London General Omnibus Co. LGOC’s parent company Underground Electric Railways of London, agreed to underwrite Tilling’s Court costs and not to compete with Tilling on their London bus routes.

  3. Frederick Lanchester seemed to have many good ideas but often didn’t have the resources to make them a well developed reality.

  4. It’s interesting to see how long ago some inventions were made – I have been ploughing through old editions of Meccano Magazine online and found one from the late 1920’s showing a fully fledged (non Meccano!) chain drive variable pulley CVT gearbox – that must be about seven decades before they appeared in vehicles?

  5. BSA had many problems both pre and post-war yet looking at how Mitsubishi further developed upon Frederick Lanchester’s 1904 patent for two counter-rotating balance shafts running at twice the engine speed (making a large 4-cylinder engine feel as smooth as a 6-cylinder) and made it their own in 1975 (which was also used by Porsche in the Porsche 944), it is tragedy in some respects that BSA / Daimler were never in a position to become a larger carmaker roughly comparable to Rootes or Triumph under Leyland (if not much larger) with Audi/Mitsubishi-like 2-litre+ FWD saloons or front-engined RWD Porsche-like sportscars making use of such technology.

    Doubt Lanchester as a marque could survive on its own let alone sandwiched between BSA and Daimler yet that isn’t to say his patents/ideas could not have been better utilized and further developed upon by BSA.

    • BSA main issue was in the 1950s with the Dockers – so much money was wasted. And rto also have Edward Turner in the company at the time just shows they wasted.

      • Agreed on the Dockers. Have also read the lack of success of the BSA Ten / Lanchester Ten models during the Great Depression being cited as one reason, the alleged damage of the Daimler marque by the Daimler Fifteen also apparently did not help.

        Yet looking at the BSA motorcycle division’s success with the DKW RT125-based BSA Bantam and the fact the British Army confiscated a DKW F9 prototype, BSA could have taken a similar approach in developing a post-war DKW F9-based BSA Scout or even better acquire the Scott Motorcycle Company whose Scott Model 3S engine was said to have inspired the 2-stroke engines used by DKW, Wartburg, Trabant and Saab. The profits from such a model could have helped mitigate the excesses of the Dockers.

        Basically a revived BSA Cars and Daimler could have been the British analogue of Audi and Mercedes-Benz during the period when DKW / Auto Union was owned by Mercedes, with the Mercedes W118/W119 project eventually becoming the DKW F102 / Audi F103. Cannot see how Lanchester could survive as a marque in the post-war period even had the Lanchester Sprite been produced without the Hobbs Mechamatic transmission.

        Edward Turner’s Daimler V8 could have also been used as a basis for a 4-cylinder engine to replace the DKW-derived 2-stroke in such a scenario. Also in a thesis by Leonardo Fioravanti (of BMC Pininfarina 1100 / 1800 fame), Fioravanti’s car was powered by one bank of the 2.5 litre Daimler V8, an engine he much admired for its compactness and power. With the crankshaft and cylinders suitably modified by Fioravanti, whose engineering skills perfectly complemented his design talents, the engine was mounted transversely across the nose and inclined to the rear to keep the bonnet line as low as possible. As part of his studies, aerodynamic tests were carried out in the Breda wind tunnel and the design changed to incorporate numerous lessons learned there. It was never built but the engineering drawings remain.

        A case could probably be made in this alternate scenario for the Daimler marque to eventually be taken further downmarket in place of both BSA and Lanchester, similar to how Standard was discontinued in favour of Triumph.

        • The v8 is said to be based more on chrysler hemi and Riley engines than Turners own triumph engines. It is shame that it was never fully developed as it was an impressive, if very thirsty in 4.5 version. A friend of ours had a majestic and fir such an old lump it went and was very smooth. It is shame Jag didn’t use it properly, or a four cylinder ever get developed as that may have helped BMC post merger.

          • Have read similar accounts on the Daimler V8, also that the output of the 220 hp 4.5-litre Daimler V8 was vastly understated and actually put out around 260 hp due to the fact the maximum rating of the dyno they had could only go up to 220 hp.

            It was Jaguar’s loss they never took advantage of the Daimler V8 together with a production version of the short-stroke all-alloy 185 hp 2.6-3.0-litre XK6 engines (possibly stretched to 200 hp 3.2-litre), that if needed be could form the basis of a suitable 2-litre XK4.

            OTOH a successful BSA / Daimler car division would have butterflied it being acquired by Jaguar and could have probably thrived as a relatively low-volume independent carmaker in the right circumstances similar to Leyland Motors had it walked away from merging with BMC.

  6. A minor quibble, just for the historical record. Coventry honoured Frederick Lanchester in name before the 1970’s when Lanchester Polytechnic came into being. Lanchester College Of Technology (which in due course morphed into the Polytechnic) was created in 1958 and its first building of what later became the Polytechnic campus, on Priory Street opposite the new cathedral, also accommodating Coventry College Of Art, was in use by the early 1960’s, I took my final HNC courses there in 1961 — senior programmes such as HNC in engineering had been relocated from Coventry Technical College.

  7. A big thank you to those giving more information on the subject or derivatives of. Thank you also Peter for the correction – no matter how much one researches, there’s no substitute for local knowledge!

  8. Thank you Martyn. Great to see more people celebrating the life and work of this amazing Polymath.

    If Fred had done one thing and it had been supported commercially, he may well have been better known. But the range and depth of his innovation took his attention to everything from Flight, pretty much everything we see in modern day cars to early PA systems, petrol/ electric hybrid engine, research on the science of optics and peripheral vision, colour photography developments, inflatable buildings, war strategy, early forms of 3D advertising even the ‘correction’ of the Western Musical Scale !

    With reference to the development of powered flight, his sketchbooks, found in the Lanchester Interactive Archive, Coventry University provide a real insight as to why he has been called Britain’s Leonardo Da Vinci. He measured various birds to see how the centre of gravity compared with the centre of support and, as a result of his deliberations, he eventually formulated his circulation theory of flight; the basis of aerodynamics and the foundation of modern aerofoil theory.

    As early as 1892 — Lanchester began working seriously on Auronautics theory of flight and powered flight (eleven years before the first successful powered flight)

    In 1894 he tested his theory on a number of models in the garden of his home in Birmingham. In the same year, 1894, he presented his paper to Birmingham Natural History and Philosophical, Society, on the theory of flight. This and subsequent papers and patents were not just met with indifference but positively discouraged. Lanchester would later recall this period and his disappointment at having had no support or interest and having carried out all work at his own expense.

    “So far as aeronautical science is concerned,I cannot say that I experienced anything but discouragement; inthe early days my theoretical work (backed by a certain amount of experimental verification), mainly concerning the vortex theory of sustentation and the screw propeller, was refused by the two leading scientific societies in this country, and I was seriously warned that my profession as an engineer would suffer if I dabbled in a subjectthat was merely a dream of madmen!”

    In 1897 he presented papers entitled Theory of Stability (Patent 3608), 1897 and “The soaring of birds and the possibilities of mechanical flight” to the Physical Society, but these were also rejected! clearly he was too advanced for them and this time. Giving up was not in Fred’s nature — he persisted, working alongside his major pioneering developments in automotive design and self-funded, pursued further developments in flight.

    He realised that powered flight required an engine with a much greater power-to-weight ratio than any existing engine. He proposed to design and build such an engine, but, again, was advised that no one would take him seriously. Again, discouraged by the attitude to his aeronautical theory, he focused on automobile development for the next ten year, but continued to developed his theories and experiments alongside this, developing a theory of flight based on the twisting flow of air or ‘vortex’ caused by the friction of the air moving over the slender shape of the wings. Today this principle is exploited to reduce drag and increase efficiency through the use of winglets.

    In 1906 he published the first part of a two-volume work, Aerial Flight, dealing with the problems of powered flight (Lanchester 1906). In it, he developed a model for the vortices that occur behind wings during flight, which included the first full description of lift and drag. Again – His book was not well received in England, but created interest in Germany where the scientist Ludwig Prandtl mathematically confirmed the correctness of Lanchester’s vortex theory. In his second volume, Lanchester turned his attention to aircraft stability, Aerodonetics (Lanchester 1908), developing his phugoid theory which contained a description of oscillations and stalls. During this work he outlined the basic layout used in most aircraft since then. Wider recognition of Lanchester’s contribution to aeronautical science was not recognised until the end of his life.

    In 1909 H. H. Asquith’s Advisory Committee for Aeronautics was established, and Lanchester was appointed a member. Lanchester predicted correctly that aircraft would play an increasingly important part in warfare, unlike the military command which envisioned warfare as continuing much the same way it had in the past.The same year, 1909, Lanchester patented his contra-rotating propellers that had appeared in his designs as far back as 1897.

    He continued research, publications and patents over the next few years, always ahead and always pioneering. These included “Flying Machine from an engineering standpoint, 1914.(James Forrest lecture of the Institution of Civil Engineers.). In 1915 he presented his paper “The Theory of Sustentation and Expenditure of Power in Flight. before the International EngineeringCongress, San Francisco, 1915.

    In summary, Fred was never a commercial businessman – his life was spent solving problems. As a result, in later life he was left rather poor and could not even afford to run a car.

    My role as head of the Lanchester Archive in Coventry University is to celebrate the amazing work of this man and promote his many many ‘firsts’ from a life of serial invention and innovation. Anthony Hughes (Head, Lanchester Interactive Archive)

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