My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history

Monday, October 3, 2022

Morris enters the motor race

In 1893, William Morris set out on his career, first repairing bicycles. I know rather more about him than the other motor manufacturers, probably because of his later fame as Lord Nuffield. One by-product of this is an engaging biography of him written in 1955 by P.W.S. Andrews and Elizabeth Brunner which I think my father bought when it was first published. In this, they offer revealing anecdotes about the man and his business, but also valuable reflection on the business of making motor cars from very nearly the start.

Oxford was probably a good place to set up in business to repair bicycles, given their popularity among young men and the number of wealthy young men in the Oxford Colleges. If it was true of bicycles, it was all-the-more true of motor bikes and motor cars. It didn’t take Morris long to begin experimenting with motor bikes. Andrews and Brunner relate the story of the two bikes he made for the Stanley Show of 1902 at the Agricultural Hall in London. The story goes that he was trying to make the bikes while continuing with his business of cycle repair, essentially working all hours. Things became tense when parts for the new bikes were late arriving. When eventually they appeared, he worked non-stop for four days and nights before taking the bikes to London. When he arrived at Paddington, he arranged for horse transport to take the bikes, and he followed on the steam underground railway. He made the mistake of sitting down, for he fell straight to sleep. The train guard woke him only just in time to get to the show. The bikes were well received, but, soon after Morris’s businesses partner left, and Morris had to start again.

Motor bikes, however, were not where Morris saw the future, and so he set about designing a motor car. He had been running a business both repairing and hiring cars, and this had taught him a massive amount about what worked and what didn’t. His reputation had also attracted other manufacturers to appoint him as their sales agent in Oxford, and he was selling cars for well-known motor car makers such as Arrol-Johnson, Belsize, Humber, Hupmobile, Singer, Standard and Wolseley and motor bikes for Douglas, Enfield, Sunbeam and Triumph.

You can read much more in How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World 

I also posted on social media an anecdote which might amuse

William Morris was of course one of the great motoring entrepreneurs. Unlike some of his fellow petrol heads, motor cycles were not where Morris saw the future. In his biography there is an anecdote about car supply. It was the occasion of the 1906 General Election, and candidates were perceiving a benefit in having a motor car to carry them round on their electioneering. It seems the Morris’s reputation was spreading far and wide, for he was asked by a candidate in Sterling to find a suitable car. There were none available in Britain, and so Morris set off for Paris where he found a Lacoste & Batman car. This was a highly regarded make, and Morris must have felt thoroughly satisfied. That is, until twenty-five miles from Paris, when the car broke down with a seized gear-box and back-axle. He discovered that despite promises, oil and grease had not been filled before he set off.  Morris returned to Paris, and bought the necessary parts, which he then fitted and set off again. Five miles short of Amiens, a broken exhaust valve stopped the car once more. Happily, spare valves had been provided, but they were one eighth of an inch too long. He did what many early motorists did in such circumstances, and spent one and a half hours grinding the valve down on the cobble stones to the required size. He then made it back to Oxford where his staff took over to drive up to Stirling. Late that night, he received a message that the car had broken down again, just short of York, with a broken bevel gear in the back axle. Morris set off for York, and, with the help of a local blacksmith, made and brazed two new teeth to the bevel. This sequence of break down and repair followed him all the way to Stirling, where he arrived two weeks late and much the poorer. He offered to rescind the contract, but the purchaser went ahead and no more was heard. Morris had though learned a great deal, all of which he incorporated into the design of the Morris Oxford. The other thing he learnt was not to make all the car himself, but to seek reliable suppliers of the key parts.  

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How Britain Shaped the Manufacturing World is now available to pre-order

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