My books on manufacturing

My books on manufacturing
My books on manufacturing history

Friday, August 18, 2023

Lucas - King of the Air

Lucas occupied a special place in the aircraft industry supplying electrical systems for aircraft.

The number of aircraft manufactured in the UK before and during WW2 was enormous and under continuous development, and so Lucas engineers were busy not only manufacturing but researching and designing new products. For example, some 200,000 Rotax magnetos had been supplied for Rolls-Royce Merlins.

After the war, they designed brand new magnetos for Rolls-Royce Griffins for Avro Shackletons and also for Bristol Hercules 730s. With the coming of the V bombers, Rotax supplied complete electrical systems for the Vickers Valiant. The Vulcan and Victor also had significant input from Rotax. This work flowed into a contract to equip the Rolls-Royce Dart for the Vickers Viscount; they also equipped the Bristol Britannia, de Havilland Comet and Hawker Hunter.

The increasing complexity of aircraft and the associated demand on the electrical supply partly wrong footed Rotax allowing English Electric, which had taken a license to manufacture Sundstrand constant speed drives for aircraft generators, a foothold in the supply chain.

As Gas Turbine engines became ever more powerful, the issue of the ignition unit became ever more contentious. This allowed Plessey and BTH another toehold. Lucas was never a company to be beaten for long, and it was Lucas that developed the electronics for the Rolls-Royce Avon.

Eric Earnshaw had been a driving force at Rotax and had begun a policy of diversification when he saw the market under pressure. One was the solid-rotor alternator developed for aircraft but also employed to advantage in the Chieftain tank. Another was the heat pump – many years before its time. Earnshaw’s focus and energy ensured that Lucas was at the head of the pack with aero-engine technology.

With the purchase of Bristol Siddeley by Rolls-Royce, he saw the need to combine component suppliers and went about a programme of purchases devoting much money, time and effort to support Rolls-Royce with the development of the RB211. This could so easily have been disastrous when Rolls ran out of money. The Lucas position was saved by the nationalisation of their customer and their work continued.

The focus of Lucas work in aviation was sharpened further by its renaming as Lucas Aerospace. Lucas Aerospace worked on the re-heat system to provide bursts in increased power for the Phantom. They also developed digital fuel control for jets which by their nature experiences extreme conditions. Little of this work was done in isolation. Lucas worked with Rolls-Royce but also with Bosch and computer manufacturers Marconi-Elliott.

Image with thanks to the British Motor Archive

 I write more in my forthcoming book, Vehicles to Vaccines.

Lucas - King of the Road

 Lucas were the backbone of the British motor industry right from the start.

The three generations of the Lucas family strongly supported by non-family chairmen including Peter Bennett and Bernard Scott led the way in technical innovation, manufacturing efficiency and marketing. It was not by accident that they supplied nearly three of the British market and a good proportion of those in countries developing their indigenous motor industry.

They began with bicycle lamps. Harry, son of Joseph, joined the business with the firm belief that quality was vital, that orders should only be accepted if they could be delivered, and that price mattered. With the coming of motor cars, Harry Lucas was quick to see the opportunities to move into lighting and starting motor cars.

With the coming of the First World War, Harry Lucas was keen to provide motor companies with what they needed for the war effort. A major problem was that the War Office had specified Bosch Magnetos for their vehicles. The components industry pre-war had been content with this, and the ability of British companies to supply magnetos was strictly limited. One company in particular, Thomson Bennett, rose to the challenged. Harry Lucas pounced when, in 1914, the opportunity arose to purchase it. This was going to prove of massive value to Lucas in the years to come, not least in the person of Peter Bennett. During the war, Lucas grew to some 4,000 employees, 1,200 of whom were making magnetos.

After the war, Lucas were growing their business in a number of very focused ways. They accepted offers by the smaller component manufacturers to buy their businesses, and then, a little later, agreed to buy their two larger competitors, Rotax and CAV when the latter experienced harsh trading conditions in the mid 1920s. Lucas was able to do this because they had always pursued conservative financial policies, and so were able both to weather storms, but also take advantage of the weakness of others.

Lucas men volunteered for service in the Second World War to such an extent that men joked of the Lucas Light Infantry, as they also joked about the Rootes Rifles.

I will write in my next post about Lucas in the air.

You can read more about my take on the story of UK manufacturing on this blog and my exploration of the supply to the British Army by following this link.

Image with thanks to the British Motor archive

 I write more in my forthcoming book, Vehicles to Vaccines.

Winners and losers since 1951 - Rolls-Royce and Bentley

Reviewing the draft of my next book, working title 'Vehicles to Vaccines', some companies jump out as conspicuous success stories, and some less so. Beneath the surface there are many hundreds of smaller British manufacturing concerns which form the backbone of this sector.

In a sequence of forthcoming posts, I plan to tell some of the stories.

Sales of British companies is a recurring theme and there are a number of ways of viewing this. It creates shareholder value. It offers a way for overseas companies to benefit from UK manufacturing expertise. Yet, it saddens me. Am I being too emotional? More seriously, should I be concerned?

In the case of four of our top motor companies, I believe the answer to both is yes. Let's take the example of Rolls-Royce and Bentley. I shall look at Jaguar and Land Rover in a subsequent post.

The story is well known, but can be clouded by the mists of time. Henry Royce was a superbly talented engineer and, following the untimely death of his partner Charles Rolls, formed a team around him to complement his skills by adding imaginative marketing. Claude Johnson and Ernest Hives are names that stand out. Johnson’s view was that the company should build on its reputation of serving the aristocracy whose cars were nearly always driven by chauffeurs. Thus, if a customer wished to test drive a car, he would be driven by a Rolls-Royce chauffeur who had been schooled in the etiquette of service. Royce demanded the highest possible standards in engineering, as Johnson did in customer service.

W.O. Bentley was probably as great an engineer. At the start of the First World War, he worked for engine builder Gwynne who were not convinced by Bentley’s suggestion of aluminium pistons. Humber harboured no such doubts and, with him, built many engines this way. In 1920 W.O, as he was known, formed Bentley Motors. The Autocar magazine reported that he was working on a model ‘intended to appeal to those enthusiastic motorists who desire a car which, practically speaking, was a true racing car with touring accessories’. Only three years later, the car finished fourth in the Le Mans. It was the Wall Street crash that robbed Bentley of his company, and Rolls-Royce pipped at the post Napier & Sons to buy the valuable marque.

Rolls-Royce built both cars from their factory at Sinfin Lane in Derby alongside aeroengines.

When I say they built cars, I do mean that they produced the chassis with engine ready for a specialist coach builder to add the coachwork to meet the customers’ requirements.

During the Second World War, the production of aeroengines was vast and critical to the war effort. Cars were also produced as witnessed by the Rolls-Royce used by Field Marshall Montgomery (in the photograph).

Following the war, Rolls-Royce moved the production of cars to the shadow factory they had managed in Crewe, leaving aeroengines at Derby.

W.O. found he could no longer work with Rolls-Royce and so joined Lagonda which later teamed up with Aston-Martin under the ownership of David Brown. As I will tell in a later posts, they too enjoyed success at Le Mans.

In the fifties and sixties, Rolls-Royce produced some truly iconic cars, not least the Phantom IV, available only to royalty and heads of state.

Rolls-Royce underwent a dramatic change when the development costs of the RB211 aeroengine ran out of control, leading to the placing of the aeroengine company into public ownership. Rolls-Royce Motors was separately floated in 1973, which coincided with the launch of the Corniche, the fastest Rolls-Royce ever.

Rolls-Royce Motors was  bought by Vickers plc in 1980. They had been faced with the capital cost of tooling for new models; Vickers, on the other hand, expected a windfall from the nationalisation of their aircraft and shipbuilding businesses. Vickers worked hard to make the combination work, producing motor cars that the wealthy of the world wanted to buy, under both the Rolls-Royce and Bentley marques. In time, Vickers had to seek partners for Rolls-Royce to develop the next new model. The seeking evolved into a potential sale with BMW as front runners. BMW were already supplying engines for both Rolls-Royce and Bentley models; they also enjoyed success with joint ventures with the aeroengine company, Rolls-Royce plc, which had been privatised in 1987.

In the event, VW outbid BMW. As was widely reported at the time, VW found that they had bought the company without the right to use the brand which still belonged to Rolls-Royce plc. Undaunted, they set about building Bentleys at Crewe. BMW acquired the licence to use  the Rolls-Royce brand and set up a new factory on the Goodwood Estate in Sussex. 

The net result of all this is a duo of fully financed and commercially supported companies building distinct Rolls-Royce and Bentley cars in England. So, possibly not a cause for sadness.

Is it a cause for concern? Has this been an isolated incident the answer may well be no. As it is, these were just two of a long line of sales which neither the government nor the city did a thing to stop.

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

Phil Hamlyn Williams has completed his sixth book beginning an exploration of British manufacturing. His great-grandfather exhibited at the ...