Dr. Frederick ('Fred') William Lanchester

What was the first British petrol car?

No, not the first horseless carriage or the first steamer, but the first four-wheeled, petrol, IC-engined, British-built motor car. 

It had five horsepower and was built by Frederick Lanchester in 1895 and road tested in early 1896. Lanchester went on to found the Lanchester Engine Co. with his brothers George and Frank, which began building production cars in 1899.

Lanchester 1895 Britain's first 4 wheel petrol engined car on It's My Classic

Nineteenth century motoring from the Lanchester Engine Co.


If you put Frederick Lanchester’s name into any search engine, the term you will see most often describing him is ‘polymath’. Another is that he was Britain's Leonardo da Vinci. Either titles have merit. He was an engineer, innovator and prolific inventor with broad-ranging interests and the practical skills to make his ideas a reality.

Polymath: a person who has a deep understanding of multiple diverse subjects and can draw upon that knowledge to solve specific, complex problems.

Eclectic innovator

Frederick was nothing if not prolific. He also invented and built the first outboard engine, the first all-British motor boat, and two different types of aeroplane.

Frederick's many innovations and more than 400 patents include:

  • Disc brakes

  • Rack and pinion steering

  • Power steering

  • Four-wheel drive

  • Pull-on hand brake

  • Wick carburettor

  • Car engine turbo-charging

  • Hydro-pneumatic suspension

  • Hollow engine con-rods (connecting rods)

  • Pendulum governor to control engine speed

  • Torsional vibration damper

  • Crankshaft vibration damper

  • Piston rings

  • Bearing that were pressure-fed with oil

  • Detachable wire wheels

  • Direct drive on top gear

  • The accelerator pedal

  • An air-supported exhibition dome

In 1902, Lanchester would become the first company in the world to sell disc brakes to the general public.

Lanchester epicyclic gearbox , clutch & brake on It's My Classic

Frederick re-designed the epicyclic gearbox, the fore-runner of the modern automatic gearbox

Lanchester six 38hp engine Note with Lanchester's characteristic flat valve springs.jpg

Lanchester Six 38hp engine, with Lanchester's characteristic flat valve springs

The Practical Butterfly

His forays into (amongst other subjects) acoustics, the mathematics of warfare, powered flight, engine design and photography might, in another person, have been the fluttering, superficial interests of a butterfly mind were it not for the considerable practical innovations and technical developments Lanchester achieved in each.

Indeed, the radical new gearbox design Lanchester incorporated into his early cars was later adopted by another automotive pioneer who achieved more of a household name status - Henry Ford. 

Lanchester harmonic balancer connected under crankshaft and driven by silent chain

Lanchester harmonic balancer on It's My Classic
'Aerial Flight - Volume 1 - Aerodynamics' Frederick Lanchester 1906, on It's My Classic

From Lanchester's 1906 'Aerial Flight - Volume 1 - Aerodynamics'

Always Drink A Pint Of Champagne

'Dr Frederick Lanchester who was the first, and for very many years, the only man of science to direct his mind to the special problems of the motorcar which was but one of his many interests. He has enduring world fame as the author of fundamental works on aerial flight, aerodynamics and the mathematics of aerial warfare, all published before 1914, his theoretically computed wing sections of pre-1900 being not exceeded in efficiency until sometime after World War One.

He was an authority on Chinese Jade and porcelain; had a deep knowledge of acoustics which led him to build loud-speakers 6ft high, 9ins wide and weighing 200lbs; and a considerable musician who told me when a young man, that I was uncivilised until I had heard “Die Meistersinger”. Also, just before I was to read a paper before the I. Mech. E.*: “Pomeroy, my boy, before you make a speech, always drink a pint of champagne, it loosens the tongue”.'

Laurence Pomeroy F.R.S.A., M.S.A.E. (1907-1966)

* Institute of Mechanical Engineers

Frederick Lanchester_Thinktank Birmingham_It's My Classic.jpg

Frederick William Lanchester - 1868 - 1946

Genius Takes Flight

Frederick  was a scientific and engineering genius but neither he, nor apparently his co-Directors, were gifted businessmen. All too soon Lanchester Motors ran into financial difficulties and, despite having a full order book, went into voluntary liquidation in 1904. After being run by a receiver for a while, the company was reorganised. With new capital it was re-launched as the Lanchester Motor Company Ltd. Frederick remained with the company until 1909, when he became a part-time consultant, resigning completely in 1914. His brother, George, took over as the company's chief engineer.

In 1909 Frederick had become a consultant engineer and technical advisor to to Daimler, and later to Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) in a collaboration that lasted for some twenty years.

Lanchester was also a consultant to White & Thompson Ltd between 1909 and 1911, for whom he designed their first aircraft. White and Thompson would go on to produce seaplanes for the Admiralty and a two-seater anti-submarine flying boat for the RNAS. Lanchester's innovations for the company included aluminium-clad wings and tubular steel struts.

During the First World War, Frederick Lanchester published Aircraft In Warfare: The Dawn of the Fourth Arm which included what are known today as Lanchester's Power Laws.

They include Lanchester's Linear Law (for ancient combat) and Lanchester's Square Law (for modern combat with long-range weapons such as firearms and aircraft, also known as the N-Square Law).

General Version of the Lanchester Square Law on It's My Classic

General Version of the Lanchester Square Law


"I think that the electrically propelled runabout has a future: its mechanism can be so simple and convenient, and so clean and easy to maintain. Plug the storage battery charger into the mains overnight, and you will have enough 'juice' to carry you 40 or 50 miles of town running in the day."

Frederick Lanchester, interview, Autocar magazine 1938

Frederick Lanchester was an undoubted genius but lacked the business acumen - or perhaps the business inclination - to make the millions that his abilities might have justified. Dr. Fred, as he was known to his friends, was also one who, in that great British idiom, was not afraid to 'call a spade a spade'. Blunt, forthright, and not shy of giving his honest opinion, Frederick probably alienated some prominent personalities who might later have come to his aid as, despite his many achievements, awards and well-respected technical papers, his financial position spiralled downhill. 

"I think that commercial considerations so rule matters today that few boards of directors have the courage to sanction experimental work which is not, in their view, orthodox; they are never so content as when copying the latest successful model, often when too late!"

Frederick Lanchester, interview, Autocar magazine 1938

Frederick Lanchester was all too often ahead of his time, whether that was in the field of aeronatics or automobiles. An engineer, scientist, inventor, poet, musician and philosopher in almost equal measures, Frederick Lanchester left behind a great legacy in the huge body of work that has influenced so many who have followed in his footsteps and benefitted from this pioneering guide.

1943 Royal Navy Lanchester Gun With Light Attachment For Night Action

Royal Navy's Lanchester Gun with Illumination Attachment For Night Operations, 1943

J.F. MacPherson


JISC Archives Hub

Proceedings of the Institution of Mechanical Engineers, 1924, via Sage Journals

Jaguar Daimler Heritage Trust

Lanchester on the Flying Machine, The James Forrest Lecture, 1914

F.W. Lanchester and the Great Divide, Philip Jarrett Hon. CRAeS, Journal of Aeronautical History, 2014

British Contributions to Automobile Design, The Motor Magazine, 1953

Frederick Lanchester and the invention of the air-supported roof, Will McLean, University of Westminster, 2018

Wikimedia Commons

Bulletin of the Vintage Wireless Society 1994

Aggregation, Disaggregation, and the 3:1 Rules in Ground Combat, Paul K. Davis, Rand Corporation