WHEN SMALLER BECAME BIG

by J. F. MacPherson

It might be argued that the First World War was a boon to the British motor industry.

 

It clearly demonstrated the versatility of horseless, self-propelled vehicles, whether two-wheeled or four. By 1918 the UK Ministry for War alone had around 56,000 vehicles, resulting in a pool of skilled and experienced drivers and riders that was wider than ever and, perhaps more significantly, spanning the social divide.

First World War trenches

The war had seen all areas of British industry conscripted into the volume production of all kinds of materiel. By 1918, Britain - the "workshop of the world" - had more factories than ever boasting modern machine tooling and personnel who had considerable experience with the processes of production line manufacturing.

Combine these elements, and we see a population that was more in tune with mechanised road-based transport than ever before, and more of them with the skills to both use and maintain personal vehicles. On top of that, there was a network of factories needing post-war work, and  also capable of turning out ever-more affordable vehicles to satisfy that market.

Gloucester Regiment squaddies.JPG

William Morris of Morris Motors was one the most prolific exponents of this new approach to volume vehicle production. Drawing on the experience of wartime manufacturing and, perhaps, on the example of Ford Motors, he exponentially increased output and improved economies of scale by using components manufactured by other suppliers to produce Morris vehicles (in both affordable and luxury models).

Perhaps one of the most recognisable outcomes of this new British manufacturing paradigm today is Sir Herbert Austin's Austin Seven, a compact little car that had a similar impact on the British car industry to that of the Ford Model T in the USA. It had all of the styling of a large car, but in pocket-sized proportions. By the time production ceased, at least 290,000 units had been produced.

It was arguably the advent of the affordable and frequently sporty Austin Seven that ultimately led to the demise of the cyclecar sector.

Austin 7 small classic British car

The steady shift from hand-built cars as the norm to volume production changed the industry (and car ownership) forever. The market was splitting in two - high volume and low cost for the many, and high-priced, hand-built scarcity for the few.

Many manufacturers found themselves unable to compete effectively in either market and, in the twenties alone, Britain lost approximately two-thirds of its motor manufacturers.

"Cyclecars" had their heyday in the 1910's and 1920's. Open like a motorcycle, but with 3 or 4 wheels, they were designed to be affordable and fill the market gap between motorcycles and cars

By the dawn of the 1930's Austin and Morris shared approximately 60% of the British car market, effectively forcing other manufacturers to adopt similar business models in order to survive.

One of those to lose out was Clyno, (motorcycles and cars). At its peak in the mid twenties, Clyno staff were working around the clock simply to keep up with demand. By 1926, Clyno was the third largest car manufacturer in the UK, behind Austin and Morris, yet in 1929 receivers were called in. Clyno had lost the price and performance war.

"Light cars" were defined as four seaters weighing less than 15cwt, or two-seaters weighing less than 13cwt, with an engine capacity of less than 1500cc (4 stroke) or 1100cc (2 stroke)

Roaring Twenties Art Deco poster

On a social level, the twenties and thirties were a period of extreme economic and social highs and lows.

 

The 'Roaring Twenties' followed hard on the heels of the war and a devastating influenza epidemic that killed even more than the warring nations had managed to. The British Empire was beginning to fragment into independent nations but, back in Britain itself, many sought to forget the horrors of war with champagne and Jazz. Britain boomed, though not to quite the same extent as the USA and Germany.

That the UK boom was less exalted was no bad thing because, when it all went bust in the thirties, Britain was hit less hard by the Great Depression. Whilst that comparison between Britain and the USA is factual, it merely states a matter of degrees of suffering. Extreme hardship was rife in Britain and unemployment in some areas was as high as 70%. Hunger marchers descended on London and news-reel companies were asked not to fuel the movement by filming them.

War, death duties and taxation forced many British landed families - the traditional purchasers of motor cars - to sell off their stately piles and even the family jewellery. Social upheaval was forever altering the face of Britain.

 

Women had been heavily involved in the war effort and were not simply flouting traditional conventions or acting more independently, they finally gained equal rights of representation. During the war they had driven ambulances, joined the police force, worked on the railways and driven buses. In the early post-war years, many of these newly emancipated women saw cars as a route to, and statement of, their continuing independence.

The 1928 Representation of the People Act gave women the vote on the same terms of men (over the age of 21)

Women, either as influencers or purchasers in their own right, were becoming a market force that manufacturers ignored at their financial peril.

In 1925, sterling had been restored to the gold standard. Although this had been pressed for by the Bank of England, the outcome for British exports was far from helpful. The new value of the GBPound meant that British export products were now much more expensive, and sales inevitably suffered. 

Despite the climate of depression, the British car industry was one of the few sectors to buck the negative trend. In fact, the thirties saw a doubling in car ownership in the UK. Car manufacturers were making more of what the public wanted, and far more affordably.

By 1932, Britain had overtaken France to become the biggest car manufacturer in Europe.

...the greatest advantages of the gold standard is its moral effect. A nation will think better of itself... if its currency is convertible into gold. The fear of being forced off the gold standard acts as a salutary check on the extravagance of Governments...

Extract committee statement from Mr. McKenna of the Midland Bank, 27 January 1925; National Archives

This was the era of Art Deco. A geometric style that was a radical shift away from the excesses of Art Nouveau, it had emerged in France just before the outbreak of WW1. By the late twenties, art deco had begun to permeate automotive design.

Art Deco was the perfect stylistic expression to complement the austerity of the Great Depression, expressing itself in pared-back simplicity and combining with a growing desire for modernity and efficiency. Sloping windscreens were briefly almost more of a style statement than an aerodynamic function.

Napier-Railton 1933

Flowing lines blended seamlessly with crisp edges. Instrumentation became clean and clear, radiator grilles sloped to match lean-back windscreens, and horizontal speed lines incorporated vents and door handles.

 

High-design cars were meant to look fast even when standing still.

The Road Traffic Act, 1930

  • Road trials & racing on public roads are outlawed

  • Speedos must be fitted and kept in working order

  • 1903 20mph speed limit is repealed

  • Motor vehicles are categorised: heavy locomotives, light locomotives, motor tractors, heavy motor cars, light motor cars, motorcycles, and invalid carriages

Even at the affordable end of the market, there was an increasing desire for cars to be beautiful, to incorporate style and comfort with function. More than ever before, wherever a driver saw themselves within society, the car was becoming the ultimate modern personal accessory.

By 1939, the average price of the smaller, cheaper cars was almost 50% of their 1924 value.

Let's forget the style greats for a moment or two. Mercedes-Benz, Hispano-Suiza, Bugatti, Rolls Royce and Delahaye may have produced some of the most remarkable cars of the era, but they were for the few.

Thanks largely to be production techniques honed by wartime production, mass-production cars became the true stars of the inter-war years. These vehicles may have been less radical in their styling, less mouth-wateringly beautiful, but their impact on the professional and middle classes in particular was profound.

Thanks especially to the growing number of affordable light cars in particular, far more Brits than ever now had the potential to own their own car. Cars represented more than simple ownership. They promised greater flexibility and choice, in addition to making a very visible statement about the owner's perceived status or ambitions.

It was within this framework that the light car made such a big impact on ownership figures - smaller cars that required neither a large garage nor a chauffeur/mechanic to care for them. In addition to lower purchase prices, taxation was lower, as were daily running costs.

The 1930s also witnessed the birth of a new type of car, often referred to as 'baby' cars. These picked up where cyclecars had left off in the previous decade, and brought a whole new style to compact motoring.

 

In many ways, these tiny cars were the spiritual precursors of the post-WW2 bubble cars and microcars - tiny, nippy and highly fuel-efficient. Tiny had become fashionable.

Light Car Magazine Jowett Kestrel advert 1936

A young man road-tests his small car - British Pathé

When a car is this small, it's bound to make the news - British Pathé

Despite their diminutive size, baby cars went racing. In 1932 George Eyston went for the land speed baby car record at Pendine Sands in Wales, achieving a remarkable speed of just under 120mph.

Baby cars may have essentially been the next generation on from cyclecars, but they created a niche all of their own. Whereas once cars had often been about "the bigger the better", the smallest cars had become big news.

Acknowledgements

Brooklands Museum

Perspectives on the Road: Narratives of Motoring in Britain 1896-1930, Esme Anne Coulbert

A guide to the historical records of the British motor car industry, G Leng-Ward

The Social and Cultural impact of the car on inter-war Britain, Sean O'Connell

Pathé News archive

Light Car magazine

RYTECRAFT SCOOTACAR

Manufacturer: British Motorboat Manufacturing Company Ltd

Designer: Jack Shillan

Production: 1934-1940

Number built: approximately 1,000

Category: microcar

Microcars are the smallest of the small. The Rytecraft Scootacar, however, brings our understanding of the term “micro” to a whole new level of diminutive.

This dinky single bench-seater, open topped car originated as an electric-powered Dodgem fairground ride. In 1934, the designer Jack Shillan had an inspired – or crazy – moment and decided to make the Scootacar road legal by tucking a 98cc Villiers Midget engine under the tiny bonnet. The Midget engine had a wide range of applications – stationary engines, lawnmowers, and even motorcycles (such as the Rex Midget from Sweden) – but this may have been its only foray into production cars.

The first production model featured a single-speed automatic transmission with a novel single foot pedal – press to go faster, lift to apply the brakes. To reverse? Lift up one end of the car and heave. Power went to one rear wheel, with braking on the other. Handling must have been very interesting, even if the top speed was reputedly a blistering 15mph.

The Scootacar body styling unashamedly emulated that of the Vauxhalls or Chryslers of the era.

From 1939, the Scootacar was upgraded to a 250cc engine and a possibly scary top speed of around 40mph. It boasted a three speed plus reverse gearbox, standard foot pedals, electric lights, plus room for a passenger.

The Scootacar was also available as a teensy-tiny van and also as a pickup.

Rytecraft Scootacar at Brooklands Museum

1935 98cc Rytecraft Scootacar.

This example was driven 15,000 miles around the world by Jim Parkinson in 1965.

 

When it reached California, it was initally banned from driving on the road, though North and South Carolina generously turned a blind eye to its leisurely top speed (both states had a minimum 40mph speed rule).

BUC515 now resides amongst the sporting greats at Brooklands Musuem.

 
Vintage advert Austin Cars Practical considerations Mug EF-MU-VINTAGEADAUSTINPRACTICALCONS
The Leisurely & Mildly Irritated - Austin 7 T shirt from It's My Classic.jpg
Grown up in theory Austin 7 Mug EF-MU-GROWNUPBLUEAUSTINSMOKING.jpg

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