1916 Morris Cowley

William Morris could not have timed the launch of his second model car any worse. Even before it was available the World was embroiled in war!

With the success of William Morris’ first car, the Oxford released in March 1913 (see BMCE Issue 4), he began to look at expanding the range.

The Oxford had quickly proven itself to be economical, reliable and simple to maintain, but sales had been hampered by the fact it was a small car only available as a two-seater or occasional four-seater.

Morris knew that to be successful and for his company, W.R.M. Motors, to grow, he had to offer a true four-seater.

He built a prototype four-seater Oxford with an enlarged engine from White & Poppe, and envisioned – perhaps a little too grandly – being able to sell 3,000 cars a year. At this stage, by the end of 1913, only around 400 Oxfords had been built.

Morris had been quoted £50 by the British firm White & Poppe on a 1500cc engine and a similar gearbox to that on the Oxford. W&P were supplying the 1018cc engines for the Morris Oxford, as well as engines for other car makers, but were already running at capacity. They informed Morris that they were not able (or perhaps were unwilling) to increase production to meet the sort of numbers he envisaged.

In early 1914, William Morris travelled to the USA to see production techniques and how American cars could be sold so much more cheaply than their British equivalents. According to Jon Pressnell, in Morris – The Cars and the Company, “No deals were signed at this stage. Vickers had preceded Morris, placed a lot of orders on behalf of Wolseley, and then cancelled them. Consequently the US companies were understandably wary of this unknown Englishman.”

However, Morris did return to the UK armed with suitable drawings and quotes for an engine (from Continental Motors – see side panel), gearbox (The Detroit Gear Company), steering and axles.

Pressnell states that Morris’ costing in 1915 for the combined engine and gearbox came to £26 0s 8d, including freight. With the other imported components, Morris was still able to build his Cowley far more cheaply than the smaller Oxford, made entirely from British-sourced parts.

Morris returned to the US in April 1914, taking with him White & Poppe’s chief draughtsman, Hans Landstad: who had been given leave from W&P to study American manufacturing techniques. This was possibly because of the company’s inability to supply Morris with enough engines, but also because they saw benefit to themselves in Landstad’s visit to the US.

Although not an engineer, Morris was an experienced practical mechanic and knew what he wanted in his car and its engine. Ensconced in a small hotel room in Detroit, the two men set about designing the chassis of the new car. Pressnell quotes Landstad, from interviews with Morris’ official biographers Andrews and Brunner, as saying Morris was “quite good” on the chassis. “He could not draw, but he said he wanted this and that, a strut here and a strut there…”

With the basic design completed, Morris returned to England, while Landstad remained in Detroit, having arranged a temporary position with Continental Motors.

Much has been made of the Continental engine used in the Morris Cowley being the same as that used in the Saxon Four from Detroit.

Pressnell quotes The Autocar magazine, from the day: saying that the engine “was planned and specified to the tiniest detail by John Bull, but made in America under Uncle Sam’s miraculous output methods”.

“Such talk was hokum”, Pressnell continues. “The engine, also used by US marque Saxon, was designed in all its essentials by Continental, while the gearbox could be found in various makes of American car.”

However, the engine was not the same as that used in the Saxon, according to Stephen Hands, long-time Cowley owner and owner of our featured car. “The Saxon engine, while it had the same bore and stroke of 2¾” x 4”, was considerably different in almost every other regard”, Hands says. “It had only a two-bearing crankshaft, the carburettor was on the exhaust side, feeding into a combined inlet and exhaust manifold that was cast integrally with the engine. It was designed for a three-point mounting and there was no magneto drive cross shaft; a distributor was mounted at the rear of the cylinder block. And finally, the flywheel was open, not enclosed.”

“In fact”, Hands continues, “Continental Motors was unable to sell Morris the Saxon engine, because it was Saxon’s own design, but they told him they were perfectly willing to make an engine to Morris’ own design.”

Pressnell says that after Morris returned to England, Landstad was “able to monitor the progress of Morris’s contracts, and send back such engineering drawings as were necessary. After seeing the first engine through its tests, he returned to England after the outbreak of war…”

It stands to reason that Landstad, a draughtsman from a British engine company, working with an American engine company, sending back engineering drawings and being involved in testing of “the first engine”, must have played at least some part in the design of the engine.

Where the Continental Red Seal Type U engine, used in the Morris Cowley, differed significantly from the British and European designs of the time was in having integral cylinders and crank case, with a removable head – most British designs had separate cylinders and crankcase, but non-removable head.

The integrated crankcase made the engine more rigid, which gave a significant improvement in reliability.

The removable head provided much easier access for de-coking the engine and regrinding the valves. As Stephen Hands says; “In those days of unleaded petrol and non-hardened valve seats, most handbooks recommended this procedure every 10,000 miles.”

This design obviously appealed to a practical mechanic like Morris. As did other features of the engine that provided easier maintenance, including the high position of the magneto and the carburettor. “The carburettor is mounted back from the magneto and on the opposite side to the valves, which at first might seem less than ideal from the point of view of breathing and performance”, Hands says.

“However, it is away from the rear outlet exhaust manifold, which leaves the tappet cover clear for easy removal and adjustment of the valve clearances. The carburettor is also close to the accelerator pedal, so that the linkage for that and the mixture control is both simple and cheap.”

The Continental engine had a three main-bearing crank, pressure-fed oil to the mains bearings, but splash-fed for the big ends, cast iron pistons, side valves and a dry clutch (as opposed to the Oxford’s wet clutch).

Possibly the most revolutionary feature, in the UK and Europe at least, was the inclusion of a dip-stick for checking the oil level. This was reputedly the first engine available in England with such a feature, and even earned a full paragraph’s description in The Autocar. Previously, the only method of checking the oil level was to open a barely accessible tap near the bottom of the engine and see if oil dripped out.

With regard to the engine size, Stephen Hands says there is an interesting but obscure piece of Morris history.

“The Continental motor is 2¾” bore and 4” stroke (69.8 x 101.6 mm). This gives a horsepower rating of 12.1 and a cubic capacity of 1557cc. For taxation purposes, 12.1 RAC rating was considered to be a 13HP engine and therefore paid a higher tax.”

“To be considered a Light car, a vehicle had to have an engine of 1.5 litres or less. At just over this the Morris would have been considered a full size car and thus denied access to reviews in The Light Car and Cyclecar magazine, which was in essence Morris’ target demographic.”

“His simple answer to this problem was to under-declare the cylinder bore as 69mm and claim a capacity of 1495cc. In short, he lied!”

“He was, nevertheless, very cunning. By putting the Cowley right on the boundary of the two classes, he could attract both light car owners who wanted a four-seater and those who aspired to a full size car, but found themselves a little short of cash.”

“The post-War Hotchkiss copy of the Continental engine was reduced in bore to the now familiar 69.5mm, giving a tax saving 11.9hp rating, and the stroke rounded up to 102mm, starting a twenty-year tradition for the Nuffield empire.”

Hans Landstad joined WRM Motors in December 1914 as draughtsman and oversaw the construction of the prototype Cowley.

With a wheelbase of 8’ 6” and a track of 4’, the chassis was bigger than the Standard Oxford (7’ 0” wheelbase and 3’ 6” track) and the De Luxe Oxford, (7’ 6” wheelbase and 3’ 9” track). Combined with the larger engine, it could easily accommodate a full four-seater body.

The gearshift for the American-supplied gearbox and the handbrake lever were both centrally located, which allowed for a driver’s side front door, making access much easier than in the Oxford.

The simple ladder-style chassis was of similar construction to the Oxford, with semi-elliptic front springs and three-quarter elliptic at the rear. Although the prop-shaft remained an enclosed torque-tube, the rear banjo-type axle featured a spiral bevel gear final drive, instead of a straight-cut bevel gear, which made it significantly quieter: another UK first.

The Cowley was available in two-seater, four-seater and coupe forms, as well as a commercial van and in chassis only. There was also a single saloon model built in 1917.

The two-seater was launched at 158 guineas (£165 18s) with the four-seater at 185 guineas (£194 5s).

Another feature of the Cowley was the Lucas five-lamp electric lighting, although the van version came only with three oil lamps – two front sidelights and one rear lamp – with optional acetylene headlamps.

The new car was announced in April 1915 – a significant date in Australian and New Zealand military history – with the first deliveries due in June, but supplies of engines only arrived in September of that year. It was in that month that the first dozen or so were built, with only 163 assembled by the end of the year.

In fact, Morris’ timing for the release of a new car could not have been worse. What became the First World War began in August 1914, only weeks after Morris had returned from the US with contracts for the supply of engines and other components for 3,000 cars.

Not surprisingly, with Britain’s entry into the War, American suppliers were worried that Morris would cancel his orders, but he confirmed the first half of the order, for 1,500 sets.

It has been reported that half of the 3,000 ordered were lost to U-boat attacks at sea. However, only one shipment, of around 15 engines, appears to have been lost, with a total of 1,485 cars built by the end of 1919. The fact that only half the original planned figure was reached was more to do with Morris’ order reduction due to the intervention of the War and Government restrictions.

Incredibly, while England and her allies were engaged in a bloody war of attrition across the Channel, many people in Britain still enjoyed social or leisure motoring.

Virtually all local manufacturers had turned their factories over to wartime production. The United States, remaining neutral until late 1917, was able to take advantage of demand in the UK and began a veritable invasion of the British market.

So great was the influx of American cars into Britain that many British car makers felt, in Pressnell’s words, “they were being penalised for their patriotism.”

They petitioned the Government, which partly resulted in 1916 with Reginald McKenna, Chancellor of the Exchequer, imposing import duties of 33.33% on all imported luxury goods, which included cars and components, but not commercial vehicles (which were needed for the war). These became known as the McKenna Duties and, although supposed to be a temporary measure to fund the war, were not repealed until 1956.

Although this assisted Morris by reducing overseas competition, the increase in the cost of his imported components forced him to increase the prices of his cars by around 20%, within only months of release: the two-seater becoming 190 guineas (£199 10s) and the four-seater 212 guineas (£222 12s).

However, also imposed in 1916 were restrictions on the purchase of motor cars for private use, which now required a Government permit.

If you would like to read more of this story, grab your copy of the magazine from your nearest newsagent (in Australia), subscribe securely on-line, or download the digital version for your computer or personal device at www.pocketmags.com


The BMC Experience Issue 11. Oct-Dec 2014 Magazine

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