A potted history

Daimler and Lanchester are arguably the most significant names in British motoring history. Daimler was that country's first motor manufacturer, producing its first series-production car in 1896. These cars were, at first, virtual copies of vehicles being made by the patent-holders, Daimler of Germany (hence the shared name, although the British company was never owned by or connected with the German firm). Within a few years, however, British Daimler cars had gone their own way in design, and only the German name was retained. Lanchester was Britain's first indigenous car manufacturer, producing its first series-production car in 1900, after several years experimenting with various prototypes.

Today, sadly, few people remember BSA cars (although the famous BSA motorcycles, produced elsewhere, are well-remembered), and the Lanchester name is frequently confused with the Lancaster bomber of World War Two! Even Daimler has to struggle for recognition, often being dismissed as an upmarket Jaguar (something it has been since only 1960), or confused with the products of Daimler-Benz in Germany, a company with which the British Daimler has never had any connection. Just for the record, the Daimler Company was, from the very beginning, a British concern; the Daimler name derives solely from the use of German Daimler patents in its very first vehicles.

Lanchester remembered

There is widespread (but understandable) confusion about the origins of and connections between Daimler, Lanchester and BSA. Hardly surprising when one considers the many twists and turns all three famous names have made since the earliest days of motoring. To set out in detail the histories of these three marques would fill several volumes; it will suffice here to give a brief overview.

Despite modern misconceptions, Britain's Daimler marque was never connected with the German car-builder of the same name (or the more recent Daimler-Benz/Mercedes derivation). The only similarity was in the name, which was used by the British manufacturer under the terms of a licence from Gottlieb Daimler to manufacture cars in Britain prior to the turn of the century. By 1900 the British concern had been producing cars and commercial vehicles in its own right for several years, and any similarity between the British and German marques was coincidental. Coventry Daimler cars were utterly conventional in design, but from the very beginning they were noted for their fine engineering and workmanship.

Lanchester, meanwhile, was an entirely separate concern, and its products could hardly have been more different from those of the Daimler works. Then again, Lanchesters were different from just about anything else on the road! These remarkable machines were radically different from other vehicles because the Lanchester brothers had insisted on designing them from the ground up, rather than resort to modified horse-drawn carriages. The result was a range of vehicles which boasted features which would not be seen on other marques until many years later: lightweight composite chassis frames, choice of air or water-cooled engines, live-axle drive to the rear wheels, detachable bodywork, and the first use of the Ackerman steering geometry. The Lanchesters also developed an ingenious vibration damper for their engines, and were the first to experiment with disc brakes; in fact, a comprehensive list of their 'firsts' would fill a small booklet.

Preselector gearbox

The Wilson preselector gearbox appeared on several prewar & postwar British cars, and the Fluid Flywheel's design formed the basis of many other torque-converter systems which led to the development of today's automatic transmissions. Only Daimler and its subsidiaries, however, combined the Fluid Flywheel and the preselector box to provide motorists with one of the simplest and smoothest transmission systems ever devised. It was extremely popular with owner-drivers who knew little about gear-changing techniques (having previously left all that to their chauffeurs), and women drivers who found they needed the strength of Charles Atlas to operate the 'crash-boxes' found on most other cars of the day.

The Daimler system enabled cars to be driven (or held stationary) in any gear with no damage to the mechanism. Changing up and down was (with practice) smooth and instantaneous. The system permitted cars to take off from standstill in top gear, or to idle along at walking pace, again in top. This last feature made them very popular with civic officials and funeral directors, both of whom required vehicles which could regularly drive in solemn processions without suffering any ill-effects.

The gearbox may appear complex, but is in fact simple in both design and operation, and extremely robust. In addition, it is entirely self-adjusting, so that many units have remained in virtually service-free operation since their manufacture in the thirties, forties and fifties.

This article, and much other material on this website, was originally written by DLCV historian and life member Tony Porter. Contact historian [at] daimlerclubvictoria.org.au