Wolseley History



WOLSELEY CARS 1895 - 1975


Most early motorcar manufacturers began by making machinery of one type or another, such as bicycles or sewing machines before they branched out into building cars. Such was the case with Wolseley. It had its origins in the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company Ltd, which was set up in Sydney, Australia by Frederick York Wolseley (1837-1899).

Frederick York Wolseley was born on 16 March 1837 in Dublin, Ireland. When he was 17 years old, he moved to Australia. While working on a sheep station near Deniliquin in New South Wales, he developed a mechanical sheep-shearing machine. In 1876, he purchased a property named Euroka near Walgett and ten years later gave the first exhibition and demonstration of his machine there.

He returned to England, but only for a short time as he was determined to get back to Australia to develop and improve his invention.

Herbert Austin had come to Australia as a teenager with his uncle in 1884 to further his career in engineering. After a few years, he became manager of a small firm, which was approached by the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company to manufacture parts for them. Austin identified several weaknesses in the design and construction of the shearing machinery and made a number of suggestions to make them more reliable.

In 1887, the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company Limited was established, with offices at 19 Philip Street, Sydney. It was subsequently decided to transfer the activities of the company from Australia to England, and a new company was registered with its Head Office at 3 Crown Court, Old Broad Street, London. The new company purchased the assets of the old Australian company for £141,665, of which £75,000 was to be paid in cash and the balance of £66,665 by allotment of 13,333 shares of £5 each.

The Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company, Limited was registered on October 9th, 1889, with a nominal capital of £200,000 divided into 40,000 shares of £5 each. The first Directors were James Alexander, F. H. Dangar, John Muirhead, Abraham Scott, and Frederick York Wolseley (Managing Director).

Many of Austin's suggestions had been successfully taken up by the company. On March 10th 1893, Austin assigned all his patents relating to sheep-shearing machinery to the company, in exchange for eighty ordinary shares of £5 each, fully paid. Shortly after, he was offered the position of Inspector of Machines in the newly formed Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company in England, and in the winter of 1893, he returned to England with his wife and child.

In 1895, the company moved to new premises named the Sydney Works, located at Alma Street, Aston, Birmingham. Around this time, it was also decided that the company should diversify into other areas. A department was opened for manufacturing machine tools for cotton machine makers, quantities of bicycle parts were turned out and complete bicycles as well (Herbert Austin was a keen cyclist while he was in Australia).


Austin, an enthusiastic cyclist and an engineer with experience in small internal combustion engines, was drawn to the idea of manufacturing cars. He travelled to Paris to see some of the continental machines. Each vehicle he saw, in his opinion was too heavy or clumsy, with the exception of the three-wheeled Bollee made by the Bollée Brothers at Le Mans. Austin was already familiar with stationary gas engines used to drive machines by way of belts and shafting. In the Bollée, he saw this principle used in a simple and efficient way. He returned home with the idea of designing a motor vehicle similar to the Bollée, but with some improvements of his own.

In the first Wolseley car, unlike the Bollee, the driver's seat was at the front. The car was powered by a twin-cylinder horizontally opposed air-cooled engine. Unusually for the period, the inlet valves were mechanically operated. Drive was conveyed to the gearbox by a 1½-inch belt running on flanged pulleys. There were three forward speeds but no reverse gear. Instead of using a clutch, the main driving belt was slipped when changing gear. Steering was by tiller. Another interesting feature of this vehicle was that there were two silencers packed with pebbles and coke, forming a basic type of baffle.

The first Wolseley car was built almost in secret, as the directors did not share Austin’s enthusiasm for mechanised vehicles. Austin must, however, have been able to change their attitude when it came to the second car. The second Wolseley car, also a three-wheeler, was designed and built by Austin and was called "Autocar Number One". It was advertised at £110 but only one was made. It had a frame constructed of weldless steel tubing, with triangulated bracing for rigidity.

This second car was built during 1896, and it made its first public appearance at the National Cycle Exhibition at the Crystal Palace in December of that year. The seats were arranged for two people sitting back to back, steering was by tiller and the framework was constructed from tubes. The engine was located under the seats, was water-cooled and had two cylinders. In June 1898, Austin travelled 250 miles from Birmingham to Rhyl and back on this car.

The third Wolseley car, the four wheeled "Voiturette", was exhibited at the "Midland Cycle and Motor Car Exhibition" from January 25th to February 3rd 1900. The exhibition included trials, which were held on January 27th, 28th, 29th, 30th and 31st. The trials consisted of a journey from Birmingham to Coventry and back and a hill climb at Mucklow Hill, Halesowen, some six miles outside Birmingham. The Wolseley, driven by Herbert Austin, came home second completing the distance of 38 miles in 4 hours 58 minutes 45 seconds, and it succeeded in climbing Mucklow Hill Halesowen (about one mile in length) in 11 minutes 2 seconds and was awarded a silver medal.

The same car, again driven by Herbert Austin, competed in the Thousand Miles Trial of 1900. It was awarded first prize in Class B, a prize of £10 awarded by The Daily Mail and the Silver Medal given by the Automobile Club de France. It completed the entire course at a speed not less than the legal limit (then 12 m.p.h. in England and 10 m.p.h. in Scotland) a feat only performed by eleven other cars.


The directors of the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company realised that it looked as if the motorcar side of their business would outgrow their sheep-shearing machinery activities. If this were to occur, the car business would need larger premises and capital out-lay on plant and machinery, which they were reluctant to commit the company to.

Sir Hiram Maxim, of Vickers Sons & Maxim Ltd was greatly interested in the possibilities of using the motor car for military purposes. He had arranged for the construction of a "Motor War Car", which was made at the Daimler Works at Coventry. Vickers approached the Wolseley company with a view to taking over the motorcar part of their business and an agreement was soon reached.

In 1901, Vickers established the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Co Ltd, based at a 3½-acre site at Adderley Park, Birmingham, which they had purchased a couple of years previously. The factory had been built in 1897 for Starley Brothers & Westwood Ltd who were cycle manufacturers. The newly formed company, with Austin as manager, purchased the car-building activities of the original company, leaving the Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company with the remainder of the business.

On May 1st 1901, the new company issued its first catalogue. Two models were listed, a 5 h.p. and a two-cylinder 10 h.p. Both could be obtained with Tonneau or Phaeton bodies and either pneumatic or solid tyres (or a combination of both) could be fitted. A range of commercial vehicles was also produced and these continued in production until 1908.

In 1902, the two Wolseley racing cars were constructed for the Paris-Vienna race on June of that year. The first appearance of one of these cars was at the Bexhill speed trials in May of 1902. Three Wolseley cars also took part in the disastrous Paris-Madrid race of 1903, driven by Herbert Austin, Harvey Foster and Leslie Porter.

Around this time, John Davenport Siddeley (later Lord Kenilworth) approached the Wolseley company with a proposal that he have a car designed and manufactured, according to his specifications, by them. After negotiations, it was agreed that this would be done and that the car would be manufactured at the Vickers factory at Crayford.

By now Vickers were the owners of the Wolseley Tool & Motor Car Company Limited, who were, when Siddeley approached them, still making horizontal engined Wolseley cars. The vertical engined car was becoming more popular to the detriment of horizontal engined cars such as the Wolseley. Some competition between the two cars would be inevitable, but it was agreed that the design of a car laid down by Siddeley should be developed by the Wolseley Company, and manufactured by Vickers at Crayford.

The Siddeley Autocar Company was registered with its offices in Coventry, and the first Siddeley cars were exhibited in public at the Crystal Palace Show in January and February of 1903. A single-cylinder 6 hp, a twin-cylinder 8 hp, a 12/16 h.p. four-cylinder and 18/24 hp four-cylinder cars were shown. The general layout was, for the period, conventional.

In 1904, Queen Alexandra ordered a 24 h.p. Landaulette, and the next year King Edward VII ordered an 18 h.p. car to be presented to Osborn House, a convalescent home for Officers.


In 1905, the Wolseley company approached Siddeley with a view to taking over his business. Siddeley was to become Sales Manager of the Wolseley company. Austin resigned shortly afterwards. Siddeley replaced Austin as General Manager and for the next few years, until after Siddeley left, the cars were called Wolseley-Siddeleys.

At the Olympia motor show of 1905, Wolseley exhibited two small 6 and 8 h.p. models with horizontal engines, which were practically the same cars they had made the previous year, and three 15, 18 and 32 h.p. cars with vertical engines.

All was not plain sailing, however. From 1904 to 1908 there was no trading surplus. This, together with the fact that the name of Wolseley was occupying second place to that of Siddeley, led to problems between Siddeley and the Wolseley directors. In spring of 1909, Siddeley handed in his resignation.


Before the outbreak of World War I, the company had been renamed the Wolseley Motor Company, and the Adderley Park site was increased to about six times its original size. The company also diversified into other areas, such as taxicabs and commercial vehicles, as well as engines for boats, rail cars and aeroplanes. By 1913 Wolseley was the largest British manufacturer with about 4000 employees building 3000 cars at Adderley Park. A completely new range of purpose designed commercials was launched around this time.

By 1912 Wolseley had arrangements with Lloyds for their customer’s insurance, where required. The company also conducted a school of motoring for "owners or their servants” to learn both driving and theory.

During the war, the manufacture of armoured vehicles, munitions and aircraft components took the place of car production. Commercial vehicles were offered from 1901 to 1913 and through the war years but not after the war.

In 1912 one of the most unusual vehicles ever built was constructed at the Adderley Park Works. The Wolseley Company was approached by a Russian Lawyer, Count Peter Schilovsky, to build a machine to his own design. By November 1913, the Gyrocar was complete. It had two wheels, placed in line, like a motorcycle, and was steadied by a gyroscopic device controlled by two pendulums.

In 1913, Wolseley was the largest British manufacturer with 4,000 employees engaged in building 3,000 cars at the Adderley Park works.

In 1918, Wolseley entered into an agreement with the Ishikawajiama Ship Building and Engineering Co of Tokyo, which gave the Japanese company production and marketing rights for Wolseley vehicles in the Far East. A number of Wolseley employees travelled to Japan to help set up the operation. In December 1922 the first Japanese built Wolseley was produced. Seven years later, the company was also building cars of its own design. In 1949 the Japanese company changed its name to Isuzu Motors Ltd (Isuzu has been part of General Motors since 1981).

After the war, Wolseley took over a factory at Ward End, also in Birmingham. The Ward End works had been built by the Vickers subsidiary company, Electric & Ordnance Accessories Co Ltd in 1914/15. In 1921, Wolseley had 8,000 workers (3,000 more than during the war) and had the capacity to build 12,000 cars. Also in 1921, Wolseley opened a showroom in Piccadilly. Designed by William Curtis Green R.A., Wolseley House cost about £250,000 to build, and in 1922 was awarded a Medal by the Royal Institute of British Architects.

In November of 1921, a Wolseley Ten, modified slightly and fitted with a racing body, set up fifteen records in the Light Car class at Brooklands. On 2nd May 1922, the same car was driven at Brooklands for twelve hours continuously and covered 843 miles at an average speed of over 70 m.p.h., establishing thirteen new records. After a further twelve hours' run the next day, it had covered 1,456.6 miles at an average speed for the twenty-four hours of over 61 m.p.h. In August 1922 a standard Wolseley Fifteen, similarly modified, ran at Brooklands for twelve hours, covering 1,015 miles at an average speed of almost 85 m.p.h.


By the mid-twenties, the company was in a financial crisis and by October 1926 was in the hands of receivers. William Morris (later to become Lord Nuffield) purchased the company in October 1926 for £730,000. Other interested parties were the Austin Motor Company and an unnamed foreign corporation, generally believed to have been General Motors.

Wolseley was restructured by Morris, becoming Wolseley Motors (1927) Ltd. Shortly afterwards, Wolseley production was transferred to Ward End, with part of the Adderley Park site being used for the production of Morris Commercials, who established their Heavy Vehicle Works in part of this factory from May 1929. Prior to this move, Morris Commercial Cars Ltd was located at Soho. The Soho factory was eventually closed in 1932, when all production was transferred to Adderley Park (the company still retained ownership of large parts of the Soho works). The Managing Director of the new company was William Cannell, who had previously worked at Morris Commercials. A younger member of the management team was Leonard Lord, who had been transferred from the Morris Engines Branch.

Automotive Products announced their “New Improved Lockheed Hydraulic System” in 1927 and by 1929 William Morris was fitting export Wolseleys and the Morris Isis with hydraulic brakes, which were soon to be found on all Morris and Wolseley cars. The components were made in the USA, which, due to Morris’s very public stand on “Buying British” led to staff filing off the words “Made in USA” from the parts before a public launch of an early hydraulically braked Morris!

While the works underwent retooling, the 16/45 hp "Silent-Six" continued in production, and a four-cylinder version, the 12/32, was introduced, to be followed by an eight-cylinder version, the 21/60. A six cylinder 21/60, also known as the Messenger, was introduced in September 1928. The Messenger had an all steel body, in which the frame side members provided the sill between the running boards and the body.

1930 saw the introduction of the Hornet, which was powered by an overhead camshaft engine, with a capacity of 1,271 cc. There was also the Hornet Special, sold as a chassis only, for which a number of coachbuilders produced attractive sporting bodies.

Morris components began to feature significantly in Wolseleys and, by the late 1930’s, Wolseleys had become Morrises with revised front-end styling and upmarket interiors. These models featured the characteristic Wolseley grille with its illuminated badge, which had first appeared in 1932 and was to be found on all models until the last Wolseley was made in 1975.

By 1933, Lord was manager of Wolseley but was transferred to Morris Motors in 1933. He was replaced by Oliver Boden (who had previously managed Morris Commercials).

On July 1st 1935 Lord Nuffield transferred ownership of the Wolseley company to Morris Motors resulting in the formation of the Nuffield Corporation. It was also decided to produce all the engines for both Wolseley and Morris cars in Coventry. It was not long before the Wolseley’s overhead camshaft engines were replaced by push-rod operated overhead valve engines.

In December of 1938, H E Symons, a motoring journalist, together with H R Browning, drove a Wolseley 18/85 10,300 miles to Cape Town. The car was equipped with 9 inch tyres, a 32 gallon fuel tank, a 10 gallon tank for drinking water and special seating which could convert into beds. When crossing a bridge in the (then) Belgian Congo, the car struck the wooden railings and fell thirty feet into a crocodile infested river. Although it was extensively damaged, the only structural damage was a broken rear spring bracket. The car was repaired and continued on to Cape Town, arriving after 31 days and 22 hours of driving through roadless deserts, swamps, jungles and flooded rivers.

With the outbreak of World War II, production of passenger cars ceased and by 1940 the Ward End factories was making shells, Bren carriers, mines and Horsa gliders and continued to do so despite serious bomb damage during an air raid in 1941.

After the death of Oliver Boden in March 1940, Miles Thomas became vice-chairman of the Nuffield Organisation. Charles Mullens now took over at Wolseley.

In April 1945, the War Office placed an order for a number of Wolseley Eighteens and, on September 4th, the first post war Wolseley left the factory. Next came production of Eighteens for civilian use, followed by Fourteens and Twelves. The Ten was next, and then the Eight. The Eight had originally been scheduled for introduction on September 11th 1939, but World War II intervened and the car had to wait six years before it was finally released.

Miles Thomas left the Nuffield Organisation in 1947 and was replaced as vice-chairman by Reginald Hanks. Hanks organised for car production to be transferred to Cowley from the 1st January 1949.

By 1948, production of Wolseley cars had been moved to the Morris plant at Cowley, with Ward End being used for production of Nuffield tractors and agricultural machinery. The range was simplified that year to just two models, the 4/50 and 6/80. The bodywork of these cars was based on the contemporary Morris Oxford although, unlike the Oxford with its outdated side valve engine, they had an overhead camshaft power unit based on a Hispano-Suiza design. The six-cylinder version of this engine was also used in the Morris Six. Ninety nine 4/50s, nineteen 6/80s and five Morris Sixes were built before January 1949 when production moved to the Nuffield works in Cowley.

1952 saw the introduction of the 4/44; a Gerald Palmer designed vehicle, which was the last Nuffield produced car to use the 1250cc XP Nuffield Engine (as in the MG Y and T types). This was a result of the April 1952 merger of Morris and rivals Austin into the British Motor Corporation and the rationalisation on the use of the Austin engines for all new BMC production.

BMC AND LEYLAND - from 1952 to 1975

1954 saw the introduction of the Gerald Palmer designed 6/90 as a replacement for the 6/80. The 6/90 shared body styling with the Riley Pathfinder and was the first car to feature the new 2639cc BMC C series engine.

In 1956, the last of the Wolseley/Nuffield powered vehicles ceased production, with the 4/44 being replaced by the outwardly similar but BMC B series powered 15/50.

The next new Wolseley, the Morris Minor-based 1500, introduced in 1957 was developed from a projected replacement for the Morris Minor. Only Wolseley and Riley versions were released in the UK, although in Australia the car also went into production as both the Austin Lancer and Morris Major (the Riley version was not sold in Australia).

1958 saw the introduction of a new line of BMC vehicles styled by Pinin Farina (then known as Pinin Farina). Two years earlier, BMC decided that they wanted a new corporate look for their vehicles. They had the Italian styling house of Farina execute the design brief. The first of the resulting cars was the small Austin A40. This was closely followed by the medium sized Austin Cambridge A55 MKII, although it was the Wolseley 15/60 that was released to the public first rather than the Cambridge. The same basic design was also used for the MG, Morris and Riley versions.

In 1959, Farina styled versions of the larger cars appeared on the market, with the six cylinder versions replacing the old Westminster range. The big Farinas included a top of the range luxury saloon, the Vanden Plas Princess, which was mechanically identical to the Austin A99 and the Wolseley 6/99 (which replaced the 6/90). In 1962, the range received a facelift, which resulted in an increase in power output and improved interior specifications. The Wolseley 6/99 became the 6/110. The Vanden Plas Princess 3-litre was discontinued in June 1964, and replaced in August by the Princess 4 litre R.

The 6/99 and 6/110 both had a full gloss walnut dashboard containing full instrumentation including oil, amp, water and fuel gauges along with warnings for oil filter and servo vacuum. Doors were capped in walnut and the car was trimmed in leather. The 6/110 even had picnic tables for the rear seat passengers.

1961 saw the Wolseley Hornet, which was a Mini with an extended boot and Wolseley front-end fittings and interior. The latter part of the 1960's saw a range of cars based on the 1100/1300 and 1800 transverse engined BMC cars. During the 1970’s there were two new Wolseley models introduced. The first was the Wolseley Six, which was a replacement for the 18/85.

The last Wolseley, introduced in 1975, was the short-lived "wedge" (it did not have a model name, being simply marketed as the Wolseley saloon). The following year the Wolseley name disappeared from new car showrooms.