Single family ownership from new, sole surviving example 1904 Wilson-Pilcher 12/16hp Four-Cylinder Four-seat Phaeton Registration no. BB 96 Chassis no. 52 Engine no. 12
An important British veteran of innovative design, the Wilson-Pilcher presented here has never before been sold and is believed to be the marque's sole survivor. Walter Gordon Wilson established the company in 1899 at 32-34, Great Peter Street, Westminster. The name Pilcher referred to his friend and associate, Percy Pilcher, who died in a glider accident in December 1899, thus ending any chance of their achieving powered flight. Wilson had built an engine for Pilcher's aircraft. Pilcher was never actively involved in the car venture.
While a wooden mock-up was photographed in 1899, the first actual car is recorded in 1900. It was photographed at Stanford Hall, home of Lord Braye whose son Adrian Verney-Cave was a business associate and friend. Between 1899 and 1904 Wilson applied for 25 patents. Unlike many early manufacturers he was always an original thinker, relying on his own designs rather than sourcing components from others. His electric ignition and original gears and suspension bear this out. No record exists of the number of Wilson-Pilchers built but probably 100-200 were manufactured at Great Peter Street. Most were fours but in 1904 Wilson brought out his six-cylinder model, which was exhibited at the Crystal Palace Motor Show in February of that year to much acclaim.
The Sketch (17th February 1904) referred to the marvellously balanced six-cylinder engine and unique gear of the Wilson-Pilcher which was 'as full of meat as a nut' while The Morning Post (20th February 1920) singled out the W-P for its ease of changes of speed and absence of vibration and as smooth running as any exhibited. Country Life showed a picture of an open tonneau body in which they had driven 700 miles from London to Newcastle and back. On one journey the car averaged 42mph with fuel consumption of 20mpg. (Photographs exist bearing out this feat).
Short of capital, in late 1903 Wilson was persuaded by the mighty Sir W G Armstrong- Whitworth & Co Ltd armaments and shipbuilding conglomerate to accept an offer to buy his business outright. The whole organisation (design office, stores and tools) was transferred from Westminster to the vast Elswick works at Newcastle-upon-Tyne. Wilson-Pilchers continued to be made under Walter Wilson's supervision at Newcastle through 1904 and 1905 when the cars were re-designated as Armstrong-Whitworths. It is thought that a further 100 W-P cars were built, of which 'BB 96' is number 52. Motoring Illustrated (23rd June 1906) shows that a 12-16 Wilson-Pilcher and a 28-36hp Armstrong-Whitworth both performed faultlessly on all four days of the Scottish Trials.
The sale of the business, while sad, had one happy outcome. It enabled Walter to marry Ethel Gray in 1904. The honeymoon was appropriately, if unusually, spent motoring around Europe with two Wilson-Pilchers, the second being driven by Bobby Hale, a friend. A photographic record of this romantic odyssey exists. There is a strong suspicion that a main reason for the trip was to attend the 1904 Gordon Bennett Motor Race, which started and ended at Salzburg.
Walter Wilson was born in Blackrock, County Dublin on 21st April 1874 and later became a naval cadet on HMS Britannia. In 1894 he entered King's College, Cambridge where he studied the mechanical sciences tripos, graduating with a first class degree in 1897. Wilson acted as 'mechanic' for the Hon C S Rolls on several occasions while they were undergraduates in Cambridge.
Following his sojourn at Armstrong-Siddeley, Wilson went on to design Hall Commercial vehicles at Dartford, Kent. With the outbreak of the First World War in 1914, he rejoined the Royal Navy. When the Admiralty began investigating armoured fighting vehicles under the Landships Committee in 1915, Wilson was assigned to the experiments. His collaboration with agricultural engineer William Tritton resulted in the first British tank, called 'Little Willie'. In 1919 the two men received the largest reward for tank development from the Royal Commission Awards for Inventors. Wilson's personal contributions included the all-round track and epicyclic gearing, which was used in the Mark V tank to allow it to be operated by a single driver rather than the four previously needed. He was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in 1917.
Arguably Wilson's greatest achievement, the pre-selector epicyclic self-changing gearbox was invented in the 1920s. Partnered by J D Siddeley, he formed Improved Gears Ltd to develop the design commercially. Improved Gears later became Self-Changing Gears Ltd. Wilson pre-selector gearboxes were available on most subsequent Armstrong-Siddeley cars manufactured up to 1960, as well as on those of Daimler, Lanchester, Talbot, ERA, AC, Invicta and Riley. They enjoyed wide application and were well known for their use in generations of armoured vehicles, buses, railcars and marine launches, and were made under licence in many countries. Having been damaged during the Coventry blitz, Self-Changing Gears Ltd operated from a modern factory at Lythalls Lane, Coventry and was run by A Gordon Wilson, Walter's eldest son, until Leyland Motors gained overall control in 1965.
Walter Wilson was a brilliant innovator and a number of his highly original patents have endured. His engineering genius was, sadly, offset by a difficult temperament; he suffered fools not at all, took criticism personally, argued uncompromisingly and managed his business affairs none-too-well. He died in 1957 after a life of remarkable, if largely unrecognised, achievement.
This Wilson-Pilcher is powered by a horizontally opposed, 2.7-litre, four-cylinder, water-cooled engine with ignition by trembler coils. The epicyclic gearbox has pre-selector control of the four forward and four reverse gears. Suspension is by leaf springs front and rear with axles - live at the rear - located by radius rods. The body is an open four-seater tonneau (two of the seats 'dickey') which is finished in dark blue with black leather upholstery. The wooden artillery road wheels are shod with pneumatic beaded-edge tyres.
Chassis number '52' is most likely the 52nd Wilson-Pilcher built after the move from London to Armstrong-Whitworth's Elswick works in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. The registration number is confirmed as a Newcastle 1904 allocation. According to correspondence from Cyril Siddeley (later 1st Baron Kenilworth) whose company Siddeley-Deasey merged with Armstrong-Whitworth in 1919 to become Armstrong-Siddeley, 'BB 96' was retained for use as a fire-tender until its renovation by company apprentices in the late 1940s/1950s. Records show that it was run in the London-Brighton Run in 1952.
In late 1950s the car was presented to A Gordon Wilson, (son of Walter), who was then Managing-Director of Self-Changing Gears Ltd, the family business. 'BB 96' was displayed in the foyer of SCG Ltd at Lythalls Lane, Coventry and ran in the VCC London-Brighton Run four or five times in 1950s/1960s (it features on the rear cover of the 1961 official programme).
In 1959, Gordon Wilson and 'BB 96' appeared in the BBC Television series Lost Without Trace, which focused on the missing engine designed by Walter Wilson for Percy Pilcher's proposed flying machine. The historical significance of this engine was that the accidental death of Pilcher at Stanford Hall on 30th September 1899 thwarted the partners' efforts to make the first powered flight, which was not achieved until 17th December 1903 when the Wright brothers took to the air.
In this regard it is interesting to note the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust's assessment of the significance of Wilson and Pilcher's collaboration and the car that followed: 'The Wilson-Pilcher car engine is a direct development of that built in 1899 for Percy Pilcher's intended aircraft, a machine almost complete when he suffered a fatal gliding accident at Stanford Hall, Rugby on 30th September 1899. But for this tragedy, Pilcher would almost certainly have been the first to fly a powered, heavier-than-air machine, some three years ahead of the brothers Wright.' The Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust's 12-page account of the Wilson-Pilcher's history is on file.
In 1965, A G Wilson retired from SCG and the Wilson-Pilcher left with him. Appropriately, it was displayed in the museum at Stanford Hall near Rugby, the home of Lord Braye. In 1968, ownership passed to Henry Wilson, grandson of Walter. After 15 years at Stanford Hall, 'BB 96' was relocated to The Tank Museum, Bovington.
The curator was delighted to accept the car on loan in recognition of Walter Wilson's pivotal role in the invention and development of the tank during The Great War. In 1996 the Wilson-Pilcher successfully completed the VCC Centenary Run, driven by the owner, assisted by Patrick Blakeney-Edwards and accompanied by Mrs Rozanne Wilson and the present owner, Patrick Wilson.
In 1999 'BB 96' moved from The Tank Museum to the Museum of British Road Transport, now the Coventry Transport Museum. This was another wholly appropriate location given the Wilson family's long association with both Coventry (through Self-Changing Gears) and the British Motor Industry. The car was on duty at the owner's daughter's wedding that year.
In 2006 the owner accepted the offer of the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust's volunteers to carry out substantial mechanical repair work, a detailed account of which is on file. This work was done by the volunteers over the period 2006-2011 at the Rolls-Royce Works, Derby with the owner paying for the parts. In December 2009 the Wilson-Pilcher was exhibited on the Armstrong-Siddeley stand at The Classic Car Show, NEC Birmingham. In 2011, ownership of 'BB 96' passed to Patrick, great-grandson of the inventor/manufacturer.
Only gentle re-commissioning should be required to this most important and historically significant early British automobile, which is offered with VCC and Science Museum dating certificates, Swansea V5 registration document and a substantial file of history.