Vickers was formed in Sheffield as a steel foundry by the miller Edward Vickers and his father-in-law George Naylor in 1828. Naylor was a partner in the foundry Naylor & Sanderson and Edward Vickers' brother William owned a steel rolling operation. Edward's investments in the railway industry allowed him to gain control of the company, based at Millsands and known as Naylor Vickers and Company. It began life making steel castings and quickly became famous for casting church bells.
In 1854 Vickers' sons Thomas (a militia officer known familiarly as "Colonel Tom") and Albert joined the business and their considerable talents – Tom Vickers as a metallurgist and Albert as a team-builder and salesman - were key to its subsequent rapid development. "Its great architects," the historian Clive Trebilcock writes, "Colonel T.E. (1833-1915) and Albert (1838-1919) Vickers provided both inspired technical leadership and equally astute commercial direction. Both men were autocrats by temperament, but neither shunned advice or avoided delegation; each, but particularly Albert, had a marked gift for the selection of talented subordinates."
In 1863 the company moved to a new site in Sheffield on the River Don in Brightside. Vickers, Sons & Company. The company went public in 1867 as Vickers, Sons & Company and gradually acquired more businesses, branching out into various sectors. In 1868 Vickers began to manufacture marine shafts, in 1872 they began casting marine propellers and in 1882 they set up a forging press. Vickers produced their first armour plate in 1888 and their first artillery piece in 1890.
In 1897 Vickers bought out the Barrow-in-Furness shipbuilder The Barrow Shipbuilding Company, acquiring its subsidiary the Maxim Nordenfelt Guns and Ammunition Company at the same time, to become Vickers, Sons & Maxim. Ordnance and ammunition made during this period, including World War I, was stamped V.S.M. The yard at Barrow became the "Naval Construction Yard". With these Vickers, Sons & Maxim's Naval Construction Works (ca. 1900) acquisitions, Vickers could now produce a complete selection of products, from ships and marine fittings to armour plate and a whole suite of ordnance.
In 1901 the Royal Navy's first submarine, Holland 1, was launched at the Naval Construction Yard. In 1902 Vickers took a half share in the famous Clyde shipyard John Brown and Company. Further diversification occurred in 1901 with the acquisition of a proposed business which was incorporated as The Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Company and in 1905 the goodwill and patent rights of the Siddeley car. In 1911 a controlling interest was acquired in Whitehead and Company, the torpedo manufacturers.
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.
Herbert Austin (later founder of The Austin Motor Vehicle Company) 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 Wolseley Sheep-Shearing Machine Company, Limited was registered on October 9th and 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 implemented by 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.
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 (cycle)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 Vickers takeover & the horizontal engined 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.
World war I
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.
Royal Enfield 8hp 976cc manufactured by Vickers-Wolseley
Perhaps these acts of durability led to the request to manufacture an 8hp V-twin motorcycle engine of Royal Enfield's own design. This 1921 model is remarkable because it was an all-new design, built around the 976cc sidevalve Vickers-Wolseley engine which was specifically designed for sidecar duties.
The engine is started, by the large hand crank beneath the solo saddle, which lends credibility to Vickers aircraft engine origins. As the Royal Enfield was designed as a touring machine, there are large footboards for comfort of any size rider. Also, the front and rear mudguards are designed to keep as much water and filth from the rider and sidecar passenger as possible, and to protect the forward mounted magneto from drowning out from water spray. The Royal Enfield is finished in a rich dark green while the frame, forks and mudguards are in gloss black. Throttle, choke and air controls are all by finger levers.
Financial crisis and later history
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).
Wolseley and Morris became ever closer and in due time the Wolseley motorcars became Morrisses. The last Wolseley, the Saloon, was produced in 1975.
Vickers had a complete different history and moved in different engineering areas, like marine and aeroplane, mostly for the military. In 1927, Vickers merged with the Tyneside based engineering company Armstrong Whitworth, founded by W. G. Armstrong, to become Vickers-Armstrongs, Ltd. Armstrong Whitworth had developed along similar lines to Vickers, expanding into various military sectors and was notable for their artillery manufacture at Elswick and shipbuilding at a yard at High Walker on the River Tyne. Armstrongs shipbuilding interests became the "Naval Yard", those of Vickers on the west coast the "Naval Construction Yard". Armstrong Whitworth Aircraft was not absorbed by the new company. Later more companies were incorporated until in the 1970's The Vickers concern was nationalised into the British Aerospace group and British Shipbuilders. Also the steelwork activities were nationalised into British Steel Corporation.
The remnants of Vickers became Vickers plc. In 1986, Vickers acquired the armaments manufacturer Royal Ordnance Factory, Leeds, which
became Vickers Defence Systems. Other acquisitions included automotive engineers Cosworth in 1990, waterjet manufacturer Kamewa in 1986 and
Norwegian marine propulsion and engineering company Ulstein in 1998.
Vickers remained independent until 1999 when the then Vickers plc was acquired by Rolls-Royce plc who sold the defence arm to Alvis plc, which became Alvis Vickers until the latter was acquired by BAE Systems in 2004 to form BAE Systems Land Systems.