Wolseley: A Cardinal among Cars

I am less concerned nowadays about a car’s social status. As a car-mad 11 year old, however, I cherished our Wolseley’s lighted radiator badge. Mr Martin-next-door’s Rover didn’t have one. Yet I concluded that Rovers and Wolseleys were Officers’ cars. Austins, Morrises, Hillmans and Fords were essentially Other Ranks. The radiator logo on our Wolseley was like Captain Mainwaring’s third pip.

Rovers were “One of Britain’s fine cars”, they were quiet and smooth and woody and leathery. Not just up-market. Upper class. It was only later we knew about middle-class.

Goodwood 2011. Mr Martin's Rover-next-door was just like this. Our Wolseley 14's upper-crust rival.

Goodwood 2011. Mr Martin's Rover-next-door was just like this.
Our Wolseley 14's upper-crust rival.

Our Rover Book

Our Rover Book

An uncle had a black Jaguar with huge headlamps and a long engine. A bit racy we thought. The 2½ Litre Riley RMB up the street was more authentic. I read car books and knew Rileys raced in the 1930s. To a nascent engineer high camshafts seemed high quality.

Father’s fellow-directors rode in Humbers – Imperials, Pullmans. There was one clever metallurgist with a Lanchester. Their sons ran MGs, never very quick but open and exciting. Sunbeam-Talbots were too nouveau-riche. You could never get away from a pecking-order as clear as the half-timbered detached house or a small estate with a driveway. You were what you drove.

We were a Wolseley family. There was but one lapse. I passed my driving test in an Austin Sixteen but right up to latter-day Armstrong Siddeleys and Vanden Plas Princesses it was always Wolseleys – 14s. My first drive on a public road aged 13 was in a Wolseley 10. All the way to a 6/80 and, in my case because I couldn’t afford an MG Magnette, a Wolseley 4/44, Wolseleys were what we drove.

I grew up in a grey and blue Wolseley Fourteen like this.

I grew up in a grey and blue Wolseley Fourteen like this.

Which brings me to Anders Ditlev Clausager. His family cars were Wolseleys.

You know where you are with Anders. Meticulous research, clear writing, a keen eye for detail and in view of the foregoing I could not wait to get into his Wolseley: A Very British Car. (Herridge & Sons Ltd, Shebbear Beaworthy, Devon £60).

Anders sums up Wolseley delightfully. “Only in Britain did cars such as Wolseley flourish – the up-market quality but non-sporting car of relatively modest size is a British phenomenon with few parallels anywhere else.” He is quite right. American Buicks and Packards maybe but they were just as big as any other American car. Citroën for a spell – non-sporting a bit middle-class. Germany and Italy never made a Wolseley.

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Wolseley was as old as the motor industry; older even, and Clausager climbs the family tree that includes luminaries like Field Marshal Viscount Garnet Joseph Wolseley (1833-1913) an adc of Queen Victoria and army reformer said to be the inspiration for WS Gilbert’s Modern Major-General. Another scion created the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company of Sydney, Australia, 1887.

Progress towards manufacture in Britain of Wolseley cars that maintained Edwardian grandeur involved a clever engineer, Herbert Austin, who in due course left to set up on his own at Longbridge. Clausager charts Wolseley’s progress through clever engineering initiatives including horizontally-opposed and transverse engines. There was even a racing programme 1902-1907. Wolseley went into engines for boats and aircraft, becoming one of some 20 manufacturers round the world making noteworthy Marc Birkigt Hispano-Suiza aero engines under licence.

Our last Wolseley, a 6/80 with an overhead camshaft that took unkindly to teen driving

Our last Wolseley, a 6/80 with an overhead camshaft that took unkindly to teen driving

It was very profitable but post-war recovery proved problematical. By 1926 Wolseley Motors was in receivership. It was knocked down in Carey Street to William Morris later Lord Nuffield for £730,000 and I can do no better than quote Anders’ text summing up the years Wolseleys were made:

It has always been a mystery to me why Nuffield did not make a better job of exploiting the potential in the Wolseley brand and image in the imme­diate post-war period. In the late 1930s Wolseley had made up to 15,000 cars per year, which meant that they comfortably outsold both their obvious competitors, Humber and Rover, and at one time had a near 5 per cent share of the home market. They enjoyed steadily increasing sales to the Constabulary, and generally commanded respect as well-built, comfortable cars of quality, offering something extra, for what were still quite affordable prices. True, they were completely unsporting and styling was rather conservative.

“Yet when, after some delay, the new post-war mod­els were finally introduced in 1948, they emerged as little more than badge-engineered Morrises, and with few exceptions all future Wolseley designs were to a smaller or larger degree to be shared with other mod­els from the parent company, be it Nuffield, BMC, or the Austin-Morris division of British Leyland.

It is true that thanks to the introduction of the 1500 in 1957 the Wolseley brand enjoyed a renais­sance. Production and sales figures picked up and held up reasonably well until 1965, only dropping below the 20,000 a year figure in 1966, and then consistently from 1968, as the Wolseley range was reduced and sales declined. By then Wolseley's image, like that of Riley, had inevitably lost much of its lustre, because of the restrictions which were a concomitant of the badge-engineering policy. In the 1960s, sales were mostly in the home market, with export sales averaging 16 per cent, and Wolseley had nothing to match the exciting new executive saloons from Rover and Triumph, much less a competitor for Jaguar - but that of course was true for BMC as a whole.

This book is comprehensive and a good read. It has the style and content of a PHd dissertation with tables of production figures and pages of references on the author’s sources. If it lacks anything it is a long index to help in looking things up. In 1981 when he was archivist to BL Heritage Anders wrote in The MG Story of how Wolseley made overhead camshaft engines for an entire series of MGs up to 1936. The implication was that overhead cams were a Wolseley tradition revived as late as the 1940s 6/80. As a student of MG I would like to know more but the only index is one of names, in which MG founder Cecil Kimber appears only once.

Never mind. So much else is featured such as the 1956 Monte Carlo Rally competitor Dr AD Mitchell (Wolseley 6/90) from Tranent. I watched him set out on his 1275 mile journey from Blythswood Square, making all of 200 yards before crashing headlong into a Glasgow bus.

My 4/44. Not quite the MG Magnette I craved.

My 4/44. Not quite the MG Magnette I craved.