Great British Cars – May 2012
THERE IS no doubt that the most significant invention in this modern world is electricity, because without it the world would be a very different place than we have now. In fact, it wasn’t really an invention; more of an accumulation of different inventions spanning many years, providing us with what we now consider as an essential part of our lives. Without electric our planet wouldn’t run anywhere near as efficiently as it does.
The first horseless carriages were steam driven, but it wasn’t long before the electric car was invented. The first electric car originated with a Scottish inventor named Robert Anderson, between 1832 and 1839. The vehicle didn’t revolutionise the industry, however, as the batteries weren’t rechargeable. The lead-acid batteries we have today had not been invented yet. Contributing to this disadvantage, electric powered carriages were about to be taken over by a newer revolution, the internal combustion engine.
Thomas Edison’s electric light bulb had been around for quite some time when the first internal combustion engine vehicles “overtook” the horseless carriage industry, but technology hadn’t advanced enough to make practical use of electric in motor vehicles. This saw necessitating another industry to “light the way” to help make these new horseless carriages safe to drive after the daylight had faded.
It came to be that Joseph Lucas was the man to light up the roads for British motor cars for many years to come. In the 1850’s Lucas was an unemployed father of six, so to make ends meet he sold paraffin oil from a barrow in and around the streets of Hockley, Birmingham. He had little education as his only schooling was at a nearby church Sunday school. His 17-year-old son joined Lucas in his new venture and together they formed a company called Joseph Lucas & Son’s. At this time they expanded their activities to selling paraffin lamps and various pressed steel goods, buckets and the like. Harry, the son, then designed their first vehicle product, a cycle lamp which he called “King of the Road”. The lamp was an innovative invention, paraffin fuelled and would stay lit even in strong winds. This lamp was a great success and seeded the start of the Lucas Lamp-making business. Several versions of Lucas lamps followed and although all of these lights became known around Britain as King of the Road lamps only the Lucas top-line, expensive model lamps were named as such.
With the technical expertise of Harry the company expanded its product line to include many bicycle accessories, and with them the Joseph Lucas & Son company became a veritable enterprise. Again, it was Harry who can be accredited with the step up from cycle accessories to the then expanding Motor industry. Motoralities was the name Harry gave his new line of accessories, and by 1902 a steady supply by the company to the motor industry of non-electrical goods began.
By 1914 Lucas had expanded into electrical products, lamps mostly, and received a contract from Morris Motors Ltd to supply electric lamps for their motor cars. Technical expertise was needed to step up beyond lamp-making for the evolving electrical components the motor industry now demanded; much more than Harry was gifted with, so acquisitions were made. Lucas company took on businesses with knowledge, expertise and market share. The first to join the pair was C A Vandervell (CAV) who made and supplied magnetos and dynamos for both the motor and aircraft industries.
A few years later the CAV branch of Lucas took over Bosch, who made fuel injection systems for diesel engines. Then, Rotax joined Lucas in 1914, they specialized in electrical aircraft components. Another takeover was Simms Motor Units Co who specialized in dynamos, starter motors, coils and spark plugs for the motor industry. By 1920 the Joseph Lucas & Son’s company had become a major player in the new motor car industry; it was in 1920 that Lucas signed a number of cross licensing agreements with Bosch, Delco and most of the other automotive electrical equipment manufacturers in Europe and North America. In addition, these agreements included a non-competitive clause, agreeing that Lucas would not sell any electrical equipment in their countries and they would not sell electrical equipment in Great Britain. By the mid 1930s Lucas had a virtual monopoly of automotive electrical equipment in Great Britain. In fact the British motor industries were reliant on the Lucas Co moreso than Lucas was to them, as Lucas had also expanded into the aircraft industry.
From the mid-30s up until the 70s no British car would run without Lucas electronics, it was a total domination of Britain’s auto industry. An agreement was also made with Smiths, who manufactured gauges for the British motor industry, to not venture into each other businesses. This agreement was later challenged by the Monopolies and Mergers Commission but was allowed to stand – the Commission concluded that the domination by Lucas, and a few other companies of the motor components industry, whether sustained by restrictive agreements or not, was justified in order that the motor industry should continue to have reliable supplies of cheap but good-quality components.
In North America the Lucas Co are humorously called the “Prince of Darkness” and the inventors of the short circuit. This title award was partially due, I believe, to the American’s mechanics unfamiliarity with Lucas electronics. Or, perhaps Lucas was branded with this title because of the British Leyland era when quality control was almost non-existent. The main reason any car breaks down has always been due to an electrical problem somewhere, and this is probably why the blame was aimed at a Lucas product.
I take a little offense to this Prince of Darkness moniker as I served part of my apprenticeship at the Joseph Lucas & Son’s company. As it happened I worked in the car parts division and had nothing to do with electrical parts. It was a good company to work for though, and boasted great talent amongst the workers. They had a suggestion program whereas everyone, especially apprentices were encouraged to take part. They gave prizes for any worthwhile suggestion and even consolation prizes for stupid suggestions, these were points which one could collect and redeem for a prize chosen from the Lucas catalog. They were all Lucas products of course, fog-lamps, spot-lamps, batteries etc. One could always tell a Lucas worker by their car being full of lamps, it was like the lightshow fantastic on the Lucas parking lot on a workday morning, with thousands of cars arriving at the same time lights shining.
Lucas continued on through acquisitions, mergers and market-share monopolies to become a global empire split into several divisions. It was the British car market that kick started Lucas though and the company surpassed every British car manufacture – and all this from a paraffin lamp, The King of the Road.