M&M Electric Vehicles was founded in 1975 in Atherstone and rapidly became a major force in the British electric vehicle industry. M&M incidentally had nothing to do with Mahindra & Mahindra, the Indian corporation which today is very active in electric vehicle development. The company was named for the founders, Reginald Mason and his brother. The Masons had previously worked in the bodywork department of Birmingham Dairies, and their initial formula was to take old but sturdy chassis, recondition the running units, and fit them with new cabs and bodies. However, new product development soon began. By 1981 it firm was claiming to produce about 250 ambulances, dairy vehicles and personnel carriers per year.
The first all new model was introduced around 1979. The M&M Electron was a versatile forward control four-wheeler, promoted as an ambulance, box van, dairy vehicle, dropside truck, personnel carrier, refuse truck or tipper. The standard cab had a full-width upright windscreen or could have the windscreen raked to give a less stark appearance. Customers or bodybuilders could have the Electron supplied in kit form for their own assembly.
A softer image was presented by the one ton Majestic (sometimes called the Electron Majestic) introduced in 1981. It was developed with the help of a £72,000 grant from the Department of Industry. M&M managed to keep its unladen weight down to 1.3 t by having a lightweight glass fibre body with a colour-impregnated cab. Priced at £6,750 it was claimed to be able to travel for up to 70 miles and cruise at 45 mph. The first example was built with support from the Department of Industry’s pre-production order scheme.
Midlands Electricity Board took an active role in the design of the vehicle. Two co-operative societies, East Mercia and Leicester, each took two tonne box van Majestics with Transfrig refrigeration units. Other Majestics in various formats went to the City of Birmingham and Slough Borough Council. M&M was very confident about the prospects for the Majestic, and predicted it would soon outsell its milk floats.
M&M were active exporters. In 1981 three steel-cabbed chassis-cabs were supplied to Zambia. Whether plans to build up local production to around 50 to 100 units per year came to anything is unclear. Two years later, ten Majestics were exported to the Swedish Post Office. Thankfully they were well-insulated and equipped with Eberspacher paraffin heaters to keep the occupants warm.
By the mid-1980s M&M was doing a lot better than most of its remaining competitors in the market. In 1982 it took over Crompton Electricars and by 1986 it seems that operation was trading as Electricars. In 1986 Electricars announced it had bought the Eaton light axle business and the Merthyr Tydfil factory from Moss Gears in order to secure supplies of the vital double reduction units used on most lower-speed electric vehicles at that time.
M&M went on to specialise in equipment hire and was wound up in 2010.
Established in 1949, Ross Auto Engineering of Southport entered the electric vehicle market in 1955 when it took on the manufacture of Helecs vehicles from Hindle Smart. It built 168 10 cwt Rider Prams for Express Dairy that were to the design of T H Lewis (an Express Dairy subsidiary) which lacked the capacity to build them. This deal was actually a sub-contract from Hindle Smart and explains why the vehicles carried Helecs maker’s plates and not Ross ones.
In 1956 Ross started producing its own 10 cwt and 25 cwt floats, followed by the Minor 5 cwt model. It also announced the Ross Auto 25 as a 25 cwt milk float. This compact four-wheeler was fitted with only 16 cells and had a 2.6 hp motor pushing it up to 8 mph with a full load. It featured a fully integrated body and cab in preference to the Rider Pram concept. By the 1960s this had given way to the 1 ton Beaver and the 1½ ton Major models.
In 1970 the Major was succeeded by the Stallion with a fully enclosed glass fibre cab and available with either hinged or sliding doors. As well as serving as milk floats, Stallions found work as box vans, delivery vans, and site ambulances. Annual output of the Stallion 1980 ran to 50 or so around 1980, by which time Ross could boast it had built over 1,000 milk floats.
In 1981 the London Borough of Bromley took a fleet of twelve as refuse collectors. Aside from the luxury of padded seats, these even had electrically heated windscreens to make driving safer on frosty mornings. Ross advertised the Stallion range as having payloads of 10 cwt to 2 tons, speed up to 20 mph and range of 10 to 50 miles depending on the size of battery.
In 1980 the 5/10 cwt normal control Joule van was unveiled. Designed to compete with the Ford Escort and similar models, it was keenly priced at £6,500 complete with battery and charger. It could manage 30 mph, tackle 1 in 6 gradients (16% grades) and had a range of 30 miles. Against it was its very angular appearance which might have given it similar stealth characteristics to the Lockheed F-117.
The company specialised in producing not only standard models, but also vehicles designed against particular requirements for on-road and off-road applications. For example it produced a variety of electric articulated lorry tractors under the umbrella name Bison. Few if any were registered for road use, but a notable example was the conversion of a small number of Leyland Buffalo tractor units to battery power. They were used for hauling trailers around BL’s (British Leyland) Unipart depot in Oxfordshire and also by a brewer in London.
Around 1980 Ross boasted over 150 users of all kinds. In Electric Vehicle Association literature from 1985, the firm is listed among vehicle builders as ‘Wingrove & Rogers / Ross’ and elsewhere as the ‘Ross Division of Wingrove & Rogers’. The exact link between Ross and this long-established Liverpool company is unclear.
Smiths Delivery Vehicles became the trading name for NCB electric vehicles in 1949, but the NCB brand survived for much of the 1950s before ‘Smiths’ became firmly established as a name in its own right.
In 1959 the firm fitted a small quantity of Karrier Bantam articulated tractors with electric drive trains, calling the model the Electric Karrier. The London Borough of Kensington was a customer. The idea was the Electric Karrier would haul a refuse collection semi-trailer through a round, and then a conventional Bantam would take the full trailer to the tip.
The company maintained an active interest in overseas markets. In 1962 it formed a partnership with Boyertown Auto Body Works, (a commercial vehicle coachbuilding firm in Boyertown, Pennsylvania) and the Energy Storage Company – makers of Exide batteries. The result was the Battronic 2,500 lb payload pick-up truck, the first of which went to the Potomac Edison Company in 1964. Smiths pulled out of the venture in 1966 although eventually 175 Battronic vans were built.
Another announcement in 1962 was the Suburbanite 20/25 cwt. The controls were laid out in a way that would permit the driver to either stand or sit (maybe perch is a better term) – as on the NCB Commuter. In the 1960s Royal Mail decided to explore the use of battery electrics, as it had done intermittently for decades. In 1969 five 15 cwt Smiths box vans were supplied for trials in parcel delivery. However, the internal shelves could be folded away, leaving move to move bulkier items inside the 240 cu ft body. They worked in various places, with three of them settling down to work around Doncaster until the late 1980s.
Some vehicles were even bigger. There was a limited demand for two-ton dairy delivery vehicles, where intensive deliveries to large premises like schools, factories and hospitals justified their use. At a few operators, these big machines formed a significant proportion of their total fleets: Walsall Co-operative Society ran over 50, Nottingham Co-operative Society had more than 100. Whereas half the Nottingham vehicles came from Smiths complete, the remainder arrived as chassis and were bodied by the society in its own workshops. The example at Wythall Transport Museum entered service in 1958 and lasted until 1991.
The most distinctive product from Smiths was the Cabac, introduced in 1969. ‘Cabac’ meant ‘cab with the entrance at the back’. In other words there were no kerbside doors. The driver left the cab through an opening in the rear bulkhead. There was a cross-walk between the back of the cab and the load space. The driver could pick up whatever had to be delivered and then leave the vehicle from either side. This system was claimed to reduce the amount of walking round the driver had to do, and be safer.
By the late 1970s, Smiths was building around 550 electric vehicles per year. The range at this time was standardised on a 102 inch wheelbase, with eleven different permutations of chassis capacity, body design and battery pack size. A sales representative would work with a prospect, examine their proposed routes for a new vehicle, and advise on the best vehicle arrangement for their needs.
Smith would also customise vehicles to meet a customer’s exact requirements. For example, some vehicles could be built with a central aisle down the middle of the load area (known as the Walkthru).
Parcelforce put a 5 t GVW Smiths vehicle into service in London in 1981 to gauge the potential of electrics on its low mileage, highly congested routes in the city centre. The very square-looking body was built by Cartwrights.
In the face of growing uncertainties around the dairy industry, Smiths introduced an economy model, called the Cabac Elizabethan, based on the Elite 85. It planned to sell 100 at 20% less than the price of the standard model to encourage sales at a time where dairies were hanging on to their equipment rather than replace it. Co-operative Retail Services in London took all 100 in 1981, so Smiths had to put it into regular production to meet demand.
Among the Cabac Elizabethan’s features were plastic battery containers instead of wooden ones, and a multi-voltage motor. This could run at 48 V, 60 V or 72 V which meant that the operator could retro-fit extra batteries if payload demands increased. Another feature which helped keep the price down (and made it attractive to operators with narrow streets to negotiate) was it was built to a width of 5 ft 6 in.
Reflecting the conservative nature of its customers, Smith’s design efforts were more about making their vehicles relevant to current delivery needs than installing state-of-the-art electronics that might improve range or speed. The aim was to produce vehicles that could last twenty years and not to do anything which might prejudice that. This explains the development of the Diff-Slip unit, an entirely mechanical device that obviated the need for contactor stages in the controller.
The casing of the unit contained minute steel shot and rotated at the speed of the motor. Within it a wavy-edged disc (called the rotor) was attached to the short shaft connecting with the rear axle. As the casing sped up the shot would tend to pack against the edge of the rotor to the point where there was no slip and direct drive was attained. This also avoided energy surges from the battery as the contactors closed between stages, thus saving up to 10% of the battery capacity.
In 1985 Smiths started to offer SEVdrive. At the heart of this was a vee-belt arrangement which the controller could adjust to provide infinite variation of the ratio of motor speed to prop shaft speed. The Diff-Slip unit was retained to protect the drive shafts from experiencing surges in torque. The big benefit was better management of speed; when the motor was on full voltage cones on the input and output shafts could be adjusted to determine road speed. This would allow a vehicle to travel at up to 32 mph when not sauntering through a delivery round. The big snag was that this system could not incorporate regenerative braking.
The decline of the dairy market led to consolidation among manufacturers and in 1989 Smiths bought the W&E Vehicles operation from Kennings. Over the next decade Smith’s product range evolved as it tried to meet the needs of a dwindling market.
The Smith’s board may not have been thinking this way, but a nearby business to Smiths’ Gateshead home recognised the changing attitudes towards climate change. The Tanfield group was a manufacturer of low-margin automotive components and saw an opportunity to move into an area that looked much more promising. It purchased Smiths Electric Vehicles in 2004 and heralded a marked step-change in its approach to electric vehicles. Whether it was a consequence of the takeover, or a desire to have a slightly less prosaic name, the firm re-labelled itself ‘Smith’ Electric Vehicles, and its story continues under that heading.
Hydrotechniek (UK) Limited was set up in Toft, outside Cambridge – possibly as a subsidiary of a Dutch company. Its name implies production to do with things like water pumps so the source of its interest in electric vehicles is unclear. In any event in 1979 the firm built a six-wheeled mobile library for Cambridgeshire County Council with a GVW of 6½ tons, branded as Techelec. This was based on Dutch technology, with motors from Creusen NV. It had a specified range of 80 km and a top speed of 20 km/h.
The design concept was modular, allowing vehicles to be constructed with payloads ranging from 1.5 t to 5 t. Small wheels permitted a low floor line in the cab area above the front wheels, and also in the body. A four-wheel mobile libraryfor Cambridgeshire was displayed in 1981 carrying Techelec, Creusen and Hydrotechniek badges. This was expected to deliver a top speed of up to 40 km/h.
The operation of the Cambridgeshire mobile libraries proved to be troublesome. They did not achieve the promised range and speed, and the smaller unit suffered unresolved brake defects. A follow on order for eight more vehicles was cancelled and the duo were soon replaced with diesel-powered substitutes.
The operation was reformed as Techelec Limited, and this outfit may have produced a number of spacious panel van style electrics in the early 1980s at a factory in Durham.
In 1949 Tomlinson Electric Vehicles of Witney, Oxfordshire, announced its Goliath milk float. This was a rather overblown name for a vehicle with minute wheels that was basically a large pedestrian-controlled float with a doorless cab bolted to it. Indeed, for the previous few years that is what the company had been producing. Although it was nominally a four-wheeler, the front track (distance between the centreline of each wheel) was only 16 inches and it had a wheelbase just under 53 inches, so even at the advertised top speed of 10 mph the ride and handling must have been pretty hairy.
Production ended in 1961.
Wales & Edwards was an established car dealership in Shrewsbury. In 1951, Mervyn Morris (possibly an engineer with the company) produced an electric milk float for nearby Roddington Dairy. One of Britain’s biggest diaries, United Diaries, was seeking its next generation of milk float. It must have heard about this and when it sent a specification to several manufacturers, it included W&E. Those that responded built prototypes and the W&E model was judged the most promising. Further development work was done with UD’s engineering partner, Mickleover Transport. The essence of the design was a three-wheel chassis with tiller steering and a chassis-mounted EDC 29 V motor driving through a chain to the rear axle. There was no enclosed cab, just a cowl over the front wheel and a canvas shroud to protect the milkman from the worst of the weather.
Out of that work, United Diaries placed an initial order for 1,250 units. As well as the huge order, the deal with United Dairies permitted it to sell the vehicle on the open market. Thus Wales & Edwards was catapulted into being one of the biggest suppliers of milk floats in the UK.
By 1954 the ‘W and E’ electric had evolved to the point where front wheel drive had given way to having the motor mounted above the rear axle, and driving it through a chain and flexible coupling. Whereas the original float could carry 17 crates of milk, a lengthened version was announced in 1955 to carry 21 crates rated at 25 cwt. A year later a bakery van version was introduced. This era of three-wheeler were known as Standards. The angular cab which had evolved from the basic shelter on the original models was replaced in 1956 by a much more stylish affair.
To cope with demand the firm set up a factory just outside Shrewsbury at Harlescott in 1957. That year the W&E Vehicles brand name was adopted.
In 1960 the one-ton chassis was revised as the Rangemaster, and in 1962 it was uprated to 25 cwt. The I range (or Intermediate) 25 cwt was also offered, presumably with a smaller battery and less range. Further UD orders followed, including one for a fleet of 18 articulated milk-floats with demountable trailers. The Loadmaster was an articulated three-wheeler designed to carry two tons of bottled milk but found few other customers.
The company diversified into four-wheelers in 1966 for applications needing a payload above 1½ tons. The 6/80 van, for example (introduced in 1981) was designed to carry a four ton payload. Marshall’s Dairies (part of the Express Dairy group) bought a fleet of three to carry out night time deliveries of milk to central London hotels, with a range of 40 miles and a top speed of 25 mph. This vehicle was almost twice as expensive to buy as an equivalent Bedford TK diesel but with lower depreciation and insurance, less maintenance and lower fuel costs was reckoned to be about 30 per cent cheaper to operate in the long run (assuming a longer vehicle life, and durable batteries that retained their capacity over time).
By the end of the 1970s the specification of the traditional three-wheel milk float had been greatly enhanced (there was a proper cab!) with models like the Wrekin – also offered as a local authority cleansing vehicle and a works ambulance. But there was a growing resistance in the dairy trade to three-wheelers. Thus in 1982 W&E Vehicles (as it was now called) brought out the four-wheeled Quartermaster. Like the three-wheeler, the front wheels were at the very front of the vehicle, not under the driver. Its operating speed was around 14 mph and its range up to 28 miles – no real improvement on what was available 40 years before.
At the same time W&E announced the 4/96, which was a forward control four-wheeler. This was designed as a chassis-cab to be fitted with whatever body the customer required. Yorkshire Electricity Board equipped one as a mobile workshop. As well as regenerative braking to enhance range, it also featured the creature comfort of an Eberspacher paraffin-fuelled heater to keep the cab and body cosy in a Yorkshire winter. The 30 cwt 4/40 was smaller and in one role could be fitted out as a compact refuse collector with side loading and a tipper body (the same pattern seen from the 1920s).
In the early 1980s W&E (by now part of the Kenning Group) formed a joint venture with Leyland Vehicles to develop a battery-electric version of the Leyland Terrier 7½ tonne truck. This is covered under Leyland-W&E in the 1980s section. A years later they co-operated with Iveco Ford to build a small batch of 7.5 tonne trucks (see Iveco Ford).
Faced with a collapse in orders from the dairy industry, in 1989 Kenning sold W&E Vehicles to Smiths and the distinctive range soon disappeared.
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