Northern Coach Builders was a well-established producer of bus bodies when it entered the battery-electric market in 1945. Based in Newcastle-upon-Tyne, since 1931 it had supplied most of the bus operators in north-east England, and many beyond, with bodies bolted to chassis by AEC, BUT, Daimler, Leyland and other makers. BUT (a joint venture between AEC and Leyland) built trolleybus chassis, so NCB were no strangers to electric vehicles.
During the Second World War NCB had been quietly working on an electric vehicle project. An experienced designer called Horace Heyman heard about this and persuaded NCB to take him on. Heyman had already worked with two other British electric vehicle makers, Morrison-Electricars and Brush. He was given full charge of the project and set up a small team on the nascent Team Valley Trading Estate in nearby Gateshead.
The aim was to design a sound vehicle that would sell in sufficient quantities to keep prices realistic. The 10 to 15 cwt model was unveiled in September 1945, and a one-tonner a year later. Although the running gear of its early electrics would be unremarkable (generally with BTH electric gear and Exide batteries), not surprisingly NCB’s real skills lay in specialised bodywork.
The initial target market was delivery vehicles. The first big order was for 208 machines for Thomas & Evans, the makers of Corona soft drinks. Substantial orders from the Co-operative Wholesale Societies followed, such as twenty one-ton bakery vans sold to Nottingham Co-op in 1947 featuring double-lined ventilated bodies to prevent moisture. Elsewhere, Central London Electricity Limited took ten 12 cwt general purpose vans.
Individual orders were also taken. Clarks of Retford took a one ton 250 cu ft laundry van. Saxone Shoes was another customer. That year NCB also introduced a 30 cwt van with a standing driving position for stop-start deliveries. Sales grew, despite the fact that NCBs employed more complex control systems and cost more than many rivals, although this was offset by their good range and low maintenance requirements.
As part of the post-war export drive, the company offered knocked-down kits of chassis and bodies that could be assembled by local labour. It set up its own factory in Dublin to do exactly that. Orders came in from Argentina, Belgium, Bermuda, Brazil, New Zealand, Norway, South Africa and Sweden.
In 1952 the 1 to 1½ ton NCB Commuter was announced as a fully-enclosed delivery van or milk float for the Canadian market, which looked altogether more polished than contemporary machines from any British manufacturer. Rather than the forward-control layout familiar on British four-wheelers, the Commuter had its door immediately behind the front wheels.
Such was the success of the electric vehicle side of the business that in 1949 NCB moved those activities into a new 25,000 sq ft factory on the Team Valley Trading Estate. The range expanded up to four ton payloads. Responding to the fashion for three-wheel milk floats the 1 to 1¼ ton Percheron was added. In the early 1950s production was running at about one vehicle a day but by late 1956 the factory was working seven days a week to meet demand.
NCB had been established by Samuel Smith in 1931. He had founded Ringtons Tea in Newcastle in 1907, and also had interests in other businesses unconnected with food and drink. The decision was taken in 1949 (around the time Sam died) to name the Gateshead operation Smiths Electric Vehicles and separate it from the bus body manufacturing side (which ceased manufacturing in 1950), although the NCB brand was certainly retained until 1955.
So in 1951 an NCB (not Smiths) mobile grocery shop, built by the firm on its own two ton chassis, took a silver medal at the Dairy Show held at Olympia in London. Shoppers entered at the back and made their way past shelves of goods before reaching a payment desk next to the driver.
Around the same time NCB formed an association with Walker Brothers (Wigan) Limited who were a leading maker of refuse collector bodies which used on-board machinery to compress the load and then discharge it at the tip. Around 1950 a small number of fully-enclosed refuse wagons were built at Team Valley, based on a standard Walker Prodigy chassis and its Paragon body.
The two motors enabled it to handle even a 1 in 4 (25%) gradient. These machines had a gross weight of 10 tons and a payload of about five tons and were marketed as Walker-NCBs. The loading was done from the rear rather than at the side. City of Sheffield Cleansing Department took at least one. Needless to say, this Walker had nothing to do with the American firm of the same name.
By 1956 the NCB brand had definitely given way to the Smiths marque, and it is under the Smiths brand that the next chapter of this business’s story is related.
Newton Brothers Limited was an established manufacturer of electrical components in Derby. At the 1920 Olympia motor show, the company announced its planned electric vehicle range, with models from one to five tons capacity. They were the work of Lt. Col. H. Newton who had designed a universal military tractor for the British army. 20,000 had been ordered, but when the armistice came the order was cancelled. Undeterred, he brought his innovative approach to battery-electrics.
The initial T2 model included a 2½ ton version with an 11 ft long platform, and 3½ ton variant with a 12’ 6” long platform. The 3½ ton Newton featured a low floor cab with access through the front bulkhead. Whereas most builders bought in the major components of their vehicles, Newton’s policy was to produce virtually all the parts except the batteries in-house.
Each rear wheel had a separate series-parallel motor with chain drive. The driver had a battery condition meter and there was an automatic cut-off when the battery was fully charged. The local council purchased two 2½ ton models in 1921 and an example of the 3½ ton machine (with tipping refuse collector bodies) was shown at the 1920 Olympia show.
The range was rationalised in 1923, and in 1924 a smart 20 – 30 cwt type was introduced. Rather than appearing like something derived from a horse cart like its predecessors, it resembled a well-proportioned contemporary petrol machine. Most of the 44 battery cells were under the dummy bonnet. The worm drive to the rear axle was much quieter than chains, and more reliable.
In spite of their solid engineering and design innovation, Newtons did not sell well because they were expensive even by the standards of electric vehicles (which means really expensive). The 1920 3 ½ tonner cost £1,570 (about £84,000 in 2022 prices). Production had stopped by 1926.
Ransomes, Sims and Jefferies was a long-established manufacturer of agricultural equipment based in Ipswich. The firm had experience of road vehicles building traction engines – the first in 1857. It decided to enter the battery-electric market in 1915 with its Orwell range.
The vehicles incorporated technology designed by the Mossay company in London which was also the selling agent for the Orwell. Paul Mossay was a Belgian-born engineer who had worked around Europe creating electrical and internal combustion motors and vehicles. Lacking its own electric vehicle expertise Ransomes essentially engaged a design consultancy to develop its product.
Mossay’s solution was to devise a machine that from the driver’s point of view was similar to a petrol-driven one, with a very similar control layout. There was a hand-operated gear-lever style main controller (operating the series versus parallel selection) and a foot operated clutch-pedal style auxiliary controller (operating the resistance steps) – the overall effect being that the driver would have to take their hand off the steering wheel for the minimum time.
The initial line-up covered 30, 40 and 50 cwt capacities. There were two motors, each connected to one of the front wheels, and each fed by a separate 40-cell iron-chloride battery. Such a vehicle, built for Willesdon Urban District Council, acquitted itself well on a Commercial Motor road test in 1919 – driving from Ipswich to London. The works driver reported that the vehicle was so quiet and so easy to drive that the main danger was falling asleep!
In 1918 Ransomes built an unusual articulated electric. The tractor unit was equipped with means to mount or demount a simple flatbed trailer. A contemporary photograph in Commercial Motor shows the trailer carrying a 26 ft long box that looks like the body of a railway wagon. Perhaps this was an early experiment in road-rail freight transport. To handle the extra weight the tractor had an additional battery behind the cab. A range of 60 miles was claimed but this seems improbable.
Larger models (up to 3½ tons) were introduced in 1919 which needed motors too large for front wheel drive, so these incorporated a more conventional set-up (for the time) of two horizontally opposed transverse-mounted series-wound motors driving the rear wheels via chain drives. The following year a larger chassis with a payload of 4½ tons was presented. The traction motors were compound-wound, meaning that they could provide regenerative braking.
These newer models incorporated a number of improvements based on service experience, one example being to redesign the motor housing to make the brush gear much more accessible and fully enclose the reduction gearing to keep out dust and water. One feature of Orwells which was regularly noted was their stopping power – especially in vehicles including regenerative brakes.
As with other makes, a major market was municipalities. Orwells were sold to a number of municipalities, including Birmingham, Cardiff, Motherwell, Newport, Rotherham, Sheffield, Warrington, Willesden, Worthing and, of course, Ipswich. Exports got as far as Adelaide and Hobart (in Australia) and Penang (in Malaya).
The range was still being advertised and described in 1925, but at some point not long afterwards Ransomes stopped building battery-electric road vehicles. Instead it concentrated on electric mechanical handling trucks.
It might not have been quite so apparent at the time, but a rather extraordinary development took place in 1937 when E. Cecil Kny, a London businessman, secured the rights to build German-designed Bleichart electrics in the UK – both road vehicles and industrial trucks. There were plans to build a large factory and commence ‘mass-production’. Adolph Bleichart and Company built one of the largest ranges of electric vehicles in Germany.
The Q Electric Vehicle Company was set up in Sunderland as a subsidiary of the Steels Group – named after the owners not the alloy. It shared its premises with Coles Cranes.
The initial range consisted of 15 cwt to five ton models. All of them used the same basic traction components, smaller vehicles having a single motor and larger ones a pair. They were interesting because they employed one or two central welded tubes acting as a spine, from which outriggers supported the battery boxes and the suspension.
The 1937 15 cwt delivery van was a handsome machine, indistinguishable from vehicles like the contemporary Bedford W except for the more bulbous bonnet that enclosed the battery pack.
In spite of wartime circumstances, during 1941 a 12/20 cwt bonneted model was added, along with a bonneted 50/60 cwt machine with two motors and independent coil-spring suspension. In 1948 a forward control one ton model and a normal control 2½ tonner were added, the former probably in response to a British preference for this layout. The one tonner replicated the layout of most equivalents from other makes – high frame dropping down to a low-floor cab platform. It retained the twin tube chassis but with a lightweight pressed steel high frame behind the cab to support the body.
The company devised an arrangement whereby the customer would buy the chassis (or complete vehicle) at a keen price, and the batteries would be rented, thereby relieving the customer of any worries about battery life. The battery would be exchanged for a freshly rejuvenated one every three months. The charger would also remain the property of Q Vehicles and arrangements to install and meter them would be agreed with the relevant local electricity supplier.
Quite how many vehicles were sold with such a strong German association in a period when Britain was at war with Germany or deeply suspicious of it is unclear. Q Vehicles remained in production until 1952.
Scheele was a well-established German maker of battery-electrics having started business in 1899. It was an early manufacturer of high-class electric cars and exhibited three at the International Motor Show in London in 1907.
Thirteen years later an enterprising firm called the Park Motor and Haulage Company of Grimsby set up as the UK distributor. Its four ton truck had a motor attached to each rear wheel. There was no cab, and the driver and a passenger sat on a box containing the battery. This spartan arrangement did not dissuade companies on Grimsby fish docks from buying 50 of them by 1915, many used for moving ice around.
Having built industrial and railway platform trucks for several years, Scott Electric Vehicles of Kidderminster entered the electric vehicle field in the early 1950s with a 10 cwt three-wheel chassis, followed in 1952 by a one ton version. They were largely road versions of those platform trucks, with tiller steering, front wheel drive and similar performance – a flat out top speed of 10 mph. Scott’s confidence in their product was tempered by their claim that the motor unit could be swapped in under an hour.
Sunbeam is best remembered in heavy vehicle circles for its electric trolleybuses, a form of transport in its heyday in the 1930s. Seeing growth in the battery-electric market the Wolverhampton company naturally felt well-qualified to enter it. Market research showed there was most need for a 12-15 cwt product and so the firm launched the MB chassis in 1937. This was their only offering.
The design was fairly conventional for the time. All electrical equipment was supplied by British Thomson Houston (BTH) who also provided the traction gear for Sunbeam’s trolleybuses. Pannier boxes carried a 60 V battery. The ventilated series-wound motor was mounted behind the low-floor cab. A range of 25 miles was claimed with a maximum speed of 18 mph. Customers included Selfridges of London (who fitted what must have been a deliberately dated-looking delivery van body) and a number of dairies.
The Sunbeam electric ceased to be available in the early 1940s, possibly because Sunbeam was directed towards making ‘utility’ specification trolleybuses. The company had been part of the Rootes group, but in 1949 it was sold to Guy Motors, which absorbed production into its own Wolverhampton factory. The same year the rights to the Sunbeam battery-electrics and all the goodwill were sold to Hindle Smart, which went on to market its Helecs range.
William Stevens developed a petrol-electric drive system at the turn of the twentieth century, and Thomas Tilling was a pioneering operator of bus services. They formed a partnership to convert Tillings’ buses to the new system, and Tilling-Stevens went on to be a small but highly innovative truck and bus manufacturer based in Maidstone.
It did not market pure battery-electrics until the 1930s however. In 1937 it was producing a 2-3 ton four wheel chassis, and a mechanical horse. Unusually, Tilling-Stevens produced its own (compound-wound) motors and control equipment. The three ton EV4 flat-bed model that was being built through the 1940s was, among other things, used for transporting R. Whites lemonade.
A five ton low-framed electric was announced in 1950, called the GEV. It was made to the specific requirements of Glasgow’s Cleansing Department and would have carried a refuse collector body. This was in fact a low frame version of an equivalent model with straight chassis rails and shared most of the same components. In addition to the driver the cab had room for four loaders.
By that time the company was in a parlous state financially. It had been taken over by the Rootes Group in 1949, and hicle production ceased in 1953. Engine production continued into the 1970s.
On rare occasions a freight or bus operator will start to build its own vehicles, optimised for the kind of work it carries out. For example, the Birmingham & Midland Motor Omnibus Company (better known as Midland Red) had a factory that turned out hundreds of innovative buses and coaches almost exclusively for its own services. In 1923 Outram’s bakery of Southport, then in Lancashire, decided that – faced with the high cost of existing battery-electrics on the market – it would develop its own.
A one-ton normal-control local delivery van was built (using a substantial proportion of wood in the chassis and body), with a 24 cell, 48 V, 143 Ah battery sitting inside a dummy bonnet. Some Ford parts were incorporated to reduce cost. Victor Electrics was set up to produce this machine commercially, at a price of £150 complete with battery.
The Victor proved sufficiently popular with other bakery companies that a factory was set up in Burscough, a few miles east of Southport. Sales of this Model A were not restricted to bakeries. Seven were bought by the GPO for service in London, and a number went to United Dairies..
In 1930 the next model was announced. This retained extensive use of ash wood in the chassis but featured a semi-forward control layout with a low step and a walk-through cab. Victor also produced a chassis with a structure like an open tank with deep side members – replacing conventional side members with truss panels. Steering could either be by wheel or tiller operation, and the driver could either be seated or standing. If standing, a treadle interlock prevented the vehicle from moving if unattended (for example by children!).
By 1935 the B range included the 10-15 cwt B10, the 25 cwt B20 and the 1-2 ton B30. A 12 cwt chassis was introduced that year, with a very simple forward control layout, the motor fitted under the driver and connected via a prop shaft to the rear axle. Like other Victors it featured independent front suspension, and also sported the kind of spoked wheels more familiar on contemporary sports cars.
The Model C offered a 30 cwt payload, and in the early 1930s the LL variant was announced. It was similar to the Model C but had a lower loading height owing to its smaller disc wheels. By 1937 the company was offering models for 8, 10, 20 and 30 cwt payloads – all with forward control.
For some models, Victor produced its own motors, but relied on other firms for most of the mechanical parts. Buyers could trade off range, speed (up to 20 mph) and payload in the specification they opted for. As well as the likes of Nottingham Co-operative Diaries, the Model B was sold to laundries and dairies for door-to-door deliveries. A typical smaller Model B would have a 24 cell battery, rated at 224 Ah, whereas a larger one might be fitted with a 40 cell, 168 Ah set.
In 1945 the company announced it had perfected a way to standardise battery arrangements and enable them to be recharged off a standard plug rather than through expensive charging equipment. By that time the range covered payloads from 10 cwt to four tons (the Model C range covering the higher weight categories). The Model E road tractor was offered in 1957.
In 1967 Victor Electric Company was acquired by Brook Motors and became Brook Victor Electric Vehicles Ltd. Production thereafter focussed on industrial trucks and the business ultimately became part of the Hawker Siddeley Group.
The American Walker company probably produced more battery-electric vehicles than any other firm in the first half of the twentieth century, construction of small electrics beginning in 1906. A large part of its success was due to ingenious technology. George R. Walker devised a way to take the drive from an electric motor to a sun gear at the hub of a driving wheel and reduce it by means of planet gears connected to an annular gear inside the wheel rim.
Production of trucks with a payload of 3,000 lbs began around 1909 at a factory in Chicago. By 1915 the design had evolved to the point where one motor and a differential were enclosed within a rear axle casing, sending drive to each of the rear wheels using that gear arrangement.
This was lighter, much less noisy and simpler than any chain driven arrangement, and there were fewer parts. On the other hand, a high standard of machining was needed to ensure satisfactory operation. The battery was arranged in two sections, which were connected in parallel for the start and acceleration, and in series once at running speed.
As with other American companies Walker realised that after the First World War the way forward was to build vehicles in the UK rather than import them from the United States. Walker Vehicles Limited was set up in 1923 with a factory in Slough, producing four models, with capacities of 1, 2, 3½ and 5 tons. They had high straight frames with the controller under the driver’s bench seat.
Walkers were popular in Britain. Harrod’s, the London store, built up a large fleet of Model K’s. A 1935 photograph shows a Walker short-wheelbase goods lorry towing a trailer weighing six tons in the service of Hovis, the bakery firm.
Once sales of electrics declined in the US, Walker starting producing petrol electric vans – typically with a Chrysler engine. The firm ended production in 1942.
Partridge, Wilson and Company of Leicester was a maker of radios and battery charging equipment, and entered the electric vehicle market in May 1934 with a 5/6 cwt van aimed at the short distance delivery market. It demonstrated how rapidly small electric vehicle design was advancing in the 1930s. The low cab floor, pleasant styling, and widespread use of components found on petrol vehicles illustrate this. It featured a 40 V, 129 Ah battery, and was offered at £146 for a year’s rent of the vehicle.
West Ham Electricity Department took a pair, fitted with streamlined bodies by Tomlinson of London. They were intended to carry tools and equipment for technicians but their design was also meant to be an advertisement for the modernity of electricity.
Later that year the vehicle was re-designated as the LW (for ‘light weight’). This was also offered as the SLW (‘speedy light weight’) as a 6 cwt with a smaller, and therefore lighter, battery. By then the W15 15 cwt chassis had been added. This in turn was uprated in 1935 to become the MW 15/25 cwt chassis with a 60 V, 192 Ah battery. It introduced fully automatic control. The driver depressed the accelerator and the relay contacts would close at a rate governed by a fluid dashpot. This was offered at £255. An open float body would cost £23 more, and a closed milk van body £45.
The batteries on the MW were arranged in boxes of twelve on top of the frame. To achieve a reasonable working height for loading and unloading, 13-5 low pressure tyres were fitted.
Wilsons were employed at the British Industries Fair in 1935 for site transport. As well as private customers like bakeries, they were popular with municipalities such as Brighton, Bolton, and Wakefield. Several were exported to Hong Kong.
By increasing the battery size, and reducing the payload, a long range 10/12 cwt variant of the MW was added in 1936. The IW (‘intermediate weight’) came in as a purpose-designed 12 cwt chassis in 1939. By 1940 the range spanned 3 cwt up to two ton models.
At at some point in the 1940s, Hindle Smart (who made Helecs vehicles) took over the entire design and production of Wilsons. This allowed Partridge Wilson to focus its Leicester works entirely on the production of transformers and battery-charging equipment. Thus the Manchester-based company built the Wilson Junior 18 cwt and Wilson Major 25 cwt models.
An interesting special model was the Wilson-Scammell. Scammell had perfected the mechanical-horse tractor, able to shuffle trailers inside congested goods yards. It sold extremely well to railways and parcel firms, and a tie-up with Wilson in 1939 produced the Wilson-Scammell battery-electric version. A small number were sold until about 1946.
The technology continued to be improved after the Second World War, and in 1948 the Beavermajor was announced. This 25 cwt chassis had an all-steel frame and made extensive use of mainstream automotive components. A first for battery-electrics was a brake system from Girling that featured hydraulic brakes on the front wheels and mechanical brakes on the rear. It was eventually offered in a range of payloads. This included the Minor (15 cwt), the Junior (18 cwt), the Major (25 cwt) and the Senior (30 cwt).
Wilsons sold in modest numbers into the 1950s. A fleet of 50 or so was sold to the Johnson Mooney O’Brien bakery in Dublin for example. However Hindle Smart stopped production of Wilson electrics in 1954.
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