Manufacturing activities of engineers John I Thornycroft & Co Ltd were carried out at factories in Basingstoke and Southampton. The firm's wide-ranging product line included commercial and military vehicles, high-grade cars, various types of boats and ships, marine engines, water-tube boilers and other items. The main point of interest in the following timeline is Thornycroft's lorry activities between 1919 and 1926. However, the timeline covers Thornycroft's total activities from 1862 to 1926, in order to give context to the firm's lorry production.
The Thornycroft era started when John I Thornycroft (later Sir John) designed a steam road vehicle.
Thornycroft formed the Steam Carriage and Wagon Company, with works at Chiswick, London. However, the project was brought to a halt by over-zealous legislation for road vehicles. As a result, Thornycroft gave up road vehicles and turned, instead, to shipbuilding, also at Chiswick.
1864 to 1895
Although not part of the history of Thornycroft's vehicle manufacture, shipbuilding activities are covered below to account for the 31 year gap between 1864 and 1895, during which Thornycroft disengaged from road vehicles.
Thornycroft launched his 60ft (18.3m) steam launch Miranda in 1871, a vessel which was notable for its high speed of 18kts (33.3kph). John I Thornycroft & Co was set up the following year, and the firm became known for its small high-speed ships and launches. Thornycroft demonstrated his inventive skills by taking out numerous patents, the first in 1873, totalling 50 by 1924.
The firm built HMS Lightning in 1876, the Royal Navy's first torpedo boat, an 84ft (25.6m) steam craft which was manoeuvrable and, capable of over 21kts (38.9kph), fast for those pre-turbine days. Thornycroft recognised the potential of water-tube boilers, in comparison with traditional fire-tube boilers, and Thornycroft water tube boilers were first used in the Royal Navy in 1885. Two years later the Spanish Navy's Thornycroft-built torpedo boat destroyer Ariete exceeded the then-high speed of 25kts (46.3kph). In 1895, Thornycroft's torpedo boat destroyer HMS Desperate exceeded 30kts (55.6kph), a phenomenal speed for a ship with steam triple expansion piston engines.
John Thornycroft continued with his shipbuilding and marine engineering business, but he took up road vehicle work again and built his first steam vehicle at the Chiswick works.
The Thornycroft Steam Wagon Company of Chiswick became a producer of steam road vehicles, and demand for the firm's vehicles led to the setting up of a new factory at Basingstoke, Hampshire.
Thornycroft sold a steam lorry to the War Office, for experimental use by the Royal Engineers.
The above vehicle, with three or four others lent to the Army by the firm, took part on trial at the autumn manoeuvres.
The original shipbuilding firm was registered as a limited liability company, becoming J I Thornycroft Co Ltd, and the works were transferred from Chiswick to Southampton in 1904. The firm absorbed the Thornycroft Steam Wagon Company in 1904.
Some 3 ton (3,048kg) steam lorries were ordered by the Government and handed over to the Army. Attracted by the possibility of orders and a £500 prize for the winning vehicle, several firms, including Thornycroft, entered a War Office competition held at Aldershot for the best type of powered vehicle for military use. The winner was Thornycroft's steam lorry Manufacturer's No 99, War Office Trials No 6, followed into second place by a Foden lorry - also steam driven.
Thornycroft's winning steam lorry was bought by the War Office complete with trailer, and the firm also received orders for more vehicles.
London's first powered bus, a Thornycroft steam-driven double-decker, started running between Oxford Circus and Shepherds Bush. A canopy was fitted to prevent cinders from falling on the passengers!
Continuing success with steam wagons gave Thornycroft a solid reputation for producing road-vehicles, and it was natural that the firm should turn its attention to producing vehicles with IC engines. The first Thornycroft motor vehicle was introduced this year, a petrol-driven commercial vehicle with a 4 ton (4,064kg) load capacity. Vehicles of similar design for 1.5 ton (1,524kg) and 2 ton (2,032kg) loads were introduced a year later, and the firm went on to become a noted manufacturer of commercial motor vehicles, including buses.
1903 to 1912
At this point, a brief interruption to the history of Thornycroft's commercial vehicle development is necessary, to cover the firm's nine years as a producer of upmarket cars. Car production took place at Thornycroft's Basingstoke factory, and the firm entered the market with a small 10hp two-cylinder model in 1903, but, later on, the firm produced a large 45hp six-cylinder car which, in some ways, was comparable to the renowned Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Cars between 10hp and 45hp in size were also produced during Thornycroft's relatively brief time in car manufacturing.
Thornycroft recognised the value of competition for publicising its cars, and entered them in various events. For instance, a 20hp car won a gold medal in the 1904 Scottish Automobile Club Reliability Trials, and a 24hp car made the fastest time of any car entered in the 1905 Aston Hill Climb. In 1907, a 45hp car performed well in the Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb. Thornycroft cars were regular competitors in the Tourist Trophy races from 1905 to 1908.
However, the last Thornycroft car was produced in 1912, because the high demand for its heavy vehicles meant that all available manufacturing facilities had to be concentrated on them. The firm is thought to have considered re-entering the car market between both world wars, but, regrettably, this possibility came to naught.
After gaining experience with steam lorries, the War Office's next step was to call for a 5 ton (5,080kg) lorry powered by an IC engine. Thornycroft's design, running on paraffin, was one of two designs selected. Unusually, the exhaust was discharged vertically via a steamer-like funnel, as, in the early days of IC-engined lorries, it was feared that an exhaust pipe discharging rearwards would frighten horses in the supply columns!
1904 to 1907
Thornycroft's commercial vehicle sales for these years included steam vehicles, motor coaches, single and double-deck buses, vans, lorries and chassis on to which commercial bodies were fitted by other organisations. The firm also sold two military IC-engined tractors to the War Office (one with a two-cylinder engine and the other with four cylinders).
During the summer, the RAC organised a thousand-mile trial for commercial vehicles, and the War Office offered special certificates for IC-engined vehicles suitable for military use. At least 27 firms entered the trials, e.g. Thornycroft, Tasker, Dennis, Maudslay, Armstrong-Whitworth, Straker-Squire, De Dion and Wolseley, to name but some. Thornycroft was awarded a certificate by the Army Council for Vehicle No. C.19, a 1.5 ton (1,524kg) lorry powered by a 30hp four-cylinder L4 petrol engine of 5.21 litres.
1908 to 1912
Military opinion had swung in favour of wagons hauled by tractors rather than self-propelled army lorries, and the War Office bought several Thornycroft tractors in 1908, all with four-cylinder engines. The following year the authorities held a competition for the best IC-engined tractor. Many leading firms entered this competition, which lasted several days, largely over difficult terrain, and a £750 prize was awarded to Thornycroft's entry, Thornycroft Vehicle Number 833 - the only vehicle deemed worthy of an award! The War Office subsequently bought the vehicle under Sales Order 2813. However, military opinion eventually swung back to self-propelled rubber-tyred army lorries, and a few experimental orders for lorries were placed. In the meantime, Thornycroft maintained production and sales of its commercial vehicles.
Thornycroft was awarded a certificate of acceptance in January for the performance of its Type K subsidy lorry in the War Department's Subsidy Type Lorry Trials. This four-cylinder 30hp lorry, with a 4.5 ton (4,572kg) capacity, passed the prescribed tests to the satisfaction of the Mechanical Transport Committee. It was later sold to the well-known Pickfords company.
The famous J-type lorry was introduced, later uprated with a 40hp engine and a capacity of 4 tons (4,064kg).
WW1 broke out in August 1914. The War Office found itself seriously short of lorries which it could call up for service, due to the failure of the subsidy scheme. It therefore obtained by impressment a large number of vehicles from manufacturers and private users all over the country. During the August Bank Holiday week, Thornycroft was busy delivering to a mechanical transport camp in Kensington Gardens, London, all vehicles which had been nearing completion at Basingstoke, and which could be completed quickly with temporary or permanent bodies. Shortly afterwards, Thornycroft was instructed by the War Office to supply its entire output of J-Type lorries for military use, the first batch being delivered on 8 September. Later on in the war, Thornycroft was able to supply small numbers of J-types to private operators while most of its production was absorbed by the War Office. About 5,000 J-Type lorries were built during WW1 by Thornycroft.
Thornycroft's Basingstoke works employed some 1,500 people and produced heavy IC-engined vehicles and IC marine engines. The firm had, by then, discontinued the production of steam-powered vehicles.
1919 to 1922
After WW1, Thornycroft continued production of its four proven pre-1919 models, including the 2 ton (2,032kg) BT, 3 ton (3,048kg) X, 4 ton (4,064kg) 40hp J and 5 ton (5,080kg) 40hp Q. Later on, these types were joined by the 6 ton (6,096kg) 40hp W, Thornycroft's first post-WW1 lorry design.
Equipment for the production of producer gas as a fuel was fitted to a 40hp J-type lorry, and the vehicle was sent to France for trials. However, Thornycroft continued producing petrol-driven lorries.
Production of the previous year's model range continued. However, the new 50hp BB/4 engine became available for use in some lorries instead of the 40hp unit.
1924 and 1925
Thornycroft maintained production of last year's lorry range, supplemented by the six new models listed below:
The firm's complete lorry range offered a load capacity ranging from 1.5 tons (1,524kg) to 10.75 tons (10,922kg). However, the J and BT artics were shortlived as they were dropped from the range for 1925, as were the X and BT models.
The Hathi heavy four-wheel drive tractor was introduced, designed for heavy haulage of lumber, etc over difficult terrain. It could cross gullies with 3ft (0.91m) high vertical banks, exert a steady drawbar pull of 9,000lb (4,082kg), haul a 10 ton (10,161kg) trailer up a gradient of 1 in 10 at 7mph (11.3kph), and travel through soft sand. Its built-in winch had a pull of 5 tons (5,080kg). The British Army acquired a number of Hathis for artillery transport. The vehicle was powered by a giant 11.33litre six-cylinder engine developing 100bhp.
Thornycroft continued producing its 1925 range less the 6 ton (6,096kg) W, with five additional new models comprising:
A 1.5 ton (1,524kg) A1 lorry won the Stanton Trophy in the Three Days Reliability Trial of the Transvaal Automobile Club.
By now, Thornycroft had become a major firm whose extensive product range included motor vehicles for goods, passenger transport and municipal service, cargo and passenger ships up to a length of 450ft (137m), shallow draft vessels, oil tankers, destroyers, ferries, tugs, yachts, marine and stationary engines, motor boats capable of up to 40kts (74kph), water tube marine boilers, etc. In addition to its London premises and its Basingstoke and Southampton works, Thornycroft had several depots and branches both at home and overseas.
Sir John I Thornycroft, FRS, LL.D, 1843 to 1928.
Founder of the Thornycroft company.
1916 Army Type J