c.1902 ASTER-ENGINED CAR +/- 18HP - TILT-SEAT TONNEAU
Engines: a pair of Type 4N Aster vertical water-cooled, set transversely across the chassis, each 9hp, 105 x 120mm bore and stroke, 1,040cc, with automatic inlet valves, single carburettor, and electric ignition; Gearbox: primary drive by chain to gear system with final drive by side chains; Wood & flitch-plate chassis; Suspension: front and rear, semi-elliptic leaf springs; Brakes: two wheel band. Right hand drive.
It is probable that when this motorcar was built it was given a name, but at present the only feature that can be identified for certain is the pair of Aster engines. These were similar in most respects to the well-known De Dion Bouton units, the principal difference being that the crankcase was split horizontally, not vertically. Since they were always priced at just below that of De Dion Bouton they sold in substantial numbers despite a slight weight penalty that came from having bronze rather than aluminium crankcases. They were made in France by the Société l'Aster and from about 1900 were imported into Britain in some quantity by the Begbie Manufacturing Company. Sizes ranged from 3¼ to 9hp singles, a 12hp twin was available in 1902, with four-cylinder units introduced at the end of that year. Around 1904 Sydney Begbie established an English production facility at Wembley to make Aster engines, and post-Great War motorcars as well, the business continuing in various guises until 1930.
The overall layout of this car is conventional for its early 20th century date but it departs from the orthodox in the use of two separate but identical engines coupled together, and a drive system the functioning of which is not quite comprehensible in its present partially dismantled state.
The use of a pair of coupled engines, as distinct from a two-cylinder engine on a single crankcase, was reasonably familiar in the world of the racing motor tricycle at the turn of the century period but the application of the principle for motorcars proper was less common. Probably the best-known example in the early days was that of New Orleans (of Twickenham, Surrey), a firm that established its reputation with a belt-driven 3hp voiturette with its gears in unit with the back axle. At the end of 1900 New Orleans introduced a 6hp version by the simple expedient of adding an extra engine, the belt drive being taken from a pulley between the two crankcases.
Whoever built this car employed exactly the same idea as the New Orleans, but substituted chain-drive for the belt, which necessitated a clutch, and they placed the gear-train in the centre of the chassis, output from which was to side-chains. One possible candidate for construction of this car is the Metropolitan Motor Manufacturing Company of Fulham Cross, Hammersmith, London (not to be confused with Motor Manufacturing Company, of Coventry). At the Agricultural Hall exhibition in May 1901 the M.M.M.C. exhibited two cars that in a number of respects were similar to this survivor. The three main motoring magazines of the day reported on the cars; The Autocar fairly briefly, The Automotor Journal at length prior to the exhibition and included diagrams of the engines and gear system, whilst the Motor-Car Journal also described the cars and gave a plan view of the chassis. Both exhibition cars were fitted with two engines of M.M.M.C.'s own design (with a vertical shaft-drive overhead camshaft - for the exhaust valves only) and belt primary drive similar to that used on the New Orleans but with a mid-chassis two-speed gear, one car having final drive by a single chain. At the conclusion of The Motor-Car Journal report it notes: 'the second car is fitted with a tonneau body' 'generally speaking the transmission system is on similar lines' 'but' 'from the countershaft a couple of chains transmit the power to the back axle. Inclined wheel steering, two pedal brakes, cycle type wheels' 'are other details of the car.' Unfortunately no photographs of the cars were published in these magazines. The Automotor Journal also reported favourably about a run its reporter had on one of the cars, which rather confounds those latter-day commentators who assert that the M.M.M.C. 'made two cars, neither of which would work.' The design of the engines, whilst of quite advanced concept, does not look to be particularly robust and could account for replacement with good proprietary (e.g. Aster) engines at a later date. It must though be stressed that no direct evidence has been found so far that connects this car with the Metropolitan Motor Manufacturing Company.
The vehicle was rescued in about 1960 from the cellar of a house in Goodmayes (on the eastern periphery of London) where it had been stored in a partially dismantled state. The lady from whom it was acquired explained that her brother had bought the car second-hand in about 1903 and they had used it regularly. Eventually the radiator developed a serious leak and was sent away for repair, never to be seen again. At the outbreak of the First World War her brother took the car to pieces so that it could be taken down into the cellar, whilst he then went of to the trenches - from which he did not return. At least the car was eventually able to be resurrected and when it was loosely re-assembled it was found to be largely complete, the bonnet and the chain-driven water-pump being the only other items that were missing. Access to the rear of the neat, original, tonneau body is by tilting the front passenger seat, a system that had a brief popularity in the 1901-2 period.
The car is well-made and surely deserves its long-delayed restoration and for the true identity of its maker and the exact date of construction to be discovered - each of which should be, in their own way, fascinating tasks. With 18 horsepower under the bonnet it has the potential to be a lusty performer on the Brighton Run and in other veteran car events - but it does not appear that it will eligible for any of the existing one-make clubs.