The Ex-Sword Collection
c.1903 ARROL-JOHNSTON THREE CYLINDER 20 HP SIX-SEATER REAR-ENTRANCE DETACHABLE TOP LIMOUSINE
Registration No. SH 103
Car No. 338
Engine No. 65
Varnished wood with black leather interior
Engine: three-cylinder horizontal - outer cylinders 4¼" bore, central cylinder 4½" bore, stroke 6", 4,354cc, with automatic inlet valves, water-cooled, low-tension magneto ignition; Gearbox: Primary transmission by Reynolds silent chain to 4-speed and reverse gearbox, metal to metal expanding clutch, gearbox to spur-gear final drive unit transmission by Reynolds chain; Suspension: front, semi-elliptic leaf springs, rear, platform; Brakes: Internal-expanding rear-wheel brakes and transmission brake. Wooden artillery wheels with solid rubber tyres. Right hand drive.
At the end of January 1896 George Johnston was arraigned before the Glasgow magistrates charged with driving, on the 4th January, on the city streets, a 'locomotive', contrary to the provisions of the 1881 Locomotives on Highways Act. He argued that the vehicle was a light carriage, propelled by an oil motor, and therefore not a locomotive under the meaning of the Act, but the magistrates found him guilty, and fined him two shillings and sixpence. After an interval of three years, in December 1898, the 'Mo-Car Syndicate Ltd' was registered, with financial backing from members of the Coats cotton family of Paisley and Sir William Arrol, civil engineer and builder of the Forth Bridge, with Johnston as the engineering director, to initially manufacture in Glasgow Arrol-Johnston motor carriages - that by then could be used quite legally on the city's streets and on the highways. The firm apparently had no word in its collective vocabulary to express anything as urgent as mañana and cars do not seem to have been sold to the public until the end of 1899 at the earliest.
Hippomobile in style, substantial in construction, running on large diameter artillery wheels with solid-rubber tyres, and technically unorthodox, Arrol-Johnston motorcars of this type remained in production until the latter part of 1905. The two-cylinder engine was horizontally mounted aft of the centre of the car, with the gearbox beneath it, the mechanism thus taking the place of the storage space that hounds would have occupied in a horse-drawn dogcart. The seating above this ensemble contributed in no small part to the imposing height of the cars. Whilst the engine may have had only two cylinders, it nevertheless had four pistons, two to each cylinder working in opposition to each other with combustion taking place between them, and with link motion to drive the crankshaft. This layout was well-balanced, and in part contributed to the smooth-running of the engine and minimised vibration throughout the car, but it was complicated.
It seems to have been at some time during 1904 that Johnston sought a simpler design that would retain the smoothness of the opposed-piston engine and his solution was a three-cylinder power unit with just three pistons sufficing. There was a vogue for three-cylinder engines in the 1903 to 1905 period and makers as familiar as Panhard-Levassor and Rolls-Royce were among the several dozen manufacturers who for a time added them to their portfolios. Johnston though could not, apparently, keep it simple. With the intention of balancing the mass of the two outer pistons, or at least mitigating this perceived problem, the middle cylinder was bored to a larger diameter. Whether this was truly necessary, or worked in practice, is conjectural.
In a further attempt to keep abreast of the times this new engine was placed at the front of the car, although it was still horizontally disposed, with the cylinder heads to the fore. This brought further complications. All Arrol-Johnstons used low-tension magneto ignition, and this requires both a generator, in this case chain-driven, and a make-and break mechanism within each cylinder. Most manufacturers utilised additional lobes on the valve camshaft to actuate the trip mechanism, but with the automatic inlet-valves atop the cylinders, and the exhaust valves below, the push-rods for the igniters would have been inordinately long and inaccessible. The solution to the problem, even when seen, beggars belief. There is a separate fully enclosed camshaft, driven by a long open chain, and this unit is bolted not to the engine, but to the sub-frame on which the engine sits, directly below the cylinder heads. Apparently it was a workable solution. The car has many other unusual features that are worthy of study and which should fascinate the technically minded. However while the dual-piston engined dogcarts were regarded as unorthodox, the three-cylinder machines must represent unorthodoxy in excelcis.
These three-cylinder cars made their first public appearance, certainly south of the border, at the Olympia Motor Show in February 1905, The Autocar commenting that: 'The new Arrol-Johnston is quite an innovation.' Photographs that accompany the text show a more conventional looking car than this example, whilst the picture in The Motor is the same but lacks a description. However, Peach's Motor Annual 1905, believed to have been produced at the beginning of the year, shows examples of the two-cylinder cars together with an engraving of a car of the surviving type.
In fact evidence as to the car's precise date is elusive, insubstantial, and conflicting. The fact that The Autocar had reported on the 8th October 1904 that the Sirdar (Governor-General) of Sudan had ordered a 20 hp car (i.e. a three-cylinder) for use in that country - suggesting that the engine was at least on the drawing board by then - can be cited to support a pre-1905 date for this car, yet that has to be contrasted with the further fact that he did not take delivery of the vehicle, with its three-cylinder engine mid-mounted in a dogcart pattern vehicle, until September 1905. Incidentally, the Sirdar's car survives, in a somewhat sandblasted condition, on display in a Khartoum museum where every ten years or so someone reports it as a new discovery.
Then there is the Car number, 338, of this vehicle, which is lower than the Car number of a two-cylinder Arrol-Johnston that has been dated to 1904 by the Veteran Car Club. Set that against the possibility that the Engine number could be either 65 or 89 (both numbers are stamped into the engine), which indicates a substantial output of these new engines and a total not likely to have been reached before the end of 1904 - that is unless numbering started at, say, 60 or 80. Perhaps these do not indicate an Engine number at all but are just numbers on the engine. Who knows?
There is also the index mark of SH-103 that the car carries, a Berwickshire issue, records of which do not survive. Nevertheless returns from all registration authorities were published in The Autocar in mid-summer 1904 and again in 1905. By the 21st June 1904 Berwickshire had issued 43 index marks since they had been first introduced under the 1903 Motor Car Act, effective from the 1st January 1904. Exactly a year later a further 56 had been added, making 99 in total. The issuing of number 103 can only have been but a short time away - probably in July 1905.
When this car was Lot 47 in the 1965 Sword sale it was listed as being of 1903/5 date. Forty years on the imprecision that this represents still remains unresolved. However, there is no gainsaying the fact that this vehicle is a unique survivor and unquestionably an inimitable example of, perhaps misapplied, technical ingenuity. From the day this Arrol-Johnston was made it was of a design doomed for extinction, but then so were the dinosaurs - yet they continue to be a source of endless fascination and scientific curiosity.