Words: Dave Smith, photography: various, as credited
A great British car maker, born in a factory making sheep shearing machines, and raised by a man who would go on to be the company’s staunchest rival.
Frederick Wolseley was born in Dún Laoghaire, just south of Dublin, in 1837, to a military family. Army life wasn’t for him, though, and in 1854, at the age of just 17, he set sail for the new world, joining his sister and her family on a huge New South Wales sheep farm.
Frederick proved to be pretty handy, and had been slowly developing an automated sheep-shearing machine; in 1869, he set up the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Co, and in 1872 he finished his working prototype. With help from various other engineers, including Melbourne’s Richard Park & Co, he developed his machine, eventually patenting it in 1877. It would be a further 10 years before the machine was ready for general sale and use, but when it was, it proved to be a giant leap forward, and revolutionised the wool industry.
On the strength of this, Wolseley travelled to England in 1889 and set up a new Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Company in Birmingham, with massive financial backing, which operated alongside the Melbourne business. Sadly, around the same time, Frederick was diagnosed with cancer, and died early in 1899. You’ll notice that there’s been no mention of motor vehicles so far, meaning that Wolseley must be one of the few eponymous makes in the world where the chap whose name was above the door had little or nothing to do with the cars that bore his name…
So where did the cars come from? They came from another ex-pat, a young man and aspiring engineer who had left England in 1884 to join his uncle, the general manager at a Melbourne engineering firm. By 1887, he was himself a general manager of a part of Richard Park & Co, supplying parts to Wolseley, and when Wolseley went to England in 1889, he put this chap in charge of his Australian workshops. This gentleman was none other than Herbert Austin.
In 1893, Wolseley was suffering from sub-standard parts being supplied by English companies, and sent for Austin to join him in Birmingham. They sorted their supply problems and moved to a larger factory in Aston, but, because sheep shearing was seasonal, they looked for other ventures to take up the slack. One of these was making bicycles; the other was the new hot ticket in engineering: the motor car.
Austin had been to Paris in 1895 and seen a new-fangled motor car, designed by Léon Bollée, and thought of building something similar. Unfortunately, another British company had beat him to it, so he set about building his own. The result was a Wolseley tricycle, with seats for two passengers back-to-back. His next attempt was the 1897 Wolseley Autocar, another tricycle, followed by the four-wheeled Wolseley Voiturette in 1899. There were further developments on this theme over the next couple of years, but the directors of the Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Co had lost interest by now in what they saw as Austin’s vanity project.
Not everyone was quite so short-sighted, though. During the last years of the 1800s, Hiram Maxim, of the huge Vickers, Sons and Maxim Armaments Company and inventor of the machine-gun that bore his name, had employed Austin as a consultant on an aircraft design he was planning to produce. When he heard that the Wolseley board had decided that the automobile market would never be profitable, his company seized the moment and stepped in. They bought up all of WSSM Co’s automotive interests – including Herbert Austin – and moved them to a large factory in nearby Adderley Park under the name Wolseley Tool And Motor Car Company.
The new company was formed in March 1901, and within two months, they’d published their first catalogue of motor vehicles. The first Wolseley cars they offered were 5hp and 10hp models, still based on the Voiturette. By spring 1902, they’d added a 20hp model, followed quickly by a 7.5hp and a 6hp. Austin was also building Wolseleys for competition, including a 96hp Gordon-Bennett racer in 1904.
Within its first four years, Wolseley had turned out 1,500 cars, making them Britain’s largest motor manufacturer, and making Herbert Austin a captain of the industry. All was not rosy, though. Up until 1905, Austin had built all Wolseleys with low-revving horizontal single-cylinder or horizontally opposed twin engines, citing their improved lubrication. Technology had move on, though, and the rest of the world was going with newer, higher-revving vertical engines. When the directors suggested that Wolseley follow the herd, Austin resolutely disagreed and, in the summer of 1905, with a year left of his five-year contract, Herbert Austin left Wolseley. He took a number of senior staff and set up shop a few miles down the road in Longbridge… and therein lies a whole other story.
That same year, Wolseley had purchased the Siddeley Motor Company and made John Davenport Siddeley their London-based sales manager. When Austin cleared his desk, Wolseley offered Siddeley the general manager’s position, which he took, and began some major changes. At the Olympia Motor Show in November 1905, there were the little 6hp and 8hp horizontal engined cars, but also a new range of 15, 18 and 32hp cars with new vertical engines, all under the banner of Wolseley-Siddeley.
The new Siddeley engines gave the Wolseley brand a new lease of life and the range went upmarket, with the smaller models being phased out and new, bigger models being brought in. By 1909, the smallest car in the range was the 12/16hp, the largest the 60hp, plus various racing models, but the joint venture was struggling under the increased overheads. In a 1908 streamlining, the board closed Siddeley’s Kent factory and moved production up to Birmingham, then closed Siddeley’s London office. This didn’t sit well with Mr Siddeley, who handed in his notice and moved to Deasy Motors in Coventry, and would eventually become half of Armstrong-Siddeley.
The streamlining effort worked, Wolseley-Siddeley returned to profitability, and the Adderley Park factory was expanded. The cars reverted to Wolseley badges in 1911, and the company was renamed Wolseley Motors Ltd just in time for the outbreak of World War I. As they were still Britain’s largest car manufacturers – as well as making everything else including trucks, double-decker buses, aero engines, taxis, locomotives, boats and so on – they were well equipped to deal with the demands of the War Office.
During this period, Wolseley also spread into the Commonwealth, opening a Canadian office in 1914, followed by appointing other factory representatives in Australia, New Zealand, South Africa and South America to deal with exports. In 1918, the snappily-named Ishikawajiama Ship Building and Engineering Co Ltd in Tokyo bought exclusive rights to build Wolseleys under licence in Japan; that operation eventually became Isuzu Motors after WWII, and became part of General Motors.
During the war years, the elderly Vickers brothers, Thomas and Albert, had died, and after the war, the Vickers board took Wolseley in two directions at once. By adding a Vickers munitions site at Ward End to Wolseley’s production space, they could use their huge capability to build small cars relatively cheaply. They built a two/three-seat 10hp Tourer based on the old Stellite, a 15hp four-seat Tourer, and a 20hp six-cylinder chassis for coachbuilders, and demand was strong. At the same time, they opened an expensive and ostentatious showroom in Piccadilly, next door to the Ritz, called Wolseley House, to show off their upmarket models.
The demand for the posh cars wasn’t as strong as expected, thanks to a general depression in 1920 coupled with the expiration (and subsequent taxation) of lucrative government wartime contracts, and suddenly Wolseley were well into the red. Further motor racing efforts were causing a huge financial drain, and then, in 1922, Morris pulled a masterstroke by slashing the prices of their cars, undercutting all competition. It was crisis time. First to go was the palatial Wolseley House, which had cost £250,000 (£11 million in today’s money) to build, sold to Barclays Bank.
It was too late; the mighty had well and truly fallen. By October 1926, the company was £2 million in the red (£123 million in 2020), bankrupt, and the receivers were called in in what was described as “one of the most spectacular failures in the early motor industry.”
It’s an ill wind, as they say, and when the receivers sent Wolseley to auction in February 1927, bidders included Herbert Austin, William Morris and General Motors. Determined to foil GM, Morris emerged victorious, using £750,000 of his own money, though Austin was supposedly very upset that he missed out and GM went off in a huff and bought Vauxhall. Morris brought all Wolseley production to Ward End, selling off much of Adderley Park and moving Morris Commercial Vehicles into the remainder.
Morris pointed Wolseley back upmarket rather than have them compete with his own products, and Wolseley prospered. New models were introduced, such as the Hornet, the Viper and the Wasp, and a new, overhead-cam six-cylinder engine launched in 1930 proved very popular. In 1935, Wolseley became a Morris Motors subsidiary, but this led in a whole new direction… the new concept of badge engineering. In the years leading up to WWII, Wolseleys slowly became fancified Morrises.
After the seven-year skirmish with Herr Hitler and associated war production, Morris (now Viscount Nuffield) moved Wolseley out of war-ravaged Birmingham and consolidated production at his Cowley plant in 1948. Wolseley was now part of the Nuffield Organisation, which also included Morris cars and commercials, Riley, MG and SU Carburettors. Wolseley’s post-war range was the 4/50 and 6/80, basically a Morris Oxford MO and Six MS respectively, but with the lovely OHC engine and fancy grille. These are most often seen as police cars in almost every post-war period drama on TV.
At the same time, in 1948, there was a proposed amalgamation between Nuffield companies and Austin, joining forces to share information and R&D. It never happened, possibly because Morris was so fragmented and Austin so concentrated, and possibly because Viscount Nuffield and Austin’s chairman (and William Morris’s right-hand man throughout the Thirties until an acrimonious parting of the ways), Leonard Lord, couldn’t stand the damn sight of each other.
It must have come as a surprise, then, that Austin and the Nuffield Organisation companies announced a merger in late 1951, leading to the incorporation of the British Motor Corporation Ltd in early 1952 with Nuffield as president. Nuffield retired just before Christmas 1952, aged 75, though was made honorary president instead; he was succeeded as president by… Leonard Lord.
BMC meant even more badge engineering for Wolseley, the new 1952 4/44 being based on the MG Magnette and the 1954 6/90 on the Riley Pathfinder. The big news for 1957 was the new Wolseley 1500 and its close relative the Riley One-Point-Five, both based on Moggy Minor underpinnings. Then, in late 1958, Wolseley debuted the 15/60 saloon, the new Farina design that would be BMC’s first proper range-wide model; a true mixed grille. Within months, the same body would also be an Austin Cambridge, MG Magnette, Morris Oxford, Riley 4/68 and Princess/Vanden Plas. The 1959 6/99, later the 6/110, was a big saloon based on the Austin Westminster, and in 1961, the Wolseley Hornet and Riley Elf arrived, basically Minis with a boot.
BMC brought out the famous ADO16 design in 1962 with the little front-drive Morris 1100, but it would be 1965 before Wolseley and Riley got their versions. Similarly, the big Austin 1800 ‘Landcrab’ was launched in 1964, but it was 1967 before Wolseley got their 18/85 model.
It was around this time that pressure was being applied from Harold Wilson downwards for British industry to merge and consolidate, and the car industry pack was about to get a mighty shuffle. In 1966, Jaguar had joined the BMC fold to form British Motor Holdings; in early 1968, BMH merged with Leyland Motors, who already owned Standard-Triumph and Rover, to form the ill-starred British Leyland Motor Corporation. The first victim of the union was Riley who, it was felt, was competing in the same market niche as Wolseley, even though they were little more than different trim levels of the same cars.
When the big 6/110 saloon was discontinued in 1968, the dilution of the Wolseley name was complete, and no new models came forth. The Hornet wound up in 1969, the Farina 16/60 in 1971 and the 1100/1300 in 1974. Oddly, the four-cylinder 18/85 Landcrab turned into the six-cylinder Wolseley Six in 1972… just in time for the first oil crisis.
In early 1975, British Leyland debuted the new wedge-shaped Austin/Morris 1800/2200. At the top of the range was a Wolseley version, only available with the 2.2-litre six-cylinder engine, and just called ‘Wolseley’ – no model name. It was short-lived. By September 1975, the Austin and Morris versions had been merged into one, just called Princess, and the Wolseley version was quietly dropped. That was the end of Wolseley.
The name hasn’t quite disappeared, though. The Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Co evolved into other areas, and still exists as Wolseley building, plumbing and heating suppliers, though the giant international parent company changed its name from Wolseley PLC to Ferguson PLC in 2017. Their old Aston factory was demolished to make way for housing many years ago. Wolseley’s Ward End Works was last used to build Freight Rover, later LDV vans, until 2009, but was demolished in 2018; the site will supposedly become a servicing and maintenance site for the new HS2 rail link. The Wolseley House showroom remained Barclays’ Piccadilly branch until the end of the millennium, when it became a Chinese restaurant for a while. It is now a restaurant called… Wolseley House.
So the name lives on, in a roundabout way, though it’s unlikely that there’ll ever be another car wearing the lovely Wolseley illuminated grille badge. The name and rights went to the SAIC Motor Corporation Ltd of China during the sell-off of MG Rover earlier this century, but it seems they have no plans to revive the name… possibly because it’s so difficult to pronounce.