Fedden's Mistake

Roy Fedden is remembered unkindly for his disastrous foray into making cars in the 1940s. Yet the more you look into the career and inventions of Professor Dr.Ing. (honoris causa) Ferdinand Porsche (1875-1951) the more you see what Fedden was driving at.

It was far sighted in 1942 to begin work on a British Volkswagen. In Germany the factory was doing war work but the VW’s merits were acknowledged by a handful of individuals in Bristol, among them motoring journalist Gordon Wilkins, who had gone to the Volkswagen factory inauguration in 1938. Alec Moulton, who won fame as inventor of a key component of the Mini also worked with Fedden, chief engineer of the Bristol Aeroplane Company.

Bristol had been making four out of every ten RAF aero engines and Fedden knew this would be much reduced after the war. He had been promoted as special adviser to the Minister for Aircraft Production, the ascetic vegetarian socialist MP for Bristol Sir Stafford Cripps. With the connivance of the Ministry of Production and the Industrial Supply Division of the Board of Trade, he put a team together in 1944, working at Benton House, Cheltenham. Other motor industry firms were refused similar facilities, raising questions in the House of Commons.

Fedden faced down the critics, Rolls-Royce and Jowett among them, and carried on. Materials were sanctioned for six prototypes, although only one was built, and once Germany was defeated Fedden went on a commission inspecting what was left. The Allies confiscated patents and intellectual property, so he came back from Wolfsburg with a Type 60 rolling chassis. Established UK manufacturers rejected it but the war-time team had already been at work on a rear-engined Beetle-shaped six-seater, and wanted to know how its creation compared with Dr Porsche’s.

They knew that in 1930 the twelfth assignment of the newly created Porsche design office at Stuttgart-Zuffenhausen was a people's car. The specification of the Porsche Type 12, dated September 1931, called for a car with a backbone frame, all independent suspension and a three cylinder radial engine at the rear. Gordon Wilkins drew up the prototype’s shape, produced glossy brochures of the F-car, as it came to be known, with a flat floor, all independent suspension and a three cylinder radial engine at the rear.

Bristol specialised in radial engines with sleeve valves, so hanging over the back of the F-car was an aluminium 1495cc air-cooled 1100cc, each cylinder at120 deg to one another. All had three exhaust and two inlet ports, with sleeves operated by half-speed cranks off the vertical crankshaft. It produced 72bhp (53.7kW) at 5000rpm and a respectable 85lbft (114Nm) at 2500rpm.

The appointment of Cripps as President of the Board of Trade in the Attlee government might have helped Fedden make progress, although the Patents Office’s FC Whitteridge thought the design “undeveloped”. Another of the Ministry of Production’s scientific advisers, Sir William Stanier, thought Witteridge’s objections could be met, although as the designer of LMS Coronation, or Duchess class locomotives Stanier’s engineering was in an altogether different league. The Ministry avoided showing it to anybody in the motor industry on the grounds that they might not prove objective, and might even make trouble. It never seems to have occurred to official minds that they might also have pointed out difficulties.

By 1945 these were apparent. Whitteridge had been right. The handling was problematical, stability even in a straight line uncertain, there was bad vibration from the tall 3-cylinder engine, which was noisy and overheated. The swing axles tucked up in a way which later became familiar with turning-over cars like the Renault Dauphine.

VW spent six years developing the Volkswagen Beetle. The handling was never quite right and nobody seriously developed another rear-engined mass-market car in the second half of the 20th century. The radial engine was soon discarded. The VW had an air-cooled flat-4 that at least kept the weight low down. The F-car was heavy and sluggish but it was the handling that did for it in the end. Test driver Alec Caine was badly injured when, inevitably, the prototype overturned and by 1947 the project was dead and the company went into liquidation. Yet given six years’ gestation a British VW might have made it. Bristol pirated a BMW design and went into luxury car making instead.

Sir Albert Hubert Roy Fedden MBE, HonDSc, MIMechE, MIAE, MSAE, HonFRAeS, born 1885, died in 1973.

Acknowledgment: Fedden – the life of Sir Roy Fedden, by Bill Gunston OBE FRAeS; Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust 1998

VW shook off its handling troubles. Scirocco at St Andrews Bay last year.