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JUST AS RODNEY Dangerfield was famous for getting no respect, so it was with the Wolseley Hornet Special
Decent Early Years. Wolseley Motors Limited had a respectable origin in 1901 by the Vickers armaments works in conjunction with Herbert Austin of Austin Seven fame.
The firm’s early years were promising, with cars produced under license by Wolsit Officine Legnanesi Automobili in Legano, just northwest of Milan. There were also Wolseley operations in Montreal, Toronto, and Tokyo. This last one evolved into today’s Isuzu Motors Ltd.
By 1913, Wolseley was Britain’s largest car manufacturer. During World War I, the firm produced land, air, and marine hardware, including aero engines under license from Hispano-Suiza.
Inexpensive, but Unsuccessful. After the war, Wolseley’s guiding lights grew old or worse. Its board of directors turned to producing cheap cars in large quantities. According to Wikipedia, “Then, at the end of October 1926, it was disclosed the company was bankrupt ‘to the tune of £2 million.…’ ”
A Corporate Savior. Enter William Morris, who in February 1927 used his own money to acquire Wolseley for £730,000. Before the marque completely lost its cred, Morris modified the concept of cheap Wolseleys. The car was kept relatively inexpensive by merely stretching the Morris Minor’s willowy chassis and mundane bodywork—but installing a six-cylinder engine instead of other small cars’ fours.
Not just any six, but a diminutive one of 1271-cc displacement with an overhead camshaft. Remember Wolseley’s Hispano aero engines? These had overhead camshafts too.
D.B. Tubbs gives full details of the Wolseley Hornet and Hornet Specials in Profile No. 70 of Classic Cars in Profile, Vol. 3.
“This engine went into the Hornet,” Tubbs wrote, “although it may be doubted whether Wolseley engineers were willingly responsible for the flimsy little frame in which it was mounted….”
“As the body and wings were obviously Morris Minor, not many people were deceived,” Tubbs noted.
Nevertheless, Tubbs wrote, “On the road the Hornet made friends immediately because of its power to weight ratio, as was only to be expected of a Minor with 1271 cc.” Using top gear alone (a metric of the era’s luxury cars), the Hornet could go from a standstill to 40 mph in 24 seconds.
There was a corporate quandary, however: M.G., evolved from Morris Garages, was the evident sporting marque of the Morris conglomerate. Wolseleys weren’t supposed to be M.G. competitors.
The Wolseley Hornet Special. In 1932, the company introduced the Hornet Special. To give an idea of its marketing, one model was the Eustace Watkins Daytona, named after the Florida beach used by Land Speed Record competitor Sir Henry Segrave. As Tubbs noted, the Wolseley “must … have been one of the first cars designed specially for the Boy Racer.”
The Hornet Special chassis was supplied to coachbuilders, many of whom, Tubbs wrote, “found the Wolseley trade a godsend. Note the Rudge-Whitworth wheels, and the dashboard which came complete with a large speedometer, rev-counter, and all instruments and wiring. The price was £175.”
“The main raison d’etre of the Daytona and other Specials,” Tubbs wrote, “was not naked performance, but fancy dress. A Daytona Special was … a sort of Boy’s Own Paper entry for Le Mans equipped with every Sports Extra the trade could put across, either d’origine or at the customer’s feverish hands.”
“The ‘racing screen’ folded flat and only poverty prevented owners from adding an ‘aero’ screen, at least on the driver’s side,” Tubbs commented. And “… the straight-through silencer emitted a whoop-whoop bird-call which was often successful and sometimes within the law.”
Sibling Rivalry? As for any corporate sibling rivalry, Tubbs commented, “The Hornet Special meanwhile was reduced by M.G. racing successes to the rôle of over-dressed and rather raffish poor relation. Keen drivers regarded the Special as a car for Promenade Percy, whose taste ran to white ‘racing’ helmets and numbers on the side.”
Talk about getting no respect! ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2019