Frederick Lanchester collection

  • This material is held at
  • Reference
      GB 434 LAN
  • Dates of Creation
  • Language of Material
  • Physical Description
      20 linear metres (c.80 boxes, 2 plan chests, c.120 publications).

Scope and Content

Before 2016 and the Lanchester Interactive Archive project at Coventry University, the various donations or purchases that came to the university and its predecessors were never catalogued using archival standards. This meant that each accession was listed (if at all) in isolation from other accessions and this has influenced the structure of the current catalogue. The result is that the accessions have to be treated as separate sub-collections ('series') in the main Lanchester collection.

More information on the following series can be found in their introductions.

LAN/1 'Baxter' correspondence:
This was the first Frederick Lanchester material to be received by what was then the Library of Lanchester College of Technology, Coventry and was donated by Lanchester's widow Dorothea in August 1961. It was the bulk of Lanchester's private papers that remained at his house after his death in 1946. Before this the papers had been used by Dr Peter Kingsford for his biography of Lanchester 'The Life Of An Engineer' (Edward Arnold, 1960) and by Lanchester's brother George for a paper to the Newcomen Society. The items were catalogued by College Librarian Eric Baxter in 1966.

LAN/2 'Fletcher' correspondence:
These items include personal papers of Frederick Lanchester, financial records and reports to committees, especially relating to his work on aeronautics during the First World War. They were listed by Librarian John Fletcher and other members of staff after being purchased at auction in 1982.

LAN/3 Blueprints for the 21hp, 30hp, 40hp and other Lanchester models, including the Lanchester Armoured Car:
Three index volumes of the blueprints are also included. This material was donated by Lanchester enthusiasts.

LAN/4 Note books:
Fred Lanchester's pocket note books (dating from 1894) donated by the Lanchester family.

LAN/5 Sketch books:
Fred Lanchester's sketch books used to note ideas and drawings as they came to him at his desk - purchased at auction in 1982.

LAN/6 Patents:
Most of these items are photocopies of original patents held elsewhere and include patents by Fred Lanchester, George Lanchester and others.

LAN/7 Glass plate slides and negatives:
Mostly donated by Lanchester family details and enthusiasts. Some were used by George Lanchester when giving talks or presenting papers.

LAN/8 Blueprint 'negatives':
Negatives of photo prints made from the blueprints for bck-up and access purposes.

LAN/9 Photograph albums:
These images were originally in two large volumes and appear to be part of a bigger series (as indicated by the image numbers). They show photographs and prints of cars and parts taken for sales, marketing, advertising and general publicity purposes, as well as for use in company manuals and publications. Many of the photographs indicate who the cars had been sold to and frequently show the cars being delivered. There are also images of the interior and exterior of the Lanchester works at Armourer Mills, Montgomery Street, Sparkbrook, Birmingham.

The images had been pasted on to pages of old receipt books (usually two on each page) which were fire-damaged by the time they were purchased at auction by the university library in 1991. After conservation work the pages of the volumes were encapsulated and re-bound into six volumes.

Unlisted material and additional deposits will be sorted and catalogued and added to the collection. These items currently include records from the Lanchester family and Lanchester experts.

Administrative / Biographical History

Dr. Frederick ('Fred') William Lanchester was born on 23 October 1868 in Lewisham (the fourth child of nine).

He started attending the Hartley Institution (now part of Southampton University) aged 14 in 1882. Two years later he began studies at what is now the Royal College of Science (leaving after two years). By 1885 he was studying at the South Kensington School of Science.

His first patent - for an isometrograph (an instrument to draw parallel lines) - was accepted in 1888 and in 1889 he began work as Assistant Works Manager for the Forward Gas Engine Company in Saltley, Birmingham.

His brother George (born in 1874) later joined him at the firm as an apprentice. Fred became Works Manager in 1890 and in the same year began research and development into motor vehicles. He also followed other interests after a trip to the United States in 1892 for the Forward Gas Engine Company. He subsequently resigned his post at the company in 1893 to work on these other interests (although he remained a designer and technical adviser for the company). George Lanchester succeeded him as Works Manager.

In 1873 Fred set up the Lanchester Brothers bicycle company in Birmingham to make dust proof bearings for cycles to his own design with help from George and another brother Frank (born 1870). The venture was unsuccessful however, and was closed a year later. But the brothers continued work on motor vehicles using Fred's original ideas, which were different from those of previous car makers such as Benz and Daimler.

Fred also became interested in boats as this form of transport was a good opportunity to test engines without the then current speed restrictions imposed on driving cars on the road. This led to his invention of the first all-British motor boat which he piloted on the River Thames at Oxford in 1894.

Soon afterwards came the design of the first British-built 4-wheel car using a petrol engine which was driven by Fred on its maiden run on a public road in Taylor Street, Saltley, Birmingham in December 1895. Further work on cars led to the formation in 1899 of the Lanchester Engine Company with Fred as General/Works Manager and Chief Designer, with assistance from George and Frank (who became Company Secretary). By 1901 the first motorcar was in production and between them Fred (the designer) and George (the engineer) built unconventional, beautifully engineered Lanchester cars, which had set a precedent because their car bodies were fully interchangeable and had their own bodywork section. Normally at this time the car bodies were made by coachbuilding companies, specifically for each chassis.

The Lanchester Engine Company was reconstructed as the Lanchester Motor Company in 1904 because of financial problems and Fred became a consultant for the new company (a post he held until 1914). This led to design work on cars becoming increasingly the responsibility of George, allowing Fred to spend more time on experimental work and his research into the theory of aerodynamics.

Lanchester was now able to combine his twin interests of flight and aircraft with cars and manufacturing and in 1907 and 1908 he published a two volume work 'Aerial Flight'. He also went to France in 1908 to talk to aircraft manufacturers and see the Wright Brother's plane in action. He also met Wilbur Wright but their different approaches to flight and Wright's reticence to talk left Lanchester unsatisfied with the outcome (as subsequent correspondence showed).

Lanchester joined Birmingham Small Arms (BSA) as a consultant engineer and technical advisor in 1909, an association with BSA and the Daimler Company which lasted for 28 years. He became involved with both the motorcar and the aeronautical fields at a national level giving papers at many institutions. From 1909 he was on the Advisory Committee for Aeronautics where he worked on the military uses of aircraft, resigning in 1920.

Fred Lanchester received an Honorary Doctorate from Birmingham University in 1919 and in the same year married Dorothea Cooper. By 1923 he was also a consultant for Wolseley and in 1925 he formed Lanchester' Laboratories Ltd to give himself better research facilities and premises to carry out his consultancy work. The original aim was to create the firm with support from Daimler but they pulled out, leaving him to run it alone. The company subsequently produced sound reproduction equipment such as radios and loud speakers for sale. But it closed in 1934 because of a recession.

Lanchester Motor Company suffered from under-investment and in 1931 it was bought by BSA and merged with one of its subsidiaries Daimler. It was relocated to the Daimler factory in Radford, Coventry.

In 1936 George Lanchester left the Lanchester Motor Company to become Chief Engineer of the Warfare Department of Alvis Ltd, also in Coventry. He played a leading part in the design and development of armoured fighting vehicles and also designed the Lanchester sub-machine gun (which was used by the Royal Navy).

The last Lanchester car was built in 1956 and the Lanchester name was dropped by Daimler.

In the early 1930s Fred Lanchester had became friends with Robert Lockhart, Professor of Anatomy at the University of Birmingham, and they began some experiments on eyesight (partly because Lanchester's sight was failing and he wanted to work out why - a typical trait of the man). The friendship lasted after Lockhart moved to Aberdeen and continued until Lanchester's death.

In his later life Lanchester suffered from poor health and reduced financial circumstances. He earned a living writing books and technical papers. During the build up to the Second World War he was very critical of political and military affairs. He wanted to help the war effort, and in 1941 the Society of British Aircraft constructors offered him an appointment as a consultant. Lanchester's health was worsening and by 1942 he was almost blind in one eye. Lanchester continued to publish books and papers until his death in March 1946.

George Lanchester died in 1970.

Access Information

By appointment.

Other Finding Aids

A detailed catalogue is available at