Coachbuilt Bodies on Rolls-Royce Chassis Supplied by Bradburn & Wedge of Wolverhampton and the connection with S & P Forder
by Richard M Forder
I am sure many members share my keen interest in the General Secretary’s Notes appearing in the Bulletin covering, amongst other things, historical references to our cars. The November/ December 2004 issue was of particular interest for me because Peter Baines featured a period photograph of a 20hp tourer (55S4), originally attributed to Bradburn & Wedge, but with the qualifying statement that it had in fact been bodied by Forders of Wolverhampton.
The second owner’s grandson had supplied Peter with the photograph and a copy of a letter from the first owner, J P Lloyd, to his grandfather describing the car and confirming Forders as the coachbuilder. My interest was roused because of my family connection with the various Forder coachbuilding interests in Wolverhampton and London, mainly in the 19th century. Initial research, including correspondence in earlier Bulletins, revealed some confusion and misinformation concerning Bradburn & Wedge and Forders, so Peter suggested that I should write a short article to clear up the misunderstandings and give some of the background of the firms involved. Unfortunately, due to a variety of reasons, I have not been able to offer it for publication until now.
I was aware of the brief details covering Bradburn & Wedge that Tom Clarke had included in his 20/ 25 book in Bernard King’s Complete Classics series. In the book he records that William Howard Bradburn, the founder, had worked for P Forder of Wolverhampton, a hansom cab maker. Tom went on to record that the building of motor car bodies was contracted to Bradburn & Wedge from the Forder company. This had not made sense to me, for reasons that will become clear, and I therefore contacted Tom to establish his source for the statement. Tom referred me to a letter by Colin Squire in the September 1978 Bulletin Issue 110. In the letter, Colin stated that he was employed by Bradburn & Wedge and he recalled being told by Jack Bradburn, son of the founder, that Forders had sub-contracted coachwork to Bradburn & Wedge - approximately two bodies a year on Rolls-Royce chassis between 1920 and 1926. This, incidentally, closely matched the two 40/ 50 and ten 20hp chassis supplied to Bradburn & Wedge by Rolls-Royce between 1922 and 1926 (the latter details were provided by Steve Hubbard and Bernard King respectively). However, I was still convinced that the sub-contracting had been in the reverse direction, that is, from Bradburn & Wedge to S & P Forder, so I traced Colin Squire, still a thriving Club member I am pleased to say. Colin was a little surprised to have his ancient letter resurrected, but he agreed with me that the sub-contracting statement in his letter had been transposed in its publication.
Forder & Co Ltd of Wolverhampton and London, Royal Warrant holders, were well known coachbuilders in the latter half of the 19th century and just into the 20th century. They manufactured all types of horse drawn vehicles at their Wolverhampton works, but their main claim to fame was the production of the ultimate version of the Hansom cab. Frederick Forder, the founder, had died in January 1895 and the firm was in the hands of his two brothers, Charles and Alfred (my great-grandfather) at the turn of the century. The brothers were getting a bit long in the tooth at this time and were probably rather set in their ways – stubbornness is a Forder characteristic apparently! This almost certainly contributed to their failure to recognise the rise of the motor car. I am embarrassed to say that my great-grandfather is on record as stating that “the motor vehicle will never replace the horse drawn vehicle because the British loved the horse too much”. Sadly, the Forder brothers held the “blinkered” attitude that they were coachbuilders and that “the motor car was engineers’ work”. The firm’s demise was rapid, largely due to a disastrous litigation that went against the company and in 1907 they ceased trading. However, the family’s involvement in coachbuilding would continue with the next generation, but on a small scale. More of that later, but the time has come to introduce William Howard Bradburn who was to become a formidable business man and well known engineer, especially in the Midlands.
William Howard Bradburn was born in 1882 the son of the owner of Long Knowle Farm at Wednesfield, Staffordshire. A farming injury to his left hand at the age of thirteen prompted a change to an engineering apprenticeship. This new direction saw him involved, amongst other things, in the installation of gas engine driven generating sets in a London theatre to generate power for electric lighting. This must have been an excellent start giving him a useful grounding in the emerging world of electricity. Such was his prowess in this new technology that he was able to wire the family home in Wednesfield, not that his mother and father appreciated the new fangled lighting apparently. His apprenticeship complete, he joined the firm of Richards in Heath Town, cycle frame manufacturers, in the late 1890's. It is not known if this sparked an enthusiasm for cycling or whether the interest was already there, but through his active participation in cycle racing he was to meet William Morris, later Lord Nuffield, who would become an important connection in a few years time. Morris at this time was still a cycle manufacturer.
William Bradburn’s engineering skills found expression in the formative years of the automobile. He was among the early pioneers and it is perhaps surprising that there is little or no public recognition that by 1906 he had built two cars powered by 4 and 6 cylinder air cooled engines respectively. A photocopy I have seen of a period photograph of one of the cars, registration number E 330, shows an apparently conventional design, chain drive with squarish bonnet and an open four seat high backed body. This car survived well into the post-WW2 era in the family’s ownership, but sadly it is believed to have been destroyed in a Lancashire mill fire.
Sometime after the turn of the century, William joined one of the Forder companies. He certainly worked for S & P Forder of Bilston Street, Wolverhampton, but I suspect he may have worked briefly for Forder & Co Ltd at their Cleveland Road works also in Wolverhampton. As already mentioned, Forder & Co Ltd ceased trading in 1907. However, there had been some involvement with automobile body building as they produced a body for the 6hp Sunbeam exhibited at the 1901 Edinburgh and London (Crystal Palace) Motor Shows. In 1905 they also built Hansom Cab style bodies for cars, including five on a Vauxhall 3 cylinder chassis for the Metropolitan Cab & Carriage Company Ltd for use in London. An example of the latter was shown by Vauxhall & West Hydraulic Engineering Co Ltd on their stand at the 1905 Motor Show at Olympia. Possibly some other motor bodies were built in small quantities, but too little too late I would suggest. Some of the next generation of Forders had clearly seen the writing on the wall, or possibly failed to convince Charles and Alfred of the need to embrace the arrival of the motor car, and they moved on to form their own companies.
The first to leave the company was Fredrick William Forder (a son of Alfred) who by 1905 was working as a coachbuilder in London for Jas Hewett & Sons of Holloway. He built the body on their 24hp 4 cylinder car that the company exhibited at the November 1905 Motor Show. He was to be joined later by his brother Thomas Lovatt Forder when they set up as Motor Engineers at 79 Copenhagen Street in Islington. They were involved in this venture with Eric Gordon England who, I believe, provided the motor engineering input. World War I was a hard time for this type of small business, and the firm ceased trading in 1915 with Tom joining the army and Fred retiring to breed horses in Cornwall.
The next members of the younger Forder generation to leave the family firm were Sidney Charles and Percy, sons of Charles. Interestingly, Percy had served an apprenticeship with another well known Wolverhampton coachbuilder, Charles Clark & Sons of Chapel Ash. Charles Clark was an early Rolls-Royce agent but is probably best known to Club members for the body built on Phantom 76TC with the lavish Louis XV interior featured on the cover of the January/ February Issue 268 of the Bulletin. Sidney and Percy left the company in 1905 to establish a motor engineering and coach building business in nearby Bilston Street. It is my belief that William Bradburn probably joined Forder & Co Ltd in the early 1900's for a brief period. It is claimed that he tried to persuade the senior Forders to change their attitude to the motor car – I can well believe it, but his positive influence was unfortunately too late. He did join Sidney and Percy Forder and may well have been employed from the start of their motor engineering/ coach building business in Bilston Street. I have always been convinced that William Bradburn provided the engineering input to the business. It is also possible that Sidney and/ or Percy may have assisted him with the construction of the bodies for his two cars and this may have provided the catalyst for the formation of the new Forder company.
In a period advertisement, circa 1911/ 12, Sid & P Forder described themselves as “Coach and Motor Builders. Motor Cars carefully overhauled, repaired, repainted and trimmed. Excellent finish and Painting. Cape Hoods, Wind Screens. Mechanical repair to any make of car. Bodies built to suit all chassis. Sole Agents for BSA and Rover Cars. Any other make supplied.” In the Wolverhampton Red Book for 1914 the firm is listed under “Motor Body Builders, Motor Garages and Motor Car Manufacturers”. However, I have never found any evidence to confirm that S & P Forder built a motor car. Ironically, later generations of the Forder family, including myself, have retained a passionate interest in motor vehicles, and my grandfather and father worked in the motor industry. No member of the Forder family that I have spoken with has ever mentioned or could recall S & P Forder building their own motorcars. If this was achieved it is my view that they would have built the body and constructed the rolling chassis from bought-in or proprietary items. This is where William Bradburn would have been a major influence and one can speculate that developments of the Bradburn cars of 1906 may have provided the basis for any vehicles built by the firm. I should be very interested to hear from anyone who has evidence of the construction of a car or cars – it would seem that any such vehicle was not called either a Forder or a Bradburn.
William Bradburn was an ambitious and energetic entrepreneur and was probably frustrated at the lack of progress he experienced working for Sidney and Percy. The outbreak of the Great War would have caused difficulties for the embryo company. So it is not surprising that in 1915 he elected to part company with the Forders and start up on his own. He launched his new career by purchasing the Motor Garage business of A A Hadley & Co Ltd located in Darlington Street, Wolverhampton at the rear of what had been the original town tram depot. It would seem that William was unimpressed with his new acquisition, because within a month he had sacked the complete staff. Always an astute businessman he recognised the shortage of road transport during the war and purchased a number of steam wagons. These he used to transport explosives for the Admiralty. In 1918 he was joined by a partner Harry Wedge, presumably to help fund his expanding business, to establish Bradburn & Wedge, Motor Engineers, at 46 Darlington Street. In three years he had expanded his premises to encompass the full depth of the old Tram Depot. In 1919 Bradburn & Wedge were agents for Austin, Riley, Argyle and Darwin cars, and he renewed his acquaintance with William Morris to become one of the first Morris agents. In 1922 Harry Wedge departed to follow a different path in galvanising.
Still retaining ‘Wedge’ on the nameplate in 1923, the company was now the official Rolls-Royce Sub-Retailers for Warwickshire and agents for Fiat, Morris, Standard, Swift and Sunbeam. I have been told that a Bradburn & Wedge sales ledger survives that records the sale of some 300 Sunbeam cars. A 1923 photograph shows an expanded Darlington Street frontage advertising their various car agencies, tyres, coachbuilt bodies and commercial vehicles – they were agents for Ruston & Hornsby.
The photograph carried the caption “three Sunbeam cars outside Bradburn & Wedge”. A closer look reveals that the right hand vehicle is in fact a Rolls-Royce 20hp and, for a variety of reasons, is almost certainly the J P Lloyd car that Peter Baines featured in the Nov/ Dec 2004 Bulletin that led to this article.
It would appear that William Bradburn remained on good terms with Percy Forder hence the subcontract of the body for Mr Lloyd’s 20hp. It is believed that some of the bodies if not most of the two 40/ 50 Silver Ghosts and the remaining nine 20hps were also subcontracted to Sidney & Percy Forder, according to Jack Bradburn’s statement reported by Colin Squire. This seems very plausible as the individual nature of the Rolls-Royce bodies would not have been a financially attractive proposition for Bradburn & Wedge. Interestingly, Jensen Motors of West Bromwich built a specially designed body for an invalid owner on a 20hp chassis to the order of Bradburn & Wedge in 1932. In the early 20's Bradburn & Wedge were primarily automobile engineers and involved in motorcar and commercial vehicle sales. Although they did offer coachbuilt bodies it would have been logical for them to have contracted out the low volume Rolls-Royce bodies to S & P Forder who were coachbuilders first and motor engineers second. The fact remains that Rolls-Royce delivered chassis to Bradburn & Wedge, the official sub-retailers, and therefore any sub-contracting would have been from Bradburn & Wedge to S & P Forder.
Bradburn & Wedge continued its meteoric rise during the 20's and 30's surviving the Depression. They dispensed with the variety of agencies that they had started with to concentrate on Nuffield products, although it would seem that they remained official Rolls-Royce Sub-Retailers until World War II. They continued to expand their premises until they occupied most, if not all, the land contained within the triangle formed by Darlington Street, Salop Street and Art Street. The expansion continued with the eventual establishment of some fifty two retail dealers. William Bradburn formed another partnership with salesman G P F Godfrey, but they eventually proved incompatible and Mr Godfrey departed in 1935. After this time, Bradburn & Wedge remained a family firm with William being joined by his sons Jack and Robert who later replaced the founder as joint managing directors and in later years his grandsons also entered the business. A Bristol Cars agency was taken up in the post-war period, and the commercial side also thrived with a major dealership for Scania trucks. The joinery firm of Nicholls on the Birmingham Road was purchased and panel bodies for commercial vehicles were produced on the site. William Bradburn died in September 1960 after a remarkable career that had seen the establishment of one of the Midlands’ major motor industry companies.
The devastation caused by the building of the Wolverhampton ring road saw the demolition of the original premises in the early 60's, but this prompted the building of two major new premises, one on the Darlington Street junction with the new ring road and the second on Birmingham Road. Eventually, Bradburn & Wedge ceased their connection with what had become BMC and established a Nissan agency before ceasing trading in the 1990's.
S & P Forder probably ceased coachbuilding, other than repairs, in the late 20's to become a purely garage business. The 1935/ 36 AA Members Handbook lists them as a 3 Star Garage offering garage accommodation for 100 cars and fifty motor cycles. Percy was regarded in the family as a talented, likeable personality, but somewhat laid back. He retired in 1931 at the early age of forty nine and died in February 1947. Sidney, who had received a good education at the Wolverhampton Grammar School, soldiered on until the late 30's when he also retired. The S & P Forder premises and business in Bilston Street were taken over by John Ireland who operated an Austin agency and a pressure diecasting business on the site. These premises were also swept away during the construction of the ring road.
Listed below are the chassis known to have been supplied to Bradburn & Wedge by Rolls-Royce. Details of two 40/ 50 cars bodied by Hooper and Barker respectively, but delivered to Bradburn & Wedge, are also included.
The photograph shows a 20hp saloon sold to Mr S R Rhodes by Bradburn & Wedge in 1924 but the chassis number is unknown. Mr Rhodes is not recorded in Rolls-Royce records so it would appear that he was not the first owner. It may be that the chassis was rebodied for Mr Rhodes and may be one of the 1923 cars shown below but I believe this is unlikely. The car is of interest because it carries the registration number DA 1, the first number issued in Wolverhampton in 1904. Mr Rhodes, a solicitor, was a pioneer motorist and in 1901 was appointed the first secretary of the Wolverhampton & Automobile Club. He was therefore very well placed to obtain DA 1 for his 1903 16hp Aerial when registration numbers were introduced on 1 January 1904. He transferred DA 1 to each new car he acquired, a tradition that is continued to this day by his grandson Richard Rhodes. If anyone has knowledge of this car or any of the others supplied by Rolls-Royce to Bradburn & Wedge then the author would be delighted to hear from them.
1920 29PG 40/50 Hooper cabriolet. Fate unknown.
1922 67ZG 40/50 Torpedo style body. Last heard of in Spain in 1927 (1).
1923 43NK 40/50 saloon sold through Joseph Cockshoot. Fate unknown (1).
1927 81LK 40/50 Barker saloon sold by Joseph Cockshoot. Fate unknown.
1923 43G6 20hp cabriolet. Fate unknown (1).
1923 55S4 20hp Forder tourer. Sold by J P Lloyd to 2nd owner Mr A T Harvey on 19 May 1924 for £1,100. Fate unknown (2).
1923 66H2 20hp ¾ coupé. Survives with its original body (1).
1923 81K1 20hp saloon. Car survives with a replacement shooting brake body (1).
1924 GH50 20hp saloon. Car owned for many years by Mary Foster. Believed to survive with original body, but location not known to the RREC (1).
1925 GLK46 20hp cabriolet. Fate unknown (1).
1925 GNK41 20hp cabriolet. Fate unknown (1).
1925 GPK45 20hp saloon. Fate unknown (1).
1925 GOK30 20hp limousine. Fate unknown (1).
GUK37 20hp saloon. Fate unknown (1).
1932 GBT15 20/25 saloon. The car survives in UK with a replacement tourer body.
(1) Chassis believed to have been sub-contracted to S & P Forder for coachbuilt bodies.
(2) Chassis known to have been sub-contracted to S & P Forder for a tourer body.
In preparing this article I am grateful for the assistance provided by Jim Hooper, Richard Rhodes, Will Morrison, G Donald Harvey, and the Wolverhampton Library Local Studies Dept in addition to those individuals already mentioned.