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Britain By Car - A Motoring History


Created Date:

13 November 2022

Last Modified:

22 December 2023
Rodley

Rodley Automobile Co Ltd.

A small economy car that was perhaps just too basic for the market.

Location
Rodley Automobile Co. Ltd., Airedale Mills, Rodley, Leeds.

Date
1954 - 1955.

Built as a car for the small family, it was difficult to escape from the Rodley’s utilitarian lines, © Tony Thorpe
Built as a car for the small family, it was difficult to escape from the Rodley’s utilitarian lines, © Tony Thorpe
Taking the work out of washday’, before putting the Rodley into production, Henry Brown was a successful washing machine manufacturer, source: Yorkshire Post, 5th October 1951
Taking the work out of washday’, before putting the Rodley into production, Henry Brown was a successful washing machine manufacturer, source: Yorkshire Post, 5th October 1951
Although the Rodley was already in production, it does not appear to have been exhibited at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1954.  The company did, however, place an advertisement in Autocar’s Show Guide, source: Autocar, 22nd October 1954
Although the Rodley was already in production, it does not appear to have been exhibited at the Earls Court Motor Show in October 1954. The company did, however, place an advertisement in Autocar’s Show Guide, source: Autocar, 22nd October 1954
Rear space in the Rodley was very limited, © Tony Thorpe
Rear space in the Rodley was very limited, © Tony Thorpe
Rodley seems to have appointed just one main distributor: the Kings Arms Garages, on Kings Street in Lancaster, source: Lancaster Guardian and Observer, 17th September 1954
Rodley seems to have appointed just one main distributor: the Kings Arms Garages, on Kings Street in Lancaster, source: Lancaster Guardian and Observer, 17th September 1954

Commentary
On 28th Jan 1954, the main article on the front page of the Yorkshire Post announced the launch of a new local motor manufacturer: the Rodley Automobile Co Ltd. 

Its founder was 31-year-old Henry Brown of Featherbank Lane, Horsforth, another village a couple of miles north-east of Rodley and, like Rodley, now a suburb of Leeds.  After leaving the Royal Air Force in 1946, Henry set up a general engineering business based in Rodley.  One day, he was asked by a customer, by the name of Percy Gibson, to build a washing machine.  This, presumably, turned out quite well, for in 1950, the two men decided to go into business together, forming the Castra Electric Washing Machine Company, based at the Castra Works in Rodley.  (This is thought to be where the small housing development of Keel Moorings now stands.)   

The business appears to have prospered.  In 1951, the company was advertising for a commercial traveller “to cover the UK for a rapidly expanding concern”.  A year later, one of its products was described as “Britain’s Leading Junior Electric Washer”. 

In 1953, the company was bought by the major industrial concern of Rubery, Owen & Co. Ltd who, reportedly, continued to make washing machines at Rodley until 1967. 

It is interesting to note that Rubery Owen’s vast industrial empire included the manufacture of motor vehicle frames and components, and one wonders whether this had any bearing on Henry Brown’s decision to build his own motor car. 

The aims and aspirations of the new motor company, it has to be said, did not appear to be entirely unrealistic.  By the end of 1954, it was hoped that they would be producing twelve vehicles a week rising, eventually, to a weekly output of around 50 cars.

Costing just under £300, including purchase tax, the Rodley was designed to meet the demand for low-cost vehicles that was currently being catered for by the three-wheelers built by Reliant and Bond. Marketed initially as a four-seater, full-size car, the Rodley was said to be “close in size” to a product of “one of the major companies”. 

Three body styles were considered during development, with Henry Brown eventually settling on a three-box steel saloon with a fabric panel in the roof, described by one motoring writer, perhaps a little ambitiously, as a “coupé de ville type body”.

By the time the first cars were delivered in September 1954, the Rodley was hailed as “the world’s cheapest four-wheeled car”.  Just over nine feet in length, 4’.7” wide and 4’.11“ high, it was powered by a rear-mounted, air-cooled, two-cylinder, 750cc J.A.P engine, driving the rear wheels via a three-speed gearbox and a chain to the rear axle.  Independent coil springs were fitted at the front, with a semi-elliptic set-up at the rear. Steering was by a chain system and brakes were cable-operated.  

Henry Brown claimed that the car had a top speed of over 55mph, and would cruise comfortably at 40mph, doing about 55 miles per gallon.  In reality, the Rodley fell well below the standards of the day.  Space was extremely tight in the rear, and reliability was poor, with a number of cars having problems with excessive vibration and overheating.  

At the end of December 1954, the company announced that it had found a ready market for all it could produce, with a sales potential in Britain of at least “300 or 400 per week”.  This good news, however, was tempered further down the statement, when it was indicated that production had only just reached one car per week.  However, on an upbeat note, Henry Brown added that the development of the Rodley Mk II was already under way; a full four-seater, with less austere and box-like lines, at a price increase of about £16. 

Despite this optimism, production proved to be short-lived.  In March 1955 there was news of a possible sale, to a company in the south of England, in order to give Rodley sufficient capital to continue.   

Four months later, with no further funding, Henry Brown announced the company’s closure.  With commendable honesty, he explained that production difficulties and a shortage of certain components had hampered initial sales but, fundamentally, he said, “there was just no demand for such a simple car with its basic square bodywork”. 

By September 1955, the company had gone into liquidation and its assets were put up for sale.  These included presses, folding and drilling machines, together with the many other items used in motor manufacturing. Amongst the long list of stock was a “Rodley Motor Car (prototype)”.  Whether this was the original Rodley, or the new Mk II is not known. 

Rodley produced about 65 cars in all, and none are thought to survive – although there is one report that an example still exists, in a private collection. 

However, it was not the end of the motoring road for Henry Brown.  By 1957 he had designed a second car – the Scootacar – which, although never in the mainstream, did have more success than the Rodley. 

As a final note, it appears that Rodley had two premises in the village, the second is thought to have been on Rodley Lane, between the Owl Inn and what is now Rialto Court, which may well have been where the cars were manufactured. 

Further details