I have long admired Joseph Lucas and when you get done with this article maybe you will too. A hard working family man, Lucas was never an English born Diogenes who wandered the streets of Birmingham trying to plot a scheme to keep you in the dark.
The fact of the matter is that old Joe Lucas has received a bad rap and that the faults of others are often attributed to him and his misunderstood products. He has nothing to do with the failure of your car to start or caused your lights to flicker. Truth be told – he was gone from the scene long before any of our British sports cars were a glimmer in the eye of Messrs. Healey, Black, Lyon or Enever.
But first, let us get the jokes out of the way to clear out our system for the knowledge to come.
- The Lucas corporate motto: “Get home before dark.”
- If Lucas made guns, wars would not start.
- Lucas holds the patent for the short circuit.
- Lucas – Inventor of the intermittent wiper.
- Lucas – Inventor of the self-dimming headlamp.
- The three position Lucas switch – Dim, Flicker and Off
- The Original Anti-Theft Device – Lucas Electrics.
- Lucas is an acronym for Loose Unsoldered Connections and Splices
Several years before the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States, Joseph Lucas was an unemployed father of six children who had to make ends meet by selling paraffin oil from a cart around the local Birmingham streets. With six mouths to feed he was a tireless worker and he soon had saved up enough money to start the business that would become Lucas Industries in 1860. Most of the small firm’s products were made from pressed metals like plant pots, gardening tools and water buckets. His son, Harry, joined the business in 1872 when he turned 17 and soon the company began to make lamps for ships out of a shop called the Lamp Works. By 1879, oil fired bicycle lamps joined the product lineup and greater success followed this move towards making more advanced lighting fixtures for civilian and maritime usage.
The business incorporated at the turn of the century and began to trade under the name Joseph Lucas Ltd., with most of the business centered on the burgeoning field of paraffin and petroleum fired lamps. 1902 was the first year that the company began to make automotive components – mainly small electrical components – and by the new year, business was so good that Lucas took time off for a long European vacation. A hard and tireless worker, Lucas had long abstained from alcohol and that doomed him when he contracted typhoid after drinking contaminated water in Naples. He was buried on January 14, 1903. At the time of his death, Donald Healey was a child, Triumph was making bicycles and Lord Nuffield (William Morris) had just opened his garage in Oxford.
Substantial growth happened on the cusp of World War I when the company entered into an agreement to supply Morris Motors Limited with electrical equipment – mainly magnetos, starter motors, horns, lighting and wiring – and throughout the war manufactured shells, fuses and electrical equipment for the war effort. When peace arrived the company began to grow and diversify by making braking components, hydraulic systems and electronic engine controls. An exclusive contract with Austin was signed in 1926 and while other companies struggled with the Depression Lucas acquired several competitors including Girling, Rotax and Vandervell.
Lucas was integral to the war effort in World War II with their automotive electrical systems adapted for use in almost every manner of military vehicle and they took a major role with Rover working on the fuel and combustion systems on the Whittle jet engine for the Gloster E28/39 (the first British jet airplane to fly). In the 50s, the company continued to supply automotive electrical components and also moved into the new field of semiconductors. For much of the 50s and 60s, Lucas automotive components were the world standard and found use in cars as diverse as Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston-Martin, Austin, MG and Triumph. Lucas built components were simple, durable, easy to repair and reliable.
What happened? Mainly the passage of time; when the cars were new they were as reliable as any other new car – including the electrical systems – but decades of use, storage and a succession of previous owners whose understanding of electrical systems was limited to screwing in light bulbs have taken a toll on the reputation of Joseph Lucas and his later products. Curse his ghost if you must, but the man was long since dead before any of our beloved sports cars were built. If only he had opted for a nice chianti maybe he would have been around long enough for us to make fun of him for good reason.