A boffin has a bash: When he wasn't baking bread, Jack Tritton, 79, was beating swords into ploughshares - or old Spitfires into electric cars, as he explains to Jonathan Glancey
Saturday 26 March 1994
My brother and I had always fiddled about mending electrical equipment as youngsters, so the idea of an electrically powered car seemed pretty straightforward.
It didn't have a name: we just called it the electric car. I suppose it was the Sinclair C5 of its day. That was 1946. It wasn't difficult or expensive to build. All over Kent, scrapyards were dismantling surplus RAF planes and you could pick up bits from Spitfires and the like - geared electric motors, instruments, wheels and so forth. It was beautifully engineered stuff, going for a song.
I hadn't any training in metalwork, but I made the chassis from duralumin, which is very strong, and the body from aluminium sheet, which is very light and child's play to shape. The car was a two-seater with a boot for the shopping. There was no styling, but I don't think it looked too bad.
The tiny wheels and balloon-like tyres came from a Spitfire. My sister has got them now the car has been dismantled; she was going to use them for a wheelbarrow she never made. They're still around somewhere. The motor? Well, it had two combined starter motors and dynamos from pre-war Morrises. They drove the two rear wheels independently of one another. That way, I didn't have to bother with a differential. They were connected to lead-acid batteries, but I later replaced these with nickel-cadmium batteries. They cost pounds 1 each in 1946, which was a lot; but they lasted longer and gave more power.
How fast would it go? Well, downhill with a following wind, it would do 20mph; on the level I suppose we could manage about 15mph. So it had the performance of a decent bicycle. The power could be stepped up and down through a three-position switch from an aircraft. This delivered a choice of six, 12 and 24 volts from the batteries to the motors, so the car had three forward speeds - and no reverse.
The steering was quite good. I wrote to Practical Mechanics, a very helpful magazine, and they suggested I use a system based on the earliest Morgans. Knowing Morgan, perhaps they still use the same kit today] Anyway, it did the trick. The car had suspension on the front, but not on the rear wheels. It didn't need it, given how slow it was and the fact that those chubby Spitfire tyres soaked up the bumps.
I fitted cable brakes to the rear wheels and it stopped pretty quickly. The only real problem was the fact that it couldn't go very far. A trip down to Petts Wood and back to do the shopping, about eight miles, was the limit. It did generate electricity downhill, but the batteries of 50 years ago were primitive things. It took four hours to recharge.
Still, every journey was fun. People would often stop us to talk about the car. I liked to tell them it was a proper car, registered, tax, insured and all that. My friend Alec Bacon took some nice pictures of us and the car. But when petrol rationing went, it made much more sense to use our Ford estate and store the electric car. I put her away in an outhouse. Some of the components were recycled: one of the original batteries is still at work under the bonnet of my 1926 Rover 9.
I suppose I never thought of taking much care of the car; looking back, it is a bit of a historical curiosity, but at the time it was just a response to the lack of petrol.
Long after the electric car was put away, when I retired from the bakery business, I began to mend old lawnmowers and other people's cars. I made a canal cruiser which we still use, a dinghy, a conservatory for our house in Kent and I invented electrically powered fanlights for it. These opened automatically in response to changes in the temperature. I know this sort of thing is commonplace now, but it was something different back in the early Sixties.
My son, Bernard, and I have collected a few cars between us since the end of petrol rationing. Bernard used to work for Reuters before farming in Wales; he came back to Kent and now keeps a '64 Cadillac pillar-less Coupe de Ville, a 1960 Austin Princess A135 and a white Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow to hire out for weddings. We keep the old Rover 9 I bought for pounds 55 about the same time as I made the electric car; it's insured for pounds 25,000 these days. I still use the F-reg, 1968 Land-Rover I've had since new; that, and a Rover 110.
Bernard publishes Motoring Classics, an enthusiasts' magazine that comes out again after a break next month; I suppose we're both keen on cars and neither of us can bear to throw anything away. I like making useful things for the house and grounds and never know when an old electric motor I might have thrown away will come in handy. I've still got a lot of old aircraft bits bought from those military scrapyards in the late Forties. I'm sure they'll get used in some contraption or other.
Looking back on Alec Bacon's pictures, I'm reminded of what fun it was and how we used to make and mend and invent things to get by in those days. Still, with modern batteries, I suppose I could make a car that went a lot better.
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