belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant

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In the first quarter of the 20th century, more fledgling car companies failed in Britain than at any other time in automotive history.

It was an era of radical innovation, not just in terms of product engineering and design, but also in the way cars were manufactured and promoted.

There was no proven template for developing, producing and selling cars, so experimentation was rife, and only those companies that hit upon a successful formula were rewarded with, at the very least, survival.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The ‘brass era’ Belsize’s plush four-seat cabin

Belsize had a longer life than most, with the ‘15’ model you see here launched 22 years after the company’s first vehicle.

This particular car is significant, because it was the only one produced by Belsize in 1919, with series production starting the following year.

It effectively became the default press and promotions vehicle for the company, appearing in publications such as The Motor.

But by then Belsize was on the precipice, scrabbling to return to the relative pre-war boom times it had once enjoyed.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The dashboard in the Belsize ‘15’ has three simple dials – for amps, volts and oil pressure

You can’t help feeling a sense of profound regret when delving into the company’s history, not so much that it didn’t survive (we’ll come to its demise later), but more that what it achieved in over a quarter-century of manufacturing now barely warrants a single page from a Google search.

That it was producing more than 10% of Britain’s vehicles before the First World War makes that all the more lamentable.

Founded in 1896 as Marshall and Company, and located at a former bicycle factory known as Belsize Works in Clayton, Manchester, the first car it produced was based on a French Hertu, essentially a copy of a single-cylinder Benz with belt-and-chain transmission.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
On top of the standard starting handle, ‘our’ Belsize ‘15’ is also fitted with a self-starter – a £30 option when new

Among Belsize’s founding fathers there were already some keen engineering minds: managing director James Hoyle-Smith owned patents for tools used in the textiles industry, while board directors George Pilkington Dawson and Gerald Higginbotham were qualified engineers – the latter also a pioneering aviator and motorist.

So it wasn’t long before a more bespoke car was produced – a shaft-drive 12hp model using a two-cylinder, 1728cc Buchet engine – this time under the Marshall-Belsize moniker.

Despite the relative success of the 12hp, by 1903 more investment was needed.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The Belsize ‘15’ was the firm’s post-war flagbearer

What became the Belsize Motor and Engineering Company that year (though ‘Engineering’ was dropped from the name in 1906) raised capital through successive share releases in the ensuing decade.

Belsize also – and, it could be argued, partly at the expense of its quality image – diversified into commercial production.

Not only did it produce lorries and fire engines in the pre-war period, but taxis, too, and by 1911 it was supplying boom-city Birmingham with more hire cabs than any other manufacturer.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The Belsize ‘15’ has plenty of character on the road, helped by its skinny Dunlop tyres

This diversification, along with Belsize’s astute policy of targeting the more profitable middle-class car market, helped sustain it.

While Ford, also Manchester-based at the time, was peddling its Model T to the masses, Belsize produced a raft of multi-cylinder models with displacements ranging from 3 to 11.7 litres before the end of the first decade.

These were advanced by contemporary standards: the 24/30 it previewed at the 1906 Olympia Show had a shaft-drive, 5880cc ‘six’, with 40hp and 60hp models following two years later.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The steering is heavy at low speed in the Belsize ‘15’

Crossley, the only other credible Manchester-based rival producing cars of a similar calibre, was hot on Belsize’s heels, but its range and output were not yet comparable, and wouldn’t be until the post-war years.

Behind Ford, which by 1914 was Britain’s biggest car manufacturer, producing 6000 cars from its Trafford Park plant, Belsize was arguably the country’s second largest marque, employing some 1500 staff and building 3000 vehicles a year by 1913.

So, when ‘our’ 15hp was built, why did it mark the start of Belsize’s six-year decline into obscurity, rather than what should have heralded a bright future, leaning heavily on its well-honed pre-war reputation?

There are certainly no visual clues in the car we’ve come to drive.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The Belsize rides well over most surfaces, partly thanks to its long wheelbase

The 15hp was Belsize’s only immediate post-war model.

As such, it used tried-and-tested technology, starting with its own monobloc sidevalve ‘four’, with a typically long stroke that displaced 2799cc, putting out an RAC-rated 20.1bhp.

An Autovac system provided an automatic fuel feed to the Zenith carburettor, while a convoluted chain drive from the camshaft powered the cooling fan, with a second chain running from fan to dynamo.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
Hartford shock absorbers are a welcome addition on Tim Price’s Belsize ‘15’

A four-speed gearbox delivered drive to the rear axle through a metal cone clutch, and (not unusual for this era) drum brakes acted on the rear wheels only.

Two chassis lengths were available from launch – 13ft 6in and 14ft – with a starting price of £400.

However, the four-seater touring body of ‘our’ car – complete with a dynamo lighting set, horn, spare wheel, windscreen, hood and toolkit – would have cost £540.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The Belsize’s leather seats are positioned well back from the dashboard

This car was also fitted with a self-starter, bumping up its price by another £30.

The ‘15’ was a handsome rather than striking car, and it would have certainly held its own against equivalent Austins, Sunbeams and Vauxhalls of the day.

This was a conservative class, and buyers would have appreciated the model’s understated elegance and trustworthy mechanicals.

But none of this would prove enough to pull Belsize through the series of setbacks that led to its closure.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The monobloc sidevalve ‘four’ displaces 2799cc in the Belsize ‘15’

It wasn’t alone, either.

Rival Austin had also been slow to return to car production, and both firms were hit by the double whammy of an ironmongers’ strike from 1919-’20, and a 50% decline in the car market in the same period, caused by an economic slump.

Adding insult to injury, a new flat rate of excise duty – equivalent to £1 per RAC horsepower produced by a new car – replaced the old graduated rate, meaning that Belsize and Austin’s staple models became far less desirable.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The Belsize ‘15’ uses a chain-drive for the fan and dynamo

So it was no surprise when both companies went into receivership, Austin in 1921 and Belsize two years later.

That Austin survived was thanks entirely to the ground-breaking Seven that democratised car ownership across Britain.

But while Belsize also recognised the importance of downsizing, its unreliable 1094cc V-twin-engined Bradshaw model was doomed almost before it started and became a final nail in the corporate coffin.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
Decompression levers are used to prime the Belsize’s monobloc engine

While this Belsize ‘15’ was the company’s flagbearer from 1919, records seem to indicate that it wasn’t registered until early 1921; presumably it was driven on trade plates until that point.

Wearing the Norwich number CL 540, its first ex-works owner was Harry Saunders from the city of Norfolk.

Saunders was likely a motor trader, since records show that he had a number of vehicles registered to him at that time, and after six months it was sold to Charles Palmer of North Walsham, who became the 15hp’s first private owner.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The Belsize’s single Zenith carburettor is fed by the Autovac

Palmer sold the car back into the trade early in 1924, and it then stayed in the East Anglia area for the following four decades, passing through four owners before being acquired by RJ Whitaker, proprietor of Whitaker’s Chocolatiers in Skipton, Yorkshire.

Whitaker painted the Belsize chocolate-brown, and it was used to promote his company for the ensuing seven years, before being sold back into the trade once again.

Five owners and 41 years later, during which time the car was repainted red and white before reverting to its original green in 2003, Tim Price acquired the car in 2014, by then wearing the registration SV 9204.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
Other than between first and second, double-declutching is required to engage gears

And it’s Price that we meet today at his home in deepest Surrey.

He admits that the scarcity of parts has been challenging during his seven-year tenure with the car.

Fortunately, Price’s experience as an engineer has given the ‘15’ a new lease of life.

Keen to retain the car’s remarkable matching-numbers originality, much of the work was done to improve its usability and cosmetics, with the powertrain, chassis and body already sound and presentable.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The Belsize’s intricate radiator-mounted water temperature gauge

The running boards were restored with solid brass surrounds and rubber facings, and a new toolbox was fitted.

The leaky fuel tank was repaired, and the closing surfaces of the bonnet were re-taped.

Inside, Price replaced the wiring behind the dashboard, the rubber flooring and damaged brass lifting rings.

He also found that the handling was rather skittish, so wisely fitted Hartford shock absorbers to the front axle.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The Belsize’s previously skittish handling was fixed with the addition of Hartford shock absorbers

A new hood and sidescreens completed what is now a lovely example of a late ‘brass-era’ motor car.

The starting process from cold is typical for many machines of this period: with the Autovac switch thrown, you ‘flood’ the Zenith carb, and prime cylinders one and two by turning the decompression levers and squirting a thimble of petrol into each.

Then it’s just a case of fully retarding the ignition using the lever on the steering wheel’s hub, flicking up the magneto switch and pressing the starter.

You sit well back from the dash behind a small four-spoke steering wheel, at the end of an unfeasibly long column.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The smart artillery wheels are original on the Belsize ‘15’

Just three dials grace the dashboard – for amps, volts and oil pressure – with an elegant water-temperature dial in a circular knurled brass frame facing you from outside the car, perched atop the radiator.

An open H-pattern gate for the four forward gears is positioned next to your right knee, with the handbrake lever to the right of that.

The clutch and brake pedals are mounted on either side of the steering column, with the mushroom-shaped accelerator between them, directly under it.

You’ll understand, then, that this is not a car for the large of foot.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
‘On the gnarled rural roads of Surrey, you soon find the car’s natural gait’

Keeping in mind the Belsize’s cone clutch, you release it in one positive action, to avoid slipping; tricky, given how little travel it has.

Along with an equally short-travel throttle, and heavy steering at low speeds, it takes a few starts before you get the measure of it all.

Gears slot in easily, providing you change up early, but engaging each ratio requires a different technique: first to second goes straight in, but the rest need to be double-declutched.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The Belsize ‘15’ features brass running-board trim and a toolbox

Out on the gnarled rural roads of Surrey, you soon find the car’s natural gait.

Once you get through some natural play, the steering is quite high-geared, and it turns in keenly on its skinny Dunlop tyres, with a level of control that’s clearly improved by Price’s fitting of the Hartfords.

Thanks to a relatively long wheelbase, the Belsize also rides well over most surfaces, and its rear-only drums are dependable by the standards of a century-old car.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The misleadingly named Belsize ‘15’ had an RAC horsepower rating of 20.08hp

But this is no Sunbeam, Vauxhall or Austin – and it should have been.

The 2799cc ‘four’ creates its own version of Bentley’s ‘bloody thump’, but with no corresponding urge from low down.

Overall, the Belsize’s engine is not even comparable with smaller, more refined and (at the time) tax-efficient offerings from key rivals.

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
Tim Price reupholstered the Belsize’s buttoned leather seats and rewired the dashboard

It has ‘character’ today – and I enjoyed every minute of my day spent with it – but you do wonder how contemporary motorists would have viewed the Belsize ‘15’.

In 1923, the model was refreshed with an overhead-valve engine of a larger 3079cc displacement, but it was undoubtedly too little, too late to save the Belsize Motor Company.

In June of that year a report commissioned by its receivers said: ‘There appeared to be a lack of purpose and all seemed to have lost heart in the undertaking.’

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant
The scarcity of spare parts has been challenging during Tim Price’s ownership of the Belsize ‘15’

By 1925, Belsize was no more.

Flawed though this rare survivor is, it represents the final chapter of a once-great company, of which so little seems to be remembered today.

To me, that makes it valuable way beyond any monetary worth.

Images: Luc Lacey

Thanks to: Emma Burgham at the Science and Industry Museum, Manchester; Sophie Richardson at Cheffins; Joshua Butt, for his thesis ‘Aspects of the automobile’s diffusion in the North-West of England 1896-1939’

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant

What’s in a name?

In a period when most manufacturers expressed their products’ model names with an RAC horsepower rating (which determined the tax band), followed by the actual power of the engine, it’s a mystery why Belsize referred to the ‘15’ (and later ‘15/20’ evolution) thus, when it clearly stated that its 90 x 110mm cylinder dimensions correctly equalled an ‘RAC rating, 20.08.’

No reference was ever made to the engine’s real output, but even if the number sequence were reversed, 15hp is clearly well below what any self-respecting 2.8- or 3-litre motor would have made in the day.

A mystery indeed…

Factfiles

belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant

Belsize ‘15’

  • Sold/number built 1919-’23/n/a
  • Construction pressed-steel chassis, ash body frame with aluminium panels
  • Engine all-iron, monobloc 2799cc ‘four’, with Autovac-fed Zenith carburettor
  • Max power 20.08hp (RAC rating)
  • Max torque n/a
  • Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension semi-elliptic springs f/r
  • Steering worm and sector
  • Brakes rear drums
  • Length 13ft 6in (4115mm)
  • Width 5ft 6in (1676mm)
  • Height n/a
  • Wheelbase 9ft 8in (2946mm)
  • Weight n/a
  • 0-60mph n/a
  • Top speed 55mph (est)
  • Mpg 22-24 (est)
  • Price new £540
  • Price now £25-30,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

    Keyword: Belsize ‘15’: a forgotten giant

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