Sudden Fascination 2 – Trojan Utility Cars

Some years ago I was dozing off in my chair at a particularly ‘slow’ Beaulieu Autojumble where the crowd was sparse and sales… only an ambition. A kindly lady , working for THE AUTOMOBILE magazine, took pity on my and handed me a back number of the journal “There you go love, have a read of that” she said, more or less. The issue was a couple of years old and she was passing them out to anyone interested in order to tempt them with a subscription. It was possibly the most interesting car magazine I had looked at in years! There were two features, one on the exotic Voisin saloon that had belonged to Prince Chula of Siam (aluded to in a previous blog) and the other at the very opposite end of the scale, the opotheosis of everything spartan and un-exotic , the Trojan Utility.

My only knowledge of the Trojan came from a story my mum used to tell me about being given a lift in a Trojan Van as a child in the early 1950s that belonged to a friend of her father’s.  It was, she maintianed, the single most uncomfortable, bumpy, noisy, smelly and slow vehicle she had ever known. In short had nothing to recommend it beyond being (slightly)  faster than walking.  But the magazine feature was something of a revelation. The design was unlike anything else before or since and the more I read, the more fascinating the car became. And yet, at that time, I had never, to my knowledge,  actually see one in the tin.

The design was the work of eccentric inventor Leslie Hounsfield, who based the car on a chassis that was like a large steel tray often described as a ‘punt’, like the small pole-powered boat of that name, rather than the usual two long rails. The engine (right) wasn’t in the front it was under the floor, in fact under the passengers seat, and it was a 4 cylinder ‘split single’ 2 stroke  with two V-shaped conecting rods with a piston on each point . The V was solid, rather than jointed so it only worked by actually bending slightly as the crank rotated. It sounds like a recipe for rapid metal-fatigue and catastophic failure, but the story went that not one single example had been know to fail – and this was in a car that pre-dated the Great War of 1914-1918 (although production didn’t start until 1920).

Matthew Parkin competes in his Trojan on the VSCC Herefordshire Trial in 2020

The engine was laid on it’s side and the exhaust ports belched out onto the road without any manifold, pipe or silencer. It drove an epicyclic 2-speed gearbox under the driver’s seat, which drove the solid rear axel by chain. The tyres were solid and used no tubes (so didn’t puncture) the long soft cart springs had no dampers/shock absorbers. As befits a car of this age, there were no brakes on the front wheels (as you can see on the car above) . What looks like the engine compartment at the front, behind the radiator, is empty . Mr Housfield was pursueded to  make the car look conventional in this respect even though he didn’t want to (and didn’t need to, in technical terms) but it was already strange enough without potentially freakish appearance to discourage buyers. To get his own back I understand he made this potentially useful empty space inaccesable… just to be bloody minded!

A deal was reached with Leyland trucks who had just entered very limited production of the Leyland Eight , one of the largest and most expensive cars of the era, a serious rival for Rolla Royce, costing £2700. With the Trojan priced eventually at £125 , Leyland topped and tailed the market. The cheap end won. The Trojan stayed in production with Leyland untill 1928 with over 11000 produced , the ‘Eight’ sold a mere handful before the company decided to go back to trucks and buses.

Most bizarre of all facts associated with the Trojan is the advertising campaign which , under the banner “Can You Afford To Walk”  (the title of the ‘bible’ on the subject, left  ) set out to explain that you would spend more on shoe leather and new socks if you walked 200 miles, than you would spend on running the car for the same distance. And they were serious.  The van version my mum encountered was produced a little later and popular as a delivery vehicle in London .

So having read up on the matter it took me about another four years to finally see one of these unique designs in the flesh when at Prescott Hillclimb for the Cotswold Trial, we watched Louis and Matthew Parkin in action… rather slow but steady action … with their military-grey 1927 example(below) .

Louis Parkin at Prescott during the Cotswold Trial

Then a matter of weeks later another appeared at Bisceter aerodrome while I was selling books at the annual VSCC Driving Tests (top). To date these remain the only two I’ve encountered (the former several times since). The aim now is to see if an owner will kindly give me a ride in one just to see if my mum was right ! I’m sure she was about the van (which stayed in production untill the early 1950s), but an open top car is probably a little more civilised?

Trojan went on to produce Heinkel ‘bubble cars’ under license in the 1950s before passed into the hands of the Heron Group owned was wealthy entrepeneur Peter Agg.  By curious conicidence my own in-law’s family name is Agg.  But a further twist in the strange tale is that Trojan became subcontrators to McLaren in the mid 1960s and produced the customer Can Am racing cars (like the M12 see here on the right) before producing a one-off F1 design in 1974 which appeared in several Grands Prix. How Mr Hounsfield would have viewed that can only be guessed at.

You can read up on the car in two ways – approproately there is a sparton, to-the-point “Profile”  (left) on the car for just £8  or there is the rare, high value ( ‘Leyland Eight’ like…) “Can You Afford To Walk?”  (above) which is somewhat costlier…. Both available from our website at the moment.

And so it came about that I’m suddenly fascinated by the Trojan Utility. Aren’t you?