Sydney Horstmann’s “Light Car”
Horstman history article from Motor Sport 1970
No. 48: Horstman
THE HORSTMAN light car was born just prior to the outbreak of the War to end all wars but it survived this disruption and reappeared after the Armistice, finally disappearing in 1929. Whereas most of the small cars which struggled to survive during these competitive years were conventional, even unimaginative, in design and construction, this was not the case with the Horstmann, which was the work of the youngest of Gustav Horstmann’s four sons.
This gentleman came of German farming and schoolmastering stock but left the farm to serve an apprenticeship with the notable horologist Dejean, who had been a pupil of the even more famous Breguet. In 1853 Horstmann came to this country and settled in Bath, where he married a girl from the Somerset Knotts family, who claim a family tree going back to Canute and AD 1000. There were four sons by this marriage and all eventually joined the family clockmaking business, which their father had founded in 1894 and which lasted as a retail business until 1925. Gustav Horstmann had invented many ingenious mechanisms, such as self-winding clocks, the first of which relied on the change between day and night temperature, but later ones on the expansion of liquids, metals and gases. He was, indeed, a pioneer of thermostatic control, which he employed to operate flue dampers to obtain an even room temperature and even to open and close the windows of his house. Another of his inventions was a screw micrometer capable of measuring to one ten-thousands of an inch, which pre-dated Whitworth’s more convenient micrometer of 1858 by two years.
This inventive genius of the father was inherited by the sons and is reflected in the Horstmann car. In 1904, 11 years after Gustav’s death, the family formed the Horstmann Gear Co. Ltd., which still exists and is well known in the Gas Industry. The original invention which prompted the formation of this Company was an expanding pinion whereby a variable ratio gearbox was possible without need to change the gears. It brought the sons into contact with the Motor Industry but was not a commercial success. They were also the inventors of the time switch.
This induced the youngest Horstmann, Sydney, to manufacture a light car of his own. It appeared in 1914 and displayed the inventive outlook of its creator. The four-cylinder water-cooled engine had horizontal valves in a detachable head, operated by vertical rockers from a camshaft in the crankcase, the whole of this ingenious valve gear being neatly enclosed. Moreover, forward of the flywheel there was no chassis as such, the crankcase being extended to form a combined frame and undershield. Springing was by full cantilever springs all round, augmented by anti-roll bars and the three-speed gearbox was combined with the back axle. Wire wheels and a vee-radiator gave the little 8.9 h.p. Horstmann a smart appearance and it is fitting that at the 1914 JCC Burford Bridge Rally the prize for the light car with the maximum number of novel features went to this make.
Before production began seriously war had broken out and the garage where the cars had been made was put on to precision engineering for the manufacture of munitions. After the war production was restarted, from a small works in James Street West, Bath. The ingenious pre-war engine was soon discarded in favour of proprietary power units, Coventry-Simplex and Anzani, which put the car in the 11/2-litre class, and as the public in 1919 looked with disfavour at anything German, the name was altered CO Horstman. Sydney Horstmann remained in charge, although his flair for invention, which ranged from a sprung road wheel to hydraulic brakes and special suspension systems, tended to hamper the production flow. The Horstman retained its gilled-tube ee-radiator, which was now endowed with Daimler-like flutes along the top of the shell. The full cantilever springing was retained and other aspects of the 1922 models with their OE Coventry-Simplex engines that reflected the Horstmann inventive mind were the special Horstman clutch with single plate having wood inserts, the patent Horstman mechanical foot starter inside the car (it had been improved, and was supplemented by a starting handle), the enclosed bevel-and-sector Horstman steering gear and the special tubular roller-bearing front axle, while the magneto was provided with an impulse starter.
In those days Nathan was the Works Foreman, H. W. J. Deeble looked after final inspection of completed Horstmans and was responsible for the Show exhibits, Harry Viles cast the aluminium gearbox casings in the old drill hall in Upper Bristol Road, H. Chubb was the tester and delighted in driving flat-out in reverse gear, and Capt. F. G. Horstmann, ex-RFC, joined the firm to look after publicity, writing the brochures and coining the slogan “Horstman—The Light Car with the Ieal Specification”. It is a reminder of how difficult it was for the smaller concerns at this period that he stated in each brochure that “Owing to the unsettled state of all markets prices are subject to alteration at any time without notice”. And, as a rather superior small car, which was offered with decent weather protection in 1919, the Horstman was already quite expensive. The 1922 chassis on ribbed 710 x 85 Palmer Cords cost 300 guineas, the disc-wheeled 131/2 cwt. standard four-seater upholstered in “very considerably improved” Broncho leather cloth, 360 guineas (painting in a special colour cost £2 extra), the two-seater 335 guineas and the coupe 380 guineas. It is interesting that the delivery charge in those days was 6d. a mile up to 150 miles, 9d. a mile thereafter.
Sydney Horstmann sought to publicise his cars through competition successes, while the local Brassknocker hill was useful for demonstrations. Much of the finance to carry on this private company came from the investments of the Directors, one of whom, Capt. Rooke, is said to have been responsible for the considerable height of Horstman hoods, as, being a keen hunting man, he insisted on being able to wear a top hat when the hood was up! There were one or two setbacks when money became scarce, but they were overcome until the late 1920s. The firm finally faded out in 1929, when toying with another innovation ahead of its time, independent front suspension, after some 4,000 cars had been made.
The racing activities commenced in 1921 when Sydney Horstmann designed and, they say, built in 11 days a racing car for the Coupe des Voiturettes at Le Mans, using a side-valve Anzani engine and front wheel brakes, Douglas Hawkes being the driver. If this debut was not outstanding, no time was lost, four cars, the Le Mans racer and three Coventry-Simplex-engined Horstmans, being entered for that year’s JCC 200-Mile Race, S. A. Horstmann himself intending to drive one of them. All non-started with the exception of Hawkes’, which came home in 5th place, at 82.37 m.p.h., behind the three victorious Talbot-Darracqs and Vizcaya’s Bugatti. Thus it was possible to advertise the Horstman as “the fastest British light car” and it is interesting that in 1922 a replica of the 200-Mile Race car was catalogued. It sold for £500, including spare wheel carried on the body side, tyre pump, jack and tool kit, but without a guarantee. It could be had with either a Coventry-Simplex or Anzani Summit engine and the mechanical starter was deleted. The two-seater body was of polished aluminium, there was an outside copper exhaust pipe, strengthened wire or disc wheels with Palmer Cord tyres were used and the seats, pedals and steering rake were adjustable. The dash carried speedometer, tachometer, oil gauge and thermometer and quickly detachable wings and running boards and a three-lamp lighting set were provided. This Super Sports model weighed 121/2 cwt. and was 14 ft. 4 in. in length.
It seems that quite a few were sold, because the Horstman became a popular Brooklands competitor. Hawkes Horstman again finished in fifth place in the 1923 200-Mile Race, in which C. F. Temple’s ran a Horstman with supercharged Anzani engine, another piece of British pioneering on the part of the Bath manufacturer. For much of the foregoing information I am indebted to Mrs. Kathleen Horstmann, widow of Capt. F. G. Horstmann, who, married to one of the family, drove Horstmans in contemporary times, often on long journeys and whose father had introduced her to Brooklands in 1912. A 1923 tourer had been supplied to the then Treasurer of the Surrey County Council, who, as Mrs. Horstmann was a neighbour, asked her to teach his wife-to-be to drive the car. This she did and when Mr. Leonard Currie died in 1936 his widow gave the car to her husband. When Mrs. Horstmann’s husband died in 1949 she had nowhere to keep it and was delighted when Sydney Horstmann agreed it should go to Bath. He suggested sending a lorry for it but was told it must he driven down, and this he accomplished, with no trouble, getting 40 m.p.g. on the journey from Surrey. It was kept in good trim thereafter, as Nathan took it away each year for his annual holiday. After the death of Sydney Horstmann the car spent some time in the Beaulieu, Measham and Brighton Museums before it came back to Mrs. Horstmann. She was emphatic that it “was too young to become a dusty museum piece” and had it sent to Warwickshire, where she was then living. New tubing was found for the radiator, a new hood was made, a fan was fitted and, joining the VSCC, Mrs. Horstmann put the car back on the road. It is an excellent example of an unmodified disc-wheeled Horstman, with the impulse starter, cockpit kick-start, and that unique bonnet which falls open in two halves, normally secured by two strips of metal and a couple of turn-fasteners. Due to the growing difficulty of keeping a vintage car in good fettle it may now remain in retirement.
What became of the Horstman Co.? It was acquired by Simms Motor Units Ltd. and several products bearing the old name have survived, such as the Wickman-Horstman thread grinder, the Horstman electric clipper, and Horstman adjustable desk lamps, the last named the work of the late Capt. F. G. Horstmann and incorporating springs developed originally for the slow-motion suspension for tanks, another of the Horstmann inventions which the War Office adopted before the war.
It was delightful to be able to meet someone who not only remembers the old company but was able to show me one of their cars, carefully stored in the garage beside her Triumph 1300. Moreover, there are at least two more Horstmans in the VSCC and I saw a pre-1914 two-seater in a West Country showroom some years ago. But the hydraulic-front-braked tourer which was in a Byfleet garage during the war and the ex-Angela Rob racer which vanished from Basingstoke at about the same time have probably gone forever.-W.B.