The History of the Petter Engine

Brothers Ernest and Percy Petter revolutionize England with horizontal, single-acting, high-speed steam engines and the horseless carriage Petter engine.


| December 2001



Horseless carriage

"In those days the law required that every mechanically propelled vehicle should be proceeded by a man walking with a red flag, and, as the horses were quite unaccustomed to 'Horseless Carriages,' they usually took fright when they saw one coming, and this gave us a lot of toruble." - from the memoirs of Percy Petter

The Petter Oil Engine story began in 1894 with twin brothers Ernest and Percy Petter,who were employed in the family business of James B. Petter & Sons, ironmongers of Yeovil, Somerset, England. The family owned a foundry and engineering works in Yeovil, to which an application for work was made by a Ben Jacobs. A versatile and clever young engineer and designer, Jacobs was hired by the Petters and thus began a partnership interested in designing and building engines.

Initially, a batch of horizontal, single-acting, high-speed steam engines were produced, called the "Yoevil" engine, but an article in "The Boy's Own" paper, which appeared under the heading of "Model Gas Engine," inspired the trio of young designers and engineers to look at the possibility of designing their own gas engine.

Jacobs then designed his first gas engine for Petter; it was intended to drive a "horseless carriage." Further design changes simplified the vaporizing set-up, which improved the engine's performance and made it suitable for industrial and agricultural use as well. Production thus began of 1 hp and 2-1/2 hp horizontal oil engines started by heating an ignition tube projecting from the hot bulb.

In 1901, a limited company was formed, titled James B. Petter & Sons Ltd., and production got underway of the redesigned engine in sizes from 1-1/4 hp to 22 hp.

In 1902, competition increased from Fairbanks Morse's "Jack of all Trades" vertical T.V.O. engines, so Petter responded with another redesign, which produced a cheaper engine called the "Handyman," offered in five sizes. When this engine was first shown publicly in 1903 at the Royal Bath and West Agricultural Show, a U.S. firm negotiated the wholesale rights and ordered 400 engines.

The original "horseless carriage" Petter engine later was rebuilt and presented to the British Engineering Museum, London, where is remains on display today.

Bill Blundell
2/27/2011 5:15:30 AM

My "state" in Australia is New South Wales. I am a member of the Gunnedah Rural Museum where I am helping to restore a Petter AV1 (1952) and also a Petter VC (1921)which came to us from Adelaide in Sth. Australia. We are still searching world wide for an injector fuel pump for the VC. Can anyone help us?