The History of the Petter Engine

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"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
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The Brothers Petter - Twins Sir Ernest, left, and Percival "Percy" Petter co-founded the engine manufacturing division of their father's company and were instrumental in its operation until their deaths in the mid 1950s.
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A Petter M Type Oil Engine cutaway illustration from a 1932 catalogue.
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The Petter oil traction engine failed to spark interest in the farming community, although it was highly touted and widely - and expensively - advertised. For one sales campaign, the tractor towed eight tons of Petter engines from Yeovil to Thame for the Oxfordshire County Show. According to Percy's memoirs, the "125 miles (were) covered in 24 hours with an oil consumption of 30 gallons."
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The 1932 model M Type engine, which came in 1 1/2, 3 and 5 hp engines.
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A close-up look at the drip-feed oiler of the Petter S-Type engine shown above. Dave Brown, of Salem, Ore., restored the engine after finding it in an antique shop in Duncan, Ore., in 1986. "You'd be hard-pressed to find a handful of these in North America," he says. The engine is now owned by Gregg Swenson of Corvallis, Ore.

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.

In 1910, Petter Ltd. became a public company, and in 1911, James B. Petter died. The twins came into their own, launching a new vertical range of two-stroke engines – semi-diesel – called the V range and sized from 10 to 200 hp the same year. In 1912, they came out with the M-type model VF 5/6 hp petro-paraffin engines.

Space was now at a premium in the old Petter foundry, so a new foundry, called the Westland Works, was built in Westland, which gave the firm the ability to turn out 1,500 engines a year.

During World War I at Westland Works, the aircraft division was formed, taking over a portion of the workspace. The production of 4-stroke engines ceased, but 2-stroke engines continued to be produced, and in 1917, the 2-1/2 hp M-type model VA petro-paraffin engine and the M-type model VC 8 hp were developed.

In 1919, Petter Ltd. purchased the Vickers factory at Ipswich and production of all engines of more than 25 hp was transferred there. Vickers Petters Ltd. produced engines up to 400 hp and heavy marine engines.

In 1920, the M-type model VZ 1 1/2-to-2 hp was launched and all production of V models as moved to Westland Works. In 1923, the Petter-patented cold starter was introduced on the VB range of semi diesels, which became known as the ‘S’ type. The VB 8 hp petrol-paraffin model was discontinued then as it clashed with the new VS (S type 8 hp) semi diesel.

Ernest Petter was knighted in 1925 for his assistance and expertise in presenting the British Empire Exhibition in 1925 at Wembley. However, a general strike and recession after WWI affected the Petter business so adversely that the Vickers Petter Ltd. Factory at Ipswich was closed and production consolidated at the Westland Works.

For the next few years, Petter concentrated on producing the M-type range petro-paraffin 1-1/2 to 6 hp and the improved VS range (S type) of semi diesels, 5 to 560 hp. All were 2-stroke up to 1928, when a range of diesel engines called the “Atomic” range was designed. These were from 5 to 480 hp in size, two-stroke but full diesel.

Another first came in 1933 with the introduction of the four-stroke engine, called the “Petter Universal and Petrol” since 1935. This engine, in various sizes, proved very popular as a generating set and pumping set unit; many thousands were used by the British Air Ministry and War Department throughout World War II. In particular, the PU8 (for 8 hp) was used on the bridging pontoons by Allied forces crossing the Rhine during World War II. Production on this engine ceased in 1948.

Also developed in 1936 was the 4-stroke small petrol T.V.O. engine, called the A type, in from 1-1/2 to 3 hp sizes. It became the work horse from post-WWII days to 1966, with many modifications including a water-cooled version. It was used on such equipment as milking machines and saw benches and to drive farm equipment.

In 1937, the engine industry was and nationalizing its ranges and during that time, Petters Ltd. Was acquired by a group of companies called the Associated British Oil Engine Co., Ltd. Each individual company carried on as an autonomous unit, but agreed to build a limited range of engines to avoid duplication and competition amongst themselves. Sir Ernest and Percy Petter became directors on the new board.

The winds of war were blowing across Europe again by then, though, and the British government aircraft production increased. In response, the new chairman of Associated and of Petters, A.P. Good, moved all engine production to the British Electrical Engine Co. plant in Loughborough. Westland Works became Westland Aircraft Co., and went into full production for the government.

In 1938, a new type of superscavenger engine went into production and continued to be made throughout the war, but it proved to be the last of the two strokes. Called the SS, this engine came in 2- to 6-cylinder versions with from 125 to 375 hp.

At the start of WWII, the S type semi-diesels were dropped and the Atomic engines were restricted to 5 to 20 hp only so production could be concentrated on the M, A and PU types, and the SS. In 1943, the SS was phased out and its design passed to Wireless, another group company similar to Associated.

Also at this time, another heavy engine company, J. & H. McLaneas, was acquired by Associated. Closely linked with Petters, McLaneas already was building some small Petter A type engines when the acquisition occurred.

In 1949, the British Electrical group took over all the Associated group’s factories as a holding company, and British Electrical Engineering Co. Ltd., was reformed to carry on electrical manufacturing and development.

This is where I became involved. On returning from the war in the Far East in January 1948, I obtained employment at a small factory called the British Small Motors Ltd., which was a division of the British Electric Engine Co., in Leeds. We made small electric motors and switchboards. In 1950, the firm transferred production to Cardiff, Wales, so I transferred to J.&A. McLarens in Leeds, and this is where my involvement began with Petters.

I completed my apprenticeship and joined McLaren’s Service Division. In 1948, McLarens purchased the old “Lagonda” car factory in Staines, Middlesex, and commenced building small Petter engines there. In 1949, the whole Petter company was moved out of the British Electric factory at Loughborough to the Staines factory and renamed Fetters Ltd. The first managing director was Capt. Dick Petter, a son of one of the twins.

The service department didn’t move to Staines, but formed a new division and moved to premises near Loughborough at Burton on the wolds, and in 1955, it was decided to move McLaren Service there. Hence in 1955, I took McLaren Services Division to Burton on the wolds, and the new company was called Petter-McLaren Service Division. From then, I gradually took over all the Petter engine information.

With the move to Staines, several new engines were put into production, the petrol engine A type and various models carried on into the late ’60s, but their most productive engine, the AVA and AV 4-stroke diesel started in 1950 and was developed and increased in bore and hp and re-named the PH and PHW, and continued through the production life of the Staines factory.

In 1953, a celebration luncheon was held at Staines in honor of Sir Ernest Petter and Percy Petter, who were by then 80 years old. Also, other original directors from the Yoevil factory as well as Capt. Dick Petter were present.

Within two years of that event, both twins died, and in 1955, Capt. Dick Petter retired. Other members of the Petter family – there were 15 brothers and sisters – were involved in the firm at different times. Most notable among these extremely inventive engineering siblings were Guy, who invented the Sumbock Adding Machine, Harry and Hugh Petter.

In the late 1950s, the Staines plant was at its most productive. New engines were rolling off the line to meet high demand in building, civil engineering, marine and electrical applications, and two new engines were introduced. They were the PAZ1, probably the most successful diesel ever made for small cement mixers, and the AA1, advertised as the smallest lightweight diesel in the world and quickly copied by the Japanese.

The Petter-McLaren Service Division also was expert in taking over the service and supply of parts of other companies’ engines. In addition to Fetters and McLarens engines, those made by Wishaw, Armstrong, Siddeley of Brockworth, Fowlers of Leeds and Cobona of Letchworth also were handled. Doing this work, the service division outgrew its space in Staines, and in 1959, it moved to the larger Armstrong Whitworth Factory at Hamble, near Southampton on the south coast.

This move took place as a consequence of a major takeover of the company in 1957 by the Hawker-Siddeley firm. Reorganized, the business was called the Hawker-Siddeley Brush Group.

The move to Hamble also marked the beginning of the “modern era” for these engine manufacturers. Petter Staines continued to mass-produce small engines and Hamble was split into four divisions: Petter Generator Divisions, Petter Marine Division, Petter Service Division and the Thermo-King Division, which made refrigeration units under license from Thermo-King of Minneapolis, Minn.

At Staines, new engines included the B-type, water-cooled diesel, up to 4 cylinders; the PD and PDV horizontal diesel engines, 2-to-8 cylinders; the PH and PHW, already mentioned; the PJ and PJW diesels, 1-to-4 cylinders; and then the lightweight “A” range aluminum engines – the AA1, AB1, AC1, AC2, BA1 and BA2.

In the 1970s, sales of small engines were down worldwide because of over production. The situation adversely affected Hawker-Siddeley Brush and its main competitor, Lister. The upshot was that Hawker-Siddeley took over Lister and in 1984 merged Petter and Lister to form the Lister-Petter Co. Ltd. The Petter Service Division, which had remained in Staines with the headquarters’ offices, was moved to Hamble, and all the other Petter divisions were phased out.

At this time, I was living near Hamble and traveling Britain and Europe as distribution manager, with a string of agents. It was decided that I would work from home, and continue commuting.

By 1986, the headquarters’ offices were moved out of Staines to Dursley in Gloucester, and the company was renamed again, to Lister Petters Co., Ltd. The new management offered me a position as troubleshooter for the Petter products; in the meantime, all service and supply of parts for the other companies’ engines was ceased. So, it was back to only Petter products.

In 1988, the engine production work that had continued at Petter Staines was moved into the Lister-Petter facility at Dursley, and the Petter Staines site was sold and, in 1989, demolished. The sale of that property ended the era of Petters as an autonomous factory; from then on, production was geared toward common, new designs called Lister-Petter.

And eventually, the Lister-Petter factory was sold twice more.

With the historical knowledge gained over 43 years, I became recognized as the “old-engine expert,” and in April 1990, when I decided to retire, I had acquired by agreement with the company a vast library of materials on Petter history. These archives included microfilm records and drawings of the Petter companies as well as the obsolete records of other manufacturers.

The McLaren records alone were so considerable that I donated them to the Leeds City Industrial Museum, as McLarens was one of the first Industrial Revolution factories in Leeds.

Since retiring, I have offered my services to the monthly “Stationary Engine” magazine, and I am on their “Help Line” list for various engines. As a result, I probably receive an average of six or seven letters a week asking about dates and original histories of engines from all over the world. And I still get an occasional query from Lister-Petter on the old engines as there is now no one left at the firm with knowledge of the old engines. FC

Keith Off is on Stationary Engine Magazine’s “Help Line” list for Petters and accepts all inquiries sent to his home, 80 Hobb Lane, Hedge End, Southampton, 503 4GP, UK.

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