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Duncan Industries: a historical review

This article appeared in the Eastern Counties Motor Club Historic Review, Volume Three, Issue VI, June 2016.

The North Walsham Mini

The often told story goes that Alec Issigonis sketched his embryonic idea for a new small car on a napkin in a restaurant and in doing so gave the world the revolutionary front wheel drive Mini.  The Austin Seven Mini and Morris Mini Minor were launched during August 1959 with both companies part of the BMC group headed by Leonard Lord. The car went on to become a motoring icon and a symbol of the 'swinging 60s'. However all is not as it first appears. There was nothing new about front wheel drive: at the dawn of motoring the French dabbled with it and by the 30's it was common place on the continent. Also in America one of the most successful racing cars was the front wheel drive Miller.

What made Issigonis' design different was that he placed the engine transversely across the car and over the gearbox (which shared the same oil), along with its rubber suspension designed by Dr. Alex Moulton and the 10 inch wheels in each corner. At the time many designers were searching for the answer to the same problems and inevitably some of the solutions would be very very similar. History tells us that Sir Alec Issigonis is the gentleman who provided the answers, however it must not be forgotten that a small team ensconced in deepest Norfolk already had them!

One of Issigonis' original rough sketches for his new small car.

Shortly before the start of the war, a young Norfolk man had just passed his exams at Loughborough College of Technology and started work in the design department for the Bristol Aeroplane Company. This was headed by the legendary engineer Roy Feddon. Feddon's expertise, particularly with sleeve valve engines helped make the company one of the worlds biggest aircraft manufacturers. Before the conflict Feddon had also been involved with car design and was not short of ideas for a small postwar car and would freely discuss this with his colleagues including Duncan and Dr. Moulton.

In 1943 Sir Roy Feddon (having been knighted the previous year) set up his own design company which would be run by Duncan. Here he worked with three other noted designers Frank Hamblin, Alan Lamburn and William 'Bill' Renwick. As well as piston and gas turbine aero-engines Feddon designed a 1600cc 3 cylinder air cooled sleeve valve radial engine for the car he intended to produce. By coincidence one day whilst out roadtesting the prototype Feddon and Duncan met Issigonis testing the pre-production Morris Minor. The men stopped and took great interest in each others cars. Sir Roy was no business man and one of his shortcomings was that he would take on too many projects which quickly resulted in the collapse of Roy Feddon Ltd.

So in 1946 Ian Duncan returned to North Walsham where his family owned Norfolk Canneries. Started in 1931 the business boomed during the war supplying tinned food to our troops around the world. Later the factory was owned by H.P. Foods Ltd with baked beans being the main output. The family assumed he had come back to help run the factory but his thoughts were elsewhere. He was joined by Hamblin & Lamburn with Bill Renwick following later. A new company – Duncan Industries Ltd. – was formed and they set up a workshop in a redundant chapel known as Park Hall, North Walsham. This was the original premises of the canning business.

Their remit was to build a small lightweight front wheel drive car capable of carrying three adults. The men had been attracted to North Walsham in the same way that dragonflies congregate around a pond, so the proposed car would be known as the Duncan Dragonfly. It was their intention to take out patents on their ideas and then sell the prototypes to an established motor manufacturer to produce in quantity.

Park Hall, North Walsham. (Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Woods)

One of the first components to be sourced were 10 inch wheels and tyres. As no other manufacturer fitted these Duncan approached Dunlop and had them make him a batch for £800, a considerable sum for the time! Frank Hamblin's aerodynamic monocoque shell was constructed in lightweight 'Birmabright' alloy with a cast aluminium windscreen surround and clad in an aluminium body formed by Motor Panels of Coventry. The suspension was designed by Renwick using Dr. Alex Moulton's patents. Alan Lamburn designed an air cooled 600cc transverse engine with the gearbox immediately underneath, but to get the car up and running a 500cc BSA A7 engine & gearbox were employed. This would enable the team to road test the totally new car without having to wait for the new engine to be finished. The car was put together by Ted Stower who had also came to North Walsham via Feddon's.

Judging by the trade plate the Dragonfly was road tested even in its most basic form. (Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Woods.)

Obviously developing a completely new car is not something which can be done without incurring considerable costs and Ian Duncan had to find ways of generating some income. He had some of his staff fabricate machinery for the food processing industry which he already had a good knowledge of.  This was probably very profitable but he had gone into business to build motor cars. The appetite for cars in post-war Britain was immense. The government had a policy of “Export or Die”, the nation came out of the war with a massive debt and motor manufactures had to export their products or go out of business. As it was the government that controlled steel allocation that was a very real possibility, although as odd as it may now seem there were no restrictions on aluminium. As a result the home market was short of new cars and any roadworthy pre-war family saloon would command a premium. Duncan's short term fix was to purchase a new rolling chassis from Healey complete with a 2½ litre Riley engine and graft a second hand body onto it. The first of these was a Hillman Minx (GPW 476) modified to fit, then a Ford Anglia and Prefect received the same treatment, apart from the one registration number little is known of these cars; did they survive and are there any other photographs? (# GPW 476 is at the Healey Museum in The Netherlands.  We will produce a model of it in 2017)

The next venture was more business like. Reliance Garage in Norwich required a sports saloon body to be fitted to an Alvis TA 14 chassis. The man responsible for placing the order was Stanley Boshier who later became a leading light in both the E.C.M.C and S.C.C.o.N. Frank Hamblin took time away from the Dragonfly project and came up with a larger version of the Dragonfly body but retained the Alvis front wings, bonnet and bulkhead. Surprisingly the contrasting upright Alvis front end looks rather good with the aerodynamic pillar-less cabin and long boot. It is believed that around twenty Alvis Duncans were produced including three convertibles. By this time Duncan Industries had out grown the Park Hall premises and moved to new workshops on Swannington airfield. The workers were bused in everyday from North Walsham. Not only where the various Nissen huts used for workshops for body building, but the runways came in handy for testing the finished cars.

A brace of nicely restored Alvis Duncan saloons. ( Photograph courtesy of John Hay. Alvis Owners Club)

The logical step after this was to fit the same body on the Healey chassis which used Riley running gear. For this Hamblin scaled up the Dragonfly wings & bonnet and in doing so created one of the most aerodynamic cars available at the time. The Healey Duncan in both saloon and convertible form went down well with the motoring press with its futuristic looks and a top speed in excess of 105 mph. To sell the cars Ian Duncan formed a separate company called Merick Motor Co. but unfortunately a large dark cloud was looming. Before Value Added Tax (VAT) we had Purchase Tax. This was levied at various rates on new goods with new cars being subjected to a charge of 33%. In June 1947 Hugh Dalton the Chancellor of the Exchequer increased this to a whopping 66%. This put the price of a new Alvis Duncan up to £2205 of which £792 was tax. At first Duncan played this to his advantage but eventually this would lead to his undoing.

Curiously the Healey Duncan brochure states a 2.1 litre engine was fitted  whereas it had the 2443cc Riley engine.

The finished Dragonfly at Swannington. (Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Woods.)

During this period the Dragonfly was progressing well, the 500cc B.S.A. engined car had been finished, running on trade plates it was for a short period a regular sight on the roads between North Walsham and Norwich. Those that either drove or just witnessed it were impressed. Being lightweight and small it went well. Bill Renwicks / Dr. Moulton's suspension layout ensured good handling whilst the rubber mounted engine was free of vibration.

To overcome the 66% tax levy Ian Duncan devised a cunning plan. Again using a Healey rolling chassis he would build the most minimal roadster possible keeping the price below £1000. To do so items such as the passenger seat and heater were extras After twelve months the customer – if desired – could have a body built for the year old car by a coach-builder of choice and avoid the extra tax. The first of these cars was called the “Spiv” but those that followed were known as Drones, when roadtested by Gordon Wilkins for Autocar a Drone recorded 113mph. Over a period of twelve months 15 Drones found customers.

Possibly not the most attractive of sports cars but very effective. (Photograph courtesy of David Holman. Association of Healey Owners.)

Duncan's cars sold reasonably well; by early 1948 a staff of 120 were employed finishing five cars a week including two on Daimler DB 18 chassis', one Bentley Duncan convertible and one Allard Duncan. This success however was having a detrimental effect, developing the Dragonfly was draining resources and Her Majesties Government were not receiving the Purchase Tax charged on each car Duncan Industries sold. With every sale the company owed more and more to the Inland Revenue.

By the summer of 1948 a staggering £60,000 was owed to the tax man  – which is roughly equivalent to £1.25m today –  and the receivers were duly called in. The remaining stock and tools were sold off. However the Allard Duncan which was the last car to be built at Swannington disappeared before being painted. When the receivers enquired after this the few members of the remaining staff pleaded ignorance to its existence. Ian Duncan drove the roadworthy Dragonfly to the Austin Motor Company factory at Longbridge where he had arranged to meet Leonard Lord the Chairman. Impressed with the car he gave Duncan £10,000 on the spot and a Three year contract to work in Austin's development department. Duncan pointed out that he needed the Dragonfly to get him home so Lord loaned him an Austin A40 Dorset. Austin then sent two trucks to Norfolk to collect a second but incomplete Dragonfly, all the drawings and the specially made Dunlop wheels and tyres.

Ian Gair Duncan at Swannington with his Dragonfly and its bigger sibling the Healey Duncan.  (Photograph courtesy of Jonathan Woods.)

At Longbridge the diminutive little car was analysed, assessed and tested again and again. It was the companies policy to break up all its development cars and that was its fate. One worker took a shine to the red enamel badge showing three swallows in flight, and this is all that now remains. Duncan stayed with the company for the term of his contract where he helped develop the Austin A30. It is said that he used a one-off Allard Duncan roadster for his daily commute.

No one is suggesting that Sir Alec Issigonis plagiarised anyone's ideas. To return to the beginning, the answers to some questions will always be similar. Issigonis worked for Morris, Duncan sold the prototype to Austin, until the merger of the two companies in 1952 to form B.M.C. they were totally separate. But when in 1955 as Chairman of B.M.C. Leonard Lord signed the agreement for Issigonis to develop a new small car he knew it would work, besides he already had the wheels!

The Dragonfly at Longbridge awaiting evaluation. (©The British Motor Industry Heritage Trust.)

Advert for the Austin Mini Seven from a 1959 edition of The Motor.

Brochure for the Healey Duncan Drop Head.

This Healey Duncan Drone that was driven in the 1949 Mille Miglia by James Cohen and Reg Hignett. Tragically their race only lasted 16 minutes before the pair died after hitting a bridge.

Although extensively damaged the car has been rebuilt. (Photograph courtesy of David Holman. Association of Healey Owners.)

For further reading:-  Articles written by Jonathan Woods in....
Thoroughbred & Classic Cars June 1976.
The Automobile February and March 2008

If you see a Land Rover in the Waveney Valley chances are that the spare wheel cover will read “Mark Peacock Land Rovers”. Had things turned out differently Mark might have been a Healey specialist instead.

Mark Peacock's Healey Duncan

I was sixteen years old when I purchased my first car, a Healey Duncan (DCL 274) and it was the only one like it in this area. I purchased it from Jonnie Riley of Metfield (which was fitting as it had a Riley 2-5 litre engine). It cost me £52-10-0 which in 1963 was a tidy lump of cash. I learnt to drive in this and having passed my test used it often. The car went well, its unusual shape made it very aerodynamic, but after a while a big end started to grumble which meant a rebuild. By this time I had taken the Queens shilling and joined the Army. Whilst I was away my dad took the engine out for me. Nothing more happened to the Duncan but the family sold the farm and moved. On arriving home on leave I was gutted when dad told me that rather than bring the car with them he had sold it. He thought I would be pleased with the cash.

I trained in the army as a gun fitter and became a Weapons Artificer. Obviously I was always using a Land Rover, so when I was “demobbed” in 1992 one of these was an obvious choice. Having purchased one to use I bought another for spares, which I kept in front of the house. That night someone knocked on the door asking if I would sell bits off the second Land Rover and this started to happen on a regular basis. It did not take long to realise that this would make a good business and since then I haven’t looked back!

My old Duncan was featured in the EDP in the early eighties, when it belonged to a farmer from South Elmham, it is now thought that the car resides in Devon.

Mark Peacock with his Healey Duncan saloon

The above appeared in the Disspatch magazine May 2006, below is the newspaper cutting Mark referred to.

At the time the car was owned by John Walpole.

DCL 274 now resides in the antipodes; here are some photos taken before her long journey. (Photograph courtesy of David Holman. Association of Healey Owners)

Unlike many post-war cars the Duncan had a light airy interior. (Photograph courtesy of David Holman. Association of Healey Owners.)

The dash was made of curved perspex painted from the underside. (Photograph courtesy of David Holman. Association of Healey Owners.)

Doctor Ian Pearce of Diss

As a boy I can recall Dr. Pearce as a kind gentleman, his white hair usually in need of a trim, visiting patients in his light blue E-Type Jaguar. His practice was on Victoria Road in Diss. In particular I remember that the partition wall between the waiting room and surgery was rather thin. To make matters worse Doctor Pearce had the type of voice that resonated, much to the embarrassment of his patients. Unfortunately I was too young to really understand the conversation that I could overhear, also I knew nothing of the rallying he had done previously.

Doctor Pearce's involvement with motor sport went back twenty years before this. In 1950 he and fellow SCCoN member Stanley Boshier competed in the Lisbon Rally with a Lea Francis 18hp saloon although he was more often associated with Healeys. In his professional capacity he would often be the Chief Medical Officer at Snetterton, this allowed him the opportunity to indulge in another hobby: photography, often supplying the racing pictures for the local paper; the Diss Express*. Although I can find no records of Dr. Pearce circuit racing; there has been mention of unofficial Sprints held on Eye airfield with another local G.P. Dr. J.E.M. Barnes.

In his later years his belief that “Positive Thought” was essential to the healing process sadly bought him ridicule. 1970’s Diss was not ready for such advanced thinking: in truth he was a man ahead of his time. After retiring in 1979 Dr. Pearce travelled the globe lecturing on his beliefs, making numerous TV and radio appearances, and in 1983 his book The Gate of Healing was published, Dr. Ian Pearce died in 1987.

* Not to be confused with the motor racing photographer R.W Pearce.

Dr. Ian Pearce and Stan Boshier check the route of the 1950 Lisbon Rally.
The doctor was an inveterate smoker. (Photo Sharp of Diss)

Dr. Pearce with his Healey Duncan at the Fersfield Test on the 1952 E.C.M.C. Felixstowe Rally. ( ©The Charles Dunn Collection. National Motor Museum. )

Doctor Ian Pearce as I remember him

Odds & Ends.

Thankfully the obscurity of the cars bodied by Duncan Industries at Swannington has not affected their availability in 1-43 scale. Handmade in white metal by J & M Classics they are available through Marqueart Scale Model Cars and retail at £120 – not cheap but well worth every penny! The proprietor Chris Linnell is extremely enthusiastic and knowledgeable about the Duncan cars which is always a good sign. Being made in small numbers means that models can be finished to customers own requirements regarding colour and number plates, ask Chris about this via his website: www.marqueart.com

Marqueart Alvis Duncan Saloon

Marqueart Alvis Duncan Convertible

Marqueart Healey Duncan Saloon

And finally Mark Peacock's old car.

Later in the year Marqueart will be releasing models of the Healey Duncan Convertible and the Drone. Hopefully Chris will send us photos.

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