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Peerless and Warwick

The Slough (Berkshire, England) built Peerless GT, believe it or not, derives its name from the premises at which it was originally manufactured more than 40 years ago. These premises had long had the association with the Peerless marque, though not for anything as exotic as 2+2 sports cars. The Peerless works had derived its name from the World War 1 American army lorries that it once prepared for re-sale.

Following the Armistice of 1918, many lorries that had seen active service on the 'Western Front' were brought back to a vehicle storage depot in Slough in order that they may be sold off as government surplus. A large majority of the lorries were American and a good proportion of these were originally from the Peerless Lorry Company in Cleveland, Ohio (U.S.A.). Sales continued well in to the roaring twenties but gradually what remained of the lorries required considerable re-conditioning. Slough Lorries and Components Ltd were set up to recondition these ex-WD (War Dept.) lorries and as time progressed they began to incorporate more and more British material into them. Eventually they were making most parts of the vehicles themselves and indeed the British firm outlasted the original American company (as a lorry manufacturer) by several years. As a point of interest, the American company transferred it's efforts to brewing alcoholic beverages!

The story begins in England in 1956 with James Byrnes, a successful hotel owner from the Midlands........

James Byrnes was an avid motor racing enthusiast who decided that he wanted a racing car built to his own specification. The car was to be for his own use on the racetrack, with a view to possibly supplying fellow club racers, if the project proved to be a success. With all this in mind, James Byrnes (known to many as Jimmy) approached Bernie Rodger (an experienced racing engine tuner and "special" builder who was always referred to a Bernie) with a proposition to build such a car. Mr Rodger had an excellent pedigree, which not only included bodywork design and race engine tuning, but also the well acclaimed Beart-Rodger race car project (Francis Beart being a meticulous Norton expert). However, it wasn't long before the idea of a pure racing car had been set aside in favour of a more commercial venture. Byrnes and Rodger had decided that money could be made in the low volume production of a readily available low cost sports GT.

For Jimmy Byrnes, it had been a natural choice to consider using Triumph TR mechanical components, as more or less the entire management board of Standard Triumph were regular customers at his new restaurant, the Saxon Mill at Warwick. In fact, Lyndon Mills (one of the Triumph board of directors) was to become one of the strongest supporters of the Peerless venture.

Bernie Rodger soon began to design a chassis around the TR3 components using a state of the art multi-tube construction in 16-gauge 1" x 1.5" rectangular steel tube. A shapely aluminium body was attached to the first chassis produced very early in 1957 and the completed car was subjected to exhaustive testing. This initial design exceeded everyone's wildest expectations with a top speed in the order of 120 miles an hour and a 0-60 time of less than 10 seconds. Suitably impressed with his achievement, Byrnes proudly presented the car to his former army friend John Gordon who at that time owned a used car dealership selling Rolls Royces. John Gordon was another racing enthusiast but was more accustomed to very fine thoroughbred machinery, a fact that made his opinion highly valued.

Closer examination led John Gordon to express that, although remarkable, the car was too small, and that he believed the market would respond more favourably to a larger more practical 2+2 car. This led to several revised ideas, one of which being the widening of the vehicle's track, which in turn enabled Bernie Rodger to utilise a de Dion rear axle within his space frame design.

With John Gordon now firmly 'on board', a second alloy bodied four-seater prototype was built and exhibited at the 1957 Paris Motor Show where it was subjected to close scrutiny by some of the Standard Triumph Board. Needless to say, words of encouragement were expressed. On returning to England, the car was driven to the Triumph factory where Lyndon Mills, Harry Webster, Martin Tustin and Alick Dick (of the Triumph Board of Directors) made the proper congratulatory remarks. The object of that visit was achieved - Standard Triumph agreed to supply all the components needed to start full production.

Peerless Motors, Bath Road Slough (the Jaguar dealership for Buckinghamshire), was in receivership so, after careful negotiations, our three intrepid enthusiasts had a base for production. Previously introduced as the Warwick (named after the county in which Byrnes' hotel was situated), it was decided to rename the car the 'Peerless 2 Litre GT' as Peerless was already a well recognised name in the motor trade especially in the U.S.A. ,where there was tremendous export potential. A schedule of the parts required 'per car' was submitted to Standard Triumph for costing, and very reasonable prices emerged. The space frame chassis and de Dion rear axle tube were subcontracted to a local company on the Slough trading estate where the Managing Director happened to be an ardent car enthusiast. In fact chassis production came together quite quickly indeed. The body however, was not so simple to produce. Steel and aluminium were completely out of the question as the tooling costs involved were well outside the price bracket. So, British Resin Products were invited to Slough to present their case for a complete G.R.P. (glass reinforced plastic) body. In 1957, GRP was a relatively unknown quantity but the tooling costs were found to be acceptable. Almost on their doorstep the family-run firm of James Whitson Ltd. appeared on a list of Southern England moulding companies. After detailed analysis Pat Whittet (the Managing Director) quoted a price per body which included mounting onto the chassis, upholstering, painting and glazing. After some haggling, the deal was finalised. The moulds were made with some minor detail modifications for the prototype car 333 CBH. Following assembly of all the mechanical components onto the rectangular steel tube space frame, the complete chassis was driven the ten miles to the body shop with necessary adjustments being carried out on arrival. The total time between rolling chassis arrival and completion of the roadworthy product was ten days.

The Prototype Peerless 333 CBH

Interest generated from the Paris Motor Show alone had suggested that the sales potential could be at least 1500 cars a year. One American distributor had asked for 80 a month, rising to 150. The first three production Peerless models came off the line toward the end of May 1958 and were displayed to the worldwide motoring correspondents early in June. Press releases throughout the world acclaimed the Peerless as the "Sports car for the family man". No longer was it a case of "either - or" for the young man who wanted a wife, a family and a sports car. Another publicity stunt soon emerged as by far the most daring, in the form of an entry in the most demanding test of durability imaginable, Le Mans. What better publicity could there be than to enter the 1958 24 hour race? They managed to get two entries, one confirmed and one reserve. The result of this race surpassed all expectation. After 24 hours of almost continuous rain ,the Peerless finished 16th, winning it's class.

A wonderful boost to sales followed and it was apparent that the available space at Peerless Motors was becoming insufficient to set up full production. Fortunately a newly vacated factory became available on the Farnham Road (Slough); it was large, shabby and neglected but ultimately cheap. Peerless Cars Ltd was then set up with the production facilities while 'Peerless Motors' continued to handle the sales. Although not eligible for the 1958 London Motor Show, they were allocated a stand at Earls Court the following year. Here they displayed a red model with steel wheels and a stripped LHD chassis with wire wheels. The display formed part of a select group of moulded plastic bodied vehicles which attracted much attention. The Peerless was highly acclaimed by the press for its standard of finish and the simple layout of the de Dion rear suspension, considered by some to be the most technically interesting feature of the show.

Prior to it being displayed at the Paris Motor Show, John Bolster had tested the prototype for Auto Sport Magazine, and the following year he carried out a more comprehensive test of a production car. The general finish had (by then) improved but some details needed more work. Although heavier than the Triumph and Morgan two-seaters with the same power unit, the Peerless was quicker off the mark. This was no doubt due to the de Dion axle, which virtually eliminated wheelspin. Also, the Peerless accelerated better at the top end of the scale because of the more streamlined body which also gave the impressive top speed of 107 mph on test. The car ran straight and true at the high speeds it was capable of, and was surprisingly quiet when cruising in overdrive, but he felt that the engine could be heard and felt excessively at other times. The wheelbase in this new car was six inches longer and the track five inches wider than the equivalent Triumph, giving a surprising improvement to the ride with virtually no roll, the de Dion axle providing better wheel adhesion than the conventional rear end. This increase of track and wheelbase fulfilled the designer's intention of making this a comfortable four-seater coupe with the strength and reliability of the TR mechanical components.

The Phase 2 Peerless GT

In a little over twelve months since Jimmy Byrnes and Bernie Rodgers had first sought the opinion of John Gordon, they managed to build a thriving company that was so overwhelmed by demand for their product they could barely keep up. In fact production was lagging five weeks behind orders, which was mainly attributable to the meagre output of five cars a week. Simon Hill (the Sales Manager) is reported to have said that he never actually had to sell the cars, anyone that was interested got a quick ride up the road in the demonstrator (if they were lucky), paid the deposit and joined the growing waiting list. The fact that orders still came flooding in is made all the more astonishing when you discover that the list price of a Peerless in 1958 was £990 + £500 purchase tax, yet a Triumph TR3 could be bought for less than £1000 (including tax).

However, a second set of moulds were made and this enabled production to be doubled and the backlog of orders started to fall. It was even anticipated that a third set would soon be necessary. Although Pat Whittet had abandoned traditional coachbuilding in his family run business (James Whitson and Co) in favour of fibreglass production methods, the techniques were still considered to be archaic and there had long been doubts about the quality of the workmanship. When criticism was voiced, there was reluctance to transform the ways of working and it was clear that in order to revise the body building technique it would be necessary to find an alternative contractor.

The Bristol Aircraft Company was approached, as they had post-war car production experience backed up with aircraft expertise, but as it happened their final costing was deemed to be too expensive. Eventually the responsibility of body production was given to the 'Wincanton Transport and Engineering Company' who owned production facilities in Hampshire and Somerset and an assembly plant in Woking (Surrey). In light of the experience gained in the production of 250 Phase 1 models, over twenty small and not so small improvements were incorporated in to the design of the new Phase 2s in July 1959. Most significantly, whereas previously the body had been made of fifty seven different mouldings bonded together and then bonded and pop-riveted to the chassis, the shell was now made as a single moulding in a multi-piece mould with the floor, boot interior, fascia and wheel arches bonded to it before being removed from the mould. This eliminated any of the all too common distortions, before being bolted in a conventional manner to the chassis. This resulted in the Phase 2 being considerably lighter as well as more rigid. A revised frontal design resulted in the headlamps being partially recessed into the wings and a conventional grill replacing the "P" emblem that adorned the air intake of earlier cars. Fixed quarterlights stiffened the doors, and an automatic doorstop was added to avoid embarrassing damage to the bodywork (a complaint by the owners of the earlier cars that was far too frequent). Bonnet and boot hinges and locks were similarly modified and a single fairing on the bonnet replaced the previous "double-hump". Seating was improved and upholstered in black with white piping as standard. No notable modifications were considered necessary to the chassis or the mechanical layout.

Owing to the increased speed of the new manufacturing process, it was expected that twenty five bodies and thus twenty five cars could be produced each week. Meanwhile, the first two LHD Phase 2 cars were shipped to the USA prior to John Gordon visiting John Posselius in Detroit and Dorothy Dean in Los Angeles to promote the new model; on his return the future looked particularly bright. Shortly afterwards a request was made by Jim Keeble, who wanted to know if Peerless would sell him a chassis. His intention was to install a Chevrolet Corvette engine and gearbox for an enthusiastic customer of his, Rick Nielson. This was a remarkable coincidence, for at that moment John Posselius (of Detroit) was shipping two Corvette engines to Slough for a similar project. John Gordon agreed, but only if the conversion was done in the Peerless Motors workshop. This was a wise move as someone else was thereby funding the necessary development work.

Unfortunately, at about this time trouble was brewing for the two Peerless companies. It was proposed by another Director that a further member, Robert Thornton, be brought onto the Board. John Gordon had reasons to disapprove of this move, but after a stormy meeting of the Peerless Cars Directors, the entry of Thornton was approved by a vote of three to two. John Gordon and Sam Rostron promptly resigned. The resignation of this, the driving force behind the company, caused some unease within the component supply companies and confidence was soon lost in the project. The last recorded factory built Phase 2 Peerless on record is chassis number GT2/00296, although GT2/00294 was registered at a later date. So it would appear that only about 50 Phase 2s were ever built. (We do know that some were later assembled by various companies and registered following the demise of the even more short lived Warwick project, built from spares left over but easily identified by their odd chassis numbers).

The disagreement also resulted in Peerless Motors losing its franchise, which meant it eventually fell back into receivership. There had been an urgent need to find another project to keep the company afloat and John Gordon managed to persuade Jim Keeble to join him as chief designer and (the only) engineer to help him develop a chassis for use with the Corvette engine and gearbox. This car became know as the Gordon GT. The new company (the Gordon Automobile Company) approached many people in an endeavour to find strong financial backing without success and eventually, with only the prototype built, John Gordon and Jim Keeble parted company. As it happens the project was resurrected at a later date and premises were established at Eastleigh (Hampshire) where 'Gordon Keeble Ltd' was founded. A total of 99 Gordon Keebles were built and many still survive to this day.

THE WARWICK GT

By 1960, Peerless Cars Ltd. were in considerable financial difficulty and were soon forced into liquidation. Despite this, the enthusiasm of the Directors continued, and rather than sell off the large quantities of spares and equipment for next to nothing, it was decided that they should form a new company and restart production on a more modest scale. The Phase 2 Peerless had (in company press releases) been described as the "Penultimate if not the Ultimate development", so Bernie Rodger obviously had further refinements that he wished to incorporate, and thus the 'Warwick' was simply the natural progression in the evolution of the marque. Premises were found not far from Slough in Mill Lane, Horton (Berkshire) and Bernard Rodgers Developments Ltd. established. Work began on the prototype, reverting to the name so nearly used earlier in the story, and derived from the county in which the idea was conceived, Warwick.

New techniques in glass fibre construction allowed considerable strengthening of the shell without the addition of extra weight. This strengthening was helped by incorporating a one-piece bulkhead which also eliminated the previous nuisances of heat, noise and draught. The bonnet was designed as one piece, which pivoted forward from the front end. This drastically improved access to the two-litre TR power unit and front suspension, in fact the pivot was manufactured in such a way that the entire front end of the car could be removed by undoing only two bolts. Instead of a modified Standard 10 radiator, a ducted TR3 copper core radiator was fitted as standard. The roofline was squared off, integrating gutters within the small fins along the roof sides which swept down to blend with the lines of the tail fins, again stiffening the structure.

Manufacture of this body was entrusted back to James Whitson and Co. who had been responsible for the original 250 Phase 1s. It has been suggested that Bernie Rodger went back to Whitson's as they had retained the Phase 2 moulds. These moulds were subsequently modified to produce the new Warwick. Internally one of the obvious alterations was that the instrumentation was now centralised, simplifying the variations of LHD and RHD and providing a more balanced appearance. The interior was trimmed in grey vynide and black carpets, with leather seats as an option along with wire wheels, Webasto sliding roof, Smiths radio and safety belts. Standard colours were alpha red, primrose, pale blue, racing green and grey, other colours were available at extra cost.

The space frame of rectangular section steel tubing had a complete bridge welded into the structure to carry front suspension and engine mounts, which reputably stiffened the frame as well as lightening it. Mechanically no modifications were made, although over drive became standard rather than an option. A prototype was seen racing in the hands of Simon Hill and Bernie Rodger, who confirmed that the car had covered 35000 miles in the previous months, mostly under racing conditions. This prototype inherited the original Peerless factory owned registration '990 ABH', and presumably the sole tax disc. The new model was announced and road tests of one of the earliest cars (75 RBH) were published in March/April 1961 by Autosport, The Motor and The Autocar. Although "The Motor" considered that there was a little understeer or oversteer, with the handling remaining well balanced at all times, John Bolster, writing for "Autosport", thought that the handling was not as sure as the Peerless he had previously tested. He initially believed that the Warwick had a tendency to bounce on bumpy corners, whereas his colleague in the passenger seat had been very impressed with the roadholding, so he discounted his first assessment. Meanwhile, Stuart Bladon of "The Motor" tested the same car and criticised the roadholding and suspension, suggesting that the combination of TR front suspension and the de Dion rear end did not work, with the matching springs not being ideal. Little roll was reported and although remaining stable and following the chosen line, he believed there was a tendency to understeer. For some unaccountable reason the car was at its best on right hand bends! Steering was noted to be heavier than the TR but redeemed itself at speed. Lack of ground clearance and ineffectiveness of the handbrake were common complaints. The TR handbrake fitted to the Peerless was excellent, however the Warwick had an umbrella type pull handle located under the dashboard which lacked sufficient leverage.

In no respect could the Warwick be said to lack performance. Powered by the two litre Triumph engine and weighing no more than the two seater TR3, the Warwick was quicker to about 55 mph and 90mph was achieved in about 30 seconds. The standing quarter mile was timed at a modest 18.5 seconds with a top speed of 105 mph. Thankfully this performance was not achieved at the expense of economy; 30 miles per (Imperial) gallon was easily attainable, with 25 mpg to be expected under more rigorous conditions.

Not withstanding all the criticism, even "The Motor" considered that although the Warwick may have seemed unacceptably rough, noisy and imperfect in some departments, at the basic price of £1666 it offered a distinctive combination of size, price and performance unique amongst British sportscars. At 105 mph, it was faster than any other closed four seater in it's price range.

Despite finance and facilities for development being restricted, production was now underway at the Horton works with a reported five cars being completed a week (though this was probably an exaggeration). Brian Shiers (now of Santa Barbara U.S.A.), took a demonstration car to North America in 1961, where he set up a distributor in White Plains, New York and another in Toronto, Canada. Both ordered two litre models but subsequently cancelled when news of a proposed V8 engined version reached them. Possibly because it had become known that John Gordon was progressing with his own V8, developments were made with a similar goal in mind. At about that time, a young American studying at Cambridge who had previously purchased a Warwick and installed a Buick 3.5 litre engine, returned home and organised a shipment of 10 Buick engines to the Horton factory. This engine fitted easily into the Warwick chassis after the front cross members had undergone only slight modification. Because the highest geared Salisbury differential available was unsuitable, Bernie Rodger resorted to the Jaguar type Moss gearbox, which again only necessitated minor alteration to the Buick bell housing. Not only did it fit neatly, but was lighter than the TR lump and offered 155 bhp at 4600 rpm in contrast to 100 bhp at 5000 rpm. The only body modifications necessary were to raise the bonnet line and install the additional nostrils above the normal air intake. The brakes were improved with power assistance to cope with the claimed maximum top speed of 140 mph, 0-60 in 6.8 seconds, 0-100 in 19.5 seconds. The Warwick 350 GT was announced as an addition to the range in 1962, but exactly how many were made is not know. One example was built in conjunction with Tunex Conversions, entered in club races and did quite well, even winning the Bardahl Trophy for saloon cars at Snetterton (Norfolk, U.K). Several years ago, a likely survivor of this project was discovered after 15 years of storage in a garage in Virgina Beach, USA. More recently, restoration has begun of the only known UK example.

While the Warwick V8 was still in its infancy, the company suffered a major blow: Bernie Rodger resigned in January 1961 with Oliver Pike and Andy Clyde following his example later in the year. That left Roland Ham in control, as by now Jim Byrnes was spending much of his time maintaining his hotel interests in the midlands. As early as April 1961, serious financial difficulties were apparent, but still production continued slowly with a drastically reduced workforce. Money was running out, and the remainder of the Buick V8 engines had to be sold. Finally Bernard Roger Developments Ltd. closed their doors in October 1961, followed by a compulsory order for winding up the company in January 1962. Despite his resignation, Andy Clyde still had sufficient belief in the viability of the project to contact the Motor Distributor Group (based in Eire), with a proposal that the V8 Warwick should be produced there entirely for the American market. Peerless Dublin Ltd. was set up and a demonstrator car was built and sent to Detroit for General Motors to consider whether they would supply the Buick engines or even market the vehicle through their distributors. Unfortunately, the test car fell far short of their expectations and with time and money again running out, the project was cancelled.

Precisely how many 2 and 3.5 litre Warwicks were ever made is not known as records are simply not available. The normally accepted figure however is about 40, although even that may be an exaggeration. If only to confuse matters even further, Peerless and Warwick registrations continued well into the 1960s, made possibly by the liquidation sale of the remaining components after the closure of the factory. Even up until June 1964 a magazine was advertising a "final consignment of new Peerless Phase 2s at £895-0-0d (including purchase tax)" prepared by Lawrencetune of Acton and sold by D.A. Mullard Ltd., of Middlesex.