The shadowy “Owen” motor car

There have been many examples of “shadowy” makes in motoring history, with little hard evidence of any manufacturing.  Some of these were linked with stock market fraud to fleece investors and customers. The granddaddy of the “shadowy” makes was the Owen, a make with at least six different names, listed on and off for 36 years, no press descriptions after 1902, no road tests, advertisements or even a photo to show that even just one Owen was built.

The first reference to an Owen car was in March 1901, when Edward Hugh Owen announced that the Automobile Transport Company of Comeragh Rd, West Kensington, London was building a 3.5 hp voiturette called the Twentieth Century. By December of that year, Owen told the Motor Car Journal that he was prepared to take orders for 9, 12, 16 or 24 hp cars, with delivery in early 1902. In January 1902 the company name had changed to the Twentieth Century Travel Co, and the cars were now named Lococars. Only one model was described, a 24 hp powered by a 4-cylinder engine. No illustration was forthcoming.

By 1905 the company had reverted to the name of the Automobile Transport Company, and was listing cars under four different names – 10hp Parisia, 20hp Londonia, 30hp Twentieth Century and 40hp Owen’s Gearless. These cars were listed up to the beginning of World War 1, along with a 60hp model listed up to 1913. Cars named Models A, B & C were said to have been made during World War 1. Owen provided details of chassis numbers, but this doesn’t prove that complete cars were manufactured. While most makes would provide names of famous people who drove their cars in publicity materials and advertising, Owen conveniently said “On Application”, thus hiding the fact that no cars had been built and sold.

After World War 1 Owen listed the smaller Orleans model, with 10hp, 15hp and 20hp models. The first 8-cylinder car was listed in 1921 – the Model OE with a 5.3 litre V8 engine, 2-speed gearbox and a starter motor and carburetor of Owen’s own manufacture. A chassis price of £2,250 pounds was quoted, £150 pounds more expensive than a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. The car was actually illustrated in the “Buyers’ Guide”, (picture below) but the side view is suspiciously like the American Kenworthy, with slight retouching. The Kenworthy was never offered for sale in Great Britain and would be thus sufficiently obscure to be unknown to most British readers – another example of Owen’s cunning.


1921 Owen Eight
The only known photograph of an Owen car.

In 1925 the V8 gave way to 7.6 litre straight-8 engined model with a chassis price of £1850, which was steadily reduced to £1775 in 1929, staying at that price until the Owen disappeared from buyers lists in 1935. Owen never took any paid advertising in any known magazine. All of the lists which contain details of the Owen are in buyers’ guides and insurance manuals, which would have been free insertions.

Two addresses in Comeragh Road pop up in regard to the Owen – Nos 6 and 72. No. 72 is part of a terrace of late-Victorian era houses with no commercial premises. No. 6 consists of a small shops with a flat above, so once gain there is no chance of any manufacturing taking place there. Links to other cars produced around the same time and in the same area show that the Owen was not one of these cars. The most plausible explanation is that EH Owen was a fantasist in the Walter Mitty mould, and judging by all of the contradictions in his history and specifications of the car, not a very good one.

Nick Georgano’s “Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile”, Stationary Office, London, 2000, was used as the source for this blog post.


Pearson 4-2-4 “Single” class locomotive

These remarkable tank locomotives were designed for the broad-gauge Bristol & Exeter Railway by Locomotive Superintendent James Pearson and eight (running numbers 39 to 46) were built by Rothwell & Co of Bolton in 1853 and 1854. They were intended specially for working the B & ER’s section of the London to Exeter express route, including the “Flying Dutchman”, at that time the fastest train in the world. They had the largest driving wheels ever successfully used on a locomotive and no one has come up with an authentic recording of any higher speed previous to one of 130kmh (81mph) made behind a Pearson single while descending the Wellington incline south of Taunton.

The size of the driving wheels of the Pearson 4-2-4 can be seen in comparison with the crew member standing in front of the locomotive.


The engines were guided by a four-wheel bogie at each end, and they were propelled along by the huge flangeless set of driving wheels located more or less centrally between the two bogies. As with all locomotives that ran on Isador Brunel’s broad-gauge lines, the cylinders and motion were located inside the frames. Water was carried in the tank at the rear as well as in a well-tank between the frames. Pearson’s singles were untypical , thought, in that they carried no names, only numbers.

After 14 years of service four of the engines (39-42) were rebuilt, with the 9-foot driving wheels replaced by wheels measuring 8 feet 10 inches. On the 29th of July 1876, 39 derailed with loss of life near Long Ashton near Bristol, and had to be scrapped. As a consequence, the remaining three locomotives were completely rebuilt on more conventional lines as 4-2-2 singles, which were regarded by many as the most handsome locomotive ever to run on the broad-gauge track, with the last engine being withdrawn from service in 1890.

One of the four Pearson singles after being rebuilt as a 4-2-2 engine.


“The Great Book of Trains” by Brian Hollingsworth and Arthur Cook – Salamander Books, NY, 1987. pp 44-45 was used as the basis of this blog post.

Abbott-Detroit Motor Car Company

Abbott-Detroit radiator badge.

The Abbott-Detroit was a conventional car, initially powered by a 30hp 4-cylinder Continental engine, and with one body style, a 5-seater tourer priced at $1500. Founder Charles Abbott left his company in 1910, but by 1912 the range had been expanded to five styles on two wheelbases, 2972 and 3046mm (110 and 120inch), priced from $1275 for a 4-door roadster to $3000 for a 7-passenger limousine. That year the company built 1817 cars, its best output as it turned out, and the slogan was ‘Built for Permanence’.

1913 Abbott-Detroit 44-50 tourer.

Abbot-Detroits were of very conventional appearance, apart from the 1913 Battleship Roadster which had a striking vee radiator. A 6-cylinder engine, also by Continental, joined the range in 1914 when the company was reorganised. New owner Edward F Gerber left in 1915 and was replaced by RA Palmer, who had formerly managed Cartercar. He changed the name to Consolidated Car Co, and expanded the range to include the Model 8-80, powered by a Herschell-Spillman V8. The four was dropped after 1915. In order to increase production Palmer relocated the company to Cleveland in April 1917, a few days before America entered World War 1, changing the name of both company and car to Abbott. He acquired a large factory taken on a ten-year lease, but sales never justified the move and were lower than they had been in Detroit.

1917 Abbott-Detroit Model 6-44 roadster.

Very few of the 8-80 were made and none at Cleveland, where a small number of sizes were built before Abbott went bankrupt in January 1918. Just 312 cars were made that year, with total production of Abbott-Detroit and Abbott cars over a nine-year period being just over 12,000 units. The Cleveland plant was acquired by the National Electric Lamp Works, and it is believed that a few cars were assembled by them with leftover parts.

The source for this blog entry was Nick Georgano’s book “The Beaulieu Encyclopedia of the Automobile”, Stationery Office, London, 2000, p. 5

1970-1975 Volkswagen K70

In 1967, one of Germany’s smaller but progressive car makers, NSU, caused a sensation at the Frankfurt Motor Show when it unveiled the front-wheel-drive rotary engined Ro80. This car was similar in size to an early nineties Holden Commodore VN or Opel/Vauxhall Senator, but it was a four-door, front-wheel drive car powered by a twin rotor Wankel engine, virtually the same unit used in the Mazda RX7 sportscar.

At that time, the innovative engineers at NSU also started development work on a smaller, medium-sized version of this car, the Ro70, but because of teething problems with the Ro80’s rotary engine, they developed the new car to take a more conventional 1600cc in-line piston engine derived from smaller 1100cc and 1200cc NSU cars. Without a rotary engine, the design code was changed to K70. ‘K’ stood for Kolben or piston, whereas ‘Ro’ was the abbreviation for rotary.

1969 NSU K70

The K70 was, nevertheless, quite an advanced and innovative car, with an all-alloy overhead camshaft engine driving the front wheels, all-independent suspension with McPherson struts at the front and trailing links and coil springs at the rear, and in-board front disc brakes. It also conformed to the toughest crash test safety regulations of the day. Several prototypes were shown to the press and public throughout development and the world waited with great expectation of the eventual production release of the NSU K70.
This was not to be, however. The launch of the K70 was to have been the 1969 Geneva Motor Show, but shortly before the show Volkswagen bought out NSU. The new Volkswagen management of NSU believed that production facilities at the NSU Neckarsulm factory would not be able to cope with the projected demand for the car. As a result, production was delayed until August 1970, with the K70 being produced at the newly-built VW factory at Salzgitter. Volkswagen decided to introduce the new car at all without any change from the NSU K70 except for a VW logo on the radiator grille, the only place on the entire car where the VW badge could be found.

1970 VW K70 – the VW badge on the grille the only change from the NSU K70.

So, in mid-1970, much to the dismay of the air-cooled VW purist, the company started production of its first front-engined car, its first water-cooled car and its first front-wheel-drive car. Would the K70 be a success due to its innovative design, or would that new design be a bridge too far for possible buyers who were familiar only with the VW Beetle?

Only 211,127 K70s were built before production ended in February 1975. It seems that the K70 sound design was overlooked due to the innovations that came with that design. VW had to wait until the introduction of the Passat in 1974 with a similar layout before the car was accepted by the motoring public.

The Volkswagen K70 was a well-proportioned car with pretty styling a good ten years ahead of its time, and more akin to that of the square and angular cars of the late 70’s and early 80’s. The K70 was available in three different models (K70, K70L and K70LS). The K70 and K70L used a 1605cc engine, while the K70LS used a 1807cc engine. From August 1972 the LS models were sold with four round headlights in place of the original square ones.

1972 VW K70LS, with the round headlights that replaced the original square ones.

The 1807cc engined K70LS could reach a top speed of 165 km/h, and an acceleration to 100 km/h of just over 12 seconds. The only transmission offered was a 4-speed manual.

Production of the K70 was concentrated totally at the Salzgitter plat, with both RHD and LHD versions built. The majority of cars were built with LHD, for the European and African markets. The K70 is now a rare car, with many Volkswagen enthusiasts not even aware of the existence of the car.

The source for this blog post was the book “Volkswagens of the World – A comprehensive international guide to Volkswagens not built in Germany…and the unusual ones that were” by Simon Glen, Veloce Publishing, UK, 1999, pp. 34-35.

1982 Clancy Mirella sports car

There were several attempts in Australia in the 1970’s and 1980’s to produce limited edition GT coupe/sports cars, but nearly all of them foundered before serious production could occur. While the persons responsible were able to build a prototype, they were unable to find the capital required to undertake production, as well as creating a mechanism to sell the car to the public, along with advertising to create awareness as well.

One of the more obscure examples that I know about wass the Clancy Mirabella, created by a Melbourne doctor in the early 1980’s. The car was displayed at the 1982 Melbourne Motor Show, which is probably the reason why “The Age” newspaper dated the 4th of March gave it some publicity:

                                         “Hand-built Clancy will draw the eyes
One of the most unusual and exciting vehicles on display at the motor show will be a car that you can’t buy and that has no name. Simply known as the Clancy Project Car, until a suitable name can be decided on by its owner/builder, the exotic vehicle is the brainchild of Dr Michael Clancy, of Toorak.
Built for the pleasure of designing, constructing and devising the type of vehicle that most car buffs would love to own, the Clancy Project Car is not juts a one-off ‘special’. With a body designed by Clive Potter, one of Australia’s few automotive designers, the hand-built car is professionally engineered and constructed to Dr Clancy’s own specifications. The body design is in keeping with the motor show;s Winds of Change theme. Dr Clancy expects it will have a drag co-efficient of around 0.28, although it has not been tested in a wind tunnel.
Clancy Mirabella TS230
It has an attractive fibreglass body painted Monza red over dove grey and is similar to a Ford Laser, but lower and wider. It features fully independent suspension with a disc front, drums rear brake combination and is powered by a turbocharged 2.25 litre six-cylinder engine that produces around 200bhp.
Dr Clancy took two years to complete this, the latest in a long line of vehicles he has designed and constructed in his well-equipped garage at home. The third vehicle, a fibreglass-bodied sports car named Mirella, after his wife, has been his means of transport for some time but he found its Chrysler E49 engine was using too much petrol. After two years of work with his friend, Clive Potter, the latest project is an attempt to build a vehicle that combines excitement, performance and economy.”
The original turbocharged engine in the red/grey car was from an Austin Tasman, and was replaced in 1985 by a Mazda rotary driving through a Lancia Beta 5-speed transaxle. I am unaware of the location of the two cars, assuming that they are still intact.

Fontaine locomotive – wheels on wheels

As the need for more powerful steam locomotives became obvious, engineers looked at various ways to improve the design and layout of locomotives to gain that extra power.

As with all forms of design and experimentation, there were several designers who looked “outside the square” for more power. One of these was Eugene Fontaine of Detroit, who came up with a very novel way of trying to increase the power of a steam locomotive.


The 1881 Fontaine locomotive, with driving wheels placed on top of each other.

As can be seen from the above illustration, Fontaine’s answer was the arrangement of the driving wheels. Instead of having driving wheels driving in unison via coupling rods, Fontaine’s design featured driving wheels on top, resting on a smaller set of treads below, driving these by friction. These treads were an outward extension of a wheel, larger in diameter, which actually made contact with the track.

Track conditions were part of the reason for this unusual design. European designs, with large driving wheels and a high centre of gravity, were unstable on American tracks. Safe operation required a lower centre of gravity and smaller driving wheels. While compensation for the smaller driving wheels could be gained by increasing the revolutions of the engine, this put extra stress on the cylinders, pistons, wheels and valve gear.

Two prototype Fontaine locomotives were built in 1881 by the Grant Locomotive Works of Paterson, New Jersey for the Canada Southern Railway. A top speed of 90 mph was claimed, but it seems that this figure was never achieved. The Fontaine locomotive was tried on a wide range of passenger and freight trains, but the expected power advantages over conventional locomotives never materialised. After many modifications, the Fontaine locomotive was rebuilt as a standard 4-4-0 locomotive.

The main source for this entry was “World Railways of the Nineteenth Century – A Pictorial History in Victorian Engravings” by Jim Harter, JHU Press, Baltimore, Maryland, 2005, pp. 78-79




Baron Charles Petiet founded the Sociètè Anonyme Ariès at the age of 24 in 1903, having worked briefly for Panhard et Levassor. Ariès had a capital of 500,000 francs, increased to 1 million by 1905, and a small factory at Villeneuve-la-Garenne, not far from the Aster factory at St Denis which supplied many of its engines.

It employed about 100 men and was best known for commercial vehicles, although cars of good quality were made in small numbers, some sold in England by Sydney Begbie as Asters while others were sold by a firm in Beccles from 1904 to 1906 as Anglians. Initially most had chain drive, although Cardan drive and separate drive shafts above a dead axle were soon adopted. Chain drive persisted on the largest commercials into the 1930’s. Six-cylinder and V4 engined cars were available by 1908 and were joined by the world’s smallest six in 1910.

The firm opened an additional factory at Courbevoie and up to World War 1 made consistent, albeit modest, profits averaging about 100,000 francs a year. Production in 1913 totalled 350 vehicles. Shortly before the war Aster-engined lorries were approved for government subsidy and the company produced 3,000 of these plus searchlight vehicles for the armed services. Hispano-Suiza aeroplane engines were also built.

An example of the trucks that Ariès built for the French Army during World War 1.

Cars were promoted with the slogan “Made with the precision of an aero engine and the strength of a lorry”. They continued to play only a small part in the affairs of Ariès. Models produced in the 1920’s included the 5/8, 8/10, 12/15 and 15/20 CV, and in 1931 a new range was designed by H Toutèe, who had been responsible for mid-1920’s Chenard-Walckers.

1929 Ariès CB-4 2-door cabriolet.

The company was in severe financial difficulties by 1932 and gave up heavy commercials soon afterwards, although a 10hp chassis, for car or van use and with the unusual feature of a two-speed back axle, remained in production until 1938. The Ariès founder, Baron Petiet, died in 1958.

The source for this blog post is “The World Guide to Automobiles – The Makers and Their Marques”, by Nick Baldwin, Macdonald Orbis Publishing, London, 1987, p. 36.