BY THE TIME THAT the Fedden Mission to Germany Final Report was issued in the late summer of 1945 Sir Roy Fedden had just turned sixty. The war years had seen an extraordinary upheaval in his fortunes with his abrupt departure from BAC, a knighthood for his services to aviation, and his appointment as the Special Advisor to the Air Minister. Now, with the coming of peace, he returned to the world of engineering; one which had been transformed by the technological advances and the upheavals of the Second World War. In anticipation of the war’s end Roy Fedden Ltd had been formed in 1943 with his former Bristol colleague Ian Duncan taking the reigns as chief engineer, while Fedden remained occupied with his wartime work for Sir Stafford Cripps at the Ministry of Aircraft Production. Surprisingly perhaps the first project on the agenda was not an aero engine at all, but a car aimed at the post-war market, a sort of a ‘British Volkswagen’ in other words. And so it was by intention rather than serendipitous accident that Fedden made a little detour during his follow-up trip to Germany in the summer 1945 to observe test runs of jet engines at the BMW’s Herbitus plant in Munich. On the way back to Völkenrode he took the opportunity to revisit the nearby Volkswagen works at Fallersleben – newly renamed by the occupation forces as Wolfsburg – in Niedersachsen, or Lower Saxony, in north-western Germany. Before the war General Milch had personally taken him to the plant in order to show off the new production line for the Volkswagen, the People’s Car.
That Sir Roy Fedden had shown an interest in automotive design should not be all that surprising as this was the field in which he had cut his engineering teeth working for the Straker company in Bristol in the years before the First World War. And he certainly wasn’t alone among a band of aero engineers who thought they could apply their talents equally successfully in this field. In Britain during the inter-war years Sir Charles Dennistoun Burney, best known for his involvement with the R100 airship, produced a design for a rear-engined streamliner. Thirteen of them were built by Streamline Cars Ltd in Maidenhead.
Likewise, over in the USA, William Bushnell Stout, designer of the famous Ford Tri-motor ‘Tin Goose’ and a number of Stout aircraft, came up with the Stout Scarab. This would probably be described as a minivan nowadays and just happened to be another rear-engined streamliner. In Germany Karl Schlör and the engineer Krauss Maffei had taken the rear-engine streamliner to the extreme with a slippery pod of a car known as the Schlörwagen. Nicknamed the ‘Egg’ or ‘Pillbug’, it was built on the chassis of a Mercedes-Benz 170H and in pre-war wind tunnel tests conducted at the AVA Göttingen its efficient shape demonstrated an exceptionally low drag coefficient of 0.113. In 1939 the Schlörwagen was displayed at the Berlin Auto Show, as was the embryonic Volkwagen. (The fate of the Schlörwagen is unknown, although some sources suggest it may have been brought to Britain at the end of the war.)
Volkwagen’s factory at Fallersleben was badly damaged by Allied air raids. (NARA)
The origins of the iconic Volkswagen Beetle, as it is now universally known, can be traced back to 1931 with Ferdinand Porsche’s design for the Porsche Type 12 Auto für Jedermann, a ‘car for everybody’, which he produced for the Zündapp company. This featured the distinctive hump-backed streamlining and a rear-mounted water-cooled five-cylinder radial engine, although Porsche’s own preference had been a flat-four engine. Three prototypes were produced, but all were lost in the bombing raids on Stuttgart during the war. (A replica can be seen at the Museum Industrielkultur in Nürnberg.) Porsche then began working on a similar prototype in 1933 for NSU Motorenwerke AG. Known as the Type 32, this had the flat-four engine, but when NSU decided to concentrate on its core motorcycle business the project was abandoned. Enter Adolf Hitler who, according to some sources, had produced his own sketch for a similar car while sitting in a restaurant in Munich in 1932. Hitler was a capable artist, certainly, and also a keen motoring enthusiast. However, it has been suggested that he may have stolen the general design from Josef Ganz’s ‘May Bug’ car after seeing it at a show in 1933. Also featuring a rear-mounted engine layout the May Bug became the basis of the Standard Superior produced by Standard Fahrzeugfabrik in Ludwigsburg (not to be confused with the British Standard car company) from 1933 until 1935. Another vehicle which bore more than a passing resemblance to the Hitler/Porsche design was the 1931 Tatra V570 prototype produced by the Austrian car designer Hans Ledwinka for the Czechoslovakian Tatra company. Hitler is known to have shown some interest in this car and even met with Ledwinka, and Porsche and Ledwinka regularly got together to discuss their respective designs.
The FDR Wagen was part of a lifestyle package the Nazis had promised to the German people, but in reality only a handful of the civilian version were produced by the outbreak of war.
Karl Schlor’s super slippery rear-engined Gebrauchswagen or Schlorwagen undergoing pre-war wind tunnel testing at AVA Göttingen. (DLR)
The prototype Fedden ‘F-car’ was clunky in appearance and lacked the finesse of the VW.
Be that as it may, in 1933 it was Ferdinand Porsche who the Führer instructed to come up with a people’s car capable of transporting two adults and three children at 100km/h (62mph), which should be cheap to produce and to purchase. It was to be part of the consumer lifestyle package he was promising the German people and the car would be made available for no more than the price of an average motorcycle. The latest design was designated the Porsche Type 60 and the first two prototypes were ready by late 1935. Following extensive testing with almost 100 pre-production models, the project was officially announced as the KdF-Wagen – standing for Kraft Durch Freude (strength through joy) – in 1938. Its main features were rear-wheel drive, a rear-mounted air-cooled four-cylinder 995cc engine, two-door bodywork with a flat windscreen and a small split oval window at the rear. Space for luggage was provided under the bonnet and also behind the rear seats. It was constructed on an almost flat chassis with a central structural tunnel, and the bodywork was attached by eighteen bolts. The engine, transmission and cylinder heads were of light alloy and an engine oil cooler ensured the optimal engine temperature. The independent suspension for each wheel was provided by means of transverse torsion bars.
To manufacture the car a new factory was constructed at Fallersleben, but this had only produced a handful of civilian versions by the outbreak of war. Apart from a small number produced for the Nazi elite, the main wartime output was for the military with the Type 82 Kübelwagen and its amphibious counterpart, the Type 166 Schwimmwagen. Car production at the Fallersleben plant was halted in early 1945 by the intensive Allied bombing and on 10 April 1945 American troops overran the town. When the Americans handed the area over to British control what remained of the plant was used by a detachment of the REME (Royal Corps of Electrical and Mechanical Engineers) to repair vehicles, both Allied and captured, and to overhaul engines.
When Fedden, together with his colleague Peter Ware, turned up in the summer of 1945 they saw for themselves the extent of the damage at the works. They met with Major Ivan Hirst of the REME and it was Hirst who allowed them to leave with a Type 60 rolling chassis. Hirst is credited as the man who saved the Volkswagen. Working against the official Allied policy for the de-industrialisation of Germany, which aimed to cap car production at only 10 per cent of the pre-war levels, Major Hirst recognised that it was vital to provide the Germans with a means of earning a living and he set about getting the plant back into running order. He had an example of the car painted in regulation khaki green and sent it up to the Rhine army headquarters for evaluation as a light transport vehicle – something which the army was chronically short of. The result was an order for 20,000 of the Type 60 under the former name Volkswagen Type 1. When Fedden got his Volkswagen back to England he found that, as with his exhibition of aero engines, he was unable to create any interest within British industry. No one was willing to take on the German car or the works in the difficult post-war market. (Henry Ford II is said to have rejected a suggestion to take on the Fallersleben plant because it was much too near to the Russian zone.) Fortunately under Hirst’s leadership Volkswagen production did resume towards the end of 1945, and by the spring of the following year the output was up to 1,000 vehicles a month – a figure only limited by the availability of raw materials. The Beetle continued in production in Germany until 1980, when it made way for the VW Golf, and also in Mexico until 2003. By then over twenty-one million of the people’s car had been built, making it the best-selling car in history. Having undergone several thousand minor tweaks and upgrades it was still recognisably the same little car that had emerged from the ruins of Fallersleben at the end of the Second World War.
Fedden’s plans for a British version of the Volkswagen did not fare so well. It wasn’t for any lack of expertise as he had gathered together a very capable band of engineers including Ian Duncan, Alec Moulton, Gordon Wilkins and Peter Ware. But despite the calibre of his team and Fedden’s undisputed energy and ability to bulldoze his way through wartime restrictions on civilian vehicle development – largely thanks to his enormous standing in the engineering community and his high-profile connections – the ‘F-car’ as it became known was fatally flawed. The designers would later admit that that they had been led astray by Porsche’s faith in the rear-engine layout.
The three-cylinder 1100 cc air-cooled radial engine at the rear of Fedden’s post-war car with carburettor poking up into the void between the passenger compartment and the rear window.
At first glance the styling of the F-car, with its long bonnet and a curving rear end, had something of the shape of the Jowett Javelin which had also been designed during the war and went into production in 1947. However, that is where any resemblance ended. The F-car was rear-engined and drawing from his aviation experience Fedden opted for a three-cylinder 1100cc air-cooled radial engine, mounted horizontally, with sleeve valves operated by half-speed cranks off a vertical crankshaft. This was a less than ideal with the engine perched above a torque converter and the rear swing-axle assembly. Unusually the car was constructed in three separate sections. The self-contained passenger compartment or centre section had ample accommodation for up to six people on two bench seats. The front section carried the steering mechanism and suspension as well as providing space for the spare wheel, battery and any luggage. At the rear was the engine section, or ‘power egg’. The body was a stressed-skin structure more familiar to the aircraft industry, but this type of construction had the distinct disadvantage of being far more expensive to repair and accordingly the three sections were each attached by four bolts. In theory this meant that the engine section could be completely removed in a matter of minutes, with the wiring connected by multi-pin plugs. But in practice the internal pressed steel struts that spread the loads gave the car a somewhat industrial feel.
Problems with the car were mostly caused by the positioning of the radial engine at the rear. Aesthetically it looked clumsy with the high-mounted carburettor poking up into a rear window void between the passenger compartment and the outer sloping window at the back of the car. The carburettor assembly was disguised beneath a metal cap, a ‘top hat’ as an Autocar journalist described it, but it was a far from elegant solution. Then there were further problems with vibration, excessive overheating and, worst of all, the road tests soon revealed that the engine – which had ended up at a hefty 70lb (32kg) above its design weight – tended to behave like an inverted pendulum. In a corner the car would become unstable causing a sudden and almost uncontrollable rear-end skid. Alec Caine, the main test driver, managed to cope with these handling quirks but inevitably the day came when he didn’t catch it in time and the car executed a complete somersault, injuring Caine and his observer. The car was badly damaged and was still being rebuilt when work on the project was abandoned. Some preliminary designs were prepared on a range of successors, but in April 1947 Roy Fedden Ltd went into liquidation. The subsequent fate of the one and only F-Car prototype remains something of a mystery. There are some reports that it was seen stored in a shed at the Cranfield Aeronautical College until some point in the 1960s, but when the shed was demolished the trail went dry. Is it possible that this unique and extraordinary relic of automotive history is lying somewhere under a thick covering of dust in some long-forgotten storage facility?
This post-war brochure for Roy Fedden Limited featured a 1,350 hp Propeller Turbine as well as a 4.6 litre sleeve valve Flat Six.
Aside from the car, the main thrust of Roy Fedden Ltd had been the design and production of what the company brochure described as ‘Low-Drag Aero Engines’, initially a 4.6l horizontally opposed flat-six piston engine followed by a 1,350hp propeller turbine engine. The propeller turbine engine, or as it is more commonly termed nowadays a turbo-prop, was targeted at the builders of small to medium twin- and four-engine transport/passenger aircraft. According to the brochure:
The complete power-plant is only 27in [68.5cm] in diameter and can be installed partly submerged in the leading edge of the wing where it provides the power needed for modern cruising speeds with minimum drag. Aircraft powered by turbines will carry more payload at higher speed than those using piston engines; they will cost less to run and maintain. The propeller turbine uses a little more fuel than an equivalent piston engine but the engine itself is so light that there is a saving in total weight on the engine and fuel under most conditions.
Clearly Fedden’s discoveries in Germany and the discussions held with some of the German engineers had influenced this concept, especially those with Bruno Bruckmann on the topic of propeller-turbines. The brochure goes on to state that the Fedden turbine was especially suited for civil aircraft operating over short or medium ranges at altitudes up to 30,000ft (915m), at cruising speeds of 300 to 350mph (480 to 560km/h). For smaller aircraft or helicopters there was the Fedden flat-six, a six-cylinder 4.6-litre piston engine incorporating fuel injection and Fedden’s sleeve valves. As with the turbo-prop this was designed to be mounted fully submerged within the aircraft’s wings and was suitable for either tractor or pusher propeller configurations. (The installation drawings reproduced in the company brochure illustrated the pusher version.) Fedden believed that together these power units would open up a new field for the British engine industry and they offered ‘stimulating’ possibilities to the aircraft designers. According to Fedden’s biographer, Bill Gunston, unlike the ill-fated F-car these engines were ‘potentially great winners’ and the piston engine was ‘technically superior to the flat-four and flat-six produced in the United States’.
By the end of 1946 the first Fedden flat-six had been completed, in a remarkably short time, and had begun running on a testbed. Things were looking up and Fedden even managed to obtain a Ministry of Supply contract for the development of his 1,305hp turbo-prop. This became known within the company as the Cotswold, although it is not referred to as such in the company’s promotional brochure. Weighing 760lb (345kg) it had an eleven-stage axial compressor and a two-stage turbine. With confidence growing, in February 1947 Roy Fedden Ltd moved to bigger premises at an unused government building at Stoke Orchard, to the north of Cheltenham, and at its height employed almost 200 people. It had grown very rapidly into a big engineering concern and in a memorandum, written by Fedden on 18 April 1947, he remained optimistic about its prospects. He even outlined an intention to extend the factory for the production of up to four turbine engines per week, and on the piston side the flat-six would be joined by a twelve-cylinder version with an output of twenty-five engines per week by 1952. However, such a big business relied on a steady flow of money, either from sales or other funding, and matters started to go downhill very quickly. By this time it was clear that the F-car, in its existing form, was going nowhere. A proliferation of aero-engine projects, in particular with a multitude of variants of the piston engine under consideration, meant that no single design was pushed to the fore and consequently the hard sales were not forthcoming. Then, to cap it all, in May 1947 the Ministry of Supply pulled the plug on its development funding for the turbo-prop. The company went into liquidation the following month.
Once again Sir Roy Fedden did not remain idle for very long. In 1950 he became an aircraft advisor on the planning staff of the newly formed North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO), and afterwards worked as a consultant to the Dowty Group. He also found the time to write a book, Britain’s Air Survival, which was published in 1957. Its message was straightforward enough: Britain needed to do more to assure it could adequately deal with the future threats it might face. More investment was required in training the engineers, and more resources should be invested in new advanced aircraft designs. But the well-intended polemic made heavy reading and to Fedden’s critics it seemed that he was still harking back to the past. Out of the first eight chapters, two were devoted to the lost opportunities arising from the end of the Second World War:
The 1,350 hp Propeller Turbine, or turboprop as this type of engine became known, illustrated in the Fedden brochure.
At the root of the disappointments of both our civil and military aviation programmes during the past decade is the neglect to put first things first. The lesson of the research facilities discovered in Germany at the end of the war and their indication of the pattern of future technical developments, far in advance of our own conception at the time, went largely unheeded by government and industry alike.
And once again the subject of piston engines came to the fore:
We were on the threshold of the jet era, and in jet engines we held an undisputed lead. The jet age, therefore, it was to be; but confusing long-term planning and short-term needs, we prematurely abandoned the proven reliability of our piston engines.
Thankfully a considerable amount of Fedden’s energy was being directed more usefully into establishing a British aeronautical college to train the next generation of engineers. It was Fedden who had first championed the idea after seeing the Institutes of Technology at Massachusetts and California during the Fedden Mission to America between December 1942 and March 1943. His vision was for a specialist college that would bridge the gap between the academic approach of the universities and the hard practical needs of industry. Upon his return to the UK his suggestions caught the ear of his boss at MAP, Sir Stafford Cripps, and in October 1943 Fedden was appointed as chairman of the committee which would submit detailed proposals for a School of Aeronautical Science to the minister. The ninety-eight page report was published in 1944 and, typical of Fedden, it went into the matter in great detail; the contents list alone ran to two pages. It covered the purpose, scope and character of the college, subjects of instruction, staff and their conditions of service, organisation and government of the college, location including buildings and equipment, finance, conclusions and finished off with multiple appendices. Included at the back were fold-out plans and drawings of what the college might look like. Inevitably the report became known as the ‘Fedden Report’ and, true to form, its contents managed to upset the existing educational establishments and aeronautical companies in equal measure. They hadn’t been on the America mission and failed to see that there was any demand for such a college in Britain. Fortunately for Fedden, Sir Stafford Cripps remained firmly wedded to the idea and this explains why the establishment and equipping of the college was at the core of the mission to Germany in the summer of 1945. Fedden didn’t get the purpose-built college he had pressed for, at least not at first, but the newly vacated RAF airfield at Cranfield, Bedfordshire, was made available and the college received its first students in October 1946. Among the original equipment was a 3ft 6in (1m) double-flow wind tunnel and a range of precision measuring machines which had been liberated by the Fedden Mission in Germany. In 1993 the aeronautical college was renamed as Cranfield University.
Fedden’s 4.6 litre sleeve valve Flat Six mounted within an aircraft’s wing with long drive shaft to the pusher propeller at the rear.
Sir Roy Fedden died at the age of eighty-eight on 21 November 1973 at his home at Buckland Old Mill beside the river Usk in the county of Brecon. Coincidentally this date happened to be the 190th anniversary of mankind’s first foray into the skies with the Montgolfier brothers’ pioneering balloon ascent of 1783. Being born in 1885, Fedden had had the very good fortune to be an engineer at the time of the motor car’s ascendency. His subsequent career had taken off with the flourishing of the aviation industry between the wars and his aero engines had made a lasting contribution to the progress of aeronautics. Nowadays his name is largely unknown outside of certain aviation and engineering circles, but the final word goes to the obituary notice published in Flight International. It described Sir Roy Fedden as a ‘towering personality’ and said that he was ‘unquestionably the dominant figure in aircraft propulsion throughout the world between the wars’.