William Richard Morris was born at Comer Gardens in Worcestershire on October 10th 1877. At age three his family moved back to Oxfordshire where his ancestors had held and farmed land for generations.
William Morris attended the Cowley local village school, leaving at age fifteen, and he never received any further formal education.
William Morris had a flair for using his hands with a keen interest in all things mechanical, which was evident when he purchased his first bicycle, for he was forever taking it apart and reassembling it.
Due to his parents poor health he had to find a job and become the family’s breadwinner. His first position was with a local bicycle repair shop, but after an unsuccessful request for a one shilling per week rise, he left. He then started his own bicycle repair business with a capital of four pounds . He used a shed at the rear of his father’s house and very soon was assembling his own bicycles from parts made by others. The business soon outgrew his father’s shed and he moved to a shop in Oxford.
In 1900 William Morris made his first motorcycle.After using it he developed a wealth of knowledge and an excellent motorcycle. He decided to go into motorcycle manufacturing, establishing a second business for the purpose.
William Morris was always interested in things mechanical and he soon started dabbling in car repairs, establishing a third business for car repairs. In partnership with two others started yet another business, to sell cars and motor cycles, but due to disputes with his partners it closed after a year.
In 1904 William Morris went alone, assisted by suppliers who had confidence in him; plus a bank loan.
The workshops were amongst the first electroplaters and stove enamellers in the district. Morris concentrated more on cars and by 1910 all the other interests were disposed of in favour of being a “Motor Car Engineer and Agent and Garage Proprietor”. He also hired out chauffeur driven cars and started a taxicab business, both proved to be very popular.
Morris had an ambition to produce a car that would be available to more people. In 1912, Morris with the financial backing of the Earl of Macclesfield formed WRM Motors to manufacture a new car named the Morris Oxford.The first car was produced in 1913. Morris endeavoured to incorporate the best ideas from existing manufacturers and avoid the weak points he had found as a garage proprietor. He was also a very strong advocate of what is today the KISS principle (Keep It Simple Stupid). In order to keep costs to a minimum and therefore the vehicle price , Morris decided to purchase components from specialist manufacturers, as he had done previously with his bicycles, and so the engine/gearbox and carburettor were from White and Poppe, axles from Wrigleys, Wheels from Sankeys, and bodies from a well known Oxford body maker Raworths.
The cars were assembled in what had been a military college. Due to the late delivery of the engine the car didn’t make it to the Motor Show, but Morris went, took the drawings with him and obtained his first order for four hundred cars!
Morris Oxfords were entered in a variety of trials, hill climbs and the like. Very quickly establishing a reputation for reliability, economy and simplicity.
By 1914 there were six models in the catalogue with the cheapest model priced at one hundred and ninety pounds with the most expensive was two hundred and fifty five pounds.
Between 1914 and 1919 the first world war intervened and Morris Motors were involved with arms manufacturing, and it was not until 1920 that car manufacture was resumed. Morris had seen Ford’s production lines and decided to enter the moving line mass production system.
White and Poppe were no longer interested in manufacturing engines. Morris had signed a deal with Continental of USA but they backed out and he had to find someone else to make engines. During the war, Hotchkiss a French company, had moved to England fearing the Germans may take their factory.
Morris approached Hotchkiss and they agreed to manufacture the Continental engine (that’s why they have metric threads!).
In 1920/21 there was a dramatic sales slump in cars with the whole industry affected with stocks of new cars building up. Morris’s answer was, against all advice, to reduce the prices by up to twenty percent.Dealers commissions were reduced from seventeen and a half percent to fifteen percent at the same time. Within three weeks Morris had sold all their surplus stocks and the production lines were experiencing shortages from suppliers. At the 1921 Motor Show, Morris announced further price reductions due to greater volume production from the suppliers.
This caused a lot of problems for other car manufacturers and many of them went out of business forever. Morris had increased sales by fifty percent but the market as a whole had declined by thirty percent. The main models produced by Morris were the Cowley two seater roadster and the four seater Oxford tourer.
PHOTO: The Bullnose Morris, Britain’s top seller of the ‘twenties’. This car was successfully driven non-stop from Lands End to John O’Groats by its owner. Mr. Towser. The proud driver is seen with William Morris (left) and Miles Thomas (right) who had recently joined Morris Motors as publicity adviser. The date is August 28 1924 and the location the yard behind the original Morris factory (now occupied by the Nuffield Press).
At the 1922 Motor Show Morris was able to announce further price reductions, after most of the other manufacturers tried to emulate Morris’s success with their own price reductions before the Show.
Morris Motors continually improved both the Cowley and Oxfords throughout the 1920’s with the Bullnose Cowley being one of the most famous cars ever built. In 1926 the famous Bullnose radiator was replaced with a flat one.
Between 1923 and 1926 Morris was concerned that his suppliers would not be able to keep up with production and took steps to personally buy them out. So Osberton Radiators, Hollick and Pratt body builders, Hotchkiss engines, and SU carburettors were bought by William Morris, all but SU becoming Morris named companies e.g. Morris Engines. Morris still owned Morris Garages.
In 1922 Morris Garages manager took a Morris Oxford and modified it by souping up the 11.9 HP engine and fitting alloy body panels so that it was capable of 80 mph. Its success in trials led to Morris Garages offering them to the public, and becoming very popular. Thus the MG car was founded. By 1930 demand was so great that it was no longer economic to take a Morris Oxford and modify it, so a separate company was formed and moved to the famous Abingdon site as the MG Car Company Ltd. Here they eventually designed MG vehicles, often using Morris components.
In 1929 the Morris Isis was introduced as the first pressed steel bodied Morris, following William Morris’s forming in partnership with Budd of USA, the Pressed Steel Company.
In 1924 Morris commenced production of commercial vehicles, using a separate personally owned company known as Morris Commercial Cars Ltd, located at Coventry. Morris Motors had always had a van based on the Morris Oxford car. The first vehicle was again based on the Oxford and was a one ton van using the Oxford engine. Soon a one ton truck and the first taxicab with weather protection for the driver were built, followed by the famous six wheeled all terrain vehicle, ambulances, and a whole range of trucks (up to seven tons), double decker buses, & tank carriers. They supplied the British and Indian armies. Morris Commercials had the largest range of vehicles of any manufacturer.
It was the Morris Commercial organisation that was requested to design and build a car suitable for the Empire market i.e. Australia, South Africa etc. The result was the Empire Oxford with a 15.9 HP engine. The car was not a success as it was never tested in the environment for which it had been produced, nor did they look at the USA vehicles with which it was to compete and see why they were a success. A number of unsold Empire Oxfords were returned to England from Australia.
In 1927 a modified version of the Empire Oxford with the 15.9 HP engine was produced for the British market, known as the 16/40 Oxford, it proved to be a success.
Also in 1927 William Morris bought the ailing Wolseley Car Company and over the next few years got it back on its feet. It became part of Morris Motors in 1935.
In 1928 competition particularly in the small HP end of the market became keener than ever and Morris introduced the first Morris Minor using the Wolseley overhead cam engine. In 1931 this was replaced with a sidevalve engine of much simpler design and greater reliability, although the overhead cam engine was available until 1932. This sidevalve Minor became the 100mph, 100 mpg 100 pounds car and was the first car priced at 100 pounds.
In the early 1930’s the 12 HP market dropped off significantly. The Morris Cowley at 11.9 HP was still Morris’s main model. This was replaced in 1932 by a new Cowley model, but the name was dropped in 1934 in favour of simply Morris 12/4.
Through the 1930’s Morris produced a range of models from the Minor (later the 8) through to the 25HP with 10/4, 12/4, 12/6, 14, 15, 16, 18 and 20 HP models in a wide range of bodies, e.g. roadsters, tourers, coupes, saloons (with and without sliding roofs, 2 or 4 door etc),sports cars, and all sorts of specials. There were also other body makers, such as those in Australia, who built their bodies on Morris running chassis’. There are still roadworthy examples of most models still existing around the world, although not in everyday use.
PHOTO: Leonard Lord (left) and Lord Nuffield congratulate the happy owner of the 100,000th Morris Eight built on June 30, 1936.
All Morris cars were coach built i.e. a wooden framed body with metal panels attached and mounted on a separate chassis, until the 1938 Morris 10 Series M, which was the first unitary constructed Morris, where the body is a series of pressed steel panels welded together to form an integral one piece chassis and body combination similar to modern cars.
The Morris 8, introduced in 1935, updated 1936 (series 1), updated 1937 (series 2) & updated 1938 (series E ) was the most popular car prewar, no doubt due to it having hydraulic brakes and other advanced features the competitors did not see fit to introduce until after the war. The Morris 8 has survived in quite large numbers around the world, possibly more than any other make/model. In 1935 Morris Motors acquired all of the companies up until then owned by William Morris, e.g Wolseley, Riley (which Morris himself had only just bought) MG, SU carburettors, etc.
In 1934 William Morris was made Lord Nuffield.
In 1937 William Morris was like many other leaders at the time concerned about Germany and a possible war, but was fobbed off by the bungling bureaucracy. He did however elect to design and build an army tank which became a valuable asset during the war for Britain. During the war Morris himself was in charge of a number of shadow factories producing aircraft, tanks , guns, munitions, repairing aircraft, making aircraft engines, special vehicles, iron lungs, etc. One Morris factory designed an ambulance body to fit Morris chassis’ and a large number of second hand cars were purchased and their bodies replaced with this Morris ambulance body, thus reducing the acute shortage of ambulances and at the same time conserving resources.
After the war Morris produced the 8 Series E and 10 series M, Wolseley produced very similar models, whilst MG and Riley produced their own designs. A factory was set up in Sydney Australia in 1948 to initially assemble vehicles and later manufacture cars.
Morris believed that the small car market was the best area to start after the war and he had the now famous Morris Minor designed. After some controversy and disputes with Morris, it was produced in 1948 and has been one of the most successful cars ever, with thousands still in every day usage around the world. A big brother to the Morris Minor was also produced in 1948.The Morris Oxford Series MO, then the Morris Six with a six cylinder engine. These two cars were almost identical to the Wolseley 6/80 and 6/90. Badge engineering had arrived!!!
In 1948 a tractor was introduced as the Nuffield Tractor along with a new range of Morris Commercials such as the J Van, & LC truck etc.
In 1952, Morris and Austin merged to become the British Motor Corporation and whilst the Morris name was used on several models after the merger e.g. the famous Morris Mini Minor, Oxford series 2,3 & 4, Isis and the Marina they were BMC products, no doubt designed by ex Morris men and hence the longevity of the Mini!!!
Further takeovers over the years have resulted in the current situation where there are no British owned mass producers of cars in Britain!! At one time there were almost 200 car makes in Britain all British owned!!!
Bibliography and Photographic credits
Morris Cars, the first thirty-five years by Harry Edwards, the Morris Register, 1978
The Enthusiast’s Guide to British Postwar Classic Cars by Johnathan Wood, Osprey, 1980