Morris Radiators – The Early Days

In anticipation of a boom year for the motor industry in 1920 (a forecast that was to prove true only in part) William Morris was concerned that his suppliers were not going to be able to handle the volume of production he would need. Rollick & Pratt of Coventry who were contracted to supply most of the car bodies, was one example. They were also supplying other makes. Raworth of Oxford also supplied some bodies to Morris but these were mostly the more special units.

Another possible bottleneck was going to be the supply of radiators. Dohorty Motor Components, also of Coventry, were the suppliers of radiators for the Morris but, unfortunately, they also had commitments with the motor trade Generally. It appears that William Morris suggested to foremen H.A.Ryder and A.L.Davies of Dohorty Motor Components that they start up a radiator works in Oxford. The idea was taken up and the two men moved into their first workshop next to the Bear Inn, Alfred Street, in May 1919, and employed two skilled men in soldering. Ryder’s brother, R.WRyder, joined the venture a month later. In August 1919 the trio moved to the premises of the former roller skating rink in Osberton Road, Summertown. This was the building that Morris had, six years previously, used to hide the buses during his disagreement with the Oxford Council, and which had, during the war, been used by the Royal Flying Corps in connection with their aerodrome on Port Meadow. With assistance from William Morris, the two Ryder brothers and A.L.Davies took over the building, installed a couple of small presses, and named the new venture Osberton Radiator Company. With a working strength of eleven men, including Arthur Kendrick, Bill Bond, George Bailey, Bob King, Curly Sawyer, George Holton and Eddie Norton, Osberton began production shortly afterwards.

At this time all Morris radiators were of the grilled tube type. These cooling gills were separate discs with a hole punched in the centre, to be threaded onto the tubes which later went to make up the complete radiator. Threading of the gills was something of a cottage industry undertaken by women. They would collect the gills and tubes from Osberton Road in bags, baskets or perambulators to take them home to assemble. Unfortunately, on route, a small number of these gills, which had jagged edges around the punched hole, would be dropped into the road and discovered only when passing cyclists came to repair a puncture.

Morris cars had a distinctive radiator shape which was known by the Cowley works as “Bow Front” or “D-Front”. It was only in later years that enthusiasts for the marque coined the term “Bullnose” (Indeed, the first reference to “Bullnose” in, relation to the Morns, that the writer has found was in The Autocar of 1926: “Though lots of enthusiasts will mourn the death of the bull-nose Morris, a single glance of the 1927 coachwork justifies the change”). It was not until the introduction of the Cowley that William Morris used a distinguishing badge on his radiators (albeit the badge subsequently adopted appeared in very early catalogues) and for this he borrowed from the Oxford City coat of arms “a red ox fording water barry wave argent and azure in the base”. This device, which appeared on a fourteenth century seal, not only expresses the name, but also hints of its origin; but an alternative to the theory that Oxford grew up about a ford for oxen, it that the syllable “ox” is a variant of the Celtic word for water. Although the nickname “Bullnose” suggests a bovine connection, it has been written that the origin is a corruption of the term “Bullet Nose”, referring to the shape of the wartime .303 bullet.

William Morris had had a financial interest in Osberton Radiator Company since its establishment in 1919, and it had by 1921 reached a stage where the firm were experiencing difficulty in keeping up with his requirements. Around this period, a new, and presumably cheaper, form of radiator element was introduced which did away with the tubes and gills, previously described, in favour of a honeycomb type radiator block for Morris cars. This new type of construction made manufacture easier, but despite the rise in the number of employees at Osberton Road to 79, production was still not sufficient to satisfy the demand from Cowley. To overcome the problem, William Morris injected more capital to finance expansion and took over the company in 1923, making one of the original founder brothers, Harold Alfred Ryder, general manager of the works. The new expansion included an increase in the labour force to 179 and the renting of a one time shirt factory in George Street which then provided space where polishing, final assembly, and leak testing could be done. In addition it provided more space for office accommodation.

By 1925 the firm had grown to 500 employees producing 6,000 Morris radiators per month of five types, and three types of bonnet. Another interesting, but curious, product was a tin plate model aeroplane “The Joey”. Apparently the model was a remnant of the original Dohorty Motor Components Ltd. business and its production was continued as an ideal self-financing means of training people to solder, an essential skill in radiator manufacture. In the same year just over 55½ thousand Morris cars were produced and to cater for the demand new premises were needed. Building began on the site of a disused brickworks and a waterlogged clay pit at Woodstock Road. Before long radiator production was transferred to the new factory and the five-storey building in George Street was vacated. It could be said that Eli Ewers was included in the goodwill of the Woodstock Road site. An old labourer, Eli Ewers, worked on the site for many years and he continued to wheel his barrow around the works until his death in 1937. Wherever he went this lovable old character was escorted diligently and belligerently by his friend, George the gander, who followed Eli and his barrow all day and every day. This gander was a bigamist who lived quite happily with his two wives, but whose sole object in life was to guard and protect Eli. Woe betide any adventurous spirit approaching the barrow too closely!

In June 1926 William Morris decided to wind-up Morris Motors Limited voluntarily. The wind-up by the liquidator, R.W. Thomton of Oxford, was purely formed and all creditors were made in full. Some of the companies, previously separately owned by William Morris, were transferred to the newly registered Morris Motors (1926) Ltd. These included Osberton Radiators Ltd. which was henceforth known at Morris Radiators Branch.

The year 1926 saw the demise of the, by now, traditional “Bullnose” radiator on the Morris Cowley and Oxford cars. It was considered too old fashioned by some, although William Morris was personally fond of its appearance, probably out of sentiment as it reflected his early achievements in building what had by 1926 become the largest motor manufacturing plant in Britain. By the previous year, two out of every five British cars sold carried the name Morris. There were, however, other practical reasons for the change, not least of which was the tendency of the “Bullnose” radiators to boil. The new design for the 1927 season, with an increased cooling capacity of over 60%, was flat fronted and almost rectangular; later to be given the nickname “Flatnose” by enthusiasts.

William Morris was aghast when he saw the first radiator prototype, likened it to a gravestone and insisted it be made two inches narrower. The tool room, had little time to spare before the 1926 Motor Show, set about modifying the press tools, working continuously for two days and two nights and stopping only for meal breaks. The modified pressings were more to Morris’s liking and he gave the men involved a £5 bonus.

Morris Radiators Branch at Woodstock Road (known by employees as “Rads”) was gradually enlarged with the addition of new buildings. Not surprisingly, as the site for the factory was once a brickworks, there was an extremely large man-made flooded clay pit known as “the lake”. Some of the lake was eventually to be filled in to provide the foundations for additional buildings but not before it provided a useful means of disposing of unwanted components. One particular example related to the abortive Morris Silent Six of the early ‘twenties, of which only about 50 had been made despite the chassis and other parts having been produced for some 500 of the cars. The unused chassis were disposed of in the lake at Woodstock Road. S.Jones who was employed at “Rads”, was to write a verse on the subject set to the tune of a well known easy music hall song: “If that lake could only speak, If the boss could only see One half of its hidden treasures, Oh! What a calamity. If I only had their worth I should soon be a man of fame, But it’s only a beautiful picture in a beautiful golden frame”.

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PHOTO: The production of both “Bullnose” (near left) and “Flatnose” (further left) radiators would suggest a dating of 1926/27. Centre right of the photograph taken at Osberton Radiators shows the workers making the strip which carries the bonnet tape on the “Bullnose” radiators. Curiously, the “Bullnose” bonnet side panel leaning against the bench has the words, “LYSAGHT, R25, BODY SILVER FINISH” stencilled on its surface?.

These lumps of scrap metal were to prove an embarrassment in later years. Land reclaimed from part of the lake was to be used for a large building built in the early days of World War II for the production of Spitfire radiators and when the foundation piles were being driven the engineers operating the pile-driving machinery were constantly baulked by the mass of metal beneath. The unforgiving lake was, some years later, to make its presence known. A building built on the unfilled portion of the lake was ill advisably used as a steel stores, resulting in the floor sinking under the weight of the metal.For a period of time during the late 1920’s, Radiators Branch had a couple of “tenants” sharing the factory space. One of these was the M.G. Car Company who had use of two bays accessible by Bainton Road where M.G. models were assembled. Another firm accommodated by Bainton Road was The Holiday Caravan Co, Ltd. who specialised in supplying Eccles Trailer Caravans and the fitting of towing brackets. By the closing years of the 1920’s both “lodgers” had moved on to other Oxford locations. The Caravan company to Cumnor and M.G. to their new factory located in Edmund Road, allowing the vacated bays to be converted into a chromium plating plant to cater to the change over from nickel plated radiator shells to the chromium plated items introduced for the Morris Motors 1930 models.

As the business expanded some diversification took place with the manufacture of wings, bonnets, petrol tanks, etc. As already mentioned, the outbreak of war in 1939 meant the production of radiators for’ aircraft, tanks and other military vehicles, in addition to ammunition boxes, tin helmets, army field kitchens and many other accoutrements of warfare. At the height of the war a completely new factory was built at Lainelle, and it was to this factory that radiator production was transferred after the war — but that is more recent history and that story can be left to future historians to record.

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PHOTO: Circa late 1929 showing the chrome plating vats. The electrical gear overhead are direct current dynamos to provide the current for plating, these dynamos were driven by A.C. motors. The radiator shells are M.G., Morris, and Wolseley.

(With acknowledgment to Graham Bushnell who worked at Morris Radiators as part of Unipart industries. During these years Graham Bushnell worked with and talked to many employees of all levels and as a vintage Morris owner he collected together their stories, histories, technical knowledge, and photographs. He became the factory historian and wrote the factory history. Before leaving he handed the historic items to the British Motor Industries Heritage Trust for safe keeping in their archives and for reference by future industrial archaeologists).

Harry Edwards