This week in 1902: the first armoured car

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One of the earliest precursors to the tank may have resembled an upturned bathtub but it impressed the Edwardian Engineer nonetheless.

Author H G Wells had a particular reputation for predicting the future, one that was boosted by his 1903 short story “The Land Ironclads”, which anticipated the First World War by describing the use of armoured vehicles to break through fortified trenches. But The Engineer featured an even earlier precursor to the tank eighteen months earlier in April 1902.

The “self-propelled war car” was designed by Frederick Richard Simms,
The “self-propelled war car” was designed by Frederick Richard Simms,

The “self-propelled war car” was designed by Frederick Richard Simms, inventor and founder of the RAC and SMMT, in 1899, and its building completed by Vickers, Sons and Maxim Limited in 1902. It was a development of Simms’ earlier design for a “motor scout”, a petrol-powered quadricycle with a machine gun and front iron shield.

The war car, however, was a more robust vehicle consisting of a rectangular chassis built by the British Daimler Motor Company covered by a 28 foot-long detachable metal shell that somewhat resembled an upturned bathtub.

It was powered by a 16 horse-power four-cylinder engine provided by the German Daimler company, and had a top speed mode of 9 miles an hour, although this could be increased by 25 per cent with the accelerator on.

The car was topped by two quick-firing Maxim guns and a “pom-pom”, an automatic cannon named for the sound it made when fired, and required four people to operate it, although several riflemen could also be accommodated.

One of the innovations claimed by the car’s inventors was to allow the shell a certain amount of movement on its frame when struck by projectiles, supposedly increasing its impenetrability

The Engineer wrote that the car’s principal purpose was ‘to act on the defensive on the coast roads of this country, but if successful in this departure there are many other obvious uses in warfare to which the car can be applied.’

In what was perhaps a hint of either the more authoritarian or unstable nature of Edwardian Britain, The Engineer coolly added that the car might be adopted for quelling street mobs. Thankfully it’s a lot more difficult to imagine the government of today sending something that so resembled a tank out onto at least the mainland British streets to deal with rioters.

The Engineer also described the war car as ‘a novel appliance, the scope and utility of which may prove of far-reach character’. Unfortunately the British War Office was less enthusiastic or foresightful and rejected the idea.

It wasn’t until Wells’ predictions came true and the horrors of World War One took hold that the British army would roll out what were arguably the world’s first combat tanks in 1916.

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