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Rare veteran car built by the inventor of the tank to be sold at Bonhams
The 1904 Wilson-Pilcher – thought to be the sole surviving example of its type – has been owned by its creator’s family since it was built more than a century ago. Photo: Bonhams.

LONDON.- An extremely rare veteran motor car built by an inventor credited with the invention and development of the first tank will go under the hammer in New Bond Street, London, on Friday 2nd November.

The 1904 Wilson-Pilcher four-seater (estimate £180,000 - £220,000) is one of a number of important entries in the Bonhams auction of Veteran Motor Cars and Related Automobilia ahead of this year’s London to Brighton Veteran Car Run, which is sponsored by Bonhams.

Irish-born Walter Wilson (1874 – 1957), who built the car, was an engineer and inventor with an early interest in aviation that later gave way to all things automotive. The King’s College Cambridge graduate initially focused his creative energy on attempting to develop an aero engine, until the tragic death of his friend and associate Percy Pilcher in a flying accident. After the accident Wilson started a business in London manufacturing Wilson-Pilcher cars, before moving to Newcastle-upon-Tyne in 1904, where this car was built.

When the Admiralty began investigating armoured fighting vehicles during the First World War, Wilson – then serving with the navy – was assigned to the experiments. His work with agricultural engineer William Tritton resulted in the creation of the first British tank, called “Little Willie”, which ran for the first time in September 1915. Wilson’s personal contributions (the all-round track and epicyclic gearing) allowed later versions to be operated by a single driver rather than four, as had previously been the case.

Post war, Wilson used this knowledge of epicyclic gearing (where one or more outer gears revolve around one central cog) to patent the pre-selector epicyclic gearbox, starting a factory in Coventry to manufacture units that were used in generations of armoured vehicles, buses, railcars and marine launches.

Modelled in dark blue with black leather seating, this 12/16hp Wilson-Pilcher being sold by Bonhams was retained initially by the works and used as a fire-tender, before being renovated by company apprentices in the late 1940s and early 1950s. It was later gifted to Mr Wilson’s son, from where it passed through the family to the current owner. It has been displayed in a number of significant museums including The Tank Museum in Dorset and what is now the Coventry Transport Museum, and more recently cared for by the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust.

The car has taken part in the annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run several times since its first outing in 1952, and features on the rear cover of the official event programme of 1961.

Tim Schofield, Director of the Bonhams UK Motor Car department, said: “This rare car, one of the earliest successes of one of the most important engineers and inventors this country has ever seen, is a fantastic addition to our annual veteran car sale.

“We are expecting around 15 London to Brighton eligible cars for the sale, some of which are offered with entry to this year’s Run – so collectors could buy on the Friday and take part in the event on the Sunday.”

Among other consignments for the Bonhams sale on 2 November are a 1904 Richard Brasier 16hp Four-Seat Side-Entrance Tonneau (estimate £220,000 - £300,000) and a 1904 Wolseley 12hp Twin-cylinder Tonneau (estimate £100,000 - £150,000).

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