Pre-WW1 British Armor

Simms’ War Car

United Kingdom (1898-1915)
Armored Car – 1 Prototype Built

The name Frederick Richard Simms (12/8/1863 to 22/4/1944) probably means little to anybody now. His most famous invention, a machine-gun armed four-wheeled bike is commonly seen on the internet for the purposes of humor. The man and his designs are quite real though and were no joke at the turn of the 19th Century. The modern repeating machine-gun had only just started to enter common service with some armies and motor cars were a rare sight. Armored warfare at that time was so new, terms we use today, such as ‘armored car’, had not entered the common lexicon; the tank was still more than a decade away. Frederick Simms was a pioneer of blending these emerging technologies of mobility and warfare and whilst it is true the image of the bowler-hatted Simms sat on a four-wheeled bike with a machine-gun may look ridiculous, Frederick Simms did a lot more too.

Mr. Frederick Richard Simms, Photo: Autocar magazine

The Man

Frederick Richard Simms, for all his British sounding name, was actually born in Hamburg, Germany in August 1863, to a British father and German mother. Educated in Berlin, by the time he was 26 in 1889, he had befriended the famous German engineer Gottlieb Daimler. He obtained from him a license to produce high-speed petrol engines, and shortly thereafter, moved to London where he established himself as a motor engineer (and started the firm of Simms Motors) and in 1896 became a consulting engineer to the newly formed British Motor Syndicate (BMS) under Harry Lawson.
In February 1896, Simms and Lawson became founding members of the Motor Car Club. However, by July 1897, Simms had left the Motor Car Club over a disagreement about Lawson’s questionable business practices and founded his own club, which became known as the Royal Automobile Club of Great Britain, and, in January 1898, submitted a patent for his first design of military application, named “Improvements in Armouring or Protecting Surfaces against the Action of Projectiles”. The design was unusual in that it consisted of pneumatic spaces designed to absorb the impact of projectiles but crucially it was specifically intended that:
“in the case of turrets, armored cars, shields and the like, I advantageously enclose the fluid forming the cushion of armor in a chamber or chambers of India-rubber… the outer face being provided with a relatively light protective covering of wood, steel, chain armor… fixed or suspended in position”.

Edward Pennington (top hat) sits on his 1896 ‘Torpedo’ tricycle. Photo:

Mr. Pennington’s Contribution

Edward Joel Pennington (1858-1911) was an American inventor, hustler, and a charlatan. He had evaded unsatisfied creditors in the USA who had lost money on failed schemes and came to Great Britain in 1895 to try his luck on the other side of the Atlantic. Like Simms, he too had ideas of combining motor vehicle technology and machine-guns and to that effect, in October 1896, filed a patent for “Improvements in or relating to Machine Guns, their Carriages and Appurtenances”.
This filing means that Pennington got his application in before Simms and Simms was clearly influenced by the work of Pennington, and he knew the man personally. Simms did not, however, use a bicycle for his design but instead a truck chassis – something far more suitable to the rigors of military use. With Pennington bankrupt in 1900 and back off to the USA, it seems that Simms, as a major financier of the BMS and motor engineer, took upon himself to carry on some of Pennington’s ideas.
The arrangement of armor for the body of the War Car Simms was to later patent is very similar to that shown in 1896 by Pennington, albeit at a grander scale. Contemporary artwork from the period shows Pennington’s design with 4 wheels and two machine-guns and with a body shape very similar to the Simms War Car which was to follow.

Left to right: Pennington’s ‘Fighting ‘Autocar’. Photo: Autocar magazine. Sketch of Pennington’s vehicle showing a highly optimistic crew of 3 crew manning the machine guns. Photo: RAC Tank Museum. Rear view of the Simms War Car on display at the Crystal Palace exhibition, London in 1902. Photo: BT White.

Simms War Car on display April 1902. photo: Navy and Army Magazine

Simms War Car. Photo: Engineering Times, June 1902

The War Car

The ‘War Car’ is Simms’ true greatest legacy and was based on a truck built by Simms’ own motor company. Just three months after Simms’ submission for ‘pneumatic type armor for a vehicle’ he applied for another patent (March 1898) for “A Motor-driven Car for use in Warfare”, which was to become one of the first true armored cars. It gathered a lot of interest when it was shown publicly at the great Crystal Palace Motor Show exhibition in London in April 1902, although mostly by the foreign press. Reports at the time state that it was commissioned by Messrs. Vickers and Sons. as perhaps some kind of advertisement for their machine-guns (fitted) and pom-pom gun. Army and Navy Magazine in April 1902 suggested the vehicle was best suited as a draisine, fitted with flanged railway wheels and used to patrol areas such as the South African planes on the railway there. It was reportedly the result of “two years and nine months of patient work and experiment” which suggests he was claiming to have started development back in July 1899.
It was to have at least 4 wheels, with the rear pair driven by a petrol engine. A separate dynamo was added to provide for electrical lighting but also to enable to outer skin to be electrified in order to send “a current or currents of electricity around the car so as to kill or disable any person or persons attempting to climb the sides thereof or to otherwise attack it.”
Simms had some interesting ideas about how this machine was going to be used too. His description of the vehicle including the requirement that it “be made sufficiently strong to enable it to be used as a battering ram against buildings, crowds and the like” which is why he made both ends “cigar shaped” in his words. A projecting lip on each edge would slope outwards creating a cutting edge which “can further act as a protection against molestation by being connected with the electric current”. For added protection, Simms was sure to mention that around the top lip of the car there would be provision for spiked rollers to ensure it couldn’t be boarded from outside.

From the US patent for Simms’ War Car showing a possible arrangement of the 4 wheels and how by using pivoted front and rear wheels it could turn on the spot. This is different to the other images in the patent of a more conventional 2×2 arrangement.
The driver would be located in the centre right-hand side of the vehicle in order to free up both ends which could be fitted with “quick firing or machine-guns” mounted in turrets at each end. The arrangement would also enable the vehicle to be driven in either direction. Two arrangements were drawn for the steering: a conventional 2 x2 arrangement with wheels paired together at the front and back respectively, and a second unconventional diamond layout with a single wheel at the front and back. This unusual arrangement would allow the vehicle to actually turn on the spot. By the time it was built though, the idea of having the wheels arranged in a diamond pattern steering front and back was abandoned in favour of the far more conventional arrangement.


The armor was not specified, but it had to be sufficient enough to protect the occupants. Presumably, Simms envisaged armor of the type he had patented just three months earlier. The wheels, as was common at the time, were of a wooden rim and spokes and fitted with a steel tyre for wear. The front wheels were 4 feet in diameter and 6 inches wide, whereas the steering wheels were smaller at just 3 feet in diameter and 3.5 inches wide. Chain mail curtains could be fitted to protect the wheels from small arms fire.

Simms’ patent for his ‘Motor-driven car for use in warfare’ of March 1898. Cross section of Simms’ War Car showing the rollers at the top of the hull armour and the arrangement of the turrets and armor. (The grey parts around the wheels are chains hanging down to protect them from bullets)

Simms’ War Car as it appeared in the Autocar Magazine

From Simms’ American patent for the War Car showing the steering wheel offset in the middle of the vehicle and the arrangement of the two turrets.

Illustration of the Simms’ War Car by Andrei ‘Octo10’ Kirushkin, funded by Alex ‘Deadly Dilemma’ de Moya through our Patreon campaign.


This vehicle was marketed as being specially designed for coastal defence, for “quelling mobs”, or for hauling stores and men with its 12 ton (claimed) load. A speed of 9mph was possible on a road from its 4 cylinder 16hp (a report on the vehicle in 1907 stated the engine was 20hp) Cannstatt-Daimler petrol engine (90mm diameter cylinders with 130mm stroke) although Simms was clear that any suitable engine would suffice. The variation in horsepower quoted may be due to the fact that this engine could run on either petrol with a specific gravity range from .680 to .700 or Kerosene with a specific gravity of .860 and ran at a nominal 750 rpm (700rpm using petrol fuel got the car to 9 mph) but could be made to run at 1000 rpm using a foot operated accelerator lever.
This engine was mounted, like the driver, centrally and power was carried through a 4-speed Canstatt type gearbox with speed ranges of 1.5, 3, 5, and 9 miles per hour respectively (at 700rpm from the 16hp engine). No reverse gear was provided as it was not required. The An accelerator was also provided if desired which could take the machine to a frightening 25 mph (40 km/h). Other military trucks had been examined by the British Army, so it was reported at the time that if orders were obtained, that the engine may be switched to a standard heavy oil (diesel) type engine instead.

Mr. Simms in his autocar 1902/3. Photo: Royal Automobile Club collection

Pity the Driver

The driver had his task cut out due to his designated position being in the middle no less than 14 feet (4.27m) from either end, and thus, visibility to the front would be reduced, and even more so when under fire. By the time he had made the example for the 1902 Motor show at the Crystal Palace in London, Simm’s design had evolved from a very complex vehicle where the front and rear guns would be mounted in fixed turrets to a turretless version. If the turrets fore and aft of the driver which completely obliterated his view of the road were not bad enough then to add to his woes he was originally to be provided with a mirror on a pole above him to help him to steer. Thankfully for the driver, this was never built as the resulting neck pain and inevitable crash from the reversed directions would have surely made any driving at more than a crawl impossible.

Side view of the Simms autocar of 1902/3 with access rope ladder deployed over the side. Photo: Royal Automobile Club collection

Steering and Control

Steering was provided by means of a steering wheel using the Ackermann principle with worm gears. Gear control was not provided by a wheel, but by two levers each controlling two of the speeds of the gearbox and a friction clutch plate operated by the driver’s foot. A third lever was used to control forwards or backwards motion. A very complex solution, but one which provided maximum speed in both directions assuming the driver was able to control it. A second pedal controlled the single foot brake which operated by disconnecting the clutch and braking the first gear shaft. A second brake was lever operated and acted on large brake drums mounted on the hubs of the rear two wheels which were the only two driven wheels on the machine. It was claimed that the entire machine could be brought to a halt within just 8 yards when braked from full speed.
The turret plan was certainly novel, but would have added significant cost, weight, and complexity to the machine, so it is perhaps fortunate, not least for the driver, that Simms went with the much more modest proposal.
The car was said to have had a crew of at least four (driver, presumably a ‘Captain or commander’ and 3 crew to man the guns) and capable of carrying up to a dozen men. The actual vehicle on which the War Car was based was built by Simms’ own motor company but the armor was provided by the firm of Vickers having been built to order and was bulletproof plate 6mm thick. The frame for the Simms’ vehicle under the armor consisted of heavy gauge U-section steel channel 17 feet long by 6 feet 2 inches wide.
Despite Simm’s using pneumatic tyres on his autocars and bikes, this machine was to feature wooden wheels with an iron tyre instead. Due to problems from the vibration though, the early idea of riveting was abandoned as it shook loose (which does not say much about the comfort in the vehicle or any accuracy on the move) and instead the armor was mounted onto 4 semi-elliptical springs attached to the frame.

Fanciful artistic impression of the Simms War Car presumably in colonial service conducting some kind of patrol. The men (14 of them) are all wearing colonial service pith helmets and given the era, the artist seems to depict the vehicle fighting the Boers in South Africa. The armament shown includes the small side machine-gun. Photo: Unknown


Armament shown at the Crystal Palace was two Maxim type machine-guns and a single pom-pom gun with other soldiers who could work as riflemen. A contemporary photo from the exhibit also shows a single side mounted and shieldless machine-gun. As it happened, the War Car got only as far as this prototype, no orders were made and none sold, and it is presumed to have been scrapped, but this was not to be the last military vehicle from Mr. Simms.


Despite an invitation to view and examine the War Car, it seems no one from the War Office even bothered to attend to look at it, and subsequently, interest in it evaporated. The Simms Motor Scout and Draisine were also failures, and the War Car gained interest only from foreign nations. The notion of armored vehicles with machine-guns was not to go away, but this was Simms’ last attempt to gain orders for such a machine.


Dimensions (LxWxH) 28’ x 8’ x 10’ (8.53m x 2.43m x 3.05m
Track width 0.59 m (1’11”
Total Weight 5.5 tons “not exceeding 6 tons”
Crew 4 – 12
Propulsion Simms-Daimler 16hp (given as 20hp in 1907) petrol
Maximum speed 9 mph (14 km/h) (road) up to 25 mph (40.2 km/h) possible
Suspension leaf-spring semi-eliptical springs (rear), spiral springs on steering axle
Range 200 miles (322 km)
Armament 2 quick firing .303 calibre Maxim machine-guns (10,000 rounds)
Armor Vickers steel 6mm thick

Links & Resources

Autocar Magazine 26th August 1899
Simms War Car – Additional Notes, BT White,
Allgemeine automobili-zeitung May 1902
Patent GB22610 filed 12th October 1896
Patent GB2297 filed 28th January 1898
Patent GB7337 filed 26th March 1898
Patent US641897 filed 20th October 1898
Patent GB5885 filed 17th March 1899
Royal Automobile Club of Great Britain
Journal of the Society of Arts, 14th July 1899
Navy and Army Illustrated Magazine, April 1902
The Engineer, 11th April 1902 ‘Self-Propelled War Car’
The Motor Car Journal, 12th April 1902
Motor World, Volume 2, April 1902
Scientific American Vol.86 No.16, April 1902
Scientific American, March 1907
Tank Factory, William Suttie
Engineering Times, Volume 7 , January to June 1902
Autocar Magazine, 11th of November 1916
Early Armoured Cars, E. Bartholomew
Early Armoured Cars, Maj. Gen. N. Duncan

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