Edward Joel Pennington (top hat) rides his Torpedo Autocar 1896. Source: Uniquecarsandparts.com.au
An American legacy of failure and fraud
Edward Joel Pennington (1860-1911) was an American inventor born in Indiana and rose to prominence at the end of the Victorian era. He is almost completely unknown today but, at the dawn of the motor car, he was very well known, using newspapers and trade magazines to garner publicity for himself and his inventions. In 1894, E.J. Pennington joined with Thomas Kane in Racine, WI to build Kane-Pennington engines and motorcycles. The company actually produced very little, a few engines, a couple of powered bicycles and a four-wheeled carriage, all of which were unsatisfactory. His ‘impossible to puncture’ pneumatic tyres proved exactly the opposite and went flat and his entry in the November 1895 Chicago Times-Herald Race (80 entrants of which he was one) was hopeless too. The vehicle was there but it could not compete.
Pennington had made a show of wealth and prosperity using a private railroad car and the trappings of success to dupe investors into buying stock in his companies. He used shady tactics such as having telegrams sent to him by his own assistants falsely bearing the names of the rich and famous such as the Rockefeller’s asking to buy stock to persuade investors he was a sure success when he was, in fact, a failure. The failure of the Kane-Pennington sales and the 1895 race failure were not what his investors were waiting for and, with his motorised bike in tow and evading his creditors, he left for Great Britain.
Harry Lawson automotive pioneer, Nigel Mills Collection, great-horseless-carriage.co.uk
Contemporary advertisement for The British Motor Syndicate showing Lawson as a Director, Pennington as an inventor, and Simms as the Consulting Engineer.
Great British adventures 1896-1900
Having delivered very little in the US to satisfy his investors, Pennington went to Great Britain. There, he found Harry John Lawson (1852-1925) and persuaded Lawson to ‘invest’ in him. Lawson was trying to create a monopoly over the new motor industry in Great Britain and, to that end, formed the British Motor Syndicate (BMS) in November 1895. The goal was not one of production but of gathering royalties from patent holders and reselling them to manufacturers. This would have no doubt appealed to Pennington who, fleeing his US investors, had a lot of patents and designs of his own to sell. Lawson bought various patents from Pennington for the princely sum of GB£100,000 and a small manufacturing plant. By 1896, Pennington was living in Great Britain and listed his occupation as an engineer at the Motor Mills in Coventry where he was a member of the ‘Great Horseless Carriage Company’ of Harry Lawson although other filings around the time provide different addresses and occupations. One of the major financial backers of this endeavour was no other than Frederick Richard Simms, later to be a Director of the British Motor Syndicate and inventor of the ‘War Car.’
Pennington’s 3 wheeled autocar outside Coventry Motor Mills circa 1896. Source: great-horseless-carriage.co.uk
With the money from his patents and use of a plant in which to make his machines, Pennington produced a new version of his 3 wheeled autocar with a larger 2 cylinder 1.852 litre petrol engine. This machine was marketed under the name ‘Torpedo’ and it was advertised with the confidence-inspiring slogan “it will not blow up and the passengers do not run the risk of being set on fire”. In fairness, the design was actually a mechanical success compared to his disastrous US vehicles which could barely travel the length of a full city block without seizing or overheating. He only made five of these 127kg 4 seater Torpedo Autocars, of which only one example remains on display at the British Motor Museum.
In October 1896, Edward Pennington applied for a patent to try and exploit the motor vehicle for military purposes, namely for carrying machine guns. Titled “Improvements in or relating to Machine Guns, their Carriages and Appurtenances” (an ‘appurtenance’ is a closely related accessory), the design was effectively a machine gun armed version of his Torpedo autocar but with the driver sat between the fore and aft wheels rather than perched off the back.
Single and double machine gun versions of Pennington’s Machine Gun Carriage, 1896.
Tricycle arrangement and mounting positions for the fore and aft facing machine guns on Pennington’s Machine Gun Carriage.
Layout and Propulsion Power
Pennington’s vehicle was very unusual in its layout but conventional in power. The motor selected was a Kane-Pennington type ‘oil motor’ engine and a second, smaller motor “to drive the gun [sic ‘guns’]”. The Kane-Pennington engine was petrol-driven using the Otto cycle so it is unclear what Pennington meant by ‘oil motor’ in his description but it is conceivable he planned a diesel oil-fuelled engine too. The petrol engine was capable of up to 2000 rpm making it ideal for small and light vehicles like motorcycles. There were at least two variants, a 2 cylinder 2 hp and a 4 cylinder 4 hp (or 4.75hp) version. Neither the 2 hp nor the 4 hp engines had any provision for cooling via radiator, using his sleeve-cooling method instead. Pennington’s tricycle based autocar idea was not a success despite his claims.
Kane-Pennington 2 hp Petrol engine. A 4 hp 4 cylinder version was also produced – neither had any form of effective cooling so were prone to overheating Source: american automobiles.com
Approximate layout of the armored body and gun shields as envisaged by Pennington, 1896.
The single machine-gun version of Pennington’s Machine Gun Carriage. Illustration by William Byrd, funded by Golum through our Patreon campaign.
It is unclear from Pennington’s patent exactly how or why a small motor was going to drive the guns’ which are clearly of the Maxim type. It appears, however, that the small motor would drive some small belt system to a fitting over the trigger. Two options were considered; a single or two Maxim type machine guns. The first machine-gun was placed in the forward part of the vehicle, on the right-hand side. The second one, if added, was placed in the rear-left corner. The forward gun would have 360 degrees of firing arc but obviously, the driver would have to dismount to fire outside of the front 180 degree arc. Pennington preferred the second option, a two gun solution with the weapons mounted “en echelon”, that is, they were to be mounted approximately parallel to each other but facing in different directions. Each gun could be provided with a small angled armored shield to protect the driver and he was specific that the rear of these shields should be used for the storage of ‘appurtenances’ such as water cans, spare ammunition or oil etc. This storage idea was certainly not a bad one per se but quite what the value Pennington saw in an unaimed machine gun firing directly backwards though is harder to fathom. Even with a second person in the back of the machine to operate the rear gun the utility of a rear firing weapon is still highly questionable. The vehicle itself was a tube-frame tricycle with the crew (space for at most 2 people) protected by a bulletproof body and the guns having individual shields as well.
Pennington’s autocar with shield during a run in Richmond Park, 1900. Source: David Fletcher
Boer War opportunity
The Boer War and the need for more mobility in the kind of warfare that evolved offered a con artist like Pennington the chance to extract further money from gullible buyers and, in 1900, his armored car got as far as it ever would. His design was now based not on his 3 wheeled design but on a heavy quadricycle with a tubular frame. This machine was photographed at Richmond Park, London sporting a large angular shield at the front but no armament. The four spoken wheels were using large pneumatic tyres and the steering was done from the front as both wheels are held in a motorcycle style fork with the engine in the centre of the machine. Sufficient seating was provided for between 4 and 6 men (he claimed up to 8) with decreasing amounts of practicality. Pennington claimed his haphazard machine could manage 60 miles per hour on a road (95 km/h) although presumably, he wasn’t willing to try and achieve this speed himself.
Power for his machine came in the form of one of his own Pennington engines which had the novel factor of not having a radiator. Instead of using a radiator or other features used in the patents of other engineers such as Messrs. Benz and Daimler, he used a water jacket. This jacket surrounded each of the two cylinders and was filled with water boiling away to cool the cylinders. Each cylinder was approximately 5 inches (127mm) in diameter and 12 inches (305mm) long.
The Simms-Pennington connection
From the shape of the body of Pennington’s original patent and the shield seen at Richmond Park, it is easy to draw a connection to the design of Simms’ own ‘War Car’ design filed 3 years later. Artwork from the period showing Pennington’s 4 wheeled design makes the visual connection even stronger.
Pennington’s ‘Fighting ‘Autocar’. Source: Autocar magazine
Sketch of Pennington’s vehicle showing a highly optimistic crew of 3 manning the machine guns. Source: RAC Tank Museum
The extent to which Pennington’s designs influenced the work of Simms though is unclear. He only made 5 autocars and other than the small shield seen at Richmond Park, they were never known to have been fitted with weapons or armor. Certainly, the men knew each other. Both Pennington and Simms were part of the BMS and both took part in the 1896 ‘Emancipation Run’ (to celebrate when rules on motor cars were relaxed in England with the passing on the ‘Locomotives on Highways Act’) from London to Brighton. That event was organised in part by Simms as the founder of the RAC (formed 1897) along with Pennington’s boss Harry Lawson. Unfortunately for Pennington, he didn’t complete the race due to mechanical problems.
The connections between the two men, the purchase of the patents by the BMS, and the obvious visual similarities between the Pennington design and the later Simms War Car leave little doubt that they are connected. With Pennington declaring bankruptcy in 1900, a good supposition is that Simms, as a major financial investor of the BMS, took the patent on himself to try and make it into a viable machine to sell to the military or police when Pennington went back to the USA. Simms though would have a very different take on the design so Pennington’s input can only be described as minimal at best.
Pennington’s ‘Fighting Autocar’. Source: David Fletcher
An ignoble end
Pennington’s only semi-viable vehicle was his autocar and it was a financial failure. He exhibited it at the Crystal Palace exhibition of 1898 but, despite taking orders, he never delivered any vehicles, which, given the very low quality of the machines, was probably a good thing. The only redeeming feature of Pennington’s design work was his use of large section pneumatic tyres which, in his characteristic boasting, he sold as ‘unpuncturable’. They weren’t.
Subsequently, his adventures in Great Britain were a total failure. He had spent all of his money and he was declared bankrupt in 1900. With no one left in Great Britain to swindle he returned to the United States. Back on home-soil he founded the Anglo-American Rapid Vehicle Company (he claimed it was the largest company in the world – it wasn’t) in New York, claimed to have built a flying motorcycle (he didn’t) and then created the Pennington Steam Vehicle Company (which also failed).
The death of Edward Pennington as recorded in a contemporary US newspaper in 1911
By 1902, he was back in Racine with more investors and failures behind him and presumably broke once more as he skipped out on his hotel bills there as well as in Cincinnati and Pittsburgh. His charlatanry was well known by this time as he was often referred to simply as ‘Airship Pennington’ (after one of his earlier ludicrous schemes to con money out of investors). By 1911, after decades of scamming optimistic and gullible investors of millions of dollars and having continued with various failed ventures and claims of Royal patronage he fell face first into a puddle crossing a street in Massachusetts, contracted either pneumonia or meningitis and died a pauper. An ignoble end to an ignoble man.
David Fletcher discusses Pennington in ‘War Cars’ describing the man as a charlatan who made his money selling worthless patents, whose:
“stature, manners, and flamboyant dress, together with an eye for publicity and a persuasive tongue, did not necessarily bespeak integrity but he had a natural talent for exploiting greed in others and all the conscience of a starving wolf”.
The book ‘Dreams to Automobiles’ by Ken Larsen perhaps best summarises the legacy of Edward Joel Pennington as:
“a tall handsome man who liked to dress well… There were more than its share of charlatans, con men, and other miscreants in the automobile industry; but Edward Joel Pennington was the foremost among them…. A forceful man who had no difficulty in persuading businessmen to invest in his shady ventures or to get customers to make deposits on something he would never produce”.
Extremely fanciful depiction of an improved version of Pennington’s Car dated 1900 but printed in 1916. Source: London Evening News
Very little of Pennington’s work remains and the man is mostly unknown. His fame at the turn of the 19th Century was based on lies and deception and, other than inspiring an actually competent engineer called Frederick Simms to work on his own design, Pennington has faded into deserved obscurity.
Links, Resources & Further Reading
Patent GB22610 filed 12th October 1896 – Improvements in or relating to Machine Guns, their Carriages, and Appurtenances.
Horseless Age Magazine, November, 1895
The Autocar Magazine, December 1895
Horseless Age Magazine, June 1897
Horseless Age Magazine, November 1898
Horseless Age Magazine, November 1902
The Autocar Magazine, January 1903
A Text-book on Gas, Oil and Air Engines: Or, Internal Combustion Motors. (2013). Bryan Donkin. Nabu Press.
Dreams To Automobiles. (2008). Len Larson. Xlibris.
The Birth of the British Motor Car 1769–1897: Volume 3 The Last Battle 1894–97, T.R. Nicholson
Early Armoured Cars. (2008) E. Bartholomew, Shire Album
Illustrated London News, October 1916
War Cars. (1996). David Fletcher. Seven Hill Books