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Prince of Darkness – Joseph Lucas

A Lucas King of the Road Automotive Lamp

A Lucas King of the Road Automotive Lamp

I have long admired Joseph Lucas and when you get done with this article maybe you will too. A hard working family man, Lucas was never an English born Diogenes who wandered the streets of Birmingham trying to plot a scheme to keep you in the dark.

Diogenes is not Joseph Lucas. From what we can tell Lucas never wandered the streets shirtless.

Diogenes is not Joseph Lucas. From what we can tell Lucas never wandered the streets shirtless.

The fact of the matter is that old Joe Lucas has received a bad rap and that the faults of others are often attributed to him and his misunderstood products. He has nothing to do with the failure of your car to start or caused your lights to flicker. Truth be told – he was gone from the scene long before any of our British sports cars were a glimmer in the eye of Messrs. Healey, Black, Lyon or Enever.

Lucus and Oscar 001

A cottage industry has developed around products making fun of Lucas Electrics

But first, let us get the jokes out of the way to clear out our system for the knowledge to come.

  • The Lucas corporate motto: “Get home before dark.”
  • If Lucas made guns, wars would not start.
  • Lucas holds the patent for the short circuit.
  • Lucas – Inventor of the intermittent wiper.
  • Lucas – Inventor of the self-dimming headlamp.
  • The three position Lucas switch – Dim, Flicker and Off
  • The Original Anti-Theft Device – Lucas Electrics.
  • Lucas is an acronym for Loose Unsoldered Connections and Splices
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Replacement smoke

Several years before the election of Abraham Lincoln to the Presidency of the United States, Joseph Lucas was an unemployed father of six children who had to make ends meet by selling paraffin oil from a cart around the local Birmingham streets. With six mouths to feed he was a tireless worker and he soon had saved up enough money to start the business that would become Lucas Industries in 1860. Most of the small firm’s products were made from pressed metals like plant pots, gardening tools and water buckets. His son, Harry, joined the business in 1872 when he turned 17 and soon the company began to make lamps for ships out of a shop called the Lamp Works. By 1879, oil fired bicycle lamps joined the product lineup and greater success followed this move towards making more advanced lighting fixtures for civilian and maritime usage.

1280480000patch23The business incorporated at the turn of the century and began to trade under the name Joseph Lucas Ltd., with most of the business centered on the burgeoning field of paraffin and petroleum fired lamps. 1902 was the first year that the company began to make automotive components – mainly small electrical components – and by the new year, business was so good that Lucas took time off for a long European vacation. A hard and tireless worker, Lucas had long abstained from alcohol and that doomed him when he contracted typhoid after drinking contaminated water in Naples. He was buried on January 14, 1903. At the time of his death, Donald Healey was a child, Triumph was making bicycles and Lord Nuffield (William Morris) had just opened his garage in Oxford.

lucas-rotating-starter-alternator-acSubstantial growth happened on the cusp of World War I when the company entered into an agreement to supply Morris Motors Limited with electrical equipment – mainly magnetos, starter motors, horns, lighting and wiring – and throughout the war manufactured shells, fuses and electrical equipment for the war effort. When peace arrived the company began to grow and diversify by making braking components, hydraulic systems and electronic engine controls. An exclusive contract with Austin was signed in 1926 and while other companies struggled with the Depression Lucas acquired several competitors including Girling, Rotax and Vandervell.

full-322-466-snap_2012.12.08_23h03m25s_002Lucas was integral to the war effort in World War II with their automotive electrical systems adapted for use in almost every manner of military vehicle and they took a major role with Rover working on the fuel and combustion systems on the Whittle jet engine for the Gloster E28/39 (the first British jet airplane to fly). In the 50s, the company continued to supply automotive electrical components and also moved into the new field of semiconductors. For much of the 50s and 60s, Lucas automotive components were the world standard and found use in cars as diverse as Rolls-Royce, Bentley, Aston-Martin, Austin, MG and Triumph. Lucas built components were simple, durable, easy to repair and reliable.

What happened? Mainly the passage of time; when the cars were new they were as reliable as any other new car – including the electrical systems – but decades of use, storage and a succession of previous owners whose understanding of electrical systems was limited to screwing in light bulbs have taken a toll on the reputation of Joseph Lucas and his later products. Curse his ghost if you must, but the man was long since dead before any of our beloved sports cars were built. If only he had opted for a nice chianti maybe he would have been around long enough for us to make fun of him for good reason.

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'Prince of Darkness – Joseph Lucas' have 7 comments

  1. April 16, 2015 @ 4:01 pm Bill

    Why do the English drink warm beer? Because they have Lucas refrigerators.

    Reply

  2. April 17, 2015 @ 10:08 am nikasj

    Here are some more of my favorites:

    Lucas denies having invented darkness. But they still claim “sudden, unexpected darkness”

    The other three switch settings–SMOKE, SMOLDER and IGNITE.

    Lucas dip-switch positions: LOW and BLOW

    The original anti-theft devices–Lucas Electric products.

    “I’ve had a Lucas pacemaker for years and have never experienced any prob…

    Did you hear about the Lucas powered torpedo? It sank.

    Back in the ’70s Lucas decided to diversify its product line and began manufacturing vacuum cleaners. It was the only product they offered which didn’t suck.

    Reply

  3. April 21, 2015 @ 7:43 am HARRY/British Classic Car Service

    What I have found over many years of repairing a large variety of British Cars is that the electrical system has 2 problems; 10% of the problem is corrosion at the brass connections used on many of the Lucas components, 90% of the problem is people trying to fix something that they have no idea of what they are doing. I have seen such “repairs” that would have caused Joe Lucas to shutter.

    Reply

    • April 27, 2015 @ 10:50 pm nikasj

      I could not agree with you more. Corrosion is expected to take a toll after several decades of service, but more damage has been caused by well meaning but poorly prepared owners than all of the other causes put together. I am sure that the stories you could tell would cause us all to shudder.

      Reply

  4. March 31, 2017 @ 6:35 pm R C

    I’m an electrical engineer and an owner of an MG TC that i’m restoring so I think I can shed some light onto why Lucas Electrics have the reputation that they have. What I find remarkable about Lucas is that for the most part, the components are of high quality. Like their bendix drive starter motors, lamps, and so forth are very well designed, of sturdy construction, and overall thought out as well as they could be.

    However, and this is a big however, there are some areas in which it all goes wrong. Like the switches. Switches mounted on metal panels with exposed contacts on the back. The awful rotary switches made of bakelite where the action of the switch itself eats into the plastic and gives false detents. The general use of bare brass for connectors and switch contacts instead of tinning anything. For the most part, I have not encountered a Lucas branded switch which I have enjoyed at all. American made switchgear from the same time have much nicer actions to them, they mostly use silverplate contacts instead of brass or god-forbid copper. They don’t feel like they’re going to break when you switch them. Another heinous example is the switch on the starter motor, with the lever that can easily break off, which is a little canister that contains a heavy spring, a copper washer, and the copper washer is pressed down into two adjacent copper plates. Terrible! There is no ‘wiping’ motion to the action, it sparks when used, the smallest bit of corrosion causes immediate problems, it does not seat evenly. Bad bad bad bad bad. on my motor, I replaced this switch with a special copper plate machined to bridge the gap and screw into the mounting holes adjacent, and used a right and proper starter relay instead. Much improved.

    Then, there’s just the whole methodology set towards the wiring of the car itself. The absolute bare-bones approach to avoid any sort of fuses or relays except where absolutely necessary. The mentality of combining as many wires as you can to do one job instead of wiring things point-to-point. It is this sort of callous attitude towards the design of the whole unit itself rather than the thought about the individual components and their purpose that leaves lucas owners in the dark. This is as much a fault of the manufacturers of the cars themselves, I will admit, but in some cases Lucas could have and should have by all rights done much better, but they didn’t.

    Reply

  5. November 1, 2017 @ 3:52 pm Neil Dale

    well, we worked on and rode drove the cars and motorcycles that had these evil, lousy switches and electrical components! lucas used to say “it’s NOT our fault that if the makers spec’d 25p more per vehicle that the components would have been better ” ! that is a lame excuse if true ? lucas co should have been more demanding they were after all the ONLY supplier ! they COULD /SHOULD have been more proactive for the customer frankly much of their products were crap and we hated to use, repair , replace and sell , buy them! RIP Lucas I say!

    Reply

  6. February 17, 2018 @ 2:21 pm Dave Leidel

    One of my favorite Lucas product stories is their cartridge fuses have two methods of opening a circuit for safety reasons. First, the conventional method by melting the filament in the fuse body and second method by one the fuse end caps coming loose and putting out your headlights on a dimly lit road at night. I suppose this was a redundant safety feature. It didn’t take long after that incident to replace all fuses in an XJ6 Jaguar.

    Reply


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