It’s A Lock In!

Settle down, you rabble. You’re in for a while. Get another Bog Myrtle in and pay attention, there’ll be questions later. 


[Editor’s note: This article was written prior to the current restrictions on gatherings and in no way advocates the practice of public house lock-ins – well, not in the current climate at least…]

Much like home door locks, car locks had been rudimentary for years. The 1970s witnessed a change in thinking (in a pretty vain attempt) to prevent rampant car theft. Years in the development stages, mainly in the USA, Wilmot-Breedon would become an integral cog of the British car industry, sadly suffering a similar fate.

Carl Louis Breedon enters proceedings around 1929 when the engineering firm Josiah Parkes & Son of Willenhall, Birmingham introduced the wafer tumbler lock to him. This used flat metal wafers that required the correct key in order for the lock to turn.

Wilmot-Breedon had taken a leaf out of the Lucas book by investing in the production of bumpers, steering wheels and a radiator topped device named a Calormeter which was in effect a thermometer. Throw in door handles, roof racks, ash trays and switches. Keys though, were an important and lucrative staple. With central locking years in the future, most cars needed at least three door locks and one for the ignition. From Alvis to Triumph and all points in between, Britain’s cars had WB keys. With subtle differences in the wafers, lock barrels or the key sections, hundreds of types were made.

But not for Land Rovers. Almost certainly a financial decision, the Rover company used WB keys for their other vehicles but the Land Rovers were for the farmer, the miner, the explorer. After all, why do you need to lock it up? But you do need a latch, if only to keep the door from falling open on the fells. Walsall Locks made the Series One locks, as they were dirt cheap.

When Series Two came along, another locksmith company, the beautifully named Hallam, Sleigh & Cheston of Plume Street, Aston, Birmingham  (renamed later to the most boring Widney) transformed the basic slam latch to a slightly different one that at least brought the lock face to the level of the outside door panel. Again, cheapness was, ahem, key.

Legislation changed the course, anti-burst locks were now required, meaning in the event of an accident the door would not fly open. The company used was once more Walsall locks who had a totally unsung hero in the shape of one Alf Tolley. Tolley had no formal training but had the gift of sight within a lock, its mechanisms, its complexity.

With around 15,000 Land Rovers per year made in the early ‘70s, and up to five locks per car, business boomed. As so for Wilmot-Breedon who supplied the barrel, itself a modification of a Lucas ignition switch. Just to complicate the story more, Widney surpassed the Tolley lock and made it cheaper still. Land Rover loved it. Walsall locks were still supplying Land Rover, though by now, only the tailgate lock for the original Range Rover.

Land Rover had moved on with the new for 1982 Defender. This being an all new vehicle, new ideas were introduced, ditching the old fashioned Widney locks. Where to find new door locks, then? Why, Spain and Land Rover’s Santana associates. Upon testing however, modification proved necessary, and who better than yet another different UK engineering firm, with the excellent Arbuthnot moniker? This crew made the black plastic push button handles for the Freight Rover vans. Bear in mind that the Widney lock was still being fitted to the rear door.

The slam latch, modified, new version. (c)

Supply chains not being the efficient force they are today, the Spanish link was not terribly cost effective, coupled with the added misery that Arbuthnot went belly up very early in proceedings. More pain was endured when management realised the Santana locks were hopeless. This meant four keys per car: ignition, side and rear doors and the fuel cap. This latter key and lock was provided by Waso – yes, another manufacturer.

1987 was the year locking progress was made. Snap-in barrels that fitted into the Arbuthnot handle meant we were down to just two keys, ignition and doors. This made Widney unhappy. Land Rover were paying them a paltry £4.20 per lock. Having made a significant investment in lock tooling, die sets, etc, this was a dire situation. They doubled their prices. And Land Rover once more took up their magnifying glass to find another lock firm.

Step forward the late Peter Weston who became known as The Lock Man (as well as an avid science fiction writer) to the industry via a separate entity – that of Land Rover Parts & Equipment (LRPE). Remember Walsall Locks, whose secret weapon, Alf Tolley was happily supplying Range Rover rear door locks? In 1985, they went into receivership and caused lock supply panic. LRPE had taken on the Tolley lock but couldn’t really make it a going concern. Peter Weston’s firm, Weston Body Hardware (a 2nd generation management buyout) was asked to step in and expedite the back-log of lock-less doors.

This being the farcical situation it had erupted into, nothing was in place. WBH had to rent out a warehouse, place every component on the floor and slowly and painstakingly work out all the lock procedures with neither drawing or paperwork as reference. By hook, crook and luck, it worked. LRPE paid for improvements and the backlog was reduced considerably.

Now Land Rover wanted rid of Widney altogether and yet another protracted argument occurred with WBH over that old chestnut of money. Eventually solved and supplies on-going, the rear door lock was planned to be phased out around 1995 but was kept right up to the Defender’s conclusion in 2016. Central locking finally being added to the rear door in 2002.

Perfectly parked – but is it locked? (c) DTW

Ironically, Widney are still operating; supplying door locks and window opening mechanisms to vehicle, construction and naval customers. Weston Body Hardware are positively thriving from their Redditch base.

Wilmot Breedon on the other hand were in a terrible state by the mid-1970s with strikes and the UK manufacturing industry in turmoil, swallowed up by the American Rockwell International in 1979. The Wilmot Breedon brand does still exist but in a completely different form to when it supplied the British motor industry in its heyday, rather like Triumph or Riley – names still there, but hidden. Finding anything about them is difficult as one investment holder takes over another.

With a history as fiendishly complicated as any given Carrozzeria along with the dire straits Britain was in, its a wonder that anything got built at all. Charles Breedon is probably turning in his grave at the absurdity of it all. So be very careful if you need a key for a Land Rover from the fifties to the nineties: specifics are… of the utmost importance.

Now, anyone fancy a pint of Sneck Lifter? * Y’know, the sneck of the door lock? Got yet sixpence? What do you mean you’ve got work in the morning?

* A Sneck is a Northern English word for a door lock, usually to the pub where a pint once upon a time cost  sixpence. Using this last sixpence he then hopes to cajole others into buying him more ale.
Data source : Classic Car Monthly


Author: Andrew Miles

Beyond hope there lie dreams; after those, custard creams?

7 thoughts on “It’s A Lock In!”

  1. Good morning Andrew. What an extraordinary tale! How on earth did you unravel it all? I had to read it three times to follow the convoluted plot. I’d never given much thought to car door locks beyond knowing that they used to be next to useless.

    Back in 1985, I managed to lock the keys inside my Austin Montego company car in Dublin while the spare set was at my home in Belfast. A passing police car (probably thinking I was trying to break into the Montego) stopped to enquire as to what was going on. I explained what had happened and, two minutes later, the obliging Gardaí had unlocked it without causing any damage!

  2. I locked my keys twice inside the car, once in a Citroën CX and once in a GS. The first one was easy to open with a screwdriver and a wire coat hanger. Took me two minutes without any experience in the field (I have to say that, don’t I?).
    The second time was a bit more complicated. Not because the GS locks are any safer, but it happened exactly on the parking lot in front of a large police station. In order not to draw too much attention among its population, I decided to go inside and ask for help. So I was referred to a gentleman whose office doorplate said ‘Head of vehicle tracing’ (don’t know if that’s the correct term in English). He resolved the issue in no time to my full satisfaction (i.e. without damage).

    Nice story here – I don’t think I’m ready to take the exam yet without reading a fourth or fifth time… Somewhat typical for the convoluted history of the British motor industry, but stories like this (maybe not to that extent) can be found in any company who has to work with more or less reliable suppliers in different parts of the world.

  3. Sounds like you were employed by Land Rover, Andrew 😉

    The story of your CX reminds me of one of my dad’s friends. He had a CX parked at our house and was unable to open the boot. There is a connection between the actual lock at the bottom end of the bootlid and the button at the top of the bootlid that you press to open it. This connection piece had failed. In order to repair it he borrowed our drill and made an opening behind the rear license plate to fix it. A bit drastic, but it worked.

    1. This connection rod seems to be a weak point in the CX. Mine failed as well. I could retrieve almost all groceries in the boot through the holes in the wall behind the rear seat, but the holes were too small and my arms too short to open the lock this way. Instead of drilling I found out that you can remove the rear windscreen trim with a few screws and then screw off the whole rear bootlid at the hinges.

  4. Hi Andrew. I remember well the days of key rings full of keys, door, ignition, boot, petrol cap, glove box if it was an upmarket car and if you were unlucky to have had a break in, another key for the passenger door. WASO is a name from my past. I served my time as an apprentice auto electrician in the mid 70’s and we used to fit WASO alarms and immobilisers. The first ones had a key and much later on became key-less. They were leaders in the field at the time and all our local dealerships would specify them above other makes. Happy days. 🤣

  5. Hi Andrew. To be honest the value of the early cars I owned were so low that I didn’t worry much about locks and keys. In fact I was more worried about them falling to bits and indeed my Singer Chamois Sport – my first car – did exactly that outside Morden Underground station when we going on holiday to the New Forest. I learned quickly about AA Relay and what it really meant..
    Anyway I digress. A very interesting article which highlights the value of a reliable supply chain and the downside of car manufacture in UK in the ’60’s and 70’s. A very sad time indeed.

  6. I remember back to the dark days when my mum had a Morris Marina, a sort of burnt orange colour. It was a dreadful, hateful thing, the only good thing being it got written off when a Humber Snipe ran into the back of it and bent the chassis.

    Anyway, I gone to the local shopping mall. On my return, I hopped into the car, started it and began to reverse. Something was odd, the steering felt a bit funny, but when I turned my head over my shoulder I saw stuff on the back seat that my mum didn’t have. Looking around a bit more, I realised the steering wheel cover was not my mum’s either…. The reason things weren’t as they should be was that I wasn’t in the correct car. I parked it, locked it, then walked across to where I had actually parked my mum’s car.

    The Land Rover case highlights one of the perils of seeking lowest item purchase price without considering the overall bigger picture. How much extra did all the suppler changes cost over time?

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