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.
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.
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