Classiccars magazine

In the February 2008 edition of Classiccars I had a featured article on the 1949 Invicta Black Prince. Copied below :-

Published in Classiccars Magazine


An Invicta Black Prince Wentworth Saloon from 1946.


Almost the price of a Bentley – Dearer than a Jag!


Words 2.129


The double doors opened with difficulty, scraping on the old concrete floor and pushing back the detritus of years. In the gloom within, surrounded by straw, animal feed bags and covered in dust was a big black saloon car. Going closer and brushing off the spiders, Rodney Bishop realised that he had never seen a car like this before – ever.

Had he walked away then he would now have been far better off financially but this big black lump intrigued him. There are many ways that people see and buy their first classic car but in the case of Rodney it was back in 1979 under the warm summer sun of Somerset. A friend had suggested that he come and look at a hotrod that he was building, he wasn’t really interested in hot rods. But when the friend mentioned that a rather strange and decrepit old car sat in another barn he just had to go and look. On a reckless impulse, a deal was struck and for £1.750, this strange black vehicle became his with all of the tea chests of bits that came with it.

Now with the lump safely ensconced in his garage it was time to start the detective work. What was this car? He quickly ruled it out as a kit car but what had he lumbered himself with? No computer to help him, he dug out his father’s old classic car books. The main clue was the word INVICTA on the rakishly slanted Rolls Royce style radiator grill. The big black lump, soon to be christened ‘The Sponge’ because of its ability to soak up funds turned out to be a 1946 Invicta Black Prince Wentworth saloon 6 with a Charlesworth body.

The original company had closed down in 1935 and after the war a group of investors decided that they would re-introduce the marque. One of the 1920’s Invicta designers, William Watson was invited to return and design a world beating car. It was to be pitched at the top end of the luxury car market. The company was prepared for a long and successful production run and the car was to be built at Virginia Water in Surrey under the name Invicta Car Development Co (London) Ltd.

This complicated pile was what Rodney had to bring back to life many bits were missing and he saw that it had been fitted with a Jaguar gearbox. He first contemplated the easy way out by buying a cheap ‘S’ type Jag and dropping the engine into the Invicta. But no, he was made of sterner stuff so he started to look for the correct parts and advertised in classic car magazines. As a result he got no parts but a letter from a man who told him that what he had was the prototype and show demonstrator - the only one with that body style. Further detective work was called for.

Watson had been behind the record breaking pre-war Invictas and in 1946 he set about designing a car for the future. ‘The Sponge’ was the result, a large classical saloon car, its tall chrome radiator grill emblazoned with the word Invicta and a sculpture of the Black Prince standing majestically as if to cut a swathe through the traffic with his sword. He wanted to create a car that was both sedate but sporty, curved glass windscreens had not yet been perfected so he put in a split windscreen. The rear end dropped away in an aerodynamic slope, the rear wheels covered by spats to add to the smooth look.

It was a very rare ‘Sponge’ indeed and Rodney realised that it was a bigger job than he could ever have anticipated.

In 1984 he moved house and his wife’s patience was evaporating, Invicta or wife? The choice had to be made and it was made amicably; soon after, Rodney had a new wife, who unlike the old one actually liked ‘The Sponge!’ The engine block, pistons, shell bearings are sent away for overhaul and new con rods are machined from scratch. New exhaust, tyres, gearbox re-build and to pile on the agony, another house move!

Its 1991, 12 years have passed and all the bits have been returned; he fits them and presses the starting button licking his lips in anticipation. Nothing, it’s as dead as ever Rodney decides to sell it and take up a cheaper hobby like travelling the world but instead he shuts the garage door, gives up, admits defeat and concentrates on his new daughter!

By 1994 something has to be done, the car sits in his garage so he has another go. The engine is taken out again and sent to the workshop. It’s soon back and he fits it, the water pump doesn’t work and no other car has a similar one – but the central heating pump on a canal boat will do the job, and it does. Some professional help follows and in January1996 the car is ready for its MOT, a minor fail is followed by a pass and he proudly holds the certificate.

Opening the ‘suicide’ driver’s door Rodney climbed into this large imposing motor car. Pulling the door shut and sinking into the brown leather seat he takes hold of the massive upright steering wheel with its chromed horn ring. In front of him he admires the varnished walnut dash with its assortment of gauges, lights and switches and the built-in original Smith’s Radiomobile valve radio. He looks around proudly at the cockpit of this now driveable car. As he presses the start button the 24 volt Dynamotor system directly coupled to the front end of the crankshaft engages. It instantly turns the 3 litre straight 6 DOHC Henry Meadows power plant from a dead lump of aluminium to a throbbing 120bhp engine ready to propel the 1 & 3/4 ton car forward. 

Looking down the long black bonnet at the figure of the Black Knight, Rodney savoured for a minute the old car smell of leather and – well – old car. A glance in the rear view mirror reveals the oval back window which seems to be set back even further than it is across the wide expanse of brown leather that is the rear seat. He eases the car forward and it quickly becomes apparent that Mr Watson has injected some of the magic inherent in his original 1920s Invicta creations. However, the 4 wheel independent suspension with its torsion bars front and rear does not really work and as Rodney points out later, it has the suspension of a farm cart! The engine, served by 3 SU carburettors, growls reassuringly as it effortlessly builds up speed. When new it had a Brockhouse Turbo Transmitter fluid drive. This was basically an auto box without any gears; it offered approx 15 to 1 to 1 to1 ratios in a continuous fashion. Reverse was obtained by a pawl engagement which made things go the other way in the box. Reverse was a major problem with the vehicle and 9 times out of 10 the new owner would find himself hard up against the garage wall unable to go backwards! In most of the remaining cars manual gear boxes have been fitted as replacements including Rodney’s in which a Jaguar one has been used.

There is a big heavy aluminium engine that weighs down the front somewhat and tends to drag the car into, as opposed to around corners! But it’s fun to drive and Rodney guides it tentatively around the streets of 1996 England soon getting used to it and actually getting to enjoy the experience immensely. The car has all round hydraulic brakes and four built in hydraulic jacks. When new, the car was fitted with mains operated radiator and sump heaters with a built in trickle charger but these items are no longer on the car.

It is now 12 years since Rodney’s first real drive in the car and I stand in his drive with the car between us, I ask him if he has enjoyed driving it.

“It’s quite a handful,” he replies, “heavy at low speeds and quite wayward at normal speeds but it easily keeps up with ordinary traffic. It’s most comfortable on the motorway at about 65mph, there’s a hand throttle that can be engaged, and then you can relax a bit. I’ve had it up to about 85 mph once but bottled out after a mile or so due to the intense concentration needed and the fear of something falling off!”

“There must be a lot of interest in such a rare car?”

“There certainly is, in fact an old chap approached me and asked if I would take him for a spin, he was a bit of an Invicta fan. As we slowed for traffic in the town, people stopped to stare, as they normally do and he wound down the window and shouted proudly ‘this is an Invicta you know?’

“What’s the ride like?”

“It can best be described as a little bit harsh and bouncy; the car handles very well when you get use to half a ton of engine in front of you. It handles better with four people on board and tends to get smoother the faster you go - up to a point that is!! Brakes are very smooth and powerful but as there is no servo they do require some serious pressure. I'm sure that the addition of some shock absorbers would be an improvement; they were a factory option although the publicity material deems them to be totally unnecessary due to advanced nature of the all independent suspension. I’ll fit some one day.

“How does it compare with its rivals, I believe that it was aimed at the Rolls Royce – Bentley market?”

“No way, this was nearly as expensive but that is where the comparison ends. I would think that this one is dearer than they are now though.” He replies smiling

“What about Jaguar?”

“The price of Invictas reached £4.000 when they went under, you could get a beautiful Jaguar XK120 for under £1.500, and even the Mark 5 was cheaper. I wouldn’t change this for any of them though.”

 ‘The Sponge’ has come into its own and the work and wait was worthwhile. His new wife Barbara is as enthusiastic as he is - in fact, for his birthday a few years ago she purchased the defunct company name Invicta Car Development (London) Ltd. So now Rodney actually owns the company who made his sponge like car and the plaque is on his garage wall.

Now that the car sits in the drive awaiting the next of its frequent outings Rodney can do some more detective work and research the Invicta Company. Over the four years of manufacture only 17 cars were produced, most being very attractive two door open tourers and 14 Invictas, mostly open tourers, are known to survive worldwide. The price and competition all acted against this unique new marque and with a price tag of £3.000 raising to £4,000, the price of 10 Ford Anglia’s and almost the price of a Mark VI Bentley - it was doomed. The bankrupt company was bought by Frazer Nash makers AFN Ltd and an offer was made to build a car jointly with Armstrong Siddeley but this went nowhere. The shareholders lost a lot of money and the glowing future was not to be.

As for the prototype, Rodney’s KPK 75 it was a demonstrator with the company from 1946 to 1950 when it was sold to Hoffman’s Garage in Halifax. Two years later it was registered by a gentleman in Essex who kept it for a year before it was passed on to KN Rudd (Engineers) Worthing Sussex. E.N Jackson at Blackheath in London became the next owners and eventually Charles Williams of Stogumber in Somerset.

“Would you do this again?” I ask Rodney as he stands proudly at the side of the car.

“It has been interesting,” he replies. “In fact I really have no regrets; I just wish that I had enough funds left for the final touches to the bodywork, it is original though.”

I leave Rodney and his Invicta as he and Barbara climb aboard for the weekly shopping trip. “Don’t see many of these on the road” he laughs from the window as the big engine roars into life. An understatement if ever there was one! But for the perseverance of this man at great expense and against many odds this unique piece of motoring history may have been lost forever.

The Invicta Car Club caters for all Invictas from 1925 to the present and the secretary Jo Moss can be contacted on 01590 645311.




The Invicta a roaring twenties supercar!


Words 200


In 1925 the automobile engineer Noel Campbell Macklin and wealthy businessman Oliver Lyle teamed up with the intention of building a car with Rolls Royce build quality and Bentley performance. With designer William Watson they produced the Invicta marque, twice winners of the RAC Dewar Trophy and true world beaters.

Noel Macklin’s sister in law Violet Cordery was a brave and skilled driver; she took Noel’s concept and really put the name Invicta on the map. With her sister Evelyn they broke four world records and 33 Italian records at Monza.During the period fledgling racing driver Donald Healey (who later developed Austin Healey cars) worked for Macklin. He won the 1930 Alpine trial and the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally in an Invicta, the first British car to win it. In the1931 Alpine rally Healy’s co-driver was Ian Fleming who later wrote the James Bond series.

The company ceased manufacturing in 1935, an attempt to resume was made in 1937 and then the 1946 Invictas with the Black Knight as the prototype. In 2000 a new company called The Invicta Car Company started to produce the Invicta S1. A bespoke sports car powered by a 4.6 litre Ford Mustang engine.


Copyright Paul Hurley

January 2008