This is a unique story in the annals of the British car. It is a tale of an entrepreneur and an adventurer, who stood up in the face of adversity, in an attempt to fulfil their dream.

Varley-Woods cars were the product of Ernest Vernon Varley Grossmith and Robert Woods, two entrepreneurs who seem to have had more enthusiasm than business ability. Varley was a member of the Grossmith family, many of whose members were associated with both perfumery and the arts, particularly as singers in light opera. Two of them, George and Weedon Grossmith also found fame as the authors of "Diary of a Nobody", a satire on the life of the aspirational lower middle classes, which still has great appeal today. Around 1918 Varley dropped the surname Grossmith because of the anti-German feeling at the time, and became Ernest Vernon Varley.

He had a somewhat eccentric business career, selling Government surplus goods, and being involved with the manufacture of tinned soup and mouth organs. He somehow got into a business partnership with Jack Storey, works manager of the Storey Machine Tool Company of New Cross, London. He also owned Park garage in Clapham, near to where Varley had his business. The Storey Machine Tool Company was run by Jack Storey’s brother Will, who also had a factory in Tonbridge, Kent. Varley and Storey planned to produce a car, to be called the Winchester, but nothing came of it.

Around 1919 the Storey Machine Tool Company began to produce the Storey car, but Jack left the company after falling out with his brother. The company went into liquidation in 1920 and a receiver was appointed. Jack quickly hired a fleet of lorries and stole a large number of components before the receiver had chance to sell them. He took them to his garage where he assembled a number of Storey cars.

In 1918 Ernest Vernon Varley, and two partners, C. and D. Graham founded the High Speed Tool Company. They acquired an empty laundry in Shaftesbury Road, Acton, and a nearby wooden workshop in Hanbury Road. They began with a capital of £5,000, and obtained a £35,000 mortgage for the property from the London City and Midland Bank. This also provided working capital for the project. Unfortunately the business soon failed and was sold off in 1921 for £5,000.

One of the shareholders of the High Speed Tool Company was John Robert Woods, an adventurer and merchant who had been making a living trading up and down the rivers of the near east. In October 1918 Varley resigned from the High Speed Tool Company, and in July 1919 joined forces with Woods to form H. S. Motors (High Speed Motors) to produce the Varley-Woods car.

Captain Thomas Henry Bolam, a dental surgeon, provided extra capital for the venture, in exchange for 999 one pound shares, and acquired the premises and machinery of the High Speed Tool Company, in Shaftesbury Road, Acton.

Courtesy of Tony White.

The early cars built at Acton possibly used some components from the Storey car, but the company soon got into difficulties with unfulfilled orders and rising debt. As a result Varley and Woods decided to move to Wolverhampton, near to the Turner Manufacturing Company, which made chassis for the Varley-Woods cars.

Things rapidly went from bad to worse when the unpaid creditors took the company to court, and called-in the bailiffs. The bailiffs arrived at the factory, noted what was of value, and padlocked the premises, stating that if the bills were not paid within seven days, they would return and take everything away to be sold-off.

Varley and Woods were not people to hang around. They planned a ‘moonlight flit’ before the bailiffs could return. They arrived at the back of the premises with a lorry, and knocked a hole in the wall that was big enough for the lorry to drive through. They removed every item of value, and prised the machine tools from their concrete mountings with a pick axe. It’s not difficult to imagine the anger when the bailiffs returned to find everything gone.

The company also had a London showroom in Warwick Street, off Regent Street, which they continued to use, making no attempt to change the name of the car, or disguise it in any way. This is incredible considering that they had a court order against them, and even more incredible because it seems that when the bailiffs had come and gone empty-handed, Varley and Woods continued to use the Acton premises as a service department.

A Varley-Woods 14.3 hp. tourer.

They acquired new premises at 79 Lichfield Street, Wolverhampton, next to what was the Sir Tatton Sykes pub on the corner of Fryer Street. The premises was possibly ideal because it had previously been a car and cycle showroom, with repair facilities at the back, and a rear entrance into Short Street.

As already mentioned, Turners supplied the chassis, and Dorman of Stafford supplied the KNO 11.9 hp., 1,794 c.c. engines, which had an aluminium block. The transmission was via a Varley-Woods gearbox, and an inverted cone clutch. The design of the front end was based on a standard Rolls Royce, with a polished aluminium bonnet, and an almost identical radiator. The car was equipped with Sankey Artillery wheels, and the bodies were typical for the time.

The cars were launched at the 1919 Motor Show at Olympia. There were three models, a 2-seater, priced at £540, a 4-seater tourer, priced at £660, and a coupé, priced at £760. The cars were not a success, and the company’s financial problems increased. As time went by, it seems that more and more of the work on the cars was carried out by Turners in Lever Street.

For the 1920 Motor Show, the cars were displayed with a larger Tylor 14.3 hp. engine, possibly to improve performance, or to save costs, or even because their credit had run out with Dorman. The new models were displayed at White City, but at far higher prices than before. The 2-seater was now priced at £695, the tourer, £725, and a limousine at the incredible price of £1,200.

As the earlier and cheaper cars didn’t sell, it should have come as no surprise to find that the new and more expensive models didn’t sell either. The company’s debts spiralled out of control, and the Lichfield Street landlord, and Turner’s themselves presented a petition for the winding up of the Varley-Woods company. A receiver was appointed in October 1920. It seems possible that Turners had been building the cars in their entirety for some time. They were still trying to sell remaining models in 1921.

Varley and Woods left Wolverhampton. Ernest Vernon Varley moved to a cottage in Cornwall where he undertook his last venture in the motor business. He reconditioned small engines and fitted them to ‘stop me and buy one’ ice cream tricycles. John Robert Woods returned to his previous life as an adventurer, trading up and down the rivers near to Lake Nyasa, where one day he was attacked and eaten by a lion.

In reality their venture into car making was probably doomed from the start because of continuous cash flow problems. When cars were ordered, they were often never delivered, possibly because the business had run out of credit with some of the component suppliers.

At least one Varley-Woods car has survived. It resides in Shropshire, and is a typical product of the early 1920s, no better or worse than many others.

Thanks to Brian Rollings and the late Jim Boulton for some of the information on this page, and Tony White for the image.  Information also comes from the Complete Encyclopedia of Motor Cars, G. N. Georgano (ed), 1985 edition.

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