Frederick York Wolseley set up Wolseley Sheep Shearing Machine Co. in Sydney Australia in 1887. Two years later a branch was opened in Birmingham England. Herbert Austin, who improved the machines from Wolseley and also produced tools and bicycle parts in the English factory, became the managing director of the branch. From 1896 he also produced tricycles, which bore some resemblance to the Bollée tricycles. As early as 1899, four-wheeled Wolseley cars appeared, first as one-offs. In 19000 Herbert Austin successfully took part in the 1000-mile trial in England, riding one of these Wolseleys. This prompted the launch of serial production.
In 1901 the Wolseley Sheep Sharing Machine Co. Birmingham was taken over by the Vickers company and renamed Wolseley Tool & Machinery Co.Ltd.. Herbert Austin remained its technical director. From then on, production volume has increased continuously.
Herbert Austin was passionate about racing. In 1902 he competed at the Bexhill Speed Trials where he finished in fourth place.
Wolseley appeared at the Gordon Bennett Cup for the first time in 1902. The company built three cars: two cars had 4-cylinder, 6435 cc engines capable of 30 hp, while the third featured a 3-cylinder, 8340 cc, 45 hp engine. The cars were remarkable for the fact that the cylinders lay horizontally and the crankshaft ran athwart the frame. The cars were not ready on time and so there was hardly any time for testing!
The 45-hp racer reached Paris, but did not start; one of the two remaining cars made it only a few miles down the road to Belfort. The last one, driven by Graham White and Herbert Austin suffered a broken crankshaft on the way to the start! A new one had already been sent from England to Paris, which arrived barely on time. The new crankshaft was fitted at the edge of the road and the pair started 12 hours late and drove mostly in the dark to catch up. But the control stations had already been dismantled, so although they arrived at Belfort they were officially out of the race. Nevertheless, they drove on until the new crankshaft broke just beyond the Arlberg Pass in Landeck.
Undeterred, however, Austin continued to develop the idea of the horizontal engine with the larger and more powerful Wolseley cars that he built for the 1903 and 1904 Gordon Bennett races.
In 1903 the company did not make the cut, but a year they returned with much more powerful machines, including the 96-hp “Beetle”. Cycle and Automobile Trade Journal offered this description: “[The 72 hp] is a most formidable-looking machine… Unlike most other vehicles entered, it is fitted with a four-cylinder, horizontal motor. The motor is suspended in the frame, immediately below and in front of the dashboard, and is in such a position that the driver is able, if necessary, to make adjustments while travelling. Fuel is supplied to the motor by an equalizing carbureter of special design, one jet feeding the four cylinders. The flywheel is of extra large diameter, and the motor can be accelerated very rapidly. The radiator consists of a nest of glided tubes encircled by the water tank, while immediately behind it is the cooling fan, driven from the motor by gearing. The wheelbase of the Wolseley is 8 feet, 7 inches, while the track is 4 feet, 6 inches. The rear wheels, 6 inches in diameter are fitted with 5 inche tires, while those in front, 34 inches in diameter, have 3 1/2 inch tires…
The body takes the form of a very low, boat-shaped hood, extending from front to back. Ventilating slits are provided in the bonnet to assist in cooling the motor. The gasoline and oil supplies are so placed that the driver has them constantly under view…
The Wolseley Company will also enter a 96 H.P. car. The wheel-base is 9 ft, the track 4 ft 7 in. The front wheels have 34 by 3 1/2 in tires and the rear tires are 36 by 5 ins. The four horizontal cylinders lie alongside one another, and the engine is placed in the usual position adopted by these makers, with its crank-shaft lying transversely across the car. The end of the crankshaft is carried by a ball-bearing, which is fixed to the frame in such a manner that it is unaffected by any springing of the rame, and this bearing steadies that end of the shaft outside the main clutch and the driving sprocket.. High tension ignition plugs of extra large size are fitted horizontally into the cylinder heads. One of the Wolseley automatic carburetors, having a single jet, is employed on all four cylinders, and the engine is capable of running at any speed up to about 1300 revs per min. A large circular radiator, similar to that on the 72 HP car froms the front of the bonnet and the pump is fixed to it, being driven from the motor by a telescopic shaft.
The car is so geared that it will travel at a speed of about 75 miles per hour on the top-gear when the motor is running at its normal speed, but, as already mentioned, the engine can be accelerated to 1300 revs per min”.
During the race Charles Jarrott drove the “Beetle”, while Sidney Girling was behind the wheel of the smaller, 72-hp model.
For the 1905 Gordon Bennett Cup the bigger “Beetle” featured a revised, 90hp, 4cyl. 11,896cc, horizontal engine and shaft-drive. The pointed nose was taken off, due to cooling problems. The two cars were driven by C.S. Rolls and Cecile Bianchi.