The Salmons Light Car NP, 1922–1925

Chris Nelson
Jun 23, 2018 · 6 min read
The NP chassis in the Salmons London showroom, 1922. The sign reads “14/22 HP NP, 13.9 RAC rating. Chassis price £300. Front wheel brakes £20 extra“. Image courtesy of Neil Cairns, who posted the original to the I grew up in Newport Pagnell Facebook page (no copyright infringement intended).

Salmons & Sons, based in Newport Pagnell (UK), created the NP chassis as an ‘own brand’ light car option in a time when that segment of the market was gaining popularity. Small-engine lightweight cars were cheaper (while improvements in manufacturing was also driving the costs of vehicles down) and therefore cars were becoming more affordable to the masses. In 1919–1920, cars were a rarity, and the American stock market crash in 1920–1921 affected the UK economy too. But from 1922 the economy was recovering, and as more people than ever before were able to afford motorised carriages (motor-cars), Salmons thought that they could offer their own chassis — the NP — to the more discerning customer who wanted a “full Salmons” (chassis and coachwork) car. It would have been very unlikely that customers would have bought the NP chassis to have the coachwork done elsewhere, so this was a new opportunity for Salmons — who had previously either sold stock chassis from other companies and or had customers bring their own chassis for Salmons to make the coachwork. Technically the NP was therefore the NP chassis with Salmons coachwork, creating a ‘full’ NP. Thankfully buying a car is much, much simpler these days!

The two NP rolling chassis models advertised were:

  • The 12/16 chassis, using a 1,795cc four-cylinder Meadows petrol engine with a 69x120mm bore and stroke.
  • The 14/22 chassis, using a 2,120cc four-cylinder Meadows petrol engine, with a 75x120mm bore and stroke.

The model numbers separated by the “/” refers to the RAC rating used by the government to tax vehicles from 1910. The first number refers to the calculated RAC horsepower rating (11.9hp and 13.9hp respectively), whereas the number after refers to the actual power output. To keep car tax low, British engine designers continued to use small-bore long-stroke engines, meaning good torque but lower top speeds, but this unfortunately made British engines uncompetitive outside the UK. Improvements to engine power saw the two numbers increasingly diverge over the decades, with the RAC car tax system abandoned in 1947. You can find out more about the 1,795cc Meadows engine here.

The NP chassis was made in-house, but the drivetrain was assembled from modular external components (which also made the chassis price fluctuate depending on component costs). The NP was therefore marketed as the quality of Salmons coachworking combined with Meadows’ reputation for gearbox and engine manufacture. In researching this article I was surprised to find that although Meadows was an established Wolverhampton-based gearbox manufacturer, they only began selling petrol engines themselves in 1922, so the NP used some of their first. The gearbox used in both models had four forward and one reverse gear, and the chassis on its own weighed 15.25 cwt (775 kg). The brakes were rear-only, although front brakes could be added. This was an optional extra because at the time front brakes severely affected handling — something drivers did not want to happen when taking a corner at speed. Brake technology and handling would improve considerably over the years, but the legacy of the early, dangerous front brakes (although a lack of safety devices and formal training in driving safely was also to blame) lasted many decades.

Fellow history geeks may be looking at the engine capacity and thinking “But light cars in the early part of the 20th century generally used engines under 1,500cc”. Salmons coachwork was high-quality, but also heavy, so more powerful engines were needed to move the car’s weight. This means that, although the NP chassis was manufactured by SLC, it was not in fact a ‘light car’ itself. An interesting contradiction. If anyone knows of a good explanation, please drop a comment below.

In 1922, the chassis was advertised for £300 (about £12,000 as of 2018).

By 1923 the chassis price had risen to £395 (£16,700), due to inflation and the price depending on the cost of those external parts mentioned earlier.

An open two-seater with dickey (what we now call the “boot”, although the term has persisted in other countries such as India) coachwork body on the 12/16 chassis cost £495 (2018: £21,000), or £520 (2018: £22,000) on the 14/22 chassis. As the ‘basic Salmons car’, this was not cheap given the relatively small market at the time, and thus not competitive at a time when customers were mostly cost-sensitive. But Salmons were not going to compromise on quality.

The costs for the other NP designs in 1923

  • The two-seater coupé NP was £575 (2018: £24,300) and £600 (2018: £25,365)
  • The four-seater coupé NP was £650 (2018: £27,500) and £675 (2018: £28,500).
  • No prices for the saloon version could be found, but it was likely to be over £700.

To give a useful comparison, a Ford UK two-seater Aeroford car sold for around £288 in 1920; or £170 by 1925 (although unlike the NP it was a mass-produced vehicle). A ‘full’ NP was therefore extremely expensive.

The last motor show display of an NP was at Olympia in late 1923. It did not return for 1924, and the NP was withdrawn in 1925, around the same time that the new Tickford body with winding hood was introduced.

It is often quoted that 395 NPs were made, but Meadow’s sales ledger shows only 99 engines sold to the Salmons Light Car company, so it is possible that either far fewer were sold, or that non-Meadows engines were also used. However, this latter conclusion is unlikely as it would be at odds with the SLC advertising, which made much of Meadow’s parts in the drivetrain. The confusion may be that 99 full NPs (chassis and coachwork) were sold, and the rest were coachwork produced for future sales but eventually applied to different chassis. We may never know the truth.

It wasn’t until around 1935, when the UK economy had recovered from the effects of the Great Depression (the US stock market crash of 1929) that cars became a much more common sight, and the British middle class had money to buy ‘prestige’ cars. One might therefore say that the NP was the right idea in the right place (selling chassis and coachwork together) but sold at the wrong time. Thirty years later, David Brown had moved Aston Martin Lagonda to Newport Pagnell, and started selling high-speed high-quality cars to a much more receptive market.

Parts of NPs — such as radiator badges — occasionally come up for auction. SLC/Tickford coachwork from this period is relatively rare, and no known ‘full’ NPs exist. However, I would love to be proved wrong — if anyone reading this does have any leads, please let me know in the comments.

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Having been a Newportonian with an interest in classic cars and history for most of my life, I implore you to please support your local history societies, publishers, libraries, and town museums if you are lucky enough to have them.

I would also like to add the Newport Pagnell town museum is well worth visiting if you can, and that the Newport Pagnell Carnival is in a couple of weeks. If you enjoyed this post and happen to be passing, you might be interested in the classic and vintage car parade on Sunday 08 July. I understand that the Aston Martin Heritage Trust will have stands at the event too.

Chris Nelson

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Digital Assessment product development manager at The Open University, UK. Also an OU student. Occasionally writes about the history of transportation.