THE BROTHERS JOHN AND RAYMOND DENNIS began building bicycles in 1895, using the branches of an old pear tree behind their shop in Guildford, Surrey, as an assembly line.
They must have been well made, those Speed King bicycles, for the mighty Rover company took out a licence to copy some of the design features on their own products.
Speed-King Light Doctors' Cars
In 1898, they fitted a De Dion engine into a tricycle, and were soon marketing similar machines, as well as a convertible quadricycle, but their first venture into motor cars proper was made late in 1899, when they showed two Speed-King Light Doctors' Cars at the National Cycle Show which was held at the Crystal Palace in London.
Priced at £135, the cars were of the petrol/oil type, and intended especially for doctors, surveyors, etc, for hard daily work on country roads. Apart from their 3½ hp De Dion motor, which was air-cooled and mounted at the rear, the cars were built by the brothers; three-speed gearing was fitted, giving speeds of 4, 10 and 20 mph - on the hill-climbing gear, even the steepest of hills could be easily mounted with two persons aboard.
However Unique Cars and Parts cannot find any evidence that the Light Doctors' Car ever made it into production as, at the next year's National Show, only motor-tricycles and quadricycles (plus the Speed-King Light Pony Carriage, the outcome of a long period of personal knowledge of Shetland ponies) were on show.
The tricycles were, it was claimed, capable of covering the extraordinary distance of 30 miles in the hour, and could be relied on for ten years. By 1901, the tricycles could be fitted with the 3½ hp De Dion engine to give a 40 mph top speed (over three times the British legal speed limit) but, alongside them, the company was now building two light cars of up-to-the-minute specification, an 8 hp single, fitted with a special regulator which reduced noise to a minimum when standing still, and a 12 hp twin.
The 8 hp used a De Dion power unit; the 12 seems to have had an Aster engine. Tubular frames and shaft drive were features common to both cars, which were fitted with three-speed gearboxes. At the 1903 Motor Show, held at the Crystal Palace, Dennis showed another new Aster-engined model, the 16/20 hp four-cylinder which cost 500 guineas in chassis form.
There were now two 12 hp models, the 12/14 hp Aster and the 12 hp De Dion; the De Dion version was available as a hansom cab, and this Dennis model was therefore one of the very first cars to be built as a taxi. Around this time, the company produced its sole venture into the sports-car field, a lone 40 hp Simms-engined Gordon Bennett-type racer, and the old tricycles and quadricycles, which had outlived nearly all their contemporaries, were pensioned off.
The Dennis Worm-Drive Back-Axle
In 1904, Dennis introduced what was to be their hallmark - a worm-drive back-axle, fitted in the interests of silent running. The 1905 Tourist Trophy race saw two virtually standard r a hp tourers finishing in 16th and r Sth places, while in March 1906 a 20 hp Roi des Beiges phaeton took part in an Automobile Club-observed run which covered 4000 miles; its performance earned it the Dewar Trophy for 1907, and replicas of the car were offered for sale to the public.
The Dennis Company was now moving into higher price brackets and in 1906 White & Poppe engines of 30/35 and 24/30 hp were fitted for the first time; this make of power unit was soon standardised. A two-model policy was pursued in 1908 with 20 hp and 35/40 hp fours, then in 1909 four new models- 18, 24, 28 and 40hp-replaced them, only to be supplanted themselves the following year by three new cars.
Only the 40 hp remained in production; the new models were the larger 18 and 24 hp cars and a monstrous 60 hp six-cylinder. All these models were swept away at the end of 1911, except for the 20 (the old 18hp renamed) and the 24. These two models, augmented by a 1913 15.9 hp, remained in production until 1914, and the outbreak of World War 1. Dennis had already established a thriving commercial-vehicle business, especially noted for its fire engines, and these were so popular that private cars were not reintroduced after the Armistice.