The message engraved on a plaque screwed to the dashboard of this Wolseley 25 Drophead Coupé says as much about post-war societal changes as it does the historical importance of this car: ‘Presented to the Rt Hon Lord Nuffield as a token of gratitude and admiration by the Workpeople and Staff of Wolseley Motors Ltd. With every good wish. X’mas 1937.’
Gushing and cap-doffing it may sound by today’s standards, but more than 80 years ago, the esteem in which Wolseley’s chief was held really did inspire his employees to fund and present him with this very car.
It was no ordinary 25, either. When Wolseley workers handed their chairman the car’s keys on 23 December of that year, the 25 wasn’t even catalogued in the company’s brochures; Lord Nuffield was in effect gifted a one-off.
Whether it was, in reality, a working prototype for the future 25 Drophead Coupé model line, no one is quite sure.
Either way, the Wolseley 25 dhc did reach limited production four months later, in spring 1938 – although perhaps not built to the same exacting standards as the highly original example we’re driving today.
So why such magnanimity among Wolseley’s employees towards their boss?
According to Wolseley’s MD in the late ’30s, Miles Thomas, Nuffield’s workforce “worshipped the ground he walked on”.
In 1927, the then Sir William Morris had purchased bankrupt Wolseley Motors from Sir Herbert Austin, one of its original founders from 1901, who had driven the brand downmarket post-WW1 in an effort to attract greater sales.
While Austin had ultimately failed in his goal, Morris saw the opportunity to restore Wolseley to its former glory, and in time it became a prestigious adjunct to his more mainstream companies.
In short, Wolseley’s Ward End factory in Birmingham had been saved, along with the jobs of its workers, and it remained secure through the hellish economic turmoil of the late 1920s and early ’30s.
Lord Nuffield, as he became in 1934, was also a philanthropist, and perhaps this country’s most generous by all accounts.
And while his charitable interests extended beyond the motor industry – the Nuffield Foundation, Nuffield Trust and Oxford University’s Nuffield College are all legacies that survive today – in 1936 he gifted one million Morris Motors Ltd ordinary shares, worth around £2million, to an employee fund.
Dividends from this were then paid to Morris Motors’ wage-earners as an annual bonus equal to two or three weeks’ earnings – not only a canny inducement to drive greater productivity, but also a rare and generous benefit to factory workers at the time.
So although Nuffield’s presence at his core businesses became increasingly remote through the 1930s, as a figurehead he was renowned and – as it enthused on the plaque – admired by those who toiled for him.
Which is why, in 1937, 4000 Wolseley staff members, representing the majority of those on Ward End’s payroll, each contributed up to two shillings (10p, or around 3% of weekly earnings) towards the cost of building what was at the time a completely bespoke, and beautifully appointed, four-seat convertible coupé.
Trying to unravel the origins of this first 25 dhc, however, is far from straightforward.
In its description of the first production 25 Drophead on 1 April 1938, The Autocar wrote: ‘Based on the latest type of Super Six chassis with its special construction of box-section frame, trussed with a tri-angulated aeroform member, the new coupé has a wheelbase of 8ft 8½in, which is 12in shorter than that used for the [Super Six] saloon models.’
This, though, was not completely accurate.
While the dimensions are correct, Nuffield’s car – and the subsequent run of 153 production cars made until the outbreak of WW2 – were built on an all-new chassis, developed during 1937 to underpin the incoming 14/16/18hp models, which reached fruition in autumn 1938.
A more likely scenario is that, since the new chassis was available – if not fully proven – it was used for Nuffield’s car and only intended as a one-off.
But once produced, and dressed with its glamorous and unusual (for the time) coupé-style bodywork with rear quarter-windows, Wolseley saw an opportunity to market it in limited numbers as the 25 Drophead Coupé.
Alas, today we can only speculate, since there are no company records to confirm the car’s true genesis.
What we do know is that the 25 dhc did use the Super Six saloon’s overhead-valve ‘six’, displacing 3485cc and producing a generous 108bhp.
The Super Six was no slouch, so it was no surprise that with a shorter chassis and fabric roof reducing its weight to just over 3800lb, the 25 dhc was a veritable hot rod.
When The Autocar took it on ‘a strenuous long-distance test... totalling almost exactly 1000 miles in three days’ in April 1938, the testers achieved a best top speed over a quarter-mile of 90mph, with the 0-60mph sprint taking just 19.1 secs; in other words, near-Derby Bentley levels of performance.
The magazine was also generally in praise of the car’s dynamics, although while great play was made by Wolseley about the chassis’ vertical and lateral strength, with substantial cross-bracing fore and aft, the testers reported that, in extreme conditions: ‘A certain amount of “leaning over” occurs on corners.’
Actually, if The Autocar had driven Nuffield’s 25 Drophead rather than an early production car, they might have reported differently.
As well as using a higher rear-axle ratio from early in its life (3.8:1 versus 4.2:1 for production cars), DON 642 employed a total of four (rather than two) rear dampers; driving it today suggests that body roll is relatively well-checked for a fairly heavy, body-on-frame pre-war vehicle.
The Nuffield car’s bespoke features extended beyond chassis and drivetrain.
Lift the bonnet on either side of the engine and chrome plating abounds: on the twin-downdraught SUs’ undertrays, on the large air filter, on the rocker and cam covers and even dressing the brackets securing various ancillaries.
The compact yet elegant steel body with its exquisite feature lines extending from A-post to rear wheelarch was identical to that of the production model.
Imposing from the front, sporting a pair of large P100 headlights and Mellotone trumpet horns from either side of the front grille, both the Nuffield and production 25 dhcs were equipped with the traditional backlit Wolseley radiator badge and a ‘Night-Pass’ system, which extinguished both headlights and illuminated the nearside foglight during overtaking.
The interior had much in common with the production car, too, with cream-coloured leather trim (often described as ‘pigskin’ but only made to look as such) and brown wool carpets.
The deep mahogany-and-macassar door cappings in Nuffield’s car, however, had special cross-banded inlays which were never replicated for production.
And in the boot can be found three finely crafted fitted suitcases, something from which only his Lordship would have benefited.
Nuffield, perhaps partly out of respect for being gifted the car, used it for at least 10 years, making regular visits to Morris Motors plants and clocking up around 5000 miles during that time.
At the age of 70 in 1947, it’s likely that he switched from the heavy-steering 25 to a lighter Wolseley Eight, leaving DON 642 mainly residing at the Cowley works.
After Lord Nuffield’s death in 1963, the car was donated to the now-defunct Midland Motor Museum in Measham, before transferring to the Montagu Motor Museum (now the National Motor Museum) in 1966.
For reasons unknown, the museum chose to sell the 25 – by then showing 30,000 miles – in 2003 at a Bonhams auction.
Well-known dealer and collector Ivan Dutton acquired the car and undertook a thorough recommissioning, including replacing its hood, rebuilding its gearbox and overhauling its brakes, before consigning the Wolseley to auction once again in 2006.
Clive Button – who has since painstakingly documented the history of DON 642 in his book, Wolseley 25HP Drophead Coupé: A Profile – became the 25’s next owner, before finally selling it to its current custodian, John Worth, in 2018.
Today, the car remains remarkably original, its 1937 paintwork, trim, carpets – pretty much everything, apart from the hood plus wear-and-tear components – showing only a light patina after 86 years.
Open the rear-hinged doors, slide on to the well-padded driver’s seat and you face a large, four-spoke steering wheel, with a six-dial instrument binnacle set into the centre of the 25’s mahogany dashboard.
The driving position is intimidating: you sit low, behind a high scuttle, with the ‘Flying W’ mascot a useful guide for placing the car as you move away.
The steering is heavy and low-geared from the off; you can see why the elderly Nuffield may have struggled to manoeuvre the large 25 through various factory gates.
Once under way it becomes manageable, although a lack of self-centring means you’re kept busy turning in and out of junctions.
With its relaxed gait, thanks to tall gearing through a notchy but precise four-speed floor shift, the 25 glides majestically down the road, all-round semi-elliptic suspension brushing off even the worst surface imperfections with some disdain.
The best part is that the 25 has no issue mixing it with moderns on fast-moving A-roads (John tells us he cruised to Wales from Hertfordshire with ease recently, sitting at 70mph most of the way there and back).
Not only is the Wolseley’s ‘six’ refined and quiet – helped by a double bulkhead between engine and passenger compartments – but its copious torque also means minimal gearchanging.
Above all, though, you can’t help but feel a sense of invincibility when you drive this car, and perhaps that’s precisely what its original owner would have experienced, secure in the knowledge that, in the eyes of his loyal workforce, he could do no wrong.
Images: Max Edleston
Thanks to: John Worth; Clive Button; Wolseley Register
The ultimate Christmas gift?
“On behalf of my mates at the Wolseley Works, I ask you to accept this car as a token of our admiration and esteem for you. We also wish you and Lady Nuffield a Happy Christmas and all the best for the New Year.”
According to works paper The Morris Mirror, this was the short speech given by Mr Broadbent from Wolseley’s bodyshop as he handed over DON 642’s keys to Lord Nuffield on 23 December 1937.
A group of six employees from different areas of the factory – including office cleaner Mrs Fox, representing the firm’s female workers – gathered for the photo opportunity, and it is believed that Lord Nuffield genuinely had no inkling of the gift he was about to receive.
While the estimated £400 that was raised by workers would have, in theory, covered the eventual £498 retail cost of a production 25 Drophead, less the dealer premium, the actual cost of building this one-off vehicle would likely have been many times that amount.
Wolseley 25 Drophead Coupé
- Sold/number built 1938-’39/153
- Construction pressed-steel chassis, ash body frame with steel panels
- Engine all-iron, ohv 3485cc ‘six’, twin downdraught SU carburettors
- Max power 108bhp @ 3600rpm
- Max torque n/a
- Transmission four-speed manual, RWD
- Suspension beam axles, semi-elliptic springs, hydraulic Luvax dampers f/r
- Steering steering box
- Brakes drums
- Length 14ft 4in (4369mm)
- Width 5ft 7in (1702mm)
- Height 5ft 6in (1676mm)
- Wheelbase 8ft 8½in (2654mm)
- Weight 3800lb (1720kg)
- 0-60mph 19.1 secs
- Top speed 90mph
- Mpg 16-19
- Price new £498
- Price now £50,000 (c£80,000 for the ex-Lord Nuffield car)*
*Price correct at date of original publication
Enjoy more of the world’s best classic car content every month when you subscribe to C&SC – get our latest deals here