New biography of Sir Harry Ricardo: “Engines and Enterprise – the Life and Work of Sir Harry Ricardo”

Industrial Lubrication and Tribology

ISSN: 0036-8792

Article publication date: 1 June 2000




Reynolds, J. (2000), "New biography of Sir Harry Ricardo: “Engines and Enterprise – the Life and Work of Sir Harry Ricardo”", Industrial Lubrication and Tribology, Vol. 52 No. 3, pp. 148-149.



Emerald Group Publishing Limited

Copyright © 2000, MCB UP Limited

The origins of Ricardo’s pre‐eminent place as Europe’s largest independent automotive powertrain and vehicle engineering research and development company comes dramatically alive in a new biography of Sir Harry Ricardo, the UK company’s founder. Sir Harry’s inventive genius laid the foundations for the modern company’s advances across a broad front in automotive engineering.

Sir Harry would be proud to know that the company to which he devoted 60 working years has served almost every vehicle manufacturer worldwide on engine projects and he would approve of its rapid progress into the wider realms of vehicle chassis engineering. The momentum of Ricardo’s innovative approach to engineering continues apace in the modern company, typified by its development of a new generation of direct injection gasoline and diesel engines, advanced transmission systems and alternative powertrain concepts such as hybrids and fuel cell powered vehicles. The company’s very latest research is expected to lead to the development of the world’s first fully integrated engine and transmission system.

In the new biography titled Engines & Enterprise – the Life and Work of Sir Harry Ricardo, the author, John Reynolds, has exhaustively researched the company’s archives, Sir Harry’s own engineering and biographical works and many other sources, to throw new light on a brilliant career which had an immense impact on the global development of the internal combustion engine.

The irony is that while Sir Harry’s achievements as an engineer, scientist and inventor gained universal recognition (and many honours) in the automobile and aircraft industries – and ultimately a knighthood – the general public is unaware of the contribution he made to the advancement of transport, as we know it today.

Sir Harry’s pioneering work in refining the combustion process was fundamental to the major advances in performance and reliability of engines in the automotive and aircraft industries since the earliest pioneering days. Although his life work focused upon the piston engine, he even assisted Frank Whittle in the development of his turbo‐jet by devising a solution to problems of fuel supply at varying altitudes.

As a consultant – “the high priest of the internal combustion engine” as he was once described – he played a decisive role behind the scenes for advancing the performance of the products of many famous‐name manufacturers.

He set up his Shoreham‐by‐Sea, Sussex operation in 1919, with the help of Shell, to research the phenomenon of “knock” or premature detonation and in the course of this work developed the concept of classifying fuels by their octane rating using “Toluene numbers” which led to the RON classification of octane rating.

During this time his income was underpinned by royalties from his latest, patented inventions – the slipper piston and turbulent (“swirl”) cylinder head. The latter was so widely adopted in the motor industry that side‐valve engines, for which it was designed, held sway in the industry for many years after.

In 1921 Ricardo designed the three‐litre, four cylinder 16‐valve double overhead camshaft Vauxhall racing engine designed for Grand Prix events such as the Isle of Man TT. It was exceptionally advanced for its time developing 129 hp at 4,500 rpm and giving the car a maximum speed of 115 mph.

In the late 1920s Ricardo also embarked upon the development of high‐speed, lightweight diesel engines. Further intensive research led to the development of the famous Comet combustion chamber system and he entered into a licensing agreement with Automobiles Citroen for the French market, which subsequently led to the historic Ricardo‐Citroen diesel engine project and, in turn, the world’s first diesel passenger car built for series production. Ricardo himself bought a left‐drive Citroen Family Fifteen diesel, which became the first‐ever diesel car on British roads.

The Comet‐type two‐litre small high‐speed diesel fitted to the Standard Motor Company’s commercial vehicles had been developed by Ricardo for the Massey‐Ferguson tractor. The Standard Vanguard car launched in 1949 fitted with this engine became the first British‐built diesel passenger car. Another user of the Comet cylinder head was the Rover Company, which employed it on its 2.5‐litre diesel engine, as fitted to the Land Rover.

These examples show how Sir Harry Ricardo’s work became so deeply interwoven into the development of the automotive industry, while his role as a consultant (and his modest, unassuming personality) meant that he remained in the shade of the big names in the motor industry. It is to be hoped that this fascinating book will help him to be recognised in the pantheon of “greats” such as Sir Henry Royce and Frederick Lanchester in the development of the internal combustion engine.

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