Something about Cornwall’s long history of engineering achievements must have been both powerful and enduring, for the tradition continued into the new field of automotive ingenuity and innovation well into the twentieth century. 

This movement was probably spearheaded by Donald Healey, who emerged from an obscure childhood in Perranporth, beginning a remarkable story of motoring achievement in 1920. Yet fame, and for that matter fortune, seem to have studiously avoided the rest, most of whom made fleeting and only occasionally significant marks on British motoring civilisation, before disappearing into total obscurity. 

In this story, obscure and significant both seem appropriate words to describe the undoubted but largely unacknowledged talents of one Arthur Freeman-Sanders, born into a Bristol shipping merchant family in 1893. After schooling, he completed an engineering apprenticeship at the Bristol Tramways Company, before volunteering for the Army at the outbreak of the Great War in 1914, where he saw service with the Royal Artillery.

Though little is known of the extent of Freeman-Sanders technical education while an apprentice, in the years after the Great War he obtained an engine development post at the R A Lister company in Dursley, Gloucestershire, which grew steadily to become one of Britain’s biggest producers of stationary engines. Here he’s known to have worked first on petrol and later diesel engine design, at a time when practical, realistically-dimensioned smaller diesels were in their early development stages – though their potential was increasingly being recognised for both stationary and roadgoing use. 

In the mid 1920’s, much work was being directed into diesel combustion chamber design, in a bid to develop engines that would both start easily (or at all) from cold, and yet develop useful power and run reliably when warmed up. An early pioneer in the field was Harry Ralph Ricardo, who established Ricardo Consulting Engineers at Shoreham on Sea. Lister employed Ricardo as a consultant, and Arthur was seconded to the company to learn more about small diesels, since Lister were keen to offer such units in their stationary engine range. 

Freeman-Sanders learnt enough to deliver on Lister’s ambitions, developing the company’s first successful production diesel engine, which included both an innovative method for reliable cold-starting, and an efficient alternative to Ricardo’s “Comet” cylinder head design. His Lister credits include extensive work on the D and CS types, two of the company’s most popular and long-lived engines.

By 1934, disillusionment had set in at Listers, and he moved to Fowlers of Leeds, where he was instrumental in transforming the company from one of Britain’s best known steam engine manufacturers into an almost equally well known maker of heavy diesels, the design of which was evolving rapidly during the 1930’s. 

It’s not  clear quite why Freeman-Sanders’s next move was to west Cornwall, but sometime early in the second world war, the Freeman-Sanders engine Company was established in Penzance, focussed on development and improvement of combustion processes in smaller diesel engines.

Quite what kept the Cornish firm busy during wartime is also unclear,  but its known that for much of the time the company was running a pre-war saloon, possibly a Lagonda, with its original petrol engine replaced by an experimental 3089cc long-stroke undersquare diesel – as a development test bed.

After the war the company moved to Trembath Mills, outside Penzance, buying a newly redundant standby transatlantic cable station building, to which were added two new workshops. Here design and development work was undertaken on a 2092cc diesel engine for the Ferguson tractor being produced by the Standard Motor Company. These engines, which could also run on lamp oil, delivered a governed output of 28 horsepower at 2000rpm on diesel fuel, and production began in summer 1951. 

A slightly modified version of this unit became the first diesel approved for London Taxi use during 1952, and from 1954 further modifications saw the engine become Britain’s first passenger car diesel, offered on the Standard Vanguard range, where it  delivered 40bhp at 3050 rpm. Autocar’s road test revealed a 65mph maximum speed in overdrive top gear, and 0-60mph in 47.5 seconds, with average fuel consumption of 44mpg. The list price before purchase tax (42%) was £735, against £555 for the petrol version, with a heater, radio, leather trim and overdrive all extra cost options. Perhaps unsurprisingly, not many were sold.  

Though the Standard Motor Company contract was the most high profile work undertaken by Freeman-Sanders’s tiny firm, in the early 1950’s other famous names also beat a path to that remote Cornish mill for engine top-end design or development work. amongst them Rolls Royce, David Brown, and tractor company Marshalls of Gainsborough.  

There’s also an enduring mystery from this period. Its known that the Freeman Sanders team designed and engineered a cylinder head allowing a 500cc Norton motorcycle with suitably strengthened engine to run on diesel fuel, and a development machine was often seen and apparently heard on test around west Cornwall in the 1950’s with Arthur astride. 

Extensive efforts in recent years to discover whether it still exists have drawn a blank though one complete diesel engined Freeman Sanders development vehicle has survived: an Alvis TA21 saloon, in running order, in a private Cornish collection. 

In his 30 year engine design career, which began in 1923, Arthur Freeman-Sanders registered over 40 patents, though his company’s influence on diesel engine development ended with its winding up and the founder’s retirement in declining health in 1957; he died, aged 67, in 1960. 

Though an eternally low-profile name in engine development, overshadowed by his mentor Harry Ricardo, his Lister engines were exported very widely – and remained in production for over 50 years. Meanwhile, the work completed in those modest Cornish workshops in the 1940’s and 1950’s, and the many patents which resulted, formed cornerstones of early British diesel engine development – to which the engines used by many thousands of farmers in Massey Ferguson tractors bear testament. The Freeman-Sanders name may have vanished into obscurity, but his achievements have surely earned a place in motoring history.  

References and further reading

The story of the Lister CS stationary diesel designed by Freeman-Sanders is here:

The Ricardo story on Wikipedia:

Something about the John Fowler company, where Freeman-Sanders was instrumental in turning it from a steam engine maker into a diesel engine manufacturer:

More on the same story is here:


The Trevithick Society, Journal 8, 1981. Diesel Engine Development in Penzance, J. Hodge, p 54 The Trevithick Society, Cornwall . Publication enquiries phone 01621 892896


The Ferguson Tractor Story, by Stuart Gibbard,  Old Pond Publishing, ISBN  9781903366080 

Cornwall’s motor industry, by Peter Tutthill. Self Published (2007)


Stuart Scarry: 

Dave Moss
Dave Moss

Dave Moss has a lifetime connection with the world of motoring. His father was a time-served skilled engineer from an age when car repairs really meant repairs: he ran his own garage from the 1930’s to the 60’s, while Mum was the boss’s secretary at a big Austin distributor. Both worked their entire lives in the motor trade, so if motor oil’s not in Dave’s blood, its surely a very close thing.

Though qualified in Electronics, for Dave it seemed a natural step into restoring a succession of classic cars, culminating in a variety of Minis. Writing and broadcasting about these, and a widening range of motoring matters ancient and modern, gathered pace in the 1970’s and has taken over since. Topics nowadays range across the modern motoring mainstream to the offbeat and more arcane aspects of motoring history, and outlets embrace books, websites national and international magazines, newspapers, radio programmes, phone-ins and guest appearances. Spare time: hard graft on the garage floor attending to vehicles old and new. Latest projects: that 1968 Mini Cooper S has finally moved again after 30 years, and when the paint is finished, the 1960 Morris Mini 850 will also soon be ready for the road again…

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