Britain’s oldest vehicle manufacturer was established in Guildford. In the second in a series, Andy Goundry continues the story.

The end of the Great War brought a sudden and dramatic change to the fortunes of the Dennis company. From working almost flat-out producing trucks for the War Department, the order book vanished almost overnight as the vast fleet of vehicles which Dennis had toiled so hard to produce began to find their way back to Britain, to be sold off for civilian use, thereby reducing dramatically the opportunities for new vehicle sales.

This left Dennis with an almost insurmountable problem: they had one of the biggest truck-making factories in Europe, capable of building around 2,500 trucks per year, and a very limited market. Lesser companies might have thrown in the towel there and then, however the Dennis brothers picked themselves up and set out to develop both new markets and new models.

The latter was an inspired move, for if WWI had done nothing else, it had firmly established the superiority of trucks rather than horses to move goods. Whilst the market was saturated with large numbers of ex-military trucks, they were limited to a 3 tonne payload. Dennis realised that higher capacity models would generate sales, and so introduced both 4 and 5 tonne versions of the original army truck. These were successful in recovering some of the lost sales; then, as now, the concept of one man, or truck, being able to do more than his competitors, was attractive to customers.

Raymond Dennis also set out on a marathon 60,000 mile world tour to promote Dennis products, highlighting the reliability of the military vehicles, to say nothing of the fire engines whose performance was becoming legendary. Indeed, in 1917 a Dennis fire engine had pumped water continuously for 17 days to help combat a huge fire in Salonika (now Thessaloniki) in Greece.

In seeking new markets, Dennis astutely investigated opportunities to offer innovative products into markets where the Dennis brand was already well understood and respected. He also targeted markets which could make use of some of their existing technology, thus avoiding too much of a leap into the dark.

Two interesting new ventures sought to strengthen the Dennis relationship with local authorities, quickly becoming successful businesses in their own right. Firstly, drawing on their experience with fire pumps, they launched an innovative vacuum cesspool emptier which was quickly taken up by their target local authority market. This laid the foundations for the municipal vehicle market for which Dennis subsequently became a by-word.

The other new venture was into the manufacture of motor mowers, and specifically large machines which enabled the local authorities to keep their many hectares of parkland in trim. Again, Dennis were quick to promote the efficiency benefits of their product, proudly proclaiming that one man with a Dennis mower could cut in a day as much as two men and a horse could cut in two days. Dennis mowers went on to carve out a successful business for over 50 years, indeed they are still manufactured, although no longer part of the original Dennis empire, having been sold off in 1976.

This superbly restored Dennis Ace fuel tanker is locally owned by Joe Devanny, and can regularly be seen at the Goodwood Revival. Photo: J Devanny

This superbly restored Dennis Ace fuel tanker is locally owned by Joe Devanny, and can regularly be seen at the Goodwood Revival. Photo: J Devanny

The 3 tonne model which played a major part in the Great War but later returned to the UK in large numbers to flood the market. The fine example shown here was restored over a 10-year period by Tim & Steve Gosling. Photo: M Sutcliffe

The 3 tonne model which played a major part in the Great War but later returned to the UK in large numbers to flood the market. The fine example shown here was restored over a 10-year period by Tim & Steve Gosling. Photo: M Sutcliffe

Despite these brave efforts to regenerate the business, orders for Dennis trucks remained in the doldrums until the mid-1920’s, when the company launched a successful new 30cwt (1.5 tonne) payload truck, set apart from its competitors by the use of robust truck components compared to the lighter and shorter-lived car components used by others. This approach was, interestingly, mirrored by the company almost sixty years later when the Dennis Dart midibus took the bus market by storm.

The latter half of the 1920’s saw the Dennis market for buses and coaches grow significantly, with new models appearing regularly, championing the latest technology. The first bus to be equipped with pneumatic tyres, for example, was a Dennis, as was the first bus fitted with four-wheel brakes. Development of specific models aimed at carrying passengers rather than goods also meant that floor levels were lowered, meaning fewer steps for the passengers to climb.

1927 saw the introduction of another first for Dennis – their purpose designed double-decker. Although double deckers had been around for some time before this, in both horse-drawn and later motorised form, they were invariably based on a goods vehicle chassis. This meant they were comparatively tall, making a solid roof impractical. The Dennis H Type of 1927, in contrast, had a low frame, enabling a solid roof to be fitted, setting the scene for the widespread adoption of double deckers in years to come.

As the 1930’s dawned, a relentless introduction of new and enhanced models continued apace, all promoting the traditional Dennis virtues of quality, performance, and reliability. These benefits came at a price, making Dennis products amongst the more expensive in the market. By this time, however, the world was sliding headlong into the Great Depression, and in those times of austerity, the expensive Dennis products, however good, were finding fewer customers.

Once again, Dennis were forced to rethink their product strategy, and rapidly introduced the Lancet, a low-cost single deck bus, which sold for £595 against their previous single decker, which was massively more, at £1,095. Unsurprisingly, the Lancet became a great success, doing much to see the Dennis business through the gloomy days of the Depression, particularly with the truck-making arm of the business struggling due to the economy. Indeed, throughout the history of Dennis, the bus business proved to be surprisingly resistant to economic depression, and this was not the only occasion where it kept the company afloat.

Other noteworthy Dennis models of the 1930s included the Dart bus, of which one survives today in the hands of the company, and which can often be seen at rallies.

On the truck side, Dennis produced a rather unusual-looking, but very successful range called the Ace. Key to the Ace was that the front axle was set well back, giving excellent manoeuvrability, but meaning that the engine and radiator were positioned well forward like a snout. Small wonder that the Ace soon became unofficially named the ‘Flying Pig’.

In 1934, Dennis acquired land around the Woodbridge factory on which to build homes for their increasing number of workers. The resulting estate, Dennisville, has most of the roads named after senior Dennis people, notably Raymond Crescent & St John’s Road.

Overall, Dennis had coped well since WWI, rising well to the challenges of the lack of new vehicle orders, the years of recession and fending off the growing number of competitors such as Leyland and Bedford. Sadly, however, in May 1938 Sir Raymond Dennis passed away at the early age of 59, followed only three months later by his brother John, precipitating the company into major changes at the top. At the same time the gathering storm clouds of WWII were about to force Dennis into yet more major upheaval.

About the author: Andy Goundry spent his working career in vehicle design and development, with almost 20 years in senior engineering and management roles at Dennis. Since retirement he has continued a close involvement with vehicles, writing for specialist magazines and websites, as well as producing his own motoring website © Andy Goundry December 2014