Edward Bulter and the Petrol Cycle

9 Jul

Petrol Cycle_6298           I discovered the Petrol-Cycle on the front page of the February 14, 1891 edition of the Scientific American. Invented by Edward Butler of Greenwich, England, this three-wheel fore-car had an elegant 650cc twin-cylinder, four-stroke, water-cooled engine with electric spark ignition. Years ahead of DeDion and Boulton, the Petrol-Cycle made Gottleib Diamler’s “Reitwagen” look like something from the Medieval Period. Regardless, most reference books about the history of motorcycles don’t even mention it.




Butler designed his “Velocycle” while working for an engineering company and filed for a provisional patent in 1884 under the title “A petroleum motor tricycle or small automobile carriage since it is not provided with auxiliary pedalling [sic] gear and was fitted with a comfortable seat and footboard.” That year he exhibited drawings of the vehicle at Stanley Cycle Show in London and in 1885 at the Inventions Exhibition, but neither produced financial backing. Unknown to the English inventor, in Germany Karl Benz was developing his own gasoline-powered internal combustion engine, as was Gottlieb Daimler and Wilhelm Maybach.

Butler's Petrol Cycle patent drawing

In 1887 he filed for a limited patent and began actual work on the Velocycle, now renamed “Petrol-Cycle” (this is the first known use of the word “petrol”) in the machine shop of F.B. Shuttleworth—an engineer, designer of torpedo boats, and boiler builder—and it was fabricated by the Merryweather Fire Engine Company in Greenwich. The Petro-cycle originally had a two-stroke engine with a magneto ignition when it was test ridden in 1888 at the Invicta Works in East London. Between 1888 and 1890, Butler converted the engine to four-stroke, replaced the magneto ignition with a battery and coil, and invented a spray carburetor he called the “Inspirator.” (Wilhelm Maybach wouldn’t invent his spray carburetor until 1893.)    Butler Petrol Cycle carb 1


The Petrol-Cycle was driven by a 5/8 hp four-stroke engine that could attain a speed of 10 mph, had Ackermann steering, prototype chain-activated rotary sleeve valves, and a float-fed carburetor. The liquid-cooled engine had a water reservoir that doubled as a rear fender (an idea adopted by Hilderbrand & Wolfmuller in 1894) and the engine was started using compressed air.


In this machine one gallon of petroleum or benzolene is designed to furnish sufficient power to accomplish a run of forty miles, at a speed of from three to ten miles per hour. At each side is a motor cylinder whose pistons operate in the four-stroke cycle . . . The pistons operate a crank shaft carried by the rear or driving wheel bearings, the hub of this wheel at one side inclosing a specially devised epicyclic [sic] gear by which the motion of he shaft is communicated to the driving wheel axle in the ratio of six to on. The shaft also carries a flywheel, mounted to be as close as possible to the spokes of the driving wheel. The motor cylinders are each controlled by a balanced rotating valve, and both cylinders are supplied with explosive mixture by drawing air through an inspirator situated over an oil reservoir contain a supply of benzolene, or a similar petroleum product. A valve regulates the oil feed, and the mixture of air and oil spray formed in the atomizer is volatilized before distribution to the cylinders. The compressed charges are alternately ignited by an induced current of electricity passing across terminals fixed in the cylinder covers, the current being generated by a small single-fluid battery under the seat. Stopping and starting is effected by raising and lowering the driving wheel from the ground by a foot lever, the weight of this portion of the machine being then thrown upon small caster wheels. . . . the crank shaft is set in motion by a handle before the driver mounts to his seat. The speed of the motor is regulated by a throttle valve lever, shown at one side, and over-heating is prevented by water circulating through a radiating tank over the driving wheel. The tank is of 3½ gallons capacity, but with a very large proportionate surface. Steering is effected by a pair of rocking handles actuating the front wheels, which move on separate pivots, and the brake is applied to both of these wheels by a foot lever. The diameter of the wheels is 32 inches, and the whole of the framing and the engine rods are made of oval steel tubing.”

Being ahead of your time isn’t always a good thing. The problem with Bulter’s invention wasn’t mechanical, but political. The English “Red Flag Act” (Locomotives On Highways Act) of 1865 limited all self-propelled vehicles to a speed limit of 2 mph in towns and 4 mph in rural areas. In addition, it required three people to attend to the vehicle, one of which had to walk in advance of the vehicle waving a red flag to warn people of its approach. In the 1890 issue of The English Mechanic, he wrote, “The authorities do not countenance its use on the roads, and I have abandoned in consequence any further development of it.”

Butler's Petrol Cycle photo

He sold his patents to Harry Lawson. Upon the repeal of the Red Flag Act in 1896, Butler and his wife took at least one last ride in the Petrol-Cycle on the roads of Erith—his diaries allege reaching a speed of 12 mph— before selling it as 163 pounds of scrap metal. (The weight of the machine was 280 pounds so it seems plausible that the “very compact motor” was salvaged.)


Henry John “Harry” Lawson was a bicycle designer of note who clearly saw the future of the internal combustion engine. He acquired exclusive English rights to manufacture the De Dion-Bouton and Bollée vehicles and, in 1896 after acquiring English patent rights from Gottlieb Diamler, formed the Diamler Motor Company Ltd. and the British Motor Syndicate. Ironically, it was Lawson’s successful lobbying that resulted in the repeal of the Red Flag Act in November of 1896, the major obstacle Butler faced in obtaining financial backing to manufacture his vehicle.


Despite the failure of this venture, Edward Butler didn’t immediately fade into obscurity— he published papers on internal combustion engines and carburetion until at least 1920—yet, his place in automotive history has been eclipsed by that of Diamler, Benz, Maybach, De Dion-Boulton, Duyrea, and a host of others. It’s unknown if any aspects of his inventions were incorporated into later ventures such as Diamler cars, but there is one thing he created that has endured to the present day: the word “petrol.”

Petrol Cycle_6297

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