Everybody Hates Lucas

February 14, 2022

If you’ve been around the car hobby, you’ve undoubtedly heard wisecracks like these: “The Lucas motto: Get home before dark.” Or this one: “Lucas vacuum cleaners—the only Lucas product that doesn’t suck.” (Want more? Get your fill here.)

No other part supplier is maligned as much as Lucas Electrical. I got to wondering, can Lucas be that bad, or if they're just an easy target, and perpetuating how bad they are has risen to urban legend status? 

On the 150th anniversary of Lucas’s founding, it has undoubtedly been one of the most successful automotive brands. Let’s see how the company got started, and dig into whether Lucas lives down to its reputation.

Birmingham Beginnings

The Lucas story goes back to Birmingham, England, a city that was dubbed the “first manufacturing town in the world.” Born in 1834, Joseph Lucas started out working as a silversmith. He had a natural business acumen, and set out on his own in 1860 making ordinary items like buckets and shovels. The company as we now know it began in 1872 when Lucas got into lighting, first by selling the oil to fuel them, and then expanding into building the lamps themselves.

John Lucas

The breakthrough that built the Lucas empire came when the company created the first bicycle lamp in 1878 (later earning a patent in 1880), which lit the way for high-wheeled penny-farthings. Joseph Lucas & Son as it was first known, grew quickly due to the popularity of bicycling. By 1897, it was a public company dabbling in the nascent auto parts market.

Joseph died in 1902 of typhoid from drinking contaminated water while on vacation in Italy. (He was a teetotaler and refused wine.) His son Harry was thrust into Lucas’ leadership. The firm grew in the early 1900s by making oil, acetylene, and electric lamps, and then expanded into magnetos, starters, and dynamos. 

As the British automotive sector grew, so did Lucas, acquiring several other manufacturers. By the 1920s, nearly every British vehicle produced utilized Lucas parts. The company was the country’s largest manufacturer of accessories and had a virtual monopoly on automotive electrical equipment. In subsequent decades, Lucas added many products to their line including: fuel injection pumps in partnership with Bosch, multiple designs licensed from Delco, and shock absorbers, clutches, and brakes resulting from their purchase of both Bendix UK and Girling.

Vintage Lucas advertisement from 1950s.

The company relied on aggressive acquisition and defense of its patents. The downside was that Lucas did not rely on research and development. In the 1950s, the British automotive industry was stalling out and a lack of capital investment resulted in lower quality. Yet the company grew through the 60s and 70s, employing tens of thousands, and ranking as the 54th largest company in Britain in the 1970s. 

The empire started to crumble in the 80s and 90s as growth stalled out. In 1996, Lucas was acquired by Varity, and became LucasVarity with a combined 55,000 employees. It did not go well. Only three years later, the company was acquired by TRW and was slowly broken into pieces and sold off. 

The Lucas brand is now owned by the German automotive supplier ZF Group. Lucas auto parts today are now made in state-of-the-art plants under license. Items manufactured today are of top quality and sold globally.  

The Prince of Darkness

The nickname most often associated with Lucas is “the Prince of Darkness.” So let’s just jump to the punchline: The hype is real and early Lucas components actually do suck. 

The press has often cited them as the best reason to not buy a British car. It’s worth digging into why this is the case because Lucas once had it all and then squandered it. Here are the five main reasons:

Good Designs, Poor Quality. It wasn’t that the parts had a flawed design -- many of them were identical to General Motors parts. It’s that they were of very low quality. One account of this was that Rolls-Royce would buy 1,000 pieces from Lucas, test them extensively, and then select the best 10 and return the rest (which were then resold). 

Their Innovation Was Cheap. Lucas mass-produced parts and rather than make them good, they focused on making them inexpensive. A 7-cent part was better than a 10-cent one, so they chose the cheapest components and had bad connectors, bad bearings, and bad materials. If there was an inferior option, Lucas opted for it.

For example, Lucas relied on a type of electrical connector called a bullet connector. It was somewhat antiquated but could be reliable. However, they used male-female-male connectors in a brass tube which provided a somewhat convoluted mechanical connection. This was housed inside a plastic sheath that would degrade, crack, and eventually lose contact. No contact, no electricity. This is one of many examples. Lucas did not build to last, or even work, but rather to keep the unit costs as low as possible. 

Monopoly’s Don’t Invest in R&D. The strategy wasn’t driven by competition, because they saw to it that they didn’t have any. There was no reason to build a better mousetrap when no one had a choice but to use the mousetrap you gave them. Lucas had no interest in auto racing, which is shown to sharpen a company’s product. They never involved themselves in such things. 

Positive Ground. Many British cars used positive ground, rather than negative ground which is standard today. Positive ground runs current through the frame, which was believed to fend off corrosion, an important consideration in soggy Britain. Positive ground caused parts to corrode due to the cathodic effect, and would tend to have faulty ground connections. 

What Do We Do with Lucas?

While a successful company, their lack of commitment to quality has doomed many a British car owner to chase electrical gremlins and chronic unreliability. Austin-Healeys, Jaguars, Land Rovers, and other British marques have suffered lower valuations, due in part to their use of Lucas components.

All is not lost, as your English car can be as reliable as any other vehicle on the road. The lack of longevity and reliability of the period parts means they need to go. Generally, they can be switched out for another manufacturer, but using modern Lucas replacement items is a good choice as it’s not your father’s Lucas.

It’s not just the components that need to go, it’s the wiring itself. Getting a replacement wiring harness will banish those gremlins to a faraway place. In a collector car, originality is valued, but when it comes to these parts, prioritize reliability first. Being able to trust a car cannot be overvalued! 

Ultimately, Lucas was always a manufacturer at heart, and was not caught up in the excitement of the automobile. Instead, they scooped up new lines of business and squashed their competitors in order to maintain dominance. 

It was a strategy that turned them into an incredibly successful worldwide conglomerate, but at the cost of the owners of those cars that had to endure breakdowns and niggly electrical failures. I wonder if not for the reliance on Lucas, if the British car industry could have had a more competitive product and would still be thriving today. 

Got anything to add or see something I got wrong? Let me know by emailing me at chris@collectorpartexchange.com.

References

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