Petters Limited (known as JB Petter & Sons of Yeovil until 1910), were a maker of stationary petrol and diesel engines from 1896 onwards. In 1915 Petter founded Westland Aircraft Works (renamed "Westland Aircraft" in 1935). In 1986 Petters Limited merged with one-time rival R A Lister and Company to form Lister Petter.
James Bazeley Petter, an agricultural engineer and iron founder, had premises in the Borough, Yeovil. It was there that Ernest and Percival, his twin sons, designed and built a self-propelled oil engine in 1892. Three years later they designed the first internal combustion engined motor car to be made in the United Kingdom. The car, using a converted four-wheel horse-drawn phaeton and a 3 hp (2 kW) twin-cylinder horizontal oil engine, had a top speed of 12 miles per hour (19 km/h). The vehicle was constructed at the Park Road carriage works of Hill and Boll. It weighed 9 cwt (457 kg) including the 120 lb (55 kg) of the Petter engine with its flywheel and side bars.
A contemporary report said:
- The carriage is intended for two persons, with which a speed of ten miles an hour [16 km/h] is obtained on level road. It will mount the hills of the neighbourhood with two persons, but larger power would be used for four persons … The exhaust is, we are informed, quite invisible, and the engine almost noiseless'. The removable handle (indicated in the plan drawing) was used to start the engine 'in the first place, and an arrangement is made so that the handle, when put in position, automatically opens the exhaust valve which closes instantly when, a good impulse being given, the handle is withdrawn and the engine starts … Tube ignition is adopted, and a small heating lamp is used … The engine starts in ten minutes and runs, we are told, without attention.' The larger road wheels of the vehicle were 42 in (1.07 m.) in diameter.
The twins continued to develop vehicles, the twelfth of which they entered to a competition at Crystal Palace in 1897, without success.
Failing to achieve the commercial success that they hoped, they adapted the engines for agricultural and industrial use. In 1902 they produced the first agricultural tractor, powered by a 30-horsepower (22 kW) horizontal oil engine.
The first engines made by Petter were Petter Standard oil engines which were horizontal open crank engines made to very high standards.
With commercial production under way, the family launched a private company called J. B. Petter & Co. Ltd. in 1902.
Around 1903 cheap American imports, including the "Jack of all Trades" manufactured by the Fairbanks Morse Company, threatened the English stationary engine industry, and unlike most companies at the time Petter decided to produce a cheaper engine of their own to combat the threat. This engine was called the Petter Handyman which was sold around 20% lower in price than the 'Petter Standard' and was sold in batches of 50 or more.
The last two-stroke design was the "SS", introduced in 1938. It was available in two-cylinder to six-cylinder versions and delivered from 125 to 375 horsepower. The "SS" was described as a "superscavenge" engine and used the Kadenacy principle to charge the cylinders. In this engine, the exhaust gases leave the cylinder at a speed sufficient to create a partial vacuum, drawing air into the cylinder. This creates a supercharging effect, cools the valves and improves scavenging (hence the name). This inertial supercharging was supplemented by a blower. These engines ran at low temperatures, due to their patented oil-cooled piston, and spherical smallend bearing. This engine was used in British Rail 15107 and British Rail Class D3/14 number 15004.
Petter also manufactured the two-stroke M-type (petrol), the S-type stationary diesel, the A-type, and the A1-type, the only noticeable difference on the previous two being the position of the magneto: the A magneto jutted out, and the A1 magneto was tucked away underneath. The A range was air-cooled. Petter also produced another 'handyman, a 'cheap' version of the M-type. Petter went on to make a comprehensive range of air-cooled diesels, such as the PAZ1, AVA range, and the 3.5 hp AA1.
In 1912 the company went public and began engine production in a new factory named the Nautilus Works (after the fire grates that had made James Petter's fortune) in Reckleford. Its workforce of 500 men produced 1500 engines a year. In 1919 the company bought the Vickers factory in Ipswich and was renamed Vickers Petters Ltd.
In 1937, Petters joined the Associated British Oil Engine Company. After the war the group was obtained by British Electrical Group, with Petter spun off in 1949 joining another engine manufacturer, J&H McLaren & Co., at the old Lagonda works in Egham Hythe near Staines, Middlesex, employing over 1,000 people at its peak. In 1957 the company was acquired by Hawker-Siddeley and some production was moved to Hamble as the reorganized company was split into four groups within Hawker-Siddeley Brush Group—Petter Staines (small engines), Petter Generator Divisions, Petter Marine Division, Petter Service Division and Thermo-King Division (building refrigeration units under license from the US firm Thermo-King). In 1984 Petter was merged with Lister to form Lister Petter Co. Ltd. The Staines site was sold in 1988 and all production was concentrated at the former Lister factory in Dursley, Gloucestershire.
In the 1930s the company manufactured mechanical calculators. The company obtained a patent on calculator technology in 1923 and two more in 1930. Guy Bazeley Petter then took out equivalent US patents and assigned the rights to the company. The company subsequently sold its calculator designs to the Bell Punch company.
"Petteroid" is a nickname given to engines built under licence in India to Petter design. While rural contraptions in work used for casual heavy transport in Indian Punjab are known as "Peter Rehras" after the brand of engine that gained popularity there in days gone by.
- Petter, Percival. The Story of Petters Limited (Westbury: David Edgington, 1989)
- Lukins, A. H. The Book of Westland Aircraft (Leicester: Harborough, 1944), p. 5
- The Engineer, 3 April 1896
- D S D Williams; J Millar Smith BSc (1943). The Oil Engine Manual (3rd ed.). The English Universities Press.
- "Class_15004". Therailwaycentre.com. Retrieved 2013-08-03.
- http://www.farmcollector.com/company-history/petter-engine.aspx Farm Collector – December 2001 – The History of the Petter Engine
- http://anita-calculators.info/html/origins_of_bell_punch_co_.html. Retrieved 17 March 2011.
- Some men who made Barnstaple... by Pauline Brain published 2010 by Roundabout Devon Books ISBN 978-0-9565972-0-5
- Stationary and Marine Oil Engines (Yeovil: Petters, 1932)