Freewheeling Rovers
by Wheelnut

Most people think that only pushbikes have freewheels, but for many years from 1933 to 1960, Rover fitted a freewheel device in the transmission of their cars. It sat behind the gearbox, and was controlled by a chunky handwheel on the fascia. You could choose ‘fixed', which gave a normal solid drive, or ‘free', which meant that when you eased off the throttle, the car simply coasted.

Why would anyone want that? Well, back in the late 1920s and early 1930s, it was still very easy to crunch changes on gearboxes that were innocent of syncromesh. With freewheel in operation, you could do silent clutchless gearchanges, just by lifting off the accelerator and moving the gearlever.

You could also improve your fuel economy by around 10% through coasting wherever possible. The downside was that you had no engine braking, and if you had a noisy engine, the contrast between engine pulling and idling could be wearing on the nerves.

Freewheels were widely offered to start with - 12 British makers listed them as options at the 1929 Olympia Show in London - but only Rover really made a success of them in the 1930s and beyond. By having inherently quiet cars, with generous braking capacity and good roadholding, Rover made freewheeling part of their ‘tradition'. Of course, the much lighter traffic of those days meant that you didn't need engine braking so much and you were less likely to be rammed in the rear if you kept lifting your right foot!

Despite the arrival of synchromesh and ever-increasing congestion, Rover continued with standard fit freewheels until 1956, when the top range ‘90' model acquired a vacuum servo for the brakes. The remote possibility that the engine might stop while freewheeling, depriving the brakes of servo, was considered due reason for deleting the freewheel from the 90. As other models went to servo brakes, the freewheel therefore faded away completely by 1960, often to the outrage of loyal customers. The only manual transmission cars that continued to have freewheels into the 1960s were the small two-stroke cars like the Saab and the DKW - without a freewheel, the characteristic low-speed misfiring of a two stroke would have made for jerky progress…

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