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Hobbs, Howard Frederick (1902–1982)

by G. H. Brooks

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

Howard Frederick Hobbs (1902-1982), inventor, was born on 21 September 1902 at East Marden, Adelaide, fifth of six surviving children of South Australian-born parents James Harris Hobbs, fruit-grower, and his wife Mary Eliza, née Pitt. Educated at Prince Alfred College, as a boy Howard showed an aptitude for things mechanical. At 14 he built a full-size aeroplane (without wings) that was taxied around the family’s garden, powered by a motorcycle engine. On leaving school he worked at his father’s orchard and market garden at Paradise. He married Phyllis Dorothy Reid, a schoolteacher, at Payneham Methodist Church on 12 May 1925. Next year he applied for his first patent, an improved appliance for the grading of fruit.

Driving motorcars and lorries from an early age, Hobbs cherished an ambition to eliminate the need for gear changing. After many experiments he had a light car fitted with the `Hobbs gearless drive’ ready for testing; Professors (Sir) Robert Chapman and (Sir) Kerr Grant of the University of Adelaide found it satisfactory and simple to operate. Hobbs Gearless Drive Ltd was formed in 1931 to market the device and to administer the patent rights. In June 1931 Hobbs, with his wife and daughter, sailed for Britain, where he also took out patents. For the next thirty-five years the family were to live at Leamington Spa, Warwickshire; two sons were born. Hobbs was unable to persuade car manufacturers to use the `gearless drive’: based on rotating weights, it incorporated a free-wheel clutch, or ratchet, which was probably the weakness in the device. Other inventors with similar ideas also failed to attract interest in their mechanisms.

After engaging in war work, in 1946 Hobbs was helped by a wealthy industrialist to form Hobbs Transmission Ltd. He discarded the gearless drive and developed the `Mechamatic’ transmission. The new automatic gearbox was more complicated, with epicyclic gears and hydraulically operated friction clutches. Mechamatic, with four forward gears, unusual at that time, was lightweight and suitable for small cars. Many well-known makers built prototypes but the only one to reach production was the Lanchester Sprite, produced in 1955 by the Birmingham Small Arms Co. Ltd. For financial reasons BSA soon abandoned the project.

Westinghouse Brake & Signal Co. Ltd bought BSA’s shares in Hobbs Transmission and, anticipating its use in the Ford Cortina, built a factory at Manchester to manufacture the Mechamatic. When Ford decided not to proceed, Hobbs Transmission went into liquidation. In the 1960s Hobbs’s son David successfully drove a Lotus Elite fitted with the Mechamatic gearbox in international motor races. The family moved to Napton, near Rugby, about 1965 and Hobbs and his son John set up a workshop. They went back to the original concept of the infinitely variable drive, but this time hydraulic, not mechanical. Hobbs took out an Australian patent in the name of Variable Kinetic Drives Ltd, but like its predecessors this also failed commercially. In 1977 Hobbs was invited to participate in the British Genius Exhibition at Battersea.

Hobbs was a keen golfer, playing to a handicap close to scratch. His son David remembered him as friendly and likeable, with a sense of humour, but not forceful enough in business. Although regarded as a genius where automatic transmissions were concerned, he was not accepted into engineering societies because of his lack of qualifications. Survived by his wife, sons and daughter, he died on 15 December 1982 at Bulcote, Nottinghamshire, and was buried in England.

Select Bibliography

  • R. M. Gibbs, Bulls, Bears and Wildcats (1988)
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 10 June 1931, p 9
  • Modern Motor, May 1983, p 17
  • Classic and Sportscar, May 1983, p 9.

Citation details

G. H. Brooks, 'Hobbs, Howard Frederick (1902–1982)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/hobbs-howard-frederick-12642/text22779, published first in hardcopy 2007, accessed online 10 December 2018.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 17, (MUP), 2007

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