Restoration Case Study: Thornycroft Petrol Tanker 1926

Shell lorry restoration

Accession No.SH1995.505

Collecting and displaying examples of Hampshire's industrial design is supported by a team of skilled restorers in the conservation workshops in Winchester, led by Sean Wiles, Conservator of Industrial History.

"We believe that a fuel tanker version of the popular A Type Thornycroft is unique, certainly within the UK" says Sean Wiles. The phoenix-like restoration has required not only engineering and conservation skills, but also a huge amount of detective work in order to locate hard-to-get parts for a type of vehicle which has been out of production for around three-quarters of a century. Other parts were specially made in house, e.g. cab, brass fuel tank, engine fittings, hand and foot controls, springs and front wings. The A1's four-cylinder spark-ignition engine was built up at Chilcomb House using parts taken from other engines held in-house, as was the gearbox.

Outside firms became involved and, for example, made the canvas propshaft universal joints, cast the A1's radiator and made the core for the casting. The casting pattern was made at Chilcomb House using the radiator of another A-type vehicle. The annual Beaulieu autojumble came up with a pair of headlamps, a magneto, horn and various other parts

Shell tank
The tank as found

The tanker rebuilding project was set in motion in 1995 when the Museums Service acquired a 1920s 600 gallon (2,728 litres) payload tank from a local farmer who, at one time, had used it for storing tractor fuel. Several layers of paint were removed from the tank down to the bare metal, dents were removed and it was then brush-painted in red, all work being carried out at Chilcomb House. Intermediate coats were rubbed down with wet emery paper, giving a superb, smooth finish with no visible brush strokes. The tank was cleaned inside and wax-oiled. A sign writer from Basingstoke painted the Shell lettering on the tank in gold leaf, and the overall gold and red result is magnificent.

The difficult task of building the ash and ply cab to the original design was undertaken by the restoration team early on in the project, working from photographs. As with the original, the cab was hand-brushed with several layers of paint, rubbed down between coats to give an immaculate end result.

A farm trailer, which had been converted from a Thornycroft A1 chassis, was traced to its owner, a Berkshire farmer, from the whom the trailer was purchased in 1997 complete with axles and spare wheel. Unusable axle parts were replaced by components located in Bath, and the chassis was stripped back to the bare metal by the restorers, grit blasted, primed with hot zinc primer and painted. A pair of rear wings, which had been lying in a shed for years, was donated by another source.

The restoration team found a steering box in excellent condition attached to a rusting Thornycoft bus chassis in a back garden in the Isle of Man. The owner, pleased to be rid of it, donated the chassis to the project!

After nearly a decade of dedicated work, the vehicle was completed in 2004. This magnificent piece of our motoring heritage has joined the County's collection of rare Thornycroft vehicles, and the tanker is now on display at Milestones.

For the benefit of future generations, the restoration team keeps extensive records of all work done, including photographs, so that they will know which parts of the A1 are original and which have been specially made. Records also include details on maintaining and operating the vehicle, which, of course, is in running order.


1995/6: Built up an engine for the A1 from parts taken from other engines held in-house.

1996: Research in the Thornycroft archive revealed that Shell had purchased six A1 tankers from the company in 1925/6.

1997: A farm trailer which had been converted from a Thornycroft A1 chassis was purchased from a farmer in Berkshire. A pair of rear wings was acquired.

1998: A steering box was found on the Isle of Man attached to a rusting chassis. The chassis, complete with steering box, was donated to the project.

1999: A pair of headlamps, a magneto, horn and various parts were found at the annual Beaulieu auto jumble.

2000: Work started on restoring the chassis. It was stripped, grit blasted and painted with hot zinc primer.

2003: All the mechanical and electrical parts of the vehicle were finished, and most of the assembly work was completed.

2004: Project completion.


Restoration progress

the rolling chassis
The rolling chassis
The mechanical parts fitted
The mechanical parts fitted
Thornycroft cab frame finished
Panelling to cab frame finished, narrow tongue and groove boards fitted to form the cab roof
thornycroft canvas roof fitting
Canvas roof covering fitted and traditional waterproofing using white lead paint
thornycroft roof finished
Cab roof finished and first layers of top coat applied
thornycroft tank dent conservation
The tank after dent removal and repainting
thornycroft tank sign-writing
Tank being sign-written following tracing taken from original


thornycroft tanker just nearly fully restored
Not far to go before completion
thornycroft finished tanker
Finished Tanker