Wren J6973 ready for first flight, Ashton Park, Preston 5th April 1923.
In 1922, English Electric’s Chief Aircraft Designer, W. O. Manning, was exploring ways of flying an aircraft on the smallest amount of power.
In October that year, he began preliminary design work on an 'ultralight aircraft' and on completion of the work he offered to build the Air Ministry a prototype for just £600. They accepted, issuing an order calling for an training aircraft, capable of a 30 minute flight but of extremely lightweight specification.
Construction of the Wren started on 5th February 1923 at English Electric’s Dick, Kerr works in Preston, and was completed exactly two months later. It was designated as the ‘Wren’ and given the serial J6973. It had a wooden fuselage and wing structure with a traditional fabric covering, powered by a 3 hp 398cc ABC motor-cycle engine adapted for aircraft use.
The Wren first flew on the 5th April 1923 from Ashton Park in Preston, piloted by Sqn Ldr Maurice Wright of the Air Ministry, who made just three short flights. Three days later he made a longer flight, this time from the sands at Lytham where the prototype 'performed well'.
However, its ailerons were found to be insensitive, due to the lack of torsional rigidity of the wing which was subsequently stiffened. On 14th June 1923, the Wren made a flight of over one hour duration, climbing to 2,350 ft and attaining a maximum speed of 52 mph. As a result, English Electric decided to put it into production as an 'easy to fly' and an 'economic aircraft', priced at £350.
The prototype appeared at the RAF Pageant at Hendon in June 1923 and again it flew very well, creating a great amount of interest. It was retained at Hendon for a further week before being handed over for its official handling trials to the Aeroplane Experimental Establishment (AEE) at Martlesham Heath, Suffolk.
Their report dated 4th September 1923, noted a maximum level speed of 49 mph, a landing speed of approximately 25 mph, both confirming the manufacturer’s trials’ figures and lending credence to the company’s claims.
It did, however, note that in banks of over 15 degrees, and when correcting large wing ‘bumps’, the ailerons became very stiff and gave the impression that further pressure would break some part - possibly due to warping of the main planes near the wing tips.
The Duke of Sutherland, then Under-Secretary of State for Air, gave a prize of £500 for a competition to establish the most economical light, single-seat British aeroplane. The Daily Mail added a further £1,000 prize for the longest flight of not less than 50 miles on one gallon of fuel over a 15-mile triangular course based at Lympne in Kent and using an engine of less than 750cc. The competition ran from the 8th October 1923 and attracted 23 British and 4 foreign machines.
By this point, the Wren had progressed from the preliminary S.1 Monoplane design into the Mk I Prototype and then finally into the Mk II competition Wren. The production aircraft had a wing dihedral of 2 degrees, compared with the 4 degrees employed on the prototype.
Two production Wrens were entered for the competition: One aircraft flown by Sqn Ldr Maurice Wright (Competition No.3), the other being flown by Flt Lt Walter Longton (Competition No.4). The latter shared first place and the £1,500 prize by flying 87.5 miles on one gallon of fuel.
Unfortunately, and despite all the publicity gained by its success, the Wren was to gain no further production orders.
No.3 was placed on the civil register (G-EBNV) in April 1926 although it was withdrawn from service in 1929.
In 1924, Longton’s No.4 Wren was placed in the Science Museum in London where it remained on display for over 22-years until it was returned to the English Electric Co. at Preston for restoration. It remained in storage near its Lancashire birthplace until 1954 when a request was made by the Shuttleworth Trust for the aircraft to be donated, so it could undergo a rebuild to restore it to airworthy condition.
English Electric Wren 1956 post restoration flight.
No. 3 had been examined but it was determined that it was beyond repair and so some engine parts from were recovered and eventually used in the restoration of No.4. Initial inspection showed No.4’s timber to be in surprisingly good condition but definitely in need of repair. Some metal parts also needed replacing and the best parts from each engine, plus new pistons and new propeller were donated to the restoration.
The first flight of the restored No.4 aircraft was achieved by Peter Hillwood on 25th September 1956 where it reached a maximum altitude of 250 ft, engine power being the only limiting factor. Eventually, the aircraft was to reach an altitude of 1,200 ft in subsequent flights.
The Wren, barely able to reach 50mph, overflies the supersonic P1A at Warton.
The Wren was eventually handed over to the Shuttleworth Trust on 15th September 1957 in the presence of its designer W. O. Manning and it went on to make regular appearances at their flying displays at Old Warden Airfield, Bedfordshire.
The restored English Electric Wren ready for hand over to The Shuttleworth Trust in September 1957.
In 1980, and after several years of 'being grounded', Wren No.4 received a complete overhaul at Warton and on 19th May 1980, it flew once again, this time piloted by Paul Millett.
Today, the aircraft is still part of the Shuttleworth Collection at Old Warden, occasionally getting the opportunity to take to the air although due to the low power output from its aged engine, this is supplemented at launch by a team of strong volunteers and bungee cords.
The English Electric Wren still airworthy at Old Warden in October 2014.
||One 3 hp (2.25 kW) 398cc flat twin ABC motor-cycle engine
||37 ft 0 in (11.3 m)
||24 ft 3 in (7.4 m)
||232 lb (105 kg)
||420 lb (191 kg)
||52 mph (83 km/h)
||87.5 miles (141 km) on one gallon of fuel
||1 gallon (4.5 ltr)
||Possibly one further aircraft built for the 1924 British Empire Exhibition as a duplicate of Competition winner (not flown).