The story of the steel wheel

Posted on 4 Jan 2010 by The Manufacturer

One hundred years ago, GKN Wheels — known then as Joseph Sankey & Sons Ltd or ‘Sankeys’ — patented and produced the first pressed steel wheel. Originally manufactured for use in motor cars, this was a significant engineering breakthrough, made possible by technological advances in the production of high quality steel alloys and rolling systems.

In 1906, under the guidance of George and Frederick Sankey and the chairmanship of the company’s founder John Sankey, Sankeys entered an exclusive agreement with Hadfield Steel Foundry Company of Sheffield to obtain supplies of its special electrical steel, known as ‘stalloy’. A few years later, Sankeys obtained permission for one of its suppliers, John Lysaght & Co, to roll steel sheets under Hadfield’s patent in the Black Country and further supplies of raw steel were secured for this purpose from north Wales. Through these arrangements, Sankeys gained greater control over the supply and quality of the raw materials needed to produce the first engineered steel wheel.

In 1908, Sankeys developed and patented the first pressed and welded, detachable motor car wheel, known as the ‘All Steel Wheel’. But it was not until June 1910 that the wheel went into production at the Hadley Castle Works in Telford — the home of GKN Wheels today.

The steel supply arrangement between Sankeys and Lysaghts was further strengthened in 1920.

The companies merged and Sankeys became a subsidiary of Lysaghts, itself a subsidiary of GKN.

The Sankeys brand name was retained.

During the 1920s, the Hadley Castle Works experienced financial difficulties due to unpaid orders and by trading with car manufacturers who were struggling to sell what were seen as luxury products. However, conditions improved during the 1930s and Sankeys installed three new rim-making machines at the plant as part of a move to maintain its leading position as supplier of components to the automotive industry.

In 1939, the wheel department was further extended and was in heavy use during the Second World War, fulfilling government orders for aerospace and other components. Much of the production took place at a new plant in Albert Street. At around this time, Sankeys was also producing heavy wheels for army vehicles, forerunners of the off-highway wheels manufactured today.

After the war, a new wheel shop was built at the Hadley Castle Works, and this was extended significantly in the 1950s. In 1961, the GKN Board approved a £3.5 million capital investment at the site for the production of road wheels for cars, trucks, buses and tractors, as well as for cabs for Leyland.

In 1968, Joseph Sankey & Sons Ltd became known as GKN Sankey Ltd and in 1972, the company took over manufacture of earth-mover and heavy wheels from Dunlop, while Dunlop took over Sankey car wheels production. By the 1970s, the Hadley Castle Works had replaced the Albert Street Works as the centre of manufacturing operations and GKN’s off-highway wheel production was officially born.