The reminiscences of H. L. BIGGS
No. 1.—The Taking of the 1,100 c.c. Hour Record by Widengren’s Amilcar
[H. L. Biggs served his apprenticeship with John Wallace, the designer of the Duzmo motor-cycle, and in the early nineteen twenties he rode their competition machine in speed trials and speed hill climbs. He also rode at Brooklands for Sun Vitesse. He had decided that the best way of following the game with a minimum of expenditure was to combine business with pleasure, and get right down to the root of things by working as a mechanic in racing shops. Biggs commenced his career in the tuning department of G. H. Tucker, the Norton expert at Bristol. He then joined D. E. Calder in a private venture at Capel, rating Zeniths in sprint events, and at Southport, and attempting long-distance sidecar records at Montlhery with a 500 c.c. O.E.C.-Temple. On that occasion he was C. F. Temple’s chair-ballast during an attack on the 10 kilo and 10 mile records, and had an extremely rough ride. After some general garage work, he joined Alfa-Romeo British Sales and went from there to J.A .P. Motors at Tottenham, engaging in engine assembly. Followed two years with Frazer-Nash, and Biggs then joined Francis at Automobile Supertuners, where he worked on a variety of well-known racing cars. He then went to Marshall Drew and Co., where he was associated with much supercharger research and installation, and sometime later he took a partnership in the Bell Garage, at Putney. His personal vehicles have included a 1913 2¾ Douglas, two special Duzmos, a two-stroke rotary valve Sun Vitesse, 2¾ A.J.S., 2¾singlepot Indian, 7-9 road-racing Indian, an eight-valve ex-Le Vack Indian, a 2¾ o.h.c. Blackburn raced on grass, cinders and in sprint events, a 2¾ F./N., 175 c.c. Francis-Barnett and a Coventry Eagle midget. His first car was “a racing Douglas cyclecar with s.v. water cooled flat-twin engine with two Zenith carburetters, four-speed gearbox, rear suspension by bell cranks and transverse coil springs, and bolster fuel tank. This car was sold to “Prince Paraffin,” a coloured Cambridge student, who blew the engine up in a water-splash. Incidentally, we used to see one of these cars every day on the way to school a dozen or so years ago, and the remains of one could be seen at Brooklands Aerodrome a few years back. A Gwynne Eight hip-bath followed, which, fitted with two Solex carburetters and a special exhaust system, frequently ran an end and came home on three cylinders. Next Biggs ran a 1,100 c.c. Ruby-engined Frazer-Nash, sans f.w.b. and rear universal. Then came a 1926 Chummy Austin Seven, which broke its crankshaft on Porlock, whereupon Biggs fitted a new one, using only the tools in the tool kit, and a 1929 Riley Monaco, which covered hundreds of thousands miles attending racing fixtures. Biggs now runs a Fiat 500, having stored his special trials Austin Seven, which he described in a previous issue of MOTOR SPORT. Now engaged on Air Ministry engineering, he has been recalling his past associations with the greatest game of all by turning up his scrap-book and other carefully-kept records of twenty years on the inside of motor-racing. These reminiscences, the first of which we present herewith, are the outcome.—Ed.]
SATURDAY, April 15th, 1933. “Wal,” said the Great Man, in that intriguing Cornish-American accent of his, “if it goes over the Mile at 120, we’ll have a crack at the class hour record.” “It” was the beautifully streamlined offset six-cylinder Amilcar, finished in cream, blue and black, the national colours of its owner-driver, Henken Widengren, recently returned from that devastating dice, the Swedish Winter Grand Prix, in which he drove a low chassis 4½-litre Invicta. The Great Man, none other than R. F. Oats, that doyen of veteran race drivers.
Those words terminated a month of intensive work on the Amilcar, after a sheared camshaft key had caused valves to make intimate acquaintance with pistons, and the opportunity had been taken to completely rebuild the engine, embodying various modifications conceived by Alec Francis, the technician of the concern of Automobile Supertuners, with whom I was working at the time.
That sunny April evening, the Amilcar turned several laps at 111 m.p.h., and actually did go over the mile at 121 m.p.h.
On Monday, at the Easter B.A.R.C. meeting, it finished second, off 21 seconds to Turner’s blown 4½-litre Bentley, off 9 seconds, lapping at 110 in the teeth of a strong wind blowing up the straight, which finally clinched the idea of “having, a crack at the Hour.”
Montlhery was to be the scene of activities, owing to the advantages of perfect surface and lack of silencer restrictions; and back at the Mews on Tuesday, we got down to the necessary detail work, such as extra stays to the bonnet cowl, and the replacing of the Brooklands silencer assembly by a long open pipe; also in addition a rigid tow bar had to be made up as we were to tow behind Widengren’s Speed Twenty Alvis saloon. On the morning of the 19th, the car was ready, kit and spares packed in the Alvis, and myself packed into the extremely narrow seat, specially shaped to grip the hips of the driver. An omen of Success appeared at the last minute, in the shape of the black Mews kitten, which jumped inside the car with me.
The run to Newhaven was as uneventful as the shipping of the car, the crossing only marked by the periodic vibration of the ship’s propeller shaft, which was faulty.
Dieppe was reached at the grisly hour of 2 a.m., but we did not land the car until the dawn broke, disclosing a very heavy frost, which became more apparent as we travelled south at a steady 60. Never in my life have I been so cold, and owing to the restricted space in the cockpit, very soon cramp set in, and ultimately I had to be lifted from the car, and liberally dosed with hot brandy and coffee. Francis then inserted himself in the Amilcar and we carried on, a very few miles seeing him in the same condition; but by then, having thawed out beside Widengren, who was driving the Alvis, I was able to take the wheel for the remainder of the run to Montlhery.
Only two incidents stand out during this part of the run, one, the piloting of the team across Paris by a Renault taxi, with a newspaper sticking from its sunshine roof to distinguish it from its multitudinous brethren; the other, the breaking of the tow bar lug just outside the city. Fortunately, the bar bounced, and gave me time to brake hard before the end of it spragged into the ground.
After passing vaguely familiar landmarks, we forked right from the main road, up the hill to the Track, arriving at 10 a.m. I was immediately recognised by Montlhery’s “Mr. Cann,” as one of the O.E.C. Temple equipe of 1926.
The English colony just laughed us to scorn! “Why,” said they, “you’ll take at least three weeks to get your carburation right, and in any case you’ll never get timekeepers; they’re all down at Monte Carlo, or else on the Citroen record attempt, which has been running for weeks.”
This did not sound so good. However, I rushed to the ‘phone to find out why our special B.P. 4 had not arrived, which it did shortly after, in a gigantic camion. Having filled up, we soon had the car lapping very comfortably at 115, which was satisfactory, as the record then stood in the neighbourhood of 110. Hiring one of the sheds built under the Track, we put the car away, and dashed back to Paris, arriving late in the evening, Widengren to go to his hotel, Francis and I to the Mont Fleuri.
The following morning, off to the A.C.F., where we found to our dismay that what had been told us was indeed true, the timekeepers were not available!
Widengren was desolated, and suggested throwing up the whole attempt as he had a business appointment in Stockholm on the following Monday. This spurred me to action, and away we went to see M. Letory, the chef de piste, a charming man, who opined that in all probability Citroen’s would loan us a timekeeper, if we could run the Amilcar concurrently with their car.
Having made arrangements about Track fees, we dashed back to the A.C.F. where I fortunately found a girl clerk who could speak a spot of English. This was a great help, and by phoning Citroen’s the whole thing was fixed. We could have the Track at 7 a.m. the following morning for one hour, so off to Dunlops to see the chef de Services Course, M. Lallemont, to arrange for a fitter to be at the Track with the tyres for the attempt that evening.
With lighter hearts, we descended on Le Chevaux Pie for a marvellous lunch with innumerable hors d’oeuvres, and immediately after shot back to the Track, booking a room for that night for Francis and myself at L’Escargot, the inn at the foot of the hill. (In 1926, this was more appropriately named Auberge de la Butte Rouge.)
Up at the Track we were pleased to hear that M. Morel, the famous Amilcar driver, had observed the car through the keyhole of our shed door, and commented on its beautiful aero-dynamic profile. At once we set about draining and flushing the oil tank, removing the small aero screen and mirror, and generally getting everything au point, and at 6 p.m. the Dunlop fitter arrived and in a desultory fashion commenced to fit the tyres, but as at 8 o’clock only one had been done, we returned to l’Escargot for a meal, after locking the fitter’s trousers, which he had discarded before donning his boiler suit, in our shed so as to be sure of seeing him before he went. At 10 p.m. he called for these garments, so up to the Track again. We found to our annoyance that no balancing had been done and decided to do this in the morning, but further incidental work saw us in bed at 3 a.m.
Very fortunately, the charming wife of an Hungarian Bugatti driver had loaned me their alarm clock, which I set for 4.30 a.m. But I fear that I slept little, and was shortly up at the Track again, balancing the wheels with lead tape in the chilly darkness of that sandy-floored shed. At 6 a.m. Widengren arrived from Paris, and we arranged a somewhat primitive system of signals. Three lap scoring boards were obtained bearing large figures—Nos. 4, 5, and 6. We agreed to display 4 if the lap speed was too low, 5 if O.K., and 6 if unnecessarily high. Shortly after 7 o’clock, the car was on the line, and in my extremely ungrammatical French, I explained to the timekeeper that Widengren would do one warming up lap, hard plugs would then be fitted, and the record attempt would commence.
The warming up lap completed, and with K.L.G. 356s in, the Amilcar was away with that penetrating crackle which caused the Brooklands authorities to order the fitting of an additional silencer, in conjunction with the regulation pattern.
The following hour was one of the longest I have ever known, and nerves were so tensioned that any person interrupting concentration on that small object speeding round the 2½ kilo circuit would undoubtedly have been assaulted. Francis had instructed Widengren to lift his foot once per lap to ease the motor, and on one occasion he cut for a split second longer than usual, and my heart stood still!
As each record fell, a chit would be brought out from the timekeeper’s office; 50 kilos, 50 miles, 100 kilos, 100 miles were ours in turn, and the strain eased, but the hour was our aim, and the car now seemed to be taking a peculiar course, on no two consecutive laps did it run on to the banking in the same line, due, we heard afterwards, to oil mist on the driver’s goggles practically blinding him.
At last, the clock on the chronometrage showed that the hour was up, and after the 200 miles had been added to the bag, the car coasted into the bay, and the Track seemed suddenly full of the most pleasant people, all congratulating everyone concerned, M. Lallemont being especially concerned with shaking hands with the “Bon mechanicien.” We blushed and hurried off to the patiniere for an enormous breakfast of ham and eggs, before removing the cylinder head for the authorities to measure bore and stroke. This done, checked and double-checked, the head was replaced, a few head nuts tightened down, and the car hitched behind the Alvis once again. Widengren was dropped in Paris as he was flying to Sweden. We carried on to Dieppe, learning on the way that racing Hartford settings in conjunction with French pave do not suit the digestion, and also that French drivers will assert their rights to the extent of causing the Speed Twenty and the Amilcar to finish up side by side with the rigid tow bar not so rigid!
Both cars were left at Dieppe for shipment on the morrow, whilst Francis and I returned that night with the comforting thought that this tremendous rush had not been in vain, as the 1,100 c.c. Hour Record had been raised by some 5 m.p.h. and the Amilcar now held all the class records up to 200 miles, with the solitary exception of the standing mile.
But no real rest for the mechanic as the Avus race would be on the following week-end . . . Ah well!