An Interview with Felix Scriven
Felix Scriven raced at Brooklands in the “Outer-Circuit” age and competed in speed trials and hillclimbs when such events happened in great profusion on public roads every summer week-end. Feeling nostalgic for the “good old days,” we asked him to grant us an interview, which he readily agreed to do, at the same spinning mill in Bradford where his famous Austin Twenty “Sergeant Murphy” came into being a quarter of a century ago.
Mr. Scriven ranks as a pioneer motorist, having ridden in pre-1900 Benz cars in their heyday and recalling what must have been one of the earliest motoring-camping holidays — to Iceland in 1903 with a De Dion to see the Gordon Bennett race. He grew up steeped in automobilism, as it were, and did some motorcycle racing before the Kaiser War. After the Armistice in 1918 Scriven decided to turn to car racing. The Austin Motor Co., Ltd., was approached, and Scriven was offered a special Austin Twenty guaranteed to do 70 m.p.h. He requested a number of additional modifications of his own, and eventually Austin’s agreed to incorporate some of these, withdrawing all guarantee as to speed. This Austin Twenty actually did 85 m.p.h. on the Track, when standard models, somewhat tuned, were doing about 66 m.p.h.
Scriven entered for the 1921 B.A.R.C. Easter Meeting and won the 75-m.p.h. Short Handicap so easily that another entrant registered a protest and he was called before the Stewards and asked to verify the details on his entry form. A somewhat heated argument followed, and Scriven insisted on returning to his paddock bay, lifting the cylinder head and making the officials check the dimensions of his engine before he left for Bradford.
The secret of the success of the Austin was very careful engine assembly. The 4-cylinder 95 by 127-mm. (3,610-e.c.) engine had its pistons and connecting rods balanced very carefully indeed. Two carburetters were tried, but these showed no improvement over a single carburetter on a special inlet pipe. Scriven did not like carburetters with a complicated air flow to the choke. Rudge centre-lock wire wheels were substituted for the standard artillery wheels, at a cost of some £70, and these carried 820 by 120 covers, although later 880 by 120 covers were used at the rear — a small enough section in all conscience for the speeds attained. The rear-axle ratio was raised from 3.98 to 1 to 3.18 to 1. The car was otherwise virtually standard, with first a 2-seater and later a 4-seater body, the latter as light as the former and resulting in no loss of performance. Originally red, Scriven later had the car painted blue. It sometimes ran with the radiator cowled, but later this cowl was discarded. Wishing to carry two Mechanics as well as his passenger down to Brooklands, Scriven hit upon the bright idea of obtaining a large packing case. In this he would pack the detachable decking that normally covered the rear seats and the car’s streamline tail, also many tools and spares, and despatch the case to his hotel near Weybridge some ten days in advance of a race meeting. The detachable tail carried two Palmer tyres at an angle of 90 degrees to each other and two more Palmer tyres were carried on the car, these being used on the Track.
After Scriven’s Brooklands win, Capt. (now Lt.-Col.) Arthur Waite decided to race a similar car, using many of the ideas originally suggested by Scriven. This car, with single-seater bodywork, also appeared in 1921, and from it was developed a sports version of the Austin Twenty, one of which was officially timed to achieve 80 m.p.h. at Brooklands, carrying four persons.
When Waite’s car began to get cracking, Scriven naturally saught to increase the speed of his own car. Capt. Frazer-Nash worked out a new valve-timing, as Scriven had formerly used normal timing, although the camshaft had given a high lift. Building up a standard camshaft with solder until the correct timing was attained, Scriven then asked Laystall’s to reproduce it; they made an excellent job, and the new camshaft was fitted. In this form, and still with 4-seater bodywork, “Sergeant Murphy” lapped at 94.99 m.p.h„ the fastest lap ever made by an Austin Twenty.
The Austin was used consistently for competition work from 1921 until about 1927. Its last Brooklands win was at the 1925 Whitsun Meeting, when Scriven finished first in the 90-m.p.h. Short Handicap at 87.71 m.p.b. The car also did well in trials — as we write we have before us a picture of it climbing Mytholm in the 1925 300-mile, two-day sealed-bonnet trial organised in the North by the Daily Dispatch. It was eventually sold to a Bradford breaker for £5.
About 1925 Scriven decided to build a special car for Brooklands work. This employed a very low, completely-underslung chassis, using “30/98 ” Vauxhall side members braced by tubular crossmembers, special care being taken to obtain a really rigid structure. At first a Sage engine of 2-litres capacity was used, having six separate cylinders and o.h.c. valve gear. This engine was designed about 1919 by two R.A.F. engineers, but was too lightly constructed for reliability, and it was always stripping its timing gears, etc. Scriven sought the advice of Parry Thomas, and the great man offered him the engine from his single-seater Thomas-Special, for which he had no further use. It came with two different crankshafts and sets of pistons, giving alternative capacities of 1 1/2 or 1 3/4 litres. Scriven put this engine down on his B.A.R.C. entry forms as a Peter Hooker, as this firm had built it, for Thomas. He subsequently learned that “Ebby,” in casual conversation with Thomas, had asked where he got his engines built up and, not thinking, Thomas had murmured the name. Scriven’s handicap was, therefore, never good, but he gradually improved the car, gaining his reward at the 1926 Summer Meeting, when he won the 90-m.p.h. Short Handicap at an average of 90.22 m.p.h. The car was now known as “No, No, Nanette,” whereas formerly it was “Mother Goose.” because it was “stuffed with Sage”! It was exceedingly low hung, with disc wheels and a very neat ly streamlined 2-seater body, using a sloping, fully-cowled radiator.
Wishing to run in a 100-mile handicap later in 1926, Seriven had an extra fuel tank put in the tail of the car. He returned from a holiday and, with no time to inspect the work, set off for Brooklands. It was a very hot day, but going into Bawtry he became suspicious of a prickling feeling on his neck and, looking round, found 30 ft. of flame streaming aft — the new tank had collapsed. As he slowed, the flames came up into the cockpit and he had to jump off before the car stopped. It ran on into the ditch and as his Pyrene was in the car he could do nothing. “No, No, Nanette” was completely burnt out, watched by the occupants from about 50 cars and lorries. Ever since, Scriven has carried his Pyrene outside his cars, on the non-carburetter side!
On one other occasion this car caught fire. It normally ran on gravity feed from a scuttle tank, and a big-bore drain pipe ran from this tank to enable it to be quickly drained when Scriven was experimenting with special fuels. He was lapping Brooklands when the drain cock opened and filled the undertray with petrol. Scriven kept going full bore and made for the Paddock. Coasting in, he yelled “Pyrene, Pyrene” and various drivers, Malcolm Campbell in the fore, ran up and extinguished the flames. Apart from these episodes, Felix Scriven’s racing contains no heroics. He eventually rebuilt the special and no further improvements could he think of to incorporate. The car had the best steering he has ever handled — and he has owned. a Bugatti. It was finally sold to Guy North, noted special builder.
His achievement in getting a lap speed of nearly 95 m.p.h. from a 4-seater Austin Twenty is one of Brooklands’ high-lights. He maintains that any big increase in performance, whether in respect of cars, labour or politics, merely indicates previous inefficiency — it was getting “Sergeant Murphy” from 85 to 95 m.p.h. that took a lot of doing. Incidentally, he found the car quite stable on Brooklands, 80 m.p.h. being the most exciting speed. Naturally. Scriven recalls long days and nights of continuous work at times, and he had many experiences in getting down to Brooklands. Almost always he drove his cars down and would do a good 500 miles before returning to Bradford.
During the recently-concluded war Scriven was a major in the Home Guard; he is still a keen motorist, now driving an Alvis “Speed Twenty-five.” – W. B.