The Wolseley-Special “Ophelia” and A.C.-G.N. “Starkadder” described by the joint owners and builders, T. C. G. Butler and C. C. Evans.
It was three years before the war when we decided that doing trials with a standard sports car which one had to drive to business and use for pleasure was a mug’s game. We therefore started looking round for the basisof a “special.”
The expense, both of the conversion and running, of a V8 was beyond us, and we set 12 h.p. as a maximum. After some time we found a 1931 Wolseley Hornet Saloon, which we purchased for £5 complete in every way. So began “Ophelia.” The same afternoon we attacked the fabric body with axes and found quite an adaptable chassis underneath. This we shortened 12 in. by cutting a piece out and bolting the ends together with plates inside and out. We decoked the engine, relined the brakes, and after putting on a couple of seats and a very rough plywood body, we took it to a few hills.
The seating position was well back and the passenger actually sits over or slightly behind the axle. This, plus the concentration of all other weight as far aft as possible, seemed to provide wheel grip far better than that of the average sports car.
The remark was made: “Oh, feel your wheels gripping!” Hence her name!
The car was run like this, entirely Hornet and plywood, until the 1937 Fedden, when, driven by Cyril Butler, a big-end went and bits came out through the side.
It was then that Philip Flower said he had a very good and well-tuned M.G. Magna engine which he would sell us for 50s. This was duly installed and the 3-speed Hornet box retained, but the rear-axle assembly was changed to M.G. Magnate differential unit with P-type 90-ton half-shafts.
The performance was now quite good and we decided “Ophelia” deserved a better body, so the present one was constructed. She still looks a wreck and we are hoping to improve the appearance by getting the seats and bonnet-line lower without sacrificing ground clearance.
In 1939 she collected nine 1st Class Awards, and was then put in a warehouse and neglected until two days before the first post-war Bristol M.C. & L.C.C. Naish Dill Climb. She was in a dreadful state but we managed to get the engine running, though not well enough to go all the way up the hill without stopping. A bad start for the 1945 season!
The engine was now taken right down, thoroughly cleaned, and rebuilt. Brakes were relined once more and the Hornet hubs and wheels replaced with Rudge. The work was finished just before the Fedden, which she won, in the hands of Cyril Butler, in spite of the fact that she would not start at the Cross Hands, due to a short in the distributor, and had to be pushed away from the starting marshal.
She did not compete in many trials that season, but did quite well in those she entered, winning the Shell Cup (best “1,500”) in the Colmore, and the M.C.C. Cup in the West of England Club’s Spring Cup Trial.
“Starkadder” was acquired by our partnership just before the 1946 Experts’ Trial. The only modification made was the fitting of a Duplex chain and sprockets for 1st gear. Unfortunately, the sprocket had been over-hardened and it cracked in two at the traffic lights in Reading.
Cyril Butler carried on to the start and tried to compete, using 2nd, but this proved hopeless and he retired on the first hill. Incidentally, it was not our lucky day, as “Ophelia” broke an axle shaft but completed the course driving on one wheel (locked axles being permitted), because it was not possible to find ground hard enough to jack-up both back wheels and fit the spare shaft.
A brief history of “Starkadder” may be interesting. The chassis is 1923 G.N. and the engine 1926 A.C. Six. In its early days it was built as a Capa and sprint car and competed in the first Backwell Hill Climb, where it turned over. It was then improved and modified by David Fry and driven at Shelsley Walsh before the war. Keith Steadman took it over, built a two-seater body, and used it for trials for a time, winning a 1st Class Award in the Fedden.
During the winter of 1915-46 it was again rebuilt by Keith Steadman and David Fry. The Freikaiserwagen had been smashed in 1939, so its Morgan front axle and special prop.-shaft bevel-box and rear axle were incorporated in “Starkadder.” It was in this form when we bought it. It had been used at Shelsley and Prescott in 1946 and the performance was terrific, but it was most difficult to handle and quite unsuitable for trials, so after the Experts’ Trial we once again started modifications. We scrapped the Morgan front axle and extended the chassis forward to form a pair of dumbirons, which were bolted over the existing chassis with six bolts each side. We had previously acquired a blitzed 1934 Wolseley Hornet with the idea of constructing a sister for “Ophelia,” and various parts of this were now useful. We fitted the Hornet front-axle, springs, and hydraulic brakes, fitting up the brake pedal and master cylinder and one hydraulic brake on the solid back axle, retaining the existing Frazer-Nash cable brake as a handbrake only. For trials it was essential to have a starter, so we had a larger flywheel made. The Hornet starter was then mounted on a plate bolted on to the rear engine-mounting. All this works fairly well, although it is exposed and has to be cleared of mud after bad sections.
We overcame the transmission troubles by having a really hefty duplex sprocket turned from the solid, and keyed and grub-screwed to the rear axle. A larger radiator was made up to reduce boiling and the water pump scrapped. Ignition is by magneto, and we rely on the battery for starting and lighting, there being no dynamo.
We had quite a bit of trouble fitting everything into the very narrow chassis, and the steering was a bit of a headache, being made up from odd bits and pieces. We worked solidly every spare moment for six weeks to carry out these modifications, often until the small-hours, in an ordinary garage without much equipment, and the car was only finished late on the night before the Taunton Motor Club’s Allen Trophy Trial.
We took it for a short run round the houses and were very disappointed to find how much we had taken the edge off, the performance. However it was steerable and it would stop, which it would not do before. It performed better than expected in the trial and put up the best performance of the day, driven by Cecil Evans, whilst “Ophelia” collected the best-under-1,500-c.c. Award.
It has only had a short life as some people seem to regard the design and performance as unfair competition, which has led to regulations now being worded to exclude it from future competitions. This is more than disappointing after so much energy has been expended.
However, we are once again hard at work and by the time this article appears it may have competed in its new form. Still more of the old Hornet parts are being reconditioned and used. But the most interesting point will be to see if the solid axle was really as advantageous as some people think.
The three-carburetter A.C. engine is reputed to give 80 b.h.p. at 4,000 r.p.m. The weight when we acquired it was 10 cwt. and after modification, 12 1/2 cwt. We are hoping we shall now be able to reduce this; the chassis will be a bit shorter and the weight and seats concentrated well over the rear axle.
We each own a half share in both cars and drive them alternately, which certainly adds variety to trials. They handle quite differently; “Ophelia” gets good grip when pulling slowly and is useful for sticky restarts, whilst “Starkadder” seems happier when going quickly, which is not surprising with a 9-to-1 bottom gear.
Speaking to Kevin Rawson
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