Described to the Editor in a recent interview.
It was a great pleasure to drive down to Sir Francis Samuelson’s 17th century Sussex farmhouse last month to discuss with this enthusiastic amateur racing motorist the cars he has owned.
Sir Francis’ father, who was essentially a horseman, having promised his schoolboy son a motorcycle, decided they were dangerous, but not wishing to go back on his promise, allowed him a car—a 6-h.p. single-cylinder 1906 Rover. The boy drove it happily about the Yorkshire lanes without a driving licence for a few weeks during the Christmas holidays but when in France with it the following year, was advised to take the French driving test in order to obtain a French licence which he passed successfully. While at Cambridge in 1909 the first Rover was replaced by a similar model with very sporting bodywork and bolster tank, bought second-hand. It was the first car to climb Rosedale “Chimney,” assisted near the steep summit by some miners.
Sir Francis’ next car was a 1909 8.9-h.p. Sizaire-Naudin, in which he used to drive from Cambridge to Brooklands, via London. He bought it from Jarrott & Letts, trading in his Rover and a Motosacoche motorcycle. With it he won a match race against Oxford for his University but the car was extremely unreliable, the brakes unpredictable, and his father told him to get rid of it.
Looking for a car he could afford, with a big engine, and having learnt to distrust used vehicles. Sir Francis bought a 22-h.p. Regal, with the underslung chassis better known in England as an R.M.C. Seabrook and 2-seater body. It was undergeared so larger back wheels were fitted, and on Brooklands the speed was coaxed up from 55 to about 70-m.p.h. But the Regal was very unreliable and suffered a lot of magneto trouble. Deciding that a 12-h.p. car was a better proposition, in 1912 this young enthusiast, after searching for a 16/20 Gregoire and casting envious eyes on a friend’s 12/16 Speed Model Sunbeam, discovered the S.A.V.A., which seemed a lovely chassis. So he bought one, and had a body to his own design built for it by E. Maule & Son in Stockton-on-Tees, the result being a very smart sporting car with lines well in advance of its time. The rear thrust bearing in the overhead-worm back axle used to seize up and destroy the worm wheel and the engine had a tendency to warp its exhaust valves, which were overhead, with the inlet valves at the side, but English valves cured the latter trouble and otherwise this S.A.V.A. was a good car.
With the intention of doing some more racing Sir Francis bought a Marlborough chassis, built from M.A.B. components, in London in 1913. At the time he was with the Newport Iron Works at Middlesbrough, so had facilities for preparing the car, which was just as well, because he had entered for the Cyclecar G.P. at Amiens, and a Cyclecar had to weigh under 8 cwt., whereas the Marlborough chassis turned the scales at 8 1/2 cwt! However, after the undershield had been removed, 18 lb. taken off the flywheel, etc. all was well, especially as a body of sheet alloy sans frame, with a 1/2-in. wooden floor, weighing a mere 22 lb. had been evolved.
The story of the race really deserves an article to itself. Sufficient here to say that Sir Francis was on his honeymoon and when both the mechanic from the English agents and a volunteer motorcycle passenger failed to show up, his wife deputised as riding mechanic, with a 5-litre sealed can of petrol for ballast as she was under weight. The car was blue, Lady Samuelson wore a blue raincoat, soldiers round the circuit threw bundles of blue cornflowers at the Marlborough as it went past, and the French spectators loved it. Alas, the top plate of the vee radiator soon opened up like a fish’s mouth, drenching the occupants in hot water. It became necessary to stop every lap to replenish and, tiring of this, the driver carried on without his customary pit-stop, the engine overheated, and a valve broke after 110 of the 165 miles. A pity, because when it was going the Marlborough was faster than the winning Bedelia. Later it was re-bodied, an endearing feature being that the exhaust pipe now emerged from inside the cockpit on the passenger’s side!
In 1914 came an Automobilette, with similar chassis to the Marlborough, a high vee radiator and very attractive 3-seater body, bought for his wife to drive, which Sir Francis describes as “a nice little car.” It had a shattering exhaust note, reminiscent of a 1951 Coupe de l’Auto Delage.
Whilst quartered at Harlow with his regiment soon after the outbreak of the 1914 war he ordered a 12/40 Speed Model D.F.P. chassis from W. O. Bentley and in 1915 bought a Scripps-Booth for his wife while on leave from the Western Front. The latter was a small American car with o.h. valves, electric lighting and starting and a smart body with a folding third seat in the front and seemed ideal for a lady. The makers used to paint the body grey but left the bonnet black, but Sir Francis had this repainted to match the rest of the car and the result was very satisfactory.
It was not until 1915 that the D.F.P. chassis was delivered. A 2/3-seater body was made for it in London. A sketch had been prepared but the result proved disappointing. But the car was capable of about 65 m.p.h. and was thought “jolly good.” “I was very found of it,” recalls Sir Francis.
When the war was over a 1920 model-T Ford tourer was purchased, for no better reason than the need for a family car and the fact that delivery was given in nine months, although l.h.d. had to be tolerated!
Incidentally, Sir Francis Samuelson’s father by now owned two cars, a Sunbeam and a 12-h.p. Rover, and his daughters used A.C. and Swift light cars.
As delivery of any car was uncertain and post-war cars too expensive, Sir Francis decided to build a car himself. He ordered a Chapuis-Dornier engine at the Paris Salon, used a Moss gearbox and back axle, contrived very long 1/4-elliptic back springs (in practice no better than normal ones), and fitted a neat racing body with an ash frame; in addition to this body a 2-seater originally intended for a Buckingham cyclecar was obtained and used for ordinary touring. One of his sisters made a suitable badge for the radiator. This F.S. unfortunately wasn’t fast enough for the 1,100 c.c. class and was too slow to beat the new 750 c.c. baby cars that were appearing in 1923.
The Ford gave way that year to a Durant tourer with Continental engine. This was “reasonably good bearing in mind the price,” but suffered from terrible vibration, the entire body booming like mad. So in 1924 it was replaced by an Austin 12 tourer—”very sluggish and uninteresting to drive.”
To offset the F.S. fiasco a Gordon England “Brooklands”-model Austin 7 was purchased, Sir Francis being England’s first private customer. His car was raced at Brooklands, La Baule and Boulogne with great enjoyment, and also in hill-climbs both at home and in France. It was very reliable, although it broke an inlet valve during a 100 Kilometre race at Le Baule. Sir Francis and Lady Samuelson used to drive this staggered-seat racing Austin to La Baule with just a dress suit and evening gown between them as luggage, in order to be able to gain admission to the Casino, thus enjoying two different forms of sport over the weekend! The prize at one race meeting was a vast bronze bowl, in which they still plant their Christmas tree. Originally the car had two enormous Zenith carburetters but much later only one was used. “You know,” Sir Francis reflects, “it was pretty remarkable for its period, doing comfortably over 6,000 r.p.m. in 2nd gear (58/60 m.p.h.), with a top gear maximum of 80 or so.”
In 1925 a 1 1/2–litre Talbot chassis was purchased from the factory at Billancourt and driven home, where Gordon England made an alloy tourer body for it on his patent flexible wooden framework. “A very good car, I had it for years,” its owner recalls. There was the unique point that in this country similar cars bore the Darracq badge. About this time Sir Francis found himself recuperating from an illness on the French Riviera and not wishing to go home by train, he bought a used Amilcar “Grand Sport” in Nice. In spite of its sporting bodywork the performance wasn’t very sporting and the big-ends used to make a nonsense of the splash lubrication by slicing through the oil instead of scooping it up, to their detriment. When the “Cup Model” Austin 7 which Sir Francis was to have shared with Gordon England in the 1925 Le Mans race was delayed, the Amilcar was used for learning the course and soon ran its second big-end. The “Cup Model” duly turned up but a stoneguard on the radiator caused overheating and the water boiled away in the first two hours, so Samuelson never had a drive.
The next venture was a 750 c.c. ball-and-roller-bearing Ratier, bought from the Paris factory of the airscrew manufacturer for the 1927 Monte Carlo Rally. The story of that Rally, which Sir Francis and Lady Samuelson drove without so much as a hood, experiencing magneto failure before the start, only miles from their Sussex home, and wasting a night in Paris during the rally while a new clutch race was fitted, is another adventure in Sir Francis’ long motoring career that deserves a story to itself. Eventually sufficient time was made up to finish, and in the subsequent speed hill-climb the Ratier finished 3rd in the 1,100 c.c. class behind a couple of Salmsons. But it got no farther home than Nice before the crankshaft broke. It was a case of home by train for the crew and goods train to Paris for the car, although Samuelson drove it occasionally at Brooklands later that year. The car was made of inferior materials; for example, the bevels of the o.h. camshaft drive used to chew themselves up, etc.
Anxious to compete in the next Monte Carlo Rally, Sir Francis borrowed a 2-litre Lagonda fabric tourer. Starting from John O’Groats, he made 3rd best time in the post-rally hill-climb, winning the 2-litre class. He subsequently acquired a 2-litre Lagonda saloon, his first closed car, but it proved overgeared and underpowered and was nearly as quick in 3rd as it was in top gear.
The M-type M.G. Midget now made its appearance and Sir Francis commenced his epic performances at Le Mans and Spa which have been fully chronicled elsewhere. At Le Mans an oil-pipe broke but, taking the engine back to England in the Talbot, it was rebuilt, re-installed in the M.G. at Le Mans and the car taken on to Spa where, notwithstanding clutch slip, it completed the course in the 24-hour race. In 1931 a Montlhéry M.G. Midget was acquired and run very effectively at Le Mans, until a rod broke half-an-hour before the finish. Even so, but for a misunderstanding of the regulations it would have been third on Formula—as it was it was disqualified for completing its last lap too slowly. In supercharged form the M.G. competed at the Nurburgring, finishing fifth in the 1,100-c.c. class and making fastest lap.
At the 1930 Olympia Show Sir Francis Samuelson ordered his first 6-cylinder car, a Talbot 75 literally off the stand, and it will warm the cockles of Georges Roesch’s heart to hear that he describes it as “probably my best car so far.” It had a normal gearbox, and took the Samuelson family on many Continental holidays.
Leaving a Harrogate nursing home in 1933, a Standard Little Twelve was seen and as it was a very inexpensive car, one was bought. It “ran quite well.” Indeed, a year later it was replaced by a Standard Little Nine, “a good little car.”
Sir Francis bought a Morris 25 saloon in 1936, “an incredibly good car at the price, new, of £298, which had everything—pneumatic seat cushions, back-floor foot-rest, the finest steering wheel on any car I owned. Although only 3-speed, bottom was never needed, you started in 2nd and climbed all hills below Sutton Bank calibre on top.” It wasn’t fast, but put 44 1/2 miles into 44 1/2 minutes on a certain French road.
A 1937 2 1/2-litre S.S. fabric tourer was faster but had terrible back springs, so that rear-seat passengers complained and the windscreen was rattled to bits. A 3-litre English Talbot tourer replaced it in 1938. A 4-litre French Talbot d.h. coupé had been ordered but hadn’t materialised. No sooner had the English one been delivered than a telegram came from Paris: “Car ready: collect at once.” It was duly collected, but French hotels could make no sense of the simultaneous arrival of Sir Francis in a French Talbot and Lady Samuelson in an English Talbot! The French car had a shocking transmission vibration at 4,000 r.p.m. The makers said it would disappear when the car was run-in but it never did.
Another war was now imminent and I must digress to recall a miniature car which Sir Francis built in 1934. He had gone into Gamages’ to buy a file and saw 170-c.c. Villiers engines for sale for 30s. One of these was installed in an ash frame, driving through a motorcycle gearbox, pneumatic wheelbarrow wheels and tyres, motorcycle front brakes and Bugatti-type rear suspension and a body added, and his sons had a splendid small racing car, long before go-karts were thought of. It still exists at Steyning.
A just secondhand Morris 12 saw the subject of this interview through the Second World War and for 21 years he kept the 4 1/4-litre o/d. Bentley which he had bought as a chassis in 1939 and had fitted, after careful consideration, with a Park Ward body, this maker being quite the best constructor of d.h. coupés. The overdrive and oversize tyres contributed to the excellence of this car.
Alas, a 1921 Rolls-Royce with Kelner coupé de ville body, inherited from an uncle, and a 1937 Simca-Cinq, “a delightful little car for local journeys,” had to be left in France when war was declared.
On the return of peace this remarkable enthusiast decided to do some more motor racing, his career thus being the longest, surely, of any living amateur racing motorist, and a proud record indeed. A 500-c.c. car to his own design, with rear Triumph Twin engine and all-round-independent suspension, was entrusted to Marwyn, but they never completed the front suspension and an M.G. axle was used, just to get the car running. Sir Francis then became one of John Cooper’s first customers and ordered a Cooper-500 at the Brighton Speed Trials. In this he used two J.A.P. engines and eventually a Norton “single-knocker,” finishing third in a 50-mile Silverstone race and third at Luxembourg, and setting a 500-c.c. lap-record at Montlhéry.
For towing the Cooper’s trailer a 1 1/2-litre Riley saloon was bought, “not very quiet, with too little padding in the back seat,” but serving well for eight years.
It was in 1949 that Sir Francis bought from his son Michael the 1914 T.T. Sunbeam with which he has since become so closely associated. The touring body was replaced by a T.T. replica and this fine old car has since appeared in innumerable historic racing-car events, always being driven to and from the course. It has run some 3,000 miles in this way, is capable of over 90 m.p.h., and, apart from some temperament over its complex external oil-pipes, only gave trouble when, having won a V.S.C.C. handicap, its owner held it too long in 3rd gear, resulting in expensive engine failure. The engine has been rebuilt but its top limit of 3,100 r.p.m., with an occasional 3,300 r.p.m., is now strictly observed.
In 1950 a Silverstone Healey was bought “off the peg” and used for competition work, by a driver now in his sixtieth year! The flexible section of its exhaust system gave continual trouble, the mudguards were useless in wet weather and it wasn’t as fast as the two special versions Sir Francis had to compete against. So an A.J.B. 500 was obtained. It was never raced but its Norton engine went into the Cooper—it was less reliable than the J.A.P.s it replaced.
At Earls Court Samuelson ordered one of the first r.h.d. Austin Healey 100s, “a lovely car, which has given no trouble.” He still has it.
For normal motoring and journeys to his beloved France the Samuelson garage houses a 1957 Austin A55 which has given wonderful service for 55,000 miles, and a 1961 Riley 4/68, which is faster but has the noisier exhaust. Keeping these B.M.C. saloons company is the actual Rover that was Sir Francis Samuelson’s first car 56 years ago—the 1906 Rover, although when he bought it unseen he wasn’t aware that it was the same car! In those days Sir Francis used a “Dependence” rear lamp, transferring it from car to car—the only time he was summoned for not having rear illumination was when a lamp of another make blew out while crossing the Hog’s Back on the Sizaire-Naudin. That “Dependence” rear lamp is once again in its rightful place on the single-cylinder Rover—which is an apt note on which to close this account of one who has been a keen motorist for nearly sixty years and has owned more than 40 different cars.—W.B.
Here and there, November 1971
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