Fragments on Forgotten Makes

No. 27—The Autovia

The Autovia was conceived from Victor Riley’s desire to produce a luxury car. He wanted to keep this apart from the Riley Motor Co.’s products and in 1935 sent Gordon Marshall to ask C. M. Van Eugen whether he would undertake the task.

Van Eugen, now retired and living in Stoke Park, Coventry, to whom I talked about the Autovia, came to this country from Holland, when that country was the land of the Spyker. He was with the Daimler Company in 1913 and went to Lea-Francis when that firm was in a bad way in 1923. There he was responsible for the “Hyper” Lea-Francis with which Kaye Don won the 1928 T.T., Delaney encouraging him to re-design the Meadows engine with Cozette supercharger to give the required power output, after experiments with some old non-supercharged cars at Le Mans in 1927 had convinced him that the components would withstand Don’s driving to win the Ulster race. In 1930 he designed the single o.h.c. “Ace of Spades” Lea-Francis, after the Southport-built twin-cam 6-cylinder Vulcan version had all but ruined the Company. Perhaps 750 of these were made. A receiver, Charles Turner, was in charge of Lea-Francis from 1931-35 and during that time Mr. Van Eugen was responsible for everything that went on in the factory. Turner attempted to sell the Company to Riley, but they were only interested in the good-will, and Harry Rose resuscitated the Lea-Francis in the old Triumph Gloria works, the original works having been taken over by G.E.C., who still occupy it.

Van Eugen agreed to work on the Autovia, although no contract, nothing on paper, ever passed between him and Gordon Marshall and Victor Riley. He was given an office in the Riley factory and commenced work with two draughtsmen he brought from Lea-Francis. Victor Riley said, in effect, “We have an engine, develop it,” referring to the Riley V8, but all Van Eugen had to work on was the cylinder block of this, engine and that was the wrong size. In any case, this engine was suffering from carburation problems and as by this time Harry Rose had left the Riley Company, they were without an engine man to rectify these.

Van Eugen set out to build a low-slung, silent-running car that could challenge the 25/30 h.p. Rolls-Royce market. He was entirely responsible for this Autovia, as it was called, even to ordering all the materials and taking cars out on test. In a small shop in the Riley factory three experimental cars were built.

A new 90º 3-bearing crankshaft was designed, the biggest task being to apply balance-weights to this shaft within the confines of the crankcase. The solution was found in bolted-on lead-bronze weights filled with lead, and the crankshaft was fully machined. The 90º V8 engine, of 69 x 95¼ mm. (2,849 c.c.) had three camshafts, the centre one between the cylinder blocks operating the inlet valves and the others the exhaust valves. The famous Riley push-rod valve gear was retained, enabling hemispherical combustion chambers to be obtained without the complication of o.h. camshafts, and the rocker-gear, plugs and cylinder head holding down studs were extremely accessible.

Quiet timing gears were obtained by using a gear of high-carbon steel driving a cast-iron inlet timing gear, the exhaust camshaft gears being of phosphor-bronze. A fourth gear carried the fan pulley and provided a drive for the tachometer. The cylinder heads were new, not those of the successful Riley Falcon, but the Autovia engine was literally two 4-cylinder units united, each block having its own downdraught carburetter, own inlet manifold, own water pump, and own exhaust system. The dynamo was driven directly from the nose of the crankshaft, following Riley practice, and this V8 power unit was 5-point rubber mounted, use being made of Silentbloc bushes.

To obtain a low chassis, and thus be able to claim a low floor level with consequent ease of entry and egress and a flat floor free from wells and transmission tunnel, Van Eugen used fully boxed channel-section side-members which passed under the back-axle, the latter being of the worm type. David Brown supplied the underslung worm assemblies, the first deliveries of which were not entirely trouble-free. Other contributions to a floor height of only 21 in. were trunnion spring-mountings in lieu of shackles and a front axle in which the springs passed through square box-type mountings in the axle beam itself. A good lock gave a turning circle of 40 ft.

The front compartment was kept clear by using a horizontal r.h. brake lever and a pre-selector gearbox with its steering-wheel control. This gearbox gave four forward speeds, the indirects being either 17.28, 10.05, and 6.63 to 1, or 16.25, 9.46 and 6.23 to 1, depending on whether the 4.86 or 4.57 to 1 axle ratio was specified. Assuming the engine would pull 5,000 r.p.m., the respective maximum speeds were 25, 43, 65 and 89 m.p.h., or 28, 46, 70 and 95 m.p.h. Dunlop “Fort” 19 x 5.5 tyres were fitted. The gearbox was an Armstrong Siddeley and Van Eugen often had to reject half-a-dozen or so before he encountered one sufficiently quiet for his purpose.

Torque-tube transmission was employed with an ingenious vee-forward-mounting on Silentbloc bushes. Van Eugen designed a centrifugal clutch under Newton patents, to give two-pedal control in traffic. He endowed the Autovia with excellent Girling brakes with magnesium-alloy back plates. Other outstanding features were a 16-gallon rear fuel tank feeding the Zenith Type 36 VI-2 carburetters through an L-type S.U. pump, automatic chassis lubrication and inter-connected Lovax shock-absorbers.

Van Eugen, who controlled the entire project, even to making the required jigs and tools, designed a very deep-shell, handsome radiator with thermostatically-controlled shutters, in which a trace of Lea-Francis can be discerned.

A move was made to part of a rented Ordnance factory in Coventry and with 30 or 40 men Van Eugen was ready to go into production. The ultimate aim was about 20 cars a week, in sportsman’s coupé, saloon and limousine forms, for which Arthur Mulliner bodies the names “Princess Marina” and “Queen Mary” were coined. The chassis had a wheelbase of 10 ft. 9 in. and cost £685. The saloon was priced at £975, the limousine at £995. With prices under four figures and very great care taken over sound deadening, these fully-equipped Autovias, or luxury Rileys, looked like being successful. Van Eugen did his testing locally, eschewing Brooklands, as this was a luxury car. He drove a limousine as his personal car. On the bench at the Ordnance factory the engine gave 97 b.h.p. with silencers and all components in place.

The first Autovia made its appearance at the 1936 Ramsgate Concours d’Elegance, eighteen months after Van Eugen had been appointed to produce it, and it took first prize in the £1,000 class. Press road-tests confirmed that the saloon would exceed 90 m.p.h. on Brooklands Track, although Autovia Cars Ltd., whose address was Midland Road, Coventry, were content to claim 80 m.p.h. Alas, Riley Motors got into financial difficulties, the Autovia project was moved back to the Riley works and early in 1938, when a receiver was appointed for Riley (Coventry) Ltd., because Autovia Cars Ltd. was an asset it was put into voluntary liquidation. Perhaps 50 cars had been made.

Naturally, Van Eugen was broken-hearted. He returned home a disillusioned man, until Sir Miles Thomas sent for him to work for Wolseley Motors Ltd. There he did excellent work, notably in developing the A-, B- and C-type B.M.C. back-axles, as a beautiful little model of one of these axles, presented to him on his retirement, testifies. Just prior to the war he was associated with a Wolseley 25 which was to have had a Cotal electric gearbox built in Birmingham, using Lucas coils in the magnets, under the French licence. Three of these experimental Wolseleys were built but this was another project killed by the war. Van Eugen, however, still owns the first Wolseley 6/80 to be made.

I make no excuse for including these comments on the Autovia in this section of Motor Sport, because I am sure that, confronted with one of these unusual and handsome cars, the V.S.C.C. would accept it as a p.v.t.—W. B.