Re-Union With A Minerva

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It came about like this. Graham Rankin, who lives just round the corner from me, last year acquired an impressive vintage open-bodied Minerva. He asked me if I knew anyone who used to own cars of this make, so, my mind never being very far away from Brooklands, I said that the late G. L. Baker raced one of these cars for several years at the Track. From there it was but a short step to arranging to drive down to Shoreham in Rankin’s Minerva, for the purpose of showing it to Alec Baker, who remembered his father’s car very clearly and had himself raced at Brooklands.

We chose about the coldest day of the winter for the journey, but it was at least dry; clad in a great many clothes and wearing flying hats it was not exactly comfortable, but we survived. Indeed, we got on better than the car, which was soon boiling, because ice in the cooling system had caused a local steam pocket which had blown out a core-plug; the most awkwardly situated of them, right at the back of the long cylinder block. (Perhaps Graham had omitted the treacle. You think I am joking? Then let me quote the Minerva handbook which, on page 58, says: “We may add that a solution of water glucose (25%) and a mixture of 25% treacle brings the freezing point to 7ºC; a mixture of 12% sulphite of soda and 10% treacle brings it down to 6°C. Make these various mixtures in a pail and stir with a stick”!).

This happened as we were entering Aldershot, so a call was made at Rees Bros., where Dudley Gahagan presides over repairs to modern tin-ware while his thoughts dwell on older machinery. He was able to put in a new core plug and the expedition was resumed. Although now some two hours behind schedule, the old Minerva, once it was thoroughly warm, slogged along effectively, so that we arrived at Mr. Baker’s house, just as he drove in in his Aston Martin DB5 and stabled it beside his as-new Austin-Healey 3000, well before lunch time.

So here we had a vintage Minerva in the metal and another one in the memory, as it were. Whereas Rankin’s car is, according to the maker’s plaque, a Type AC, with the 5.3-litre engine, which should make it a 1925 car, although it was first registered in June 1927, Baker’s famous Brooklands car had the Type AK engine. This means that the former is of 90 x 140 mm. (5,344 c.c.), whereas the latter had the 95 x 140 mm. (5,954 c.c.) engine. For taxation purposes the former was rated at 30.1 h.p., the bigger power unit at 33.5 h.p., being called a 32/34 in this country.

Over lunch many memories were stirred. Mr. Baker recalled collecting his father’s car from Martin-Walter of Folkestone, the coachbuilders who had built for it one of the most handsome open touring bodies of any period. He went straight from there to Bournemouth for the first English Concours d’Elegance, where the Minerva won the Grand Prix for the best car in the whole competition.

It was by no means a racing car to look at, having this very attractive boat-decked body. The running-boards were shaped like floats and were separate from the mudguards, that on the n/s being further forward than the one on the o/s, because, whereas the front compartment had a door on that side, but no driver’s door, passengers entering the rear compartment could do so only through a door on the o/s.

This staggering of the running-boards thus not only located each one under the appropriate door but enabled the spare wheel to be mounted behind the o/s front mudguard without it fouling the running-board on that side. There was an extra seat right in the tail for an extra traveller. The car was finished in dark “Baker” blue, with black wire wheels, and had vee-windscreens for both compartments. The boat-type tail was particularly nicely shaped and altogether this was a most elegant car. It was also a highly-practical tourer and, indeed, was used for long Continental tours, in the same mechanical trim in which it was raced. It was also quite customary for the Baker family to be seen eating a picnic meal beside the road, en route for Brooklands in their comfortable touring car, which would put up a good show on the Track, then motor home as if it had never been near a motor race in its life. . . .

For racing the vee screens were removed and two aero-screens were fitted at the front and for the more serious events the mudguards would be removed, but not the streamlined running-boards, which were fixed. Time has dimmed the memory of how the engine was tuned, but the block was very carefully polished and bits were cut off the tops and bottoms of the sleeves to alter the timing of the Knight engine, which was carefully balanced. The c.r. was thought to have been quite low, under 5 to 1, the fuel being pump benzoic. The sleeves were humoured by using Price’s oil (Rankin uses Mobiloil) and the engine was commendably reliable, although Mr. Baker thought that a little-end may have failed at some time, while Barren, who worked on it, remembered the link-drive to the oil pump frequently breaking, and being welded up by Rolands of Brighton, time after time. Eventually this Minerva lapped at 96.15 m.p.h., going down the Railway straight at 106 m.p.h. At the other extreme, it took the class for open cars costing more than £800 at the 1930 Brighton & Hove M.C. Concours d’Elegance, after figuring in the awards list in 1929, and at other Concours d’Elegance elsewhere. Incidentally, other Minervas were competing in these beauty shows at this time.

The Brooklands achievements of G. L. Baker and his Minerva commenced in 1930, when it won the Novices’ Handicap at a B.A.R.C. Club Meeting. On that occasion it did a flying lap at 77.57 m.p.h. It also took part in a Test Hill competition, its time of 17.92 sec. beating Graham Evans’ Chrysler and Aldington’s Frazer Nash, although it was, in fact, unplaced. Returning in 1931, it was third in a Sports Short Handicap at the Inter-Club Meeting, and second, behind Munday’s very fast 30/98 Vauxhall, in the equivalent long handicap. At the same meeting it was third in a 5-lap Handicap. The lap-speed was now up to 86.62 m.p.h. but standing laps were quite pedestrian, I believe because a special crown and pinion had appreciably raised the axle ratio. Before the 1931 season was over the Minerva had lapped in a race at 87.07 m.p.h. but its “lappery” was very consistent and the handicappers had got wise to it, so it was unplaced.

Not appearing at Easter 1932 and non-starting at Whitsun, the Minerva lapped at 88.3 m.p.h. at the Inter-Club races, without gaining a place. It was back on form in 1933, winning the Senior Short Handicap at the Inter-Club Meeting from Olive’s E.H.P. and later taking a third place, while at the Opening Meeting it had been second in one Sprint Handicap and, driven by A. L. Baker, had won another of these races from the big V12 Delage. It was now able to get round at over 91 m.p.h. but, keeping its speed down to preserve its handicap, it netted a “third” at Whitsun; later that year it made its aforesaid best lap ever, and others at over 94 m.p.h., without any reward, which is presumably why it was seldom seen competing at Brooklands in 1934 and why Baker turned to the Graham-Paige from 1935 onwards, which tended to get slower rather than faster down the years!

These were not the sum total of the Minerva’s successes. It ran in sprints, for which, because of its weight and gearing it was unsuited, was first in a two-lap race at a J.C.C. Brooklands Meeting, and used to take part in the M.C.C. One-Hour High Speed Trials at the Track, in full road trim, averaging 77.28 m.p.h. in 1930 in the hour from a standing start, to secure its gold medal, increasing this to 81.24 m.p.h. in 1934. It also took part in the J.C.C.’s similar but road-course High Speed Trial, averaging the required 57 m.p.h. in 1930.

This is a remarkable achievement for a sleeve-valve car, especially as such engines were not usually renowned for speed, and, indeed, did very little good at Brooklands. Before the war the single-sleeve-valve Argyll set up some impressive long-distance records but it was works prepared and entered. After the war Miller’s Voisin was a dismal failure and although Eyston did impressive runs in the big Panhard-Levassor, this was an 8-litre single-seater, backed by the manufacturers.

It is interesting that Mr. Baker bought the car after having had an earlier Minerva touring car. When his second Minerva’s racing days were over, or, rather when the B.A.R.C. handicappers knew it too well, he continued to compete with a straight-eight 5.3-litre Graham-Paige, bought for £47 10s., by his son Alec (it had been a London taxi), on which a racing body was built by Thos. Harrington Ltd. of Brighton for £150. This was tried with one, two, four and eight carburetters. With “one-per-pot” it flooded, so they made do with four, in which form it was a very successful outer-circuit car, winning the very last race to be run at Brooklands, in which it lapped at 105.97 m.p.h. It seems that both Solex and Amal carburetters may have been used at different times—choked simultaneously for starting with a long piece of board!

Alec Baker followed in his father’s wheeltracks, racing a twin-cam Salmson at the Track, driving the Vauxhall Villiers at Lewes, and taking part in trials, winning, for instance, an M.C.C. Triple Award in 1937, with an M.G. Magnette and a Ford V8 Special. He also formed one of a team, with his father, when the Brighton & Hove M.C. won the Stanley Cup at the B.A.R.C. Inter-Club Meeting, the third member of the team being Philip Fotherington Parker. He was serving in the R.A.F. in India during the war and returned home too late to prevent the Minerva from being sold to America for £600 and the Graham-Paige from being broken-up. (His father died a year after winning that last Brooklands race.) He retains his enthusiasm to this day, having recently acquired a very fast cut-and-short-6½-litre Bentley two-seater, while for old-times sake one of his companies was registered by the name of “Minerva”.

Naturally, on the occasion of this happy re-union we fell to comparing the two cars. Originally Baker’s had a single Minerva carburetter like that on Rankin’s car, although it is thought that two carburetters were fitted later. The long flexible exhaust off-take pipe curving over from the n/s to the o/s of the engine and running through the crankcase is missing on Rankin’s car. This means that Baker’s exhaust manifolding was on the n/s, as it is on Rankin’s car, where, because of its rear off-take, it warms the feet of the front passenger almost to sole-melting temperatures; it has probably ruined many pairs of Court shoes in its time! Perhaps this is why the front off-take was introduced for later Minervas. . . .

The earlier car has slightly smaller brake drums at the front than at the rear, whereas the 32/34 Minerva had equal-sized drums, and Rankin’s car has a bronze-hued radiator, which led to speculation as to whether this is correct for the earlier Minervas or just a case of the plating having worn off. The history of the car we drove down in is not known; three leaves have been removed from each of the cantilever back springs, which suggests that it originally had a closed, or a heavier open, body. The present touring body was put on about two years ago by Edmund Metal Works of Plymouth and the tall single-pane windscreen and fixed cycle mudguards cannot be original. The body, however, is sportingly narrow but the traditional very high set four-spoke steering wheel, which I remember from driving E. A. Price’s 32/34 Minerva, is retained, causing the driver’s eyes to come in-line with its rim! The r.h. gear lever is also very long, as well as massive, so the sit-up-to-it driving stance is obviously original.

There is nothing quite so majestic as riding in the back of a big vintage tourer. On the occasion in question the crippling cold detracted from the enjoyment; even so, the isolation from any engine noise, the impressive view down the long bonnet, the radiator from this sighting falling away sharply, and the steady ride added up to something very impressive, and “different”. In spite of its long cantilever back springs this Minerva corners better than many big cars of this era, oversteering only if put-about with abandon. The big wheel naturally takes handfuls of grip on corners but the steering is apparently light; the multiplate clutch is smooth and it is customary, says the owner, to start off in the second of the four forward speeds.

One travels in this car with carefree indifference as to how the machinery is faring, for the oil-gauge doesn’t work, nor the speedometer, and there is no ammeter or thermometer. Minervas use a combination of splash and force-feed lubrication and normally have an oil indicator instead of a pressure gauge, in which white or red sights tell whether all is well or otherwise in the oiling departments. This has gone from Graham’s car. There is also no indication of how much fuel remains, unless you get out and walk to the rear, when the glass of the 22-gallon/100-litre Telegauge gives the answer. The engine compartment displays a four-blade fan driven by a flat belt, and magneto, dynamo and starter on the n/s, the Zenith carburetter on the o/s. The brakes are vacuum servo-assisted and have rod connections, there is a Ki-gass for starting, and a plate tells you that the car was made by Minerva Motors of Anvers, which is presumably why it wears Willocq-Bottin headlamps made in Bruxelles. Fuel feel by Autovac is replaced these days by an S.U. electric pump and an Edwardian R.A.C. badge has replaced the famous Minerva radiator mascot.

It gets along very well on its 700 x 21 Dunlops, (originals would have been 895 x 135s), some of them remoulds. We thought that it was flat-out at 60 m.p.h., but on the way home this seemed more like 70—and going along like this it was apparently doing around 16 m.p.g. What fun vintage motoring is even on days when brass monkeys should stay very definitely inside the monkey house . . .!—W. B.

[Those interested in further data on Minervas are referred to articles which appeared in the May and December 1962 issues of Motor Sport, available from the back-issues or photo-copy departments.—Ed.]

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