No. 47: THE BATTEN SPECIAL
JAMES BATTEN was demobilised from Malcolm Campbell’s Squadron of the RFC at the end of the 1914/18 war, after adventurous times flying Sopwith Pups and similar aeroplanes. He celebrated the outbreak of peace by running unusual motor cars, of which a Stanley steamer left a lasting impression on account of its smooth, quiet and effortless running. In the 1920s Batten decided to cash in on the demand amongst the sons of wealthy parents in the Beckenham area for Specials. He owned The Beckenham Motor Co. at 181, High Street, Beckenham, Kent, and his first move was to offer an alloy head conversion kit for Morris-Cowleys. This was well received, so he began to build complete Specials, such as the Beckenham Special (ON chassis, 12/50 Barson Alvis engine), the Barson Special (Morris chassis, AC engine), and the Salmon Special (Morris chassis, 12/50 Alvis engine).
The idea of a big engine in a lightweight car, after the fashion of the old Stanley steamer, was in Batten’s mind and when used examples of that excellent power unit, the 3.6-litre side-valve Ford V8, became available he decided to market a car of this conception. That was about the year 1935, the first production Batten Special being announced in the Press early the following year. It was a successor to a similar car made for use in trials, in the same way that the Allard Special, also Ford V8-powered, gained production status after being built in small numbers for Sydney Allard’s friends, at much the same period.
A normal Ford V8 frame was shortened to give a wheelbase of 8 ft. and the rear part was underslung below the back axle, the transverse hack spring being mounted on a bracket behind and below the axle banjo section, a system of lowered Suspension which Mr. Batten patented in the summer of 1937. The back axle tubes were cut down to reduce the track to 4 ft. 2 in., and while the Ford transverse leaf springs were retained front and back, they were suitably shortened and their camber changed. Electric welding made these modifications possible and the resultant low build improved road-holding. The chassis lowering was matched by re-mounting the normal Ford radiator and shell 8 in. lower. Special hydraulic shock-absorbers further enhanced road-holding, while a lengthened drop-arm raised the steering ratio. Used engines were fitted because they were “nicely seasoned” and when rebored were at least as good as new. The Beckenham Motor Co. polished and matched the ports, etc., and set up all crank bearings with 2-thou. clearance. Ford alloy heads were fitted. A 3.7-to-1 crown and pinion coped with the reduced weight of the Batten Special.
Whereas the first Batten Special had been a simple two-seater, the first of the production cars was a four-seater, which took four months to complete. The body was held to the frame by six bolts for easy removal and equipped with hood and side screens. It was made for C. J. Hawkes, a Ford V8 trials enthusiast, and was given Marchal headlamps, Ferodo-lined brakes with racing hand-brake, etc. Originally Batten had intended to sell his special at £325, but he now announced that replicas of this four-seater would be priced at £375. Hawkes ran his car in the 1935 RAC Rally and gained a second-class award.
The idea spread and Batten Specials were run in trials by Inderwick, Murray-West, and Batten himself. The increased business was reflected in a wages bill of £100 per week for the 30 employees, who embraced carpenter, smiths, fitters; and painters in the spray room, Batten making his own bodywork. At first the cars were black but other colours were offered later.
For his own amusement Jim Batten constructed a special racing Batten Special. It followed the lines of previous Batten Specials hut the cr. was increased to around 7.5 to 1 against 6.5 to 1 for the standard cars, this being as high as it was wise to go, even on benzoic fuel. Eight Arnal motorcycle-type downdraught carburetters were used, controlled by short Bowden cables from a common throttle-rod on each side of the engine. The engine had Batten’s special bronze cylinder heads with alloy cover plates for easy machining, and was mated to a Lincoln gearbox. The final drive ratio was 3 1/4 to 1, in conjunction with 600-18 tyres. Mr. Batten tells me he could do 90 m.p.h. in middle gear in this car, which he raced at Donington, and that it would go over the Brooklands Test Hill at 28 m.p.h. in top gear from a rolling start of 30 m.p.h. The engine was taken to 5,000 r.p.m. and nothing ever broke. Even more remarkable, no boiling trouble was experienced, although the only precautions taken were effective louvres on the bonnet, there being no cooling fan. This car was discovered recently dismantled, but even if restored could no longer comply with the Batten specification.
Altogether some ten Batten Specials were sold, one going to Australia, another to Vancouver, another to Africa, while the remainder found customers here and often appeared in MCC and other trials. Incidentally, besides making cars, The Beckenhain Motor Co. kept hundreds of horses shod for Mr. Higgs of United Dairies. The last Batten Special made was a coupe for Lord Plunkett, who competed in trials but wanted more weather protection than the open models provided. His Lordship was sufficiently confident in the car to finance its continued production but, unfortunately for Mr. Batten, he was killed in an air crash just before the war. The outbreak of hostilities caused the Company to.be wound up in March, 1940,
This was by no means the end of Jim Batten. He was soon involved in secret development work of an unusual nature, part of which involved such things as Army motorcycles intended for the Norwegian campaign, which he endowed with folding skis made from old car bumper bars, tests being conducted at the Richmond Ice Rink, which was commandeered for a week! His own Batten Special was even used to tow guns across country, in an endeavour to convince service chiefs that expensive American Jeeps were not always necessary for such work. There was also parachute dropping of light vehicles from Halifax aeroplanes, on one memorable occasion without the static lines being attached, which resulted in a decidedly heavy landing for the luckless Jeep . . . From riding an ancient Humber motorcycle in a 1914 “Old Crocks” Brighton Run (he still has the medal) Jim Batten was active in the Motor Industry until about eight years ago, spending some of the post-war years with the Rootes Group. Now, at the age of 73, he is living in retirement in Lutterworth. It was at the suggestion of Mr. T. H. J. Spencer that I was able to meet him recently.-W. B.