The racing cars of Ron Horton

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Described to the Editor in a recent interview

Those who are inspired by pre-war MG performances will certainly not have forgotten R. T. Horton, who achieved many notable successes with cars of that make, particularly round the outer-circuit at Brooklands in his off-set single-seater C-type Midget and similarly-bodied K3 Magnette. Ron Horton’s motor-racing victories were all the more creditable because he was a true amateur driver, unaided by the factory.

Ever since the war put an end to Brooklands and motor-racing in the old tradition, I had hoped to meet Mr. Horton and talk about his activities in those days. I knew he had lived in Birmingham but had failed to trace his whereabouts, until a chance reference in the recent article about the early motoring days in Herefordshire, based on Harold Butcher’s memories, caused me to ask that gentleman if he knew what had happened to Horton. “He is farming not far from you,” I was informed, and that is how this fascinating interview came about…

Horton was keen on motor-cars and motoring from an early age. Indeed, at the age of 13, soon after the end of the First World War, he was driving his 1912 Grand Prix Morgan with water-cooled JAP engine about the lanes and highways of Herefordshire and adjacent counties. His enthusiasm led him to work at a garage in Ledbury and when the owner and staff visited the Motor Cycle Show in London, Horton saw on the Morgan stand a Blackburne-engined Aero Morgan, which he was quick to buy. That really started him on his long competition career, especially as that Morgan’s back wheel was secured not by bolts but with studs, which frequently worked loose. This took Horton to the Morgan factory at Malvern Link, where H. F. S. Morgan was “very good to us kids”, and Horton was encouraged to enter for the local trials and speed-events, and long-distance trials such as the Birmingham-Holyhead and the Scottish Six Days, etc.

At this time G. N. Norris was racing a very fast Morgan-Blackburne and Horton decided that it would be fun to try to equal or better such performances. The Madresfield speed-trials (the venue is still used, for VSCC driving tests) constituted the important local happening and Horton decided to try for FTD there, by fitting his Morgan with the correct size of top-speed sprocket for maximum acceleration, after changing up out of the only other speed these cyclecars possessed. He also took his Morgan to Southport sand-races, where he was able to win his class, if finding Basil Davenport’s GN “Spider” a tough proposition. He recalls what fun it was, staying at the “Houghton Arms” in the High Street where bed-and-breakfast cost ten-bob (50p) so that, after flogging his free gallon of racing castor oil, Ron and his passenger got free board and lodging!

It wasn’t long before Horton was introduced to further joys, at Brooklands, where the Morgans were permitted to race against the sidecar-outfits at the British Motor Cycle Racing Club’s Meetings. Horton, at the age of 71, remembers it well driving all the way to Weybridge because he couldn’t afford a tow-car, in spite of the noise those Morgans made, problems with the split-rims of those times, and the frequency with which even “soft” plugs would oil-up…

Horton had by this time taken a job with Lea-Francis Ltd. of Coventry. He remembers the very large, very old, pre-war, side-valve Lea-Francis (which model was it? Ed.), in which he used to be sent down to Acton to collect lighting equipment, from CAVs, and the long hauls he made on Lea-Francis chassis fitted with just a box-seat, to Southport, where, with the Vulcan connection, the company had thee bodies made and fitted. He was actually supposed, to help the Head-Tester but as this man had a liking for strong drink most of the driving fell to the enthusiastic Ronnie Horton. Also, under the Manager H. E. Tatlow he drove the mid-‘twenties Lea-Francis cars in local trials, such as the Colmore and Victory Cup trials and other well-established Midlands mud-plugs. G. N. Norris was now driving these cars, but was unfortunately killed at a sand-race meeting.

Horton still had his Morgan and H. J. Hatch of Blackburne’s took an interest in its successful exploits, lending special engines to him and Francis Beart. With twin B & Bs and improved cylinder heads and bearings this really made the Morgan go. For instance, at the New Cyclecar Club’s 1928 Brooklands Meeting, it started from scratch in the Three-Wheeler Handicap and finished second, at 89.4 m.p.h. Horton then won the Short Handicap from Maskell and Lones, at 92.4 m.p.h., and the Long Handicap from Robin Jackson and Lones, at 94.5 m.p.h. The 1,096c.c. Morgan-Blackburne could by now lap the outer-circuit at 98 m.p.h., which must have beee exciting…

All good things end, however, and although Ron had firmly resisted attempts to make him join the family Brewery business (both his parents were dead), he could hold out no longer, “Uncle Joe,” he told me, “came to the Lea-Francis works, but I evaded him. Then next time, he went to my ‘digs’, packed all my possessions into the back of his car, and thhen forced me to return with him to Birmingham.” This may have been a blessing in disguise because the Morgan had eventually blown-up anyway, and it wasn’t too long before the subject of this interview was able to buy a new triple-carburetter Alvis Silver Eagle tourer. Then, was his attention deflected to the world four-wheels. “You could do splendid straight-through snap changes from top to third on the Alvis, but if you missed a change the gearbox mainshaft would twist,” Horton recalls.

The great excitement of 1928 had been the first RAC TT over the Irish Ards circuit, and for the 1929 TT Horton purchased one of the beautiful little supercharged twin-cam Amilcar Sixes from Vernon Balls. He and Balls were, however, plagued by the cooling water boiling away. In an ingenious attempt to overcome this analene-dye was put into the radiators! This-had a bad effect when the fumes reached the cockpit, via the radiator overflow vent-pipes. Beautiful as these little cars were to the eye, only a very few, such as Widengren’s, ever went really fast. So for the 1930 TT Horton acquired one of the Brooklands-model Riley Nines that had run in the 1929 race. It was the year Nuvolari’s 1750 Alfa Romeo won at 70.88 m.p.h. and Horton showed how readily he had adapted to real road-racing, by winning the 1,100 c.c. class at 64.71 m.p.h., doing his best lap of the difficult Ards circuit at 68.4 m.p.h. It must have been about this time that the Alvis was purchased.

The bigger events apart, no-one of Horton’s enthusiasm for the Sport who was living in the Midlands could resist having a crack at Shelsley Walsh. During the 1930 season he had driven the Avon-JAP, a central-seater GN with 996 c.c. air-cooled JAP engine, at the July Meeting, winning his class with a climb in 49.6 sec., and at the wet September Meeting, clocking 51.8 sec., he. was beaten in this class only by the GNAT. He returned to Brooklands at the close of that year to win the Riley Handicap in his red TT Brooklands-model Nine, lapping at 92.74 m.p.h. This Riley continued as a Brooklands mount into the 1931 season, with decreasing reliability but netting one third place.

It was probably Horton’s encounter with the Avon-JAP, which he drove at Madresfield as well as at Shelsley Walsh, that prompted him to commission Robin Jackson to build the Horton Special for him, at the “Robinery” at Brooklands. Is was based on the Shelsley Specials of that period, using Frazer Nash components to provide a four-speed chain-transmission and a single-seater chassis with central steering. But whereas most of the then-current Specials had antiquated GN or Frazer Nash chassis, the Horton Special was built-up from new parts. At first it had a straight front axle, but later a cranked axle was substituted. The engine was a long-stroke, air-cooled, push-rod JAP vee-twin. A very short steering drag-link was used, the front brake operation was improved, and the rear brake drums came from an Amilcar. A Morgan cone clutch was attached to an additional external fly-wheel and the transmission was constructed of special steel in the more highly-stressed places. A red racing body completed the outfit.

In this form the Horton Special won its class at Shelsley Walsh in 1931, in 46.6 sec. It was also taken to Brooklands, where it at first proved reluctant to start in a race, although it eventually completed a Mountain Handicap, lapping very consistently at 61 .94 m.p.h.

Having driven in Major Gardner’s team in the 1931 Double-Twelve and taken second place at Phoenix Park, Horton entered the 1931 TT with one of those 746 C.C. C-type sports MGs, but it retired. He advertised the MG, which had only run 900 miles, for sale at £395 in Motor Sport at the end of the season. At the opposite extreme, a Morgan was still in use, in the London-Gloucester Trial, for example.

The Horton Special having proved too slow to be really effective in 1931, it was re-engined for the following season. Malcolm Campbell offered Horton a Brescia Bugatti engine for £100, but that sort of money was not forthcoming. What he did was to obtain from Geoffrey Taylor one of the early 1,100 c.c. supercharged Alta engines, with the gear-driven twin overhead-camshafts.

The car was given a shapely, slightly-vee radiator and in this form it again won its class at Shelsley Walsh, in 44.8 sec., a new record. The Morgan clutch was by now grossly overloaded, however, and it was difficult to keep the cylinder-head on the block. “What happened to it?” “God knows!”, says Horton (rumour has it that it was re-engined and given a new radiator and raced as a Gough-Frazer Nash by the Hon. Peter Mitchell-Thompson, who became Lord Selsdon).

Horton now turned his attention solely to MGs. He entered his red MG Midget for the 1932 Brooklands Whitsun Meeting, winning the Second Sprint Handicap at 89.58 m.p.h., after which he finished second to Featherstonehaugh’s Alfa Romeo, to which he had given 20 sec. start, in the Nottingham Senior Mountain Handicap, in the process setting a new Class-H lap-record for that circuit of 67.29 m.p.h., which was 2.29 m.p.h. faster than H. C. Hamilton’s former record. At August the car was a non-starter. It was on form again at the Autumn Meeting, winning the Yorkshire Senior Short Handicap from Widengren’s OM, with a lap at 107.8 m.p.h. and, re-handicapped in the Senior Long Handicap, coming home third behind Clayton’s Amilcar Six and the OM. This time Horton did his flying laps at the astonishing speed, for a 746 c.c. car, of 115.02 and it 115.29 m.p.h. This last was a new Class-H record-lap, beating George Eyston’s with the MG “Magic Midget”, achieved on a clear course, by no less than 2.36 m.p.h.

The high speed had been achieved partly by putting a remarkable off-set single-seater body on the MG chassis. Horton was getting no help from MGs, having to “go on hands and knees” to beg for anything he obtained, which would just be unmachined parts, for which he had to pay, although he was on good terms with Cecil Kimber. If he cracked a cylinder head, for instance, Abingdon works might find him a standard casting for £3 or £4. So a chassis with off-set transmission was quite out of reach. What Horton did was to get Jensen’s to make him a very narrow, long-tailed, track-racing body, which was mounted on the off-side of the MG Midget’s chassis. As the radiator had to be central, this body was rather like a curved banana, with the near-side of the chassis decked-in. It was all done very much on shoe-string. A special radiator would be cobbled-up in Birmingham for about £10. The engine tuning was done in the home workshop in Moseley, Birmingham, and Ron had only one mechanic, Fred Clarke, to help him.

Around this time he bought an 18/80 MG fabric saloon, as his wife and children used to go to races with him — Mrs. Horton says she thoroughly enjoyed it and, having complete confidence in her husband, never felt much anxiety while he was racing. The racing MG was towed from the Track to Birmingham behind the faithful Alvis Silver Eagle, until a friend lent them a truck. In later years a Brewery Morris Commercial truck, suitably disguised, was “borrowed” for the task, remembered as a rather pathetic vehicle.

All this paid off, aided by some R. R. Jackson engine-tuning, as shown above, and also when Horton, partnered by Jack Bartlett, won the 1932 BRDC 500-Mile Race at 96.29 m.p.h. Bartlett has reminded us (Motor Sport, 1 September 1977) that due to the length of the pipe between the MG’s supercharger and the engine it mis-fired for most of the race. The MG’s owner was more concerned, he tells me, with the discomfort of that long outer-circuit race. The cockpit was very cramped, with a simple metal-shield to keep the driver’s left thigh off the prop-shaft, and an aluminium bucket-seat devoid of upholstery. The latter was secured with coach-bolts, the heads of which were filed flush. One of these had been improperly inserted and Ron therefore had a most punishing ride! I asked him if it was not a dangerous and alarming experience, calling for much courage, to drive such a fast light, car, with no front brakes, for this distance round and round Brooklands, with so many slower competitors to overtake. This must surely have been so, but Horton is very modest, saying he never gave it a thought. “Mark you,” he adds, “I was young and very fit, at the time.” He never had an accident, but remembers when the steering wheel came off while he was going fast on the Byfleet banking. By leaving the brakes alone the car fortunately rolled to a stand-still without going off the concrete. In one race it became necessary to hold forward the advance-and-retard control, mounted low down on the steering column, with one hand, while steering with the other, otherwise bad mis-firing occurred; but even this did not bother Horton, who says he found it best to let the MGs find their own way round the Brooklands bankings.

That 1932 500-Mile Race was, of course, marred by the death of Clive Dunfee, whose Bentley went over the top of the Members’ Banking. But to win it with a home-prepared 750 c.c. car was a magnificent achievement. I asked Ron Horton whether he had a wild celebration. “No,” he said with a smile. “My sister who lived at Abinger Hammer had had us to stay for the period of the race and we went back there that evening, had a cup of coffee, and went to bed.” I imagine Jack Bartlett celebrated alone. Horton was awarded the BRDC Gold Star for Track racing in 1932. Justifiably, I would say!

In 1933 Horton used the prototype MG Magnette which had made FTD in its class at the Mont des Mules hill-climb, registration number JB 1046. He won a race with it at the very first Donington Park Meeting and later the sports-car class at Shelsley Walsh.

The Villiers-blown Alta-engined Horton Special and the single-seater 750 c.c. MG were both used at Brooklands in 1933, the latter now so fast that it qualified for Lightning Handicaps, finishing third behind T.A.S.O. Mathieson’s Bugatti and Tommy Wisdom’s big Leyland-Thomas at Easter, with a lap at 109.22 m.p.h. and taking another third place in the “Long” race, with the lap-speed up to 112.93 m.p.h. The MG was now all red, its wheels matching its slim body. At Whitsun it lapped at 114.23 m.p.h. against an adverse handicap but Horton’s new MG Magnette retired on the last lap of a Mountain race.

His MG Magnette K3007 had run in the BRDC Empire Trophy Race, when it lapped at the astonishing speed for a stripped but not streamlined two-seater of 115.55 m.p.h., breaking the Salmson’s long-standing Class-G lap-record. Horton took third place at that meeting in the India Trophy Race, at 108.2 m.p.h., and was fourth in the main race, at 106.76 m.p.h. although hampered by clutch slip. This remarkable performance was achieved by running the supercharger faster than on standard K3’s, “using some gears cobbled up by a pal in Birmingham”, and altering the carburetter jets to comply. Obviously an MG Magnette that could lap Brooklands at over 115 m.p.h. stood a good chance of winning the TT. Horton tested the car at Brooklands, and it was going extremely well, so that over in Ireland he only extended it fully along the Newtownards straight, so that other competitors would not realise its potential. Confident that he could win his class, if not the race unless mechanical trouble intervened, he went happily to bed in his hotel in Bangor the night before the TT. He woke in the morning with such bad lumbago that he couldn’t get up, let alone drive a 400-mile race – “the saddest story of my life”, – Ron Horton says. He didn’t even see the contest, in which he had a good chance of beating even Nuvolari, who won in the “works” MG Magnette….

The MG Midget had been used for the JCC International Trophy Race, looking oddly out of place with its outer-circuit body, but now provided with front-wheel brakes. It was plagued with plug trouble and retired when the clutch gave out. Later in the year it ran in the 500-Mile Race when Charles Brackenbury drove it as its owner was still indisposed, but again plug trouble intruded. Horton recovered in time for the Autumn BARC races, at which the Magnette took third place in a Mountain Handicap, doing two laps at 69.51 m.p.h.

The subject of this interview was such a versatile driver that it is impossible to record all his activities he even remembers being persuaded into driving in the 1933 Alpine Trial in a Triumph Southern Cross, because an Army cousin knew Col. Holbrook of that Company. He took Fred Clarke with him. “Terrible cars, they  were slower than a Morris Minor,” says Horton! One fine achievement of Horton’s in 1933 was winning the 800c.c. race at the Avus track in Germany. The MG Midget had blown-up at Brooklands on the eve of shipment and this was the one occasion when Cecil Kimber of MGs did lend Horton a racing engine. This was agreed after a phone-call and the faithful Alvis became a high-speed truck on a frenzied dash from the Track to Abingdon and back. The new engine was installed in great haste at T & T’s and on arrival at Avus Horton had to spend the two days of practice running it in. He was thus unable to make his usual “fast tour”, as he always described his quicker practice laps. So in the race he followed the DKW and Austin cars round the steep-banked turns and then spurted to victory averaging 90.9 m.p.h. and winning from Barnes’ Austin 7 and a DKW. Mr. and Mrs. Horton still remember this occasion with amusement, for Herr Hitler gave Horton a hand-shake and presented him with the equivalent of £200.

Horton’s last full season was perhaps his greatest. By 1934 he was concentrating mainly on the Brooklands outer-circuit, with his very quick, ultra-slim MGs, the Magnette now re-bodied, like the Midget, as a slim, off-set single-seater, although he took the Magnette single-seater, unsuitable as it was, to Shelsley Walsh, and also drove his Special there again. These MGs were now kept at Brooklands and very meticulously prepared by Ken Taylor of T & T’s, although occasionally they would be taken back to Birmingham to have some extra magic installed by Fred Clarke and their owner.

Both these MGs were entered for the 1934 Easter BARC Meeting, a great day for Horton. The 750 car, now with aluminium-painted wheels, was second to Freddie Dixon’s Riley in the Ripley Lightning Short Handicap, having given Dixon four seconds start. It lifted its own Class lap-record to 116.64 m.p.h. Ron Horton then brought out the Magnette (also red with aluminium-painted wheels) for the “Long” race and, lapping at 115.55 m.p.h,, which equalled his own lap-record, he took third place.

At Whitsun he really went motoring. The MG Magnette easily won the Merrow Lightning Short Handicap. Horton lifting-off before the finish, his best lap at 120.59 m.p.h, and, rehandicapped for the Gold Star Race, he got round at the new Class lap-record speed of 123.58 m.p.h. before failing, for some unremembered reason, to complete another lap. Motor Sport said at the time: “His red Magnette was remarkably silent, and held the track better than cars of twice its size” … This was the car’s fastest-ever lap in Horton’s hands.

Its owner had the satisfaction of knowing that he had the fastest 750 c.c. and 1,100 c.c. cars at Brooklands. Moreover, earlier in the year he had proved the reliability of these MG’s by capturing the Class-G hour record at 117.03 m.p.h. and Others up to 200 kilometres, with the Magnette and long-distance Class-H records, again up to 200-kilometres, in the Midget, and he further demonstrated the Magnettc’s versatility by taking the Class-G standing-start mile record at 83.2 m.p.h., after a struggle with the gear-change on the first attempt. Horton also raced the single-seater Magnette in the loM Mannin Beg race, finishing 7th. at 65.58 m.p.h., inpite of a reluctant water pump. In practice, though, a stub-axle had broken, by the cemetery. He drove this red Magnette monoposto in the BRDC 500-Mile Race and the JCC International Trophy Race at Brooklands, while the monoposto Midget was used in the Brooklands Empire Trophy Race, in spite of the artificial corners. Incidentally, Horton and his family used to stay at “The Ship” in Byfleet on these occasions, where I happened to be only four days before this interview, waiting for the VSCC Driving-Tests to start, at the old Track …

Major “Goldie” Gardner had long craved a single-seater Magnette and Horton sold him K3007 in 1934 and acquired Hamilton’s less-specialised monoposto MG Magnette, K3009, after its owner had unfortunately been killed in August. Horton ran this car at the September 1934 Shelsley Walsh hill-climb but had a very bumpy ride.

For 1935 Horton had great plans. At Easter he drove the ex-Hamilton aluminium-bodied K3 MG Magnette at Brooklands, lapping at 115.55 m.p.h. He had bought from Whitney Straight, for £900, a racing Maserati with a load of spares and had taken this up to Birmingham for sorting out. Then the axe fell! Horton’s eminent position with Atkinson’s Brewery and the responsibility to his wife, son and daughter, ended his motor-racing career. He has never again gone to any form of motor race… Although Horton’s interests then turned to fishing and farming, which he still pursues in a delightful part of Herefordshire, it is nice to be able to record that he has retained his motor-racing trophies, pictures and paintings, and even a silver model of one of the MGs, as a reminder that he was once a very accomplished amateur racing motorist. Nor has his interest in cars evaporated, after 57 years with a clean licence. At the time of my visit he had taken a trial-run in a Porsche 924, is likely to acquire a Porsche 928, had just changed his Land-Rover for a four-wheel-drive Subaru 1600 Estate, and for fast road-motoring Horton uses currently a BMW 633CSi. – W.B.

Postscript: The famous monoposto MG Magnette was sold, as I have said, to Major “Goldie” Gardner, who had long craved a single-seater, and in 1936 he bettered Horton’s Brooklands lap-record by 0.82 m.p.h., perhaps after fuels and tyres had again advanced. Gardner then did 148.8 m.p.h. at Frankfurt with the Horton car, its engine now tuned by R. R. Jackson, and eventually its power unit was used in K.3023 (Ex. 135) in which Gardner was timed at 203.5 m.p.h. at Dessau in 1939 a terrific performance from a 1,100 c.c car. The monoposto Midget which, as our photographs show, had several different radiator cowls, as did the red Magnetic, during its meteoric career, was sold to R. C. Fleming and wrecked when Clayton went over the top of the Members’ Banking in it in 1938, and the ex Robin Mere/H. C. Hamilton MG Magnette went to Reg Parnell, and later to Ian Nickolls, but its later twin-cam engine is in America. – W.B.

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