Veteran to classic: Austin 7s in the JCC 200-mile races

In a class of its own!

With 750 Austin 7s expected at the 750 MC’s Silver Jubilee National Rally at the National Motor Museum on July 5, it is opportune to write more about this popular pre-war model. It is, I think, the only car which had a class specially created for it in an important long-distance race. There have been one-make races and races for special types of cars, which is how 500cc racing began, but not, surely, a class created on account of a good performance by a particular make and type?

It came about this way. The go-ahead Junior Car Club held, in 1921, the first small-car-long-distance classic at Brooklands, in the form of its 200 Mile Race over the outer-circuit. So successful was this courageous venture that the race was repeated in its original high-speed form in 1922 and 1923. It was for the 1923 “200” that EC Gordon England, who had started racing the then-new Baby Austin and taking records with it, entered. The race had two classes, 1500cc and 1100cc, so England had no option but to run his diminutive Austin in the latter, where it would face competition from the fast French Salmsons.

The A7 had created a storm when Sir Herbert Austin had introduced it in 1922. It was one of the smallest things of its kind anyone had seen, and cracks about it being a useful pram which could be lifted upstairs and cleaned in the domestic bath rivalled the jokes the ubiquitous Model T Ford had fostered.

The tiny 2+2 Chummy A7 was intended as a pure economy runabout, and it is probable that only the incorporation of four-wheelbrakes and electric lighting and starting in its specification got it the lucrative market which was to salvage the failing Longbridge plant. Yet, as England, and Arthur Waite on behalf of the works, had soon shown, it was unexpectedly fast indeed for a 747.5cc car.

The little thing had scarcely reached the public by 1923, so England’s audacity in running one in a 200-mile race was another astonishment. At Brooklands, speeds of a genuine 80mph had already been attained by Gordon England, a pioneer pilot on crutches following a glider accident, who had persuaded “Pa” Austin to let him have an A7 chassis to race.

For the “200” he took off his single-seater, fully-streamlined body and substituted a narrow two-seater with faired-in front axle, forerunner of his later production Brooklands model for which he guaranteed 75mph in stripped form. He had evolved pressure instead of jet lubrication for its big ends, which I assume Austin copied for the much later Ulster model, but the crankshaft was of the original 11/4in diameter, which we are now advised to avoid if any kind of high revs are contemplated. Yet England aimed to run his little engine at 4500 to 4700rpm in the race.

It had standard rods, a high-lift camshaft, Celerity valve springs, a high compression head, and twin carburettors, and, the standard axle ratio being too low at 4.9:1, England had a new final-drive made, of 4.5: 1. For his catalogue £265 Brooklands Speed-Model he put this up to 4.4:1.

It was in this cheeky little car that England had a non-stop run (and, with the celebrated twin-cam 1100cc Salmsons suffering from porous water-jackets, finished second to Bueno and ahead of the veteran Benoist) at 76.84mph. lapping at up to 78mph — a remarkable achievement, remembering that a passenger was carried and silencers had to be used. Five class records were also set. Petrol consumption was 29.5mpg.

It was this splendid performance which prompted the JCC to include a class for cars of up to 750cc then known as Class L, (but by 1925 as Class H) in its 1924 200-Mile Race. Perhaps it feared that if it didn’t, A7s would so trounce the foreign opposition that no 1100cc French contestants would enter which would diminish the status of the race? Whatever the reason, it proved a good move, for nine A7s entered for the 1924 outer-circuit event, together with a French Vagova. The latter was a very sophisticated six-cylinder racer of just over 745cc, with a centrifugal supercharger running up to 30,000 rpm, the ball and roller-bearing 49.7x64mm engine having desmodromic valve-gear and giving a claimed 35-40bhp.

The chassis had half-elliptic front springs, a combination of quarter-elliptics at the back, no differential, front brakes only, and two fuel tanks partly beneath the seats. The well streamlined body was by Maron-Pot and the Rudge wheels carried 710×90 tyres. The wheelbase was six inches longer than that of an A7. Mann & Handover had secured the agency here, and Spencer-Grey entered it, but it never materialised.

Capt Waite, who became Sir Herbert Austin’s son-in-law, represented the works with a car similar to the GE Brooklands model, its steering column lengthened to give a lower seating position, a celluloid sheet filling the space between wheel and dash. Like England before him, Waite hoped for a non-stop run, so the petrol tank held 91/2. gallons.

Single-ring pistons, slightly larger valves, double valve springs, a Zenith carburettor, and a BLIC magneto were used. The cr was 6.8:1, forced-feed lubrication figured, and with its 4.5 axle-ratio 5000rpm represented over 80mph. The mechanic had a double barrelled oil pump for recharging the sump and Waite used 700×75 Palmer tyres to obviate wheel shimmy. His A7 weighed 6cwt unladen.

England replied with some special cars shared with other drivers. He had found that practically standard chassis components would suffice, but used tubular con-rods which the factory had discarded as unreliable. Two 30mm Zenith HK carburettors, a high-lift camshaft, very light two-ring pistons, special valves, and a head from which 3/64 of an inch was machined. were used.

The radiator was inclined, the normal element being supported on a hoop at the top and the fan was removed. Over the engine, practically covering it, were two saddle-tanks. the front one holding a gallon of oil released bird-feed fashion to maintain sump level, the back one an 81/2-gallon petrol tank protruding into the cockpit. The beaten aluminium seats were below prop-shaft level, there were no floorboards. the gear-lever was almost horizontal to clear the fuel tank, the steering column was raked, and the handbrake (on the left of the gearlever had no ratchet. Over all this fitted a 50lb, 23in-wide and 36in-high bodyshell made by Air Navigation Ltd of Addlestone, of three-ply on an ash frame. The tyres were 26in x 3in Palmers, and England hoped to maintain 4750rpm throughout the race. He was a plump man, by the way, and could hardly get into the car.

Knowing of the roughness that was Brooklands, England had fitted specially mounted Hartford shock absorbers. RE Hall drove a similar car, and Waite’s version was also supplied to Kings and Cutler. Braid, Hendy and Dingle had GE Brooklands-type cars which their owners distinguished with radiator cowls of varying kinds, hoping to enhance speeder cooling.

Eight A7s started in this 1924 “200”, but only two finished, Gordon England winning at 75.61mph and Gordon Hendy’s normal Brooklands-model just getting home before the track closed. England again ran non-stop, his best lap at 80.33mph, but a few laps from the end a con-rod and piston disintegrated into the sump. He finished on three cylinders, just over one mph slower than in 1923! Hendy ran dry of oil right at the end and had to stop to replenish. None of the other A7s finished, all having engine maladies. Apparently to run for nearly three hours flat-out required pressure feed to the big-ends and a means of replenishing the small sump.

The winning A7 used very thin Speedwell oil in engine, gearbox, steering box and back axle, a BLIC magneto, KLG plugs, BP petrol and Palmer tyres. Hendy had the same, apart from Castrol oil and Dunlop tyres. All had 4.4 axle ratios, apart from England’s 4.5 axle.

Incidentally, in recent times we have seen several replicas of one-off racing A7s at VSCC meetings but no-one has yet copied the 1924 “200”-winning car. Perhaps the cost of the special tanks and body is a deterrent? Anyway, a lap at over 80mph by a 747.5cc car in race trim in 1924 deserves remembering!

For 1925 the JCC decided to enliven the “200” by introducing artificial corners to the Brooklands circuit, although much of it still embraced high speeds. The 750cc class was retained and while the new course may not have suited A7s, whose 4WB were not the most durable, five started. Waite had a blown bored-out (57mm) A7 that had to run in the 1100cc class but a supercharger alone did not change a car’s classification, so Depper’s blown car competed against the other A7s.

Gordon England, now using a single carburettor on his 1924 car, crashed in practice due to his front axle turning over, but continued to drive the bare chassis while the body was repaired. RE Hall had the other Gordon England car, with Grey and Hendy on Brooklands Speed Models.

The new “road” course caused Grey to change his rear wheels after only four laps and a small fuel tank soon brought him in again. Then a front tyre burst the A7 overturning in a ditch, resulting in severe injuries to Pares, the mechanic, and scalp wounds and a broken arm for the driver. After a brief stop for water, England overtook the others to win his third “200”, at 61.16mph, although worried by overheating.

Hendy, running non-stop, finished behind him, but Hall’s too-hot engine blew its head gasket. This was changed in half an hour but he was outside the time limit, so Depper’s blown car was third, although its clutch disliked the extra power.

The course was the same for the 1926 JCC “200” but 750cc class entries were down to four. England had come out of retirement in case it was abandoned, although in the summer of 1926 he had advertised both his 90mph A7s in Motor Sport, for sale at £295 each. His A7 was prepared at his Putney works and Hall, Hendy and Walther made up the field, the last in his Brooklands model.

This lack of support was compensated for by a close race, England winning by a mere seven seconds from Hendy, at 58.28mph, Hall being flagged off, and Walther going out with plug and magneto troubles. England, class victor for the third time, finished sans his radiator cap . . .

With very slight changes to the comers, the 1927.’200″, at Motor Show time, was much as in 1926, but the 750cc class was to be dropped unless six or more entries were received. In fact, the JCC got seven, and for the first time the A7s had a rival — the only one in the six “200s” in which they ran! It was Samuelson’s 60 x 66mm 746ec four-cylinder overhead camshaft Ratier, which he had discovered in France. It looked impressive, with its Bugatti-like radiator, but never went very well. Be that as it may, Samuelson, who as Sir Francis raced his 1914 TT Sunbeam for many years in VSCC events, had at last produced a non-A7 entry.

Gordon England had retired from racing but Hendy, Walther, Wilson, Boyd-Carpenter, Chase (all well-known A7 addicts), and a gentleman disguised as “El Bolivar” entered, mostly in the faithful Brooklands stripped Speed-Models, of which Hendy’s had been supercharged. Boyd-Carpenter had “Mrs Jo-Jo”, Chase “Mr Jo-Jo” a reminder that Chaplin had named his Chummy A7s Mr and Mrs Flea, the latter suffering from crankshaft periods!). Chase’s car had twin Solex carburettors and a GE Cup model-type tail. All were flagged off the track in the fading light, Chase being given the class, at 58.14mph, after Walther’s A7 overturned. The blown car broke its crankshaft when leading, and El Bolivar had gone out after a multitude of bothers.

For the last JCC “200” a 850cc limit was set for the smallest class, enabling Hendy to bore out the cylinders of his blown A7 by 1mm, resulting in 779.5cc), but as it was a non-starter and no other makes were attracted, this availed the JCC nothing. Of the seven A7 entries, HC Spero won at 59.95mph, after some very consistent lappery. Walther in a car with slightly inclined radiator was second. Walker retired with cylinder-head trouble, Coldicutt in the low hung “Slippery Ann” changed a gasket before a misfire put him out, as did Dingle in his Brooklands Speed Model.

Chase, with his 24-hour record job (65.98mph at Montlhery), which had a T & T-tuned engine with Solex carburettor, and a Hoyle body, lost the oil-filler cap and oil deluged the cockpit, badly burning his left arm. He pushed a mile to his pit in blistering heat to replenish but, the oil pump drive having sheared. which a faulty gauge did not reveal, the engine later seized.

So ended the 200-Mile Races. Although in the first two years of its competition forays the A7 had proved its prowess in France and Italy, it was these Brooklands appearances which truly drew attention to the practicality of the Baby Austin and increased its popularity, which will be well emphasised at Beaulieu on July 5. WB