Humber mystery solved

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Which are the most enigmatic racing cars ever? My vote goes to the 1914 TT Humbers. They were built in complete secrecy by this famous firm, which had done little racing since the 1908 TT, but were prominent at Brooklands. Yet these 1914 Humbers were of very advanced twin-cam design. But how many were built — three or four? Why did they have no identifying features, no badges, only their offside exhaust pipes for the knowledgeable to distinguish their engines from current Peugeot and Sunbeam designs? Were they made in Humber’s Coventry factory, or elsewhere?

In the two-day loM TT they were driven by designer Fred Burgess, who had been with Calthorpe, WG Tuck, and Sam Wright, but all three retired. But at the August 1914 Brooklands Meeting, Tuck won the 100mph Short Handicap, with a 92.23mph lap.

The enigma continued after the war, when WG Barlow and wine importer Philip Rampon each purchased one of the Humbers, as did Welsh bike-racer Sgonina. To this day some of us play motor-chess trying to decide which TT driver had which car. One of these Humbers went to Bentley Motors, where its chassis was copied for the 3-litre Bentley. Burgess was one of the engineers associated with it.

During hostilities two of these TT Humbers had been advertised for sale in unexpected places. Afterwards AJ Sgonina used his for speed-trials in Wales, the other two being raced at the Track. WG Barlow had some success with his before turning to a 3-litre Bentley in 1921. But another conundrum now intrudes, the mystery of which has only just been solved.

Rampon ran his Humber with Barlow’s in 1920, but this Humber blew up. It later appeared with a mysterious 102×160 (5230cc) engine. After doing a lap at 95.96mph at the 1921 Brooklands Easter Meeting, it let go in a spectacular fashion.

The Motor had it that Rampon was favourite, in the absence of Chitty I with a broken petrol pipe. But as the Humber was coming under the Members’ Bridge at 100mph, the engine seized, and it spun round twice and then emerged, backwards; a con-rod was found on the Track and the cylinder was missing. The Autocar implied that the car spun only once, and that the engine was not a Humber product; in the caption to a sketch it named this as being from a GP Vauxhall. A further enigma.

The dimensions of this mystery engine did not fit any known Vauxhall racing or production engine. Moreover, when writing to me years later, Rampon said he used only Humber engines in his car until installing a V8 14,477cc Sunbeam Arab aero-engine in what he now called the Martin-Arab.

There the conundrum rested, unsolved. Until, very recently, Nic Portway, author of that great book on the 30/98 Vauxhalls, I think the most evocative in sportscar history, was looking at some material from the old Vauxhall/Pomeroy archives. Among data on a great many engines was one under ‘racer’, with just those 102×160 dimensions, designed by Laurence Pomeroy Snr, probably before 1914. This must surely be what Rampon found and put into his stricken Humber. But where did he find it? Did he think it was Humber, or was he asked not to divulge its origin after that monumental blow-up; or was his memory at fault, understandably, when he wrote to me so long after the incident? (Rampon next bought John Duff’s 1910 10-litre Fiat and had many successes with it.)

One wonders how Humber got the advanced 1914 engine. We know that Sunbeam’s Louis Coatalen got hold of a 1913 3-Litre Coupe de l’Auto Peugeot and had it dismantled incognito in his drawing room, before reassembling it to form the basis of the 1914 TT and GP Sunbeams. (In 1977, I met one of the draughtsmen who was present.) Is it significant that when, in 1925, CD Wallbank found one of the 1914 TT Humbers in Folkestone it was sold to him as a Peugeot? At Brooklands, Douglas Hawkes, who must have seen the Humbers racing there in 1920, pointed out the error, no doubt noting the offside exhaust pipe.

Anyway, Portway points out that the Humber had four valves per cylinder at 90 degrees included angle, whereas Ernest Henry used a 60-degree angle for the 1913 Peugeot, and that apart from the Humber’s reversed cylinder block there were other differences, like the Humber’s larger 82×156 (3295cc) dimensions, to exploit the TT rules.

Kenneth Neve found one of the Humbers in 1939 and raced it in a great many VSCC events; in the paddocks it was an imposing sight on its trailer behind Kenneth’s Continental Rolls-Royce, with Pomeroy-standard picnics in progress! But this does not provide confirmation as to who drove the cars, later raced by Sgonina, Barlow, Rampon, Wallbank and Neve, in the TT, or which one WO had studied when planning his 3-litre Bentley.

Another puzzle also remains. After Wallbank had got his tuned Humber to lap Brooklands at 91.72mph, it won the 1929 Brooklands Autumn 100mph Short Handicap. Burgess is said to have come up, with tears in his eyes, saying, “I have waited 15 years to see the car I designed win a race”. Either he had forgotten Tuck’s win in 1914 or perhaps he had been away on aero-engine work at Humber’s on that occasion!

I can think of no more enigmatic racing cars than these Humbers. But at least Nic Portway’s chance discovery of that Vauxhall engine, perhaps for a tentative 1913 French GP car, has answered one query, 80 years on.