The Seven wonders
Lord Austin spent a lot of money building racing versions of his cars, especially the exotic twin-cam. Did he get a good return on his investment, asks Bill Boddy?
Great Britain did not rank very highly in the construction of racing cars for international events before the First World War, the exceptions being Sunbeam and Napier, with Weigel having a short-term try. However, we must not overlook the efforts of Sir Herbert (later Lord) Austin.
When responsible for Wolseley cars he built a number of racers, with the horizontal engines which he then favoured, up to the unusual-looking Wolseley Beetles, the largest of 11.9 litres. They were entered in the Circuit des Ardennes and Gordon Bennett races from 1902-1905. After starting to make cars under his own name Austin had successes in Russian and Austrian international trials from 1910-1914, his powerful engines were used in racing boats, and he recognised the publicity value of GP racing.
He built a team of six-cylinder, side-valve 9-litre 170bhp cars for the 1908 French GP at Dieppe, for drivers Dario Resta, who crashed twice in practice and went to prison for a time, Moore-Brabazon (18th) and Warwick Wright. As a try-out four cars competed at Brooklands beforehand, in a tyre-changing contest Two of them had chain drive, the other two shaft drive and I produced, unwittingly, what I think was the first Sherlock Holmes pastiche, when Motor Sport had the famous detective don an old coat and carry Trade plates, deceiving Dr Watson, when on his way to solving the problem of who had raced which of them.
After the GPs, touring bodies were fitted and one notable customer was the black heavyweight boxer Jack Johnson. The other GP cars were also sold. In post-war days one of these was used by Lord Brabazon of Tara to open the new Campbell Circuit at Brooklands in 1937, and one led the parade of cars in 1950 at the Vickers Anniversary party. It is now in the Gaydon Museum.
In pre-WWI days a very successful Brooklands Austin was Pobble’, raced by Oscar Thompson. His sister Muriel used the car to win the 1908 Brooklands Ladies’ Bracelet handicap. It was a developed 1907 25/30hp tourer with larger engine, 2.36:1 top gear ratio, and a number of different bodies fitted between 1908 and 1912. Versatile Percy Lambert also drove a racing version of the 19hp Austin, ‘Pearley III’, in 1911, before he changed to Talbots. This was sufficient for Austin to temporarily give up racing.
After the Armistice and reopening of Brooklands, Felix Scriven got the factory to modily a new Austin 20 and had immediate success. This prompted Herbert Austin to prepare the works racing Austin 20, ‘Black Maria’, for Capt Arthur Waite MC, who had sensibly married Austin’s daughter, to reply to Scriven’s successes. Otherwise Austin might not have resumed racing. The outcome in 1921/22 was as follows: ‘Sergeant Murphy’ (Scriven), three wins, one second and one third; Lou Kings, Austin’s works driver in ‘Black Maria’, and Waite, entered by his wife in a tandem-seater 20, one first, two seconds, four thirds, in the main 1921/22 BARC events.
After this Austin concentrated on racing A7s, but Scriven continued to race and trial his car. From this came the £975 Brooklands Sports 20, able to do 80mph stripped of touring clobber. But how many of the 50 built were sold, as enthusiasts waited for the 3-litre Bentley or an ohv 30/98?
The competition debut of the Austin Seven, aimed by Sir Herbert at killing off the motorcycle-and-sidecar, came at Shelsley Walsh in 1922, with Kings driving a 696cc Chummy up the hill in 89.8sec, well received by the onlookers. The company followed this with racing Sevens from the Longbridge, Birmingham, factory. They were very effective, achieving remarkable lap speeds at Brooklands.
But in fairness, it was the rather remarkable Eric Gordon England who prompted this having, after a gliding accident, asked Sir Herbert to let him have an A7 chassis from which to build a racer, as he thought this would help to convince people that a baby car was a sound proposition. His was by far the most reliable, but later Waite, with two A7s, got going, and his best lap was an astonishing 75.46mph, compared to England’s best of 71.15, on 749cc in 1923! By now Longbridge had built a racing Seven — with fabric body but standard components — and on Easter Monday, Waite won at Brooklands with it.
Gordon England was one of the greatest A7 exponents, competing in the Le Mans 24-hour race in 1925, from which evolved his delightful GE Cup Model, with fabric two-seater body, the spare wheel carried transversely in the bump at the rear. By 1925 England was also selling, for £265, the 75mph Brooklands Super Sports A7. Given a Cox Atmos carb and Hartford shocks, Waites’ car was taken to Monza for the Cyclecar GP. “Far enough away if it goes wrong,” said Waite! It didn’t The tiny car won the 250km road-race at 57mph, beating its close rival, Ordorici’s Anzani.
Three similar cars with twin Cox Atmos carburettors were entered for the Boulogne race over the circuit which VSCC members now tackle each year on bicycles. It was a disaster, all three drivers — Waite, Kings and Cutler — retiring with big-end failures. This was later cured by pressure-feed, as used by England and for the Ulster Austins. However, there were other good placings and, by 1924, England had the 300-mile record up to 80mph at Montlhéry. He was later to win the 750cc section of the JCC 200-Mile Race three times consecutively.
Success continued at many diverse venues. In 1925 Austin’s racing department, under Arthur Waite, produced the first supercharged racer, with their own blower, which increased power from the original 10bhp at 2400rpm to 36 at 5000rpm. MGs were now challenging the A7s to be the first 750cc car to do 100mph and 100 miles in one hour. The battle was intense but MG got there first, and any class records set by Longbridge were quickly bettered by Abingdon.
For sportscar racing Austin made good use of the production Ulsters, selling in 1929 for £185 unblown and for £225 with a Cozette Z5 supercharger driven from the timing gears, pushing up bhp from 24 to 33.
With a ‘works’ Ulster, Gunner Poppe won his class in the six-hour Irish ‘GP’ at Phoenix Park in 1929, and Sir Herbert entered three Ulsters in the TT (their name derives from this race) for S V Holbrook, GE Caulicutt and Archie Frazer-Nash. The last two came third and fourth behind Caracciola’s Mercedes and Campari’s Alfa Romeo, warmly praised by the German driver. It’s impossible to list all their successes, but at Phoenix Park in 1930, Frazer-Nash’s Ulster was third.
One of the greatest Austin performances of all, in my opinion, came in that year’s BRDC 500-Mile Race at Brooklands, when Sammy Davis of The Autocar and the Earl of March won at 83.42mph, including pitstops, holding 5000rpm for most of the race in a stripped s/c Ulster. Five days later the same Austin took Class H records from 50 miles to the 12 hours, at 81.71mph, stops included, and the flying-start km at 89mph — with no attention since the ‘500’ according to Davis! Of course, MG soon took its revenge. That ended the first period of Austin’s racing.
The second era began in 1931, notably with the sophisticated blown side-valve single-seaters, later called affectionately ‘Dutch Clogs’ or ‘Rubber Ducks’. Waite was in charge. The first special car had outboard streamlining between front and back wheels and, with Roots blower, gave 56bhp at 6000rpm. After some problems Leon Cushman did 102.28mph for the two-way km at Brooldands; but MG had been first to the ‘ton’, at Montlhéry, where Gwenda Stewart then did 10km at 109.5 before the crank broke. At Brooldands in 1932, Driscoll raised the class lap record to 103.11mph.
The new cars had minor successes, a team of fast but uncomfortable ‘Ducks’ winning the 1931 LCC Relay Race. At Southport sands Driscoll did the flying-start km at 122.7mph.
Lord Austin then gave Murray Jamieson the task of designing completely new race cars, which he hoped would enhance British prestige.
The specifications of his twin-cam Austin were exciting, even if he was required to keep to 750cc and use a transverse front spring and quarter-elliptic rear springs in the A7 tradition. He used a wet-liner block with very big valves at 90deg opposed angle, each closed by three springs, and dry-sump lubrication. The crankshaft ran in two roller bearings and a plain centre bearing, and the camshafts were driven from the back, as was the 22lb-boost Roots supercharger running at 1.5 times engine speed. The aim was 120bhp from 744cc at 11,000rpm, but prudence prevailed with 7600rpm. A double-reduction back axle lowered the propshaft, and the cable brakes had cast-iron drums. A 25-gallon fuel tank allowed for 4-7mpg. The wheelbase was 6ft 10in, tyre size 525×16, racing weight 9cwt 84lbs.
By October 1935 Jamieson had tested at Donington, and two more twin-ohc cars were built. Lord Austin called a meeting at the Grand Hotel in Birmingham in March 1936 to announce his new racing programme.
It was all most exciting, and must have cost Austin much money. Did he get a reasonable return? Not at first, because a mysterious collapse of the pistons, disguised as ignition or fuel-feed failures, afflicted the twin-cam cars, causing Driscoll and Goodacre to retire from the JCC International Trophy race. Baümer’s side-valve Austin beat Goodacre’s twin-cam at Shelsley Walsh, and all three twin-cams retired at County Down and at Donington’s Nuffield Trophy race, though Prince Bira’s side-valve was fifth. On a shorter assignment at Madresfield, the piston crowns survived and the three twin-cam cars dominated, Hadley fastest (31.6sec). Alas, at Backwell hill climb, Driscoll crashed, was badly injured, and his twin-cam Austin written-off.
Then SU solved the problem via dual float-chambers, and Hadley broke the Craigantlet course record (82.2sec) and, at Shelsley, Goodacre won his class (45.48sec). Nothing was achieved in the BRDC ‘500’, but Charlie Dodson set a mass of new class records, doing 122.74mph over the flying kilometre.
Things continued to go well in ’37. Although in the Empire Trophy race Driscoll’s car caught fire and Kay Petre retired, at Donington’s Coronation Meeting, Goodacre won all four races, the bigger cars ineffective in the rain. At Shelsley Walsh, Hadley put up a staggering 40.83sec in the wet to Mays’ 38.90sec in ERA R4B. Austins took the Team Prize and were 1-2-3-4, (Hadley, Baümer, Goodacre and Petre) in their class. In the LCC Relay Race at Brooldands the scratch Austin team won at 105.63mph, an average never beaten. There was a fine showing at the Crystal Palace Cup race, in which a wet track helped Hadley beat Bira’s 2.9-litre Maserati. He then twice lowered the Craigantlet record, and at Shelsley he and Goodacre both beat the class record, and Kay won the Ladies’ Challenge. In the ‘500’ race both twin-cams had troubles, but Goodacre managed a third behind the ERAs at the Palace.
In 1938, rumour said that Lord Austin, who had spent much money on it, was giving up his racing programme. Not so! That year there was a fourth at the Palace, a splendid win in Donington’s Empire Trophy, two second-FTDs at Shelsley, Buckley’s class win at Prescott, second in the Nuffield Trophy, the Team Trophy at Shelsley, FTD at Craigantlet and a win in the Brooklands Dunlop Jubilee.
The 1939 season saw a second in the Empire Trophy race, a fine second in the Crystal Palace Cup, a class FTD at Shelsley and Hadley’s great victory, from an MG, in the Palace’s Imperial Trophy race. And the 750cc Mountain and Campbell circuit lap records will forever stand to Dodson and Hadley.
Perhaps Lord Austin did get value for money from racing, especially the attractive twin-cam, which Sir Stirling Moss has described as “beautifully controllable”.
But what if this fine car had been given a larger engine?