The Appleton Special
In the 1931 Tourist Trophy race on the Ards circuit in Northern Ireland car number 34 was one of the foreign entries in the 1100 cc class. This was a two-seater road-equipped Maserati Grand Prix car powered by an eight-cylinder 1078 cc supercharged engine, which was a scaled-down version of the Grand Prix engine, with twin-overhead camshafts. As the whole car was based on the Grand Prix chassis it was rather big and heavy for an 1100 cc car and anyway the engine was not all that powerful. It was driven by the Swedish driver Henken Widengren, but only covered three laps before it crashed into the sand bank at Newtownards. In 1933 the car was for sale at a very low price, mainly because it wasn’t much use for British events, and John Appleton bought it with an eye to building a special. He wanted a race-bred chassis with good suspension, brakes and steering, but he didn’t want the under-powered Maserati engine, so this was removed and sold.
He was proposing installing a racing Riley engine with an ENV pre-selector gearbox and as the 4-cylinder engine was half the length of the Italian one, he cut twelve inches out of the middle of the chassis and joined the two halves with welding and strengthening plates. The Maserati radiator and 2-seater body were retained and the bonnet was shortened and outwardly the car still looked like a Grand Prix Maserati except that there were only four exhaust pipes coming out of the left side of the bonnet. In TT form the car had weighed 231/2 cwt but in its new form as a stripped and shortened racing car it now weighed 171/2 cwt and it was entered for British racing events as a Maserati-Riley of 1100 cc during 1934.
The following winter a major rebuild was undertaken with two things in mind, one to increase power and the other to reduce weight. The whole car was taken apart, including the chassis frame and the side-members were extensively drilled. They were re-assembled into a single-seater width, with new cross-members and the Maserati springs, axles and brakes were retained, the rear springs hung on out-riggers to give a wide spring base. The engine was supercharged by a Zoller instrument, giving 25p.s.i. boost and the best available racing Riley components were used in the engine. Robin Jackson, the Brooklands based engine specialist did the development work, his designer providing new connecting rods, pistons and crankshaft. It was now called the Appleton Riley and was fitted with a single-seater body with a head fairing for the driver, like the contemporary W25 Mercedes-Benz Grand Prix cars. In this first single-seater version it was weighing 151/2 cwts and developing 118 bhp, about twice what the original Riley engine developed.
For the next four years John Appleton and Robin Jackson carried out a remarkable development programme on the engine, which necessitated special cylinder blocks from the Riley company, a three bearing crankshaft in place of the two-bearing Riley crankshafts which broke pretty frequently, and all new moving parts. New camshafts, an Arnott supercharger replacing the Zoller, a modified cylinder-head, a totally new oiling system and so on. The power output was pushed up from 118 bhp to 132 bhp, then to 160 bhp and finally to 183 bhp, while the weight was pared down to 123/4 cwt All the time the engine remained at 1100 cc and in its early single-seater form it broke International records for the standing start kilometre at 82.1 mphand the standing start mile at 91.3 mph.
During the winter of 1937/38 while the power output was going up from 160 bhp to 183 bhp the car was rebuilt with a lighter and slimmer body, still on the lines of the successful German cars of the time. It competed regularly in sprints, hillclimbs and races at Brooklands and the Crystal Palace and changed its name once more to Appleton Special, and the name of RJW Appleton was a strong contender in the 1100 cc category.
The war in September 1939 finally put a stop to its activities and to its development, but when the fighting was over John Appleton brought the car out of hiding and raced it again in the early post-war events. With Arnott superchargers no longer available and Riley components scarce as well as potent methanol fuel mixtures, Appleton de-tuned the engine and used a Roots supercharger of much lower boost and settled for an output of 135 bhp. The Maserati axles and half-elliptic springs were long since outmoded so Appleton planned a new chassis with independent suspension, but the idea never got further than the drawing board as he realized that too many years had passed and there was no way he was going to be able to drive competitively against the new breed of young post-war drivers that were beginning to appear. Fortunately he had not dismantled the Appleton Special while planning his new car, so he was able to sell it complete with a spare engine and all the bits and pieces.
It knocked around the Midlands for many years and at some point the very special engine was removed and it disappeared along with the spare engine. The rest of the car remained intact and was subsequently fitted with a 11/2-litre 4-cylinder Riley engine, and used in VSCC club events. Later the engine was supercharged and the Appleton Special began to show some of its old form, but it could never match its 1939 form when it was giving 183 bhp from 1100 cc.
Vintage racing kept the car active and it had a new lease of life which it is still enjoying today in the hands of Julian Majzub. The Appleton Special as we see it today is a far cry from the original 1100 c.c. sports Maserati in the 1931 TT but every move in its life has been well documented and I am indebted to Mr. Majzub for the loan of his very fine album of photos and documents on the life of the car from 1931 to the present day. Recently one of the special three-bearing crankshafts Riley engines came to light, but it is unlikely that it will ever perform in the way it did in 1939 when it had reached the peak of its development. However, it is nice that the car looks outwardly just as it did in 1939. DSJ.