That Great Little Man Freddie Dixon
Having recalled recently the careers of some well-known British racing drivers, the time is overdue to include Freddie Dixon. Born in 1892, Frederick William Dixon had already deservedly achieved fame in the motorcycle racing field, before he turned to car racing. Starting in 1909, he had won two 7 races, established records innumerable, ridden with great distinction at Brooklands, where he was the first to lap at over 100mph with a sidecar outfit and had gained a Gold Star by 1923 by lapping at over "the ton", besides doing outstanding things in a number of Continental and Irish races. These successes involved Cleveland Precision, Indian (as a works rider), Douglas, eight-valve Harley Davidson, Brough Superior and HRD motorcycles.
Freddie evolved ideas of his own to help with these achievements, such as footboards instead of footrests, to enable him to spread his weight about, slide instead of butterfly throttles, and most impressive of all, his famous banking sidecars. Dixon's name was a household one, but after marrying in 1926 he gave up motorcycle racing in 1928. He had served during the war in the RASC and now concentrated on his garage business: the couple lived in Middlesborough and had a daughter. (Later Dixon moved to Reigate.) He had had more than his share of nasty racing spills, but I very much doubt if this was what made this very tough little man give up racing. Remember Arpajon? Freddie had done 130.6mph along that narrow, tree-lined road on the 998cc Brough Superior-JAP in 1926 (only 15.5mph slower than FIAT's 1924 LSR there), but the French timing-gear failed to record it.
By 1932 Dixon was back in the game, but on four wheels, having been to see the 1930 TT in Daybell's 30/98. Whether this was a concession to matrimony or because he couldn't resist the temptation to see how well he could tune cars, or maybe he realised that there was money beginning to be had from motor racing, I do not know. But return the tough Freddie did, still with his wild outlook at parties and disrespect for stuffy Procedures, yet as meticulous as ever when preparing his cars. Indeed, Dixon was one of the most painstaking over this aspect of motor racing. He decided on a Riley for his fresh debut, aware no doubt of how well they went and being used to hemi-head engines from his motorcycling days. . . Anyway, he was a Riley agent.
But he did not give himself much time, after deciding to drive in the 1932 Ulster TT. He hastened down to London to see if the equally mercurial Victor Gillow would sell one of his Riley Nines, Gillow having turned to the ohv Brooklands model Nine after racing and overturning a well-streamlined 1 1/2-litre Riley at Brooklands. After some haggling (I wish I had been there!) Dixon got his car. Knowing that the Riley company had entered teams for the first three 7s, he had confronted Victor Riley, and although failing to get one of the very lightweight works cars, as all were entered for the 1932 TT, he did later get a spare engine out of Percy Riley — eight had been readied before the race. Prior to this Dixon had tried to get a car from other makers. No go! Hoping for a FWD Alvis, he went to that company, only to be told he could buy a car (I wish I could have heard that argument!). . .
Next day Dixon returned to Holland Park, paid Gillow's price, and on the day entries closed, signed on for the TT. He left his engine alone but worked his magic on the Riley's steering and braking. The spring steering wheel was replaced with a standard one, heavier steering-arms were substituted, and the suspension stiffened up to obviate side float on the front axle. Castor action could then be minimised. Thinner brake cables allowed these to follow their 11 pulleys, braking was adjusted to a 75/25 front/rear ratio and the brake shoes were stiffened. The chassis was then drastically lightened and stiffened. The twin six-volt batteries were scrapped and the smallest available 12-volt one used instead, and 20Ib was saved by strapping down the fuel tank and scrapping its heavy bracket. Duralumin hoops stiffened the body, which was bolted to the chassis to aid rigidity.
For all this Dixon was able to use the workshop he had equipped when planning to produce a multi-cylinder motorcycle, a project abandoned during the slump; an ex-Naval draughtsman, Len Ainsley, had joined him and now toiled willingly on the Riley and became Freddie's riding-mechanic. A new long-tailed duralumin body, to TT regulations, was made, and the works engine was run-in on Dixon's H & F bench. The regulation spare wheel went behind the seats on the wider works Rileys but there was no space on Freddie's. The solution? To read the RAC's rules and find that any size wheel and deflated tyre complied! The front tyres were of motorcycle size anyway. A hand-throttle was mounted behind the gear lever to facilitate gear-changing. Other minor mods were made, the TT engine stripped down and reassembled (it gave 10mph more than the 1931 power-unit), and the black Riley was ready to be driven through the night to Stranraer.
Dixon liked the Ulster course, but the evening before the TT a blown head gasket involved tedious all-night work. However, he was leading the race on handicap, until overtaken by Gillow's Riley. Freddie opened up and passed, but came into Quarry Corner far too fast — the car leapt off the road into a rhubarb patch. Ainsley was mildly hurt. Only Dixon's pride suffered,and when the roads were reopened the car was driven back to Jimmy's garage in Belfast. His excuse was tiredness and confusion over a pit-signal.
In mid-flight he was alert enough to switch off the ignition. So no result. But it may not be generally known that Lady Houston (who bought us the Supermarine racing seaplanes which secured for Britain the Schneider Cup outright) gave Dixon a £50 cheque for his effort — some £500 in today's currency.
Dixon's next plan was to build a Riley suitable for racing at Brooklands, where he had achieved so many of his great successes at BMCRC meetings. The result was the "Red Mongrel" single-seater, crammed with Dixon ingenuity. The chassis had straight cut down Arrol Aster side members, retaining a wheelbase of 8ft but being very narrow, like the forepart of a normal Riley 9, with the 4ft front track but with Woodhead quarter-elliptic back springs and a 3ft crabtracked back axle with no differential. Only two main front and rear cross members, plus the engine mountings, braced the frame. The body was 22in wide. A 30-gallon fuel tank was secured in the tail with steel straps. There were brakes on the front wheels only. The radiator was inclined and sealed, so that it could be completely cowled apart from a bottom duct of 22x1 1/4in, equal to the area of the holes in the radiator. This was but one Dixon ingenuity. To another TT engine from the Riley works he fitted four SU carburettors with detail mods to ensure efficient functioning. With a c r of 11:1 the engine gave 68bhp at 6000rpm, which Dixon intended to maintain throughout the 1932 BRDC 500 Mile Race for which he arid Ainsley had 32 days and nights to prepare!
Other small but effective changes were made to the carburation and valves, and clips were used to restrain the vertical BTH magneto, for quick removal during a race, although this was never needed. The cockpit was so cramped that Freddie sat on saddle-springs and steered with a one-spoke wheel cut down to one-third circumference — which upset the Brooklands Scrutineers. . . The steering column was horizontal. The sump was kept replenished by a birdfountain-type feed from a three-gallon cockpit tank. Dixon used his old Essex coach to rush to Coventry for bits and pieces. When "Red Mongrel" was completed there was little time to spare. So Dixon, having fitted rudimentary mudguards. side lamps, a horn and silencer of sorts, and number-plates, climbed into the narrow cockpit and drove virtually non-stop the 250 miles or so from Middlesborough to Brooklands! I wonder what was his average speed?
Success eluded Dixon in this first race, "Red Mongrel" soon trying to lose its long tail over the Brooklands' bumps. This was removed, but when the tank began to leak, Freddie opted for out, seeking somewhere at which he could top-up with another kind of fluid. In his shed at the Track amends were anticipated by attacking International Class-G records. The c r was raised to 13.5-1 using magnesium-alloy pistons. In this guise, in heavy rain, the car broke the 50km and 50-mile records, at 109.18 and 110.37mph. Conditions got much worse but Dixon kept going until the hour record fell, at 111.09mph, and the 200km figure had been raised to 110.67mph before he came in. "Ebby" then measured the engine, noting its secrets which Freddie used to conceal by shrouding what was beneath his cars' bonnets, even bonnet-locks being mentioned, while he was quite capable of quickly dispersing an inquisitive crowd — but now there was no option!
This being the case, back home Dixon's 1932/33 winter was spent getting more power from "Red Mongrel", which had given 14mpg on the record run. Dixon lacked a cam-grinder and eschewed getting new camshafts made outside his workshop, which other Riley exponents might hear about! So he and Len used a horizontal miller, finishing off with a special attachment on the grinder, then hand-honed the cams. Much bench-testing with soft cams was carried out first, against different carburettor and ignition settings. Night running brought noise complaints from neighbours; Freddie told them they should have been asleep anyway! Eventually the Riley Nine engine was giving a reliable 77bhp at 6000rpm. By then the engine was very sensitive to mixture strength and other settings, and it had to be carefully assembled, but the Brooklands regulation silencer did not much affect power output. Nor was "extractor advantage" tried, at this stage.
The "Red Mongrel" was entered for the 1933 JCC International Trophy race, and in view of the handicap chicanes and corners Dixon had to open out the cockpit at the expense of streamlining, modify the steering, and fit rear brakes. At around half-distance the head gasket blew and was changed, and although some 118mph was possible, a gudgeon-pin broke and wrecked a piston. A slight variation in mixture distribution was found, cured by using a float chamber per carburettor instead of one per two carburettors. which Dixon then applied to all his engines, fouror six-cylinder. (Another reason for a locked bonnet?).
Some races at Donington Park followed with the TT Riley, but Freddie had set his heart on the Gold Star race at the 1933 BARC Whitsun Meeting. The single-seater was doing some 120mph along the Railway Straight but the gear lever jumped into neutral and the engine objected in a truly big way. Best lap, however, had been at 111.92mph. Before that Dixon had tried a Mountain handicap and had won a sprint race at earlier meetings at Weybridge. He had also beaten Rayson's Riley at the first Donington Park meeting. Back at Brooklands there was a second place in a short handicap (lap speed, 113.19mph) and a third in a Mountain race in his TT Riley II, which later won the Woking Senior Mountain Handicap easily from Straight's more heavily handicapped lap-record MG. Miss Rita Don followed this by coming home first in the Women's Mountain race in Freddie's Riley II, aided, it was said, by Dixon opening the hand-throttle when she was about to brake for the corners!
In readiness for the 1933 "500", solid clutch plates and a needle-roller universal joint to Percy Riley's specification were fitted and the usual thorough Dixon preparation carried out. Before that Dixon had won the loM Mannin Beg road race with the TT Riley, at 54.41mph. from a couple of MGs, in spite of a long stop to fix the gearbox. "Red Mongrel" then led the "500" until Dixon had to lift-off for the sad fatal accident to Watson, whose MG had overturned at the Fork. The Riley oiled its plugs as a result, instead of stopping Dixon reduced mixture strength, hoping to clear the oil. This blew a gasket. That was changed in about 20 minutes but the weak mixture had holed a piston, and the Riley retired while still in the lead.
So much for Dixon's first two years as a car driver. He could be a difficult man, once pretending to mistake Col Lindsay Lloyd, the Brooklands' Clerk-of -the Course, for a gamekeeper, and it was a long time before the persuasive Earl Howe could get Freddie to have a friendly drink with him. More amusingly, when brought before the BARC Stewards for driving his very fast and difficult two-litre Riley so high on the banking that he baulked a faster car, he is said to have retorted that his mechanic was still with the car, there was some fuel left in it, so which of the aged gentlemen would go out and show him how to drive the car properly? "Red Mongrel" had no handbrake and when Dixon asked if his man could have a chock-on-a-stick to stop the car rolling backwards at a Fork start, this was summararily refused. One wonders why?! But the darker aspects of Dixon's life have no place in a report on his outstanding motor racing career...
By using a throttle-stop on the accelerator Dixon claimed to fox handicapper "Ebby". Certainly at the Easter 1934 BARC races he won a "Lightning Short", again lapping at 113.19mph, and was docked 10sec in his next race, but won again, doing the fastest race-lap (115.82mph). Finally, with 15 additional seconds imposed for his last race that day, he finished second, lapping only slightly slower. That was about the swan-song for "Red Mongrel", Dixon having acquired from Riley's two 1 1/2-litre six-cylinder cars on which to work his magic. Incidentally, with so many Riley Specials in the VSCC, I am surprised that no-one has made a "Red Mongrel" replica...
With the TT Riley in the 1933 TT Dixon would have been fourth overall but his exhaust system caused disqualification; Lord Nuffield made up the £200 he lost, say £2000 today, even though Dixon would have beaten an MG.
I have dealt in some detail with Dixon's opening exploits in car racing, to indicate how ingenious and meticulous was his preparation; this leaves little space in which to describe his continuing career. However. . . His first big event in the new aluminium-bodied Six was the 1934 BE Trophy race at Brooklands, in which he led Straight's Maserati for well past half-distance, when the oil-pressure dropped and he retired. Freddie blamed surge in a plunger-type pump on the sharp artificial corners. He had no better luck in the loM, scene of his old motorcycle victories. In the Mannin Beg race with his team, the cars were difficult on the corners of the "Round-the-Houses" course, Freddie spinning twice in practice, perhaps due to the light weight of his Riley. But in the race he was ahead of five MG Magnettes after 40 laps, 2min 24sec in front of Norman Black, the eventual winner. However Dixon had a spare fuel tank, to obviate a pit-stop, but it sprang a leak and he was dry. Less so, however, at the party afterwards to celebrate the Hon Brian Lewis's win in the Mannin Moar race in the 2.6 Alfa Romeo (to which Dixon's 1808cc Riley had kept miraculously close until the Riley's bearings gave out) where Freddie sang "As wild as a prairie flower".. . He had just bought the disappointing 48-litre Sunbeam "Silver Bullet" LSR car, in, it is said, a hazy moment. As with Kaye Don, it defeated him and he sold it to Jack Field.
Amends for the aforesaid retirements came in the 1934 BRDC "500" which Dixon won convincingly in the two-litre Riley at 104.80mph, gaining his BARC 120mph badge en route. He also entered a team of sports racing Rileys for the Ulster TT, in competition with the works, driving a 1458cc car, but failed to start, as did Cyril Paul, Pat Fairfield in the Riley Nine was third in class, with wild Charles Brackenbury as Dixon's reserve driver. At the Track Dixon lent his two-litre Riley to Elsie "Bill" Wisdom who, new to the car, lifted the Ladies' lap-record to 126.73mph in spite of a front tyre flying off during practice, Freddie in his motorcycle crash-hat, Mrs Wisdom wearing a black linen helmet.
Freddie scored two seconds and two thirds in Mountain races with the TT Nine that year, and he was awarded the BRDC Track Gold Star. In a different context, with partner Cyril Paul, the little man and his Riley were third at Le Mans in 1934 in a 1.5 Riley behind the winning Alfa Romeo and a French Riley; they retired in 1935.
Dixon continued in the ascendant in 1935, winning the BE Trophy race and the prestigious TT outright in a sports Riley partnered by Wal Handley. He was also second to Fontes' Alfa Romeo in that year's International Trophy. In 1936 he scored a "double", in the TT and the "500", his Rileys winning both of these great races, and his two-litre Riley was was now so quick that it brought Dixon his 130mph Brooklands badge. This time his co-drivers were Charlie Dodson and Charlie Martin. That there was no animosity between Victor Riley and Dixon was shown when the former gave Dixon a celebratory lunch.
In 1935 Dixon had won a 10-lapper at Donington, where he and Cyril Paul used the 1.5 and 1.8 multi-carburettor Rileys and he ran at Southport, and at Shelsley Walsh with twin rear wheels, but was scarcely ever now at Brooklands, although he was third in a 1935 Mountain handicap. (Mrs Wisdom and Fay Taylor in 1.9 and 1.8 Rileys started together in one such race, both lapping at 70.20mph.) Dixon had however earned the respect of Etonian John Cobb, who included him in his bid for World records at Montlhery with the NapierRailton, and the Dixon Rileys were raced in South Africa by Cyril Paul and Fay Taylor, gaining further acclaim. After which the supercharged ERAs usurped things.
The determined little Yorkshireman then talked Of having a crack at the LSR, in a 4WD car to be named "The Dart", with a backbone chassis and swash-plate engine, but nothing more was heard of the project. Instead, Freddie helped Major Tony Roll with his ERA and although, like W Bentley, Dixon did not see the need for supercharging, the results were successful. The above does not claim to be a full account of all that Dixon achieved, but I hope it shows that this racing-driver/tuning-ace ranked with the best of the British competitors of his time. He died in 1956 aged 64, after an exciting and worthwhile career. Long may we remember him. WB