A life less ordinary

Charles Amherst Villiers: from supercharging to James Bond, Churchill and a manned mission to Mars. Paul Kenny looks at an amazing maverick

When you are next in London with half an hour to spare, take a cab to the National Portrait Gallery and go to Room 31. Halfway down the right-hand wall you will find a picture of Graham Hill painted in 1961 — trim moustache, pale blue Dunlop overalls and black rally jacket. I like to think that he is staring out at the World Championship he will pip Jim Clark to the following year.

The painting below it is of Ian Fleming, creator of James Bond, in trademark short-sleeved blue shirt and bow tie and sporting that unique nose which he reprofiled against the head of Henry Douglas-Home, brother of the future prime minister, in an Eton rugby match.

The same man painted both portraits. He also helped design the engine that took Hill to the 1962 championship, supercharged the Blower Bentley which Bond drives in Casino Royale and Moonraker, and provided Fleming with the first illustration for Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. He held dual British and US citizenship, was equally adept at making racing cars, planes and rockets go faster, and was a regular churchgoer who studied the teachings of a Yogi saint. His name was Charles Amherst Villiers.

Born in London in 1900, Villiers’ father Ernest was Liberal MP for Brighton and his mother Elaine was daughter of Ivor Guest, of GKN fame, and Lady Cornelia Churchill. Winston Churchill was Elaine’s cousin and half a century later would be godfather to Villiers’ son Charlie.

At home his father’s Renault and the butler’s motorcycle entranced him, but it was when he went to school at Oundle that his love of the internal combustion engine took off. The famous headmaster FW Sanderson encouraged the boys to follow their interests, and in Villiers’ case this meant commandeering an old Curtiss OX V8 aeroplane engine from the science lab and running it in a specially constructed shed on the cricket field. Another major influence on his life, Raymond Mays, was a fellow member of Oundle’s School House and would team up again with Villiers at Cambridge.

His time there was not noted for academic endeavour. He is better remembered for the extraordinary hydroplane he built which intrigued and soaked fellow users of the Cam in equal measure, and the enhanced performance which he wrung from Mays’s 1-litre Speed Model Hillman.

Mays used this heavily modified device to win his first Cambridge University Automobile Club hillclimb, and set FTD in the 1920 Inter-Varsity hillclimb at Aston Clinton. The car also enabled him to win his first handicap race at Brooklands and compete for the first time at the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb.

After Cambridge, Mays traded his Hillman in for a 1-litre Brescia Bugatti and the partnership delivered even more impressive results. Villiers designed a new crankshaft that enabled the Bugatti engine to rev to 6000rpm from its original 4000, and Mays opened his Bugatti account by winning at the 1923 Southsea speed trials. He followed up by lowering the Shelsley record to 51.9sec. These successes brought the pair to the attention of Ettore Bugatti, who invited them to bring the Brescia out to Molsheim to see what they had accomplished. Bugatti was so impressed that he agreed to provide Mays with a second Brescia and asked Villiers to stay on to oversee the rebuilding of the old car and preparation of the new one.

Mays wanted to distinguish between his brace of Bugattis, so he called the older one Cordon Rouge after spotting a bottle of Mumm champagne in a London restaurant and the new one Cordon Bleu after the brandy. Mumm duly sent three cases of champagne to Mays and thus, 44 years before Gold Leaf Team Lotus, non-trade sponsorship arrived in British motor racing.

The 1924 season opened with an extraordinary 12 wins out of 12 for Cordon Rouge and Cordon Bleu. But Villiers continued to strive for greater performance and to ensure the cars could cope with it — the need for stronger axle shafts became clear when Cordon Bleu shed a rear wheel at Caerphilly. By the season closer at Holme Moss, Cordon Bleu was revving beyond 7000rpm and giving nearly 80bhp compared with the original 45. But Villiers had seen Dario Resta’s supercharged Sunbeam at Aston and believed that forced induction was the way ahead.

His first supercharging projects involved supporting Mays’s 1925 campaign in a 1-litre AC and giving Humphrey Cook’s three-year-old TT Vauxhall a new lease of life. Neither venture would be a success: the AC’s detachable cylinder head proved incapable of standing up to the rigours of supercharging, while Cook chose not to continue with his plans and — to Villiers’ chagrin — sold the TT to Jack Barclay, who raced it without the supercharger.

But Villiers’ fame was spreading and it was at this time that Malcolm Campbell asked him to establish the development potential left in the 18.3-litre Sunbeam with which he had recently become the first man to exceed 150mph. Villiers felt that a new chassis and power unit — a 22.3-litre Napier Lion aero engine — represented a better way forward, and persuaded the Vickers West Gunshop to undertake the chassis build to his design. He provided his services on what was to be the first Bluebird free of charge, first at the Robin Hood Engineering works in Kingston and then at Campbell’s home at Povey Cross. But he had been dropped from the team by the time Campbell set a new World Land Speed Record of 174.88mph at Pendine Sands in February 1927.

Villiers never received the credit he deserved for the stepped increase in performance Campbell was able to exploit, but his next project, the supercharging of newspaper executive Jack Kruse’s Rolls-Royce Phantom I, was certainly more lucrative. He dealt directly with the criticism that superchargers sap power by developing a self-contained 625cc 8000rpm engine to drive the supercharger and fitted it to the running board of the car. To offset the weight of this, he put two spare wheels on the opposite side. He fitted a dry-sump lubrication system to the main engine and had the single Roots supercharger serve both engines. Tim Birkin would take the huge car around Brooklands at 108mph, and Kruse was so pleased with the results that he gave to Villiers the Type 35 Bugatti which his wife had forbidden him to drive!

Villiers teamed backup with Mays for 1928, when the pair bought the ex-Cook TT Vauxhall and redundant supercharger from Jack Barclay.  Villiers still looked on the car as unfinished business and set about  refitting its supercharger in the small works he had opened in Colnbrook to complement his consulting engineering office in Sackville Street.

The Vauxhall Villiers, as the car was initially known, was far more than just a hillclimb special.  Mays, after all, won the famous 100-mile race on the sands at Southport with it in 1929. But of course the car is most associated with Shelsley Walsh, and it was in order to improve traction there that Villiers advocated the adoption of twin rear wheels fitted with low-pressure tyres. With this configuration Mays lowered the Shelsley record to 45.6sec.

For 1930, Villiers undertook significant developments to the car, which was re-named the Villiers Supercharge. An intercooler was fitted to lower the temperature of the supercharger’s output before it reached the cylinders, while a new crankshaft, new connecting rods and increased boost pressure enabled the engine to reach 6000rpm. The car was not ready for the Shelsley meeting at which Hans Stuck’s AustroDaimler took nearly 3sec off Mays’s record, but Mays did set FTD in the second Shelsley meeting that year.

Supported by Peter Berthon, a young pilot recently out of the RAF, Mays would go on competing at Shelsley Walsh with the Villiers Supercharge until 1936. It is said that the reason why the BBC chose the ’32 event there as the location for its first live motorsport broadcast is because it was thought the sound of the fearsome car would impress radio listeners at home. Mays and Berthon, bankrolled by Cook, were about to embark on their ERA adventure and Villiers had long since moved on to aeronautical projects.

But he had briefly been involved in the racing project with which he is perhaps most associated — the Blower Bentley. Tim Birkin had been the main beneficiary of the failed 1925 AC campaign, as he had bought the supercharged engine from SF Edge, fitted it in a boat and raced it with some success. And Lady Dorothy Paget, who would sponsor Birkin’s private Blower Bentley team, was also familiar with Villiers’ supercharging skills, having bought the Phantom I from Kruse. So it didn’t really matter that WO Bentley famously thought that “to supercharge a Bentley engine was to pervert its design and corrupt its performance”. He was surrounded by people — most notably his chairman, Woolf Barnato —who disagreed. In fact, Villiers was the beneficiary of Bentley’s scepticism. Since a supercharger was not fit to reside under a Bentley’s bonnet, it would have to sit out in front of the radiator.

Villiers made the most of this, making it part of his contract with Bentley that the blower should display the words “Amherst Villiers Supercharger Mark IV”. It did — eventually — but not in the proudly embossed fashion he had envisaged. When the car was launched at the 1929 Motor Show it showed no Villiers identification at all. He reached for his lawyer and the cars were subsequently fitted with a small boss to which Villiers’ logo and the requisite wording were riveted.

The supercharged Bentley 4-1/2 has become the stuff of legend. The fact that it never won a race, was too powerful for its tyres and suffered severe cooling and lubrication problems does not alter this and does not affect the efficacy of Villiers’ supercharger design.

For the next three and a half decades aeronautical and space projects would consume much of Villiers’ attention. He spent 20 years in North America, becoming involved in a wide variety of projects including a 10-man lunar base and a manned Mars mission!  And when there was no aircraft or space project to get his teeth into there was always painting to fall back on…

But he would return to motor racing.  Having assisted Berthon with the BRM P56 engine in 1962, he linked up again with Graham Hill in ’75. That winter he worked on a design to fit brass cylinder heads to the Hill team’s Cosworth engines and regularly drove to its Feltham works in his little Fiat 500.

Villiers’ race would reach its finish in 1991, just days after his 91st birthday. Today his daughter Janie lives in the studio designed by her father. In the far corner, sitting within a simple metal frame he built over a Black & Decker Workmate, is the little engine and supercharger from the Kruse Phantom. Two of Mays’s Shelsley Walsh trophies sit lovingly wrapped in one box. In another are some rare first-edition James Bond hardbacks — one inscribed by Fleming, ‘To Amherst, read it damn you.’ Upstairs, a vast, unfinished canvas entitled ‘The Miracle of Santa Clara’ dominates, but just as striking are Villiers’ charming water colour of Mays roaring up Shelsley in Cordon Rouge and his portrait of Pope John Paul II which was exhibited in London when the Pontiff came to Britain in 1982. Creations of an epic life that witnessed, and played a hand in, the greatest advances in the history of humankind.