Interview With Basil Davenport

The Story of the “Spider” and other G.N. Matters

After the Gold Cup Meeting at Oulton Park, I met Basil Davenport, creator of the immortal “Spider” which held the Shelsley Walsh Hill-Climb record in 1926, 1927 and 1928, and spent the rest of the weekend with him at his charming house in Macclesfield, to glean the true story of his remarkable G.N.

Basil Davenport took to motoring at art early age, commencing with a single-speed belt-drive Triumph motor-cycle, which he changed for a Morgan three-wheeler. In 1920 he purchased a new G.N. cyclecar and entered it for local trials. He modified it until it could ascend hills such as Jenkins Chapel and Litton Slack, and then, thirsting for adventure, fitted light-alloy pistons and conversion cylinder heads with inclined o.h. valves, and began to conquer the local speed trials.

At this time, the G.N. Company, operating from East Hill, Wandsworth, were enjoying notable success in Brooklands’ racing and important sprint events. The genial Capt. “Archie” Frazer-Nash was racing the slim single-seater G.N. “Kim” nearly every weekend, and Davenport still expresses warm admiration for the G.N. performances of those days, particularly in winning the 1,100.c.c. class of the J.C.C. 200-Mile Race on petrol.

When G.N. went out of business, Capt. Frazer-Nash set up in business on his own at Kingston-on-Thames. From him Davenport bought a G.N. chassis in the autumn of 1923, which, converted at his request to central steering, set him back £45. He also bought, for £60, the prototype G.N. “Vitesse” engine, a 1,087-c.c. V-twin with an o.h. camshaft over each air-cooled barrel, the camshafts being driven from the back by chain and the engine having two-valve heads, one of which was bronze and the other of cast iron. The bronze head was on the near-side cylinder, which received less oil than its fellow and consequently ran hotter.

Davenport, then aged 20, took chassis and engine home to Macclesfield, and set about building a racing body. As he was considerably slimmer at the rear than Capt. Nash, he decided on a body like that of “Kim,” only narrower. He drew it out full size in chalk on the linoleum on the billiards-room floor, made a framework of wood and panelled it in aluminium. The result was a one-piece shell complete with dash, fuel tank, etc., held to the chassis by six bolts and wing-nuts. Although somewhat heavy, the whole thing could he removed in about five minutes and it has not yet fallen off!

“Spider,” as the G.N. was christened, was ready for the 1924 season and did quite well in its class in several sprints. Later, the wheelbase was shortened one foot. Alas, at the Chester M.C. Mostyn hill-climb in Wales, second gear jumped out approaching a fast right-hand corner and pushing the lever home caused the G.N. to jump forward into the bank. It rolled over, throwing out Davenport, who was still grasping the steering-wheel. Apart from an excursion through “Allard’s gap” at Prescott in 1946, this is the only occasion on which Davenport has left the road.

In those days Davenport used to tow “Spider” behind his o.h.v. touring G.N., with one of his brother’s racing motor-cycles lashed to the side of the body, the whole outfit largely devoid of mudguarding; the police never interfered. Once he towed a racing motor-cycle behind “Spider,” as well! When a passenger had to be carried at Southport, he somehow managed to sit astride the tail, on the first occasion. Afterwards, Basil fitted a two-seater body for this event, in the form of a sort of bucket extension of the tail.

After driving at South Harting hill-climb in Sussex at the end of 1924, Davenport took the opportunity of calling again at Frazer-Nash’s Kingston factory. Here he met Nash’s chief mechanic, I. A. Cushman, who gave him some “inside gen” about making a G. N. V-twin engine deliver the goods. This meeting ended with Cushman saying: “Why not buy the 1919 1½-litre engine the old man has taken out of ‘Mowgli’ ? ” This racing G.N. had lapped Brooklands at over 89 m.p.h., but Capt. Nash had had a nasty accident in “Kim I” and probably hadn’t fully extended a G.N. round Brooklands since. Davenport pondered the idea, remarking: “Surely you don’t think it could beat Mays’ Bugatti and Joyce’s A.C.?”  Replied Cushman: “I’m certain it could clean up the lot.”

So Nash was approached and he agreed to sell the big engine for £90. This engine was the only one of its kind, having a bore and stroke of 89 by 120mm. (1,493 c.c.), four-valve heads of aluminium-bronze, two plugs per cylinder fired by twin magnetos, a 40-mm. Solex carburetter, and its camshafts driven by a long chain, at the back of the cam-boxes. The 200-Mile Race G.N. “Akela” engines were similar but had shaft-drive to each o.h. camshaft. This looked neater but, Davenport says, chain-drive was more reliable. [Incidentally,I believe the “Mowgli” engine originally used a chain at the front of the cylinders. — Ed.] To date, “Spider” had cost only £135, not including labour costs.

After acquiring his new engine, Davenport met the Mucklow brothers. E. L. F. Mucklow raced a G.N. “Akela” with great success and his brother, G. F. Mucklow, is now Professor of Engineering at Birmingham University. These three enthusiasts worked together on development of their cars, and later helped E. G. Sharp to evolve his very fast “G.N.A.T.”

Nash had run the “Mowgli” engine on petrol at Brooklands, never exceeding 3,500 r.p.m. Davenport proposed to use petrol/benzole and, raising the compression-ratio to 7 to 1, he found he was getting 5,000 with ease in the lower gears. This represented a timed 92 m.p.h. over the measured kilometre on Southport sands, and “Spider” used to cross the line at Blackpool at over 100 m.p.h., but it also brought trouble. At Shelsley Walsh that year, “Spider” went magnificently until 100 yards from the finish, when the engine seized solid. Davenport coasted over the line and, back in the Orchard paddock, was both disappointed and elated to discover that he had taken only 4/5 sec. longer than Major H. O. D. Segrave, who had made f.t.d. in a supercharged G.P. Sunbeam. Davenport now knew for certain he could beat the pick of the world’s factory racing cars in 1926 if he could make the engine reliable. This would be a very sweet achievement, especially as people were apt to be incredulous when “Spider,” purposely uncleaned, beat the latest G. P. machinery.

Dismantling the engine showed that the 1¾-lb. pistons caused the big-end rollers, which were ⅜ in. by ⅜ in. on motor-cycle-type forked connecting-rods, to overheat and fail, and break a connecting-rod. The only solution for the remainder of the 1925 season was the laborious one of changing the rollers after each meeting!

During the winter, J.A.P. connecting-rods were fitted and new pistons weighing 1 lb. 5 oz., instead of 1 lb. 12 oz., complete were used. This rendered “Spider” very reliable and almost invincible in the sprints in which Davenport competed almost every weekend. At Shelsley Walsh he broke the record for the hill in 484/5 sec., the first driver to better 50 sec. for this famous ascent.

During the winter of 1926/7, further modifications were put in hand, Tresillian joining G. F. Mucklow in giving valuable advice. In an attempt to retain its honours, “Spider” was given special cams to provide 9 mm. instead of 7 mm. valve lift and increased overlap, and the valves were lightened by reducing their stems and fitting J.A.P. collars and cotters. “Spider” now recorded 27 sec. for the Blackpool 5.5. s.s. ½-mile, still on petrol/benzole, tying for f.t.d. with Raymond Mays’ supercharged 2-litre Mercedes. But at Colwyn Bay a forked con.-rod broke again, as before just above the fork, scattering bits of the engine over the sea-side promenade. All Davenport’s engines have retained the G.N. overhung crankshaft, and Shelsley Walsh was only five weeks distant, but, undaunted, Davenport set about casting a new crankcase on which one cylinder could be mounted ¾ in. ahead of its companion, so that side-by-side con.-rods could be used. It was decided at the same time to change to PMS fuel, enabling an 8-to-1 compression-ratio to be employed, while Mucklow, who had recently converted his G.N. to two carburetters, supplied stubs and data which allowed Basil to do likewise.

The day of the climb was wet, but “Spider” clocked 474/5 sec., a whole second faster than it did in the dry in 1926, a new record, and the 2-litre Mercedes, a 4-litre V12 Sunbeam and the T.T. Vauxhall were vanquished by the home-built cyclecar from Macclesfield!

Seeking still greater performance, Davenport spent the winter scrapping the valve plungers used on all “Akela” and “Vitesse” engines and replacing them with a 1 in. by 5/16  in. dia, hardened steel pin in the previous guide, suitably bushed. Valve adjustment was now by cap and steel shims instead of a bolt and lock-nut, and thus further weight was saved in the valve gear. The compression-ratio was raised to 10 to 1, RD1 alcohol fuel being used. These modifications paid off, for “Spider” broke the Shelsley Walsh record for the third time in succession in 1928, first in 464/5 sec., then in 462/5, sec. “Spider” weighed 9 cwt. For Shelsley Walsh ratios of 8.9, 6.4 and 5.2 to 1 were employed; for Southport and Blackpool these were changed to ratios of 8.9, 6.4, 4.8 and 3.5 to 1.

In Shelsley Walsh form the “Spider” reached 45 m.p.h. in first, 65 m.p.h. in second and 75 m.p.h. in third speed at maximum r.p.m. The procedure on a record-breaking climb was as follows: start in first, second in 40 yards, slow for first left-hand corner, braking momentarily, take corner in second, engage third speed. Brake for next corner, run up to S-bend in third, braking early and hard for the last 30 yards (rear brakes only). Change from third to first, take “S” in first, possibly braking momentarily without cutting out, change out of first just out of S-bend, and run to finish in third speed. “Spider” weighed 9 cwt. and Basil says wheelspin would have been impaired had he lightened her further.

In 1929 Davenport made f.t.d. at the first Shelsley meeting, equalling his own record, but at the second climb he had to be content with second place, being beaten by Mays’ supercharged 3-litre Vauxhall Villiers. Unchanged since 1928, “Spider” tried again in 1930 and got down to a fantastic 443/5 sec., second only to von Stuck in the Austro-Daimler, which set the record to 421/8 sec.

Davenport next experimented with stronger iron cylinder heads, larger valves and a 12 to-1 compression-ratio and, to compete with current opposition, he fitted Rover front brakes, which were too heavy. These alterations proved retrograde, and in any case Basil was obliged to retire after 1931 due to business commitments at his silk mills.

Here it should be explained that in 1925 he had started to build another racing G.N., this having his former “Vitesse” engine, enlarged to the same dimensions as “Spider’s,” with a single Solex carburetter, and four-speed transmission. The body was more like a 200-Mile Race replica, and this car, called the B.H.D. Special, was used mainly as a practice car from 1928 to 1930.

That concludes the story of the “Spider” up to 1931. Between 1923 and 1926 it won 75 “firsts” — after which Davenport gave up keeping records, having any gold medals due to him made into bracelets for his wife! ln all, he must have gained between 100 and 150 “firsts” and he twice made f.t.d. at Blackpool and Colwyn Bay, apart from his famous Shelsley Walsh successes. The latter include seven f.t.d.s in nine consecutive climbs, “Spider” being second on the other two occasions; also forming part of the team which won the Amateur v. Trade award in 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930. “Spider’s” Shelsley Walsh times to that date read: 48.8 sec., 49.0 sec., 50.0 sec., 47.8 sec., 46.8 sec., 46.4 sec., 46.4 sec., 46.4 sec., 47.0 sec. and 44.6 sec.

After the war, Davenport, refusing to pander to old age, made an unexpected but popular re-appearance at Shelsley Walsh in 1946 —  the year the event was revived after the war. In practically the same form as in 1931, but with improved cylinder heads, “Spider” accomplished 45.65 sec. at the wettest Shelsey ever known, fastest time by an unsupercharged car. Not bad for an amateur-built cyclecar virtually unmodified for fifteen years, its engine design dating back to 1919 — Davenport, however, admits to the simile of the hammer, which was the same as new except for two new handles and three new heads!

Encouraged to go on trying, Basil spent the winter of 1946/7 building a new “Spider,” aided on the drawing-board by H. R. Godfrey, who evolved the original G.N. with Capt. Frazer-Nash. A new crankcase assembly was designed and built to accommodate 1-litre cylinders and the chain-drive for the o.h. camshaft was transferred to the front of the engine.* But the 1930 heads and cam-boxes were retained and the rest of the design was virtually identical with the 1½-litre “Mowgli” engine. With a bore and stroke of 103 by 120 mm., “Spider” emerged as a 2-litre V-twin! The old chassis was dispensed with, a new H.R.G. frame, 3 in. narrower than standard, being used, fitted with H.R.G. front brakes. With this formidable but virtually pre-war sprint car, Davenport has been up Shelsley Walsh in 41.21 sec. He describes the initial step-off as pretty shattering but the subsequent dice comparatively easy! This I believe to be an understatement.

However, Davenport is determined to try to get below 40 sec., and for this purpose he is again modifying ” Spider” in a garage behind his house on the hill overlooking Macclesfield. He is using a narrower front axle, lighter brakes, lighter parts everywhere, new Heppolite pistons and two-valve heads. The 1946 body is retained. Later on we hope to describe the 1958 “Spider” in greater detail.

To visit Basil Davenport’s home is to immerse oneself in a veritable atmosphere of G.N. On every side are trophies won by “Spider,” paintings and pictures of “Spider” and, in the garages, G.N. engines and G.N. spares galore.

After visiting “Spider” in her lair, we went to another garage, wherein reposed the B.H.D. Special. This G.N. was owned before the war by G. H. Symonds and he, in turn, offered it to your Editor. Deciding I could not do justice to this exciting machine either financially or from the driving-ability aspect, I regretfully declined this generous gesture. Symonds has now given the car back to Davenport, who has run it at Silverstone and hopes to race it next year at V.S.C.C. race meetings. It has a “1½-seater ” body — as Basil says: it is good to have a scuttle to retreat under if the thing overturns. I gather this G.N. will do about 90 m.p.h. or more in a distinctly exciting fashion. Davenport also has the body off the original “Spider”; it is exceedingly narrow and I wonder whether Davenport could still insert himself into it.

Apart from the B.H.D. two-seater, Davenport wants to build a replica 200-Mile Race G.N. He has plenty of chassis spares and the radiator and open-sided bonnet from Ivy Cummings’ G.N. “Akela,” but lacks a complete engine. We sat before a blazing fire and instead of making polite conversation with Mrs. Davenport and her daughter, I am afraid we fell to trying to recall where all the “Akela” engines have gone. Davenport has bits of the one Miss Cummings raced, W./Comdr. Craddock has one, the remains of another belonged to Showell and the late Moses Moor, of “Wasp” memory, possessed a wrecked “Akela.” If anyone has a sound example, its transference to Davenport would launch him on his 200-Mile Race replica — if that sounds like a hint, it is meant so.

Aside from his racing G.N.s, Davenport felt that, after his famous associations with this make, he ought to have one in which to take occasional road journeys. Search revealed a 1922 Family model in Huddersfield. Now you tell the age of a G.N., not by its teeth as with a horse, but by the amount of wear on the dogs of the back hubs and wheels. This particular specimen showed practically no wear and had obviously covered a very low mileage, so Davenport snapped it up, in spite of the fact that the 1922 G.N. was detuned to compete with the greater refinement Rover Eight and H. R. Godfrey does not consider any G.N. built after 1921 as worth rebuilding. The car under discussion had had only its original owner, had probably run less than 3,000 miles, and weighs 9 cwt. It is original except for a change affecting the magneto and conversion from drip-feed to pressure lubrication. I was allowed to drive it and although the performance was certainly sober, 40 m.p.h. being about the limit, the high-geared steering was accurate, the ride good, and the dog-change of speeds very pleasing to operate providing the right-hand lever was pushed firmly home for the last 1/8 in. of travel against any opposition. The hand-brake provided powerful retardation.

Sitting again before the fire, we, pondered on how many roadworthy G.N.s remain. A quick estimate gave us ten, made up of Davenport’s 1922 model, H. R. Godfrey’s 1921/22 Popular, a 1922 model thought to be near Bournemouth, a similar car owned by G.N. Ltd. of Balham, Stafford East’s “Vitesse,” a second rather modified model of Stafford East, the 1921 tourer illustrated in Motor Sport last August, Astley’s 1919/20 two-seater used to open the last V.S.C.C. Prescott Hill-Climb, a 1915 belt-drive model ordered by Russia but not delivered, due to the Kaiser war, and now resident near Brighton, and Davenport’s B.H.D. Possibly there are others in the V.S.C.C.

While compiling this list a rather beautiful idea occurred to me. Why not a G.N. rally next year, to follow up the luncheon G.N. fanatics enjoyed in London some years ago? Davenport was immediately enthusiastic and would bring his 1922 cars. No competitions, we thought; just a gathering at an hotel midway between the Midlands and the South, in the hope of assembling as many as possible of the G.N.s that remain. If you like the idea and can bring one of these cyclecars, please mention it to me before the end of the year. — W. B.

* It should be explained that G.N. timing gears are driven by a plate engaging a finger on the front of the overhung crankpin. To provide a chain behind the cam-boxes, as on ”Vitesse” and Davenport’s 1½-litre “Mowgli” engines, involves a shaft passing back above the crankcase to drive the sprocket. The “Mowgli,” in its original form, the “Akela” and present Davenport engines dispense with the need for this shaft, by locating the chain at the front, or timing-gear, end of the crankcase.