Adrian Liddell's Straker-Squire

The Editor Investigates a well-known racing car which has survived from Brooklands Days

It is fortunate that quite a number of cars built either expressly for Brooklands, or which were developed for racing at the Track, has survived. Among them is the 4-litre overhead-camshaft 1918/19 Straker-Squire, now owned by Adrian Liddell, and with which he is a regular competitor in VSCC Edwardian-class races and other events.

This Straker-Squire may not have been built specially for Brooklands’ racing but it was certainly fitted with a slim two-seater racing body and its engine and chassis developed for that purpose. The Straker-Squire Company had built Rolls-Royce Eagle aero-engines under licence during the 1914/18 war and in 1919 they announced their new post-war car, which was seen to be of advanced conception, with a six-cylinder 30 mm. x 160 mm. (3,920 c.c.) engine having an overhead-camshaft prodding inclined valves, the stems of which and their springs were naked and unashamed, and the cylinders separate. The camshaft was driven by a vertical shaft at the front of the engine, which had a seven-bearing crankshaft. This noisy but sporting power-unit obviously owed its origin to the famous Rolls-Royce Eagle aero-engine or, more correctly, was similar to those Rolls-Royce Hawk airship engines which had run successfully throughout the war. This new Straker-Squire was designed by Roy Fedden, later to become the extremely talented designer of Bristol aero-engines. It was known first as the 20/25 h.p. model, later as the 24/90 h.p. Straker-Squire.

Selling motor-cars after the Armistice of 1918 was a competitive business, for although new ones were in short supply, a multitude of post-war designs were battling for customers. Several companies had opted for what the buying public referred to as “aero-engine-type” cars, i.e. those with overhead-camshaft valve-gear based on war-time aero-engine concepts. These were usually noisy, could be very expensive to service, and to repair should a valve fall into a cylinder, and they were generally regarded with some suspicion. Consequently, after Fedden had got his new car off the drawing-board, if hardly into production, it became desirable to publicise it as much as possible. Before the war Straker-Squire had raced cars on the Brooklands Track, indeed, Sydney. Straker’s 25 h.p. Straker-Squire had competed in the very first race to be run there, in July 1907. So it was perhaps not surprising that it was to Brooklands’ racing that the StrakerSquire Company turned, for getting their new car before the public’s notice. In this they were in advance of Companies such as Lanchester, Leyland, Napier and Hispano-Suiza, etc. who had also introduced “aero-engine type” new cars but who either never raced officially, or not for some years after the Straker-Squire had become well-known at the Track.

Indeed, Fedden had a car ready for racing during the first post-Armistice Brooklands’ season. In developing his new design he was assisted by the young (and then slim) Bertie Kensington-Moir, a nephew of Sydney Straker’s. I have a letter signed by the late Mr. Moir, written to me when he was Director of The Woodcote Motor Co. Ltd. of Epsom, in which he says that he and Davidson drove the first two experimental Straker-Squires at Brooklands, after which he took over the racing side of the Company and developed the second experimental chassis into the car raced by him at Brooklands, and in sprint events all over the country. I am not clear whether, in the beginning, both these prototype cars were used for racing, but very soon it was a two-seater driven by Moir that was being used for this purpose.

Brooklands opened after the war in 1920 and at the August Meeting E. C. Davidson finished third in the Lightning Short Handicap behind Segrave’s Opel and Foresti’s Austro-Daimler. Before that Moir had driven a Straker-Squire at Shelsley-Walsh and he appeared again at the Essex MC Brooklands’ Meeting with a Straker-Squire, coming in third in a close finish in the Essex Short Handicap, behind Marshall’s Mathis and Bedford’s Hillman. In the Essex Long Handicap Davidson, driving either the same or a second Straker-Squire, fitted with a black two-seater racing body having a properly upholstered seat, a full undershield, and a long vent-pipe to its radiator cap, went very well, coming up fast from the 27 sec. mark to catch Bedford’s Hillman and Hartshorn-Cooper’s giant Mercedes as they swept into the Finishing-straight, to win at 85 1/2 m.p.h. The good work was continued at the Brooklands’ Autumn races, when Moir, his car’s radiator now cowled, was second to Frazer-Nash’s GN in the 100 MPH Short Handicap, third in the “100 Long” behind the winning Mathis and Chassagne’s scratch straight-eight Ballot, and second to the GN in the Senior Sprint Handicap.

Mr. Straker and Roy Fedden must have been well-pleased with this fine showing of their new model, especially as, at the end of the 1920 season, when the Essex MC and the BMCRC had combined to run a meeting at Brooklands, Kensington-Moir had had a grand battle in the Second Lightning Long Handicap with Vandervell’s Talbot. As the faster car had lost a cylinder when an exhaust valve broke, as they ran to the finish, it had been the Straker-Squire which had won, by yards, at 90 m.p.h. The car had also commenced its considerable sprint career, having been awarded a silver cup for fastest-time-of-the-day at Spread Eagle, where Moir clocked 56.4 sec. for the 7/10th-of-a-mile hill, the radiator uncowled on this occasion. Finally, before the 1920 season was over, Moir captured the Brooklands’ Test Hill record, formerly held by a 30/98 Vauxhall and a GN, in a time of 9.45 see, a speed of 25.4 m.p.h., the engine doing 3,550 r.p.m. in bottom gear as the Straker-Squire breasted the top of the hill at 42 m.p.h. Bertie mist have had good eyesight to be able to note the odd 50 r.p.m. reading, as the car leapt into the air!

Whether or not more than one car was used originally to achieve these results, I think that Kensington-Moir soon concentrated mostly on the car he was to race in 1921 . It was tuned partly by traditional Brooklands’ methods, partly by some dodges of his own. Working on it with him was H. J. Bentley. An apprentice, F. P. Gowler, also lent a hand. As Moir told me, the engine used was an experimental prototype. Later the design of the production engines was somewhat revised, principally with a view to making this noisy engine quieter, but as noise did not matter for racing, the early valve-gear was used, in which the camshaft was driven by helical gears, with the vertical shaft biased to the right of the camshaft. On later engines the vertical shaft was positioned in front of the camshaft, using bevel gears (which were even noisier!) and the water pump, instead of being in-line with the dynamo and magneto on the near-side, was brought to the front of the timing-case. Incidentally, although the S-S radiator was quite small, this car pioneered the fitting of thermostatically-controlled radiator-shutters.

Improvements are likely to be made to any brand-new design and The Autocar’s experiences with a four-seater Straker-Squire, admittedly a works hack, early in 1920, probably pointed the way. They had set off to cover the Colmore Cup Trial, first stopping at Selfridges in London’s Oxford Street to buy warm coats, as the seating was very exposed. The camshaft gears were found to be noisy, oil exuded from the top of the hollow gear-lever, and the gear-lever jumped out of gear. After staying a night at the l)un Mow Hotel in Dunchurch, the journalists set off for their trials’ reporting, but experienced terrible noises from a starved carburetter up Saintbury hill….

To return to the racing Straker-Squire, to increase power over the 75 b.h.p. of the standard engine, which gave a lap-speed of about 80 m.p.h., all parts were very carefully run-in, the engine being turned by the workshop shafting for two or three hours before being started-up and run light under its own power. Tight spots on the pistons were then eased. This is normal preparation for competition work, as was the balancing of the crankshaft on knife-edges, to the nearest fraction of a drachm, according to contemporary notes. The pistons were reduced in friction area by 66%, by turning a 15-thou. groove about 1 1/2 inches wide in their skirts and cutting these away at the bottom ring-land. Oil-escape holes were also drilled in them. The piston and con-rod assemblies were balanced on letter-scales. The bearings were burnished with a round steel bar. All this gave an extra 5 b.h.p. and some 7 additional m.p.h.

Next, more metal was taken from the pistons, which were aluminium as in the standard engine, and about 20 holes, of 5/16 in.-dia., were drilled in the piston skirts. The standard carburetter was then replaced by a 48RA Zenith and an 1/8 in. larger induction-pipe was fitted. This improved the output by another 7 b.h.p. and the lap-speed improved to 94.6 m.p.h., on a 3.05 to 1 axle ratio, which replaced the former 3.25 to 1 axle. The Straker-Squire was now doing over 100 m.p.h. The next step was to fit a racing camshaft giving an increase in inlet-valve lift of 3/8 in., from 5/16 in., and to remove all the metal from the sides of the Miralite pistons. Then, instead of three upper piston rings, a single Clew Peterson gapless ring was substituted, lapped in with metal polish. The bearings were also reburnished. This gave 91.3 b.h.p. at 3,000 r.p.m. on the Froud dynamometer, the limit of Straker-Squire’s installation. It was in this condition that the car broke the Test Hill record, and top speed was now nearly 110 m.p.h. Even the universal joints, crown wheel, and the brake drums were carefully balanced as, obviously, were the road wheels. The oil-level in back axle and gearbox was kept very low, an old Brooklands’ dodge, and the gear-gate was chamfered to expedite a quick change between 2nd and 3rd gears. At first the desired gear-ratio had been obtained by using different-size Palmer tyres on the back wheels and the story is that on one occasion Moir had complained of rapid tyre wear, only to be told by the Palmer Rep. that this would be improved if he used the same-size tyres on each side of the car if this is true it shows in what a primitive way cars were set-up for racing in those days, compared with Formula One today!

At first KLG plugs with a 20-thou. gap had been used for the Straker-Squire but the Test Hill record was taken using Oleo plugs. Houdaille hydraulic shock-absorbers were fitted, to try to improve the poor track holding (the car had cantilever rear suspension) and between every race the engine was naturally stripped down. The radiator had been cowled, in order to keep the water-temperature to 85-deg. C. The fuel used was 50/50 Pratt’s No.1 and 680 spirit.

Naturally, with all this racing, there were a few misfortunes. For example, on one occasion a front wheel came off behind the Members’ Hill, due to both front hubs each having r.h. threads, and on another occasion the car caught fire because of a loose petrol-union and the engine had to be doused with earth from beside the Byfleet banking and the car afterwards towed to the Edmonton factory for all-night repairs. When the tooth broke on the crown wheel after a racing start another was brazed in place, with no ill results. Eventually the engine was made to develop 115 b.h.p. and an extra three b.h.p, was once seen after mechanic Bentley had omitted to put the carbon brush back in the magneto! The car was registered MD 7901 and was driven from London to Brooklands.

Although the new Straker-Squire Six was scarcely in production, Kensington-Moir continued the Company’s racing activities in 1921. Non-starting in both its races at the BARC Summer Meeting, the black car then won the Senior Sprint Handicap from scratch from Waite’s Austin Twenty, at 83.76 m.p.h. It was at the August races that the Straker-Squire created a sensation, being newly painted in black-and-white zig-zag stripes, which extended even to the radiator cowl and vee-fronted undershield. With its narrow body the car looked very rakish. Had it been used for long-distance racing this striking colour scheme might have been planned to pick it out easily before pit-stops, or to aid the official lap-scorers. But for short races this could only have been a publicity stunt; Tommy Hann used the same idea when he later painted his pre-war Lanchester and Delage racing cars in broad orange-and-black vertical bands. This certainly gave the S-S plenty of photographic publicity.

The new colour scheme suited the Straker-Squire and Moir lapped at 84.61 and 99.01 m.p.h. in his first race, failed to appear for his next, but again won the Senior Sprint Handicap, this time from Clement’s 3-litre Bentley, which had a start of five sec. The speed was 86.59 m.p.h. and this was two days after the aforesaid fire. In fact, this unusual colour-scheme had been used earlier, at the MCC Brooklands’ Meeting, when Moir won the 3-lap Handicap at 88.3 m.p.h. and the Albert-Brown Trophy Race at 98.6 m.p.h. (lap speed 102.6 m.p.h.), from scratch, leaving the start with spinning back wheels.

Up to now the exhaust system had been within the bonnet, the exhaust pipe emerging low down by the scuttle on the near-side. For the Brooklands’ Autumn Meeting of 1921, however, six small-bore pipes were substituted, arranged organ-style, but horizontally, along the side of the car. The S-S had emitted a fine roar before this and the smaller multiple pipes may have quietened it. This was before the age of “tuned” inlets and exhausts and although the separate outlets presumably reduced back pressure, I suspect that this was mainly another gimmick to attract attention to the car. In the “Lightning Short” Moir lapped at 84.46 and 97.65 m.p.h. but was unplaced. He increased this to 84.46 and 100.61 m.p.h. in the “100 Short”, again with no luck. However, he won the next race in an Aston-Martin, did a remarkable standing-start lap of 88.1 m.p.h. in the S-S in the “Lightning Long”, with another flying lap of 100.61 m.p.h. and ended his day with third place in the “100 Long” at lap speeds of 93.14, 101.64 and 103.11 m.p.h. failing to catch Campbell’s Talbot and King’s Austin 20. At lesser Brooklands’ meetings the car did very well, that year. Moir won the Surbiton Sprint contest by covering a f.s. kilo. in 28.2 sec. and at the Essex MC Meeting he was 3rd in the Lightning Short Handicap and then won the “Long” at 94.5 m.p.h. from Cook’s Vauxhall. The Straker-Squire’s best-ever lap-speed was 103.76 m.p.h., officially timed by A.V. Ebblewhite, at a combined car and motorcycle meeting in May 1921 at which, however, Moir wasn’t placed. In 1920 it had taken three Class F records, covering two miles at 97.05, five miles at 95.04 and ten miles at 94.8 m.p.h. The car was also very successful in sprint events. In 1920 Moir had set the Spread Eagle hill record, at 52 sec. At Westcliffe in 1921, where its “dazzle” effect caused quite a sensation, Moir was beaten only by Duff’s 90 h.p. Fiat, the S-S clocking 36.8 sec., and at Spread Eagle hill, also in its new livery, the Straker-Squire, with 3 cwt of ballast in the tail and hampered by a broken front dumb-iron, was 3rd, finishing at over 80 m.p.h.

The Company had gone into virtual liquidation by 1922, when mechanics Kensington-Moir and Bentley had already left to join Aston-Martin, Moir soon becoming a well-known ‘and now portly) Bentley-boy. The racing Straker-Squire was sold to W. B. Horn, a Liverpool motor-dealer. He continued to run it in Northern events, such as at Saltburn in 1922, where it excelled over the s.s kilometre sand course, his best time being 36.6 sec., faster than a 30/98 Vauxhall and an Austin 20. It won from Cook’s Vauxhall at Porthcawl and at Caerphilly. hill-climb “the master”, staying at the Park Hotel, Cardiff, returned to drive it, Moir making f.t.d. Horn then won his class at Colwyn Bay and had also driven at Pen-t-Ball and to f.t.d. or class wins at Scarborough, Waterloo Sands, and Southport, in 1923.

After this the car was lost sight of until, some considerable time after the end of the Second World War, I was told of some old cars which Mr. Maynard, a Director of Maple’s, owned and which had been stored in the basement of the Company’s premises but had to be disposed of, as the construction of the Euston Road underpass would eventually encroach on the building. I went to investigate, and found a curious state of affairs. This gentleman apparently had a passion for buying cars and then having them fitted with radiators from other makes. (I did not know this at the time and could never get a story on it afterwards.) The result was that, confronted by a six-cylinder overhead-camshaft car with a pre-1914 Vauxhall radiator and a two-seater body with dickey-seat, I assumed it to be an experimental Luton product. Among other cars in store were a big chain-drive Mercedes, Daimler, Buick, 20/60 Sunbeam, etc. -and, an Edwardian Straker-Squire chassis. I was told that a racing body for the last-named was somewhere up on a shelf. It did not immediately occur to me that this body might belong to the Vauxhall-radiatored chassis, nor that this Was, in fact, a 24/90 h.p. Straker-Squire, the ex-Brooklands’ car, no less. Avid as I was to acquire an ex-Brooklands’ car, by the time “the penny had dropped” it was too late Warren Street had acquired another “collectors’ piece”!

In fact, the original Straker-Squire radiator and some spare cylinders were found with the car and the racing body was soon united with the chassis; the Vauxhall radiator might be explained, as Moir pointed out, by Horn being a Vauxhall agent. I was able to trace the re-assembled car to S.E. London in 1957, where it was owned by Mr. Armato, who kindly gave me a run in it. Subsequently it passed through other hands, being owned by P. A. Mann and is now in Adrian Liddell’s possession, an enthusiast who makes such good use of it.

* * *

Last month I went down to Goodworth Clatford to drive this splendid survival from the days of Brooklands, public-road sprints, and sand racing. It is now painted blue and is very much as it was when Kensington-Moir raced it. There is a splendid story to the effect that the “dazzle”painting was done after someone had given Bertie a pair of socks of zig-zag pattern, with red heels. He copied this for the car and even put a red “heel” on the tip of its tail….

Technically not much has altered. The six-branch exhaust system is again within the bonnet, and on the off-side there are now two horizontal Zenith 36UH carburetters each feeding into a three-branch inlet manifold which could well be part of the original induction piping. These are paired instruments, Nos. 0317 and 0318, the front side one protruding through the bonnet-side, and they make the car go so well that Adrian says he has no intention of replacing them. They are fed by air-pressure from a fuel tank which is certainly, forward in the tail. This tank has a man-sized filler cap, with a bar to unscrew it with; there is a smaller tank in the scuttle, with a recessed filler. The taps for these fuel systems are down by the driver’s right foot. The dynamo was originally in line with the magneto but a revised instrument is now driven from the carden-shaft. Liddell ran the car on b.e. tyres all round at first hut the repeated loss of the rear ones, which not only ruins the covers but the rims also, has caused him to put 6.50-7.00 x 19 Dunlop Forts on Lagonda wheels on the back, the front wheels being shod with 820 x 120 Dunlops. First registered on June 2nd, 1922 (presumably having been driven before that on Trade-plates) the Reg. No, MD 7901 survives with the car. MD 7901 survives with the car.

The oh. camshaft valve-gear is lubricated with an oil-can carried beneath the bonnet, and there is a belt-driven cooling fan. The magneto is a Lucas WBA6. The cantilever back springs have gaiters, and four screw-down greasers each side, and there is an imposing row of seven nuts and bolts visible along the horizontal flange of the back-axle beneath the high tail. Although scuttle-cowls now adorn the body, there seems little doubt that it is original, for even the “letterbox slot” in the off-side of the scuttle, purpose unknown, remains. Not only has this ex-Brooklands’ Straker-Squire a starter but enormous brass headlamps of unknown make, and the torpedo side-lamps it always carried. The blade-type front mudguard on the near-side is cut away to accommodate the side-mounted spare wheel and behind the outside gear and brake levers is a small Klaxon horn.

Climbing into the non-adjustable, tight-fitting driving seat, I was confronted by a big four-spoke steering-wheel with a half-quadrant at the bottom carrying the ignition and hand-throttle levers, themselves of considerable dimension. Moving these to the near-side advances the spark and opens the throttles. The tiny round central accelerator-pedal is flanked by big clutch and brake pedals with the S-S insignia. A Nu-Swift fire-extinguisher has been put on the floor before the passenger in deference to RAC regulations. The aluminium instrument panel is in front of the passenger and is supplemented by a big Smiths clock on the near-side of the cockpit, angled towards the driver, with a CAV switchboard having tiny ammeter and voltmeter dials on the cockpit wall.

From 1. to r. the instruments comprise a Rototherm thermometer reading to 10, 30, 50, 70, 90, 100 and 110 deg. but normally registering about 70 deg., a Smiths oil-gauge going from 0-10 lb. sq./in. (normal pressure 20 lb.), the 0-10 lb. air-pressure gauge, a Smiths tachometer calibrated 4, 8, 12, 16, 20, 25, 30, 35 and 40 and as it is widely spaced, Moir probably could read it to the nearest 50 r.p.m.! – and a matching Smiths 10-100 m.p.h. speedometer quite incidentally, the total mileage reading when I tried the car was 25,390. A Ki-Gass and the vintage “barrel-twist” ignition-switch complete the instrumentation.

Being driven to Lobscombe Corner by Adrian, sitting high behind the low screen he had added, looking down onto the seemingly-snort bonnet and brass-radiator with its water vented fillercap, was sheer joy, the exhaust booming lustily behind and the performance far better than anything I had expected. The engine will cruise all day at 2,000-2,500 r.p.m., with the speedometer indicating close to the dual-carriageway legal speed, and “in anger” the proud owner is apt to go to 3,000 r.p.m., or a bit over. When I came to drive I was delighted to find that changing gear held absolutely no terrors. This is an absolutely delightful gearbox, controlled by a substantial lever operating conventionally. (The gate is naturally a trifle worn, so the aforesaid chamfering is no longer apparent.) One tends to change down just for the pleasure of it, from top into 3rd, from 3rd to 2nd and back again. The gears are surprisingly quiet and this is a “quick” gearbox; the lever likes to be tugged rapidly from 1st to 2nd. The plate clutch is light, its pedal having a short precise movement, but carelessness results in some momentary slip. Both foot and hand brake work on the back wheels. Originally there were separate shoes but these had opened out and the drums were very thin, so Ford drums have been adapted. Although we had no cause to try an emergency stop, both brakes reassured me and the hand-brake can be made to lock the wheels. The urge is as satisfactory as the pleasantly taut feel of the old Straker. It is probably about the same as that of a good 4 1/2-litre Bentley and the car’s showing in VSCC races should convince any sceptics.

At Brooklands this 4-litre single-cam six was quicker than some of the twin-cam pre-war GP machinery and as a road-car the venerable Straker-Squire is one of the nicest cars of its kind that I have sampled. Liddell says that at Silverstone he secs 90 m.p.h. on the speedometer “but only very occasionally”! The car can also be thrown about effectively on the track, I gather. The springs are now damped by Hartfords, double at the back. The steering has absolutely no vices that I could discover.

Adrian tells me that he has greatly enjoyed racing the car, especially when he finished third in the Williams Trophy Race at Cadwell Park in 1976! Among the Straker-Squire’s successes in VSCC racing can be numbered winning the Itala Trophy in 1975, 1976 and this year, taking the Edwardian and Edwardian Racing Trophies in 1976, and the Napier Trophy, when driven by Chris Mann, in 1971 and 1972, and when driven by Liddell in 1975, 1976 and 1977. Incidentally, the engine has not been modified since Adrian acquired the car. To go out in this Brooklands survivor is to capture more definitely than usual the fascination of vintage motoring and to savour something of those very early nineteen-twenties, when the roads were deserted and not many cars could live with H. K. Moir and his Straker-Squire. –W.B.