Number plates - NPA 5

The partners in H. W. Motors of New Zealand Avenue, Walton-on-Thames, John Heath and George Abecassis were very involved with the Alta Car company in the immediate post-war years, as a direct result of the strong association that Abecassis had built up with Geoffrey Taylor and his Alta cars in the years 1937-39. Although they used ERA, Bugatti and Maserati cars in their competition activities in the years 1946-47, it was the Alta that really interested them as they could be assured of getting the latest and best from the little factory on the Kingston by-pass, rather than “ex-works” material from other factories.

After competing with pre-war 2-litre supercharged sports Altas, they built their own special sports Alta in 1948, with an unsupercharged 2-litre engine and all-enveloping bodywork, with a view to European sports car racing. This car so encouraged John Heath that for 1949 he built an entirely new car to his own design, using the engine and ENV pre-selector gearbox from the 1948 streamlined car. The chassis frame comprised two large-diameter tubes, with tubular cross-members, and at the front the suspension was independent by means of units taken from the production Triumph 1800, with upper wishbones and a lower transverse leaf-spring, though Heath made his own wishbones which were longer than the Triumph ones. Rear suspension was very simple, comprising an ENV one-piece axle, made as a spare for a pre-vvar Legends Rapier special, and this was mounted on quarter-elliptic leaf-springs splayed out from brackets on the tubular side-members. Lagonda Rapier hydraulic brakes were used and the rack-and-pinion steering gear came from an FWD Citroen. The driving position was offset to the right, allowing cockpit space for two people and the bodywork was constructed to the current International Sports Car dimensions. As mentioned, the engine was the 1948 2-litre Alta, an all-alloy 4-cylinder unit with twin overhead camshafts and carburation was by two SU instruments. This was coupled to a competition ENV pre-selector gearbox without a clutch, the first gear bands in the epicyclic gearbox acting as a clutch on getaway.

Justifiably, Heath could have called the ears Heath Special, but as he had European racing in mind for the car, and European organisers were rather suspicious of specials, he felt he should incorporate the name Alta somehow, even though the engine was the only Alta component; this was to enable the car to have an allegiance to a manufacturer. The name chosen was HW-Alta, the HW coming from the Hersham and Walton Motors firm. On March 3rd, 1949 the car was registered as an HW-Alta and given the registration number NPA 5.

At Easter it was entered for the Goodwood race meeting and with cycle-type mudguards was driven from Walton-on-Thames down to the Sussex track. Driven by John Heath it ran in the Lavant Cup race, devoid of road-equipment, and finished fourth. In a handicap race Heath finished sixth and was quite pleased with the first outing for this entirely new car, which Motor Sport described at the time as “Heath’s rebuilt Alta” and used a photograph of it to depict Dudley Folland’s 2-litre VI2 Ferrari sports car!

The International Formula 2 at that time was for cars of 2-litres capacity. without superchargers, so Heath visualised running the HW-Alta in these events in Europe as well as in sports-car events. As a prelude to serious racing he entered for the Jersey Road Race, round the streets of St. Helier on the Channel Island. This race was to Formula 1 rules (supercharged 1 1/2-litres and unsupercharged 4 1/2-litres) no the HW-Alta could not hope to be competitive, and not surprisingly it finished last, but it had proved to be a good test-run for future Formula 2 road-races, as the Jersey circuit was typical of European road circuits at that time. The next outing was in the Isle of Man, for the Manx Cup Race, the supporting event for the British Empire Trophy Race. Here the HW-Alta was on equal terms with the rest of the entry, for it was run to similar rules to Formula 2, with unsupercharged cars limited to 21/2-litres and supercharged ones to 1,100 c.c. It could not cope with Stirling Moss driving a Cooper 500 into which a 1,000 c.c. V-twin JAP engine had been shoe-horned, but the 81W-Altarena good second and kept pressure on the leading Cooper. So much so that the overstressed Cooper broke down and John Heath came home the winner of the Manx Cup Race.

Following this Heath took the car to France for the supporting race before the French Grand Prix at Reims, but here he was up against the cream of Formula 2, including works Ferraris, and the car ran well to finish 5th. All this time it had been running on a fuel comprising 80% methanol, 10% benzol and 10% petrol, the well-known “eighty, ten, ten” but as his next outing was to be in a sports car race, in which the fuel was restricted to straight 80-octane petrol, the carburation was altered. In place of the two large-bore SU carburetters befitted four Amal 10TT motorcycle carburetters, and with mudguards, lamps, spare wheel, starter motor and passenger seat the HW-Alta was taken to south-west France for the Grand Prix of the Automobile Club of France, which was for sports cars. Held over 312 miles on the Comminges circuit, on the roads to the west of the town, not far from Toulouse, the car appeared as an Alta, and was in good company with other thinly-disguised racing cars wearing rudimentary sports-car road-equipment. The race was run in intense heat and survival was the name of the game, rather than speed, and Heath finished a rousing second, behind a 4 1/2-litre six cylinder Delahaye, having diced against Chinetti’s 2-litre V12 Ferrari for much of the time. This second place overall naturally netted the 2-litre class win for Heath so he was well pleased, and the name Alta began to mean something in Europe. as did the name HW-Alta. Before returning home Heath went to Switzerland for a Formula 2 race round the streets of Lausanne, but once more all the “hot-shoe” Ferraris and Simca-Gordinis were there, so he was a bit out-paced and could only make the fourth row of the starting grid. There were some downhill corners on the circuit. taken on the over-run, and these caused oil-surge and George Abecassis in the Madgewick Cup, in fouling of the plugs, so that he had to make four pit stops. Heath completed only 48 of the 60 laps, which he finished fourth, and Heath drove it in a but was classified 9th, which was also last.

September Goodwood meeting and was driven by Back home the car was entered for the handicap race but overdid things and spun off the circuit into retirement. As a first season for a completely one-off special 1949 had been quite good and the way the car had gone encouraged John Heath to embark on an ambitious programme for 1950. Heart up a team with four cars based on NPA 5 and ran a fully-professional Formula 2 team under the name of HWM. In place of the rigid one-piece rear axle on NPA 5 the new cars had independent rear suspension and various other improvements in light of the 1949 experience. NPA 5 could truthfully be considered as the prototype for the 1950 HWM cars and as it had served its purpose it had an earlier type of Alta engine installed and was sold to Jo. Brown of Ilkley, Yorks, in May of 1950.

Brown painted the car metallic blue, whereas it had always been pale green, and he used it as a road-going sports car and in occasional club races. Exactly two years later it passed to Albert Wake of Ormskirk, who kept it for three years and then it went to a Mr. Hampton of Worcester. He kept it until 1959 and sold it to someone in Birmingham. where it remained during the nineteen-sixties, always as a fully-equipped road-going sports car. By the mid-sixties it had been repainted red and in 1970 Peter Woodley acquired it from Vintage Racing Cars, the Northampton dealers. Woodley did a major rebuild on the car and found traces of the original pale green paint under one of the rear-view mirrors. He used this as a pattern to put the can back into its original colour scheme and in 1975 the present owner, Peter Merritt, acquired NPA Strom Woodley. Merritt has used it pretty regularly in Historic and VSCC racing, but all he can do into re-enact history (which should be the point of Historic Racing, but unfortunately is not, and run at the back of the field of post-war Grand Prix or Forrnula I cars, just as John Heath did in the Jersey Road Race in 1949. Last year he ran it in sports-car trim and netted a third in his class at Donington Park, so the dual role to which NPA 5 was built in 1949 is still maintained. — D.S.J. (N.B. This ends this series on famous number plates. A new series involving historic racing cars will begin in January 1982.)