Fragments on Forgotten Makes No. 64: INVICTA

THE year was 1924. A veteran Stanley steam-car, immaculate in green and yellow, with enormous spidery wheels, sizzled to a halt outside my father’s garage at Ripley, on the Portsmouth Road. The Stanley’s enthusiastic owner, the late Captain Noel Macklin (who later became Sir Noel Macklin), was a man of rare charm, whose ambition it was to build a British steam-car, and as my father was a steam enthusiast they had much to talk about. The springy motion of the Stanley, when manoeuvring, was fascinating to watch, the only sound being that made by the tyres on the road surface.

Macklin had also acquired a then-up-to-date Stanley, which outwardly looked like a typical American car of the period, but proved far more flexible than any comparable petrol car of the time, with its rapid acceleration and effortless hillclimbing ability. Furthermore, Macklin experimented with an American Doble steam-car, which used superheated steam and very advanced technology, but after several frightening experiences, culminating in a loud explosion while driving it in London, which caused widespread alarm and despondency and investigation by the police, Macklin was persuaded to turn his attention to building a petrol car with as near to steam flexibility as possible.

The result, the never to be forgotten Invicta, was born at Macklin’s Fairmile works at Cobham, Surrey, early in 1925. I was fortunately, for me, given a job, at the age of 18, by Macklin, at the outset of the Invicta era, at thirty shillings a week (old money). Not bad, in those days. My first task was to chop out the eight 3/8″ iron rivets holding together the cross-members of a pile of Bayliss-Thomas chassis frames, in order to re-position them to take the original six-cylinder Coventry-Climax engines used in the early experimental Invictas. I certainly learned how to wield a hammer and cold-chisel during that job!

These early experimental Invictas were fitted with a three-speed gearbox driving through an open propeller-shaft with Hardy Spicer fabric universals, to a Moss rear axle, with, as far as I can remember, a 4.5 to 1 ratio; 19 x 4.50 steel-spoked artillery wheels were used. I remember these, as my next job was to fit a pile of tyres to them.

Marles steering, 2 1/2 turns lock to lock, and Hartford shock-absorbers were fitted, and the four-wheel brakes were rod operated.

The car, in chassis form, was quite flexible, but the Coventry-Climax engines were noisy and very prone to “pinking”. To do them justice, they were solid mounted in the frames. However, they were eventually replaced by 2 1/2-litre six-cylinder Meadows engines, driving through a four-speed gearbox, with right-hand change, and a propshaft with needle roller bearing universals, to an improved 4.5-ratio back aide, and 19 x 4.50 Rudge Whitworth wire wheels were used. This model really began to live up to steam-flexibility. . .

Never were there such perfect working conditions, or such a delightful “Boss” to work for , as Captain Noel Macklin, who became affectionately known to his workforce as “The Prince”, because of his charm, and superb tact in handling labour.

The workforce in those days, which started with four men, and finally reached 28 hands, was led by Ernest Hatcher, who was previously racing mechanic to Scriven, the Austin 20 racing driver. He was later joined by Arthur Chadwick from Frazer Nash, who had built the famous “Kim I & II”. Another expert was Arthur Roberts, who later worked on the Napier-Railton, in preparation for John Cobb’s land-speed-record attempt. It was a happy works, with all the rest of them (Bill Stringer and Ted Riggs, the machinists; Tubbs the chargehand; Bill Mills; Bill Smith; Rawlings; and the two Barrett brothers, etc., not forgetting “Holly” Bright, who later set up his own establishment preparing racing cars for International events. All under the fatherly eye of L. Cushman, the Works Manager, also late of Frazer Nash.)

In those days several of us had GNs. Cushman and Shadwick had really super o.h.v. ones. Cushman was very kind to us GN owners. Whenever we needed a spare part he would bring us one from his own collection and charge us only half-a-crown for it.

Each Invicta was “run-in” in chassis form, at progressive speeds for 1,000 miles, with a pair of wooden test seats clamped to the chassis, and a box on the back with weights, and cans of petrol, before being delivered to the coachbuilder. The last 200 miles were driven really “belting” the car, after which the engine was stripped down to check for any possible fault, then re-assembled and given a final road-test. The car was then given a five-year guarantee.

Over many thousands of miles have I had the pleasure of doing this progressive running-in, and I remember one occasion when Bill Mills and I drove a chassis through Oxford, and we put it in top gear at four m.p.h. and got out and walked beside it! This collected a crowd, included in which happened to be a newspaper-reporter with his camera. Also the police, who took a dim view of it and reported us for dangerous motoring! When we got back to Cobham we told Macklin, who said: “Splendid, old boy, jolly good advert for the car in top gear at walking pace. Forget all about it, I’ll get my solicitor to fix it up and handle the case”, and he gave us each a “fiver”. That’s the sort of boss he was. . . .

I vividly remember taking turns with Miss Violet Cordery and others, running-in the 3-litre lnvicta for 24 hours, day and night; rushed running-in to be in time despatching the car to Monza, for the record attempt. I remember my stint, backwards and forwards between Esher and Guildford all night!

I was one of the lucky ones to be picked, in my capacity as electrician, for the back-up team who accompanied Miss Violet Cordery to Monza with the car. Miss Violet and L. Cushman, both superb drivers, did the lion’s share of the 33 World’s records which the car achieved, and we, the “erks”, went round in it during the nights, in three-hour shifts, taking it in pairs, one to drive and the other to keep the driver awake! Soon after the start one young driver piled up the car by going to sleep at the wheel. However, the Isotta-Fraschini Company came to the rescue and made their works available for us to straighten it out. Actually, we rebuilt it on to the chassis frame of the Invicta which we had brought as a workhorse, then we started the record all over again. Captain Macklin characteristically presented each of the team with a silver cup inscribed “Monza 33 World Records 1926”. One of my greatest treasures. What a wonderful experience it all was, not least witnessing Ascari senior and Campari practising pit-stops in their Alfa Romeos, stop-watch in hand, waving their arms and saying terrible things in Italian to the wretched mechanics changing wheels and refilling the tanks. Isotta-Fraschini’s Chief Tester used to call in at the track with an Isotta chassis on test and pick up which ever of us was off duty, and drive us the 60 miles to Como and back in one hour each way!

Resulting from the experience gained during the Monza record-run, the depth of the Invicta chassis members was increased by 1″, and the track width was increased from 4 to 4′ 6″. The original 3-litre Meadows engine had a tendency to “pink”, so an Invicta-designed head with larger valves and ports, and twin sparking-plugs for dual-ignition, was fitted. The Simms magneto was retained and synchronised with a Rotax distributor and coil, but though this cured the “pinking”, the engine’s performance deteriorated; however, when this head was fitted to a block bored out to 4 1/2-litres the result was simply “electrifying” and real steam-flexibility was more than achieved.

The 4 1/2-litre short-chassis sports-model Invicta, with a light Coachcraft open tourer body, could see off anything on the road in Miss Violet’s capable hands, with its tremendous reserve of power and lightning acceleration.

I have never forgotten the wonderful precision workmanship by the experts who made up the Fairmile workforce. A job was either right or it was wrong, never near enough, and this paid off in Miss Violet’s Round-the-World Run in an Invicta, accompanied by E. Hatcher who made a perfect team, with her superb driving and Ernie Hatcher’s wonderful care of the car throughout the run.

The late Parry Thomas was very friendly with the Macklins and was often over at the Invicta works at Cobham. I remember once being sent over to Parry Thomas’s Brooklands works to collect some special pistons. I dare not get out of the car, for fear of the Alsatians, which Thomas kept there, having my guts for garters, until Mr. Thomson came out to give me safe conduct! About that time a special Invicta was fitted with an Italian FAST four-cylinder engine, which it was originally proposed that Parry Thomas was to drive.

Round about 1928 extra space was needed at Invicta’s in order to develop and put into production the I 1/2-litre model, with a Gillet-Stevens (Blackburne) engine, which had been developed for Frazer Nash. The 4 1/2-litre production was therefore sub-contracted to Leanarts & Dolphens of Beverley Works, Barnes, who already manufactured the rear axles for the 4 1/2-litre Invicta. These axles were built alongside the Bentley rear axles, and were practically identical. I was sent along to the Beverley works with the contract, to supervise the electrical installations on the Invictas they assembled there, so did not see much of the 1 1/2-litre models at Cobham. However, living at Ripley as I did. I regularly looked in at Invicta’s going home from Barnes, and I remember that the 1 1/2-litre models were gluttons for oil and always left a heavy smokescreen in their wake. When Bentley’s brought out their 8-litre model, Macklin had a massive chassis frame produced. with the intention of fitting the Meadows 8-litre engine developed for the London ‘buses in the pre-diesel days. This never materialised, however, and eventually a standard 4 1/2-litre Meadows engine was put in this massive chassis frame and it was fitted with a town carriage limousine body as a chauffeur-driven car Mrs. Macklin’s use. It looked most impressive, almost Rolls-Royce like, and to everyone’s amazement it performed as well as or even better than the standard long-chassis Invicta saloon.

,p>A very impressive looking small Invicta appeared at Invicta’s last appearance at the Motor Show at Olympia, but I heard a rumour that the engine in it was just an empty mock-up, as the pukka job was not available in time. I never heard of it again.

After the 1 1/2-litre production run, Macklin converted some Hudson Terraplane straight-eights, in co-operation, I understand, with Thomson & Taylor, to turn them into Railtons, by reducing the overall weight by 6 1/2 cwt. and fitting Tele-control shock-absorbers and a distinctive new radiator, very Invicta like, except that it was slightly veed in front. These were fitted with light aluminium bodies and could accelerate from a standing start to 30 m.p.h. in two seconds, but were never very fast, doing about 80 m.p.h.

During World War II the Invicta works became the Fairmile Marine Company and produced high-speed Air-Sea rescue, and motor-torpedo boats, to combat the German E-boats. These were actually built at boatyards throughout the country, under the control of Cobham, who handled stores and equipment and the Hall-Scott engines with which the boats were powered.

After the war, Watson, Invicta’s designer, started the Invicta “Black Prince” at a new works at Virginia Water, but this was “axed” due to the steel shortage. My time with Invicta Cars was the happiest of my working life, with memories of hundreds of running-in and practice laps of the old Brooklands Track in its heyday and seeing many of the World’s famous racing-drivers practising. — Basil Howard