Had you been able to buy a sports car back in the 1920s, which one would you have chosen, I wonder? The choice was pretty open; there were 40 different makes available on the British market, in a number of various models. It seems possible that, before making your purchase, you might have gone to Brooklands in 1926, where the ever-ambitious Junior Car Club put on a race for such cars, the result of which, and the happenings therein, might have given you some idea of how best to part with your money. With, I hope, happier results than those experienced by the Alvis owner, a student at the Royal Naval College at Greenwich, who went to the track to study the racing qualities of these cars in a similar race in 1930, was injured in an accident when two Talbots collided and came through the railings, sued the BARC for damage, but lost. (The Alvises this luckless spectator was watching were a team of the new six-cylinder Silver Eagles; I hope the cost of the case did not prevent him from changing from what was, perhaps, an old 12/50!)
The event which could have guided the decision of sports-car customers in 1926 was the Three-Hour Production Car Race which the JCC held in that year, using a course which had two artificial corners, contrived by making the cars come partway up the Brooklands’ finishing straight and hairpin round a barrel to return to the Fork, where they went left in another hairpin turn round “Chronograph Villa” to regain the Outer Circuit. The date was in July, with a 2pm start, so that Londoners could arrive after an early lunch, and return home in time for a late tea. The cars appeared to be production models but, in fact, the rules were fairly lax, but did prevent purely racing-type entries. These were in three classes, 750, 1100 and 1500cc, ballasted respectively to the equal, of one, two or three passengers. For 3/- (15p) to get in, 3/6d ( 17½p) for a grandstand seat, and 5/- (25p) if you had a car to park, you could watch what happened, with maybe the happy anticipation of what car you might buy afterwards.
Even this race attracted Trade entries. Arthur Waite’s A7 definitely so, and Alvis put in C M Harvey. H J Aldington had business interests in the Frazer Nash he drove, and Tatlow and Norris were associated with Lea-Francis, while George Newman and Vernon Balls sold Salmsons and Amilcars respectively. However with the cream of production sports cars set to do battle, it looked interesting. After all, had not the two San Sebastian Salmons been excluded as too close to “pukka” racing cars?
It soon became apparent, after the Fork semaphore arm had risen to release the field on one of the best-ever massed starts, that the ballast in the 1½-litre cars was reducing their acceleration from the corners almost to that of the 100s. Harvey’s 12/50 Alvis, with non-standard tail (and what else besides?), with Norris’s Lea-Francis, led easily from the following bunch, in which “Aldy” got past Green’s Alvis between barrel turn and Fork, on lap one. Harvey was soon dominating, with Green, “Aldy” and Hazelhurst’s Salmson swapping places in a ding-dong struggle. Waite lost time trying to cure mis-firing, two early stops and a change of magneto costing him 25minutes.
The non-factory Alvises were beetle-back 12/50s with tiny dickey seats, the A7s GE Brooklands models, although garage-owner Hendy’s was somewhat squatter. Randall ran a 4-seater Aston Martin and was last, but Aldy’s FN had a racing body, emphasised because mudguards were not stipulated, perhaps as a safety factor. After many days hard work on the OM, Oats’ car blew a head gasket on the very first lap… Then Green’s 12/50 went out with big-end failure, being pushed in, and Macdonald’s Alvis retired with a fearful clatter. Prospective Alvis buyers may have wavered but Harvey was well ahead, lapping at 68 mph in spite of 395 lb of ballast, and Dykes was cornering with abandon, in his 12/50, with back brakes only and its wide two-seater body removed in favour of a narrow ducksback body borrowed from the Coventry factory.
Norris’s Lea-Francis needed oil and fell back, Hendy’s A7 was out, but Harvey was now a lap ahead of “Aldy” and Hazelhurst’s Salmson, on the narrow tyres this make favoured, so it was cornered more sedately than Balls’s Amilcar with bigger tyres and brakes. Then “Aldy” came in for his first of many stops, with lubrication problems causing eventual retirement. (Did buyers now cross that one off their short-lists?).
The sun beat down on the concrete as only it could at Brooklands, but Harvey was untroubled, changing down at the same place each lap, to cut the Fork turn close, his lap times consistent to within a second or two. The second OM, in contrast, was ever in trouble, and several cars lost time re-fuelling, although one might have expected this to be unnecessary in a 3-hour, 60 mph sort of race.
Then — drama! The leading Alvis came in, not for fuel but to have a broken valve-spring changed. It continued before the challenging Salmson had drawn level on distance, as Hazelhurst had refuelled — a mild forecast of today’s F1 pitstop thrills. . . But what is this? The Alvis is still mis-firing badly, and a second pit-stop does no good. There was by then only half an hour left, and the Salmson was able to go into first place. Samuelson’s A7 had a fire in the pits, Balls was doing all he could to catch up after a 5m stop for plugs and water, and Dykes, not surprisingly, had to change a tyre, and the Alvis needing water, he couldn’t release the filler-cap, unusual for one used to making pit-stops on long-distance record bids.
Waite’s A7, now running properly, held the bigger cars on the corners, Balls was two laps down on the best Salmson but caught Martineau’s Salmson after it had had a fuel stop and punctured a rear type. Bagshawe’s Frazer Nash was emitting awful sounds from its transmission but with only six minutes left, he drove on. The touring Aston-Martin broke a valve, so came touring in. Eight finishers, nine out. Hazelhurst (1100cc Salmson) had won, at 62.9 mph, Bagshawe second and winner of the 1500cc class at 61.7 mph, three laps down, Balls third, Martineau fourth, and Harvey’s Alvis a disappointing fifth (59.1 mph), five laps behind the splendid Salmson. A maroon exploding called those still running into the inspection enclosure. Did the wise spectators go home and invest in twin-cam Salmsons?
The JCC obviously considered this innovation a success, as they held a very similar race in 1927, but now as a Four-Hour Sporting-Car Race. Apart from the added hour duration they altered the rules to restrict it to catalogue cars, although some mods were allowed, such as stronger valve springs and push-rods (on ohv engines), bigger valves and special camshafts. Entries were slow in coming in, cancellation was contemplated, but in the end 16 were received and the race was held in pouring rain on August 3rd, the same course as in 1926. A good crowd sheltered in the big covered Fork grandstand, some possibly again metaphorically fingering their cheque-books. This time the 12/50 Alvis entry made no mistakes, Harvey winning in the black beetleback, at 63.2 mph. Green second. “Soapy” Sutton was third for Lea Francis. Two 1100cc Salmsons, of Newman and Bugatti-man JC Douglas, headed the sixth-placed Alvis of Clutterbuck, but Macdonald’s special-bodied Alvis was 11th and last, at 45.5 mph. Harvey had dropped from first to eighth place with a 4m stop for all plugs to be changed but soon retook the lead. Only four retired, perhaps because the fearful conditions kept speeds down; they were the other Green’s 4-seater Alvis and a Sénèchal, due to big-ends, and Glenny’s Frazer Nash after 2h 40m spent in the pits. The latter crew changed at least four broken chains, which had wiped off some of the ballast, suggesting disqualification, suffered a puncture and a loose exhaust pipe and changed the mechanic. Lastly, Rose Richards retired the ex-Ivy Cummings 3-seater Type 37 Bugatti after endless oiled plugs, which reducing the sump level did nothing to cure, and a wheel-change. I had tea with Rose-Richards’ sister only the other day; he was to go on to far happier racing in later years.
Those assessing car quality would have noticed that S G Nash’s normal 2-seater AC went well (ninth at 50.3 mph), apart from pulling tyre and tube from a disc wheel at the hairpin, and that Randall’s Aston Martin was eighth this time, at 54.6 mph. Also, maybe, that Lea-Francis appeared unable to afford new tyres, and that Newsome’s needed a push-start after loss of oil pressure had been traced to a faulty gauge, that Macdonald’s Alvis mis-fired badly, and that so inaccessible were the plugs on Peacock’s Lea-Francis that they took 13m to change, but that the Salmsons went well, Newman’s with a new engine fitted the night before the race (fourth, at 60.7 mph), Douglas’, with broken exhaust pipe, seventh.
No doubt sensible onlookers who had £535 to spend afterwards bought 12/50 sports Alvises, for which 80 mph was claimed, or if less affluent, a Grand Prix Salmson, priced at £275 and good, the papers said, for 75 mph. Or a Frazer Nash, offering anything from 70 to 90 mph according to type, at from £385 to £495; but not quite ready for some of them yet, those rain-swept spectators may have felt, after seeing poor Glenny’s misfortunes. . . And a Bugatti (95 mph, £550) may have seemed too extreme to those who had witnessed the Rose-Richards fiasco? However, I was 17 then and even a Type 40, a very used one, would have done very nicely, thank you. W B