On The Austin Twenty Front

Most people regarded the Austin Twenty, the first car to emerge from the gigantic factory at Northfields, Birmingham after the 1914/18 war, as a sound medium-sized quality car, but one without any sporting potential. Until, that is, a letter from Mr Felix Scriven appeared in MOTOR SPORT for March 1928 to remind them of what they had overlooked unless they were devotees of racing at Brooklands.

Sir, – With reference to your article “Great Racing Marques — Austin,” I have perused this with great interest but was to say the least of it somewhat surprised that no mention was made of the 20hp Austin which I regularly raced for some six years on Brooklands.

In the first place at the Show in 1920. I ordered an Austin 20 chassis which the Austin Company guaranteed would be capable of 70mph, but they would not guarantee any more. Before this particular chassis was put into production. I requested them to build the car exactly to my own specification. This (after considerable discussion) they eventually agreed to do, but in view of my specification submitted they unconditionally withdrew any guarantee of speed and this I quite willingly risked. To cut a long story short, instead of doing 70mph the car attained 85mph. The success of the specification was so obvious to the Austin Company, they immediately proceeded to produce it as a standardised sports model.

This was the first Austin to race after the war and long preceded the 750cc model, which, of course, was not produced until a year or two after.

The first race for which it was entered at Brooklands was won by an unprecedented margin, at the Easter Meeting, 1921. Eventually, I made my car Into the fastest Austin that has ever been built and have lapped Brooklands (official time) at 94.99mph and, seeing that the car emanated from standard parts. I should have thought that this was a sufficiently good performance to have merited mention in your notes

Yours truly,

Felix Scriven.

The standard Austin 20 was certainly not a car from which such performance would have been expected. It had a 3.6-litre side-valve four-cylinder engine developing 45bhp at 2000rpm, which was expected to propel an 18cwt chassis of 10ft 9in wheelbase, intended to carry heavy bodywork. It had few unconventional features apart from the ugly rear of the tourer, which swept up to conceal the furled hood and had a locker for the two spare wheels generously supplied as part of the deal, and good weight distribution achieved by placing the petrol tank and batteries under the chassis side-members.

As a motor-obsessed schoolboy I used to have rides in a 1921 Mayfair landaulette, usually on the black leather front bench seat beside the chauffeur, but on cold days inside, on one of the small occasional seats which pegged into a single socket when not folded against the window-topped bulkhead of this cord-upholstered “parlour”. I used to follow the man into the garage when he was mending the innumerable punctures or cleaning the plugs finding the spitting-back of the cold engine quite startling when it was opened up to ensure that it was firing on all four cylinders -would it catch fire, as the nearby stationary engine supplying electricity to the country house frequently did? I was never far away from this Austin or its stable companion, a Chevrolet and then Overland tourers but I would have much preferred to have been in less pedestrian cars.

That apart, the 20/4 had a long model run, like the other post-war Austin models, and was available with various body-styles named after places. When the 20/4 was becoming somewhat outdated Sir Herbert Austin supplemented it with the smoother running 20/6, the Carlton saloon priced in 1929 at a competitive £560, the stately Ranelagh limousine at £650. That was how Mr Average Motorist thought of the Austin 20. But Scriven’s “Sergeant Murphy” was very different. When I was posted to Harrogate during the war I went up to Bradford to meet Mr Scriven, who told me all about it and his later Felix Special “Mother Goose/No, No Nanette”, The first race with the 1920 20/4 to which Felix Scriven refers in his letter was the Easter 1921 75mph Short Handicap, which he won from a limit-start, lapping at over 85mph. This caused a fellow competitor to protest that no Austin 20 of normal engine size could achieve such a speed. This naturally annoyed Scriven, who was about to commence the long drive back to Bradford, from Weybridge. He insisted there and then that the officials measure his engine after the cylinder head had been removed, when it was found to have the declared catalogue bore and stroke of 95x 127mm.

The car had been given a new copper inlet manifold of larger diameter and easier curves than the standard one, fed from a large Claudel Hobson carburettor. The valve timing was unaltered but a slightly higher valve lift was used, together with stronger valve springs. The conrods and pistons were carefully balanced and aviation spirit was found to suit the carburation best, using a 125 main jet. After tests at the Track with a temporary body. Scriven found that water heating of his new inlet manifold at its T-portion was beneficial, that the best tappet clearance was 6 thou, and that the extra-air control of the standard car was useful after the engine was warm. The fan was removed and Scriven used Castrol-R oil.

The Austin was reluctant to stick to the track until the rear springs were given weaker leaves, all were cord-bound, and Derihon shock-absorbers fitted, front and back.

This surprising Austin 20 was now an 80mph car, fitting a sports two-seater body was worth an extra 5mph, and after some fairing-over of the front axle and dumb-irons a lap was timed at 87mph. The rear part of the new body was detachable and had two wheels shod with Palmer racing tyres mounted one on either side of the pointed tail. Scriven had this crated-up and sent ahead of the car to his Weybridge hotel, so that the four-seater body could be used for the journey down from Bradford, enabling two mechanics as well as his passenger to be accommodated, with two more spare wheels up behind. Wire wheels with Rudge centre-lock hubs had been an expensive modification, for the normal size (800 x 120) tyres, but the back-axle ratio was raised to 3.18 to 3.93:1.

Before the aforesaid protest, Scriven had come out for his second race, with 30sec added to his handicap, and had been unplaced, although lapping at 83mph. At this period things were difficult at Longbridge, production not yet in full spate and the farm tractor six months behind schedule, but Scriven’s racing Twenty had not gone unnoticed. To meet it, Austin’s prepared their own racing 20/4, with black two-Seater body and white radiator shell, named “Black Maria”. Sir Herbert had motor racing at heart remember, for had he not been responsible for the Wolseley ‘Beetles” with their horizontally-opposed engines and low pointed prows in very early times, and run a team of 100hp Austins in the 1908 French GP?

Driven by Lou Kings, Austin’s test and competition driver, and Capt Arthur Waite, Sir Herbert’s son-in-law, this works Twenty should have met “Sergeant Murphy” in the 1921 Whitsun 100mph Short Handicap race at Brooklards but Scriven non-started and the other Austin soon came to a standstill. “Black Maria” also missed its next race, in which Scriven lapped at 85.57mph although not placed. It was hotting up, Kings winning that afternoon’s two-mile Sprint Handicap, which” Scriven ignored — anxious perhaps to start for Bradford.

The reverse happened at the summer races. It was Scriven who now non-started, and Kings who won the “100 Short”, with a flying lap at 86.92mph, The red and black Austins met in the “100 Long”. Scriven was given a 36sec start, but his car was in poor form, leaving Kings, although unplaced, to show the ‘Right Crowd” a standing-start lap of 81.5mph and a flying lap at 91.38mph. A fine advertisement, although the race had been won by another improbable car, Capt Snipwright’s 30hp Armstrong Siddeley. The battle was re-joined at the August Meeting, when the race-goers saw Kings retire from their first race, while Scriven lapped at 86.17mph, but Kings made amends by lapping later in the afternoon at 93.79mph, to take a second place. On their third race together Kings was penalised 27sec behind the Yorkshireman. However, the works 20 managed a fine lap at 93.97mph, impressive to those who had trundled down to the Track in their Austins at rather more sedate speeds. This must have encouraged Longbridge because at the 1921 Autumn Meeting they ran “Black Maria” and a new slim tandem-seater 20 entered by Mrs Waite. Her husband was faster by 6.39mph from Pond start to the Fork than the older car, but on their flying laps the difference was 85.87mph to King’s 94.86mph, so handicapper “Ebby’s” 10sec start for the latter made sense. Waite was on scratch in the “75 Short” handicap, for which the other 20 wasn’t entered, but laps at 78.41 and 86.77mph were of no avail. However, those 20s had a busy BARC finale, the new car, apparently intended for sand-racing, doing an impressive 91.38mph lap to bring a third for Mrs Waite to celebrate Kings retiring. After which “Black Maria” came in second in the “100 Long”, with a lap at 94.68mph, In 1921 the Austin Motor Company introduced the sports version of the Twenty, with wire wheels, special camshaft, raised compression ratio, and a more sporting look from a slimmer four-seater body and raked screen and steering-column. It was priced at £975, at a time when the 3-litre Bentley and 30-98 Vauxhall, of about similar pace (the sports Austin had been timed to do 80mph stripped), could be bought for £1350 and £1195 respectively. Few were made, and fewer genuine ones have survived. This sports chassis, however, could be fitted with any kind of bodywork. The biggest of the Austins was prominent in speed hill-climbs at this period, Scriven using “Sergeant Murphy” in many of them (at Tong hill-climb in 1921 he beat a 30-98 to FTD), and also driving it in the trials of those times. At the premier English event, Shelsley Walsh, Austin 205 beat the 30-98 Vauxhalls on speed/weight formula in 1920, 1921 and 1922, and Waite won this category from an Alvis in 1923. Up to seven occupants would be carried — I wonder whether the Austin’s central gear lever in its open central gate may not have been rather hampering to drivers, under these conditions? In 1921 Miss Doris Heath had run a standard-looking 20 with three other girls in it and Waite, his Austin weighing 2 1/4 tons, got up Shelsley Walsh in 78.2sec to win the Formula class, whereas Scriven’s lighter car clocked 72.4sec.

Felix Scriven spent the winter making his car quicker, with a Laystall crankshaft and a high-lift camshaft said to have been profiled by Capt Frazer Nash it was found that twin carburettors made no difference, so the single one was retained. By 1924 a radiator-cowl and wheel discs had had been added. In 1922 Austin’s began to race the Seven which as a Chummy made its first competition appearance at Shelsley Walsh that July, so the 20 programme was reduced. But not before Kings and “Black Maria” had had two thirds at Easter and again at the next BARC Meeting Scriven reappeared at Whitsun, “Sergeant Murphy”, now aluminium, with a black bonnet, was nearly as quick as before which gave him a second place before he won the “90 Long”. In 1923 Waite drove the works 20 twice before turning to a couple of A7s, one called ‘Dingo” Scriven did not have much luck, apart from one second place, so perhaps hoping another change of colour would help, brought the Austins out in 1924 in bronze granite. In the August Private Competitors’ Handicap he was second, and with a fawn radiator cowl he got a third that autumn, lapping at 90.55mph.

The Austin had served him well, not only for racing and long road-runs, but in those speed hill-climbs, and it was also driven in the reliability trials of those times. After that the Brooklands handicaps became stiffer, the old Austin on scratch behind Malcolm Campbell and Woolf Barnato in one race. Nevertheless, on Whit-Monday 1925 there was another win, from a similar-sized Crossley which had had a 7sec start, and a push-rod Alfa Romeo, Scriven doing a lap at 94.86mph. He was now devoting more time to his smaller Felix Special, sharing this in 1926 with the Austin, now in blue paint. Although still able to lap at over 90mph, its best days had gone, and it was advertised for £295 still able to do 80mph and 25mpg with a hood and road clobber. There were no takers, so it was despatched to a Bradford breaker’s yard for £18. (Scriven claimed it was the fastest Austin 20, but in the official BARC records it seems to have tied for this honour with “Black Maria”).

It is unlikely that chauffeurs taking brides to weddings or my uncle in the back of his Austin, perhaps on the way to conduct a Welsh orchestrial concert, knew of these faster Twenties, or would have cared much if they did, But I hope someone does! W B