A Series of Interviews with Personalities famous in the Realms of Motoring Sport No. 12 — Peter Monkhouse
Somebody once gave as his doctrine for success the adage, “Bite off more than you can chew — and chew it.”
Recently we found it entertaining to observe Peter Monkhouse endeavouring to cope with this paradox. To succeed in smoothly running a sizeable engineering and motor business these days is no mere bagatelle but, when added to this responsibility are the hazards of trying to start up a new aero-engine factory to make a 100-h.p. 4-cylinder flat-twin unit, one will understand that he is a man of industry. It was, then, with some difficulty that we ran him to earth and plunged into the delights of motor-racing.
Apparently he was never allowed to drive a car, or even sit in a driver’s seat, until the age of 17 (rather unusual? but due to his strict and justly cautious parents). Consequently when finally he was permitted to take the wheel his unleashed frustration caused him to drive at the most fabulous speeds. Needless to say this envolved him, and unhappily his father’s cars, in the most hair-raising accidents imaginable, so much so indeed that his father’s insurance company, who were beginning to chafe under the strain, refused to cover Monkhouse Senior’s cars when driven by Monkhouse Junior, which proviso, incidentally, still stands.
Monkhouse had no real interest in motor-racing, however, until he went to Cambridge, where the exciting atmosphere of a Cambridge University Speed Trial first caught hold of him.
Like practically every other enthusiast, he started with an Austin Seven. It was a Gordon England Cup Model (1926), but the lack of brakes and poor road-holding soon convinced him that something ought to be done about it. He thereupon built a special version, using a duralumin channel-section chassis frame, believed to be the first in this country. The material used was 2 1/2 by 1 3/4 by 3/16 in. thick; the frame was of rectangular shape with 1/4-elliptic Frazer-Nash-type front suspension. The front axle was increased in width by 13 in. and reversed 1/4-elliptic springs were used at the back, in the Bugatti fashion. The engine was given two 30-mm. Zenith downdraught carburetters. A Laystall crankshaft was used, together with a Ricardo cylinder head which provided dual ignition. One set of plugs were fired by the Austin magneto driven in the usual way, and the other set from an 8-cylinder magneto driven from the camshaft. With elaborate care he made special hollow tapered con.rods with 4-bolt big ends. It took about 400 hours to fashion them in the university workshops.
Monkhouse, full of inspiration and exuberance, entered this car for Shelsley and was permitted, by the no doubt cynical officials, to run in the 750-c.c. class, despite the fact that he proposed to feed the gas to the engine via a No. 11 Cozette compressor driven at constant speed by a 500-c.c. Panther motor-cycle engine slung beside the driver. It was such a shame that it did not work, and he recalls the famous words uttered by a great designer: “development is more valuable than invention.”
Other cars owned by him include an 850-c.c. “P”-type M.G., which to this day holds the 850-c.c. sports-car record at Syston. Later it was converted into an off-set single-seater, and in this form it won races on the Mountain and Campbell circuits at Brooklands, obtained two places at Donington and was fourth in the Limerick G.P., 1938, making fastest time despite the fact that it was unsupercharged and of only 1,031 c.c.
At this time Monkhouse also ran a 1934 T.T.-type “NE” 1,250-c.c. “Magnette,” and it is probably true to say that while this car was owned by Ian Connell and later by Monkhouse, it gained a place in every event for which it was entered, and broke the 1 1/2-litre sports-car record at Brighton for three years in succession.
Most of his other exploits were confined to short trips in other people’s much faster cars, chiefly in Ian Council’s Darracq and E.R.A., and it was with the latter that he made the fastest lap of all British drivers in the 1938 G.P. at Donington, and still holds the Lewes course record, 18.27 sec.
At present, of course, he has the ex-B.O.C.’s Type 51 Bugatti, with which he has achieved a decent measure of success since the war. We understand that one of his keenest supporters is his son, aged nine.
As to next season’s plans, whilst there are a number of interesting special cars being designed and built at Monaco, it would be unfair to the various owners to publicise their plans. It is understood, however, that Monkhouse himself has an exciting, but strictly hush-hush, project.
Regarding his most frightening experience, he was hard put to it to recall a moment of terror at the wheel. He recalls an incident at Prescott whilst practising. He was endeavouring to go round the semi-circle at full throttle in his Bugatti when he lost control and was momentarily expecting to make the ignominous exit through the hedge, instead of which the car turned completely round and gave him an excellent view of the course he had just covered. He finished the course in reverse, in 67 sec.
On the subject of independent suspension, he sets no store by rear independent suspension, which he considers to be overrated, and only required by the very fastest cars. E.R.A.s, Maseratis and others, as he pointed out, have managed fairly well with a conventional rear axle. Independent front suspension, however, he considers essential, since considerable weight saving is possible and it also enables the engine to be pushed further forward, giving more room, a shorter wheelbase and a lighter car. The chassis frame needs to be specially designed for most types of i.f.s., especially the torsion-bar type, which throws stresses upon the frame for which no conventional chassis was designed, so that massive box-like rigidity becomes necessary.
Concerning the use of light alloys, he states that whereas lightness is a desirable feature of any car, it is expensive to obtain. Light alloys can be used extensively where they will not be highly stressed, but weight for weight, nickel chrome steel is about the strongest material. Steel has the advantage that it can easily be welded. The chassis of the G.P. Mercédès-Benz had a frame made with oval-section, 1-mm. thick steel tubing. Normally this material is sufficiently weak to allow it to be distorted by hand. However, it became very strong when it was stiffened with welded-on webs and gussets. Weir’s “K.3” M.G., Monkhouse considers, is one of Monaco’s best jobs of lightening. Substituting welded, large-diameter light-gauge tubular-steel members for the standard crossmembers did much to reduce weight and increase rigidity.
Finally, hobbies — well, apart from motor-racing, these have been temporarily suspended, but the inclination is mechanical, and it is model steam and electric railways combined with photography and sailing which take his fancy: It could be said that colourful clothing is a kind of hobby; anyway he abhors dingy and conventional dress.