Described to the Editor in a recent interview
Colonel Rixon Bucknall is a great motoring enthusiast, as well as being an authority on ships and railways of the steam era. He presumably inherited his interest in cars from his uncles, Ernest and Leslie Bucknall, who were pioneers of the horseless carriage movement. Indeed, Leslie Bucknall took part in the 1,000-Mile Trial of 1900 and three years before that had participated in the Emancipation Day run from London to Brighton. He knew everyone, he was a Founder Member of the R.A.C., and a competent and keen balloonist before the days of heavier-than-air flying machines. Uncles Ernest and Sydney were likewise Founder Members of the R.A.C. and Ernest later became Secretary to the Royal Aero Club.
As early as 1897, Leslie Bucknall had a motor tricycle and a Coventry Motette, or Bollée as it would have been called in France, covering the 180 miles between Boulogne and Paris on the latter machine on seven gallons of petroleum. He went in his 1899/1900 Daimler to watch the Paris-Rouen race and the La Turbie hill-climb, and later bought the 1901 Panhard-Levassor, in which, while driving near his home, Wickhurst Manor, at Sevenoaks, he was charged with driving at 16 m.p.h., “a danger to his passengers’ life and limb”. (Staple-Firth defended and got him off.)
The story behind this Panhard is rather interesting. Apparently Leslie Bucknall discovered this fine car when he visited the Panhard-Levassor works during the summer of 1901. It had been specially built for the Chevalier René de Knyff, a Director of the then-famous Panhard et Levassor Company. Determined to acquire it, Bucknall paid an exorbitant price and eventually brought it to England. The Panhard was named “Le Papillon Bleu” and it has been a well-known performer in recent Brighton Runs.
There followed an ex-Rothschild 20 h.p. Mercedes, which Leslie Bucknall intended to race in the Paris-Bordeaux. This project was abandoned and the car equipped with an enormous touring body, finished in pearl white enamel with red morocco leather upholstery, the fittings being silver-plated on copper. This car was being used in 1905 by Lt.-Comdr. Montague Grahame-White. There was also a 1902 40-h.p. Panhard brought from Paris, with Roi des Belges body which was finished like that of the Mercedes, this body style being widely copied in this country.
Rixon Bucknall, brought up as a child at Newport Pagnell, had his first motoring experiences in the cars of uncles and aunts, as his horse-minded parents never owned a motor car of their own, although they sometimes hired them. (“Twelve horses in the stables—but no ‘stink wagons’ ! ! ! “) His first memory of going out in a car was at the age of five, when a 1907/8 white chain-drive Mercedes visited his parents’ house. Young Bucknall escaped a public school due to the outbreak of war and served in the Royal Naval Reserve aboard H.M.S. Conway. During the period of hostilities, before going to sea, Rixon Bucknall gained his experience on motorcycles, riding his cousin Ian’s 1912 Douglas, a 1914 T.T. Rudge Multi and later a single-speed, belt-drive 3½ h.p. Triumph and a 3-speed W.D. Triumph. There were also his cousin’s 5/6 h.p. and 1916 7/9 h.p. Indians to master, Bucknall finding the latter, with its spring frame, “a bit of a handful” at the age of 13. These various motorcycles could be ridden legally on the long mile drive of Langley Court, near Beckenham, especially if the ¼-mile of public road joining front and back drives of his grandfather’s house was “safe”!
The war over, Rixon Bucknall’s motoring appetite was whetted still further when his Uncle Stanley took him to Brooklands for the Track’s reopening in 1920, although the day was less happy for the Studebaker’s owner, because, in the queue at the entrance gate, one of the stove-enamelled mudguards was scraped by the brake lever of someone’s Norton as it pushed by.
Entering Sandhurst, Rixon Bucknall had a “damn nice” 3½ h.p. Sunbeam Light Solo motorcycle in 1921. He used to ride to the various public road speed trials and hill-climbs from Sandhurst, marshalling at and competing in some of them. The state of the roads immediately after the war is vividly remembered, the North Road being the worst offender in terms of pot-holes and dust. Nevertheless, this did not prevent him from enjoying a run in a cousin’s E-type 30/98 Vauxhall, which they collected as a new car from the Luton factory.
A friend’s 250 c.c. T.T. New Imperial was used for some of the aforesaid sprints, and by the summer of 1923, while still at Sandhurst, Bucknall acquired a T.T. Replica O.E.C. BIackburne, “a fine bicycle”, although when it got really hot the push-rods used to buckle, and jump out. This machine was notable for abnormally wide handlebars.
In September, 1923, Rixon Bucknall wrote to commiserate with George Brough over the accident which had befallen the famous motorcycle manufacturer when a tyre burst on Brooklands. Already with an eye for the best possible, Bucknall asked Brough if he could have the Show model Brough Superior S.S.80. This was exhibited on the stand in an unfinished state, but it was duly completed and sent by rail to St. Pancras. Bucknall collected it and rode it home to Newport Pagnell, being most impressed with the steering damper.
Rixon Bucknall’s first car was a “very satisfactory” rear-wheel-braked 1925 Morris-Cowley two-seater, It proved less expensive to run than the Brough Superior!
At this time Dick Howey, the younger brother of Captain R. B. Howey, was a brother officer in Rixon Bucknall’s regiment. He frequently rode in Howey’s 4.9-Iltre straight-eight Ballot at Brooklands and they both applied for summer leave together, with the object of racing the Ballot at Boulogne. The C.O. refused to give foreign leave to two officers at the same time, so Howey went, and Bucknall had to remain behind. It is now history that the Ballot hit a tree during the hill-climb, killing Howey outright, the car being buried at sea when Howey’s body was brought back to England . . .
At this period he drove a large number of cars belonging to brother officers and friends, Hispano Suiza, Delage, Bugatti, Leyland, AC., and others and often acted as riding mechanic at Brooklands.
Rixon Bucknall’s next car was more sporting—a four-cylinder Anzani-engined Crouch, which “went like hell and was very satisfactory”. The makers were extremely helpful. This Crouch had one of its maker’s spare competition engines, said to give 55 b.h.p. at 4,700 r.p.m. on the bench, but which never got beyond 4,300 r.p.m. on the road. It was a bit fierce, and rough at low speeds, and until someone at Brooklands recommended K.L.G. plugs, there was trouble in that department in slow-speed traffic. When the C.A.V. magneto failed another was delivered by special messenger, such was service in the 1920s.
Front-wheel brakes were unavailable when the Crouch was ordered, but were fitted early in 1926. They were about on a par with the later Riley Nine Mk. IV brakes but the exposed cables called for much messy lubrication.
The body, a boat-tailed openable coupé, had been specially made to Bucknall’s requirements. It was coach-painted in pale cream, with cherry-red headings and wings, the whole well varnished to afford a substantial glaze, while the chassis was painted brick red. The head-lamps were mounted much lower than usual, to give a striking frontal appearance. Matched against a 3-litre Bentley and a Frazer Nash over a straight ¼-mile on a military road, the Crouch won, after catching up with the superior initial acceleration of the Frazer Nash. Rixon’s cousin’s 30/98 Vauxhall Wensum, however, outclassed it in all respects, whereas, in a braking comparison, the Crouch was beaten by the Bentley, but stopped better than the Frazer Nash. Skidding on a frozen hill near Northampton in January, 1926, the Crouch hit a telegraph pole, suffering considerable front-end damage. But the repair bill (Rixon Bucknall’s only insurance claim to date) came to only £32, including the cost of towing the car to the Coventry factory.
When its owner was posted to China the Crouch was sold. This was from 1927 to 1929, when Shanghai possessed first-class roads and lots of American chassis fitted with locally-made bodywork. Rixon would have nothing of these, and drove several versions of Fiats, an A.B.C., Morrises, Citroëns, and Once or twice the General’s Rolls-Royce.
While in the East, Bucknall received a letter from the late Cecil Kimber, telling him about a prototype 18/80 M.G. that the M.G. Car Company was planning. Bucknall wrote back suggesting various improvements, such as twin carburetters, a wider track, bigger brakes, and the brake and gear levers located side by side instead of a central gear lever and r.h. brake lever, all but one of which modifications were adopted eventually.
Returning home, Bucknall considered the M.G. 18/80 two-seater too dear at £625, especially as it still had the shortcomings to which he had drawn Kimber’s attention, so he bought a new Riley Nine Mk. IV saloon. This was followed by a 1930 Riley Nine saloon, specially hotted-up by the factory, “a very nice car”.
The Rileys were succeeded by an Avon Standard coupé, “the lovely lines of which made a great appeal”. The engines of these Standards wore out their bores quite quickly, unlike the almost indestructible Standard Sixteen, and as delivered the thing had no performance. This proved the sort of challenge Rixon Bucknall likes, and has become famous for, so it was considerably tuned, whereupon it went very well, acceleration aided by a useful third gear in the Moss gearbox. At this time the first S.S. was announced, and Rixon was interested. But the car didn’t, in his opinion, live up to the catalogue and magazine illustrations and a demonstration along the Kenilworth Road proved that his Avon Standard could leave it behind.
The next venture was to invest in a couple of Wolselex Hornet Eustace Watkins tourers. Bucknall was aware that people tended to laugh at these cars, but they looked very smart and business-like in maroon and, after he had had the o.h.c. engines tuned to his exacting standards, they went very nicely, and gave many an M.G. owner a surprise. These Wolseleys were the Daytona Specials, of which the second car, with its cross-flow cylinder head and other improvements, was the better. Both, however, “looked the part and went the pace”, after a lot of work had been done on them and were very much liked by their owner.
Needing a roomy saloon for everyday use, in 1934 the subject of this interview bought a Singer Big Six Continental, finished in Cambridge blue and black. It had a twin-carburetter engine, a free wheel, and “a very, very good body”. It just went on and on, giving no trouble, not even the alleged back-axle failure.
The Singer was replaced by a 1½-litre S.S. Jaguar saloon, the push-rod o.h.v. model, which was driven all over Europe with great success. It was bought in 1938, laid up during the war, and sold for more than twice its purchase price in 1952. This 1.7-litre 65 b.h.p. S.S. Jaguar was mildly hotted up as it suffered from lack of urge at altitudes over 6,000 ft., although it boiled only twice, on the Col d’Aubisque, western side, and on the Italian side of the Grand St. Bernard. The suspension wasn’t very good on French roads, and the mechanical fuel pump was a weak point, cured by using an electric pump. This car broke its speedometer drive in the Jura, broke a half-shaft on Watling Street and suffered a dud condenser in the rush hour at Hyde Park Corner. In 80,000 miles it had one re-bore and new big-ends, valve springs and timing chain.
So much of a Jaguar enthusiast had Bucknall become that he replaced the 1½-litre car with a 2½-litre push-rod o.h.v. Jaguar Mk. IV saloon, which was specially hotted-up. It proved “a great car, as indispensable as a sailor’s jack-knife”. It was used for European tours, totting up 179,000 miles before being sold in 1966, after 14 years’ faithful service. The 4.55-to-1 axle ratio was a bit too low, but 0-50 m.p.h. was possible in 11 sec., against the 17 sec. taken by the 1½-litre Jaguar. Later, while retaining the same gearing, a 3½-litre engine was fitted with surprisingly good results. Roto-flow shock absorbers were fitted to improve the suspension, the Lucas P100 headlamps altered to comply with both British and Continental dipping requirements, and the breathing was improved, the cooling system modified and a second electric fuel pump fitted, while the tools were all chromium-plated. This Jaguar failed only once, when a half-shaft broke in the Dolomites (a spare was carried!), where, by the way, the minimum turning circle of 38 feet acceptable to Rixon Bucknall proved its worth—some years later, when contemplating his ideal car, he turned down a Continental Bentley because it was unable to negotiate hairpin bends on Continental passes—and, anyway, its radiator cap was a dummy. There is an amusing story told of the 2½-litre Jaguar. When on the Continent some small children were looking it over. It was on John Bull tyres and had Union Jacks on the bonnet sides. “British”, they solemnly announced.
Now, this excellent car is owned by a friend in North America where I gather that it is still as good as ever.
After a visit to Africa Rixon Bucknall did eventually get his 18/80 M.G. It was a 1930 Mk. II two-seater which he saw from ‘a ‘bus while travelling down the Brompton Road in 1954. He bought it as soon as he could get to the showroom. It was restored to his exacting personal standards, and became a very handsome and delectable vintage car. But it had “some drawbacks”, and so its owner began to think in terms of having a sports car built to his own requirements, which led to his present, well-known Jaguar Special, after he had got over a craving for an Hispano-Suiza at a time when there just weren’t any for sale. The Jaguar aims at maintaining the vintage tradition by looking the part, while having every modern amenity except petrol injection, and transistor ignition which was tried and found wanting.
The first problem was a chassis. Bentley were approached, and John Wyer of Aston Martin was helpful, but couldn’t supply anything in under 18 months. From Feltham Bucknall went to Frazer Nash, but they couldn’t visualise anything bigger than 2-litres. Then the difficulty was solved when Miss Fenton, then Jaguar’s Home Sales Director, heard of the problem and was reminded that Bucknall had ordered one of Sir William Lyons’ Swallow sidecars in 1922, thus being one of Sir William Lyons’ oldest customers. The Jaguar Competition Department offered to supply a modified XK140 chassis to Rixon Bucknall’s requirement in a matter of nine weeks.
The next problem was to have a body built. After 39 tries, from Hooper downwards, the Hastings Motor Sheet Metal Works did what was required. It took ten years on and off to perfect the red Jaguar, most of the testing and retesting being done in the Pyrénées and Dolomites; but not forgetting the Stelvio. But now Rixon Bucknall has a car which will do to 100 m.p.h. in 15 seconds, for in its present form the engine, a 3.4-litre Jaguar S-type three-carburetter unit, chosen because it has water all round the cylinder bores and a good bottom end; gives 275 net b.h.p., using 3 2 in. S.U.s instead of the original 1 3/4 in., equivalent to 244 b.h.p. per ton, as the weight is rather less than 21 cwt., the car now incorporating a great deal of 5% magnesium alloy in its construction. Indeed, this well-known red Jaguar Special has been extensively modified down the years. With the more powerful engine came four-wheel disc brakes, which called for different road wheels. It had probably the first Powr-Lok differential to be put into service, a close-ratio gearbox and a shortened tail, with a fuel tank weighing only 18 lb. This Jaguar Special is an outstandingly reliable Continental touring car, of which the Colonel likes to mention that the magneto was specially made in Stuttgart (Bosch), the lamps in Paris (Marchal) and the wheels in Milan (Borrani). It has been recognised twice in Italy from photographs of it which have appeared in American magazines.
This is Rixon Bucknall’s masterpiece but not his only venture in one-off, personal-requirement motor cars. Needing a four-seater family car, he bought a new M.G.-B two-seater in 1964 and, aided by his friend Bill Slack, who has been “in” on all these special-building concepts‘—a useful friend and co-driver as he is Service Manager at a Hastings garage—took this brand-new M.G. home and immediately cut the rear bulkhead six inches into the luggage boot, and, by moving the steering wheel, footwells and pedals six inches forwards and fitting very slim-backed, upright front seats, they were able to get two seats into the back of this M.G.-B—an S.B. Special!
This unique four-seater, for which a special hood was designed and made, was given many mods. to its engine, which produced 110 b.h.p. The standard bonnet then refused to close, so a new one was made, around an M.G. 1100 grille. Three fuel tanks were installed, a main one against the rear bulkhead and two auxiliary ones in the back wings. This gave the required luggage space, with the spare wheel beneath the floor of the boot, and also enabled the S.B. M.G. to be taken abroad with pure benzole in the wing-tanks, which could be pumped in small quantities into the main tank, where it mixed with the inferior foreign fuel to make 100-octane petrol, which the engine demanded. The open four-seater M.G. Special was lavishly equipped, like all the Colonel’s specials.
When his family refused to ride in all weathers in this open car, Rixon Bucknall produced his last one-off car to date–his very special M.G. 1800. This started out as an Austin 1800 saloon. It was modified to meet Rixon Bucknall’s exacting requirements. Downton transformed the engine to give 112 b.h.p. instead of the normal 84 b.h.p., which means that this spacious family saloon has much the same performance as an MG.-B sports car. The steering column has been reraked and the hand-brake positioned on the floor to give a far superior driving position to that of the standard product. Bill Slack proved the impossible to be possible in thus repositioning B.M.C.’s hand-brake! A 15 in. diameter wooden-rim steering wheel and a new rack and pinion raise the steering ratio, the facia has been restyled to carry a full set of instruments and map-reading lamps, and there is typical attention to detail, reflected in the polished copper pipes under the bonnet, chromed and domed nuts where Cowley and Longbridge are content with plain nuts, a divided boot to accommodate tools, maps and spares in addition to luggage, and a restyled front-end embracing an M.G. 1100 grille. The modifications cost some £300. The final drive of 3.88 to 1 gives 106 m.p.h. at 6,000 r.p.m., which is within 500 r.p.m. of the permissible top crankshaft speed, and the car weighs about half a hundredweight less than standard. Having driven this M.G. 1800 I can vouch for its taut handling, comfortable driving position and excellent performance.
The garage at Rotherfield in Sussex contains these two highly individualistic cars, Rixon Bucknall’s red Jaguar Special and his own conception of what a B.M.C. 1800 saloon should entail. Each car is kept in immaculate condition. Each has its own detailed list of the tools, equipment and spares allocated to it and where such items are stowed. Between them RB 1903 and CDY 587C embrace a staggering amount of special planning and a meticulous attention to motoring detail. Mrs. Bucknall, too, is a very experienced motorist, having never had an insurance claim. Latterly she has gone in for hotted-up M.G. 1100s, but as they have now contracted to only a two-door version she has gone over to a 1300 Triumph. She has her own garage and keeps her cars impeccably.
The Colonel belongs to eight motor clubs and is often to be seen officiating at sporting events throughout the season.—W. B.