Another look at "Nanette"

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Genuine Brooklands cars, especially of the vintage period, are infrequently encountered these days. So there was interest in ‘looking again at the Felix Special “Nanette”, which won the 90 m.p.h. Short Handicap at the 1926 Summer BARC meeting from Moss-father-of-Stirling’s Frontenac and Meeson’s 30/98 Vauxhall, the low-slung tan-coloured “Nanette” lapping at 96.33 m.p.h. It had been built by Felix Scriven, the Bradford mill-owner, who was famous for his successful exploits with his Austin Twenty “Sergeant Murphy”, which he was still entering for races.

His smaller Brooklands car originally had an unreliable Sage engine, in which form it was called “Mother Goose”, as it was stuffed with sage, you see—six cylinders of it. The car really evolved for the 1926 season, when it was given an ex-Parry Thomas four-cylinder Hooker engine of 70 x 120 mm. (1,847 c.c.). There. is a story to the effect that handicapper Ebberwhite looked at Scriven’s entry form for his new car and noted that it had a Peter Hooker engine. The wily “Ebby” then asked Thomas casually where his engines were made and receiving the answer “By Peter Hooker, of Walthamstow”, he gave Scriven a very heavy handicap! Another story is that Scriven, although intending to fox Ebby with his new purchase from the famous Parry Thomas stable, mentioned it to a friend while drinking in a local bar, where “Ebby” was sitting quietly in -a corner . Anyway, on its first apearance “Nanette” was on scratch, giving a big start to some very quick cars, and Scriven had to bide his time for a win. But win he did, and the Felix had never gone faster.

Rumour has it that the car later caught fire on the road and was burnt out, and was then sold to a well-known specialist-builder, who resuscitated it. The fact is that it has made spasmodic and disappointing appearances in post-war VSCC. meetings and recently came to light at a rather improbable venue in London. More recently it was sold by Dan Margulies to a new owner, who invited me to see it, as he is anxious to rebuild it to original form, if this can be determined after such a long passage of time.

There were rumours that the engine had been changed for another make but to my eye there is no mistaking the one now in the car for a genuine Hooker-Thomas power-unit. It has the classic Thomas valve gear, a single oh. camshaft operating inclined valves, the upper wipe of the cams bearing on the inclined rockers, transverse leaf springs closing the valves, whereby Thomas was able to use short valve stems and Obviate the trouble then rife with coil springs placed too close to hot metal. What is a puzzle is that this camshaft is driven by a duplex chain passing over two sprockets at the rear, whereas all Thomas’ engines had the equally-classic eccentric-and-connecting rods camshaft drive. There is a possibility that -chain drive has been substituted in recent times. But if so, it has been very neatly done; a clue to a possible change lies in a slight alteration to the upper reaches of the drive casing.

Otherwise, mechanically “Nanette” seems largely original. This No. 3 Hooker-Thomas engine now has twin SU instead of Zenith carburetters. A magneto is inclined on the 0/5, hidden beneath the front carburetter, and driven from the timing train at the rear (I think it has been raised and uses the original water-pump driveshaft), and the crankcase with side inspection plates bears the Thomas hallmark, below which is a flat, deeply ribbed oil-sump. The cam cover is typical Hooker-Thomas, the plugs are horizontally plated, and the four exhaust pipes look original. The steeply inclined radiator could be the original, although a small scuttle-mounted header tank and a Ford water-pump driven by a Whittle belt have been added. The radiator cowl looks original, although pop-riveting suggests some modernisation, and it is far from the front of the engine, as Scriven allowed space for a supercharger, subsequently fitted, for the 1927 BARC Autumn meeting, with the capacity reduced to 1,493 c.c., when the car lapped at 85.87 m.p.h.

The chassis is very interesting, being underslung at the back on the lines of the then-current Grand Prix cars. The side-members are variously said to be from a 30/98 Vauxhall or a copy of same. They are copiously drilled and bear some resemblance to those of the 200 Mile Race Marlborough-Thomas. Indeed, I wonder whether Parry Thomas did not supply the chassis and other parts. Scriven looked rather like Thomas, wearing a Fair-Isle pullover and leather helmet, and he had persuaded Thomas to supply him with an engine, it was said the actual one from Thomas’ original Thomas Special single-seater. So he might well have.

This chassis, passing beneath the rear axle, the half-elliptic front and quarter-elliptic rear springs, and the front axle itself look absolutely right. The centre of the H-section axle, like most of the car, is heavily drilled with holes to reduce weight and the present owner tells me this was reported to have made the undrilled extremities flex almost as if i.f.s, was intended! One assumes the Observers didn’t notice, even if Scriven did… The six-spring clutch is quite naked and is attached to a small flywheel covered in timing marks, the compact separate 4-speed gearbox with its stubby central lever looks to be the original MAB unit, as do the short open prop-shaft.. Moss back axle, and the stout axle locating tubes that run from axle banjo to a cross-member. There is a big tubular cross-member behind the cockpit, with lightening holes, of course.

In 1926 the -Scriven had Dunlop disc wheels but later it acquired wire wheels, with drum centres like those of a Marlborough Thomas, at all events at the front. ‘Ibis, with the. use of MAB parts, all endorsing, surely, a Parry Thomas affinity? The dash, of aluminium, looks original although now covered in Rexine; I cannot vouch for the instruments but two shy Bowden levers are certainly in period.

Very odd are the front brakes. They must have been added after 1926 and consist each of a simple hollow drum round which wraps a single contracting-band, drawn tight by hydraulic means. Now Scriven was apparently Interested in entering for the JCC 200 Mile Race. This was limited to cars but he had the means of making his Hooker engine of that capacity, reducing its stroke as we have seen, in 1927. As this long-distance race would. have involved corners, did Scriven put these brakes on for the “200” or were they the idea of a subsequent rebuilder, for road work? The fire that partially destroyed “Nanette” is said to have been caused by a big fuel tank fitted for the “200” splitting and leaking petrol into the undertray. The present tank tapers as if to follow the rear taper of the chassis but it is quite small. It Is probably the original short-Circuit-race tank, refitted. after the fire. Today, an SU electric pump supplies the feed.

At Some time a two-seater, short-tailed body has been put on the chassis, which it overlaps, whereas the original cockpit and tail followed the curve of the side-members. But I would think that the flimsy alloy bonnet and the scuttle are of 1926 origin. It is good that “Nanette” has survived and that the new owner hopes to rebuild and run it —he would appreciate any information that Will help in this laudable aim.—W.B.

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