Donington Park sequel

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A number of readers wrote to us in response to the article last month about the 1939 British Empire Trophy race at Donington Park, answering queries or adding information. Of particular interest was a long letter from Geoffrey Richardson about the fate of the Percy Maclure Riley that I suggested became the basis for his Richardson Racing Automobile (RRA) and I can do no better than quote his letter in full, for in addition to sorting out once and for all the history of the RRA Specials, it also gives an interesting insight into amateur racing just after the war and unbounded enthusiasm that has obviously never waned.

G. N. Richardson writes: “My introduction to motor sporting events started in 1947 with a Type 51A twin-cam blown 1 1/2-litre Bugatti and at the end of that season I sold it back to Blakes of Liverpool and bought the very pretty ERA-engined Maclure Riley which they had raced that Year with Mrs. Sheila Derbyshire driving. [They had removed the head-fairing from the body and covered the Riley radiator with a bulbous grille.—D.S.J.] I rebodied the car, retaining the Riley chassis and Andre-Girling independent front suspension.

I raced the ERA-Riley all through 1948 and had some good runs in the Jersey Road Race and first Goodwood meetings etc., but the weakness of the car was the transmission and it caused several retirements, notably in the first-ever British GP at Silverstone, when going well in about ninth place. The whole axle casing used to distort under the power from the ERA engine, lose all its oil or break the crovvnwheel and pinion, Which were all standard Riley parts of the day. I believe the large diameter axle shafts had been made at Rolls-Royce Derby and certainly gave no trouble. In the autumn and winter of 1948 I rather rashly decided to try and build a real single-seater using the ERA engine, Riley close-ratio “crash” gearbox and an ERA differential unit with ZF self-locking cliff, and a swing axle independent rear suspension of my own design. The late Sir Alfred Owen, who I knew personally, agreed to have Rubery Owen build a new chassis frame of joint design, and so the first RRA Special was started that winter. The Maclure Riley chassis complete, less the Andre-Girling front suspension, but with all body panels was sold together with an un-blown 2-litre six-cylinder Riley engine. The new owners apparently never completed the car and as far as I know it has not been heard of since. [I saw the bare chassis frame, less any front axle, hut with the Riley rear axle, in a barn in Worcestershire many years ago when someone was offering it for sale.—D.S.J.] The RRA was duly completed in the spring of 1949 and had a single-seater body constructed by Dick Mead of Dorridge in Warwickshire and this was extensively repanelled in the first year. I cannot recall having much success in the first year, with what was after all a fairly ambitious project for an impecunious enthusiast, but what started as a pretty poor car became a fairly reliable racer over the years due to continual development. I first stretched the ERA engine to 1,750 c.c. and for the last two years of its life to a 2-litre, using all 1,500 c.c. parts except the pistons and this combined with a Godfrey-Roots blower geared to run at engine speed giving 18 p.s.i. produced 245 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m. on my own test-bed. The RRA was undoubtedly the second fastest ERA-engined car of all, only ERA R4D could better it in 1954/5. I was no match for my good friend Bob Gerard in his great years of 1947-50 in the immaculately driven and prepared green ERA, but I grew stronger in Formula Libre races as his ERA days waned.

At the end of the 1955 season I felt I must have a change after six years of continual development and racing the same RRA Special and was in a complete quandary as to what to do when the late J. T. Stewart approached me wanting to buy my 2-litre ERA engine to put in the aforementioned ex-Gerard green ERA (R1413) that he had bought during the season and put a rod through the side; he was endowed with great enthusiasm and driving gusto but little consideration for the rev-counter. I sold him my engine and then more or less dismantled the RRA and sold the chassis to Keith Knight of Malvern who installed a 2-litre HWM/Alta engine and ran the car in VSCC events. He is new engaged in building an ERA engine from new castings in order to resurrect the RRA to original specification, with all the help I can give him. That basically ends the story of the RRA but now I would like to get the record straight about the succeeding cars that I built.

The RRA-Jaguar was an entirely new special based on the single-seater Aston Martin that Reg Parnell took to New Zealand in 1955 (I think). I purchased this car from John Wyer at Aston Martin at Feltham and my first job was to remove the engine and bench test it. This 2-6-litre engine on three Weber carburetters only gave about 148 b.h.p,, when it was sold as producing 190 b.h.p. and after a hassle with the factory and realising that. no help was forthcoming or any chance of buying an updated engine I slung it out and built up a 2.4-litre Jaguar engine from all new parts, D-type head, camshafts, etc., tailored exhaust and three 45 DC03 Webers and went racing with about 205 b.h.p. The DB35 chassis was left as produced at the front end, but at the rear I scrapped the cross torsion-bars and fitted Girling coil spring suspension units and disc brakes all round. I revamped the de Dion tube, gave it a Watt-linkage location, some toe-in and negative camber and fitted a new Salisbury 4HU alloy diff unit with Powr-Lok and used wider 15-in. Borrani rims. The RRA-Jaguar hadn’t turned a wheel when it was loaded into the transporter for a Formula Libre race at Snetterton and after a good practice session I finished 3rd in its first race. I took part in the postponed Daily Express International Trophy at Silverstone in 1957, but sheared the fuel pump drive right at the beginning.

I raced the original RRA Special for six years and the RRA-Jaguar for less than six months as at the end of the season the Connaught team cars were being sold up at Send and I purchased B5 and plenty of spares, engines and gearboxes, etc. The RRA-Jaguar was converted back into a 2-seater more like a DB3S with a body bought from Lord O’Neil and the engine was stretched to 3.2 litres using a factory 3-litre TT crankshaft squeezed into the 2.4-litre block. The result gave some 280 b.h.p. at 7,000 r.p.m. I raced Connaught B5 in 1958 and 1959 and had two most enjoyable years, Long before I drove the Connaught I thought that they were either too heavy or didn’t give the power claimed, and when I got the car I put the engine on my test-bed and found it some 30 b.h.p. down on what Connaught claimed. The chassis weight dry was very competitive for its day at just over 12 cwt.

I sold the Connaught after the 1959 season and ordered a new Cooper Formula One chassis complete less engine, as I proposed to fit my own Connaught/Alfa engine. This was called the Cooper-RRA, my third and last special. I was often ribbed as to why I hadn’t fitted the current ware of engine, i.e. 2i-1itre Coventry-Climax. The answer was simple, I hadn’t got the £2,500 that Climax were asking, and they wouldn’t give me one. I have seen this Cooper-RRA listed as having an ERA engine fitted, which was quite wrong as it never had any other engine than the Connaught. The confusion may have stemmed from the fact that I fitted a 2-litre engine into a front-engined Cooper, in place of the original Bristol engine for Peter Walker in the early ‘fifties [or did some well-meaning printer or proof-reader change RRA into ERA?—D.S.J.].

The Cooper-RRA was sold at the end of the 1960 season and the new owner fitted a 3 1/2-litre Buick V8 engine, but I don’t think it went as well as it did with its 210 b.h.p. Connaught/Alta engine. I had many enjoyable scraps with Brian Naylor at Mallory Park, but his Maserati-engined JBW had that little bit extra and I usually had to settle for second place. I finished my racing days with a lightweight Ferrari Berlinetta, ex-Graham Whitehead, but it was getting somewhat dated when I got it and the new 3.8-litre lightweight E-type Jaguars were a big problem with their much greater torque out of the corners.

I am now a very fit one-legged bloke in his fifty-third year, who manages to fish, shoot and fly as hobbies [and still read Motor Sport—D.S.J.]. I don’t go to many race meetings these days, except Silverstone for the big meetings as it is so easy to fly in and the BRDC are so good to their old members even if they were not stars in their day. I have tried to put on paper the facts and results of 16 years of work and racing that I wouldn’t have missed for the world.—Geoff Richardson.”

From the forgoing we can safely say that the Percy Maclure Riley is no more, and never will be, though the first RRA Special may appear one day. Another reader confirmed the interesting 1,100 c.c. Maserati that Charlie Dodson drove at Donington as being unusual in having Tecnauto coil-spring units on the rigid buck axle, and also wonders what happened to the car. He mentions that N. G. Wilson, the S. African driver of the 1,100 cc. ERA died during the war, and another reader confirms that he was “killed in action” with the RAF, and they both confirm that Robin Hanson is alive and well, while a reader in Oxfordshire says that R. E. (Bob) Ansell is also alive and well.

In my reference to the Brooke Special I said that it had been turned into a 2-seater sports car with a post-war MG engine, but this was only partly true, for while it was made into a sports car, it retained a Dixon 1,750 c.c. Riley engine, completed with multiple SU carburetters and Dixon sliding-plate throttle arrangement, and still exists in this form, complete with the circular aircraft radiator that Leslie Brooke fitted in 1945/6.—D.S.J.

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