Star Postscript

[Last month we published Star Story, after the Editor had met Mr. Wallace Marsh, who was a Premium Pupil at the Wolverhampton Company before the First World War. Here is his postscript.]

Old Teddy, the founder of Star and related cars — I call him that because that was the name by which all his workmen knew him — was married twice and altogether had 13 offspring. Apart from Dolly and Ethel, the two youngest daughters, I only knew the sons. In order of precedence these were: Edward who was managing director of Briton cars, Joe who was general manager of Star cars, Jack who went in for tailoring, Richard (Dick) who raced Stars and was sales representative for northern England and Scotland, Alec who was with Star until he become blind about 1910, Percy whom the old man tried to make into a farmer and finally Charles who went into the garage business.
Dolly and Ethel eventually married two nephews of Arnold Bennett and caused much confusion as they were both Mrs. Bennett. On the whole they were a tragic family. Old Teddy threw himself into the canal at Tettenhall and drowned. This was about 1921. Joe had been trying to edge the old man out of the business for some years and when he succeeded Teddy just packed up. Joe in turn was edged out of his job as Managing Director of Star by Guys and he blew his brains out with a shotgun. Retribution perhaps. Dick’s wife Lottie took an overdose of sleeping tablets and died leaving a note for Dick. Alec accidentally set himself on fire with a petrol hose and was burnt to death. Percy I believe broke his neck in a fall. Charlie’s main claim to fame appears to be that a number of his “wives”, all unknown to each other, turned up at his funeral. (Great consternation, and big joke, in the Lisle family.) [Here I would add that I mistakenly said that Mrs. Lacey, who came on our Star pilgrimage, was married to a Lisle; in fact, she was the daughter of Alec Lisle. — Ed.]

In my time with Star there were four Premium Pupils, Harrison whose father was a brass-founder in Dudley, Ezra who was something in the rubber recovery business, Capel-Smith from a Naval family, and myself. The Works Manager’s name was Godfrey. (I was in the rubber-growing business for about 30 years but it was not until I came to write these notes that I realised they must have been using ground-up scrap rubber in a rubber-tyre mix before the 1914 War.) Godfrey was followed by a chap called Jenkins. Willie Graham, a peppery Scot, was Manager of the body-building shop. Managers and Foremen invariably wore bowler hats at work, and quite a few of the workmen outside working hours.

There was an apparatus for generating Mond gas in the factory yard which gave off a very unpleasant smell. This gas was used in the case-hardening furnaces. Items to be hardened were placed in suitable metal boxes on a layer of carburising material — usually charred leather crumbs — followed by another layer of leather. The lid was then put on the box and scaled with fine clay. The carburising temperature was between 900°C and 1,000°C.

As engines left the engine-building shop they passed to the engine-testing shop. There were six heavy cast-iron frames in this shop, attached to the floor, on to which the engines were bolted. They would be run, without the dynamometer attachment, on town gas for about half-a-day or more, to get everything properly cased up and to this end Acheson’s colloidal graphite was mixed with the engine oil. This gave a mirror-like finish to the cylinder walls.

For the final adjustments of magneto and carburetter, and for the final power test, petrol was used. At one shilling to one-and-a-penny per gallon, petrol was considered to be very expensive. . . .
The system whereby a complete unit such as an engine or gearbox was entirely built by a Chargehand and his small gang, and upon which he stamped his initial, made for pride in workmanship. Quite apart from any consequences, they literally would not turn out a shoddy piece of work. If gearboxes or rear axles were a little stiff or noisy they were given a day’s run-in on a belt-driven contrivance. Completed units eventually found their way into general stores, from where they were issued to the chassis-erection shop, as required. The Foreman here would receive an Order Form card from the Works Office, upon which was typed the name and address of the customer and full details of his requirements. This card also bore the car number and the Foreman would go to the chassis-frame store and, choosing the appropriate frame, would paint this number on one of the side members. The frame and the card would then he delivered to whichever Chargehand was going to build the car. The chassis shop also boasted a couple of carpenters for fitting dashboards, footboards, etc. and an electrician for doing all necessary wiring. As far as I can recollect, the chassis frames were supplied by Thompson’s, the boiler makers. All wooden wheels were supplied by Goodyear of Dudley, whilst some cars were fitted with the relatively new Rudge-Whitworth detachable wire wheels. The chassis-erecting shop was far trot being a mere assembly shop. There was a great deal of lurid work to be done. In fact, so much that each erection gang included a filer with his wide assortment of files. As an example, the circular hole for the starting handle boss had to be out in the front of the cross member with hand electric drill, hammer and chisel and file.

On completion, the car would be fitted with a set of test wheels and pushed into the road-test department. Bert Wickens was Foreman and chief-tester here. There were about six road-testers. The lubrication of the chassis seems rather laughable now. A labourer came round with a large bucket containing a 50/50 mixture of grease and thick black oil. He would remove the inspection covers on rear axles and gearboxes and proceed to stuff them full by hand with this revolting mixture. The lost power which this entailed was not appreciated then. . .

If all went well, a car might past the road-test in a single day, or less. The odd rogue might take a week. When I was on the road-test the route varied but, more often than not, it was in the general direction of Bridgnorth. That very steep climb in Bridgnorth from the fiver bridge up to the town square on the top was frequently used. A simple incline these days but not then.

They were a good lot of chaps on the road-test, every one of them a first-class driver/mechanic. I well remember Perkins’ cheerful, beery face. He actually taught me the drill for the road-test. There was lanky Rawlinson and curly haired Tommy Whitlock who was selected as riding mechanic to “Tiny” Crossman in the 1914 TT. The cars for this race were designed by Tom Marlin, who was previously with Sunbeam, a clever designer with many original ideas. He was killed in the 1914-18 War. The engine was a monoblock four-cylinder side-valve type, with a bore and stroke of 90 mm. x 130 mm., with water-cooled valve caps, necessitated by the very large diameter valves.
The pistons were of built-up steel construction, of the Zypher type, the head carrying two piston rings and being riveted to the skirt which carried the gudgeon-pin bosses. The connecting-rods were circular in section and tapered from big-end to small, and were made of a special steel-alloy. They were also hollow, with the hole itself being tapered but at a slightly different angle, leaving a wall thickness which varied from about 4 mm. to 2 mm. Quite a number broke under test and the trouble was eventually traced to the presence of minute tool-marks on the inside wall. The rods were machined all over from solid forgings and were then given a high polish both inside and outside. With the elimination of the tool marks by polishing no further trouble was experienced.
The engine developed around 90 b.h.p. at 3,000 r.p.m. These engines were tested in a separate shop and were run in under light load on petrol, being lubricated with a mixture of pure castor oil and colloidal graphite. The setting of the carburetter was done initially with the exhaust manifold removed. This enabled the colour of the flame in the exhaust gases to be seen as they issued from the ports. This was also a check on the distribution of the fuel mixture between cylinders. If just a small trace of constant blue flame in the exhaust could be seen, this was taken as being approximately the chemically correct petrol/air mixture. The mixture was then enriched so that the consumption was 15 to 20 per cent more and this, with minor adjustment, gave the optimum power setting. The engines were dismantled several times for check and the mirror-like finish on the cylinder walls was most noticeable.
Dick Lisle and Crossman were the two drivers for the race, with Cecil Cathie, a Star Company Director, in reserve. (To his intense disappointment, I know.) Cecil was a great character and as tough as old boots. At that time he was Joint Master of the West Kent Hunt, married, with a daughter and one son Clive. He rarely wore a hat even when racing and his permanently immaculate hair was always a source of amazement to those not in the know. The secret lay in his hair dressing which was a mixture of starch and water, a spoonful of salt and a drop or two of perfume, homemade. His hair felt just like hard plaster.
Our car, No. 5, narrowly missed being a total write-off on two occasions before the trip to I.o.M. Once on our may down to Brooklands for speed tests, coming around a bend at high speed, we found the road completely blocked by a huge steamroller and its equally huge trailer, full of road metal, drawn up alongside it. Dick tried to get the car up on the left-hand verge but it was too high. Had he succeeded I think we might have upped over because we were travelling sideways. Meantime the very quick-witted roller driver put his engine into reverse and was actually moving backwards when we struck the front roller. There was remarkably little damage done and we were able to limp into Maidenhead for repairs.

The second mansion was when we took the car for test over some of the worst roads and hills in North Wales and, at that time, they really were bad. There was a sharpish bend in the narrow road somewhere near the top of Dinas Mawddy and Dick misjudged it a little. We ended up with the car overhanging a fearsome slope to the valley below. Fortunately the rear wheels were still on relatively solid ground and by jacking-up the front end, Dick driving and me pushing, we eventually got it back on to the road in a series of spasmodic jerks. All this took about two hours and not a single soul or vehicle passed by. We were both shaken, not only from fright but at the thought of No. 5 lying a heap of wreckage down below. On we returned to the works in a very decorous fashion.

Three Minervas fitted with double-sleeve-valve engines were entered for the race. The pistons and sleeves perforce had to be given large clearances and as a result their consumption of lubricating oil was phenomenal. It was necessary to effect a seal and to cool the sleeves. The ultimate result was that when the throttle was closed oil spewed into a red hot exhaust manifold which disgorged a cloud of dense smoke. Any driver who happened to be sitting on their tail when this happened was completely blinded. A protest was made about this smoke emission but was not upheld so one just kept back if one knew there was a bad corner ahead. In this connection, an amusing story was going the rounds of Bianchi who was driving a Crossley. Apparently he was late arriving on the island and, when beset off at 5.00 a.m. the next morning for his first practice lap, noose had told him about the Minervas and their smoke. He was unfortunate enough to find himself close behind one of them at the end of the Sulby straight where there in a sharp sum to the right over the bridge. The usual thing happened and Bianchi was enveloped in a thick cloud. He trod on everything, the car spun, and when he came to rest and could see, found himself in the middle of the bridge without touching a thing but facing in the reverse direction. That evening in a Douglas hostelry he was explaining to the company around what had happened and that things were more difficult for him because he did not know the course at all, when some wag piped in, “And you are never likely to know it either if you keep on going round it backwards”. What befell the two Star entries in this 1914 TT was described in last month’s “Star Story”.

On Brooklands, during practice, the Humber TT cars at full speed emitted a very high pitched whistle which was caused by something in the radiator design. If we were at Brooklands for a few days we used to stay at the Heath Club, a place owned by Locke-King and run by a Manageress. She was the one who always made Hornstead pay his bill before going for a track record!

I have tried to trace what happened to this club because there were many photographs there and some very famous people used it. As a club it probably came to an end during the first war. Travelling up to town last December I got into conversation with a young lady who said she came from Weybridge and asked if she knew anything about the Heath Club. Not surprisingly she said she had never heard of it but would enquire. She informed me about a week later that she thought what used to be the old club was now a bridge club and was situated near the present Technical College on what used to be part of the Locke-King Estate.

Percy Lambert, who covered the first one hundred miles in the hour on a Talbot, was using the track a lot. His works mechanic was a man called Day, an amiable chap who did not mind you examining the Talbot in detail. There used to be a block of lock-up garages near the Club and Talbot and Star occupied adjacent compartments at one time. Speaking of Lambert, Dick Lisle was the first man to reach him when his car overturned and killed him on the home banking behind the Members’ Hill. The rear tyres burst and the rear end of the car spun up the banking and then somersaulted coming to rest upright on its wheels at the bottom of the banking. Lambert was lying dead half-way up. Dick said that if he had been in his correct position on the banking the tragedy would not have occurred. As you know, a lap counts as 2 3/4 miles whether you stick to the middle, the outer edge, or the inside. Lambert seemed to be deliberately holding threat down on the bankings and when the tyres lost adhesion centrifugal force took over.

War broke out a month or so after the TT race. I went into the Army In August and that was the end of my contact with racing cars for a good many years. Nobby Clark’s attempt to stick a direct-drive 200 h.p. V8 Hispano aero-engine into his Crossley Tender chassis had not really progressed very far before I was posted to India at the beginning of 1921. The engine was purchased from the Royal Aircraft Factory—now the RAE — for a few pounds. I remember some chap coming along with a secondhand Benz scroll-sprung clutch which was being adapted. I would very much like to know the final fate of this project. During the war the factory did much of their engine development using single cylinders made out of shell cases. Many cooling problems were worked out this way. The full-sized engines were tested by rigging them up on one end of a 60 ft. girder pivoted at its centre and counterbalanced the other end. They were fitted with their normal propellers and controlled from the central pedestal. The engines could be opened up at full power and the speed of rotation of the girder controlled by a braking arrangement on the pedestal. Sir Dugald Clerk’s brother was working at the RAE at that time on “flameless” combustion. I had many interesting talks with him but the relevance of “flameless” combustion to engine design has been forgotten.