Summers' Cars

It was while reading, ten years ago, that very entertaining book about life at Rolls-Royce by the late Mr. W. A. Robotham (Constable, 1970), that I came to realise what an enthusiastic motorist the late Mr. R. F. (Dick) Summers had been. It is in this book, “Silver Ghosts and Silver Dawn”, that the description appears of the series of match-races staged on a private road in their steel works in Cheshire by Dick Summers and his elder brother Geoffrey to determine the respective merits of such cars as a 30/98 Vauxthall, a 37.2 h.p. Hispano Suiza, a 3-litre Bentley and a V8 Lincoln, to the detriment of the American car, it seems. (As Mr. Summers kept all his papers and trophies, etc., I am able to reproduce these times in the table below.)

Knowing that Mr. Summers and his brother had raced cars as diverse as Rolls-Royce and Aston Martin at Brooklands and elsewhere, this reference to them in Mr. Robotham’s book made me very anxious to interview him. Alas, Dick Summers’ ill-health, brought about no doubt by worry associated with nationalisation of the great steel company he and his forbears had built up, at Shotton, made this impossible. There the matter rested for some years after Mr. Summers’ death in 1975, until his son W. H. (Bill) Summers, who himself started competing in historic cars at Cambridge in 1957, took over all his father’s motoring papers and trophies. It was from him, at a meeting at his town house in Bridgnorth, just before last Christmas, that I gleaned the following facts about this enthusiastic motoring family.

The late Sir Richard Felix (Dick) Summers, who in his turn became Chairman of the Shotton steel-works, learnt to drive on his grandfather’s Silver-Ghost-type 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce at the age of 11. This had been the first Ghost in Cheshire and an accident with it in 1907 is remembered. As Mr. Summers, Senr., was coming down Bridge Street in Chester he was unable to stop in time when confronted with a flock of sheep and killed a number of them. “Did this put him off motoring”, I asked. “No”, replied Bill Summers, “but I think afterwards he left the driving to the chauffeur” . . . In 1917 an old 3 1/2 h.p. Arno motorcycle turned up and was registered, and with it the Summers boys sought some riding experience.

R. F. Summers’ first car is thought to have been an ordinary Morris-Cowley; apparently he was told to overfill its sump for racing but he thought he knew better, and a mechanical disaster followed. While up at Cambridge, in the summer of 1921, he bought an 11.9 h.p. Sports Model Moths-Cowley (No. 8649), which he used as his introduction to competition events, such as trials and hill-climbs. In 1922 the stark, aluminium-bodied Morris was run at Brooklands, following in the wheeltracks of Geoffrey Summers who was another of the family keen on cars (in fact, he was his brother’s entrant, perhaps to overcome an age-limit), who competed there at the same meeting with a 1920 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce four-seater (No. 39TW). Neither were successful, but the Rolls was obviously able to exceed 73 m.p.h. and the Morris 60 m.p.h., although not for long on the track.

The Rolls-Royce was later driven at Shelsley Walsh.

On April 30th, 1923, Dick Summers, while still an undergraduate, bought new from the factory what was to become his favourite car, a 30/98 Vauxhall four-seater (No. OE15). Because Summers was engaged with examinations at the time the car was fetched from Luton by a friend, Neville Rollason, who seized its engine on the way to Cambridge. A notebook relating to this Vauxhall has survived and it makes interesting reading, especially as it is now the regular thing to relate how modern cars behave in the hands of their owners.

After about the first 1,500 miles a broken piston was discovered. However, this did not deter the owner from leaving in May for a six-and-a-half-weeks’ tour of Switzerland, during which the 30/98 “did well”, the only trouble being three broken valve springs. Three weeks after the car’s return it ran No. 2 big-end, while being driven between Birmingham and Salop. The month after that it “went to Luton to have a new-type camshaft fitted”. This is interesting, as it suggests that, thus early, modifications were available for the OE 30/98.

In the third week of August 1923 the Vauxhall crossed to Boulogne for the Speed Week. Dick Summers ran it in the Speed Trial, over a 3 km. course, and was placed second in his class, averaging 94 m.p.h., although four people were in the car. Its maximum speed, no doubt achieved down the fearsome hill with ditches at the sides of the narrow, cambered road, was 103 m.p.h., which was very good going for a 30/98 at this period. It ran on Michelin tyres and Lodge BR14 sparking plugs, and the carburetter jet sizes were 145 and 170. Summers also competed in the one-kilometre standing-start Speed-Trial, and again the Vauxhall finished second, averaging 62 m.p.h., this time against a head wind. It then competed in the Boulogne Hill-Climb and covered the 500 metres in 26.2 sec., an average speed of 42.69 m.p.h.

This speed work took its toll, because that September it was found that there were cracks in an exhaust port and in a steering-arm housing, so new parts were fitted. This was in preparation for Shelsley Walsh, where Summers took the car up the hill accompanied by Neville Rollason, Melvyn Rollason, who became a great Bentley enthusiast and was a great friend of Dick’s, and Peter Chamberlain. It also carried three hundredweight of pig-iron. This was to improve its chances on Formula, in which class it was third, behind Miss Pink’s Aston-Martin and Miss Heath’s Sunbeam. It was also second-fastest in the unlimited class, with a time of 58.2 sec., beaten only by Malcolm Campbell’s 4 1/2-litre racing Sunbeam. Just less than a month later the cylinder head was found to have cracked again.

Early in 1924 a new third-speed was required in the gearbox and front-wheel brakes were fitted. In May the cylinder head cracked for the third time, as did the back-axle spring pads. The car continued to be used for sprint contests and that autumn the head cracked yet again and another new 3rd-speed was required. Up to March 1926 the replacements needed numbered two crown-wheels, a cylinder block to replace one damaged by shifting gudgeon-pins, third gear was worn out, the torque-arm had broken, the self-starter had failed three or four times, the steering-pin (stub-axle?) bearings were badly worn, the transmission brake had been relined several times, and “the rear universal does not last long”. The clutch-withdrawal mechanism had been altered, but only one new battery had been required in three years.

In April 1926 the 30/98 was given a complete overhaul, although at the time the speedometer registered only 6,080 miles — but perhaps it has been out of action some of the time. The car was now given new liners and balanced con-rods, the back camshaft-bearing was renewed, old-type pistons were fitted, with 0.004″ clearance, the magneto-drive was given new bearings, four new valves were needed, the crankshaft was straightened, reground and balanced, a new oil-pump fitted, a new induction pipe supplied to replace a damaged one, the crankcase was sand-blasted and the cylinder block stove enamelled, the radiator was repaired and polished, and the carburetter was seen to. In addition, the flywheel was lightened by 18 lb., from its former 77 lb., the water pump gland was repacked, and all the water connections replaced.

When it came to the chassis, the clutch-stop was lined with Ferodo, and held stationary with springs, the gearbox was provided with new 3rd-speed constant mesh pinions, and a new roller-race, and the transmission brake was given a new liner. A new star-joint and new blocks in the back universal joint, were fitted but the back axle and the steering were not touched. The brakes, however, were changed so that the pedal operated those on all four wheels, the hand lever the transmission brake, and the body was given new carpets and repainted. The dashboard panel was “refrosted” and some of the instruments were adjusted and replaced. The windscreen top glass was renewed and the screen frame replaced. The hood was recovered and a new tonneau cover made. The mudguards were repainted, the petrol pipes annealed in two places, and the rear road-springs were set up half-an-inch all round, after being given new shackle pins and bushes. The shock-absorbers were repaired and stove enamelled. This overhaul took some five weeks and after it the report was “everything o.k.”.

Four months later the car was off on another European tour. This involved 3,000 trouble-free miles, except for broken valve springs and one puncture. Shortly after this the back axle was taken down to cure the free play that had developed in the near-side differential keyway. Three days later the cylinder head was lifted, for a valve grind. The exhaust valves were in a bad state, three having stuck in their guides. To save having a new battery, new positive plates were put into the existing one. That was done before the end of August 1926 and the following March the engine was dismantled and new piston rings fitted. The valves needed another grinding in again. The carburetter was again overhauled and this time, so was the steering gear. This was “seemingly satisfactory”, as all slackness had been eradicated from the steering. Before the end of March 1927 a new ball-race had been put in the clutch withdrawal mechanism. Also early in 1927, the brakes were “put back to original design” (30/98 owners were never anchor-happy!), the rear ones were relined and the operating-shaft rebushed. In April 1927 the headlamps were raised, as on current cars, and the Vauxhall badge put in the centre of the cross-bracing.

I wonder how this accords with present-day 30/98 Vauxhall maintenance?

Apart from the Shelsley Walsh appearance mentioned above, the 30/98 was used by Summers for many other events. It made FTD in 45.5 sec., for instance, in 1923 at the Aston Clinton speed hill-climb near Aylesbury, which was his favourite course, it was a class-winner at the similar event at Kop Hill, near Princes Risborough, in 1924, and it made FTD at the Inter-Varsity Speed Trials at the same venue that year. It is not possible to list all the car’s speed exploits, but the medals it won have been preserved and bear testimony to its successful career. Another aspect of the Vauxhall’s ability was its conquest of Hardnott and Wrynose passes in the Lake District, in both directions, accomplished by Dick Summers in 1923 and thought to have been the first clean both-ways ascents of those then-notorious gradients. Chains were used on the rear wheels. The crew comprised George D. Abraham, his two daughters, and his brother in law, Sandy Irvine who died on Everest with George Mallory in 1924. Mr. Abraham used to contribute touring articles to The Autocar and sometimes referred to using, or being in, the Summers’ cars, such as the Rolls-Royce and the 30/98 Vauxhall, but whether he was a staffman or an amateur writer and photographer, I do not know.

Writing in The Guardian 39 years afterwards, one of Mr. Abraham’s daughters recalled the superb driving by Summers and the excellent performance of the Vauxhall, and the evening light as they came back down Wrynose into Little Langdale.

About this time Dick Summers bought a new side-valve Aston-Martin chassis (No. 1928) from Lionel Martin, being very impressed by the car’s quality and performance. He had a neat two-seater body put on it by W. C. and R. C. Atcherley of Birmingham, who made most of the bodies for his cars. This blue Aston Martin was used by Mr. Summers for a return to Brooklands, at the 1924 Easter Meeting, when it took two second-places, the first in the Private Competitor’s Handicap, behind Count Zborowski’s Indianapolis Bugatti, lapping at 83.7 m.p.h., and the other as the 100 m.p.h. Long Handicap, behind Harvey’s Alvis when the Astonn Martin lapped slightly slower. The little car looked rather like the first of the later production-model Bertelli Astons but it did not remain long in this form, because Mr Summers soon had a racing body in mottled aluminium put on it, by Compton & Hermon of Hersham. In this form it lapped Brooklands at fractionally less than 85 m.p.h., very quick for a side-valve 1 1/2-litre car, implying a top-speed in the region of 90 m.p.h. But it was unplaced at the 1924 Whitsun BARC Meeting.

Dick Summers was then courting the girl he was to marry, which, as he was at Cambridge and she was at Oxford, involved fast runs between the two University Cities! His fiancée was learning to fly on Avro 504s but Dick Summers asked her to give up this pursuit, which he regarded as potentially dangerous. She retaliated by asking him to give up motor racing! So from then on the Aston-Martin and Vauxhall were confined to sprint fixtures, such as those at Aston Clinton, Kop, and many similar venues.

The remarkable thing is that Mr. Summers thought so well of his 30/98 Vauxhall that he used it regularly right up until 1937. The last entry in his notebook about it relates to the Blackpool Speed Trials of 1927, when it is reported that it was beaten by two other 30/98s, driven by “Pemberton and Ted”. (I think “Ted” refers to Edward Boston.) Dick Sumrners disliked being driven, even the works chauffeurs took a back seat when the Chairman was about — as on the epic occasion in 1953 at the opening of the new plant when he drove the Duke of Edinburgh around in the front seat of the Humber Pullman limousine, kept exclusively for such functions, with the chauffeur in regal isolation in the back. To Dick Summers, a chauffeur was someone who produced the right car at the right place at the right time for the owner to drive. Incidentally, his 30/98 was kept in retirement for many years and it was restored quite recently by Bill Summers, intended as a surprise on his father’s 75th birthday, had he lived. He has since disposed of it to Adrian Liddell. After it ceased to be regular transport for Mr. R. F. Summers, who used to go to and from his office in it, the cars owned by him have not been listed, but among them there seems to have been a 4 1/2-litre normal-chassis Invicta and a small sleeve-valve Minerva, both with saloon bodies by the aforesaid coachbuilder. After that Mr. Summers, as Chairman of John Summers Ltd., went over to Derby-Bentleys, starting with a 3 1/2-litre and then owning 4 1/4-litre models, but he thought them not as pleasing as the old 30/98.

He was also a steam-enthusiast and in 1967 he drove the last steam locomotive to run officially on the tracks of British Rail. It was a massive freight loco, used to bring iron-ore from Birkenhead before Nationalisation of our railways. A cartoon exists, of the Chairman of this then-great Steel Company driving it, with a BR driver also on the footplate, pleading with Mr. Summers — “Ease up, Sir Richard we’re halfway to Euston” . . .

Bill Summers has followed in his father’s wheeltracks, learning to drive at the age of seven in one of the family Austin seven garden lorries, fitted with special pedal extensions. These lorries had been used by two elder brothers before him and the extensions had become rather worn and slippery, causing Bill’s first motoring accident when his father, standing on a box to clip a holly bush, was pushed firmly into the prickly tree by young son reversing the truck up to collect the clippings. After passing his driving test, his proper motoring began. . . First it was with modern cars, rallying with an Austin A30, his wife the luckless passenger during the London Rally, then with a highly souped-up Standard Ten, with that unburstable engine. He has used Hillman Huskys for mud-trials and when he was at Cambridge there were things like a blown Austin Healey Sprite, etc. Bill has had Lancias, some 20 miscellaneous ones in all, and he still retains a few, including an Aurelia. He saw the light when, in 1956, he purchased a Le Mans-model Aston Martin, which had at the time a Ford V8 engine. He was away abroad in the Rifle Brigade, when his Father, disliking the Ford power, obtained a prototype Aston Martin DB1 engine and had it installed at the steel-works, thus turning the innocent Le Mans Aston into a very effective “Q-car”, because outwardly is looked standard. It has since been restored to proper 1 1/2-litre form, by its present owner.

Then began the Alfa Romeo phase. At one time Bill possessed four of them. The first was the ex-Wade Palmer 1750 four-seater, bought from Jack O’Lantern for £450. It was taken to T & T’s for attention and for the same sum they gave it very good performance, induced by a big SU, etc. Then there was a 2.3-litre with a very beautiful two-seater body by Touring, set off by a low radiator, this being the famous FLC-820, now owned by Alain de Cadenet. This was joined by a very elegant 2.6-litre Castagna coupe. Then Bill Summers acquired the car that has to date given him the most pleasure to own and drive — the ex-Scuderia Ferrari 2.9-litre monoposto Alfa Romeo. With this splendid car Bill competed in VSCC and other events, breaking the lap record at Rouen. But it was difficult to maintain and he sold it to Neil Corner. Bill recalls that when Neil came to try it out they still owned the aforesaid private road, built over the marshes at Stotton. It was then some two miles of dual track, with a roundabout at the ends, a sort of miniature Avus, and Bill says that sitting on a fence waiting for Corner to appear, and seeing him go past at some 130 m.p.h., is among the more stirring of his motoring memories . . .

Bill Summers has more recently campaigned, in VSCC and other historic events, his 1934 3.9-litre 6C Maserati, persevering with this rather difficult car as he was convinced it had never had a proper chance, and if developed, would prove more than a match for anything of its era. In 1977, the true picture began to emerge, with fastest time at the MAC/VSCC Shelsley Walsh meeting, followed by a creditable performance at the Nurburgring. Success in a VSCC race had to wait until 1979, where the car finally showed its heels to a pack of ERA’s. On a more overtly “power” circuit, at the Nurburgring, the car achieved second fastest lap time, winning the monoposto race, albeit expiring with a broken timing wheel on the slowing down lap. The car now belongs to Alain de Cadenet.

For business travel, Bill proposes to use a 1.6 Ford Escort estate, considering the small car to be so well developed to make the spending of more than £4,500 to £5,000 for “wheels” a needless extravagance. — W.B.