Harry Varley looks back
W. O. Bentley, in his autobiography, tells us that on January 20th, 1919, Harry Varley, Burgess and he sat down with nothing but a few bits of paper and some ideas in a small office on the top floor-of a building in Conduit Street and there, to W.O.'s instructions and with endless technical talk, they worked for nine months, with hardly a break, on the drawings for the 3-litre Bentley. I felt that it would be worthwhile learning a little more of this and having tracked down Harry Varley to an address in Southampton, where since 1977 he has been working on his idea of what a modern replacement engine for the vintage 3-litre Bentley should be like, I drove in the Alfa 6 all the way from Wales to talk to him.
Mr Varley, now 93, and having survived a massive heart attack, has a far better memory and decisive response to questions than many people 20 and more years younger whom I have interviewed. He remembers very well starting at Bentley Motors, at 16 Conduit Street, where he and Burgess occupied a tiny office behind
W.O.'s own quarters, where their lesser thoughts would be interrupted by the frequent flushing of the loos downstairs. Money was very scarce then and they were conscious that they were living on W. O. Bentley's overdraft... I asked Mr Varley how he obtained that now significant job and he told me he answered an advertisement for staff he saw in the Daily Telegraph. He was by then a first class draughtsman, who had won second prize in a worldwide competition (had he coloured his drawing he would have been first) and W.O. seemed well satisfied.
He had started in the motor game around 1910 under Mr Hatch at J.,A. Prestwick's at Tottenham, on the well-established JAP motorcycle engines. From JAP's he joined the Vauxhall Motors' drawing office at Luton, in 1912, working under the great
Laurence H. Pomeroy, who is remembered as "a lovely boss". Pomeroy had joined Vauxhall in 1906 / 1907 and when Varley joined the drawing office he was engaged on the very successful A- and B-series of Vauxhalls of various engine sizes, and the 30/98 was becoming established. It is also very interesting, in view of the recent comments in these pages on· the Sunbeam and Packard V12-cylinder engines, that Varley worked at Vauxhall’s on such a power unit. Three of these V12 Vauxhall engines were built and they would run at extremely fast crankshaft speeds for those days, but the outbreak of war prevented them from going into production, and anyway the surface / volume ratio of the combustion chambers was "very, very naughty".
Pomeroy had asked Varley to design this engine, intended for use in a car, as it was to be quite small, of roughly 3.7-litres, and his experiences at JAP's with small valves was regarded as useful. The camshaft was between the vee of the cylinders and the valves were horizontal in the heads, being operated by long rockers of forged duralumin, pivoted centrally on two eccentrics that provided adjustment. The crankshaft was formed from a solid billet of steel, with circular webs. To overcome the low heat / volume ratio Varley suggested lowering the compression ratio but as war was imminent Pomeroy told him to forget about it. A pity, as otherwise Vauxhall might well have joined Packard after the war with a V12 car.
One interesting thing happened to a B-type Vauxhall engine that was on test. One cylinder always performed better than the rest and when the fitter in charge, a man named Frazer, took the engine down there was no trace of carbon in that cylinder. This remained a mystery for a long time, until it was discovered that a minute crack opened up when the engine was hot, allowing coolant water to enter this particular cylinder. Proof that water injection could bring benefits, says Mr Varley, providing that such injection is arranged to function only when an engine has attained running temperature. He remembers a day when the great American racing driver Ralph de Palma, who drove for Vauxhall in the 1914 French Grand Prix, came into the works and found a loose nut on the racing chassis – "the roof was nearly lifted off' – and another time when a French mechanic assembled a back axle the wrong way round, so that the works manager Hancock, engaging one of the apparently forward gears, shot backwards through the workshop wall ... Incidentally, Hancock was manager in the office, Littler on the factory floor.
Varley recalls his days at Vauxhall's as very happy ones, and he had a great admiration for Laurence Pomeroy's engineering integrity. As the war went on Davidson at the War Office for problems encountered at the front with the D-type, Vauxhall staff-cars. He also worked on experimental single-cylinder engine rigs in conjunction with the war effort and designed a double-reduction back axle intended for war vehicles. While he was at Vauxhall's Varley won the competition instituted by Pomeroy when a new radiator badge was required, by studying heraldry, so that he was able to come up with the now well-known one incorporating the crest adopted by the Vauxhall Iron Works from that used by Fulk le Bream, whose house, Fulk's Hall, was in Lambeth, and whose castle, by a remarkable coincidence, had been at Luton. Fulk's Hall became corrupted to Fawkes Hall and thus in the Norman French idiom to “Vauxhall" and the family crest was the now-famous Vauxhall Griffin, which Michael Sedgwick called a wyvern.
Varley left Vauxhall's in 1916 and, as I have said, joined the emerging Bentley Motors in 1919, first meeting W.O. Bentley after ascending a flight of wooden stairs in a small garage. At Conduit Street he had a first class tracer called Lilian Atkinson. He got on well with W.O., whom he remembers as a shy but pleasant person, and a great engineer, but would have preferred a detachable cylinder-head on the 3-litre Bentley engine. The integral head and block on this long stroke design was a difficult production proposition, apart from the complications for an owner needing to decarbonise it, and Count Lennaerts of Lennaerts & Dolphin, the Belgian foundry called in about casting it, was in full agreement. If one valve-seat was damaged, the entire cylinder block would have to be scrapped.
W. O. Bentley liked his railway engineering apprenticeship to be remembered and Varley says he expressly asked that the 3-litre's brake lever be designed to look like the reversing lever of a. Great Northern steam locomotive! He had broght in F. T. Burgess from Humber's, who had worked with him on the BR2 rotary aero-engine, and it was a clash of temperaments that caused Varley and Burgess to quarrel; Burgess was apt to be content to guess at dimensions, etc, whereas Varley liked accuracy. However, for a time it all worked out. "We designed the Bentley engine first", Varley said, "and much of the chassis came from Straker-Squire". I enquired if any 30/98 aspects found 'their way onto the 3-litre Bentley, remembering that W.O. himself referred to that car as "our closest rival in the '20s", but Mr Varley would not be drawn, beyond saying his experiences at Luton had made him by then a first class draughtsman, who had learned a lot.
When the move was made to the factory at Cricklewood Varley was put in charge and Burgess's pettiness again intruded. In the end W.O. said he could work with one or the other, but could not put up with their bickering. When one of the DO men made an error in a gearbox drawing, quickly rectified, Burgess wanted to sack him, Varley spoke up for him, and was sacked in 1924, the draughtsman taking over Varley's job. Such is the injustice in industry. Before that he had designed the BHB piston used in the Bentley engine, the initials standing for Burgess-Hewitt-Bentley, Varley going to the company in which W.O. had interests to supervise production. They cured the piston-slap of the former hour-glass pistons. Many millions were made but he never received a penny. Before he left W.O.'s employment Varley had done preliminary work on the triple eccentric drive for the oh camshaft of the Big Six Bentley engine.
Varley returned to Vauxhall Motors at Luton in 1936 and worked under Mr Apfel, the American engineer who was responsible for introducing the variable-rate ifs on Vauxhall cars. The needle bearings .used therein were a source of continual trouble, the needles "brunelling" themselves to the metal, and Varley suggested to Clarence E. King; Vauxhall's Chief Engineer who had,· back in 1923, converted the 23/60 and 30/98 engines to overhead valves, that plain bearings should be substituted. He refused to countenance this, saying General Motors in Detroit would never agree, so Varley went ahead on his own initiative, with excellent results, admitted by King who wanted to know why the car he drove, which had been converted to plain bearings, rode so much better. But the change was never adopted for production…
Before that Varley had gone to Boulton & Paul at Norwich, where he saw their test pilot loop the Bourges biplane bomber, but being put on to designing cabane struts he soon tired of this. During World War Two he was called in by M. B. Wilde, the engineers who had been asked to produce 400 barrage balloon winch engines, by Group Captain Baldwin of the Air Ministry. This gentleman was pro-Crossley, perhaps from his WWI experiences, and hoped a Crossley engine could be adapted, but Varley found a more simple solution in converting the ubiquitous Ford Ten engine. In 1943 he went to Rolls-Royce at Crewe, going to America for them and retiring, at the age of 66, in 1957. Since 1976 he has been occupied with a modern replacement engine for those 3-litre Bentley users who either crave more performance or cannot find a vintage power unit to replace one that has blown up, his 92 x 106 mm 2.8-litre four-cylinder engine aiming at 128 bhp at 4,000 rpm, say a better than 40 bhp improvement over the most powerful W.O. 3-litre engine. Fresh finance has recently been infused, so we should soon hear more of this project.
Finally, I find it interesting to know what vehicles those closely associated with motoring have used while pursuing their career so I asked Mr Varley about this. In the early days, and coinciding partly with his time at JAP's, he rode a series of motorcycles, including a Matchless 500, a Zenith Gradua, a 350 cc Scott and a 1,000 cc Royal Enfield combination. While he was helping to design the 3-litre Bentley he had a Morgan three wheeler and a Fiat 502. His period with Rolls-Royce coincided with ownership of a Hillman Minx and a Sunbeam Talbot 80 followed by a Sunbeam Talbot 90 and .since his retirement he has had a Triumph Gloria, a Triumph 1300 and an Austin 1300 GT, while his wife Sylvia is at present driving a 1500 automatic Honda Civic. - W.B.