The sports-model Altas
Alta, the product of keen engineering fettler Geoffrey Taylor, is a comparatively neglected sports-car. Even books devoted expressly to sports cars either omit it or give it very little space. Yet this admittedly small-production British make not only made a number of successful competition apearances but Alta engines were used by British racing teams of the calibre of HWM and Connaught. It is. however, with the sports Altas that I am now concerned.
The prototype was built by the cheerful. plump, balding Taylor as a one-off special, to fulfil his ambition to possess a more exciting version of the Riley Nine, of which he had had experience, and much admired. The ploy was to put an advanced all-alloy, twin-camshaft engine with wet cylinder liners into a very low-hung chassis. Working in a disused stable on an old 4 in Drummond lathe, Taylor completed his ideal car in 1928. naming it the Alta, a trade name applied to the light alloy cylinder heads for Austin 7s which he supplied to those making “go-faster” cars of that make. The engine of this Alta had a bore and stroke of 60×95 mm, giving a swept volume of 1,074 cc. The oh-camshafts were driven by a vertical shaft at the back of the cylinder block, using bevel gears at the base and skew gears to drive the camshafts. The tulip-shape valves were inclined at 90-deg.. and Taylor machined the con-rods from the solid, and made his own pistons.
The Alta crankshaft was of Nitralloy, machined from a solid billet, and it ran on three plain bearings and had a ball thrust-race. Two SU carburetters on the off-side were fitted, and there was a four-branch exhaust manifold on the near-side. A large petrol tank was mounted behind the engine, the bonnet being hinged at the back. Radiator and dumb-irons were neatly cowled-in and the chassis frame was very low, passing beneath both axles. The tubular front axle had shackles arranged in tension, instead of in compression, to improve rigidity, and the rear springs were quater-elliptics. The bonnet-line extended to the very brief scuttle and the two-seater body had metal panels, fabric covered. Cycle mudguards were fitted and Taylor devised a winged-badge for the radiator stoneguard. Cable-operated brakes with 12in drums were part of the specification and Taylor devised his own non-synchromesh four speed-and-reverse gearbox, with the gear-lever mounted directly on top of it. The gear-ratios were 13.0, 9.3, 6.2 and 4.4 to 1. The final drive was by a torque-tube-enclosed propeller shaft. The weight of this Alta worked out at 12 1/2, cwt. It was registered PK 4053, and Taylor used this interesting little car for all kinds of competition-work, ranging from racing at Brooklands to MCC trials sprint events, and even grass-track racing, and it gave demonstration runs on the dirt-track at Wembley Stadium. Ever ingenious, Taylor is said to have devised his own means of substituting an extra-low bottom-gear for reverse, in order to defeat observed sections such as Beggar’s Roost, and re-start tests, in MCC long-distance trials.
Not unexpectedly, such an active and advanced little sports-car attracted attention — where else could you find an all – alloy engine construction, even of head bloc,crankcase, sump and camboxes? Interest became such that by 1931 Geoffrey Taylor decided to go into production. He built his own factory on a piece of ground he had acquired at Fuller’s Way, beside the Tolworth spur-road of the Kingston By-Pass. I used to call in there to see what was afoot combining this with visits to H. R. Godfrey in the HRG works close by. With his faithful works manager H. J. Griffiths, Geoffrey made a few changes to the Alta to facilitate manufacture using standard pattern Rubery Owen chassis side-members, inverted I think. The first 1,074 cc production Alta was given chassis no 11. Taylor later experimented with a supercharger on his own Alta and after he had made 20 unblown 1100s he made a car with a Marshall supercharger for A. J. Cormack of The Cormack Steamship Co Ltd of Leith in Scotland, with which the owner, running the car in racing trim, broke the Class G Brooklands Mountain lap-record at 73.56 mph in 1934. (Cormack also had a 1 1/2-litre racing Alta, with which he took the same lap-record in Class F. at 77.13 mph the following year, but I am here dealing only with the sports Altas.)
Probably to aid production methods, by 1933/34 other modifications were carried out. The oh-camshafts were now driven by a series of chains in place of the vertical-shaft, the valve-angle was altered to 68 deg, the noisy “crash” gearbox was replaced by a “self-change” ENV box, and the torque-tube gave place to an open propshaft with Hardy-Spicer universal joints. Taylor had proved proficient even at making his own superchargers and Roots blowers of his design, boosting at about 8 1/2 lb/sq in, were fitted to later 1100s. The gear ratios were changed slightly, giving a top gear of 4.66 to 1, and these production Atlas had normal hinged bonnets the fuel tank in the tail, and the cowl was changed for one of more aggressive contour. To cope with the increased power in blown form radius rods were added to the back quarter-elliptic springs.
Having once had my knuckles rapped as it were by The Aeroplane for supplying a horsepower curve for a light-aeroplane engine that Taylor had designed, which they found subsequently had not been built and therefore could not have been bench-tested, I am reluctant to quote power and performance figures for Alta cars, and I note that the Editor of The Autocar said he was unable to accept the figure of 325 Bhp at 5,800 rpm which an owner had quoted for his supercharged 2-litre Alta racing car…
However, there is no doubt but that these sports Altas were effective cars. The first production 1100s were priced at £350, and four seater versions were available. A second car was built for Viscount Curzon, also in December 1931, which he used in MCC trails (GT 1617). In the summer of 1932 J. Ludovic Ford took delivery of another 1100 two-seater, which he ran at Le Mans and in the TT, only to be rewarded with retirements from both races. The following month the fifth car, PJ 7294 went to J. E. R Finch, another enthusiast who drove his Alta (in spite of the low build!) in MCC trials. By the summer of 1933 seven of these 1100s had been delivered to owners, the last to Geoffrey’s elder brother Cecil, this being the third of the four-seaters, and an engine had been supplied for the racing Horton Special.
The policy continued to May 1935, by which time the emphasis was on the blown cars, starting with the aforesaid Alta for Mr Cormack, which was built as a racing car with Marshall supercharger but was registered and equipped for the road. Peter Whitehead, while still at Jesus College, Cambridge, had a narrow-bodied car with the new radiator cowl, which he used for trials and sprints, winning his class at Syston Park and at Shelsley Walsh and in stripped form for racing at Donington Park, and the last of the three blown production 1100s went to A. C. Lace being sent direct to the loM for the Mannin Beg race (car No 25R1S), in which it was run stripped. Lace continued to race it in 1935, then sold it to the Cambridge undergraduate A. A. Millard, as a road equipped sports car (DPJ 929), which the new owner ran in trials and in JCC Brooklands’ events, etc. Another keen Alta driver was Mrs. Patricia Oxenden, who lived in Jersey. She had driven the prototype car at Brooklands, attended by Taylor and Griffiths, and in 1934 she took delivery of a two-seater Competition Model priced at £385, which was fitted later with a pre-selector gearbox and a supercharger. She won a Brooklands’ Ladies Mountain Handicap with it in 1935, at 64.02 mph, doing two laps at 66.86 mph. Incidentally, although a Marshall blower was used for Cormack ‘s car, thereafter Alta-type super, chargers were used.
Taylor had become more interested in building racing cars and engines for same, and had increased the dimensions of his basic engine to 69 x 100 mm (1 1/2-litres) and to 79 x 100 mm (2-litres). Having dropped the 1100s at chassis No. 25, he made six of the larger-engined sports Altas between December 1935 and June 1939, of which two had the 1 1/2-litre engine, one of which was un-supercharged. One of these went to Berlin and the others, In sequence, to Dr Williams, W W. S. Bennett, C. J. Pink, K. Gammon, and M. Townshend, the last of these being the aforesaid non-blown 1 1/2-litre. Chassis nos commenced at 54S.
The 1100s had a wheelbase of eight feet and as the two-litre Altas had the same or a very slightly-longer wheelbase, they were light and exciting cars. Indeed, 90 mph was claimed for the 1 1/2-litre sports model, priced at £498 in 1938, or at £525 as a four-seater, with the blown job at £575. The fierce two-litre sports model was said to be capable of 97 mph and prices were the same as for the 1 1/2-litre models, with Rudge wheels shod with 17 in x 6.00 in tyres. All these models were listed but the output, as we shall see, was very limited.
Usually Alta sports-cars had pointed GP-type tails but the first of the two-litre cars had a spare wheel in the tail. It used an Alta blower and ENV pre-selector gearbox and was sold back to Altas by Dr Williams in 1936, who sold it to A. H. Beadle, a driver who later had a racing two-litre Alta. Bob Cowell bought it in 1939 and it is this car in which D.S.J.. who has helped me materially with this article, had his first experience of 100 mph on the road. Cowell’s friend John Clarke used this two-litre, FF4515, re-registered EOY8, for speed-trials at Lewes, Weatherby, Poole, etc and George Abecassis also borrowed it, and won a Crystal Palace race in it. Cowell himself ran it in the “Fastest Sports Car” race at Brooklands, being placed fourth overall after lapping the Campbell circuit at 63.17 mph and the Mountain circuit at 70.20 mph, and this car was second to Hugh Hunter’s 2900B Alfa Romeo at Poole speed-trials in 1939, driven by Clarke. After the war Cowell sold it to John Heath, who did well with it, in sports-trim, at Chimay in 1947 and it became the first HWM-Alta.
Bennett’s 1 1/2-litre car was used for racing and sprints, and it won The Star Gold Trophy Campbell circuit race at Brooklands, after a lap at 63.36 mph. Abecassis used it at the Crystal Palace, finishing second in the Crystal Palace Plate race and the Imperial Plate race in 1938, fourth in the Sydenham Plate race and third in the Crystal Palace Plate race in 1939. (This is the Alta, 55S, Reg No DP 4167, that was stolen after a Brooklands Reunion appearance, for which it had been lent by the Black Collection, and disposed of to Australia, the thief being apprehended and fined a mere £500, giving him a profit of some £4,000). The last sports Alta built before the war was 70N (Reg No KMP 977), that unblown 1 1/2-litre, which appeared at Prescott in the 1970s. It was made nearly a year after Geoffrey Taylor had supplied a smooth two-litre two-seater, 66S (Reg No GPL 3), to K. Gammon, which was raced at the Crystal Palace in 1938. The best of these twolitre sports Altas was no doubt capable of something in the region of 120 mph, and the racing Altas, like those of Bartlett, Jucker, Cowell/Wakefield, Lord Avebury, Harvey-Noblei/Robin Jackson, Charles Mortimer, and the 1 1/2-litre car of Cormack, were even more illustrious, those of Jucker (who was killed racing the first one), Abecassis, Hunter, Beadle and Lady Mary Grosvenor being proper single-seaters — but that is another story… In fact, ten racing Altas were built, three with the coil-spring all-round independent suspension, one with torsion-bar springing.
The sports-cars were made In very small numbers, over the period December 1931 to June 1939. The total was 18, not including the prototype, the breakdown being: 12 1100s, of which nine were two-seaters, three were four-seaters, three of the two-seaters being supercharged. Two had the 1 1/2 litre engine, one of which was supercharged. Four were two-litre sports-cars, all of which were supercharged and all had two-seater bodies. Of these, the whereabouts of six of these Alta sports-models is known, and the prototype, PK 4053, is in America: Taylor was so attached to it that he said he would never part with it and he left it in his will to Abecassis who, after keeping it for a few years, sold it to an Alta enthusiast in the States. Taylor had used the car as his “guinea-pig”, putting a blower on it which stuck out through a sloping radiator cowl, and in 1935 altering the front-end to the new curved radiator cowl. He didn’t cease using this 1928 car until about 1936/37. Incidentally, cars with the shaft-driven oh-camshafts can be recognised because the exhaust pipe is on the left, or near, side, those with chain-driven oh-camshafts having the exhaust pipe on the right, or off, side. So total Alta production was 28 cars, not counting the prototype. — W B.