A whiff of old Brooklands

The Young Special

When a respected monthly motoring contemporary published a picture of Tom Walker's Young Special at the VSCC Donington Park race meeting last year it bore a caption suggesting that this car has "the double disadvantage of having a Frazer Nash chassis and a one-off engine which was built for Brooklands but never even got off the line there." This caused me to raise an eyebrow (in fact, both eyebrows). I assumed that the reference to Frazer Nash was a bit of fun, knowing how well Mrs Sophie Walker goes in the Frazer Nash "Martyr", as a member of that very enthusiastic and well-known family of vintage and Edwardian car drivers. But the remark about the Young Special's "one-off no-starts" engine seemed rather hard on the late J G Parry Thomas who designed and raced it, with notable success, prior to his fatal accident in "Babs" at Pendine in 1927!

However, this is an excuse to dig up some history about these Hooker-Thomas engines and the Young Special itself, an obscure car until bought and run in VSCC events by Tom Walker. Its engine is, you see, one of the four-cylinder Hooker-Thomas power-units, obviously the work of Parry Thomas. Thomas had been Leyland Motors' Chief Engineer and in this capacity designed for them the legendary Leyland Eight, intended to be a direct rival of the 40/50 hp Rolls-Royce and which, when it confronted the "Best Car in the World" at the 1920 Motor Show, was named The Lion of Olympia".

The advanced and ingenious design of this car has been described many times in Motor Sport. It was so effective that when Parry Thomas severed with Leyland Motors and went to Brooklands to drive racing versions of it, he became the Track's most successful driver and had raised the lap record to 129.36 mph by 1925, with his 7,622 cc straight-eight Leyland-Thomas. Thomas also had other interests and he joined with T B André, who likewise had premises within the Track, in building the Marlborough Thomas. This had a four-cylinder version of the Leyland 8 engine, retaining Thomas's ingenious valve gear, and torsion-bar suspension. A single overhead camshaft was driven by eccentrics and rods from the back of the crankshaft and the valves were fully inclined in hemispherical heads, and operated by girder rockers bearing on the top faces of the cams, of which there was one per cylinder. This precluded valve overlap but on the aero-engine which Thomas had designed during the war and for his 7.6-litre car engine this was regarded as unnecessary and it worked well enough on the smaller four-cylinder power unit. Triple eccentric drive was used for the Leyland 8 but two eccentrics sufficed for the smaller power unit. Each pair of valves was closed by a single, substantial, leaf spring mounted transversely on a rocking pivot, so that the opened inlet valve helped to pull the exhaust valve more tightly shut; leaf springs were also thought to be more progressive and better-damped than coil springs.

Thomas obviously thought a train of timing gears or a vertical shaft and bevel or skew gears too noisy for the engine of his luxury car and distrusted coil springs which, at that time, were apt to lose tension when subjected to heat, and by using leaf springs he was able to better control valve bounce and keep the valve stems short. Overlap or no overlap, the big Leyland was effective in racing, speed-trials and short and long distance record bids.

Hedley Thomson, brother of Kenneth Thomson who was Percy Thomas's mentor, was a Director of Peter Hooker Ltd of Walthamstow and had devised a tolerance system for gauging engineering "fits" in 1920, which became the basis of the British Standard system. The company had made Clerget rotary aero-engines during the war and were an important engineering concern. They either made the Hooker-Thomas engines or were sub-contractors for foundry work and machining for them. Indeed, it seems that there was a move to make these engines for use in one-ton vans intended for fast evening newspaper deliveries. It is possible that Leyland was interested in the project, or that after leaving them Thomas did the design work for this project for Peter Hooker Ltd. It appears to have been stillborn, although drawings exist of the engine in wet-sump, more ordinary, form. Thomas then developed this engine for his and André's racing cars.

The first appearance of Hooker Thomas racing engines was in the 1923 JCC 200 Mile Race at Brooklands, the drivers Thomas and the steeplechase jockey George Duller, who had private-owner status until he took up professional motor racing. Thomas had two crankshafts for his 72-mm bore engine, one giving a stroke of 120 mm (1,847cc, the other a 79 mm stroke (1,493cc). The "200" was for 1,100cc and 1,500cc cars so, contrary to what Hugh Tours says in his great Parry Thomas biography, both these Marlborough Thomases must have had the smaller engine, as it would have been unlike Thomas to cheat? An epicyclic gearbox augmented the main gearboxes, to keep engine revs constant round the Track. Undersized tyres on their disc wheels and ignition problems caused both cars to retire.

T B André showed one of these advanced Marlborough Thomases at the 1923 Olympia Show, maybe one of the racers tarted-up, priced at £575 as a chassis, £675 with racing body, Bleriot starter, screen and a hood, front brakes £45 extra. André had run the racing version in BARC short handicap races but his venture in trying to sell these advanced cars with their adjustable torsion-bar suspension seems to have been a very damp squib! The racing history of all these cars has oft been told. Suffice it to say that Hooker-engined Thomas cars were entered for BARC meetings by various drivers — Thomas himself, C D Brocklebank, J E P Howey, Mrs Duller, D W R Gedge, (a keen but shadowy Brooklands figure about whom I would like to know more), Duller, and that Duller took a first, two seconds, and a third place at Brooklands in 1924. Thomas drove a Marlborough Thomas at the Kop hill-climb but in the 200 Mile Race at the end of the season this car was again troublesome, its body breaking-up after a lap on a tyreless rim and the valve-cover, secured by a single stud, coming loose and shorting the plugs in oil, causing retirement.

Thomas had by then built a narrow, high, disc-wheeled blue and white single-seater Thomas Special with MAB chassis, in which he used both sizes of Hooker engine, the front of the valve cover cut away to clear the streamlined radiator cowl. With it he won the 1924 Essex MC 50 Mile Handicap and a short race and in 1925, this stable companion to the big Leylands was in fine form, winning for its driver/designer a short handicap at 96.75 mph and the News of the World 100 Mile Handicap race at 98.23 mph, in 1.8-litre trim. Thomas had also taken the car to Montlhéry for the GP d'Ouverture, without the epicyclic gearbox, and ran fourth behind the "Invincible" Darracq team, pulling 4,000 rpm on a 3-to-1 top gear, before magneto trouble intruded after 100 km. "Ebby", the meticulous BARC handicapper/time-keeper, credited the car with a best Brooklands lap of 100.43 mph with the bigger Hooker engine, 100.61 mph with the smaller power-unit — perhaps he had a higher gear for the 100 Mile Race using the 1.8 engine, or was not required to hurry unduly? Thomas then set Class-E s. s. two-way records of 64.73 and 72.86 mph (car weight just under 13 cwt).

It was this Thomas Special single-seater, still with its 1.8-litre Hooker-Thomas engine, which S G Young, who ran a large tool-making factory near Woking, found in the early 1930s, perhaps at T&Ts, with whom he may well have had business associations. Back to that caption, hardly a case of hardly even getting off the line at Brooklands! The new owner decided that only the engine was worth developing, and he set about modifying the inlet porting, etc. before putting it into another chassis. He then wisely entered for just one race at the 1935 BARC Whit-Monday Meeting, the 6-1/2-mile Junior Short Handicap. In this he was a non-starter. Legend has it that he frightened himself silly in practice. But isn't it more likely that he was deterred by the handicap afforded him, which put him on the same mark as G L Baker's successful 5.4-litre straight-eight Graham Paige and Monkhouse's well-known supercharged Amilcar Six and set to start only six seconds before Dr Beaver's 30/98 (which won)? Whatever, Mr Young put his Young Special away in a shed at his works, where it was to remain for fifty years . . .

It was not until the 1985 Brooklands Society Reunion that it returned to the track, by then in a sorry condition, on a trailer, a forgotten racing car. It was from the age of Brooklands' Specials — the Bainton Special, Harker Special, Eccles Special, Anderson Special, etc — but no one, including me, knew what it was. Only when I looked up the BARC records did the light dawn . . . Dudley Gahagan had been permitted to clean the car up for its public showing, after which it was sold at auction for a bid of £8,000, still in a very sad state, requiring a fork-lift truck to move it, a racer unidentified, to Will Tompkins of Peterborough. In February 1989 there was a no-address advertisement in Motor Sport offering the Frazer Nash Young Special, rebuilt, at £50,000. About four years ago Tom Walker acquired this interesting car with the Hooker-Thomas race-winning engine.

He began learning about its history and getting it to go better and better. For instance, it was second to Terry Cardy's s/c 2.3 Bugatti at the VSCC Loton Park hill-climb and was able to overtake Alex Boswell's 2-litre AC Six-powered 'Nash at the last VSCC Cadwell Park races . . . Behind the deep nose-cowl the radiator is that from the single-seater Thomas Special, circular in shape like those of the Marlborough Thomases. The engine has four TT-type Amal carburettors on the off-side, the four exhaust pipes on the near side. Tom runs it on Methanol and Castrol-R. This is the dry-sump engine, oil tank beneath the seat, the original ribbed cylindrical Tecalemit oil-cooler/filter transversely mounted in front of the base chamber. The original heavy domed crown pistons are still in use, giving a c r of approximately 10.5 to 1. The neat single-seater body is of unpainted aluminium (the Young Special was black). There is an external hand brake and the wire wheels have Rudge-Whitworth knock-off hubs and 19 X 4.50 front, 19 x 5.00 back tyres.

The chassis is 1921 GN of unaltered wheelbase, with tubular front axle, FN 4-speed chain-and-dog transmission, a slightly modified GN steering-box, and GN clutch and bevel-box. The chassis is lowered by blocks beneath the 1/4-elliptic springs and there are large front brakes. Incidentally, two crates of spares came with the car. So here is another interesting vintage racing-car. Those who consider that too many VSCC specials are a bit over-the-top, some with modern bits-and-pieces in their construction, can take heart in the knowledge that the Young Special is almost unchanged from when it was conceived some years before the war and has an engine which showed its worth at Brooklands in the hands of a very famous driver 70 years ago. As for that other magazine's "no starts", by my count four-cylinder Hooker-Thomasengined cars ran in 43 Brooklands' races, scoring seven Firsts, three Seconds and two Thirds, the Thomas-Special that became the Young Special starting in at least four of these. W B