Lord Austin's Racing Cars

In part two of Bill Boddy’s examination of the pre-war racing Austins, he chronicles the many successes of the marque but wonders about the commercial advantages of such efforts

We have seen how competition successes from its prototype days in the early 1920s promoted the revolutionary Austin Baby Cars, which were the financial saviour of the great Austin factory at Longbridge, Birmingham (MOTOR SPORT, January 2000). Lord Austin, as he then was, had been no stranger to the world of motor racing, which he continued with after the Seven was established as a leading sales proposition, as the habit of car ownership expanded with it.

After that significant and technically brilliant win in the 1930 BRDC 500-Mile Brooklands race at the “paper impossible’ average speed of 83.4mph, and the hour records with the same Ulster-type A7 which soon followed that race, Sir Herbert Austin continued to field his little cars in top-scale events and class record attacks. It was a sensible means of continuing the publicity he had achieved from the Seven’s birth, but it was also inspired perhaps by his liking for racing. But as the competition from MG got ever more intense, did he get value for money from his later race appearances?

As for the now elderly Lord Austin’s motor racing — he had been knighted for his war work during 1914/18 — he was something of a pioneer in this sphere. When manager of the Wolseley Tool & Motor Car Co, Herbert Austin had been responsible for some important racing cars. The 30hp Wolseley he drove in the tragic Paris-Madrid race in 1903 was but a start. Before that he had competed at the 1902 Bexhill and Welbeck speed trials. He even had a go at the classic race from Paris to Vienna, but a broken crankshaft before the off cost 12 hours, and the replacement snapped during the contest The 1904 cars were the notable Wolseley racers, purposeful in appearance, and known as the Beetles, from their low, pointed bonnets. The bonnets could be low because Austin slung the engine of these exciting 11.9-litre racing cars almost below the tops of the chassis side members. His penchant for horizontally opposed power units was followed, the 96hp transverse engine so far back that, as with a Zeppelin, the mechanic was able to effect minor repairs without the car stopping! The two bucket seats were almost over the back axle, and an enormous flywheel marked the offside of the four-cylinder 5in x 5in engine, which was wisely pressure lubricated.

The low build of the Beetles should have helped cornering, and after the Gordon Bennett eliminating trials Charles Jarrott, one of Britain’s keenest drivers, wrote “…sharp corners at the top speed present no terrors and I enjoyed the sport as much as ever, as it had all its old fascination and charm”. In the GB race itself, in Germany, he was “travelling very fast when there was a tremendous crash; a chain had broken, striking young Bianchi, the mechanic, a violent blow on his left arm.” Until then the Wolseley had been going well: “My run down the hill from Saalberg was one of the fastest pieces of travelling I have accomplished,” and “the S-corners before Usingen came to us with startling rapidity”.

Thus was racing in what is now the veteran age. Water was thrown over the tyres at the controls to cool them, but Jarrott lost half an hour when the governor broke, the engine then racing when the clutch was taken out at the corners, as was normal then. With a stripped third gear, detached water pipe and misfiring he finished twelfth after 11 hours on the road; Girling ‘s 76hp Wolseley was ninth. Girling and Bianchi then drove two Wolseleys in the Circuit des Ardennes; Girling retired but the Bianchi was 12th ahead of Lancia and Sallerson, on Lancia and Fiat In the 1905 GB Cup contest in the Auvergne, Girling crashed the 15.6-litre Wolseley-Siddeley but the Hon Charles Rolls was eighth, beating Earp’s Napier, and Bianchi was twelfth. Austin left in 1905 to start his own company. From then until the war Austin’s trial and hill-climb successes are too numerous to list; they included classic events as far afield as Russia and Austria, and the 9.6-litre Austins finished 18th and 19th in the 1908 French GP, the third retiring.

After the 1914-18 war, there were works entries at Brooklands of two racing Austin 20s, the two-seater ‘Black Maria’ and a slim tandem-seater, leading up to participation in the big Brooklands’ events, the Ulster TT and Irish GP etc. When the MG Midget presented the first real opposition to the 747cc A7, Austin redoubled his efforts, which from 1925-1930 had been well supported by the Brooldands and sprint fraternity, with anything from Ulsters to one-off specials, including George Chaplin’s two cut-down Chummies, ‘Mr and Mrs Flea’ and Spero’s ‘Mrs Jo-Jo,’ etc.

Having missed the first Ulster TT, Sir Herbert attended the 1929 race, where he had entered three Ulsters, coming home an impressive third and fourth behind Campari’s Alfa Romeo and the winner, Caracciola, driving a Mercedes-Benz. When it was found the non-s/c car would be too slow, blower parts were sent over for it to be converted. Gunner Poppe’s blown TT works Ulster was fifth in the 1930 TT. But if the drivers went to 7600rpm the cylinder blocks tied to lift and broke their lugs. There were strengthened for the BRDC 500Mile Race, which was won by the Earl of March and Sammy Davis at that incredible 82.4mph, including two stops, The same car, with large fuel tank in lieu of a passenger, then took class records of up to 24 hours soon afterwards.

Though the Seven was now well established in racing, Sir Herbert did not give up. When Sir Malcolm Campbell went to Daytona in 1931 to raise the LSR with the Napier-Campbell, he took a works A7 with him. ‘Bluebird’ did over 245mph, the A7 just missed the intended ‘ton’, with a two-way 94.06mph for the mile. Eyston replied for MG at Montlhery ten days later, with 103.13mph. Meeting Waite, Cecil Kimber of MG’s told him the Austin/MG fight was now on. New single-seater A7s were built, at first with side pannier fairings like those of the successful LSR ‘Golden Arrow’, but these were soon discarded. The offset prop-shaft gave a low seat and the Ulster-based engines were supercharged to give 56bhp at 6000rpm. Brave and capable Mrs Gwenda Stewart had the prototype at Mondhery and set records at up to 109.12mph, suggesting mods like scuttle fuel tanks and shorter tails for the team cars. The cockpits were very uncomfortable and the insulated radiators had to be cured of leaking.

Ulster A7s contested the 1931 JCC Double 12-hour race, but the new MG Midgets took the first five places. However, seven MGs retired compared to one out of ten A7’s, and the superchargers of the works Ulsters gave a heavier handicap than the MGs. Then in the Irish GP six A7s met 10 MGs. The MGs had a walk-over, the handicap defeating the blown Austins. Revenge came when the ‘Rubber Duck’ A7 team of Cushman, Barnes and Goodacre won the the LCC 90-lap Relay Race at Brooklands at 81.77mph, against the best MG team average of 75.18mph, though the 760cc Midgets were now themselves supercharged.

In the record field the A7/MG battle continued. Cushman did the first ever 100mph for Austin, over a kilo and mile, but a few days later Viscount Ridley went faster in his own Ridley Special, with just a spare plug in his pocket Doing an extra lap after his 100mph hour record the MG caught fire and Eyston jumped out, suffering burns. Recovered, and wearing asbestos overalls and socks, he began to beat the Austin Class H (up to 750cc) records. Special racing cars, EX120 and EX127, had done most of the work, Ernest Eldridge doing 110.28mph in the latter, and by December 1970 the Abingdon marque held the lot.

But Lord Austin never lost his faith in motor racing for publicity, and spoke of the research value of the longer events, and how he was prepared for the ‘war’ against MG. But although private entrants won in their A7s, results in top fixtures were sparse and whenever some of the longer records were clawed back from MG or a Brooklands lap-record broken, Octagon opposition would soon improve on these. So Austin engaged the great engineer T Murray Jamieson to build new cars for him, in 1932. At first he was hampered by Austin requiring these had some semblance to his catalogue Seven, with the sidevalve engine, transverse front and quarter-elliptic rear springs. The new cars took time to perfect, and it was 1934 before Driscoll took the streamlined car, producing 70bhp at 70001pm, to Southport sands in 1934 and clocked 122.74mph, suffering cuts to his face twice from the timing thread. But Eyston’s partner, little Bert Denly, had done 128.6mph, and although class records fell, MG quiddy bettered them.

Meanwhile, Jamieson worked on the exciting 744cc twin-cam A7 racers. The new car was later described by Stirling Moss, when he drove one for MOTOR SPORT in the 1950s, as “a real GP car in miniature”. The engine gave 90bhp in racing trim and 116bhp at 7600rpm on sprint fuel, with a potential of 12,000rpm. Very large valves, two per cylinder, were angled at 100deg. The boost pressure was 201bs with a large SU carburettor. Head and crankcase were of light alloy, these held together by long studs. The crankshaft was machined from a steel billet and ran in a plain centre bearing and two roller bearings. The transverse front spring and quarter-elliptic rears were retained, but with a straight tubular front axle. The tyres were 5.25×16 racing Dunlops, the all-up weight 9Hcwt. Thirst was quoted as approximately 3Hmpg on sprint fuel, 71-1 for racing, with a 25 gallon tank. The new car was tested for 6000 miles at Donington, up to 121mph, but I do not think the full 12,000 rpm were ever used.

A team of these was built, plus one sidevalve car, the latter allocated to Mrs Kay Petre, the other leading drivers being Charles Goodacre, Charlie Dodson, LP Driscoll and Bert Hadley. But did these wonderful little cars give value for money? Jamieson took a while to get them right and it was not until March 1936 that one was displayed at the debut in Birmingham, when Lord Austin said he wanted to better MG’s 130.51mph, set by Korlraush at Gyon in 1935. The postponed Easter racing debut at Brooklands was a disaster, and in the 1936 JCC IT race Dodson retired with a split oil cooler, Goodacre with a duff magneto, and Dodson with a faulty supercharger blow-off valve.

All three Austins retired at County Down, after Dodson put the lap record to 84.51mph, and at Donington for the important small-car Nuffield Trophy race the ohc A7 trio went out with piston trouble; Sir& was fifth in a sidevalve car. A minor success came at Madresfield, with a 1-2-3 class result, but Driscoll crashed at Bacicwell hillclimb and was hurt, and in the BRDC ‘500’ Dodson went out and Goodacre was tenth. A sad start, even if many records were retaken.

Austin abandoned all but sportscar racing for 1937, and Jamieson left for ERA. However, three ran in the BRDC Empire Trophy; Kay retired, Dodson was slowed by a fire and Hadley was flagged off. Then at Donington, Goodacre won all four races, including the JCC Coronation Trophy. And at Shelsley Hadley broke the class time and was just 1.74 sec slower than Mays’ ERA. For the BRDC 500 km race Kay was hit by Pamell’s sliding MG and was badly hurt, Hadley retired but Goodacre was third until the track-rod broke.

Two of these wonderful ohc A7s were raced in 1938, Dodson winning the BE trophy race, while Hadley twice improved on the class record at Shelsley Walsh. The “miniature GP” car was very popular at the Crystal Palace, where Hadley won the Cup and in 1939 the Imperial Trophy and a fine second place behind May’s ERA.

That’s the brief saga of these memorable genuine British racing cars, one of which is now in the Donington Collection. But pause a moment. Did Lord Austin get full value from them? Amid the Austin/MG ambition to be first to 100mph in the 750cc class, let us remember that Mrs Stewart had beaten both, when in August 1930, at Montlhery, she set a 51cm record in a 741cc Morgan JAP three-wheeler, at 100.65mph…