Warhorses

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Gordon Cruickshank

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Rover Special

If it looks right, it is right, the saying goes. But there are exceptions to every rule. Rover’s only single-seater is hardly beautiful but, as Gordon Cruickshank discovers, it has raced to great effect for 50 years, upstaging many Italian exotics

Frank Lockhart has a worry about the VSCC’s new ruling that specifies only full-face helmets. He’s concerned this will obscure his trademark — the white spade of his beard. “The spectators won’t recognise me!” But they surely will, because Frank Lockhart and his Rover Special are synonymous. They’ve been together for 37 years, and have done over 300 races together, most of them VSCC events. “There have been 99 VSCC meetings, and I’ve done 75 of them.”

In his Buckinghamshire cottage, rows of silver prize tankards hang from the beams above a cabinet packed with awards; photos of Frank in the Rover, his Bebe Peugeot, and racing Alta, ERA and Lister-Jaguar clad the walls, while this week’s Autosport lies on a table. It’s not hard to guess this man’s passion. Now 82, he is spry and enthusiastic, keen to show off his bulky scrapbooks crammed with cuttings about the two of them, and excited by the prospect of a new season. “Just had my medical — I passed. But I made sure I sent off the forms that afternoon just in case.” The stubby green racer with the Rover badge, a perpetual fixture in vintage paddocks since the 1960s, began life in 1938 as a factory prototype for what would eventually become the Rover 75, and featured that exciting innovation, independent front suspension.

For 110,000 miles, and throughout WWII, it carried out testing duties under a Rover 10 body. It was saved from scrapping in 1946 by three Rover employees who wanted something, anything, to build a racing car from — Spen King, Peter Wilks and George Mackie. For 1,35 they removed the old hack to a lockup behind the Forrest Hotel, Dorridge, where on evenings and weekends they set to work. While they narrowed the chassis, there was no need to shorten it: the P3, or 75, mounted the rear of its leaf springs on the body, so the chassis was already three-quarter length. They simply bolted quarter-elliptics to the siderails, and created a rather upright single-seater, which Mackie first drove at Goodwood in 1948.

Initially it was powered by a 1.5-litre four, breathed on quietly at the works to extract 80bhp. Not much, but it brought some results in club events, and the three then prevailed on the firm to let them have an experimental 2-litre six-cylinder 14hp engine. With three SU carburettors and fuelled on methanol, this rasped out 112bhp and, helped by fitting an ENV pre-selector gearbox and removing the differential, the stubby Rover took second in the 1949 Goodwood Easter handicap.

From this point the factory’s blind eye became an unofficial blessing, and with easier access to works facilities, the trio, driving in turn, had a successful season in the unlikely machine. Jenks even included it in his 1950 Motor Sport Racing Car Review, in between grand prix Cisitalia and Ferraris, because it was “so typically English”. But the heavy Rover 10 rear axle was letting the independent front down, and for 1950 the three made the bold decision to chop off the back of the chassis and graft on a new de Dion rear, designed by Spen King — the design which later supported the tail of the innovative Rover 2000. This transformed the car, giving it the traction and grip which would eventually cope with engines twice as big as its original. Hoping to run the car in Formula Two, our trio also tested a shortstroke version of the new Rover 90 unit.

Despite this leap in specification, the three suddenly had less time to use the car: Wilks and Mackie temporarily left Rover to manufacture the Marauder sportscar, benefiting from experience with the Special, while King was discouraged from further racing thanks to his rising position. (As Chief Engineer he was later responsible for the 2000, the gasturbine cars and the Range Rover. Mackie later became the boss of Land-Rover Special Projects, and Wilks became Rover’s Technical Director.) So in 1953 a Luton Rover dealer, Gerry Dunham, took the car over. He only raced it sporadically, fitted with a 2.4-litre six from the 75, but fortunately competed in a few international events, which would later qualify the car as a historic vehicle under VSCC rules. It was while working for Dunham’s firm that Frank Lockhart came across the Rover, lying idle and neglected, and volunteered to bring it back to life. It was a step up from the Bebe Peugeot (albeit JAP-engined) he had begun racing in 1953 (though he moved on to single-seat MG K3 and Alta), and he chose to install the special short-stroke engine.

He raced it first at Brands Hatch in 1964 and, apart from some forays in a chain-drive Edwardian Fiat and a stint in a Lister-Jaguar, it’s been his constant mount since. In fact, as he proudly points out, he never actually bought it — it just became his. ‘And I inherited my 3-litre Bentley. Not bad to have two nice cars I didn’t buy!”

In 1965 the special short-throw crank began to complain. Replacing it with a standard one brought the unit back up to 2.6 litres, and the extra poke brought the Rover up the grid. That funny Rover of Lockhart’s’ began to be a regular contender in the vintage world, not only against single-seaters but often seeing off XK Jaguars and Austin-Healeys in the Shell/JCB Historic series. And with its excellent traction and no differential, the car shone on the hills. Indeed one of Frank’s finest moments was when he beat the thoroughbred racers to collect F1D at vintage Prescott in 1967. All this hard work took its toll on the old engine, and finally a piston blew at Silverstone; but being an experimental unit, Frank couldn’t replace it. He was allowed instead to fit a later 3-litre, on the grounds that the 16 would have been capable of being bored out to this size — and in 1968 the car really began to fly.

As his bulging scrapbooks show, Lockhart often mixed it with Connaughts, Cooper-Bristols and ERAs, and there were times when the stumpy Special bloodied the noses of exotics like 250F Maseratis. Almost anyone who has watched VSCC racing in the last 30 years will know that Frank’s bravura style has a lot to do with it. Even by the Seventies, the pair were becoming an institution, constantly described in race reports as “venerable”, “remarkable”, “unstoppable”. Being the affable, approachable chap he is, everyone got to know him, and at one meeting, well into his mature years, the lady marshals voted him ‘Dish of the Day’. But in 1977, while threading through the tortuous confines of Ingliston, and having made 1-TD for historics, Frank had a major off: “Only time I’ve ever lost all four wheels at once,” he reckons. Anywhere else there might have been space to stop, but this tight little Scottish track allowed no such luxuries. He hit the barriers, crushing the suspension, folding the front chassis leg and damaging the engine — and breaking a leg. Though it didn’t stop him driving home — “It wasn’t the main supporting bone, it was the little on alongside” — he was out of action for much of 1978, an extremely rare gap in his relentless racing record.

Rover straightened the chassis for him, but the worst of it was that the VS CC ‘recommended’ that he did not install another 3-litre engine — too recent — so Frank had to revert to a 2.6.

“But driving the same car with less power was very frustrating, so I reapplied to the VSCC and they allowed me to put the 3-litre back. But it’s really very standard — that’s why it’s so very satisfying to do well. At last year’s BDC Silverstone meeting I was only a second or two behind a C-typelaguar.”

He reckons that the single-cam unit with its three SU carburettors puts out about 150bhp at the flywheel. Not much when you consider some of the machines which have fallen in its wake.

For a while Frank split his loyalties between VSCC and HSCC, where in 1986 he won the Pre-65 single-seater championship — aged 68. “Only because I was a consistent finisher,” he points out modestly.

Throughout its history the Rover firm has been kind to its distant offspring. When the stub axles began to crack in 1970, the factory machined up new ones, and for the firm’s 75th anniversary in 1980 Frank and car were invited to the Nurburgring . “Oh no, I didn’t drive the old circuit,” he says, looking slightly alarmed. “I just did a couple of demonstration laps of the new bit.” That is the Rover’s only trip abroad.

It’s no stranger to show business though — not only did it appear in Dance with a Stranger, the film about murderer Ruth Ellis, but also in a children’s television programme fronted by Barbara Windsor and Mike Read.

Although Frank used to do all the work on the car, maintenance is now handled by local firm Marshall & Fraser — that’s Ginger Marshall of indecently quick Reliant Kitten Special Saloon fame. Not that there’s much work to do; with its production components it’s been as reliable as any shopping car. No winter overhauls are required — Frank just puts it up on blocks until the season restarts. And when raceday nears, it’s enthusiastic neighbours who load the car up and look after it at the circuit. Preparation is dead easy — there are no adjustments to worry about. Says Frank, “That’s the beauty of it — we don’t even have a choice of ratios. We just unload it, scrutineer it, and get on the track.” Even a casual look at the green machine confirms its production origins — the chunky suspension and steel wheels mark it out from the blue bloods it often races against. The driver sits at pre-war height, the seat perched high over the bulky pre-selector box and central propshaft. Like an ERA, the large wheel skews off sideways to clear the tall engine, situated practically between Frank’s feet. Above a roller throttle, a big wooden lever like the haft of a bayonet slides through the gears, while the rev-counter shows a modest 5500rpm red-line, with peak power at 4500. A tiny pedal triggers a brake system which Franks declares cheerfully has never been very effective, though replacing the two tiny Austin 10 rear drums with a single unit on the locked axle has helped. It’s never had a starter fitted, relying still on a hefty shove from behind.

Spanning the rear wheels is a Forth Bridge of a de Dion tube. It looks massive, but in fact the unsprung weight is low and the car rides comfortably on relatively soft springs, hence the impressive grip it has always boasted. To accommodate the movement arc of the halfshafts, or ‘plunge’, something between final drive and wheel has to allow sideways movement. Designers sometimes use telescopic shafts, and in the end the 2000 featured a telescopic de Dion tube; but King went a simpler route with the single-seater: the axles slide through the hub carriers. It’s simple but tough, like the rest of the car. It has in the past been described as ‘the ugliest racing car ever made’, but that harsh comment came while it carried its previous forward-leaning nose; nowadays it carries a neater, retrousse snout more like the original. All the other body work is original, and while no-one could call it beautiful, it has a muscular appeal — like a friendly bull mastiff.

While proud he’s still racing, Frank points out slightly wistfully that Lea-Francis expert Tom Delaney is some years ahead of him. Has he reduced the amount of events nowadays? “Oh yes, I probably only do about 10 or 12 races a season now.” Only.

As we part he reverts to the question of helmets, and it turns out the other reason he’s displeased is because he has just bought a new open-face one — because he recently came off his motorbike and his crash-hat took a bit of a bashing. It hasn’t put him off; he still loves his ‘bikes, and his cars, and he can’t wait to fire up the Rover for their 37th season together. Pound to a penny it will start first time.

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