VETERAN TYPES: XXIV-THE BURGESS 1914 T.T. HUMBER
Kenneth Neve describes another T.T. Humber in this series, with the able assistance of Cecil Clutton
TWENTY-SEVEN years ago, on a very wet May 10th, twenty-three motor-cars were lined up in the I.O.M. for the start of the T.T. Among the impressive array were three cars made by a firm whose name not one motorist in a hundred would associate with racing— that of Humber. A little more than twenty-seven days ago one of those same cars, started for the second time since 1923, was, within a few short miles, cruising at a comfortable 65 m.p.h. with the throttle pedal only about halfway down to the floor boards . . . but I must begin at the beginning. In 1935, while working in South Wales, I met a man named—amazingly enough—
Jones. This enthusiastic engineer, a modern car owner, was so singularly unimpressed by my boastings of the performance of my ” 30/98 ” Vauxhall that I asked why ; he told me that, while he didn’t disbelieve a word of my uncomplimentary comparison between a 1925 “30/98″ Vauxhall and his modern ” Ssssh,” he knew a car, then more than 20 years old, that would do all that mine could, and more. The car was a Humber, and if I didn’t believe him I could come and see. As it did not belong to him it was a few days before Mr. Sgonina, the owner of this amazing car (which, to be truthful, I’d decided had been born of Gallic eloquence and five pints of strong ale), unlocked the doors of his garage and ushered me in. I saw first a little Fiat, circa 1922, then a 1913 Ziist—an interesting enough discovery at any time, but now quite eclipsed by the very stark Humber. It could only be one of the 1914 T.T. cars, but that it should be in such magnificent condition was almost unbelievable. No amateurish efforts had been made to gild the lily. The body was the same, and undented, and subsequent investigation has shown that a small winddeflecting cowl in front of the driver, and the flat outrigged mudguards, were the only alterations made. Unashamedly I coveted it, but although he had not used the car since 1923 Mr. Sgonina would not sell. True, I’d little enough money to offer, but I found a single crumb of comfort in the knowledge that had I possessed the bank roll of a movie magnate, Mr. Sgonina would not have altered his mind. I could scarcely blame him. The car was purchased in 1917, direct from Humber’s, and Mr. Sgonina’s son went to bring it home. It is of topical interest that., as an Austrian, he had to obtain an exeat from the police in order to make the journey, and was due to “clock in “again the same day at Cardiff. The Humber celebrated its new ownership by running a big-end somewhere in the Chilterns and compelling the unfortunate driver to borrow a bicycle in order to race to the nearest station, from which to catch the last train back to Cardiff and security. The police, one gathers, were not. impressed when he applied a few days later for permission to collect the same. car all over again. Eventually it arrived home and it was stripped, cleaned, and prepared for use as a sprint-racing and ultra-fast road vehicle.
Mr. Jones’s partner, Mr. Cook, himself an active motoring sportsman who specialised in motor-cycles–those with gigantic V-twin engines in seemingly unsafe frames with tyres which would disgrace a modern pedal cycle—knew the Sgoninas well and put in many hours’ work on the Htunber, and in the absence of Mr. Sgonina’s eldest son, now in California, who generally drove and maintained the car, he gave me as much information as he could recall after 20 eventful years. The Sgoninas, as owners of an engineering business, had definite ideas on mechanical perfection and, more important, the time and equipment to indulge them, so the Humber was stripped and rebuilt before use, and thereafter it was maintained, as they say in the advertisements, “regardless of cost.” No major alterations were made, the largest departure from standard being a beaten copper manifold to take a Zenith carburetter in place of the Claude!
Hobson originally fitted. Mr. Cook issued a warning about the Clartdel layout, which, he explained, even in these days of Alt. P., would be dangerous owing to its fireraising tendencies. The Zenith is slower, but safer.
I had been under the impression that the car had been used for racing at Rhiewbina and Caerphilly Hill climbs, and at Pendine. The first is true, it won the climb at least twice ; the second is partly true only. Caerphilly, I’m told, was a motor-bike party and was too narrow for cars, but the Humber made various demonstration runs. The third, comfortingly enough, is not correct The mileage the car has covered is small, and Mr. Cook assures me that to take it down now would be a waste of time, as it was stripped and overhauled less than 500 miles before it was put away. The three Hutuber ears in the T.T. race were driven by F T. Burgess, their
designer, W. G. Tuck, and Sam Wright, and I have tried to establish which of them drove this particular car. Wright’s car was that written up by ” Baladeur ” in MOTOR SPORT in May, 1931, and seems to have been much modified. Mr. Cook thinks that the Sgonina car was not Tuck’s—which leaves only Burgess’s. Most of this information was collected five years ago when the car was Mr. Sgonina’s, and its acquisition simply fed my desire to own her. Anthony Heal has lately done some research work in connection with the three ” Humbers,” and he has established that in the race the numbers were 2, 13 and 20, and the drivers were Burgess, Tuck and Wright. respectively. No. 18— presumed to be the first car completed— differed from Nos. 2 and 20, which were identical, and from the differences, small and unimportant in themselves, we can rule out Tuck’s car. So if, as I suspect, Wright’s car was that written up by
” Baladeur,” then this was driven by Burgess, and Mr. Cook’s impression is corroborated.
When in 1937 I left Cardiff for Lancashire it was only after arranging with Mr. Jones to keep an eye on the Humber and to curse, cajole, supplicate or bully Mr. Sgonina into selling his pet. So faithfully did he carry out this unenviable commission that early this year he ‘phoned ” Sgonina weakening,” and, six months later, “Humber yours.” Transport difficulties kept it in Cardiff until August, but finally it docked in its new Northern home and a complete examination was possible. I have been able to obtain from the publishers—by return of post and for 1/only—the March 21st, 1914, issue of The Autocar, in which was a four-page write-up of “The New T.T. Racer.” This has enabled me to check up on my
own notes, compiled after clambering in and over the car.
The chassis is channel-section—wider over the back springs than the front, the track being 4 ft. 10 in. front and rear and the wheelbase 9 ft. 8 in. The engine is mounted in a short, horseshoe-shaped sub-frame, pivoted at the curved front on to the front cross-member of the chassis and clipped at the back end to a large diameter, tubular cross-member, which is fastened on to the top side of the chassis frame—a scheme which isolates the engine from any chassis contortions.
The engine is a four-cylinder of 82 x 150 mm., giving a capacity of 3,295 c.c., thus just coming within the 3,310-c.c. limit imposed for the race. The head is not detachable and carries four valves per cylinder, exhausts on the off side, set at 45° with the sterns, and springs are exposed. The twin o.h. camshafts run in ball bearings in aluminium casings, each attached to the head by eight turned steel columns—altogether a most impressive sight and a reminder of the then prevailing Peugeot influence. The camshafts are driven by a train of steel gears which, to modern ears, are incredibly noisy when idling, but which quieten down wonderfully when under load. The connecting rods are tubular. The magneto is a most potent Bosch, and I have told the story about the carburetters—the Zenith is fitted now. Lubrication is dry sump, the gear-type feed pump being driven off the rear, of the inlet camshaft and the scavenger is down in the murky depths of the undertray, which extends backwards as far as the transmission brake. The oil pipes are }-in. O.D.—a feature of Sgonina rather than Humber origin, I believe. A centrifugal pump mounted on the front of the crankcase circulates water through a plain flat-tube type of radiator.
A very large diameter, very light ribbed steel cone clutch, leather faced, transmits the power to the four-speed gearbox, behind which is a gigantic transmission brake, and thus through mechanical universals to the 8: 1 ratio axle, which is very reminiscent of Bentley in shape. The gear ratios are approximately 3, 4, 5.0 and 8.0 to 1. The whole design shows some markedly Bentley-like features— the steering column and drop arm, for example, are exactly, if more strongly, reproduced on the 3-litre Bentley, and this may be due in the Bentley to the post-war association of Burgess, the Humber designer, with W. 0. Bentley.
The rear wheels are 820 x 120 mm., With 815 x105 mm. in front, and a spare for each size is carried aft of the cylindrical petrol tank, which is behind the seats. The fuel is pushed from this to the carburetter by an air pump of such generous dimensions as to suggest that it might be used to inflate the tyres if the necessity arose. The body is a slim 2-seater, with most comfortable staggered seats. The front axle is ” streamlined ” by having shaped wooden sections bound to ; it is most neatly done, but how came so much thought to be expended on this detail when the stern of the car is to modern eyes so entirely unfinished ? “Vieux Charles” illustrates the same anomaly. The aluminium dashboard has simply the rev.-counter, air and oil gauges, and the ignition switch is an affair of spring brass, which is bound to the steering wheel. The rev.-counter is calibrated to 4,500 r.p.m., but I believe maximum safe engine speed is between 3,000 and 3,500 r.p.m., at which speed The Autocar records that 100 b.h.p. was produced. As the car weighs little over a ton a maximum in the region of 100 m.p.h. seems possible. Incidentally, in a letter to The Autocar, May 1st, 1920, Burgess claimed that the engine gave 113 b.h.p. at 3,900 r.p.m. If this is true, it is difficult to see how he failed to win the race
Thus, then, the Humber, and war or no war she had to be tried out. After many weeks of effort (because when A. was free, B. was on a Home Guard course, and when B. was free, C. could not get leave from his aeroplanes, and so on), one fine September week-end a veritable Vintage Brains Trust assembled at Hale and the fun began.
Here I hand over to Sam Clutton, who by virtue of his experience of Vintage road testing will give you an accountuntinged by owner’s enthusiasms—of the performance of the 1914 Humber. Nothing but false modesty prevents Kenneth Neve from doing the job infinitely better himself. However—
When the Home Guard and all the rest of it had been squared, Anthony Heal and I entrained for Liverpool to do homage to the Humber, and were delighted to find on arrival that Peter Wike, ” Porky ” Lees and John Scare had also come to take part in the ritual. The first sight of the Humber is one I shall not readily forget, for this is certainly one of the most handsome examples of a period of racing car which is notoriously dashing and rakish in appearance. This sort of line was soon to give way to the aerodynamic forms which are only now approaching perfection ; but the 1912-14 type of high-efficiency racer hit one of the highest spots in automobile good looks, just as it marked possibly the greatest advance in design that there has ever been in so short. a space of time.
Next day the Humber was towed to the appointed testing ground, which suitably incorporated a selection of really fast bends within quite a short distance. Kenneth was inserted into the driving seat pressure pumped up, a brisk push, and the Humber was quickly receding round the first corner. Soon he was coming back again and passed us at high speed—a stirring sight and sound. I may be prejudiced, but the view of a hurrying Edwardian racer excites me more than any amount of streamlined bolides. Presently came my turn. The driving position at once promoted every confidence, the only criticisms lying in a tendency for. the toe to catch on the steering column on its way from the
accelerator to the brake pedal, and in the slight inaccessibility of the gear lever, which is inside the body. The brake lever, of course, is outside. The instruments include a rev.-counter, and it was at about this period that they were making their general appearance on racing cars. In general terms, the performance may be described as a cross between a sidevalve ” 30/98 ” Vauxhall and a 3-litre Bentley. The road-holding and exhaustnote are ” 30/98 ” and the gearbox Bentley. The gearbox, however, has the peculiarity that bottom and top are at the back end of the gate and second and third at the front, and the reason for this is evident. The engine produces very little power below 2,500 r.p.m., and both second and third are constantly needed. The normal proceeding after slowing for a corner would be to change straight from top to second, as is true of a 3-litre Bentley ; but with the Iliunber gate the change from top to either second or third is accomplished with equal facility and speed. The car has no clutch stop, so the fact that a rapid upward change from second to third is impossible
is of no importance. The gearbox, incidentally, is very short from back to front. The wheels themselves are very narrow and the teeth are very coarsely cut, yet they are remarkably silent, indicating that short stiff shafts are the most important factor in making a quiet gearbox. Taking peak engine speed as 3,200 r.p.m., the maxima on the indirect gears are about 85, 58 and 80 m.p.h.very useful.
The steering, of course, is high geared and a trifle jerky in action at low speeds on bumpy roads, as is customary on beaded-edge tyres ; but at high speeds it gives every confidence, while the roadholding and cornering leave nothing to be desired. As Anthony remarked, one feels one could go faster and faster round a corner, till one was in a chronic broadside, and still have quite a margin of control. The large brake drums (rear only, of course, and operated by the handle) are really smooth and powerful, and must have been much in advance of the then prevailing standards.
Once in motion, the clattering of the engine ceases, but until 2,500 r.p.m. is reached there is a certain lumpiness in evidence. At about these revs, the engine suddenly gathers itself together, gets much smoother and fairly starts pushing the car along. This, of course, is characteristic of later high performance engines, but in days when overlap of any proportions was quite a new idea it must have taken a lot of getting used to, from a driving point of view.
All too soon my turn was over, and I felt that my stock of experience had received a very valuable and enjoyable addition. Soon everyone had made the tour, and in an hour or two Anthony and I were groaning back to London in a grossly overfilled and unpumctual train.
Post-war Edwardian racing is certainly going to be a big thing, and the Humber will no less surely be one of its more prominent adherents.