Some amateur-built "specials"

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In which K. B. Salmon describes some non-standard sports cars which he has perpetrated

In view of the many famous names appearing at the foot of letters and in the headings to articles in these columns, it is with trepidation that I venture to relate some of my experiences. I am prompted—nay, compelled—to do so by the call for assistance by the Editor in last month’s Motor Sport, which journal is practically the only surviving link enthusiasts have with the carefree days of yore. That Motor Sport should cease to be published would be a calamity akin to the abolition of the basic ration.

The building of “specials” is becoming more and more popular, so perhaps an article appertaining to this side of the sport may be of slight assistance.

Of the ten cars I have owned in twelve years, six have been “home-made.”

In 1930 my father bought for me my first car, a 1926 “11/22” Wolseley. I suspect two reasons for this princely gift. First, that my parents were beginning to fear for my safety, as at that time I had a 500-c.c. o.h.v. Norton motor-cycle, capable of some 70 m.p.h.; and, secondly, that my father was getting thoroughly fed up with being asked to lend me his car for those occasions when a motor-cycle was unsuitable.

This car was very soundly constructed, but possessed of absolutely soul destroying acceleration; if one wished to exceed 30 m.p.h. one pushed firmly on the accelerator and waited. Perhaps after some two minutes a gain in speed could be noticed, hut most likely by the time this happened one had reached a slight incline, which negatived the urge, so that one still did 30 m.p.h., or perhaps even less. The only way to improve this stately mode of progression was to await, with what patience one could muster, a steep descent, when, depending on the steepness of the gradient, one could reach 50 m.p.h. Having attained this momentum, the great thing was not to lose it through having to brake for corners, etc., which resulted in some highly diverting manoeuvres. However, the car always kept the right way up.

I was on one occasion coming home from Bournemouth one Sunday night (even perhaps one Monday morning) via the Hog’s Back—perhaps the lateness of the hour had something to do with the lack of prudence. However, in the aforementioned manner I descended the hill leading into Guildford ; having reached 52 or 53 m.p.h., I pushed the gear lever into neutral and watched the speedo. needle go well past 60 m.p.h. Deciding this was fast enough, as I was nearly into Guildford, I applied the brakes, which certainly had always stopped the car before, but on this occasion, due to the speed and length of gradient, they seemed to make no difference, and two very startled young men could have been seen making peace with their patron saint outside the hotel halfway up Guildford High Street, which was where the car came to rest.

It was after this that I decided to make my own car. Cash always being short, the Wolseley components had to do. The body was taken off, the engine removed and the chassis turned upside down. Wedges were placed under the front springs, a front brake axle fitted in place of the existing one, the rear springs fitted on top of, instead of underneath, the chassis and rigged angle plates, and the tyres were changed from 19 x 4.50 in. to 19 x 6.00 in.; a plywood body on an ash frame, after the style of the “J2” M.G. Midget, was constructed, and this was fitted with two flare screens. The car now weighed 4 cwt, less than it did before, and some acceleration had been obtained, together with a maximum of 60 m.p.h.

In this condition we achieved phenomenal week-end mileages. A trip to Torquay was a common event, and Bournemouth was a popular place for a Saturday afternoon and evening run. We would leave London at 1 p.m:, arrive at Bournemouth about 4.30 p.m., have tea, a wash and change, a dance at one of the hotels till midnight, and then go home to bed at about four in the morning, getting up at eight to get to work (we often had to work on Sundays).

The cost of alterations to the car, including the tyres (second-hand), was £15, and I consider that this sort of body on, say, a reasonable “12/50” Alvis chassis would provide cheap and reliable motoring for anyone capable of using a few tools. The total cost, exclusive of tax and insurance, should be under £40.

During the following winter I acquired a 10-h.p push-rod o.h.v. Salmson at a price of £4, the only thing wrong with it being its body, which fluttered away at 40 m.p.h. At a later date I discovered that parts of the body were not the only things that flew away. Endeavouring to pass a Wolseley “Hornet” by doing some 50 m.p.h. in second gear, a push-rod flew away, and when I was dressed for tennis a hub cap flew off, while coming home from Shelsley Walsh the insides of the engine tried to fly away, but got caught halfway out of the crankcase.

We were towed home by a 2-litre Lagonda, whose owner refused even a cup of tea for his services. Being short of cash (as usual) the only thing I could do was to install the “11/22” Wolseley engine in the Salmson chassis. I decided that a little tuning was necessary, so the ports were polished, the head and block planed and faced-up, the flywheel was machined, and a special induction pipe with two carburetters, together with an outside exhaust pipe, made up for me. The block was rebored and fitted with Aerolite pistons, whilst the crankshaft was reground and new mains and big ends fitted. Coupling and installing the engine and gearbox was a nightmare, as the Wolseley was constructed with a separate gearbox and the Salmson with engine and gearbox as one unit., Eventually a cross member 24 in. long with 5 in. ends and 12 in. deep in the centre, was constructed, and to this the gearbox flange was bolted and a short shaft coupled engine and gearbox. The hubs on the wheels were changed for those of the “San Sebastian” Salmson, which have a special locking device in the centre.

The great day arrived when the “special” was completed as far as the chassis was concerned: the engine was started and sounded perfect.

Now for the body: this was again of three-ply wood on an ash frame, painted pale blue, and to my eyes the car was then perfect.

The running-in was carefully proceeded with, and not until 3,000 miles showed on the speedometer was the car hurried. After many little troubles, such as bad carburation, the car was finally declared as good as I could make it. It weighed 14 cwt. complete, and with the 4 to 1 top gear would attain 74 m.p.h. and average 32 miles to a gallon. I computed I had acquired a 75 m.p.h. car for some £32.

By this time I was badly bitten by the “special” bug, and again started to build. Inevitably, I acquired a Frazer-Nash back axle and bevel box, the axle being underslung and of the 100-ton-steel variety. A G.N. chassis was collected from Tulse Hill—much to the amusement of onlookers—and towed to my home at Warlingham. A Morris-Cowley chassis was later obtained locally, and amidst much hilarity was carried by my brother and myself well over a mile. Through the offices of a friend I managed to obtain an engine from the J.B.D.C. It was a “12/50” Alvis, reputed to have been tuned, but, alas, my information was very inaccurate, and the engine was in a sorry state, and much good money had to be spent before it was restored to reasonable order.

Another builder of “specials,” a Mr. Barson, of Beckenham, sold me a “San Sebastian” Salmson front axle with the Perrot-type brakes; fortunately, it was in excellent repair (most parts acquired in this way are). I now considered that I bad enough bits to start on my new car.

Fortunately for me, a Mr. Doldstock had taken a liking to my Wolseley-Salmson, so after a short discussion as to terms, I had the necessary capital to start.

The Morris chassis was inverted and the front springs flattened; then the axle was assembled in much the same way as that of an Alta, and although this sounds easy, it necessitates many hours sawing 1/4-in. steel plate with a hack saw to make the rear shackle plates for the front springs. The actual shackle is placed on the front end of the springs to allow the chassis, which passes underneath the front axle, sufficient clearance, the rear end of the spring being fixed to steel plates some 8 in. long by 4 in. wide. A wheel base of 8 ft. was considered sufficient, so some 4 ft. of chassis was sawn off at the rear. On top of this chassis was welded two-thirds of the G.N. chassis (the front end, up to the rear engine mounting, being cut off, as it was not required).

The idea of this was twofold. First, it strengthened the chassis by some 70 per cent., and it also came in useful for mounting the bevel box, seeing that it was already drilled for one (very cunning), and it also, brought the transmission into line. The rear end of’ the chassis was tapered off, to enable it to pass under the rear axle. Normal Frazer-Nash springs were used at the rear.

The engine was then mounted on heavy 2-in, angle-iron members running from the rear spring mounting to the top of the G.N. chassis (some readers may have thought 1/4 in. plate rather heavy, but besides having to support the engine it also took part of the twist from the steering-box). An Amilcar radiator was fitted, together with the steering-box from an old “12/50” Alvis. This completed the chassis, so the body was the next thing. I had previously decided to buy a second-hand sports body in preference to making one, and after much snooping I found just what the doctor ordered, in the form of an Amilcar “Surbaisse” 2-seater. The owner could not deliver it, and I did not possess a car large enough to carry it. A solution to this problem was obtained by borrowing a builder’s barrow one Saturday afternoon for 2s. 6d. and wheeling the body home. I must draw a veil over that uncomfortable 5 miles; suffice it to say that I just triumphed over the ironical remarks, jeers and jokes at my expense!

It fitted very well (the body, not ironical remarks), requiring but small alteration, a little cutting away here and building up there, and I had my car at last. After endless experiments I managed to make a couple of wind deflector cowls for the scuttle (experiments which cost me one sheet of aluminium 6 ft. x 4 ft.—try it and see if you can improve on that!)

Cycle-type mudguards were fitted, which got me out of making awkward and expensive brackets. These were rather super, having a chrome band down the centre and costing only 10s. a pair, the reason being that they were made from two Gamage spare tyre covers!

Sundry other details being finished, I took the car on the road and was quite delighted with the feel and performance, but I was also rather disappointed; I had expected something better. Petrol consumption was about 26 m.p.g., oil consumption about 800 m.p.g., and after three months’ motoring, during which time I had failed to exceed 76 m.p.h., I put it in the garage and bought an Austin 16 h.p. saloon. With this I went for an extended tour of Devon and returned home full of beans and bright ideas (perhaps there is a moral in this, I don’t know). Anyway, I sold the Austin, removed the Alvis engine from the “Special,” and tore it apart. A reground second-hand Laystall crankshaft was exchanged for a bag of gold; next the crankcase, rods and crankshaft were sent to Messrs. Edward Engineering Co., who made a perfect job of new bearings throughout. They also rebored the block and Aerolite pistons were fitted in place of the normal Alvis ones: with the new pistons the compression-ratio was 7.8 to 1, which enabled me to run perfectly on Discol. A new set of rockers and new rocker shaft were obtained, together with new oil pump gears. The engine was duly assembled, with a new induction pipe having two 36 mm. S.U. downdraught carburetters and an external exhaust pipe with Brooklands silencer. The B.T.H. magneto was overhauled, and with much loving care the engine was returned to its chassis.

On the following Saturday I was asked if I would accompany a friend to Birmingham on a Type 37 Bugatti. Of course I went, and such was my friend that he let me drive some 50 miles. (Greater love hath no man than this.) The gearbox was a delight, and, to cut a long story short, the following week-end found me installing a Bugatti gearbox in my “special.” An M.G. rear axle was obtained, and after removing the brake drums and substituting drums from a “14/45” Talbot and fitting the axle with a 3.66 to 1 ratio from a Model-T Ford, suitably modified, together with a forked front end from a Vulcan to convert the propeller shaft from an enclosed one with ball joint to one that could be fitted to the Bugatti box rear-end, the axle was “offered up,” the rear springs were changed to half elliptic, and the car was once more complete. I might mention here that I “went up one” in many people’s estimation, because, apart from the machining of a spacing plate for the bevel and the machining of the propeller shaft to take the pinion, I did all the work on that axle myself, in my own garage with a saw, a file, a drill and lots of rivets; and, of course, the inevitable hammer.

I ran the car in very gently for nearly 5,000 miles; there was a reason for this restraint–£180 had been spent on the car since first started, so a blow-up would have put an end to motoring for a while, as I had barely enough cash left for tax and insurance.

With the assistance of a great friend of mine, one Edward Batten, of the Beckenham Motor Co., much experimenting had been done with a view to improving the gas flow in the head. In this we achieved some success, as both “specials” (Batten had, and still has, an Alvis-engined “special”) would do 32 to 35 m.p.g. and would pull away from 10 m.p.h. in top gear perfectly; no trace of transmission snatch, despite a much-machined flywheel.

The total weight of the car was now 15,1/4 cwt., including full lighting equipment, which was fairly reasonable, considering that light metals could not be used to any degree owing to expenditure having to be kept to a low level.

For the above-named sum I now had a car with acceleration more than equal to that of a standard V8 Ford, and with a top gear maximum of 88 m.p.h. and able to do 70 m.p.h. in third gear and 56 m.p.h. in second gear.

I covered 18,000 miles in this car, most of them in attending race meetings and speed trials. The only trouble experienced was gear oil getting past the oil retainers into the rear brake drums, which was due to faulty design on my part, as they were non-standard.

Came the winter, and again my thoughts wandered to building another “special.” I cannot explain this urge; it just happens, and sooner or later I succumb to it.

Fortunately, a fatherly Government had decided that I was more than worthy of my hire, so a little more money was available. Here a few words of advice to potential builders of “specials.”. They cost just twice as much as you estimate and take three times as long to complete!

Through the offices of a friend I acquired from Mr. Skinner, of the S.U. Carburetter Co., a brand new 18 h.p. M.G. “Tigresse” engine and gearbox, together with a quantity of spares; in fact, almost another complete spare engine and gearbox. These engines boast of dual ignition (12 plugs) and dry-sump lubrication, and are supposed to develop 100 h.p.

In view of the fact that the engine and gearbox weigh approximately 6 cwt. and that I proposed to use independent front wheel suspension, a very rigid chassis was required. A standard “18/80” M.G. chassis seemed to be the thing, so one was duly acquired. A V8 Ford rear axle was next obtained, together with a 7th Series Lancia “Lambda” front axle. These were to be the basis of the new “special.”

The chassis was shortened by the simple expedient of sawing 4 ft. off the rear end. Next, the 6-in, flanges on the top of the side members were reduced, leaving a 1,1/2-in. flange the entire length of the chassis. With the aid of a cold chisel and a hammer, a part of the chassis was cut away to give clearance for the rear axle (the chassis was 6 in. deep), and a suitably shaped strip of 1,1/2-in, x 1/4 in. steel welded in to provide continuation of the flange.

The chassis was fitted with five tubular cross members – a 1-in. tube between what were formerly the dumb-irons, a 2-in. member on which was mounted the front end of the engine, a 3-in. member placed immediately behind the engine, and two 3-in. members placed one in front of, and one behind, the rear axle. It was on an extension of these two that the half elliptic springs were mounted.

The chassis passes underneath the rear axle, the track of which was narrowed by the simple expedient of cutting 5 in. out of each axle casing and welding them up again. The half-shafts were machined to fit and a 3.55 to 1 ratio bevel and pinion fitted in place of the standard 4.1 to 1 ratio.

The propeller shaft was shortened and the torque tube cut and mated with an “18/80” M.G. ball joint for coupling to the M.G. gearbox, which is of the type known as “twin-top,” the ratios being very close.

The Lancia front end was-then fitted, after suitably modifying the tubular framework, a job requiring, much forethought and a very involved home-made jig to maintain correct alignment.

In this operation and the alteration to the rear axle track, thanks have to be given to the Beckenham Motor Co., who specialise in doing awkward jobs like these.

The engine was then lowered on to the chassis, having previously had its rear bearers made from 1,1/2 in. T-section steel plate, which simple operation took some 12 hours, as it had to be done with a hack-saw and a file.

The result was quite imposing; 5 ft. of engine and gearbox and 30 in. of propeller shaft in a wheelbase of 8 ft. In connection with this, may I state that it is a fetish with me to have the radiator behind the front axle, and they shorter the wheelbase, the better I like it.

A framework for the body was then constructed of 1-in. angle-iron 1/16 in. thick, drilled liberally with 5/8-in. holes where strength was not required. This was panelled with 18-gauge aluminium, and the result was quite pleasing to the eye, besides being very rigid.

The body was after the style of the Vale “Special” 2-seater, a type which is comparatively easy to panel; I possess very few panel-beating tools and still less patience!

The car looked so satisfactory that I polished the brake drums and had the wheels, brake levers, spring boxes, etc., chromium-plated, the finished article justifying the expense, to my mind.

An instrument board of 16-gauge steel was constructed and the necessary instruments, such as oil gauges, rev.-counter, petrol gauge, vacuum gauge, ammeter, etc., fitted, together with speedometer clock and push-and-pull switches for lights, etc. This, together with the drilled pedals, framework and short gear lever, make the cockpit look quite interesting.

The brakes were connected and Ferodo M.Z. linings used, and they appear to be quite up to modern standards; mudguards of a simple, rather flat, D-shape were securely fixed (a very difficult but necessary procedure, as insecurely fastened mudguards can be exceedingly dangerous).

A 14-gallon tank was fitted into the short tail with two quick-action filler caps, the fuel being fed by two Autopulse electric pumps.

The complete car weighs 18.5 cwt., so if the engine develops its proverbial 100 h.p., the performance should be quite fair. The induction pipe has been modified to take two 30-mm. horizontal S.U.s and the head has been copperised. An outside manifold with regulation silencer, tail pipe and fishtail, chromium. plated, was made up for me by Derrington’s, and two Lucas sports coils are used.

Unfortunately, Schicklegruber interfered at this stage, and the car has never been properly tried, further work being held up for three years. However, my duties now permit me some spare time, so the car has been collected from storage at Warlingham, and is now being very slowly finished.

To sum up, this car took me 18 months to build and cost me some £450. Is it worth it? The best answer is to wait until the present spot of bother is finished, then, should you see a small car cellulosed Alfa red and looking like an overgrown Vale “Special” in front of you, try to pass it. . . . (This invitation does not extend to the Earl Howe, Mr. Lyeett, or Mr. Robertson-Rodger!)