An account of the 1913 Cyclecar Grand Prix

Kenneth Neve describes an unusual but classic race of the days of “chain-cum-belt.”

All except the very youngest of Motor Sport readers, even if he or she did not own or ride one, will remember those motor-cycles common until the late 1920’s and to be seen in remoter districts even to-day, on which the power was transmitted from the engine to the gearbox by chain and from the gearbox to the back wheel by belt. It was a system of transmission which was surprisingly comfortable and of reasonable efficiency when used in conjunction with low-powered engines, but one which in the nature of things fell into disuse when power output rose. In its declining days the belt was a tedious component which took umbrage whenever the throttle was opened, and machines so equipped well deserved the entertaining yet veracious epithet “Chain-cum-belt : belt-come-off.”

But this is not an article about vintage motor-cycles. We are apt to forget that just before the anti-Kaiser war the belt was a common form of transmission for light cars, and a surprisingly successful one, too. Trying to design an effective “special,” and working on the well-known dictum that there is nothing new under the sun—a cliche corroborated by the revival of the De Dion-type axle on modern racing cars—I cast back to the early days of cyclecars and found facts enough to suggest that a closer study of the then prominent makes would be worth while.

In 1913 there was held the first Cyclecar Grand Prix, which must have been every bit as exciting as the T.T. or full G.P. races of the period, because competing in it were vehicles which as a type are kept alive to-day only by the amateur builders of “Shelsley specials.” The following table gives a list of the cars entered, the drivers, among whom many since-famous names are to be seen, and as much detail as I have been able to collect about the cyclecars themselves.

The table is not as comprehensive as might be wished; the power output from the engines is missing, and the weights of the complete cars would have helped. I think about 700 lb. was the limit, and it was freely commented at the time that at least one competitor was compelled to eschew steel-studded tyres as they would have added the few fatal ounces that tipped the scale the wrong way.

The most interesting competitor of all was the Bedelia, a French car which was sold for some time in England ; at least one well-known member of the Vintage S.C.C., Peter Wike, commenced his driving career on one. It was very long and very narrow, the driver and mechanic sitting one behind the other with, amazingly enough, the driver at the back, elevated, so to speak, in the dress circle, so that he could see above his passenger’s head! The V-twin engine was mounted not transversely as in a G.N., but along the axis of the chassis. The crankshaft projected through each side of the crankcase and on each end of it were expanding pulleys. From these pulleys V-belts, one on either side of the car, drove direct on to belt rims on the back wheels. No gearbox, no countershaft; then where, you ask, was the clutch? Answer : no clutch either, but the engine was mounted on rails and could be pushed forward or pulled backward by the manipulation of a lever in the cockpit, thus altering the tension of the belts. In short, it was a four-wheeled edition of the Rudge-Multi, except that the “notching-up” process of the bicycle was, on the car, centrifugally controlled. The gear-change was automatic in that the cheeks of the driving pulleys came together as engine speed increased and thus raised the ratio, and, conversely, as the engine speed dropped so the pulleys opened and the ratio changed. The driver had to keep belt tension right and also steer. Scorning gearbox and all transmission except a couple of V-belts, it can be appreciated that the Bedelias were the lightest cars in the race.

In Captain Roy Taylor’s “Cars I Have Owned” article in the April 1942 issue of Motor Sport, he mentioned a “Violet Bourget,” and wondered what it was like. In the Cyclecar G.P. there was a Violet Bogey — surely the same car with Anglicised spelling? A newcomer to racing in 1913, this concern entered three cars, one of which was driven by the even then experienced M. Violet himself. It had a water-cooled vertical twin cylinder engine of 73 x 130 mm. and developed just over 22 b.h.p. It possessed the only friction drive among the entries, the power being transmitted from the propeller-shaft to the countershaft by friction disc and finally by chain to the solid back axle. In appearance it was a short, well-proportioned two-seater rather better finished than most of its contemporaries.

Foremost amongst the British entries were the two G.N.s driven by A. Frazer-Nash and C. M. Whitehead. They had G.N. engines of 84 x 98 mm. but there the resemblance to the chassis which is so much sought after as a basis for “specials” to-day comes to an end. The steering then was by cable and the final drive by belt, although the gears were selected by shaft and chain. These G.N.s were very fast and handled, even in those days, as one would expect the forerunners of the incomparable Frazer-Nash to do.

Four Morgans were entered, and apart from their somewhat unprepossessing appearance, seem basically but little changed from those in regular production until the arrival of the recent gearbox model. They were amazingly fast, and anyone who has examined early Morgan steering, noted the nakedness of the front wheels, and recalled the mechanics of the rear wheel brake, can scarcely fail to gasp at the courage of Messrs. McMinnies, Holder, A. F. S. Morgan and R. G. Munday, who formed the team.

One of the best-looking cars in the race was the Duo, which, contrary to prevailing fashion enclosed all its works under a neat bonnet. The steering, always the most frightening thing about these early cyclecars, was effected by four cables which, in their passage from one front wheel to the other, were wound round the steering column. Just how elementary it all was is well illustrated by the fact that motor boats, on which the wire and bobbin method is used, have for years taken the trouble to put a sprocket on the wheel-shaft, and include a length of chain in the cable to run over it, in order to obtain some degree of positive action.

W. D. Hawkes drove the D.E.W., a vehicle remarkable for its uncontrollability, a failing which is explained by the following remarkable yet apparently true story. The machine was built originally as a monocar, and on subsequent conversion to a 2-seater it carried its passenger behind the rear axle. From this position he, if the merest trifle obese, might engage in a game of “see-saw” with the engine as the complementary balance weight and the axle as the fulcrum. Under the circumstances one must regard as typical English under-statement the naive comment of a 1918 motoring journal that “as a result of this arrangement front wheel adhesion was affected.”

Another since-famous name, that of F. H. B. Samuelson who entered one of the first M.G.s at Le Mans, appears, as the driver of the Marlborough. He bought this car for ordinary use on the road, but finding it capable of high speed in touring trim, riddled the thing with holes, turned off most of the flywheel, and entered for the Grand Prix. Happy days those must have been; one might anticipate a raising of the official eyebrow if one turned up now at Tripoli or Nurburg with the family Morris, however liberally lightened.

The German Mathis was the only car possessing a normal type differential gearbox and shaft drive. With artillery wheels and a high chassis it resembled more than anything a Morris-Cowley of about 1920, with a cylindrical tank in place of the “dickey” seat.

The Super was not unlike the Bedelia in appearance, but in this instance the driver occupied the “pit” while the mechanic was above and behind him in the “circle.” A cylindrical petrol tank between the two nestled in the nape of the driver’s neck and made him look for all the world as if he were in a barber’s chair with the cushion nicely adjusted behind his head awaiting the attention of the latherer’s brush. If M. Leveque, the driver, possessed the then fashionable beard the whole picture must have been quite charming. How the unfortunate passenger fared if the tank, on a level with his face, were overfilled one cannot imagine.

Two Sphinx-Globes were entered, one of which had a J.A.P. twin and one a single-cylinder engine. Although the twin was the more successful, the car with the single-cylinder engine was of greater interest, as this engine was of 103 x 132 mm. (I.O.E.) made by Anzania – a goodly size for an air-cooled single. [Production Globes had single pots of about a litre capacity.—Ed.]

The two Automobilettes also had different types of engine, a four and a twin, both water-cooled, but unlike the Sphinx-Globes, they housed them in different types of chassis. The more interesting, the twin, was very light indeed, and drove from engine to counter-shaft by chain, while the final drive was by belt with expanding pulleys. Externally they were most attractive, having very long bonnets, pointed radiators, staggered seats and nicely-rounded tails, thus anticipating by some ten or twelve years the Amilcar and Senechal sports two-seaters.

For the rest the Roneteix, La Rouelle and Noel offered no features of especial interest, while the Du Guesclin was so far from being ready for the race that even the make of magneto and carburetter were not decided.

Besides all these, sidecar entries were permitted and N.S.U., B.S.A., Zenith, Gillet, Regal Green and Clyno all ran. It is beyond the scope of these notes to describe the race (which, by all accounts, must have been one of the most stimulating spectacles ever) or to list the performance of the cars on the bends and over the roughness of the course cut up by the G.P. machines on the previous day. Sufficient to say that the Morgan driven by McMinnies won, followed (in this order) by Bedelia, Sphinx-Globe (twin), Roneteix, Duo, Super, Violet-Bogey and another Roneteix.

The lap was 10.86 miles long and the Morgan covered this fifteen times – 162.9 miles— in 3 hours 53 minutes 9 seconds, which gives an average speed of 41.9 m.p.h. The Bedelia was half a mile-per-hour slower, and the eighth car, the Roneteix, achieved 36 m.p.h.

Now the habit of drawing a moral from a story is from every point of view quite indefensible, but remembering my reason for digging out these details of early cyclecars, it is pertinent to make a comparison between them and the modern “Shelsley special.” The outstanding thing is that such elementary vehicles gave so creditable an average over 162 very rough miles. 41 m.p.h. is no mean average over good roads in a modern 10 h.p. car, in spite of what the white-helmeted letter-writers say in the weekly contemporaries; I name no names, but a number of very modern V-twins jib at a couple of 1,000 yard runs in a day. This 1913 reliability was due in no small measure to the fact that all these 1913 cars, whatever their design, possessed, above all, primitive simplicity. Peter Robertson Rodger stressed the same point in his article on the Frazer-Nash in the June issue. In 1913 petrol came down a pipe from a tank; now we carry an airpump, a gauge, and yards of copper pipe to achieve the same end; they raced without rev.-counters and oil gauge – motor-cycles still do in the Isle of Man— but “specials” adorn themselves with these redundant luxuries. The drive from the engine to the wheels went the shortest way—a straight line—and remembering the many lengths of chain which, leaving their rightful duties, have lain like oily adders on the slopes of Shelsley Walsh, we must allow this virtue. This merit of simplicity is amply demonstrated in the relative performances of the unsophisticated Bloody Mary or Freikaiserwagen, and the more complex Fuzzi or Dorcas.

All this is no suggestion that we revert to pivot steering and belts; still, I think the investigation has been worth while. No miracle of mechanics has been disinterred, but the cars’ performances offer a latent challenge to the modern “special” builder, and the simple variety of design a fountain at which the enthusiastic amateur constructor can refresh his flagging ingenuity; thus inspired, perhaps he may be relied upon to present to an ever-hopeful world some improvement on the orthodox and unimaginative G.N. [To which we feel obliged to retort that to one knows how long McMinnies’s Morgan or the Bedelia would have needed to ascend Shelsley Walsh, so that perhaps Messrs. Bolster, Fry, Glegg and Waddy need not hang their heads in shame after all – Ed.]