My First Sprint Season

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by K. N. Hutchison

This well-known driver describes how his ex-Ashby 2.9-litre monoposto Ferrari Alfa-Romeo was purchased, prepared and run in 1947 sprint and hill-climb events.

When the Editor first asked me to write for MOTOR SPORT the story of a season’s hill-climbs and sprints, I felt that the subject was too personal to be of general interest but, on thinking it over, it occurred to me that if I completed it by giving information about such things as selection, preparation and cost of running, it would be of interest and help to others who might be contemplating a similar programme themselves.

Competitive motoring is so delightful and interesting that there is a tendency with most people to undertake far more of it than with which they can possibly cope. Builders of “specials” will fully appreciate this, and so also will those who try to fit in too large a programme or compete in too many different events with the same car. I felt, therefore, that it was vital, if one was to put up any sort of a show at all, to undertake just that amount of competitive work that one could prepare for completely thoroughly. Far better to do a few events and do them properly than to rush from one meeting to another without proper preparation. We broke this rule once and regretted it, but more of that later.

I had been driving mainly in reliability trials for some years before the war and during the season immediately following it, but had always wanted to drive in hill-climbs and sprints in the racing class with a really fast car, so I decided, at the end of 1946, to give up trials and concentrate on speed events.

To run a racing-car properly is an expensive hobby, so one had to choose both car and programme very carefully. First, we decided that the hill-climbing activities should be based on the minimum of a 3-year plan. The first year I would run the car more or less in standard form, keep its reliability, learn to drive it and generally get the right “atmosphere” of these events. The second year was to be spent in getting the advantage of what one had learnt the first year and to tune the car mildly with a view to dominating the particular class selected. For the third year we had intended to tune and modify the car to the limit and aim rather higher in the general classification.

A programme such as this, aiming at yearly development, meant that the car selected had to be capable of being improved and, also, it had to be a vehicle that I, as the driver, liked and looked upon as a personal friend from the start. Well, after considering each class separately, I decided to plunge right into the 3-litre category, and, although the greatest competition lay here – especially when, as so often occurs, the 2-litre class was combined with it – I felt that one had to meet it sometime and, anyway, ours was a 3-year plan. The only cars available were Bugattis, Maseratis and Alfa-Romeos. Bugattis I turned down as being too small in capacity and mainly too old; Maseratis were passed by on the score of shortage of spares; too few cars to choose from, and unreliability. My friends and advisers shook their heads sadly when I spoke of Alfas. Too big, they said, and generally unsuitable – poor clutches and transmission, and, anyway, no one has ever run them seriously in such events. But I’m afraid I chose an Alfa. The design was simple and clean, the car had tradition and character stamped all over it, and I felt an indescribable attraction towards a “2.9” monoposto. So I went to see the Great Man who had agreed to look after a car for me and told him it was to be a “2.9.” “We will investigate the market,” he said, “and see what cars are available. Then we will take the most likely one to pieces and see what can be made of it. Come back in a few weeks’ time.”

Some time later he ’phoned me to say he had located a likely specimen and in a few days it would be sufficiently dismantled to reveal its worth and what could be done to it. And so I made my first acquaintance with the ex-Ashby, 2.9-litre monoposto Alfa-Romeo.

Dirty, rusty, corroded in parts, the remains of some bad dope in the tank and gummy oil and grease partially protecting the vital internals, its paintwork scratched and dull and its major organs scattered over the garage floor, it certainly looked sorry for itself. But the Great Man concerned himself only with essentials. “It’s got the right sort of clutch,” he said, “and good English steel in the transmission. The Dubonnet suspension is sound, too, and that cast-iron Ashby block is worth its weight in gold. If you really want an Alfa,” he went on, “this one combines more of the qualities for hill-climbing than any other – and I can make it go very fast indeed, eventually.”

This report was good enough for me and a few conversations with Frank Ashby resulted in the car becoming my property. I then agreed with the Great Man that the car should be very thoroughly stripped down and rebuilt, with all worn parts replaced. As the car had not been run for many years and, unfortunately had been badly stored, this proved a major operation both as regards time and finance.

As a very complete job was made of the rebuild the time spent was many months and the cost was – to say the least of it – considerable. All these exciting preliminary investigations, etc., had started towards the end of 1946, and when the car was finally chosen and purchased, we had approximately six months to do the complete overhaul. This was not so long as it sounds, for the magnitude of the job and my desire to have everything finished and tested thoroughly before our first event. In fact, my original idea was to equip and licence the car and run it on the road for a month to get used to handling it before running in any speed event, but time did not allow of that and I had to content myself by learning a little about the car on an aerodrome. This is just another example of the great handicap the British drivers are up against in having nowhere to test and learn about their cars. How, I would ask the authorities, can our drivers be expected to do well in Continental races under such difficult conditions at home?

During the winter months, whilst the car was being prepared, I had several talks with the Great Man concerning our programme for 1947. I had always held the view that one cannot do anything properly unless one takes it seriously, and whether it be trials, hill-climbs or road-racing, one must operate a long-term plan, to develop both oneself and car along sound lines, and to the best advantage.

We decided therefore, that the Alfa should be used entirely for sprints and hill-climbs. The first year we were to run the car in its present Ashby-standard form so that I should concentrate on gaining experience of a fast car and try to develop myself to the utmost on the car as it stood. We aimed at being placed in our class fairly consistently the first season. The second year we hoped, by means of minor modifications, to go faster still, and for the third year we intended to develop the car to the utmost and to aim as high as possible in the final results.

This general plan seemed quite sound because the idea was to develop both car and driver in easy stages. I am sure that too many people, in assessing the performances of their own cars and other people’s, do tend to make comparisons too directly between car capabilities and do not take enough note of the human angle. I am sure that in hill-climbs today, not one single driver is 100 percent. up to the performance of his mount – this applying more to the drivers of the very fast cars rather than the slower ones – and to go on making one’s vehicle faster and faster without keeping pace with it as a driver, is asking for trouble. So, having fixed on sprints and hill-climbs as our sort of fun, our programme was to include every one of these events that we could manage to attend.

Enthusiasts will appreciate that merely possessing a racing-car and maintaining it, is only one part of the whole business, and the transport and organisation, even of competing, as we did, in British hill-climb events, is a considerable matter. The Alfa is a fairly large car and we did not travel “light” by any means.

Attendance at a big hill-climb means carrying quite a few bits and pieces, such as twin wheels, spare tyres, spare front wheels, tins of “dope” and benzole and oil, jacks, planks, and tools of all descriptions. To carry all this gear about (plus the car, of course) I purchased a large six-wheeled V8 Fordson service-crew ’bus, and removed the seats, etc., to give a flat floor space. This Ford did the job admirably and carried all our stuff from one meeting to another without any trouble.

As far as transport for the car was concerned we used lorries, ships and on two occasions aeroplanes. A considerable amount of paper work was necessary, too, in order that all our arrangements should fit in nicely. For example, a busy few days was experienced at the end of August when we crossed to Belfast for the Craigantlet Hill-Climb. This event was on a Saturday, and we also managed to get back with the car to compete at the Brighton Speed Trials on the Monday, two days later. To make things more difficult than need be, we had to cross to Belfast via Liverpool but return via Heysham, and as we did not take the lorry to Belfast, extra organisation had to be planned to have the lorry sent from Liverpool to Heysham whilst we were over in Ireland.

To revert to the beginning of the season, some months passed, during which the car, from being in about ten thousand small pieces, gradually took shape, and one day the Great Man telephoned me and said, “Well, your car is ready and the engine goes but we need to run it in on an airfield for a few days to make final adjustments, and after that you can learn to drive it.” Sweet, exciting words, because they meant that at long last there was a very fast racing-car ready for me to drive.

Nothing thrills so much as one’s first introduction to some new desire, and up till then I had not even sat in anything so fast, let alone driven it. Away we scurried to a local aerodrome and, after the experts had tuned, adjusted and retuned until I thought there would be nothing left of the car, I got the “O.K.” to get in and try her. Now, this particular “2.9” has a narrower single-seater body than most, and an extremely comfortable, large padded, armchair seat. Also the gear-lever is central but cranked to the right for my convenience. The gears are forward left for 1st, back through the gate and forward right for 2nd, and straight back, right, for top. Yes, it has only three speeds. The reason for this, I am told, is that although the early monoposto had four speeds, as the engine size and power output was increased the gears were not strong enough for this extra load, and, to get larger pinions, Alfas (or Ferraris) went over to 3-speeds.

The seating position was superb; high enough to give perfect vision and to allow that accuracy of placing so important in short hill-climbs. Well, into 2nd, a few yards push, in with the clutch and away. The engine felt marvellous, even and tight, and the whole car seemed absolutely perfectly balanced. There was no question of having to learn the car, one knew at once that here was a living friend that one could trust and as this friendship ripened, one could absorb and be absorbed by this partner, so that eventually the whole outfit would become as one organism.

This may sound silly to some people, but I am convinced that the hackneyed old phrase “man and machine as one” can only come about by mutual respect and real love for one’s car. There and then I decided that this car deserved only of the best and that it should be a matter of personal honour and duty to keep her perfect and spotless, as well as in tip-top mechanical condition.

Our first meeting was the International Bo’ness Hill-Climb run by the S.S.C.C. at a venue near Stirling, and our confidence in the car and the Great Man’s work was such that we went without any assistants from his workshops; I was assisted by Stanley Dodman, who had been with me frequently on trials, but who had not seen the Alfa before. We were lucky enough to get 2nd fastest time of the day at Bo’ness, and we did not even look at a plug. We started her up, warmed her up and did our runs and then put her back in the van without touching a single thing on the car.

Needless to say, this good behaviour increased my respect for the car tremendously and, apart from one lapse, she was completely reliable all through the season. This one lapse occurred at Gransden, and in the big race of the day we had the misfortune to suffer a broken piston. Otherwise the damage was confined to a bent valve, but the big difficulty was to have the car ready for the Bouley Bay Hill-Climb the following week. Fortunately, we were able to obtain a set of ready-made low compression (8 to 1) pistons.

With six days left to catch the boat for Jersey, and only ten before the actual meeting, it was doubtful if the repair could be affected in time. By working almost day and night, and by chartering an aircraft to take the car over, we just managed to get to the Channel Islands in time, but the lack of time for testing the car before leaving England prevented us from having everything perfect and we suffered from continual oiling troubles due to the unsuitable pistons and rings hurriedly installed. We could do nothing about it and I failed to get in a single climb on all eight cylinders. As soon as we returned to England, new and proper pistons were put in hand and the car was back on its old form for the next meeting. From then onwards we had plenty of events, often on consecutive weekends and once two meetings in one weekend. I refer to the Craigantlet Hill-Climb outside Belfast on Saturday, August 30th, followed at once by the Brighton International Speed Trials on Monday, Sept. 1st.

By working to a very tight timetable we just made it, but I do not want to have to organise such a rush journey again. And so the season progressed—Prescott, Poole, the Southsea Speed Trials, and Shelsley Walsh; all these events are still fresh in the memories of enthusiasts so I am not proposing to describe them in detail.

Of all the meetings, Shelsley is my favourite – partly because I find it the easiest hill to perform on and partly because it is the traditional home of English hill-climbing. The Alfa seems to be peculiarly suited to Shelsley although closer gears might help one’s time. At present it is a two-gear hill; flat out in 1st to the Kennel-bend, a slight cut, then hard in 2nd to just short of the “S”, down to bottom again till one is about 50 yards up the final straight, then into 2nd and flat out to the finishing line, which is crossed at something like 85 – 90 m.p.h. I wonder when will be the next time that this famous hill, with its knowledgeable and critical audience of enthusiasts, will echo to those sounds and smells that we all love so well? In my view it is the accessories of each branch of motoring sport which are so interesting – the people you meet, the places you go to, your friends’ cars – and particularly any modifications they have carried out on them – the officials and even the weather; it’s all part of the game. Of course, at sprint events you meet a different crowd of people from one’s trials friends, but they are just as helpful and interested. Practically everyone we came in contact with was helpfulness itself, and when travelling with such unusual luggage as an Alfa, we found that even officialdom became quite human.

The maximum speeds and performances of the “2.9” have been somewhat loosely spoken of in the past, and it may interest readers to know that with a high axle ratio of 3.79 to 1 and 700 by 16 covers my car is capable of a maximum road speed of 152 m.p.h. at 6,500 r.p.m.—but you need a mighty long road to reach this and so far, at any rate, I have never exceeded 6,200 r.p.m. At Brighton we only attained 5,800 over the line at the end of the standing kilo. The hill-climbing ratio and twin rear wheels reduce the maximum to less than 130 m.p.h. As a point of interest the claim that Nuvolari won the 1935 German Grand Prix on a “2.9” is incorrect. Actually the prototype 3.8-litre engine (similar to that in Dennis Poore’s car) was used in a “2.9” monoposto chassis. No “2.9” could live with the Mercedes or Auto-Unions. In standard form, as raced by Ferraris, the performance and reliability of these fine cars centres round two things – the light-alloy cylinder blocks and the suspension. A cracked or otherwise damaged light-alloy block is irreparable and a new one almost unobtainable, and with the normal suspension at the front end these cars weave and wander horribly. Dubonnet independent front suspension just makes the car, from the handling point of view. Another point worth a tremendous lot in the Alfa as a hill-climb car is the provision of Lockheed brakes as against Alfa-Romeo brakes, which are erratic and rather unsafe. The standard clutch, too, is a most indecent handicap to impose on any driver as it is one of those varieties that is either in or out, with resultant overloading on the rest of the transmission; in fact it is almost impossible to use twin rear wheels with the ordinary Alfa clutch, particularly if Alfa steel is also left in the transmission. Our vehicle has been almost completely converted and apart from the crankshaft, crankcase and camshafts in the power unit, and the front axle and suspension and frame in the chassis, practically all the rest of the car is British material, design and manufacture.

I am of the opinion that this car can be made very fast indeed for sprints and hill-climbs as there are so many modifications left that one can carry out. For example, a ZF differential or solid-type rear axle could be installed, and that is, I think, the greatest asset of all on a hill-climb car, under certain conditions. Then one could have a “self-change” gearbox, larger blowers giving a higher boost pressure, or even two-stage supercharging, and the car could be lightened considerably. Some of these things, possibly all of them, will be done as time goes on, but today the difficulties of such advanced tuning and modification are immense and very costly. I know that the cost of such things is very interesting, especially to people who may be thinking of going in for hill-climbing, but it is very difficult to give any idea of my own expenditure because there are so many unknown factors, and in speed motoring there is always the determination to keep going in spite of all difficulties and regardless of cost. Obviously, if one has spent say £200 preparing a car for an event and is committed to another £100 for expenses during the event (as we were in the Channel Isles this year), then if the unforeseen should crop up at the last moment, one will almost certainly strain the bank balance to another £50 or so to complete the job. This is the sort of thing that has happened to so many competitors in the past and will happen again and again in the future. To buy and put a car like a “2.9” Alfa-Romeo or Maserati in first-class condition will not cost less than £2,000, and you can add another £500 for maintenance alone, not counting incidental and personal expenses such as a lorry, a mechanic or two, private transport, boats, aircraft and hotels. This only covers British events, and even if one is lucky enough to finish in the first three places at a few meetings, one can only hope to pick up £200 or £300 in prize money and bonuses. To my way of thinking it is not worth doing anything unless one can and is prepared to do it properly, and the unpalatable fact keeps intruding itself that all forms of speed motoring are very expensive. Still, enough of that. What of the future?

Supposing that there are events in England this year, it is our fervent hope and desire to attend all such meetings with the same car in, we hope, better and faster condition. Also, if a suitable road-racing car became available I should try very hard to acquire it and run it over some road courses here and abroad, but would only do so under the same conditions as we ran the grand old Alfa—by that I mean with perfect preparation and real concentration on the job. And who can tell? One day that delightful state of affairs may come about—until then, we can only dream and hope.

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