The Story of the Wolseley Viper

The Wolseley Viper racing car was evolved by Capt. Alastair Miller when he held the position of Competitions Manager to Wolseley Motors Ltd. Capt. A. G. L. J. Miller, son of Sir William Miller, Bt. of Glenlet, who later ascended to the baronetcy, was a very versatile racing motorist, as well as having had a remarkable personal career with which we are not here concerned. Amongst the racing cars he was associated with were Wolseley, A.C., Delage, Sunbeam, Bianchi, Napier, Buick, Benz, Donnet-Zedal, Opel, Alvis, Lombard, Nazzaro, Voisin, Aston Martin, Mercedes-Benz, and Talbot.

In the very brief lull in the hectic round of modern Grand Prix racing I am writing about his Wolseley Viper with the intention of provoking nostalgia for those who knew the Brooklands of those days, when similar aero-engined cars raced there, and of giving the younger generation some insight into a form of motor racing very different from that carried on today.

The Wolseley Viper was not the first, or the biggest, or even the fastest of these Brooklands giants. But its career was remarkable as lasting a comparatively long time, with a fair degree of success. This particular racing monster of the nineteen-twenties has a particular fascination for me so I hope this account of it may persuade anyone who remembers the old car to come forward and fill in any gaps I have left in the story.—Ed.

Alastair Miller became interested in motoring before he came of age, owning a T.T. Rudge and other motorcycles. He went into marine insurance but left to enter the motor trade. When war broke out he joined the Irish Guards and the R.F.C., flying BE2C, Avro and D.H.6 aeroplanes, with the inevitable "prangs." He was soon invalided and put on light Home Duties (his elder brother, a Lieutenant in the Grenadier Guards, was killed in action at Ypres in 1914). After the Armistice Alastair Miller formed his own motor business, trading in used cars and rebuilding ex-R.A.F. Crossley tenders, etc. He acquired the two 1914 G.P. Opels which had remained in this country throughout the war, with one of which Sir Henry Segrave started along the path to fame. Miller was associated with racing these cars during the 1920 Brooklands season and in 1921 undertook to run a Competitions Department for A. J. McCormack of Wolseley Motors Ltd. For this purpose he took over some sheds on the Byfleet side of Brooklands Track. The first car he devised for his Wolseley fleet consisted of the very fully streamlined little "Moth" single-seater, which was based on the production o.h.c. Wolseley Ten light car. This was ready in time to run at the last B.A.R.C. Meeting of 1921. Later another. virtually identical, "Moth" was built and a larger Wolseley two-seater was added to the fleet in 1922, in which either a 2-litre or a 2.7-litre engine could be installed, as required (a similar car being sent out to the Argentine), while for the second J.C.C. 200-Mile Race in 1922 Miller prepared a two-seater Wolseley Ten. In normal guise these Wolseleys were very sluggish little cars—one authority mentions a best cruising speed of about 26 m.p.h.—so it is greatly to Miller's credit that he eventually had a "Moth" lapping the Track at over 88 m.p.h. and still winning as late at 1930. These various Wolseleys between them gained an impressive number of successes and broke innumerable records—someone writing about Brooklands in Motor Sport has remarked that as different periods of the earth's history are known as "ice," "heat," etc., so this era of Brooklands might have been known as the "Wolseley-age.'' Even when nothing much was happening, there was nearly always one of Miller's Wolseleys going round and round. . .

The Wolseley Viper was rather different. Ever since the Track authorities had instituted the "Lightning" Handicap races in 1914, the biggest and fastest cars attracted the most attention and caught the full imagination of Brooklands habitués. During the 1921 season Louis Coatalen of the Sunbeam Company had unleashed the 18.3-litre single-seater Sunbeam and the mercurial Count Louis Zborowski had retaliated with his 23-litre chain-drive Mercedes-Maybach "Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang." Giant pre-war Mercedes, Fiat, Benz and G.P. Lorraine-Dietrich racers were enlivening the Bank-holiday Meetings, and other aero-engined monsters, like the Cooper-Clerget (which killed its creator) and the Martin-Arab were under construction, while Zborowski was building a second "Chitty." Miller felt he could not rest content until he, too, had a really big and exciting racing car.

He was helped in this ambition by the fact that, during the war, the Wolseley Company had manufactured Hispano-Suiza aero-engines under licence, these vee-eight engines with a shaft-driven camshaft over each bank of cylinders being known as Wolseley Vipers. All that Miller needed was a chassis able to accommodate one of these formidable power units. Whereas other builders of giant Brooklands cars were obliged to haunt war-surplus stores in the hope of picking up suitable inexpensive aeroplane engines, Miller no doubt found brand-new Viper engines in the Birmingham stores of Wolseley Motors Ltd.

There was a splendid story, to the effect that at a dinner party at which H.R.H. the Prince of Wales was present, Miller referred to his craving for a giant racing car. The story continued to the effect that the Prince recalled a big pre-1914 Napier brake at Sandringham, formerly used for Royal shooting parties, and said he would arrange for Miller to have it. This duly came about but when the old brake, converted into the Wolseley Viper, was careering round Brooklands, so the story had it, King George V suddenly demanded to know what had become of his old Napier and the Prince was horrified that he might find out. . . ! However, I recently took the opportunity of asking the Duke of Windsor's secretary if he could confirm this and was told that nothing is remembered of it and that the King had never used a Napier anyway . . .

Nevertheless, Alastair Miller definitely used a Napier chassis for his aero-engined racing car. He would probably have preferred to use one of Wolseley manufacture, but perhaps the cantilever rear springing and worm-drive back axle of their biggest model, the 20 h.p., put him off, or perhaps its construction was too flimsy (or, with post-Armistice production hold-ups. Wolseleys may not have been prepared to produce one); presumably a pre-war 50 h.p. Wolseley chassis wasn't forthcoming, either. So a Napier it had to be, Miller having no scruples about entering the car as a Wolseley, even if it consisted of an Hispano-Suiza engine in a Napier frame. . . .

The Napier Company has been unable to tell me anything about this chassis (No. 2482), but it was, I think, a 60 h.p. L-type. It stood high, on ½-elliptic springs above the axles, with the steering tie-rod in front of the deeply-dished front axle in typically Napier style, and as Miller made no attempt to lower it, the Viper was one of the loftiest of the Brooklands cars. It was built for Miller by the Line brothers in a workshop in London. The engine was a Type 34 200 h.p. 120 x 130 mm. 90 deg. vee-eight Hispano-Suiza aero-engine, with a flange over its propeller boss to accommodate a clutch. This was the engine which powered the R.A.E.-designed S.E.5 fighters and Miller's was probably a direct-drive high-compression version which developed just under 200 b.h.p. and weighed 445 lb., the aluminium cylinders and o.h.c. valve gear being typical of its creator, Mare Birkigt. (It seems almost certain that the geared version of these engines, also rated at 200 h.p., would not have been used in the car, as the drive off-take would have been too high and the direction of rotation incorrect.) New, these engines cost over £1,000 each but I do not suppose Miller paid that for his! A shapely two-seater body with wind-deflecting cowls on the scuttle, a full-length undershield, and a rakish nose cowl over the radiator was made for the car by a radiator company in Munsden Road, Hammersmith. Apparently little was done to the ancient chassis, apart from putting in a new E.N.V. crown-wheel and pinion of KE805 steel, no doubt of a suitably high ratio, making new gears for the gearbox, which now had only two forward speeds, and presumably converting the hubs to take centre-lock wire wheels. Aero-engines do not have clutches, so Miller had to find one. At first a clutch from a Crossley tender was tried but this proved unsatisfactory. Count Zborowski, the foremost amateur-builder of aero-engined racing cars, was then appealed to and he came up with a Hele-Shaw clutch, which solved the problem. The swept-volume of the Viper was 11,762 c.c., small by the standards of other aero-engined cars but half as large again as the power units of the bigger production models of the period, so this imposing car, which weighed nearly 33 cwt., was rightly regarded as an exciting creation. It was clearly to be more Miller's personal venture than the other Wolseleys, which had their bodies made in Birmingham and were virtually "works" cars.

The Wolseley Viper was ready for the 1921 Autumn Brooklands Meeting, along with the first Wolseley "Moth." Miller brought it out, in its iron grey finish, for its first race, the Second 90 m.p.h. Short Handicap. The handicapper was not taking any chances; the Viper was on scratch with Segrave's 3-litre straight-eight Sunbeam. But the car was not running properly and it faded away after doing its standing lap at a mere 66.38 m.p.h. It was, not a happy day for 28-year-old Miller, because in his next race a Bugatti swerved down the banking into his "Moth" and overturned. The Wolseley was quite severely damaged but by borrowing a front axle from a standard Wolseley Ten, Miller was able to bring the little car out for its next race, the 75 m.p.h. Long Handicap, from which, however, it retired. Nor had he had any better success with the Viper in the "90 Long," for, again on scratch with Segrave's Sunbeam, he retired after lapping at 78.16 and 86.62 m.p.h.

Although the Viper had not made much impression on its first racing appearance, at least this improved its chances on handicap for the 1922 season. Early in February Miller had the car out for the edification of some motoring journalists. It was described as having a 240 h.p. Hispano-Suiza engine; the Press usually exaggerated the power of the big racing cars, but it is possible that the engine had been souped up to some extent, although it ran on ordinary petrol. Now painted green, the Viper was tow-started by a big touring car "invisible when sitting in the pilot's seat, owing to the length and height of the monster," the frosty stillness of the Track being "awakened by a shattering roar as the eight cylinders leapt into life," exhausting from long open pipes at each side of the car. Miller did some fast laps, the Viper diving alarmingly down the bankings, due to the weight being well forward, which today we would call understeer, after it had been steered away from the top of the Track. Both Miller and Don testified to the Viper's habit of wandering up and down the bankings but Miller claimed it was one of the safest cars on the Track, for anyone who knew how to drive it.

As the car was domiciled at Brooklands Miller had no problems about transporting his big racer to and from Brooklands but he made frequent journeys down from town in Wolseley Ten and Fifteen "slave" cars (he had not yet gone to live in the bungalow which later became Parry Thomas' permanent residence) to work on it, helped by Col. Stewart, Jack Woodhouse, who was riding Miller's Martin in motorcycle races, and the Line brothers. Later that month the car was sent up to London to have shock-absorbers fitted and in March, while practising, a valve broke and destroyed a piston and cylinder, due to the car going out with no oil in the dry-sump oil tank. After a great deal of work this was rectified; I think this may have been when the Wolseley Viper W.4.A. wet sump engine was installed. These engines were rated at a nominal 150 h.p. at 1,500 r.p.m. for a weight of approx. 440 lb. but as the bore and stroke were the-same as those of the 200 h.p. Hispano-Suiza, output in the car would be identical. Wolseley charged £814 for these engines when new but I imagine Miller got one for nothing. The resuscitated Viper was entered for the 1922 B.A.R.C. Easter Meeting. Now painted blue, it was too heavily handicapped to get a place; the entrants were Miller and a Capt. R. Wilson and its best lap was at 98.23 m.p.h. Incidentally, on the road at this time Miller often used a closed Wolseley Fifteen and his father had a new Wolseley 20.

For the Whitsun races the Viper was again repainted—black. In the 100 m.p.h. Short Handicap Miller started from the 22 sec. mark and was caught by Segrave, who, in the scratch 5-litre Sunbeam, found the Viper so high up the banking that he had to wait until they got to the Finishing straight to pass, the Viper finishing in second place, after lapping at 88.10 and 100.61 m.p.h. In the "100 Long" Segrave was rehandicapped, Miller had 33 sec. start and the Viper, now lapping at 94.06, 107.34 and 106.42 m.p.h., won by about 1½ miles, at 102.03 m.p.h. Two days later the Viper broke the Class H S.S. kilo record at 118.29 m.p.h. but finished its run with only one tyre tread intact. The tyres just wouldn't last long enough for it to take the mile record.

The car took part in one race at the Duke of York's Meeting, again running high on the bankings, without success (it was 4th) but at the next Essex M.G. Meeting Miller won the "Lightning Short" at 99 m.p.h. and Kaye Don was second to Thomas' Leyland in the "Long," having overtaken Thomas before losing a tyre tread, the Viper apparently achieving its fastest race lap ever, at 112.65.mp.h. For the August Meeting Kaye Don again drove the Viper, the nose and tail of which were now picked out in red. He drove with great skill from the scratch mark in the 100 m.p.h. Short Handicap, winning at 101 m.p.h., after lapping at 92.59, and 111.42 m.p.h., a fatal accident caused racing to be abandoned before the car's next engagement. Late in September L. C. G. M. le Champion, who later raced cars as versatile as an Akela G. N. and the Isotta-Maybach, brought the Viper out for an attack on long-distance class records but was soon obliged to give up, due to anxiety about the oil-pressure and carburation trouble. This is probably why the car wasn't entered for the Autumn Meeting. But it re-appeared at the Armistice Meeting, causing some consternation by catching fire, but getting off the line well in the Lightning race, in which, however, it was unplaced. In its first full season the Viper had proved itself an effective two-mile-a-minute car, while the danger of driving these huge racers had been emphasised by the accident to "Chitty-Bang-Bang" and by Duff going over the top of the Members' banking in the big Benz.

By 1923 Miller was fully occupied with his Wolseleys, although George Newman and Woolf Barnato had taken over some of the driving. Incidentally, the "Moths," named after some chorus-girls with whom Miller had made friends, were numbered "Moth " 1 and 2, the bigger Wolseley I with the 2-litre engine, III in 2.7-litre form, the 200-Mile Ten and the Viper both being numbered 1, presumably in case any more of their kind were built. Apart from loaning his Wolseleys to other drivers, I suspect for a fee, Miller had persuaded Percy Cory, the actor, that he should have a share in racing the Viper. He entered it for the 1923 Easter Brooklands Meeting, with Kaye Don as driver, and went as passenger, a fine way of enjoying a Bank Holiday, which was open to owners of two-seater racing cars of this era. Alas, in this case the outing was hardly enjoyable! The Viper, giving four sec. to Thomas in Flowey's Leyland in the Founders' Gold Cup race, lapped at 87.27 and 108.98 m.p.h., leaving Thomas behind; it was rapidly catching Cook's T.T. Vauxhall when Don discovered that he was going too fast to pull up after the finish. Instead of trying to take the turn on to the banking, as Duff and others had done with unhappy results, he decided to scrape along the sandy wall of the embankment on the right of the Finishing straight. The Viper pulled up safely but poor "Pop" Cory bumped his nose on the scuttle wind-cowl. . . Miller says Don knocked the gear lever into neutral when reaching out for the handbrake and that he should have switched off; Don says a pin broke, rendering the Viper's small-diameter rear wheel brake inoperative. . . . The car was scratched from its next race because the water-pump had apparently been torn off. It was absent from B.A.R.C. Meetings for the rest of the season.

For 1924 Cory, perhaps wisely, drove one of the small Wolseleys, D. Fitzgerald entered the Viper, now painted red (with a viper rampant, if that is the term, in a circle on each side of its long radiator cowl) and with cylindrical silencers incorporated in its exhaust pipes, for Norris to drive. This was a successful combination, for at the Easter B.A.R.C. Meeting second place was secured in the Lightning Long Handicap behind Campbell's 5-litre Sunbeam, the Viper lapping at 109.94 and 107.34 m.p.h. but losing a tyre tread, which dislodged the o/s exhaust pipe. At Whitsun Norris was unplaced in the Gold Vase race, the best lap-speed down to 102.69 m.p.h., and he retired from the 100 m.p.h. Long Handicap. Between these appearances, Norris had used the car to take the Class H 250 kilo. and 3-hour records, at 85.37 k.p.h. and 53.08 m.p.h., respectively, there being useful bonus payments for any records which could be raised, as Miller well knew. The Viper weighed-out at nearly 35 cwt. on this occasion. It was aiming for the 6-hour record, but something was obviously amiss, and after three hours it had covered only just over 161 miles. It was unplaced at a Club meeting, again losing a tyre tread, and thereafter Norris concentrated on sharing the driving of the two Bianchis, very profitably, with Miller.

By 1925 Kaye Don had taken over the running of the Viper. Unplaced in the "Lightning Short" at the Summer Brooklands Meeting, although lapping at 91.98 and 111.17 m.p.h., he non-started in this race at August but came second in the equivalent event at the Autumn Meeting, although the lap-speeds were down to 87.07 and 110.68 m.p.h. Perhaps, though, these intermittent appearances had aided the handicap, for the Viper was on limit in this race, Cobb's winning 10-litre Fiat giving it a six sec. start.

The following year, the Viper, although composed of pre-war and war-time components, continued to serve K. Don well; incidentally, in 1926 people were still entering the aero-engined monsters, and even building "new" ones. At the Easter Brooklands meeting the Viper's lap-speeds were held down to 78.79 and 96.15 m.p.h. but at Whitsun, in the Gold Vase race, Don took it round at 93.97 and 110.43 m.p.h., finishing second, a length behind Miller's 5-litre Sunbeam, its old-time rival, both cars starting together, the Sunbeam accelerating more slowly but being quicker thereafter. The Sunbeam failed to start in the 100 m.p.h. Long Handicap and although Don was rehandicapped, the Viper came through from the 3-sec. mark to win by ¼ of a mile at 104.91 m.p.h. after doing its s.s. lap at 93.97 m.p.h. and both flying laps at 111.92 m.p.h. (For this he received a cup worth £30, having paid £5 to enter.) Either because the old car, described by The Autocar as "vicious but venerable," was getting a bit long in the tooth or to conserve his handicap, Don entered for only one race at the Summer B.A.R.C. Meeting. He came home second to Howey's Ballot in the "Lightning Long," lapping at 94.68, 111.12 and 110.43 m.p.h. Adopting the same tactics for August, Don made a bad start (s.s. lap at 67.21 m.p.h.) so that subsequent laps at 110.43 and 109.94 m.p.h. availed him nothing. A similar appearance at the 1926 Autumn Meeting produced laps at 92.51 and 106.65, after which the Viper fizzled out.

That concluded the Viper's racing career, but it remained active at Brooklands, being used by Avon for tyre testing. There is also a story to the effect that it lent its engine to a racing aeroplane on one occasion, this being removed very expeditiously after the flying race had ended at Brooklands and being re-installed in the Viper in time for it to race that day, but so far I have been unable to tie up dates on which this could have happened: can anyone enlarge on this?

After 1930 the authorities banned the older cars from public appearances on the Track. In 1931 the Viper was offered to me, with sound tyres, for £25. In those days £25 was impossible to raise and I had reluctantly to forgo the please I would have derived from keeping the old warrior in one of the inexpensive lock-ups at the Track and taking it out for joy-rides on fine evenings, as other folk went up in their aeroplanes. In the same way the advent of another World War forestalled my ambitions to live in the stone house on the aerodrome side of Brooklands, which had been unoccupied for some years. . . .

What became of the Wolseley Viper? This I never discovered. One can only suppose that it was a victim of the war-time scrap drive. But it seems odd that such a memorable car did not cause some comment—a postcard to Motor Sport perhaps—as it went to its final resting place. If anyone can tell me its fate I shall be very grateful. W. B.

Successes of the Wolseley Viper

1922 B.A.R.C. Whitsun Meeting
100 m.p.h. Short H'cap (A. G. Miller) 2nd.
100 m.p.h. Long H'cap (A. G. Miller) 1st. at 102.03 m.p.h.

1922 Essex M.G. Meeting
Lightning Short H'cap (A. G. Miller) 1st, at 99 m.p.h.
Lightning Long H'cap (Kaye Don) 2nd.

1922 B.A.R.C. August Meeting
100 m.p.h. Short H'cap (Kaye Don) 1st, at 101 m.p.h.
Class H.f.s. kilometre record (A. G. Miller) at 118.29 m.p.h.

1924 B.A.R.C. Easter Meeting
Lightning Long H'cap (Norris) 2nd.
Class H 250-kilo. record (Norris) 85.37 k.p.h.
Class H 3-hour record (Norris) 53.08 m.p.h.

1925 B.A.R.C. Autumn Meeting
Lightning Short H'cap (Kaye Don) 2nd.

1926 B.A.R.C. Whitson Meeting
Gold Vase H'cap (Kaye Don) 2nd.
100 m.p.h. Long H'cap (Kaye Don) 1st, at 104.91 m.p.h.

1926 B.A.R.C. Summer Meeting
Lightning Long H'cap (Kaye Don) 2nd.