A Glimpse Behind the Pre-War Record-Breaking Scene
I have always had the greatest admiration for the late Capt. G. E. T. Eyston, OBE who although he achieved considerable success as a racing driver, made record-breaking his main activity (see Motor Sport for October, 1974). Some fascinating glimpses behind the scenes have come to light in the form of letters and papers left by Ernest Eldridge, himself a notable record-man and specials-builder, after his death, Eldridge having been, as it were, Eyston’s right-hand-man on the engineering side of his high-speed motoring ambitions. Through the courtesy of Mr. K. L. Griffin I am now able to quote from these fragments of pre-war history. (He also has Eldridge’s 120 m.p.h. BARC badge gained in 1924 with the Fiat “Mephistopheles”).
George Eyston, as he once told me, regarded records as better publicity for a manufacturer or a product than racing successes. His arguments were that in attempting a record or series thereof you could wait until you were ready to go, that if you failed few people would know about it, and that a successful record would be remembered for as long as it stood, and could be advertised until it was broken. Conversely, a bad performance in a race, perhaps because the car was not finalised, courted bad publicity, and success was often forgotten as soon as another race was about to be run. It is interesting that around 1934, when he was contemplating record-attacks with the diesel-engined AEC, the big Panhard-Levassor, Hotchkiss, Riley, Delage, and two MG cars, Eyston wrote to Eldridge saying that his programme could be completed by Easter by close co-operation and that they could jointly make about £1,500 and he would only need £120, plus expenses, to complete it. This represents some £3,000 each on an annual basis, equal to some £30,000 or more today, at a time when £1,000 a year was regarded as a very good salary. No wonder they worked hard and industriously at the game!
In those days it seems as if the Panhard’s hour record was worth £500 and doing 120 m.p.h. and running for 24 hours with the diesel-AEC saloon £200. The Hotchkiss records netted some £300. In September 1933 Eldridge, who was then living in Hurlingham, SW6, was in touch with Andrew Swann of the RAE at Farnborough about increasing power by using a forward-pointing air-intake. He was informed that at 120 m.p.h. the gain would not exceed 2 1/2%, or 3 1/2 h.p. on a maximum of 140 b.h.p.
Eyston had been trying, early in 1934, to interest the French branch of Bosch in his AEC and Hotchkiss record-bids. He was also in touch with the MG Car Company about his K3 Magnette for the BRDC 500 Mile Race, being told that a boost from a No. 9 Powerplus of about 12 lb./sq. in. and a c.r. of 6.6 to 1 with alcohol fuel was regarded “as very mild in comparison with more recent developments”. H. W. Charles assured Eyston that a later engine would probably be provided by the time of the race and also that his MG for the JCC International Trophy Race would have the new brake-gear, which Charles had tested up to the highest speed at Brooklands. (Eyston retired in this race due to clutch failure, won the Empire Trophy Race, and his co-driver crashed in the 500.) The AEC (Eng. No. 132. Type A.1650) had been on show at Shell-Mex House, and was to go to Appleyards of Leeds and to Birmingham Garages before it left for France for “duration runs”. It seems that Eyston drove it by road to these showrooms and that suitably-sized posters were offered with it.
Another idea, which did not come off, was to use a V12 Hispano Suiza for an attempt on the World’s 24-hour record. Eyston had the full approval of Mr. Smith of the English Hispano-Suiza Concessionaires and the plan was to get the record around Paris Salon or Olympia Show time, thus “putting the Hispano directly in the public eye”. Eyston and Eldridge proposed using a standard chassis fitted with a light Carosserie aerodynamique monoplace, to enable the car to average 200 k.p.h. without exceeding 2,800 r.p.m., on a b.h.p. of 190 to 200. Apparently Mon. M. Daste of Automobiles Hispano Suiza thought differently, as nothing came of it, as far as we know.
In a recent interview I had with Mr. Ernest Siddeley he told me that Eyston was contemplating attacking records with a Siddeley Special. In this connection there is a note about Armstrong Siddeley blowers, looking for a stiffer casing with a twin inlet and three-port outlet, a dynamically-balanced rotor, and the latest driving end-plate and a spring-drive with at least 20% take-up, and one leader blade as in R-R blowers, to cancel the “driving-ring” couple. As AS were making radial aero-engines at the time it is not clear whether Eldridge was looking at these blowers for the Siddeley Special, for a later project, or possibly for a supercharged 1 1/2-litre six-cylinder Riley record-breaker. In that direction, Eyston was to supply castings to the Riley Engine Company at a cost of £80, perhaps to accommodate the blower, and he asked Eldridge to obtain from Mr. Stanley Riley chassis drawings so that Eyston could scheme out an off-set single-seater body. That project was successful, the Riley taking Class-F records for 500 miles, 1,000 km. and six hours, netting the pair about £150, the car running unblown. In 1930, Eyston and Eldridge had driven a Riley 9 saloon at Montlhery to take class records from 2,000 km. to 48 hours. That car had 19 gallons of fuel in its boot, used a larger battery than standard, started the run in rain, and ran into fog at night, a spot-light then being switched on. It ran on Dunlop tyres right through. The drivers changed over every four hours and the fastest lap was at 110 k.p.h., the last at 109.6 k.p.h. The fuel used was BP No. 1, the oil Castrol, and KLG plugs were fired by a BTH magneto.
This partnership of Eyston and Eldridge was wonderfully effective. George would write to his engineer as “My dear Ernest”, on notepaper of the L’Autodrome, Limas Montlhery or from the Hotel Windsor Etoile in Paris, signing “yours ever”. But it was clear who was “boss”. Eyston would jot down notes — “go to Bank, get toolbox, overhaul fishing tackle” — and Hotchkiss possibilities were written on the back of a wine list!
The year 1934 was an ambitious one. The AEC was being prepared with rebuilt radiators floating in cradles, Woodhead front springs, and CAV batteries, Eldridge being in touch with Park Royal about it. Eyston was thinking in terms of preparing the AEC to do ten days at 100 m.p.h. using a Panhard or Hotchkiss for the World’s 24-hour record if the Hispano ploy fell through, associating himself with the Crossley-Burney at Olympia, after trying for three days at 75 m.p.h. with one, and driving a Ford V8 for ten days at 100 m.p.h. and a standard Ford V8 three days at 50 m.p.h., as well as working with Chrysler on the all-red Robberlac-panelled Super Airflow. As it turned out, he took nine World’s and nine class records with the Panhard, the Riley got six class records, he took a dozen class records with the Hotchkiss and World’s diesel-records with the AEC at over 120 m.p.h., as well as finishing 3rd in the Mannin Beg race and winning the Empire Trophy Race for MG, all before the end of May 1934, according to his notes.
Among the Eldridge papers I have so generously been allowed to delve through are little items of engineering data, such as gear-tooth combinations for the camshaft-driven supercharger for obtaining different blower-pressures for the 750 c.c. and 1,100 c.c. MGs, using a 1,500 c.c. supercharger (pressures of from 12.4 to 22.09 lb./sq. in, for the former and from 8.4 to 15.06 lb./sq. in for the latter car are noted, the blower turning at 4,952 r.p.m. to give 17.95 lb. on the 750 c.c. engine.), and some horse-power per litre figures for a wide variety of power units, worked out by Eldridge, redoubt to enable decisions on suitable to be made, together perhaps with calculations of fuel consumption and refuelling stops on long-distance runs; these figures are reproduced in the accompanying panel.
At about this time Eyston had come to the conclusion that only the World’s hour and 24-hour records would pay good money in future. He had taken the coveted hour-record in 1932 with the 8-litre Panhard-Levassor single-seater at 130.75 m.p.h., after Voisin (128.35 m.p.h.) had stolen Eldridge’s Miller record of 126.59 m.p.h. George must have received a nasty surprise when Count Czaykowski took a 4.9-litre Bugatti to Avus and broke the record at 132.87 m.p.h., because on that track the driver had to negotiate two slow banked turns per 12-mile lap. The Bugatti must have been accelerating up to some 150 m.p.h. every lap before braking twice to about 70 m.p.h. so its World’s hour-record was a remarkable achievement, deservedly gaining the German AC’s gold-medal. The following year George Eyston went into training and re-captured the record with the Panhard-Levassor, at 133.01 m.p.h. This was a fine achievement, with a car difficult to control, and there exists a publicity hand-out showing that as the car ran at the top of the steep Montlhery bankings it had actually done a higher average speed than that recognised. However, Eyston must have been aware that he had used a fast banked circuit, and he was further challenged when the secretly-built rear-engined GP Auto-Union made its sensational debut, at Avus, early in 1934, giving Hans von Stuck the World’s hour-record at 134.90 m.p.h., in spite of the drawbacks of that course.
Eyston now began to plan a special car, for tackling this and the 24-hour records, at the same time hoping that he could also use it for racing at Tripoli and Avus. He went out to Tripoli, finishing 9th in an Alfa Romeo in the GP and while there he sought out Hans von Stuck and Tazio Nuvolari and discussed the latest chassis trends with them. Nuvolari had driven an Auto-Union P-wagen in Czechoslovakia and driven the Type 59 Bugatti at San Sebastian and the great little man told Eyston that independent suspension was comfortable for the driver but did not allow of close judgement in driving on the road — “one did not know exactly to a foot where the car would place itself on a corner”, said Nuvolari.
This caused Eyston to say that, although he liked the idea of i.f.s. for both “axles” as it permitted good streamlining and low weight, it was not essential for their purpose. He reported to Eldridge that the P-wagens “were wonderfully made, with tubular frame members serving as water pipes and bodies as thin as paper”. “We have to break them by being more robust in design and construction”, he added. At that time he favoured a rear-engined car, although Stuck had told him, after driving both Mercedes and Auto-Union, that he did not think there was any difference in handling or speed.
Obviously Eyston was aware of Cobb’s Napier-Railton and he also sent Eldridge confidential information about Abe Jenkins’ plans. At this stage in 1934 two new Eyston cars were being designed, and Syrett was told to work overtime on trimming up Eldridge’s sketches, to form rough general-assembly and parts-drawings, Eyston saying that he would decide what other D.O. labour would be needed when he got back from Paris. The urgency was emphasised by George telling Ernest that while they would be delighted to see him when they started on another record-bid with the Hotchkiss, if he stayed working on the new car in London it would increase their chances of financial gain in 1935, and “We have heaps of mechanics on the Hotchkiss”. “We shall have to work hard to beat terrific opposition,” wrote Eyston, “as all countries will strive for mastery with one-hour and 24-hour record bids. We shall only win if we can put up a colossal figure – think of 150 m.p.h – through our special knowledge of the affair”. Eyston felt that the big car (Cobb’s) must have a limit and that the GP-cars might break up under the strain, so they should adopt the medium course. (To look ahead, Jenkins and then Cobb (152.12 m.p.h.) took the hour-record first, but Eyston and his new car replied by the end of 1935 (159.30 m.p.h.) and raised the speed in 1936 to 162.53 m.p.h., to be finally beaten by Cobb (167.69 m.p.h.), before Jenkins with his supercharged Curtiss Condor aero-engined Duesenberg Special “Morman Meteor” placed these pre-war Utah records out of reach of his competitors.) When it came to the world’s 12 hour record Cobb averaged 153.98 m.p.h. to which Eyston’s ‘`Speed of the Wind” replied with 163.68 m.p.h., but he never broke Cobb’s 150.6 for 24 hours.
Eyston was intending to run on salt lakes and Dunlop told him that more rubber could then be used on the tyre treads and that huge tyres would be needed to avoid frequent changes, so he specified stout axles, in the telegrams and letters that were now flowing between Paris and London. The engine was initially to be an ADC-Nimbus running up to 1,800 r.p.m., with an Hispano Suiza for the longer records perhaps, and maybe two back axles and transmissions. George was looking for 24 hours at 150 m.p.h. and not building for European tracks. They would have to beat Cobb (and Railton!) on extra speed, “when Cobb would be in trouble.” He visualised super-streamlining to cope with the records on petrol if the car was good enough for that, otherwise they would run the Nimbus on BP4 alcohol fuel, “easy to make up anywhere”. The Hispano engine would be for secondary records and as a standby – presumably it was an aero-engine. “I cannot get any money unless the car has a British engine”, Eyston wrote. He had not heard from Armstrong Siddeley and was going to see them urgently, anxious to use one of their pre-selector gearboxes, as this would eliminate a clutch. It would also be a guide to size, in car No. 1.
One month was allowed for ordering the frame, axles, gearbox, brake drums and proprietary parts, for the new record-car. Eyston asked Eldridge to try to buy a used Nimbus and get Coals of Tottenham to start mods. on it – “He is an engine man” – but if his machine-tools couldn’t cope, to transfer to Beverley Barnes, “who are not afraid of work, are quick and accurate, and could give us space to ourselves”. They would be allowed to order all material, to keep things in one direction. Eyston, who was a great organiser, was relying on Beverley Barnes for drawings and limits. Several designs were got out, but the rear-engined idea was dropped, Eyston deciding in October 1934 that he wanted an FWD chassis with AS gearbox and 5-litre unsupercharged engine. “The back axle can be on the simplest principle, i.r.s. is not necessary on Salt Lakes, likewise front axle; for the chassis I want nothing experimental; we shall have enough with the engine and FWD”. He suggested copying the Miller – “Miller is now out of business and his Foreman has bought up all the spares”. W. F. Bradley was the liaison man here.
Frank Halford was to work on the Nimbus mods. but GET was also seeing Armstrong Siddeley about an engine, but in unblown form lack of power was feared. The hour-record was now envisaged at 170 m.p.h., after Stuck’s Avus average of 150 m.p.h. for 100 km., and Eldridge was asked to see about surface radiators. It was thought to follow the Hotchkiss record-car’s three-piece body of radiator cowl, scuttle with oil-tank, and tail, for the “Big Job”. A honeycomb water radiator with oil-cooler was to give place to a two-skin cowled one to save weight, after the success of such an oil-radiator on the Hotchkiss. This would allow a new nose and body section, easier to mount if trouble struck than fitting a new radiator and separate oil-cooler. As things progressed Lockheed’s were approached about brakes, for a car with a 330 h.p. engine weighing 670 lb. and another of 450 h.p. and 940 lb. Car weight was then quoted as 23 cwt., wheelbase as 11 ft., and the respective tyres-sizes as 6.50″ x 20″ and 7.50″ x 23″. Top speed was to be about 190 m.p.h.
In November 1934 Vickers (Aviation) Ltd. at Weybridge had done wind-tunnel tests on a model, which showed a drag factor of 172 lb. at 100 m.p.h., the front-wheel down-load also being measured. The findings were that to exceed 170 m.p.h. a b.h.p. of 300 would be required. There is an interesting aside, with Eyston thinking of a Rolls-Royce Phantom II engine for certain records. He was making many technical enquiries, such as could the flywheel be lightened to try to avoid a period at 4,000 r.p.m., would a 930 sq. in. radiator surface be sufficient, and would the oil-pump give 50 lb./sq. in. hot and its drive stand increased pressure and the addition of a scavenge pump? It was also queried whether R-R would wish retain the Elliot turbulent cylinder head, which G.E.T. thought “not so bad as it looked, from the volumetric efficiency aspect”, but would they get a c.r. of 8 to 1 without masking the valves more than the existing 9%? Six carburetters were envisaged, with an 80% alcohol fuel, with the inlet valves increased by 10% or 15%. Return springs on the tappets and other mods. were mentioned and G.E.T. wondered if the siamesed exhaust ports might cause an undue rise in exhaust-valve temperature. What a pity this Rolls-Royce record-car never came about! In view of the well-known Rolls-Royce reticence to disclose h.p. figures it is interesting that Eyston mentions 130 b.h.p. at 2,000 r.p.m. and 385 ft./lb. torque from the standard P2 . . .
There is evidence that at this time four-wheel-drive was thought about, for an 18 to 22 cwt. car, and the geometry of a wishbone-independent-suspension was carefully considered from the viewpoint of steering control. Mid-placed fuel and oil tanks were to be used and even four-wheel steering was considered, while it was decided that the only way to get a big engine into a light low chassis was to have the gearbox ahead of it, unless the P-wagen’s rear-located engine was followed. Some of this was possibly useful to Eyston when he embarked on his final 400 m.p.h. monster LSR car, “Thunderbolt”. But for those other records he was to settle finally for a 21-litre Rolls-Royce Kestrel aero-engine in a FWD car (“Speed-of-the-Wind”, in which a Ricardo diesel-engine was used for oil-engine records (“Flying Spray”), as recounted in my aforesaid article about Capt. Eyston. These cars reasonably well fulfilled his ambitious intentions.
W . B.