Kieft

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At the 1954 Motor Show was a stand on which was displayed two fibreglass-bodied Kieft Climax 1100 cc sports cars, one in racing trim, one in road trim, and an ambitious flat-four air-cooled engine. The history of the engine was covered in November’s issue of Motor Sport, for it was the Kieft-modified AJB with Norton cylinder heads. The reason why the cars were at the Motor Show was because the SMM&T had offered the little company a free stand for, in an otherwise dismal year for British motorsport, Kieft cars had twice won their class in International races a small beacon in the gloom.

The cars on display were interesting for two reasons, one was that their fibreglass bodies were perhaps the first ever produced from a single mould as a complete unit, and the other was because they were the first cars to score an international win using a Coventry Climax engine. The car in road trim was touted as a possible production sports car and attracted some favourable attention and enquiries including one from foreign royalty.

Shortly afterwards, though, Kieft faded. The company was sold by its founder, Cyril Kieft, to Berwyn Baxter who assembled one, or possibly two, cars from existing components, giving them aluminium bodies. Later the name was sold to another company who manufactured a few Formula Junior cars in 1961 but achieved little with them though at least one is currently in use.

From that moment of glory in 1954 to sudden oblivion. Why? To trace the story we recently went to see Cyril Kieft in Wolverhampton and soon discovered that the story of the man was essential to an understanding of the story of the cars.

Cyril was born in 1911, in Swansea, and educated at Wellington where he proved a good, but not outstanding, sportsman and a mediocre pupil. His heart was set on entry to Sandhurst and the Indian Army but his school reports suggested that he would fail the entrance exams since Maths was his only talent. Kieft Snr offered him a choice, accountancy or an apprenticeship in the steelworks of which he happened to be managing director. Cyril chose the latter and found himself in his element.

When the boss’ son receives management training just as a recession is about to start, it can cause comment but Cyril tried twice as hard, studying at nights and taking his training, which included six months at the coal face, very seriously. By the time he was twenty-two, and not officially out of his apprenticeship, he had been appointed assistant plant manager at the newly re-opened Redbourne steelworks at Scunthorpe. He rose rapidly to senior management level and was soon managing director of a group of companies. In the meantime his interest in motor racing had been whetted by visits to Donington Park in his Rover sports car.

With impending nationalisation of the steel industry after the war, and not being impressed by the salaries on offer for directors, he diversified into other businesses, a forging company and a firm, employing four hundred people, making electric kettles and other electrical and aluminium products. At heart, though, he remained a steel man.

In 1949 he bought a Marwyn-JAP 500 cc F3 car and entered it in a hillclimb at Lydstep in Wales. While waiting his turn, his young daughter arrived and said, “Mummy says, ‘be careful’.” He recalls, “That did it, I realised that with family responsibilities, I had no business risking my neck and so did my climb and retired as a racing driver. From then on, I never employed any driver who had children.

“The Marwyn was anyway very unreliable. I felt sure I could design and build something better. About this time, the government found it could not generate enough electricity to satisfy growing demand and so slapped a swingeing purchase tax on the sort of products we were making. The bottom fell out of the business and I had to close down, though we did not end up in debt to anyone for the forging business remained healthy, though. In order to keep some craftsmen I didn’t want lose, we set up a small workshop building racing cars.”

The first Kieft F3 car was designed around a ladder frame made of two chassis sections with, fore and aft, lubular semi-circles (looking like cucumber frames) which held the torsion bar suspension in metalastic bushes. At first sight, the wheels appeared to be from Cooper but these were of Kieft design and casting. Ken Gregory debuted the car, with a JAP engine, at Brands Hatch in 1950 and other drivers that year included Les Leston and George Wicken. The car was too heavy to be competitive with the Coopers, however, and no success came until it was fitted with an 1,100 cc JAP engine, whereupon Michael Christie set fifth ftd at Prescott. Christie later finished third in class at Shelsley Walsh and Mrs Joy Cooke took the ladies’ record with it.

With a Norton engine, Olga Kevalos came second in a Ladies Championship at Brands Hatch. The car enjoyed several outings over successive years and, at one time, was fitted with the AJB/Kieft-Norton engine. Three replicas were sold to customers (Kieft cannot remember who, and these differed from the prototype by having a bulbous nose which became something of a Kieft trademark.

Although none of these first cars exactly set the tracks alight, Cyril was determined to be as successful in racing as he had been in business (he happily admits to being extremely ambitious), and two others were built up for a record breaking attempt at Montlhéry. There Stirling Moss and Ken Gregory, assisted by John Neill, set thirteen records (six for 350 cc machines and seven for 500 cc machines) ranging from 50 kms to 200 miles.

“We used to go to this restaurant in Paris run by a former racing mechanic and were mystified to discover, after we’d broken the records, why everyone cooled towards us. We soon discovered the reason. For a record to be ratified, it had to stand for 28 days; 26 days before we arrived the French DR concern had set the records we broke. In a showroom on the Champs Elysees was their car with a board proudly displaying their achievements which we had wiped out before they became official. We were not the most popular people in Paris.”

Two other cars were built to that basic design, one went to A. W. Powell-Richards but there were plans to move from Bridgend to Wolverhampton and the fabricator who usually made the bodies had left. The Powell-Richards car therefore had a rudimentary boxy body which was given the unfortunate nickname “The Coffin”. The other was a little road-going two-seater, based on the “bulltiose” car which was fitted with headlights, cycle mudguards and a 650 cc BSA engine (with kickstart) which produced 40 bhp. 75 mph and 40 mpg were claimed for this car, which was commissioned by a German customer, and Kick said he was open to further orders. None came and the road-going F3 car remained a one-off.

The two-seater is interesting for two reasons: it was the first of three Kieft sports cars which were based around a single-seater chassis, and it was the first of three occasions when Cyril Kieft considered a road car based on a racing design.

The workshop moved to Wolverhampton at the end of 1950. At about the same time, Ray Martin, Dean Delamont and John A. Cooper (who worked for Autocar) were designing a new F3 car for Stirling Moss. “Ken Gregory, who was Stirling’s manager, came to me and said they had this design but had run out of funds. Stirling had invested £180 into it and Ken a further £20. After some persuasion, I paid off the bank and took over the design.” This was an extremely light little machine with a space frame, rubber springing, swing axles at the rear and wishbones at the front. It had the same bulbous nose as five of the seven Kieft F3 cars already built but used wire instead of alloy wheels. The engine was a Steve Lancefield-tuned Norton, Kieft having excellent contacts with Norton since he habitually sponsored two works assisted riders.

Moss won first time out with the car at Goodwood in April 1951, repeated the success at the International Trophy Meeting and dominated the formula when he appeared that year. Among other things, he became the first F3 driver to lap Silverstone (at the Grand Prix meeting) in under two minutes. Ken Wharton and Don Parker also had successful outings with the car.

Ten cars were built in 1952 and were sold to Charles Headland (who won the Irish Championship and several races in England), Andre Loens (who won the Droginigan International), Dick Irish (who had a lot of success in the USA), Bill Webb, Jack Wescott, Derek Annable, David Boshier-Jones, David Shale and W. Paulson. Stirling Moss drove a car on several occasions but later switched to a Cooper while Don Parker won two national championships in the works car.

Don Parker, one of the leading F3 drivers of the Fifties, but a man who never quite got the breaks to prove himself in the higher formulae, drove for Kieft until the end of 1954, winning championships every year. Don says, “It was a good car, but not very well made. The first time I drove one was in Luxembourg and I was leading the race with Most behind me when the damn thing fell to pieces.

“After that, I used to get the parts from Kieft and build and modify the cars myself. I changed the frame, the rubber blocks in the suspension, loads of little things, and I also made some parts for Cyril.”

When we think of F3 in the ’50s, the tendency is to regard it as dominated completely by Coopers, and in terms of race wins, it was. Individual drivers such as Moss, Parker and Headland, however, gave Kieft many wins though most Kieft cars did not figure in the results.

Some have suggested that the original design was spoiled in the production of the customer cars. Cyril himself says that the cars were so light and finely balanced that banging wheels with another competitor could put the suspension out and most drivers did not have the expertise to tune the chassis properly, so the successful ones were those properly maintained (ie, by the works). Don Parker seems to suggest that the design stagnated and that his success was due to his own development of it. Another reason is possibly that most of the buyers would not have won races no matter what car they’d bought.

Cyril is not certain exactly how many of these cars were built, 14 or 16 seems to have been the total. Certainly one was racing in South Africa in 1953 in the hands of Orlando Fregona, but whether this was bought new or second-hand is not currently known.

One little story of the time is worth repeating. Kieft used an oil called Vigzol and the firm was also involved as a member of the BFtM Trust. In anticipation of BRM successes, Vigzol bought whole page advertising space in many magazines. With the BRM failing and the Kieft succeeding, these advertisements had little option but to trumpet the merits of Vigzol through Moss / Kieft wins giving the little company a great deal of unexpected, but far from unwelcome, publicity.

Towards the end of 1951 the talents of designer George Bedson were added to the staff. Bedson had been with Vickers at Brooklands and then been involved with the Mackson F3 car. Later he was to design the Frisky mini-car and the Turner-engined Phoenix sports-racer. Ever ambitious, Kieft announced plans for an F2 Bristol-powered car which Bedson designed. This never came to fruition but the same chassis was used as the basis of the 1953 Kieft sports car, a sports car having more commercial potential. Horace Gould did race a Bristol-engined car in F2, however, but it had the sports body.

While spectating at the Nürburgring, Kieft had noticed that the centre-seater Veritas sports car was quicker on left-handed bends than some rhd cars and quicker on right-handers than many lhd cars. So, the 1953 sports Kieft had a simple space frame chassis with the driver in the middle and passenger seats on either side. This caused something of a fuss, for some felt it was going against the spirit of the regulations, but the regs did not say a car could not have three seats. For racing purposes, the offside passenger compartment was covered with an aluminium sheet. Kieft seriously considered offering this as a road car but nothing came of the idea.

The bodies were of aluminium and independent all round suspension was used, coil spring and wishbones at the front and transverse leaf spring with lower wishbones at the rear. They featured Morris Minor rack and pinion steering, Lockheed drum brakes and Kieft-cast Elektron wheels. Eight 1953 cars were built with the registration numbers running in sequence from LDA 1 to LDA 8. LDA 1, 2 and 3 started off with 1½-litre MG engines and were leased to the Monkey Stable (Mike Keen, Jim Mayers, Pat Griffiths and Trevor Lines). Later Bristol engines were fitted sometimes. Horace Gould used these cars in turn with a Bristol engine when he would substitute his trade plate OAC 2. The others, with either MG or Bristol engines went to Jim Burns, David Slade, Pat Hazlehurst, Peter Thompson and Paul Ceresole in the States.

That same year, the F3 car was still advertised, this time as a kit which could be yours for £445, less engine and gearbox. There were no takers. However another of the pre-Martin Kieft single-seaters was built at this time to act as a test-bed for a recently-acquired AJB engine with Steyr heads. This motor being later converted into the AJB / Kieft / Norton engine.

Most of the sports cars had at least one engine change during its career, LDA 1 even spending some time with the AJB / Kieft / Norton engine fitted. They were rugged, but too heavy to be successful in British sprint racing events. Significantly the two highlights of the car’s career came in long races, the Monkey Stable finishing 1-2 in a sports car race in Lisbon in 1954 and Carpenter / Van Driel winning the 2-litre class, finishing fifth overall, in Ceresol’s Bristol-engined car at Sebring, also in 1954.

The relative lack of success of these cars did not dampen Kieft’s plans, however. He was actively interested in John Turner’s four-cylinder 500 cc engine and one was fitted to an F3 car (which was sold to E. W. Ford who raced it without success). At one time a batch of 25 lightweight sports cars was plumed with the Turner engine, a run of 25 qualifying as a production car at the time, but it proved lacking both in power (35 bhp) and reliability. By March, 1954, these plans had been modified and three cars were to be built. One was to have a 500 cc air-cooled flat-four Wooler motorcycle engine and was to be entered for Le Mans to be driven by Alan Rippon. Another was to have a Shorrocks-supercharged 500 cc Wooler engine, putting it into the 750cc class. A Coventry Climax FWA engine was earmarked for the third car.

Production of the central-seater was to be continued, though only one further car was built, sold to a man named Jones. Ron Mead was hard at work on the AJB-based engine and Motor Sport reported: “Kieft’s own pet project is a 1½-litre air flat-four sports car using his centre-seat chassis and a Wilson pre-selector gearbox. He may build a team of these cars to challenge Porsche opposition.” Brave ideas but, in fact, the team could never keep the engine cool for more than a run of about 40 miles.

Alan Brown was to have a Kieft F1 car, independently sprung, with Dunlop dics brakes all round, using the Coventry climax FPE “Godiva” engine. The chassis was built and a “Godiva” loaned to the works for fitting purposes. As it is generally known,  the “Godiva” engine could well have been successful but Coventry Climax naively believed the power claims made by other F1 manufacturers and abandoned the project. They discovered later that they had been equalling the very best of the opposition’s power. Climax’s decision not to proceed killed not only the Kieft F1 car but projects by HWM, Connaught (who stayed with Alta engines), and Cooper (whose F1 debut was postponed for three years).

Based on the F1 chassis design was mother sports car, built to the order of an American, Erwin Goldschmidt, and fitted with a V8 de Soto “Firedome” 5½-litre engine and Jaguar gearbox.

As though all these projects were not enough, soon afterwards Kieft employed Bill Thomas who was to develop a dohc version of the Ford Consul engine and a lightweight gearbox. These projects were never completed.

In the meantime Cyril himself had designed and built a speedway bike, a Kieft moped with a Sachs 50 cc engine, which went into production, and a Villiers-powered scooter which sold 1,000 examples under the names of “Kieft” and “D.K.R.” (Day-Kieft-Robinson).

Much of the money was coming out Kieft’s own pocket, via businesses in Wales, and early in the season he suffered blows. On returning from Lisbon, the Monkey Stable took their 1-2, pantechnicon carrying the cars went the side of a mountain and transporter and cars were written off. Then were not insured. There was a commitment to keep at the Nürburgring and so the centre-seater, intended for a Mr Jones was, with his permission, sent there. It was driven to the circuit when it was damaged in an accident. Racing was expensive. The Jones car was rebuilt delivered and apparently was used solely as road car.

The little sports car which was first to have had a Turner engine, then a Wooler, was finalised with the Coventry Climax 1,098 cc FWA four-cylinder engine. Cyril recalls that his works carried out some of the modifications to the unit, replacing the original cast iron crank with a steel one and forging new, lighter, con rods. Wally Hasson’s book “Climax In Coventry” makes no mention of this work being undertaken outside the Climax works. Certainly Kieft had both the facilities and expertise available to undertake such modifications.

The little car had a ladder chassis of 3¼ in steel tubing, independent all round suspension (wishbones and coil springs at the front and transverse leaf with lower wishbones at the rear), 11 in drum brakes all round, “Kieft” alloy wheels, a Moss gearbox and ENV differential. The brochure claimed a top speed of 110+ mph and (at 50 mph) 40 mpg. The bodyshell was of fibreglass, moulded in one piece. It cost £1,569 9s 2d, inclusive of all taxes.

The car duly appeared at Le Mans where it was driven by Alan Rippon and Bill Black but hadn’t actually turned a wheel before it arrived at the circuit. In practice the engine suffered from oil loss (this was the FWA’s very first competition appearance) but Harry Mundy cured that by modifying the sump baffles. It showed well in the race, and led its class, but retired after 10 hours with a broken rear aide.

Don Parker drove it a few times, winning the “Welsh Championship” race at Fairwood and recalls it as quite a good little car. He was leading the 1,100 cc class in the Tourist Trophy at Dundrod when the front suspension broke and came up through the bodywork. The car was a write-off. The other car entered, that of Rippon and Ferguson, came home victorious in the class.

Which brings us back to where we started… that stand at the Motor Show donated to the company in recognition of the two class wins in World Sportscar Championship races and, shortly afterwards, nothing.

Cyril admits to being a complete perfectionist and it is doubtful whether the performance of his cars matched his own ambitions for them. The number and diversity of projects undertaken in 1954 illustrate the man’s restlessness and drive — motor racing was an outlet for them but he knew that his heart, and his real talent, lay in the steel industry. In 1954 the Conservative government was preparing to de-nationalise the steel industry and Kieft knew he had to be part of that.

In 1955 Kieft came to an arrangement with Berwyn Baxter to lend his name to Baxter’s racing efforts with the Kieft-Climax cars, thus assuring Baxter of an entry at Le Mans and other important races. In Motor Sport, October 1981, Merrick Taylor, Baxter’s works manager gave details of Kieft from 1955 onwards but Cyril himself played no active part in those activities which included a car fitted with a 1½-litre Turner engine.

The assets and name of his car company were officially sold to Berwyn Baxter at the end of 1955. Cyril thinks that one or two cars were assembled from parts already made, bringing the total to five. Nick Georgano’s “The Complete Encyclopaedia of Motor Cars” puts the total at six and that is a generally accepted figure. Perhaps two exist today. One is owned by Cyril Kieft. It was bought second-hand and rebuilt as a 21st birthday present for one of his daughters. She made little use of it and Cyril recently bought it back and intends to present it to the Bridgnorth Motor Museum.

We think three of the other sports cars, two centre-seaters and the de Soto-engined car, still exist, together with a couple of the F3 cars. The F1 chassis is also still in existence. We wonder if any readers can help flesh out the history with personal reminiscences or information.

Baxter eventually sold the assets to a Birmingham company called Burmans and a few Formula Junior cars were made in 1961. They were called “Kiefts” but by that time Cyril was happily making steel in Wales and had lost touch with motor racing. The FJ cars do not really form part of the Kieft story.

The win at Lisbon, the class wins at Sebring and Dundrod and Parker’s continuing success in F3 were not exactly the apex of motor racing but there was sufficient success for Cyril to be able to turn his back on motor racing knowing that even if he’d not succeeded in everything he set out to do, he could hardly be called a failure either. It’s interesting to speculate, though, what would have happened had the Godiva engine not been abandoned. Perhaps running a Formula One car would have given Cyril Kieft the sort of big challenge he’s clearly always looked for. — M.L.

December 12th, 2016 by Robert Jones

‘A man called Jones’ refers to my late father. The article says the car (LDA 6) was used only as a road car. It was indeed insured and used on the road, but mainly to drive to and from hill climbs. My father was a member of The North Staffordshire Motor Club. I have photographs and various programmes from Westbrook Hay and Prescott as well as one from Silverstone where my father had handwritten the respective times of both his Kieft and other competitors. The Kieft holding up well in this type of event. I also have a couple of trophies. On one occasion he was in a heat of the British Empire Trophy race on the grid with Stirling Moss and Colin Chapman amongst others. 

I love the fact that I have some film of me with my father, both of us in the car with me as a proud eight or nine year old holding a trophy as we arrived home.

The car is now owned by an Italian businessman with whom I have been in contact for about 10 years and a couple of summers ago I visited him near Brescia and had the enormous pleasure of seeing LDA 6 again. He was a wonderful and interesting host who has cared for the car impeccably. He has competed very successfully in about 12 Mille Miglias with, from memory, at least seven trophies to prove it. Although registered in Italy it still carries the LDA 6 number plate for these events. I hope this fills a minor gap in the history.

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