The period immediately following the end of the First World War was remarkable for the number of cars, especially small cars, which appeared on the market endowed with sporting bodywork, whereas before the war there were comparatively few such offerings available to ordinary customers. In the first half of the 1920s there was a flood of them and W.O. Bentley was working on his 3-litre Bentley, planned during the period of hostilities, although whether he intended it to be quite the sports car it became is open to doubt…
The fact is that at this period of motoring history nearly every manufacturer thought it desirable to have a fast-looking model in the catalogue, if less often on the road. Not all these were genuine sports cars, as I tried to show some time ago in the article “Bogus Sports Cars”. The same sentiments were expressed in 1921 by another writer, who said: “The light car with a sporting type body never falls to create interest… There is something fascinating about the easy lines, the shapely tail, the aeroplane windscreens, the aluminium finish. If the exhaust pipe is exposed the machine must be speedy, or such is the impression, but whether the engine is tuned to the last notch or whether it is “woolly”, no long atone has bucket seats and a large steering wheel, what matters?” Sarcasm was the theme, because the writer went on to point to 60 mph so-called sports cars with inadequate brakes, strength and springing for such speed. Yet all manner of little cars appeared in those early to mid-1920s with such bodywork, as I showed in the aforesaid article, if you want further examples, what of the 10/20 hp Hands and the Marten, both of which took on the appearance of being sports cars.
These were the years of promise for the car in the hands of ordinary middle-class people (of whom George Orwell said they had nothing to lose but their aitches) and makers avid for sales built special racing versions of their standard products in the hope of attracting favourable attention at the Brooklands races and public-road speed events which took place every summer weekend, although not all of them enjoyed the successes achieved by AC, the Talbot-Darracqs of the STD combine, and Lionel Martin’s Aston-Martins. The Hillman Motor Car Co of Coventry was a staunch advocate of publicity and development through racing and by 1920 George Bedford, their works driver and development engineer, was doing extremely well at Brooklands and elsewhere in the 1½-litre class with the single-seater Hillman racer “Mercury” and it was brightly polished up and displayed on Stand 65 at the Olympia Motor Show that year. It was then that the Speed Model Hillman sports car made its established appearance, having been first shown at the 1919 Show, on Stand 55, based on the standard model, a car rated at 11 hp but having an engine capacity of nearly 1.6-litres. The Speed Model used this same long-stroke side-valve four-cylinder engine but with the bore reduced from 65 mm to 63mm, to bring it within the 1½-litre class, the stroke of 120 mm giving a swept volume of 1,496 cc, the same dimensions as Bedford’s highly-developed but plain-bearing racing engine, said to develop 30 bhp at 2,800 rpm.
The Speed Model Hillman was an impressive-looking light-car. It has a vee-radiator of copper, an aluminium body with a rather unprepossessing rounded tail instead of the pointed tail of many sports models, but which allowed the spare wheel to be mounted upright behind it, long mudguards joined by a short running board with a locker beneath it, and four exhaust-pipes emerging from the near-side of the bonnet, with a polished copper exhaust-pipe running to the tail, but passing below the passenger’s door. There was a single-pane windscreen and a simple hood. Disc wheels were used, shod with 700 x 85 tyres. Brake and gear levers were centrally placed. The 9.8 hp engine was a straight-forward side-valve unit but it had die-cast aluminium pistons, a lightened crankshaft and flywheel, and developed 20 bhp at 2,500 rpm. The carburetter was a Claudel-Hobson, ignition was by an ML magneto, tiny levers on the steering column controlling throttle-setting and advance-and-retard. A leather-lined clutch took the drive to a three-speed and reverse gearbox with forward ratios of 10.2, 5.93 and 3.5 to 1, top therefore being notably high for a light-car. The back-axle was of bevel type, the bigger Hillmans having worm-drive, and the differential was suitably sturdy. Steering was by worm-and-sector, with choice of 17 in or 18 in diameter steering wheel. A dummy hub-cover inscribed with the three-spires of Coventry was fitted to the spare wheel and this Speed Model was equipped with a flush-fitting Cooper-Stewart speedometer, an eight-day clock, an Apollo electric horn, CAV (later Lucas) electric lighting, and came with a tool-kit and Triplex safety glass in the windscreen. Nevertheless, it was a costly offering, at £620, when the overhead-camshaft sixteen-valve Bugatti which was probably ten mph faster could be had for £650, the sporting Singer Ten for £500, the faster of the ABCs for only £388 10s, a GN Legere. for £275 12s 6d, and the sports Bleriot-Whippet for £250. On the other hand, the sv 10/30 Alvis, which was probably as quick as the Hillman, was priced at £620 in 1920. In fact, the Speed Model Hillman, which had a wheelbase of 8 ft 6 in, a track of 4 ft in, weighed 13 cwt and relied on thermo-syphoned cooling, sold very well.
This can probably be attributed to the competition successes gained by the Hillman Company. Not only had Bedford’s single-seater appeared at almost every Brooklands Meeting of 1920 and in speed trials and hill-climbs all over the country, culminating in its appearance at the Show, but this was continued for the 1921 season, when the fastest lap at a BARC race meeting was 89.09 mph, only 0.81 mph slower than the best lap speed of Harry Hawker’s extensively streamlined overhead-camshaft AC and a remarkable performance from a side-valve 1½-litre car 53 years ago. Bedford had a Speed Model Hillman as back-up car to the single-seater for competition events and which he used as his road-car and the Hillman Company prepared a special racing car for the 1921 Coupe Internationale des Voiturettes race at Le Mans. It was based on the Speed Model but lightened wherever possible and the engine sat further back in the chassis, which was lowered at the rear. Pump and trough lubrication was retained, as was the vee-radiator, which was protected by a stoneguard. No differential was used, Dunlop wire wheels were fitted, and a streamlined body with pointed tail and a full-length undershield. Bedford did very well to finish 4th behind the three “Invincible” Talbot-Darracqs in this gruelling 279-mile race, although taking 35 min 59 sec longer than Rend Thomas in the winning car, and 33 min 24.5 sec longer than Segrave, who finished 3rd behind his team-mate K. Lee-Guinness. The Hillman was 7th in the 1921 JCC 200 mile Race, Bedford averaging 80.47 mph, and ran successfully in short Brooklands races and in sprints. He entered the car for the 1922 IoM TT but crashed when mud obscured his goggles, the off-road excursion dragging the sump off the car.
All this must have kept the name of Hillman to the forefront and in addition Raymond Mays decided that a Speed-Model should be his first competition car (Reg. No. MD 3877). It was ordered from Herbert Robinson of Cambridge, a Hillman agent and, being the entrepreneur he was, Mays obtained a price-reduction against publicising the car in racing. (A friend of my family’s, who had come out of the Army in 1918 and, finding jobs nonexistent, had set up a motor business, was a Major Robinson and as a small boy I hoped it was he who had supplied Mays with his car — but no such luck)). Mays called his car “Quick Silver” to line up with Bedford’s “Mercury” the latter name objected to, incidentally, by the makers of the Mercury light-car. After making ltd in the Inter-Varsity Speed Trials at Hurling Common (not long before the open-space beside the road had been an RFC nightflying ground), Mays decided to modify his car, with light bucket seats and a more pointed tail, the body made by Bransby’s of Peterborough, after which it gained an impressive number of successes in similar events. He had found that whereas it was good for 60 mph in middle-gear, its speed in the high top-gear was only 56 mph. It was necessary to improve on this and the Claudel-Hobson carburetter was replaced by a Zenith and other mods introduced by Amherst Villiers, including Palmer-shod Dunlop wire wheels, Houdaille shock absorbers, a straight-through exhaust and no differential. The Hillman was winning at Brooklands after Mays had begged works for parts from a racing engine formerly used by George Bedford, “Quick Silver” eventually exceeding 80 mph. To have increased speed by over 24 mph was no mean achievement, although it must be remembered that by this time Bedford single-seater must have been good for very nearly 100 mph.
All this must have helped Hillman sales and four Speed-Models were shipped over to the Maharajah of Patiala. It was probably the demonstrated achievements of the Speed-Model that decided Temple Press Ltd to obtain one as a staff-car (Reg. No. HP 1606) for W. M. W. Thomas — late Sir Miles Thomas, head of BOAC, etc., when he was working for their Light Car & Cyclecar weekly and Iliffe & Sons to do likewise for B. H. Davies, “Runabout” of The Autocar. Reporting on his car after 7,000 miles, the latter said his was robust and reliable and would still do 60 mph on demand. The steering joints were a wet point, becoming loose and noisy 5,000 miles but otherwise no servicing had been needed, apart from once adjusting the tappets and plug points in 6,000 miles and the brakes remained efficient. Fuel consumption was between 30 and 35 mpg and the engine used no oil, but the sump had been drained and refilled after and 2,000 miles. The tyres lasted upwards of 6,000 miles and although about. a gallon of water was needed alter queueing to get into Brooklands for the 1921 Easter Meeting, in the following 2,000 miles .none was required. The springs (½-elliptic all round) lost some of their original quality. As for performance, 40 mph could be maintained up average slopes in 2nd gear and only twice was the Speed-Model Hillman outclassed, once by a 30/98 Vauxhall. once by a 3-litre Sunbeam (this was in 1921, so this Sunbeam would have been an sv or push-rod model), on the level, after the Hillman had held its own uphill… The steering was criticised as heavy but far worse was the need to remove five nuts, five spring washers, five grubscrews, a securing plate and the wheel-disc before a tyre could be inflated, because the discs, on ordinary artillery wheels, had no sliding shutters for the tyre valves. A starter was not supplied, and the CAV electrics lacked a cut-out, and twice allowed the battery to go “flat”. At 18 mph the steering suffered from “the staggers” (shimmy?) and the belt-driven speedometer was virtually useless. Otherwise, the Speed-Model Hillman was warmly praised. It would average 40 mph if pushed a bit.
This was the same car (Reg No DU 220) which the The Autocar had tested in 1920, taking it over the Yorkshire hills, covering for The Motor Cycle the ACU Six-Days Trial, and then to Brooklands, where it lapped at 55 mph, doing a few more mph flat-out. As tested it weighed 15½ cwt and it gave 30 mpg, with a fuel range of 270 miles. The only severe criticism was that shockk-absorbers should have been fitted, as over bad main road bumps the back-axle hit the chassis. In spite of the high 10.2 bottom gear, single-figure gradients were no obstacle, with one exception, most of the difficult hills, including Buttertubs Pass and the grass track to the top of the Stake from Bainbridge, being climbed with “the exhaust bellowing like that of a Brooklands racer”. The straight-bevel back-axle was quiet and the engine was so easy to start that it was scarcely necessary to remove the starting-handle from its leather holster, while Hillman’s Sales Manager showed that it could be done from the “4 o’clock” position, just giving one kick down with the foot — all of which fixes the period when the Speed Model Hillman was regarded as a very fine car!
Hillman’s do not appear to have done much development work on the Speed Model. A plate soon replaced the clips that were intended to hold the spring leaves in place but allowed them to move and when the 1921 Motor Show came round, those who went to Stand No 227 at Olympia found that a locker had been incorporated before the passenger on the dashboard, a better grade of upholstery was used, and the rear of the body had been lowered a few inches, while the price had come down to £590, which was high for this size of car in the face of the gathering numbers of new sporting light-cars. Tyre size had been increased to 710 x 90.
However, the Hillman continued to be popular in speed events in the hands of many drivers, such as A. L. Dawson, S. B. Wilkes, C. C. Ash, R. M. V. Sutton,w hose car had no screen wiper and quickly wore out its clutch thrust block, A. K. Dawson, etc. After 1921 the Hillman Company concentrated on the larger utility models, so the Speed Model was in production for less than three years. I believe the only survivor is that in the Myreton Motor Museum, which had one owner until 1970 and has been extensively restored. But that is no reason why this interesting car should be forgotten. W.B.
(N.B. Of the photographs accompanying this article, those of Raymond Mays’ Hillman come from a set of photographs of cars raced by him, sold on behalf of the Raymond Mays’ Trust, while that of the surviving Speed Model comes from the new catalogue of the Myreton Motor Museum, available for £1.50 post-free in the UK, from the Museum, at Aberlady, East Lothian, Scotland.)