Going West

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On a journey to Wiltshire last month I spent an interesting afternoon with Mr Freddie Henry, ‘talking Austin’. He started an apprenticeship with the Longbridge Company in 1926 and remained with Lord Austin’s concern for many years thereafter. He shared lodgings with Ralph Secretan, who spoke fluent German and helped Austin on visits to that country, etc, and who bought a Bugatti from Malcolm Campbell which they tried out round the factory grounds, tow starting it with a Delage, and raced at Brooklands.

Mr Henry, who is President of London Section of the Austin Apprentices Association and knows many leading figures in the Motor Industry, has a remarkable collection of historic Austin documents and photographs and although this wasn’t a formal interview, we chatted of many things. Such as how Herbert Austin started making Wolseley cars, the very first one with a lathe-style change-speed mechanism, how the well made twin propshaft Austin trucks were made as late as 1929, when the former coalscuttle bonnet was changed to one with a frontal radiator, of how, an ex-farmer’s son, Mr Henry was persuaded to demonstrate the Austin tractor to Russian delegates in 1939, ploughing a field at the Austin works. Of his interest in the Hayes infinitely-variable transmission, with which the inventor had no luck in Britain until, just as he was catching a train to Southampton to return to America, he was given an introduction to Austin, in the nick of time.

This transmission was demonstrated in an Austin 16 and Henry loved it, although it really needed a centrifugal clutch, which it was provided with many years later, when adopted by a Government department. Lord Austin would have nothing to do with the Salerni transmission adopted by Riley’s but thought the Austin-Hayes gearbox to be just what he wanted. I was shown a photograph of the classic accident in which Henry’s chauffeur hit and overturned a heavy truck on the Watford bypass, perhaps because, when the accelerator was depressed, this transmission tended to make the car surge forward.

We talked of Murray Jamieson, who was not very well received by some of the Austin racing department, after his Ulster A7 had gone much faster than a works racer they were testing at Brooklands, of the rare rear engined, front-drive Austin which never saw production, of the Austin family whom Freddie Henry knew very well, of the three-cylinder 500cc two-stroke Austin which WW2 killed off, and of how Lord Austin’s chauffeur, Jack Gethings, used to drive the lhd prototype Bantam (USA) A7, and much more besides. An absorbing afternoon.

Then I was told by a daughter of an Austin Chummy outside a cottage in a remote country lane, which resulted in a meeting with Mrs Stevens who, with her husband Ray, runs the Bristol A7 Club. The 4-speed Chummy will do 55 mph and is used for runs as far as London, supplemented by a 1934 A7 box saloon. The Stevens have owned two Bertelli Aston Martins and a GE replica-bodied A7, but on family visits to Scotland they take a tandem bicycle up by train. All very much in the spirit of vintage enthusiasts. This call took me close to Longleat, the estate of the Marquess of Bath, where the lions and tigers roam. I am reminded that the speed hillclimb course has been re-opened there, where the last meeting was held 25 years ago. Slippery in the rain, at the opening meeting on August 1st last, Tony Marsh made FTD with his 4½-litre twin-turbo Rovercraft March, in 43.48 seconds. The West County is well endowed with sprint courses, the new 1500 yard speed trial venue at the Haynes Motor Museum at Sparkford near Yeovil in Somerset having its first meeting on October 14th, FTD made by Roger Cock’s 1.6-litre Chevron B47/9 BDA, in 59.42 seconds. Courses apart, the sprint world is well served by its HSA journal Speedscene.

I rounded off this West Country baptism of my new Ford DOHC 2.0 Sierra by taking tea with a lady in Market Lavington who remembered me calling at the London offices of the late FLM Harris’s magazine The Sports Car, official organ of the MGCC, where she was a typist, before the war, but who had not heard of me since.