Veteran to classic

The Seabrook RMC

At a time when the First World War was fast approaching, and American cars looked outwardly, to European eyes, mostly all the same, with unpretentious outlines and rounded radiators and bonnets later associated with the low-priced Chevrolet and similar makes, one import from the USA stood out significantly. It was the Regal, made in Detroit, by the Regal Motor Car Company of Michigan, which had commenced operations in 1907.

In that first year of production, so the story goes, 50 cars were sold, to be recalled a year later and all of them replaced free by new 1908 models. Had he been about then, this would surely have caused Sir John Harvey-Jones, the TV industrial trouble-shooter, to have leapt up and down even more vigorously than when he visited the Morgan Motor Company at Malvern Link! What was wrong with this early batch of Regals I do not know, but there was some compensation, perhaps, when the makers lost little time in following up their subsequent conventional four-cylinder automobiles with an unusual low-hung version, powered with a 3.2-litre engine and known as the 18/20hp Regal Underslung. The American Underslung had appeared in Indianapolis at roughly the same time, but it seems that this was coincidental.

The chassis layout of the Regal Underslung was so unusual that the technical writers were soon at some pains to explain that this name did not imply just putting the road springs beneath the front and back axles, but that, in fact, the chassis side-members were under both axles. The manufacturers of the car claimed that, apart from the obvious advantage of a low centre of gravity, the riding comfort was improved. This assumption was based on the fact that the Regal Underslung, by reason of its unusual chassis, was able to use flat front leaf-springs (mounted above the axle, in fact) which would not be easy with a conventional frame, unless the dumb-irons were unduly deep and the shackles very long. The back half-elliptic springs had a considerable camber, which was reversed, however, at the rear end of each spring, to enable the shocks from the road to be taken, to some extent, horizontally as well as vertically. These rear springs were shackled at both ends and to give the necessary height to meet the shackles, they were mounted below the back axle. In addition, the axles were mounted slightly off mid-centre on the springs, the claim being that this, introducing different rates of oscillation, damped out vibrations.

That was the way in which the Regal Company sought to introduce drivers to better road-holding on the American roads of those days. Otherwise, the Regal Underslung followed the conventional pattern. The engine, an en bloc four-cylinder, had separate barrels, with a bore and stroke of 95 x 114mm. It was a non-crossflow unit, the inlet and the exhaust manifolds on the near-side, the low-set carburettor feeding through a Y-manifold, with the water inlet-pipe on the opposite side. The cast-iron crankcase was of barrel-shape and the two-bearing crankshaft was of 2 1/4in diameter. Lubrication was by splash, from a pump-fed oil level in the pick-up chamber. On this side-valve power-unit the h t magneto was driven off the front of the camshaft, supplying current to sparking-plugs in the inlet valvecaps, as was then common, the exhaust valve-caps being equipped with compression-taps. Cooling was thermo-syphon, with a six-bladed fan, its belt-drive from the camshaft adjustable.

The drive was taken through a leather-lined cone clutch and the final drive to the rear-axle three-speed and reverse gearbox, which had a right-hand gate change, was by torque-tube. The gearbox had needle-roller bearings for its spigot-shaft, with balls to take the end thrust, a refinement found usually only on cars of the Napier and Lanchester calibre. Apart from its underslung layout, the chassis was of normal form, with pressed-steel channel-section side members and cross-members of the same kind, with two steel tubes supporting the engine. The front axle was of H-section. The wheelbase was 8ft 4in, the track 4ft 8in and the wheels, with detachable rims, ran on 32in x 3 1/2in tyres.

This unusual car began to arouse interest here and the two Seabrook brothers set about importing it. They had premises at 57 Great Eastern Street, London EC, and showrooms in Cambridge Circus WC. At first they brought in only three cars. To publicise the RMC they entered for competition events, including hillclimbs. In this they and others had some success. For instance, at an Essex County AC hillclimb in the summer of 1911, two firsts and a second-class award were won by these cars (LA 3955, the demonstration car, and LA 6900). At the same time Sir Francis Samuelson, Bt, having found his 1909 8.9hp Sizaire-Naudin very unreliable and its brakes unpredictable, changed it for a 22.5hp Regal Underslung in the standard dark blue livery. One can understand Sir Francis’s attention being drawn to the car, with its large engine in a comparatively light chassis which offered the prospect of good road-holding, and which in two-seater form looked quite sporting, for an American car. Indeed, he raced it at Brooklands, clad in pale blue coat and sleeves, and pink cap, for recognition purposes, at the 1911 Whitsun Meeting, lapping at 58.52mph in the Private Competitors’ Handicap, but at only 48.78mph at the Summer Meeting. In fact, Sir Francis was plagued by magneto trouble, until he changed the American unit for a Bosch, and the carburettor for a Zenith. He also put on larger back wheels, made by the Pimlico Wheel Works, as he thought the car under-geared, although he got the speed up to about 70mph at the Track. The car was still very unreliable and he changed it for a SAVA, for which E Maule & Son of Stockton-on-Tees made a two-seater body to his design.

That apart, the RMC was creating quite a lot of attention in Britain, where the importers sold it as a Seabrook-RMC to avoid confusion with the French Regal. A press road-test of the 1911 18/20hp Underslung RMC reported that it was quite steady on greasy roads, in spite of the car being on plain tyres. The top-gear performance was praised, second speed being required only for starting, or for the ascent of a steep hill near Warminster, on a run from London to that town and back, when a casual check showed petrol consumption to be around 24mpg. It was also said that the engine would accelerate from below five mph, the carburettor making no complaints — a sop, maybe, to those owners who had reported otherwise.

Potential customers sought advice from one another, which produced the comment from the owner of a 1913 model (LA 8201) that after 18,000 miles replacements had cost only £3, eight Michelin non-skid tyres had averaged 6930 miles, and that 25mpg and 500 to 600mpg of Vacuum-A oil had been obtained. It was emphasised that the carburettor was easily adjusted, even with the engine running. Decarbonising was done by the oxygen system every 4000 to 5000 miles and the car had gone twice to Scotland, climbing Cairn-o-Mount quite easily four-up and doing London-Carlisle in 14 hours, including the usual stops. London’s Netherhall Gardens hill, then a favourite test, could be climbed on the second speed. The underhung chassis enabled the car to be used all winter without steel-studded tyres and it did not skid. . . A Mr R Lord, who had run a 1912 RMC for 6000 miles, said much the same and added that there was no need to try other carburettors, as the original one was so simple and economical. Another owner said that in 20,000 miles the only trouble had been the magneto distributor-cover unscrewing; he had tried Claudel Hobson and Zenith carburettors with good results but preferred the original Schebler. Tyres averaged 7,500 miles, petrol 24mpg, oil 400mpg.

The agents were good to deal with and by 1913 a pointed-radiator sporting two-seater was available, with quickly detachable mudguards and the petrol tank in the front of the luggage locker. The standard model cost £225 in this country, which increased by £50 in 1914, and was unavailable after 1915. It would be unkind, I suppose, to suggest that the underslung chassis failed to help the driver of a 1913 RMC two-seater (LH 3300) when he mistook the entrance to The Swan, by the bridge over the Lambourne stream a mile out of Newbury, for the main Bath Road, and crashed heavily. . . The war caused this interesting car to cease to be imported and afterwards the Seabrook re-emerged as a light car, at first of very advanced specification, as I have described in an earlier article in this series. But in its time here the Underslung RMC seems to have been fairly popular. The Seabrooks had improved it by replacing the American carburettor with a Zenith, the Michigan magneto-and-coil unit with a German Mea magneto and by making other modifications. These included a clutchstop and a foot-operated exhaust cut-out, no doubt with speed events in mind. They also supplied a set of Riley detachable wire wheels for £25 extra, including fitting.

That ends our story of the Seabrook-RMC. But I can round it out nicely with the remarkable story of the one (LA 6900) that came into the possession of VSCC member and 1918 Stutz and 1930 Model-A Ford owner Mike Holt who exchanged his 1902 6hp single-cylinder Neustadt-Perry for it a day after a successful 1992 Brighton Run with V F Smith who had also done the Brighton Run on his son’s 1902 7hp Panhard-Levassor. Mr Holt expects to use it in Edwardian events in 1993.

This Seabrook-RMC was discovered by Chris Felstead when his journey to work took him past a school playing-field near Maidstone. In this field there stood a derelict motor-roller. Chris eventually asked the headmaster about it and was told that, if he could provide a replacement play-unit for the pupils, he could have it. A Ford van which was a runner but had failed to pass its Ten-Year-Test (as the MoT test was then called) was offered, consolidated with two large jars of sweets — to the surprise of the local sweetshop lady, who normally only sold them by the penny-worth.

That was in March 1967 and Chris organised the local gypsies into getting the roller to his home in one of their lorries, their fee being £2. So the roller represented £22, the value of the Ford and the price of delivery; plus, of course, the cost of the sweets. . . The next problem was to identify the machine. Much detective work enabled Felstead to discover that he had the remains of a 1910 Regal Underslung and he also traced the surviving Seabrook brother. Not only that, but this Mr Seabrook was able to give Chris a Zenith carburettor and a Mea magneto from among the spares he had retained from pre-1914 days. He was also, when shown a dashboard plaque commemorating the car’s win in the Essex MC’s 1911 Bottledown hillclimb, able to confirm that this Regal was one of the first three imported, and the car afterwards sold to Sir Francis Samuelson. After doing some preliminary work on the car, Chris Felstead sold it in 1969 to Mr T D Larner of South Harrow, who did a lot more restoration, particularly the making of new machined parts. After this the Regal changed hands again, in October 1975, to Mr David Hamilton, a former private secretary to the Governor General of the West Indies, who had held a high position with the Greater London Council and of whom it had been suggested that he might make a possible assistant to HRH The Prince of Wales.

Following this gentleman’s untimely death, his clergyman brother sold the unassembled Regal at a Sotheby’s auction-sale in December 1987, the mileage on the speedometer reading 03443. This seems genuine, because Sir Francis had given the car to the War Office in 1914, but a sporting two-seater being of no use to them, they passed it on to the Parks Department, who did the roller-conversion. After that, the vehicle was not used again on the road; Kent CC employed it as a cricket pitch roller, until it was given to the Maidstone school as a playground item. The purchaser was Mr Smith of Teddington, who did much good work in rebuilding the car and who retained a set of the correct wire wheels for it, probably made up by Mr Hamilton. Two 1910-type roller-bearings were later found, needed for the differential, and a new radiator and two replica back springs were made to pattern. Work proceeded, and the engine was run again by the end of July 1988.

Now this rare and historic Seabrook-RMC is in the care of the enthusiastic Mike Holt, and I look forward to seeing it in action during the 1993 season.