Shelsley Walsh oddballs

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Part of the fascination of racing at Brooklands, for me at any rate, was the variety of the cars taking part. While some spectators had eyes only for the fastest and latest of racing cars competing, it seemed to me that there was interest also in the lesser entries, even sometimes in those which seldom, if ever, achieved any real fame. I used to try to obtain information about these less well-known and seldom publicised cars, along with those that won races and broke important records. (I recall the very long and detailed letter I once received from one of two brothers who had prepared a very obscure make of car, even outside racing circles, for a race or two at Brooklands, without any true hope of success. No-one previously had asked them anything about it, so they were delighted when I did). The information I filed was useful when I came to write my history of the motor course; where others wrote mainly to the “greats” and received short uninformative replies, if at all, I had details of some otherwise obscure “forlorn hopes” which were, nevertheless, part of the Brooklands scene.

It was much the same at Shelsley Walsh, allowing for the fact that, although the Midland AC held its first hill-climb there in 1905, before Brooklands was opened, there were far fewer meetings at the famous hill and consequently fewer competing cars. But of these, the curious and unusual, the oddballs, were there from time to time, overshadowed by the fast and famous racing cars but nevertheless arousing speculation and interest. One such car was the great Renault 45 saloon which Alfred Ellison drove up Shelsley Walsh in 1926, as recounted last month, as if he was reluctant to give up competing in enormous motorcars after laying-up the venerable 1912 Grand Prix Lorraine-Dietrich Vieux CharIs Trois. The photograph of this Renault arrived too late to publish with last month’s article, but it heads this page. The Motor’s citation says “A stirring roar from down below announced the arrival of Vieux Charles IV, Alfred Ellison’s huge 45hp 9120cc Renault saloon. Surprisingly steady for so heavy a car, it took just about the full width of the road as it skidded, heeling over first on one bend, then the next. In its wake came clouds of brown dust swirling high above the tall trees, hiding for a moment all objects from view. The big Renault climbed in 69 seconds, equal to nearly 50mph from a standing start”. Which must have been exciting. . .

I make no excuse for calling such cars Shelsley Walsh oddballs. I mean nothing disparaging, simply that some of the ones I shall quote were well-respected and good performers elsewhere, but seem to me unusual ones to use for a speed hill-climb of this sort. . .

At the 1913 Open Meeting for instance, there was Louis Coatalen’s 25/30hp Sunbeam which had been endowed with an experimental 80x150mm 6-litre vee-eight cylinder side-valve engine. The car cannot have been entirely a secret, because the great engineer entrusted it to private owner C A Bird, of the custard company, who was second fastest in 58.4sec, against the new course record set by Leslie Hands’s 25hp 4485cc Talbot, which was 1.2sec quicker. (Unofficially, Joseph Higginson was later timed at 55.2sec with the equally experimental 4574cc 30/98 Vauxhall, in winning the Closed Event). Coatalen himself had a go in the vee-eight Sunbeam (65.0sec). These times compare with what Bird did in a 3-litre six-cylinder Coupe de L’Auto Sunbeam, in 60.8sec.

Promising! I think this vee-eight may have been the start of Sunbeam’s venture into aero-engine building but I have not included the Sunbeam in my book on aero-engined cars at Brooklands, because I don’t think it ever went there. Indeed, it seems to have gone back to Wolverhampton and vanished. Or if Coatalen was toying with a standard car-engine of this cylinder configuration, maybe he did not want too many prying eyes around it. (Had Sunbeam’s Chief Engineer known, he was to hint during the war that his chance to be the first with a V12 touring car was lost when Packard examined the 9-litre racing VI2 Sunbeam which was then in America and cribbed the design details. By then, of course, Coatalen was in the throes of building Sunbeam aero-engines for the Government and required all the publicity and test-time he could achieve; Sunbeam’s claimed to have been first in production with a practical British aviation engine when war was declared in 1914). Anyway, for whatever reason, the vee-eight Sunbeam that appeared at Shelsley Walsh in July 1913 was, I believe, never seen again. . .

When the famous hill opened again after the 1914/18 war, H Humphries brought the extremely slim red Calthorpe racer there from Birmingham, and was third in the under 1500cc class, behind Capt “Archie Frazer Nash’s 9cwt GN “Kim II” (54.8sec) and Leon Cushman’s Bugatti (57.0sec), with an ascent in 65.6sec. Not truly an oddball. because the Calthorpe was well known at Brooklands, where it was dubbed “The Ghost Car” on account of its aforesaid exceptionally low frontal area, but it was nevertheless an unusual Shelsley Walsh entry. Designed for track work by C P Wedmore, it was said to have cost Calthorpe some £2,000 to make, in spite of the economy of using up some parts from their 1913 racer, at a time when the nice little sports I0.4hp Calthorpe sold for £425. The low drag would not have been of much avail at Shelsley and it was probably still on a 3.75:1 axle ratio. The “telescope” atop the narrow bonnet to cool the valves was still in use. To digress, Shelsley was a rather jolly place in 1921, Miss Dorothy Heath, later a Sunbeam and Darracq exponent, driving a load of lady passengers up in an Austin 20 which I think was one of the rare sports models, with some skill. I don’t think the Calthorpe, which was later raced at Brooklands by Arthur Whale who ran “Whale For Motors” in Camden Town, appeared at Shelsley again. . .

In the same vein, however, was the long slim battleship grey 6178cc Lanchester Forty single-seater, with which the Company’s demonstration driver Archie Millership competed at Shelsley Walsh in 1923. Again, hardly an oddball, except at the Worcestershire hill, because this car achieved great things at the Track, notably in the hands of Parry Thomas, both in outer circuit racing and long-distance record breaking. But it seemed an unlikely hillclimb contender with a wheelbase of 10 ft 7in, and a probable final-drive ratio as high as 4.8:1, as it seems unlikely that the special worm-and-wheel which raised this from 5.5 to 1 for Brooklands would have been changed. Nevertheless, I would dearly like to have seen this big car tackle the Shelsley Slopes; sadly, it went to a car breaker for the proverbial “fiver” during the war.

As an aside, back in 19221 Summers, in a cloud of dust and his Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce, laden to over 44cwt for the Formula competition, climbed in 68.0sec, compared to 64.6sec by Humprey Cook’s lighter E-type 30/98 Vauxhall, 66.8sec by I H Clay’s 3-litre Bentley, and 70.2sec by Lou Kings in a works Austin Twenty, which, even more overloaded, won that category. . . Incidentally, even in those days it seemed oPPortune to mention that E R Hall had towed his Aston-Martin to the hill from Yorkshire behind a 40hp 1908 Renault Which he had bought for £30 — which in retrospect, seems to have been rather expensive!

Just as it was somewhat unusual to see Brooklands cars in action on the Midland’s hill, so it was to find Mrs Stewart Menzies there with Malcolm Campbell’s 1912 Grand Prix 7.6-litre twin-cam Peugeot in 1924 (66.0sec), and H Goodwin’s racing Bean with 14hp engine in a 12hp chassis can also be regarded as an oddball (58.8sec, and 54.8 in 1925). Also, perhaps, on account of its rarity, can the liberally-drilled 2-litre overhead-camshaft Beardmore with which Cyril Paul broke the course record in 1924 in 50.5secs, timed both electrically and by hand-timing, so no fluke, a car owned later by Kenneth Neve.

It may have been forgotten that the historic site was nearly closed in 1925, when the MAC nearly lost the lease of the ground at Shelsley Walsh, but fortunately the matter was finally resolved; it arose over a right-of-way, a cause that had nearly closed Brooklands in 1907. Basil Davenport’s justifiably famous GN Spider and all the rest of the Shelsley specials such as the Wasp, GNAT, Chatterbox, Djinn, Martyr, Bolster Specials, Fuzzi, the Sumner-JAP, Freikaiserwagen, the other GNs, and Tiger Cat and Tiger Kitten, etc, were as much a part of Shelsley Walsh as were the Grand Prix, Indianapolis and other “proper” racing cars which contested the top honours, and they certainly cannot be classed as oddballs. It was always a sadness for me when the BBC cut off the characteristic “vee-twin bark” in favour of more sophisticated sounds from 2LO, before I could get to the hill itself in my Austin 7. . . But I think Dorcas II was an oddball, with its ingenious BSA 4WD transmission which only the brothers Gordon and Donal Glegg who built it fully understood. The power of its Fernihough-tuned JAP engine was usually guaranteed to snap every chain the car possessed (but it clocked 46.88sec by 1938).

Then there was C B Starling’s British Eagle, among the 1927 entries. But what was it? Presumably one of those sports cars made in very limited numbers in Leeds by Hodgson Motors, after the demise of the better-known Hodgson. . . Even more obscure was the 10hp 63 1/2×117 1/2mm four-seater Vidal with which its owner was last (68.6sec) in the 1 1/2-litre class in 1925. . . And definitely an oddball was the Panther, built for Shelsley in 1934 by H C Luttman. He contrived to install, shoe-horn or persuade a tuned 23/60hp Vauxhall engine into a Coventry Premier light-car chassis, retaining the latter’s rear-axle gearbox as well as the Vauxhall four-speed one, thus providing a multitude of ratios! I seem to recall that as a 4.0:1 ratio was found to be best for the ascents, very big back wheels were fitted to raise the final-drive set up, so that this odd special proceeded as if praying, or about to beg backwards. . .

By the mid-vintage period the racing and sports-cars were beginning to be joined by saloons and coupés, and in 1927 an A7 saloon was only 4.4sec slower than an open version. And while one remembers how Austin’s publicised Arthur Waite’s drive from Bromsgrove to Brooklands in 1923 in the original racing A7, his race win at 59.03 mph, and his safe return home, and his Shelsley climb that year in a hybrid racer in 75.4sec, one tends to overlook his appearance there the year before, when, in one of the original 670cc Chummies, and with a passenger, he clocked 89.8sec.

Just some of the variety which made Shelsley Walsh hill-climbs such very good value, in those times as in the 1990s. As I have quoted various times, I append a list of the fastest in the vintage years, for comparison. WB

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