[In its day the Amilcar was one of the most popular of the many small French sports cars which sold readily on the British market. Quite a few people still own or crave them, so we asked Patrick Green, who owns two of the four-cylinder cars, to tell us what he has discovered about them. In the informative article which follows Green deals not only with the different versions of the four-cylinder car, but also with the famous Six, which was virtually a racing-car, and with the Straight-Eight, which was the last product of the old Amilcar concern. He also gives some useful servicing data applicable to the “Petit Sport,” “Grand Sport” and “Surbaisse” models. — Ed.]
During the mid and late 1920s, before the advent of M.G. Midgets, Singer Nines and such, it was largely the French Salmon and Amilcar which held the market for small-powered sports cars in this country, by virtue of their great sporting activities and successes coupled with the fact that few English manufacturers at that time were producing sports models of less than 12 h.p.
Certain it is that in the later days of the war and since the outbreak of peace there has arisen a very considerable interest in and demand for the small French sports cars of the 1925-1930 era. Predominant are the four-cylinder Salmson and Amilcar models. Other small French sports cars, such as the R.N.C., Rally, Senechal, and Vernon-Derby were imported into this country during that period, but their numbers were small and so today only Salmson and Amilcar exist in appreciable numbers in serviceable condition. These two names seem inseparably linked largely due to the fact that they were the main contestants in the 1,100-c.c. class of the racing classics of their day and the spoils were pretty evenly shared. While differing very considerably in actual design, they are both typical of the small high performance sports car of a period that is already half-forgotten and never likely to return. They depend on simple, straightforward design, lightweight construction and high gear-ratios to produce a surprising standard of performance; but providing a lack of comfort, weather protection and general detail finish which few present-day motorists will tolerate. These small French sports cars, even when new, were noisy and dirty by modern standards, and whilst their roadholding and steering were outstandingly good they required a certain degree of driving skill, their suspension was rather hard and harsh, and the brakes, in some examples at least, could hardly be said to be more than adequate. However, in their day and in their way, they were admirable little cars which portray in many respects the attributes so beloved by all vintage enthusiasts.
The Salmson models have already received fair attention in the motoring press, but the Amilcar seems to have been somewhat neglected, despite the number still on the road or in course of being rebuilt at the hands of enthusiasts up and down the country. So perhaps the following notes may be of interest and help to those who own or crave them.
The Amilcar, like the Salmson, was obviously a direct descendant of the popular cyclecar of the immediate post World War I period — howbeit the French seemed less fond of the two-cylinder engine than contemporary English manufacturers? The first Amilcar was listed in 1922 as a 4-cylinder side-valve job of 55 by 95 mm., rated at 7.5 h.p. This was the early version of the “Petit Sport” (Type C.4) and had splash lubrication, the oil in the base of the crankcase being drawn up by the action of the flywheel into one of the engine lugs, whence it descended through a pipe to metal oil baths into which dippers on the connecting rods plunged. The clutch was a metal-plate affair, as on most Amilcar models, and along with the unit gearbox received its lubrication from the engine oil. The three-speed gearbox drove to a sold rear axle providing a top-gear ratio of 4.28 to 1. It is believed that some of these cars were, however, fitted with full-differential axles. The wheelbase of this model was 7 ft. 8 in. and the centre-lock wire wheels carried 700 by 80 mm. beaded edge tyres. At this stage cyclecar practice was still evident in the chassis, to the extent of 1/4-elliptic springs front and rear, and lack of front wheel brakes. It is interesting to note that in those far-off days the cost of the chassis alone was £250, while the price of the complete car was only £280! Is it little wonder that the bodies were rather sketchy affairs, with little weather equipment and the minimum of details?
This model appears to have carried the name of Amilcar alone for three years, until 1924, when an alternative model of similar design but of 58-mm, bore was introduced. This enlarged model lasted until 1926 and was the ultimate develop ment of the “Petit Sport” type, and before its decease it had progressed to 1/2-elliptic front springs whilst still retaining 1/4-elliptic rear suspension. Later models of this type, too, had a wheelbase of 8 ft. and front brakes. By 1926 this “Petit Sport” model (1,004 c.c.) was available as a complete car for £220. As a few are still in existence the following details may be of use to owners:
Engine oil capacity: 5 1/2 pints.
Gearbox oil capacity: 1 pint.
Castrol XXL, recommended for all-the-year-round use
Valve Timing —
Inlet Valve opens at T.D.C.
Inlet Valve closes 39 degrees A.B.D.C. (87 mm. on piston stroke).
Exhaust Valve opens 48 degrees B.B.D.C. (82 mm. on piston stroke).
Exhaust Valve closes 15 degrees A.T.D.C. (54 mm. on piston stroke).
Valve Adjustment —
Inlet Valves: 0.15 mm.
Exhaust Valves: 0.20 mm.
Ignition Timing —
Maximum Advance: 5 1/2 mm.
Carburetter Setting —
Solex fitted as standard.
Butterfly-throttle-type: Main jet: 95.
Pilot jet: 40 or 45.
Barrel-throttle type: Main jet: 95.
Pilot jet: 40 or 45.
Tyre Pressures —
High pressure tyres: 42 1/2 lb./sq. in.
Low pressure tyres: 25 to 28 1/2 lb./sq. in.
In 1923 a larger model Amilcar had been announced — again a 4-cylinder, but of 65 by 112-mm. and rated at 10.4 R.A.C. h.p. This model appears to have followed the general lines of the “Petit Sport,” but had, or was intended to have, a wheelbase of 9 ft. 8 in. This car, if actually produced, was never marketed in this country and it was not until 1925 that a larger Amilcar actually came on the English market. This car was of 67 by 112 mm., giving a capacity. of 1,580 c.c. It was called the 12 h.p. with a treasury rating of 11.2 h.p. It had the metal plate clutch of the earlier model, but had a four-speed gearbox and full-differential axle with a ratio of 4.7 to 1. This chassis carried touring bodywork and had a wheelbase of 9 ft. 6 in., with 1/2-elliptic suspension. The chassis price was £295, while an English-bodied two-seater cost £385 and a Weymann saloon £445 — an indication of the cost and quality of English bodies over the French ones fitted on the super sports models! This model was carried on without major alterations until 1927, by which time, however, the wheelbase had been increased to 9 ft. 9 in.
Around 1925 was introduced the model which really set the seal on the popularity of the Amilcar as a small economical sports car in this country and the model which is mostly remembered amongst enthusiasts today. This was the “Grand Sport” (Type CGS) and it was a logical development of the earlier “Petit Sport” with which it was marketed concurrently for a year or so. The “Grand Sport ” was again a 4-cylinder model, but of 60 by 95 nun., giving a capacity of 1,078 c.c., with an R.A.C. rating of 8.9 h.p. It was a straightforward side-valve unit, but had a fully pressure-fed, two-bearing crankshaft, and a conventional sump, as opposed to the “Petit Sport,” in which a plain plate at the bottom of the crankcase formed the oil reservoir. It had a well-designed cylinder head of Ricardo pattern to which undoubtedly can be attributed the quite remarkable power output of 35 b.h.p. at 4,500 r.p.m. In passing, it may be mentioned that several publications, including some English-produced catalogues, have given a considerably higher figure for the output of the “Grand Sport” engine, but this is in error. The engine has the cylinder block and crankcase cast integral and the aluminium pistons have three rings each. The pressed steel connecting rods are of “H” section and the valves were fitted with double springs as standard, with rockers interposed between the valve stems and camshaft. The latter is driven by spiral gears at the front of the engine, these also serving to drive the dynamo, which is located on the front of the timing case. Another small gear, driven off the crankshaft, provides the drive for the magneto through a vernier coupling — the magneto being located on a platform immediately behind the radiator, quite low down. Carburation, as on most of these small French cars, is very simple and a single Solex carburetter feeds directly into the inlet ports on the near side of the cylinder block. This arrangement, while apparently quite crude, aided, no doubt, by the low weight of the car, results in a quite remarkable fuel economy — 45 m.p.g. being obtainable even on present day “Pool.” The sump is a well-finned aluminium casting and on the early “Grand Sport” models it held just under one gallon of oil. Later models known as the “Grand Sport Surbaisse” (Type CGSs) can be identified by a larger sump having a capacity of approximately 9 pints. The exhaust manifold — as on the “Petit Sport” engine — is located on the near side of the cylinder block, immediately above the induction inlets. Tappet adjustment is effected by removing the aluminium plate below the carburetter and adjusting the nuts on the bottom of the valve stems to give the correct clearance, after slackening off the lock-nuts.
The transmission follows normal Amilcar practice, through a metal-plate clutch running in oil. Clutch adjustment is effected on six spring-loaded bolts around the face of the flywheel and to reach these it is only necessary to remove the clutch cover-plate in the cockpit.
The three-speed gearbox is as on the “Petit Sport” cars and with the standard axle ratio or 4.5 to 1 provides a 2nd gear ratio of 7,25 to 1 and a bottom ratio of 12.8 to 1. A few cars are believed to have been fitted with ratios of 4.32, 7 and 12.4 to 1, while it is also possible to substitute the lower 4.9 to 1 axle ratio from the 9 h.p. touring chassis.
A flexible rubber coupling at the back of the gearbox takes the drive to an enclosed propeller shaft supported by four ball bearings. The rear axle on all “Grand Sport” types is semi-floating, with gleason spiral gears which are adjustable for mesh. No differential is fitted but there are independent shafts; the hubs are keyed on to these and breakage of this key appears more likely than failure of the half-shaft.
Front springs are 1/2-elliptic, outrigged at the side of the tapered chassis frame, while the rear 1/4-elliptic springs are also outrigged on the extremities of the rear chassis member, which is located below the driving seat. Hartford shock-absorbers front and rear are a standard fitment. The wheelbase of the “Grand Sport” and “Surbaisse” models is 7 ft. 73/4 in. with a track of 3 ft. 7 in. Four-wheel brakes of Amilcar design are fitted and operate in quite narrow, ribbed drums. Early cars had drums of 8 1/2-diameter, but cars from about mid-1926 onwards have drums of 10 1/2-in. diameter. The front brakes are operated by rods passing through the king pins and the centrally-located hand brake and the foot brake both operate on all wheels (by rods, except in the case of “Surbaisse” models which have steel tapes instead of rods to operate the front brakes). Butterfly nuts on each rod or tape allow separate adjustment and a swivelling pivot is intended to, but seldom does, automatically compensate the front brakes.
The wheels, as on all Amilcars, are of the wire variety, fitted on the small 37-mm.-size splined hub of R.W. type, with single centre-lock nuts. Some of these had small eared caps, but most require the use of a “C” spanner. Early cars carried 710 by 90-ram. beaded-edge tyres, but later, well-base wheels carrying 4.00 by 19-in. tyres were standardised.
The steering is of the worm and sector type, with shims for taking up wear, and on all the “Grand Sport” models operates through a transverse drag link, although the touring models are fitted with the more conventional fore-and-aft drag link.
The original cars had the petrol tank mounted under the scuttle, but “Surbaisse” versions are distinguished by a fine cast-aluminium bulkhead with integral ledge, on which the 5-gallon tank is situated immediately above and behind the rear of the engine. The majority of “Grand Sport” Amilcars, and certainly most of those still in service at the present time, were fitted with the traditional G.P. type of two-seater body with short pointed tail and staggered seats. These bodies were individually built and each one seems to vary in detail. Many of these were fully panelled in aluminium, and while this contributes to the low weight, those bodies built in steel have proved much more durable. The total weight of the “Surbaisse” two-seater, with “full” touring equipment, was under 11 1/2 cwt.; quite an object lesson for many modern sports-car manufacturers. The performance figures for this model, given by the manufacturers, were: 30 m.p.h. in 1st gear, 50 m.p.h. in 2nd and 70 m.p.h. in top. Experience shows that these figures are obtainable on most well-preserved examples today, while reference to early Motor Sport road-tests indicates that these figures were actually exceeded by the type when new. Indeed, Vernon Balls’ catalogue of the period quotes a guaranteed speed of 75 m.p.h. A three-seater body was also marketed on the same chassis and this was of similar outline but with a longer pointed tail — the third unfortunate occupant being housed in a small hole in the tail similar to that of the Type 40 Bugatti. Even this three-Seater model weighed less than 12 cwt. and performance was very little below that of the two-seater. A number of English and other special bodies was also marketed on the “Grand Sport” chassis and also a typically-French fixed-head coupé with pointed tail and glorious flared wings. The “Grand Sport Surbaisse” chassis in 1926 cost £250, while the complete two-seater cost only £285 and the later-type three-seater, £335.
Two distinct types of radiator were fitted on these cars — either the genuine plated Amilcar cowl or the larger Eldridge-type cowl painted to match the bodywork of the car it is also believed that cars supplied by Vernon Balls could he fitted to special order with a cowl of his own design.
Both Boon and Porter of Castelnau, and Vernon Balls of Fulham, specialised in Amilcars in their day and carried out various modifications from standard design to special order, and in particular Messrs. Boon and Porter marketed a push-rod o.h.v. conversion for the “Grand Sport” engine. From reports from owners of these o.h.v. engines I believe that they were quite successful and still further enhanced the performance.
Boon and Porter were concessionnaires for the Amilcar up to the end of 1927, and all cars supplied by them had a cast-aluminium plate on the bulkhead with their name and also their own car number — these numbers run up to about 950; as the B. & P. plate is easily removable this cannot be taken as a definite identification. From 1928 onwards the concession was held by Vernon Balls and cars imported by him are not identified.
Below is a summary of data relating to the “Grand Sport” and “Surbaisse” Amilcars:
Engine Oil capacity (“Grand Sport”): 1 gallon.
Engine Oil Capacity (“Surbaisse”): 9 pints.
Gearbox Oil Capacity (both): 1 pint.
Castrol XXL rccomm ended for all-the-year-round use.
Oil Pressure: 1 1/2 kilograms (22 lb./sq. in.) at 1,000
Oil Pressure: 5 kilograms (71 lb./so. in.) at peak r.p.m.
Valve Timing (early models) —
Inlet Valve opens 6 degrees B.T.D.C. (16 mm. on piston stroke).
Inlet Valve closes 50 degrees A.B,D.C. (80.8 mm. on piston stroke).
Exhaust Valve opens 52 degrees B.B.D.C. (80 mm. on piston stroke).
Exhaust Valve closes 12 degrees A .T.D.C. (1.75 mm. on piston stroke).
Valve Timing (late models) —
Inlet Valve opens 5 degrees B.T.D.C. (7 mm. on piston stroke).
Inlet Valve Closes 55 degrees A.B.D.C. (77.4 mm. oil piston stroke).
Exhaust Valve opens 55 degrees B.B.D.C. (77.4 mm. on piston stroke).
Exhaust Valve closes 12 degrees A.T.D.C. (2 mm.on piston stroke).
Valve Adjustment —
Inlet Valves: 0:15 mm.
Exhaust Valves: 0.20 mm.
Ignition Timing —
Maximum Advance: 8 mm.
Carburetter Setting —
Solex (fitted as standard.
Main jet: 110.
Pilot jet: 45.
Tyre Pressures —
As for “Petit Sport.”
For the information of present owners of these cars it may be helpful to know that Messrs. Competition Cars, of Vine Grove, Blossom Way, Hillingdon, hold a large stock of spares for these old Amilcars and can give good service. Messrs. Rapidé Tune, of Twyford, Berks, also specialise in these cars.
At present I have two “Grand Sport” Amilcars, the oldest (Boon and Porter, No. 781) being an early 1926 model which appears to differ from catalogue in having the 8 ft. 0in. wheelbase usually to be found on the “Petit Sport” model, although this is known to have been a genuine “Grand Sport” car and to have been fitted originally with a B. & P. o.h.v.-conversion engine and the three-seater pointed-tail body which now, unfortunately, has been cruelly “manxed.” This car now has the standard s.v. engine (3CGS) with the small sump, small brakes, beaded-edge 710 by 90-mm. tyres and Eldridge-type cowl. This car was purchased in Birmingham during the war from one of its original owners, who was most enthusiastic about it in its hey-day. Despite 8 years of idleness (some out in the open) it started up quite easily late in 1945 and has proved quite lively on the road without even having the cylinder head lifted. During 1946 I retained this car for spares, but I hope to have it on the road again in the near future. As purchased with heavy wings but with no spare wheel, hood, screen or seats it was transported home by rail and was found to scale under 10 cwt!
Early in 1946 I fell very badly for a late and very genuine “Surbaisse” model at Competition Cars and ultimately raised enough cash to acquire it. This is one of the last imported into this country by Boon and Porter (B. & P. No. 931) and has the large sump and brakes with front operation by tapes. This car has the plated radiator cowl and well-base wheels, with a well-preserved Grand Prix-type pointed-tail “1 1/2-seater” body in steel. It had been well maintained and appears a very representative example. It is a joy to drive, the roadholding and steering being excellent — a noticeable tendency for the rear to hop appreciably when cornering fast undoubtedly being due to the fact that I never found time to replace the rear shock absorbers, but this I am now doing. With oversize 5.00 by 19-in, rear tyres it is possible to cover large mileages quite rapidly without really extending the motor at all — in fact, 50 to 55 m.p.h. on the level only involves a round 2,300 r.p.m. I have never been able to obtain the maximum of 4,200 r.p.m. in top gear with these wheels, and, in fact, only once obtained as much as 4,100 r.p.m. in 2nd gear when using 4.00 by 19-in, wheels at West Court Speed Trial. It is possible to pull away from 1,000 r.p.m. in top gear, even when using the large wheels, and a quick change to 2nd produces quite satisfying acceleration — also due to a noisy 2nd gear on my particular car it serves to clear the roads quicker than any siren! I can only say that the “Surbaisse” Amilcar has given me all the satisfaction of a thoroughbred vintage sports car with the running costs of a small family saloon. These cars are not by any means free from snags and vices nor are they foolproof, but this is only to be expected with any car of such age and type.
Marketed concurrently with the “Grand Sport” model was a more touring edition known as the 9-h.p. sports model (Type G) — this had the same 1,074-c.c. s.v. engine, but in a bigger chassis of 8 ft. 6 in. wheelbase and 3 ft. 11 in. track, to accommodate 4-seater and saloon bodywork. The rear suspension was cantilever and a full differential with 4.9-to-1 axle ratio was fitted, but otherwise the layout was along the same lines as the “Grand Sport” model. In 1927 this model, in chassis form, cost £254 and as a four-seater tourer, £350, while a four-door saloon was priced at £360. This sports model continued to be available until 1930, although for 1928 the stroke was increased 10 mm. to 105 mm., giving a capacity of 1,187 c.c., and for the last two years of its production it was increased still further to 110 mm., the bore remaining at 60 mm., to give a capacity of 1,244 c.c.
Perhaps the greatest of all Amilcar models was the now immortal 6 cylinder racing model, which was available to special order from 1926 to 1929, although it is believed that only about 7 or 8 of these cars at the most actually came into this country — certainly they are now extremely scarce and only few still exist. However, those that do are mostly in superb condition.
These cars are in the grand tradition of the true racing cars of the period and have a 6-cylinder roller-bearing engine of 56 by 74 mm. (1,094 c.c.) with twin o.h.c. and Roots-type blower. The chassis, whilst, following the general lines of the “Grand Sport” model, with 1/2-elliptic springs at the front and 1/4-elliptic at the rear, is lower and shorter, having a wheelbase of 6 ft. 2 in. and a track of 3 ft. 8 in. These racing models were fitted with the traditional short tail G.P.-type two-seater body and a low, plated radiator. In every way they were truly representative of the orthodox Grand Prix car par excellence, being miniature contemporaries of the G.P. Bugatti, Delage, etc. of the mid-1920s.
These racing Amilcars were very rapid and were extremely successful in their class for many years — their racing record would fill a separate article, but it suffices to say that they were a force to be reckoned with right up to 1939, when H. T. H. Clayton and F. J. Monkhouse were still operating a couple of truly immaculate examples. Since the war Monkhouse’s car has been seen in action again in the hands of Finch. The fastest example of this car was Henken Widengren’s specially streamlined single seater, which took the 1,100-c.c. Class Hour record at 115.54 m.p.h. as recently as 1933.
It is interesting to note that, while these cars are now generally regarded as out-and-out racing cars, they were, in fact, eligible for sports-car events of the period and actually ran, fully equipped, in the 1928 Tourist Trophy and other sports-car races.
By the end of 1929 the Amilcar company had more or less ceased to produce genuine sports cars and the only models to come into this country thereafter, and these in only small numbers, were straight-eights of the high-performance touring variety. The straight-eight Amilcar was originally announced for 1929, with a single o.h.c. engine of 60 by 75 mm. (1,695 c.c.) rated at 18 h.p. This car had 1/2-elliptic suspension all round and was claimed to exceed 75 m.p.h. with full saloon coachwork — no mean achievement for those days. However, the version of this model that was actually imported into this country from 1930 to 1933 was of 63 by 80 mm. (1,980 c.c.) and rated at 19.8 h.p. This model cost £425 in chassis form and £555 as a saloon for 1931. Whilst undoubtedly a very interesting car, it did not really carry on the sporting tradition of the Amilcar and it is doubtful whether any of these models survive in serviceable condition to-day.
When one considers that those Amilcars still in use are at least 18 years old and generally have passed through many (often not very kind) hands, it must be regarded as a great tribute to their sterling qualities that they are still so highly esteemed and sought after.