Veteran – Edwardian – Vintage

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A section devoted to old-car matters

A sizeable mystery

The other day I received a letter from Lord Donegall, asking whether I could help him in the matter of an aero-engined motor car he once owned. He is writing his autobiography and wants to refer to this exciting car therein but is now rather hazy about the details. Indeed, the monster’s identity presents a sizeable mystery. Such facts as are known are as follows:

When he was in his second year at Oxford the future Lord Donegall owned a Brooklands model Austin 7 and an HE and it seemed to him that it would be fun to own “the most powerful racing car in the world”, which he had heard was for sale at Brooklands and which was reputed to have been owned by Count Zborowski. So he went to the Track and there discovered a giant aero-engined car which had no number plates but was said to be known as a Hall-Scott, as its V12 Liberty engine had been made by the Hall-Scott Motor Company, these engines having been designed by Vincent Packard and E. J. Hall in 1917. A modest sum of money changed hands but he cannot remember from whom he bought the car. It was successfully driven back to Oxford, its new owner discovering that it “had a beautiful clutch and gearbox”. The next problem was to tax it. There is a delightful story about how this was done but it would be unfair to disclose it before publication of the book. In view of the subsequent fame of “Babs” and its dramatic reincarnation after burial under Pendine sands, Lord Donegall is naturally anxious to establish whether this was the car he ran briefly in 1924.

On the face of it, it might well have been. Zborowski’s biggest car was known as the Higham Special and its 27-litre Liberty engine might well have been built by the Hall-Scott Co. It is possible that it was never registered because the Count had recourse to trade number plates. It might certainly have been at Brooklands late in 1924, as it had not been used since the Easter races and Zborowski had a shed there. However, there are doubts about Lord Donegall having bought the future “Babs”.

In the first place, I understood from Col. Clive Gallop that after Zborowski’s death Parry Thomas acquired the car direct from the Count’s estate in Kent. As he had a very good use for it, surely Thomas would be unlikely to let it slip through his hands? But if Lord Donegall did have it for a while before it went to Thomas he would be unlikely, as he has done, to forget the name of such an illustrious purchaser, for Parry Thomas was then at the height of his motor-racing fame?

There are other factors which make it seem unlikely that this car was “Babs”. Admittedly it was then known as the Higham Special and this could have been contracted to H-S, suggesting in the Hall-Scott association. Gallop was never very proud of the car and might have used these initials when selling it, to avoid further associations with Higham. However, Donegall remembers that the car was started with an extended starting-handle, which he and two friends used to depress with their feet in order to start the engine, after getting it on compression. The Higham, however, was started either with an electric motor energised by a battery carried on the Count’s Mercedes lorry or by reduction winding gear at the side of the chassis; there was no front-mounted handle. (Thomas, I think, used a tow or a push-start). Then the mind boggles at the thought of the Higharn as a docile road car, with its whippy chassis and fierce Mercedes scroll clutch, whereas Lord Donegall remembers that his car “could be driven to an inch, in the garage or in traffic”. Finally, he is under the impression that he acquired it between August and September of 1924, and as the University Proctors objected to it, he ceased to use it after December, although he may not have sold it until well into 1925. Now Zborowski was killed on October 19th, 1924, so it is unlikely that his effects were sold much before the end of November at the earliest, which conflicts with Lord Donegall’s recollection of the time his car was on the road.

If, then, we accept that Thomas bought the Higham and was occupied with extensively modifying it until the Whitsun 1926 Brooklands Meeting, what car could the enthusiastic young undergraduate have found? It could scarcely have been one of the Chittys, for these were too well-known to be sold inexpensively or dubbed an H-S in 1924 and anyway, they had six-cylinder engines, whereas Lord Donegall is pretty certain he had to prime six cylinders, on each side of his car, before starting it, which if his memory is correct, rules out all three Chittys, the Wolseley Viper and the Isotta Maybach; anyway, the latter two were still being raced in 1924. It could be argued that H-S might have stood for Hispano-Suiza and that the vendor was confused when talking of Hall-Scott. Certainly several hybrids were built using Hispano aero-engines but these were V8s and I do not think a Hispano V12 was ever used in a car. Even if Lord Donegall is wrong about his car having had twelve cylinders, I think he would remember the vee-radiator if he had bought Chitty III and that the rumour that this car passed into the hands of a “Lord Carlow” can be discounted as confusion with Lord Donegall, because it refers to a later period, after Pole and Noel had raced Chitty III in the 1929 500-Mile Race. Anyway, Lord Donegall is fairly certain that his car had a flat radiator and if it was the R-R-aero-engined hybrid built by Col. Henderson he, as currently a satisfied owner of a Mulliner-bodied R-type Bentley Continental, would presumably recall the R-R radiator of that car, which anyway seems more likely to have been in Scotland.

There is one aero-engined car which might fit and that is the 18-litre Benz-engined Mercedes of Mr. Scarisbrick, which was apparently sold to a Chinaman and then vanished after about 1922, until it reappeared just before the war at a speed trial, distinguished by a Bentley radiator. It was so much like a Chitty that it was regarded as such in America, where it was subsequently shipped, until Gallop subdued this idea. Apart from having but six cylinders, this car had the unpainted bonnet, uncowled radiator, two bucket seats, and most likely the extended starting handle, which live in Lord Donegall’s memory and although its original owner lived in Norfolk and the car never raced at Brooklands, I have pictorial evidence that it went there.

An even more likely candidate is the Mercedes with Sunbeam aero-engine which Harry Hawker built for his own use in 1919. This one did have a V12 engine. Its bonnet was unpainted and its radiator uncowled (whereas the Higham had both radiator cowl and long tail). Hawker was killed in 1921 and his giant motor-car seems to have disappeared thereafter. It could very well have been in the Sopwith sheds at Brooklands and for sale in 1924. It was not the most powerful car in the world, but it looked like it! Zborowski never owned it and it was never raced. But anyone who had lost its number plates and its log-book and wanted to get rid of it would probably not be above romancing, or might have been genuinely mistaken. If this person did not recognise the 225 h.p. Sunbeam engine, this could easily have been wrongly quoted as a Hall-Scott, whereas the true reason for the car being known as the H-S would be an abbreviation of Hawker-Sunbeam or Hawker Special. Moreover, this car was very flexible, Hawker having used it as a tow-car and Mrs. Hawker having driven it. What is more, His Lordship, in a further letter, says he was told that his car had “either an Austro Daimler clutch and an Itala gearbox, or vice versa.”

Now Hawker had an Austro-Daimler during the war, which he crashed, so a clutch of this make (the gearbox was Mercedes) might quite likely have been used in his home-built special, Hawker probably finding the Mercedes clutch too sudden. This one didn’t have chain drive but Lord Donegall admits he cannot remember at all clearly the car he owned so briefly. It had a four-seater body but this could have been discarded by 1924. (Incidentally, I often wonder which Mercedes chassis Hawker used, as it had full cantilever rear springs, which was surely most unusual for this make of car?). I am inclined to think, on all the evidence, he bought the Hawker car, which would have been perfectly accustomed to being driven on the road. But I admit he has presented us with a difficult problem. As he is the editor of the Baker Street Journal it is to be hoped that Sherlock Holmes can be persuaded to put aside his bee-keeping and return from Sussex to investigate the mystery. Meanwhile, I am sure Lord Donegall would appreciate any assistance that readers of Motor Sport may be able to give him.—W.B.

Pre-Brooklands

Our recent query about whether Brooklands Track was destined originally to be built not in Surrey but near Clacton in Essex has been answered by some further research on the part of Miss Penelope de Earthe Bond, who first drew attention to this possibility and whose further comments form part of an interesting article in the June issue of Essex Countryside. We are grateful to a reader of Motor Sport for drawing our attention to it.

On the Jaywick estate at Clacton 26 roads are named after makes of cars. Although this estate wasn’t built until 1928, when Brooklands was flourishing, this gave rise to Miss Bond’s speculation. She has since discovered, vide the above-mentioned article, that between 1898 and 1902, a group of developers, sensing the possibilities of Clacton, which was becoming known as the “Brighton of the East Coast”, bought land on which they intended to build a recreational suburb. Col. Holden, described as a civil engineer and London businessman, went down to prospect and drew up plans for a 2-1/2-mile oval motor race track, presumably with banked turns. The project was abandoned in 1904 and it seems that the Brooklands estate there, half-a-mile away, was thus named for reasons unconnected with a lingering hope that a race course might one day be constructed adjacent to it. The roads were presumably named after cars when the later Jaywick-estate was completed and it would be interesting to know why this was so, and who proposed it.

There are some interesting links, in this situation, with the real Brooklands Track. For instance, Col. Holden is said to have been “called in” by Mr. Locke King when the Surrey Motor Course was being designed but it is now disclosed that he was interested in such work before this, so he may well have approached Locke King when he heard that a Surrey track was being discussed. Did he, indeed, make the original suggestion for building Brooklands, to Locke King, after the other project had been abandoned two years earlier? It is also significant that the Clacton track was presumably to have had wide banked corners, which is just what Holders told Locke King would be needed at Brooklands, after ideas for a simple unbanked track had been discarded. Then we find that the person responsible for the Brooklands estate at Clacton was a Mr. Stedman, grandfather to a Mr. Stedman whom Miss Bond consulted when researching this matter, and a Mr. Stedman who was responsible for the Campbell circuit at Brooklands in 1937. Then there is the fact of the proposed Clacton track being an ambitious 2-1/2-mile oval, at a time when cars were not all that fast and, indeed, the local Council objected to motorists doing 15 m.p.h. along the Carnaervon Road.

Brooklands was of similar size and might well have been an Indianapolis-type oval had not the Itala Motor Works and the sewage farm dictated its shape, suggesting that Col. Holden saw this as the desirable layout for a motor race track. Finally, there are stories of Locke King having to build a new rifle range to replace the one which his Motor Course obliterated and apparently there was a possibility of a conflict between the interests of the shooting and the motoring sportsmen in the Clacton plans, which makes one wonder whether this was co-incidence or whether confusion arose over Col. Holden having similar plans for both tracks, The site of the stillborn Clacton track would have been near the Western end of the existing Council golf course. Miss Bond says that due to “poor access, uncertainty over the failure to attract capital”, the Clacton track “was doomed from the start”.—W.B.

V-E-V Miscellany.—A very delapidated 1934 16/80 Lagonda Special Six is being restored in Cambridgeshire. The Register of Mulliner-bodied Austin 7s now numbers 22 cars and two employees of the old coach-building company have been contacted. The Triple-M-Register of the MGCC has issued another Year Book. The remains of a sleeve-valve Daimler are reported from Wiltshire. Pre-war cars in process of restoration by readers include 1934 Morris Minor tourer, 1934 Morris 15/6 and 1937 Austin Big Seven. The Riley Register’s popular Coventry Rally, 18th of the series, takes place on July 7/8th, the Sunday events including a parade of prewar Rileys starting in the centre of Coventry and calling at the old Riley factory in Dunbar Avenue, Foleshill, before going out through the suburbs to the Rally headquarters, the Brandon Hall Hotel at Brandon, for driving tests and the Concours d’Élegance.

The third International Reunion of Lancia Clubs takes place in this country from July 16th-21st, and a special commemorative issue of the Lancia MC magazine is being published to celebrate the function. In New Zealand a lady has traded-in a 1937 Morris for a new Mini 1000. The old car had run 377,764 miles with one rebore and three valve grinds, and it was repainted when the mileometer had come round for the second time. We hope the 1973 Mini will give equal satisfaction.

Alvis enthusiasts should note that Midland Alvis Day happens at “The Bull’s Head”, Meriden, on July 1st, while the 12/50 Alvis Register has its 50th birthday party at Prescott on August 12th. A possibly pre-war Vauxhall 14/6, sans radiator, was found recently in a shed beside a Welsh cottage, and a Ruby Austin, not for sale, languishes in a Gloucestershire lock-up. Peter Lay, of Cole Orten, telling us of his pair of cars—will the topic never die down —says his 3-litre Volvo-Marcos is paired with a 1937 Brough Superior d.h.c. He remarks that he has discovered Mr. Atcherley who designed and made these bodies for George Brough and is anxious to know whether more than one supercharged Alpine Grand Sports Brough Superior was made? One has been located but in very sad condition. Three Brough saloons survive, out of about 140, but the prototype was scrapped in the Sheffield area a few years ago. [I well remember road-testing a Brough Superior saloon for Motor Sport before the war.—Ed.]

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