Two from Formula Two

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The 1950 HWM and 1980 March 802 span 30 years of Formula Two. The Deputy Editor found at first hand how designs have changed. 

The significance of HWM to British motor racing history has been widely overlooked, yet therein lies a direct link with the two cars of very different eras portrayed on these pages. John Heath’s foray into the European racing scene with his private team of three Formula Two HWMs in 1950 marked the first post-war attack on International racing by a full team of British cars and effectively put Britain back on the motor racing map. Despite a shoestring budget and daunting physical, financial and logistical problems, John Heath’s enterprising little ecurie raced at nineteen British and Continental meetings during 1950 with creditable success. In so doing they brought immeasurable prestige to Bntain across a Continent still recovering from the ravages of war. Perhaps even more important to Britain’s future prestige in motor racing, during that I950 season the perspicacious Heath and partner George Abecassis gave the first chance of big time motor racing to a confident twenty-year-old rising star. His name was Stirling Moss.

Ultimately, of course, Britain became one of the dominating forces in International motor racing. March Engineering was one of the successful racing car constructors to be spawned out of this consequent hot-bed of designing talent, when Max Mosley, Alan Rees, Robin Herd and Graham Coaker put their talents together in a Bicester factory in 1969. March’s subsequent designs have spanned practically the full formula spectrum, including Formula One, but what we are concerned with here is Formula Two and in that field March are arguably the masters, in spite of trailng behind the Tolemans at this stage in the 1980 European Formula Two Championship. The first Formula Two March appeared in 1970. The following season Ronnie Peterson won the European Championship for the Bicester team. March took the honours again in 1973 (Jean-Pierre Jarier), 1974 (Patrick Depailler), 1978 (Bruno Giacomelli) and 1979 (Mark Surer). Surer’s success was in a March 792, the logical numbering system signifying the year of the design and the Formula. The new design for this year is thus the 802 and by sheer coincidence the prototype, 802/1, was the 802nd racing car manufactured by March, which shows the magnitude of the  operation, a far cry from HWM’s 1950 shoestring.

This entire double article came about by coincidence. Rod Leach, of Nostalgia fame, had asked me to drive for him in the Bugatti Owners’ Club Newton Classic Hill-Climb at Prescott (Rod though an arch enthusiast, prefers to hand his wheels to others in competitive events), in either an AC Cobra, a Cooper Monaco or the 1950 Alta-engined HWM team car, the choice of the last two dependent upon whether or not their restorations were completed. At that stage we were looking at a “fun” outing rather than a Motor Sport story, but when Paul Grist did complete the several-year-long HWM rebuild in time, my professional interest sharpened. The coincidental commitment was made when JW and I were invited to drive one of the ICI-backed works March 802 BMWs on the Silverstone GP circuit  just three days before my Prescott venture. A turned Woodruff key within the Bosch fuei-injection metering unit kept jamming the March throttle closed at Silverstone, preventing any consistent laps and thwarting our photographer, so two days after Prescott I was back in the tiny March cockpit once more, this time at Donington, for thirteen laps or more of unadulterated pleasure.

Thirty years is a long time at the speed at which modern technology shifts. The two cars were worlds apart, the narrow-tyred, front-engined HWM, compact and chunky, its 12¾ cwt propelled even in its hey-day on alcohol fuel by little more than 115 bhp, the space-age conceived March, a low projectile sprouting w!ngs, ground effect aerodynamics and massively wide slick tyres, its mid-mounted engine producing some 310 bhp to boost its 101/3 cwt from 0-60 mph in 3 sec or less, to 100 mph in under 7 sec, and to a maximum speed of 165 mph. Many modern production road cars could outperform the HWM, but the March’s performance is only fractionally down the scale from current Formula One cars. The man in the street will never be able to buy that sort of “go”.

The 1950 HWM Team Cars

George Abecassis had established himself as a most competent racing driver at the wheel of a single-seater Alta before the War. War service as a bomber pilot took him away from motor racing and a successful garage business, but after demobilisation in 1946, he and an old friend, John Heath, went into pannership in a large garage at Walton-on-Thames. They called it Hersham and Walton Motors, or HW Motors Ltd. for short. As soon as motorsport recommenced in Britain Abecassis rejoined the fray, with his Alta, an ERA and a Type 59 Bugatli. The racing passion spread to Heath, who acquired a supercharged, 2-litre sports Alta, which he drove to several minor successes in British events and to second overall in the 1947 Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay. HW Motors had become agents for Geoffrey Taylor’s Altas and, in a spirit of engineering adventure, proceeded to introduce their own modifications to the marque. The first major sign of their influence came in an all-enveloping, streamlined sports Alta with a 2-litre Alta engine in 1948. It ran well in several European races and finished fourth, with Heath driving, in the Swedish GP. Abecassis, meanwhile, had begun to race the new Grand Prix Alta. An ex-Polish Army refugee was brought in as a mechanic alongside John Powell. Later, as a naturalised British citizen, he was to be known as Alf Francis, a legend amongst motor racing mechanics. 

For the 1949 season Heath decided that the team should design and build a car of their own for Formula Two and sports car racing. This dual-purpose car used a 2-litre Alta engine in a twin-tube chassis with wishbone front suspension, a transverse leaf spring, Standard 12 uprights, a Citroen steering rack (HW Motors were Citroen dealers), an ENV pre-selector gearbox and a live rear axle. This HW-Alta proved a great success, with viceless handling. It took Heath to victory in the 70-mile 1949 BRDC Race in the IoM and finished second to Possi’s Delahaye in the GP de l’ACF, run for sports cars, at Comminges. This car, registered NPA 5, and effectively the guinea pig for the 1950 team cars, is currently owned by Peter Merritt. 

Encouraged by this success, Heath and Abecassis evolved a modified version of the HW-Alta design for the 1950 season as the nucleus of a three car team. The offer of an entry at Le Mans encouraged the adoption of the dual-purpose design (a rear-engined F2 car had been contemplated), but when it was discovered that only prize-money was on offer the Sarthe entry was dropped and the cars ran as open-wheel single-seaters throughout 1950. Team drivers were to be Abecassis, Heath and Moss (Peter Clark, Nick Haines and Johnnie Claes were to have been second drivers at Le Mans). A prototype and four team cars were to have been built, the fourth to have been a spare. In the event, Heath, Alf Francis and their small team of Tom O’Hara and Rex Woodgate, with Jack Tolly as sparetime welder, built only four cars, including the prototype, though it seems that an additional chassis may have been laid down but not completed. They were given chassis and engine numbers FB IOI, 102, 103 and 104, FB being Geoffrey Taylor’s prefix for Formula B Alta engines, FB the forerunner of F2. The first three numbers related to the cars intended for the team and, perversely, the prototype seems to have been given the last number. Presumably it was built without a number and given 104 for carnet purposes after the others had been allocated. It had been intended to sell the prototype to Baring, a locally based privateer. In fact Baring bought the brand-new 103 and the prototype was taken on to the team strength with 101 and 102. These new machines from HW Motors were given the name “HWM”. 

Like the HW-Alta, the HWMs were designed as two-seaters, but with no passenger seats, and aluminium covers over that side when run as single-seaters. Small passenger doors were incorporated to comply with FIA sports car regulations. Provision had been made for mudguards and lights to be fitted for sports car racing. They used a similar, but lighter version of the HW-Alta front suspension, but the rear was now independent, via a transverse leaf spring and wishbone arrangement and short, universally-jointed driveshafts from the ENV differential. A new chassis was made up of 3½” diameter, parallel tubes, joined by similar members, and the whole was clothed with a pretty, aluminium body made by the Leacroft Sheet Metal Works at Egham and carried on a tubular frame. The wheelbase was 7′ 8″, the track 4′ 1″. 

The latest 83.5 mm x 90 mm, 1,960 cc, twin-overhead camshaft, all aluminium Alta engines were fitted, fed by twin, 1¾” SU carburetters (four Amals, with SU float chambers, were tried unsuccessfully) on two U-shaped inlet manifolds. The compression ratio was supposedly 13.5: 1 when on alcohol fuel. The prototype was built with a wet sump engine; the others were dry-sumped, with a big tank beneath the SUs. A 23 gallon Gallay fuel tank was carried in the tail. The prototype’s Type 110 ENV pre-selector gearbox subsequently gave way on all the cars to an Armstrong-Siddelcy pre-selector ‘box as used on ERAs. 

The back plates to the 12″ x 1¾” Alfin drum brakes, with twin-leading shoe Girling operation, 
were a work of art, each taking 25 hours to make. The HWMs made their debut at the Goodwood Easter Monday meeting, 1950, the prototype being shared by Moss and Heath, FB 101 by Abecassis and prospective customer “Buster” Baring. It was an appallingly wet day, the two cars were troubled by carburetter float problems and the results for the HWMs were disappointing, except for a second by Moss in the Third Easter Handicap. 

Then began an astonishingly hectic overseas season for the little HWM team, the fascinating trials and tribulations of which can be read in “Alf Francis, Racing Mechanic” by Peter Lewis (Foulis, 1957). Results of individual races are too numerous to mention here (WB reviewed the team’s season in Motor Sport, December 1950, photostats of which are available, price 50p each, from this office). The most gallant of many brave performances was third overall in a Formula One race at Bari, when Moss finished third behind the Alfa-Romeo 158s of Farina and Fangio. Claes, one of several drivers, including Macklin, Fischer and Fergus Anderson who served alongside the regular drivers during the season, gave the team its first victory in the GP des Frontieres at Chimay. Moss rounded off the season with a win in the Formula Two race at Castle Combe. The HWMs placed in the first three on eleven occasions during a season when the cars and mechanics, led by Francis, were sometimes away from base for weeks on end. 

HWM history generally, and the history of the individual cars during that 1950 season particularly, is not very well chronicled. Scant notice was taken of chassis numbers (so far as I know only the engines bore a stamp). Doug Nye is currently engaged in researching a book on the marque and with the help of him and DSJ we have sorted out the immediate background as mentioned above. What is certain is that the car currently owned by Rod Leach is FB 101, the first of the team cars, which Abecassis and Baring drove at Goodwood. Like the 102 and 103 this used a small, curved windscreen on top of the scuttle. The prototype, 104, which became a team car, is instantly recognisable in contemporary photographs by its straight-bottomed, Derrington aeroscreen, its extra height possibly intended for the 6′ 5″ Heath. The rigours of racing meant that all the drivers drove different cars at odd times during the season. It seems to me though that 101 was generally regarded as the Abecassis car, 102 as the Moss car and 104 as the Heath car. In the Motor Sport of the day, WB referred to Moss having driven “the Heath car” at Goodwood and “taken over the Abecassis car” to win at Castle Combe. When Abecassis himself examined 101 a few weeks ago he thought that certain signs of chassis repairs suggested that it might have been the car crashed into a tree by Moss at Naples. 

Whatever, at the end of the season 101 was sold to TM Meyer, 102 was road equipped and sold to Jack Wurstenberger in Switzerland, who raced it under the pseudonym “Herve”. It was subsequently deliberately crashed during a film made in the USA and has recently come to light again there, fitted with a Chevrolet engine. FB 103 was eventually sold by Baring to Fielding, who broke it up. The body is now on an Alta chassis owned by Nick Jeromes. FB 104, the prototype, was sold to Oscar Moore, who, after racing it in standard form, converted it to Jaguar power. It is now owned by Terry Grainger. Leach’s car is thus the only original specification car extant and its subsequent ownership after Meyer, who had detachable wings and lights to make it road legal and registered it as MXK 727 on March 28th 1952, is shown in the original log book which I have in front of me. It included Peter Stewart, Mayford Motors, Dudley Gahagan, Chiltern Cars (in 1960 – it was advertised by them again in Motor Sport, 1962, for £445, having been through the hands of Peter Mew and Trevor Moore in the meantime) and finally John Michelsen. Patrick Lindsay rolled it at Goodwood in the middle ’50s and during the rebuild it was given a Derrington aeroscreen instead of its proper curved screen. Michelsen owned it for many years and Paul Grist had commenced restoration for him when Leach acquired it. At some stage it has been given the engine from FB 104.

Grist has made a most beautiful job of chassis-up restoration in the correct metallic pale green. Most parts seem to be original, but the aluminium bodywork proved to be brittle and porous and a new, intricately louvred body was made. A new grille of slightly the wrong shape and with 15 instead of 16 bars is fitted, alas. It is complete with detachable mudguards and lights and in this form I drove it briefly on the road the week before Prescott. We had entered it in the sports car class, but changed to the racing car class on the dreadfully wet practice day so that we could run it more authentically without road equipment. This was after all to be this historic racing car’s first competition in 20 years or more.

Even with the wings removed and the aluminium cowl in place over the passenger seat this HWM felt more like a sports car than a racing car. The high sided bucket seat, built for the dimensions of Abecassis and Moss, gripped me tightly. A big 16¼”, spring-spoke Bluemels plastic-rimmed steering wheel dominates the cockpit and is adjustable for reach. The aluminium dashboard and instrumentation, even down to the big Alta-badged Smiths tachometer, is authentic except for the addition of a couple of switches, one of them to control an additional electric fuel pump to prime the float chambers prior to starting. The mechanical fuel pump driven from the rear of the ns camshaft was one of HWM’s biggest problems in 1950 and, true to form, FB 101’s (though admittedly a different type, from a US aircraft engine) sprung a leak at Prescott. The massive A-S preselector box seems to almost fill the floor and is linked by a complex rod system to the quadrant gear selector on the left of the steering column. Gear positions – unmarked – are bottom notch, reverse, second notch for neutral and then 1, 2, 3, 4 upwards. 

Starting from cold is complicated, for it involves jacking up the rear wheels so that the transmission oil can be warmed and circulated, in time honoured fashion. On with the fuel tap, electric pump and Scintilla (originally Lucas) magneto, then the SU float chambers – smaller, now the engine is petrol fed, than in its alcoholic days – must be flooded with the “ticklers”. With luck it fires, bringing with it a flat exhaust note from the massive four-into-two manifolding and easily detachable silencer, and almighty vibration from the long-stroke four which threatens to shake off any non-wired fitment – and frequently used to. 

I had driven a preselector ‘box on the road before the HWM, but not without a clutch or fluid flywheel. The competition A-S box has neither, the “clutch” pedal simply operating on the brake bands. This makes for essentially “in” or “out” gear engagement, which makes the HWM awkward for road use, unless on the move, and for paddock manoeuvring. And while the same system might be fine off the line with the wheel-spinning power of an ERA, the down on power HWM, with what was obviously one of the higher of the five originally available axle ratios, just didn’t want to know off the Prescott line, the engine almost dying whatever I did with the revs and the pedals. 

Practice was a soggy horror. On my first run I couldn’t see for rain and spray and on the second, with the HWM on about 3½ cylinders, I almost went straight on at Ettore’s and Pardon with water-filled brakes. Thank goodness the Sunday dawned dry, but again on the first run the engine refused to run cleanly. We sorted out the timing and carburetters a little for the second run, but the engine still almost died off the line. Now, however, those big brakes were excellent, though cold, into Ettore’s, which was a good job, because I hit oil on the apex and almost lost the lot, my recovery being very ragged because of lack of familiarity. With such high gearing, less torque than Moss or Abecassis must have known and a reluctance to rev above 5,000 rpm I was down into first for all three tight corners. Any thoughts on niceties of cornering lines were hampered by having to think positively about pre-selecting the appropriate gear and then dip the “clutch” at the appropriate moment without moving a gear lever. The likes of Patrick Lindsay, who switch through their ERA gear selectors automatically as I would a conventional change, might think that a nonsense, but remember that I had only four brief runs to acclimatise myself. 

Not until the last corner on the last run did any real feeling come through of how well the HWMs handled in their day, as the tail came out in nicely controlled oversteer and the light steering showed its positive response. At that moment I wished I’d had the car on a circuit, where it would have felt much more at home, although FB 101 is very likely one of the team cars which ran in the Freiburg Hillclimb in 1950; Fischer made fastest Formula 2 time and Macklin seventh, but Freiburg is measured in kilometres rather than yards. My Prescott time was a modest 62.8 sec. 

 

 

 

 

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