Veteran to classic: The Plowman Vauxhall 30/98

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107 miles in the hour

The 30/98 Vauxhall is, in my opinion and that of most vintage car followers, one of the most desirable cars of its period. Not a sports-car, its Lutonian manufacturer used to explain, just a “fast touring car”, but one able to do a guaranteed 100 mph when stripped for racing.

One of the more historic examples, now owned by 30/98 Registrar David Marsh, is OE18, known as the “Plowman Vauxhall”, by reason of its ambitious and successful one-hour run at Montlhery back in 1953. Its owner at the time was the late Tom Plowman, who had worked on 30/98s at Vauxhall Motors before opening his garage business in Luton. He had run Alvises and Talbots, but in 1934 decided he wanted “a real motor-car”. First he bought a Wolseley Hornet, but found it “as satisfying as holding my own hand”, so then he purchased OE18 from a London dealer.

He used it as bought for a time, with low oil-pressure and poorish brakes, pondering on who might have seen it through the running-shop when it had been new — old “Lappy” Laporte or George Walker, perhaps, or Fred King, or even himself.. ? But Plowman was so satisfied with his purchase that he decided to rebuild her.

So the old Vauxhall, a 1923 Velox-bodied four-seater, was ground, bored, bushed, trimmed, relined, and given a new hood and rebuilt wheels with bigger tyres. Plowman then raced it at Brooklands in JCC and MCC Meetings, being placed in some of the handicap races that preceeded the 1936 One-Hour High Speed Trial, in which he did 90 miles in the hour (he had previously done well at the Howard Park speed-trials, in full touring trim with windscreen erect). In 1937 at a Donington club meeting he won a three-lap handicap race from Hampton’s blown Bugatti, averaging 65.83 mph.

For that road circuit Lockheed hydraulic brakes were found necessary, and later some tuning was indulged in — the back of the body being removed, aero-screens fitted, compression ratio raised, and a new gear-type oil-pump installed. The radiator was given a new core (and rebuilt 2in shorter to allow for an oil cooler to be mounted underneath) and the steering gear subjected to electrical crack-testing. But the handicappers were wise to it … Nevertheless, in spite of the petrol tank coming adrift in practice and trailing by its petrol pipe, and the steering-column later collapsing at 108 mph, Plowman won a three-lap race at 88 mph at the 1937 JCC Brooklands meeting and took a second and two thirds that same day, according to his race-notes. He had joined the VSCC when it was formed, and made fastest sports-car time in the 30/98 at the Club’s first speed trials, at Aston Clinton, in 1936.

After the war, Plowman and Dunham, who both had motor businesses in Luton, got things going for the VSCC in the “basic petrol” period by organising the 1948 Luton Hoo speed-trials to raise funds for the blind. At the 1949 VSCC Silverstone Meeting the 30/98 was out again, having a fine duel with Cook’s Bentley in the One-Hour High Speed Trial and then engaging in furious battle with Birkett’s T44 Bugatti in the last race, which it won, lapping the Club circuit at 66.77 mph.

It was success such as this which started Tom Plowman preparing for an undertaking he had had in mind for some years — to see whether he could officially exceed 100 miles in one hour with the old Vauxhall.

The attempt came about in 1953, but only after the seemingly endless round of letterwriting, telephoning, and arranging meetings which always precedes such ventures. The engine had blown up and had to he rebuilt anyway. The Vauxhall was given a large downdraught SU carburettor, a cr of about 7:1, Specialloid pistons, alloy con-rods, balanced crank, large inlet valves, a new four-branch exhaust system, large oil-filter/cooler, 13:40 axle-ratio, a 41/2-litre Bentley front axle cut down to 56 lb (slightly lowering the car, after a dural axle had proved unsatisfactory), Dunlop racing 6.00 x 19/7.00 x 19 tyres and G-type hydraulic brakes with some Bedford parts taken from an RAF ambulance found in a scrapyard.

Tom had aimed for 130 bhp and a weight of 19 cwt, although I believe it came out nearer to 22 cwt; engine speed was 3400 rpm, with a maximum of 3800.

Just before he was due to leave for France the radiator sprang a leak and most of the weekend was spent repairing it. A broken torque-stay, fractured rear shock-absorber bracket and loose instrument-panel had earlier been seen to.

Esso and Dunlop were extremely helpful (likewise the component makers, Reynold making a new timing-chain) and the Bank of England let him take £177 in controlled currency. Montlhery was booked for the attempt and Plowman left in August 1953, having tested at up to 114 mph on Watling Street!

He drove the 30/98 to MontIhery himself, accompanied by a colleague, Harold Radcliffe, in a Vauxhall Wyvern saloon carrying the large wheels and luggage. The track liaison chap, Monsieur Porcher, provided cover for the 30/98, and the next day Plowman was told he could practice providing his car was 40% quicker than a Simca which was lapping at 65 mph on a 15-day endurance test. He did 17 laps, getting 100 mph above the yellow line on bankings which he saw were steeper than those at Brooklands, pulling up the shock-absorbers twice, as the front-axle was dancing and his arms ached. The banking-angle suited the car’s speed and weight but would the 30/98 stand up to the hammering for an hour?

A new set of Lodge HIP plugs and a richer SU needle had already been put in and the 12-gallon tank filled to the brim with Esso pump petrol, so they went off to Arpazon for lunch prior to the hour run. Tom also bought a pair of chamois gloves for better grip on the steering-wheel. I will let his notes take up the story:

Back to the track at three o’clock — a little chat with the officials — they could time me at 3.30. M Massenet of the ACF would be along then. 3.15 I was getting ready — borrowed a golfing jacket, turned up the sleeves nice and free —yes OK—just then a voice said “Not a 30/98!”, and behold DS Jenkinson, who said he never passed Montlery, without calling in — always something interesting going on.

Petrol level checked — oil and water OK, donned the crash hat and thought “Hm, might be some sense in it after all” — had a drink of lemonade — goggles and gloves on — got in and confirmed the signals — left arm out at 15 minutes, both arms down in front 30 minutes — right arm out at three-quarters — both arms up at the hour — thought I, “You are a B optimist” — let’s go — two laps to warm up — I will raise a hand and the timekeepers can start — right, we’re off.

First — second — third — top — over the yellow line, down the short straight on the far side — up the banking — along the straight past the boys — up the banking — rough ride this — hands better — sure — gloves are fine — ease the grip a bit — round again, lifted a hand — being timed now.

Foot flat and kept it there — round again and again — phew — crash — those B front shockers are no good — that’s the front shocker brackets on the axle hitting the chassis — why do people do these things? — well a Vauxhall has never covered 100 miles in an hour before, and it’s time it was done — pay attention concentrate man — no need to go right up there — lap — lap — lap — silly devils are not timing me — oil pressure OK.

Well, this is a long quarter of an hour — lap, lap — dopey lot — just watching — ah, 15 minutes — gosh, seems an age — if anything breaks on this car bet it will be the sub-frame — that great engine weight. Phew, that’s my arm, numbed my hand — I wondered if I should have cut that bodyside away — wish I had — that’s better — coming back into use. B silly driving this thing one-handed — ah, that’s better — ease the grip of each hand in turn — those bumps — oil pressure OK. How are we doing?

Let’s go a bit higher — seems just as rough — lap — lap — lap — smell of rubber now and again — good tyres anyway — Dunlop racing — cost the earth. Should have enough petrol — gee, how well she pulls — this Esso stuff really has guts — lap — lap — dopey lot gone to sleep again — surely it’s half-way by now? — still running the same — same revs each part of the track — how well she goes past the stand — make those French chaps sit up a bit — camion — I like that.

Half way — about time too — what the hell? — do they think I’m running round here for ever? She should do the other half — keep about where you are — no sense in changing now — silly Bs might give me some signal — OK or something — ah! Well you’re over the ton all the time — nothing’s broken — if anything was going to it would by this time; ah well, ca ne fait riem —less thinking, more concentration — you’ll wreck the bloody thing — lap — lap — lap — wish old Pom could have come — getting the hang of this steering now — that solid crashing isn’t nice — press on. Lap, lap, lap — wonder how that oil leak is — still got good pressure — revs OK.

Weird how regular this is — same revs, same place every time — wish the chap with the white shirt would stand out in front — but then they’ve never been on a race track before — lap, lap — that Simca looks funny right down there — its just moving — doing 65 is it? Three-quarters distance — about time too — daft lot, why don’t they watch the time? — should do it now — petrol should be OK — started with 12 galls. Good stuff it is too. Never pulled like this before. Make a good mascot that tiger!

Lap — lap — lap — oil pressure drops a bit just there and then comes up again — that’s that leak—pressure up to 60 there — it’s the level not the oil. Glad I made up that new exhaust system. Must help a lot. Lap — lap — lap — lap — should do it now. Same revs, same places — bloody wonder car this —29 years old — beat a lot of moderns. Bet she would be giving 130 on the brake — lap — lap — lap — she’ll do it now — be a B if something busted now — they’ve got their hands up, all of them — that’s it then — do another couple of laps to make sure.

Attaboy — good — out of gear, switch off— coast in — what did she do? About 107 — what, in the hour? — yes — good — can I have a drink please? — lemonade — English brand—would like a cup of tea—what a hope!

What now? — put the wings back and have a drink — champagne please — poor stuff it was — refitted the wings and drove back by stages to Dunkirk. Sailed on Sunday and had to drive back to Luton on wing-lights only; no provision for night driving. Reached Luton 1.30am — and that is how a Vauxhall car, for the first time in history, covered one hundred miles in one hour — just for the hell of the thing.

The run was entirely successful. Certificate No 1511 of the Automobile Club de France shows that the 30/98 did 106.91 miles in the hour, with a best lap at 109 mph. As Plowman, who was 57 years of age at the time, remarked: “They go better when they get run in!”

In 1973 this historic 30/98 was bought by AE Palmer of Marlow, who had helped prepare it for the run. Tom’s son reported that the old car was still in good condition, “and positively roared away to her new home.” David Marsh was anxious to acquire another 30/98 to add to his collection of delectable vintage cars and after some indecision was able to buy it when Mr Palmer’s health was in doubt. It served him and his wife well on last year’s Bicentennial Rally to Australia (when they drove it from Darwin to Sydney via Alice Springs, Adelaide, Melbourne and Canberra, a total of 4000 miles), and he also drove it in this year’s VSCC Brooklands Driving Tests, winning a third-class award. WB

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