Striped tease

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This Brooklands Straker-Squire is even more remarkable than it looks says Andrew Frankel after one rather too brief encounter

Photography by Andrew Yeadon

It was quite gratifying really. We managed to bring Brooklands to a standstill. The Straker-Squire didn’t need even to be started, let alone be driven on the track at which it made its name for crowds of stupefied onlookers to gather around it. Few, in truth, knew what it was yet almost all recognised the car in an instant even if they could not pin a name to it.

Well you would wouldn’t you? Once glimpse of a faded photograph in a magazine such as this at any time in the last three generations would be enough to create an image in your mind that would be unlikely thereafter to leave. And if a faded snapshot can clasp your memory so securely, the real thing is something else again.

That paintwork is a publicity stunt pure and simple. The purpose of the Sidney Straker’s Roy Fedden-designed X2 prototype racing car was to sell the road cars that would follow. This it would do by attracting the public’s attention by not simply winning innumerable races but also by ensuring that those that saw it in action would be unlikely ever to forget it. And so, thanks to the berserk chevron paint scheme, it proved.

Raced by Straker’s nephew, the young and talented Bertie Kensington-Moir, the car passed into Brooklands history almost as soon as racing resumed in 1920 at the Byfleet track. It sprinted to one race victory after another that year, triumphing in sprints around the county and claiming the record for an ascent of the Brooklands test hill, cresting the summit completely airborne, just 9.45sec after departure. The following season was still more successful, dominating in Brooklands races, claiming hillclimbs and winning four different awards at Brooklands’ Surbiton Sprint meeting. During the season Ebby Ebblewhite timed X2 at a lap average of 103.76mph, not bad from a car built in 1918 with an engine designed during the Great War displacing just 3.9-litres.

Today, back at Brooklands, such feats are nowhere near the agenda, though be in no doubt it is the track rather than the car that prevents a repeat performance. Brooklands is a wonderful place, seeping nostalgia from every one of its brilliantly restored and maintained buildings and exhibits. The banking, however, has largely been destroyed by the combined ravages of war and property developers. Just a section remains, enough for sure to hint at the bravery required to circumnavigate it at speed in a leaf-sprung, aero-engined monster, but not sufficient to do much more than briefly rumble along for the camera’s lens. Even so, as you look towards the top of the banking and realise you’d need a rope-ladder to reach it on foot, your thoughts flick back once more to those who lived for and, on occasion, died by this track.

Happily, the Straker is in rather better condition. It is the flagship lot in Brooks’ Beaulieu sale in July and he or she whose hand remains in the air as the gavel comes down will have bought nothing so trivial as a motor car. The Straker-Squire is no modern recreation with a few period parts to lend authenticity; it is pure history. The engine, chassis, gearbox, front and rear axles as well as a sizeable chunk of the body are the very same that pushed X2 to over 110mph in its day. You can see hammer marks, where the prototype chassis was hand beaten into shape 80 years ago and spot the letter box slot where, when it once ran with an external exhaust, the sixth pipe protruded from the bulkhead.

Recently, it has been rebuilt, possibly for tile first time in its career. It took six years, the car breaking cover again at last year’s Goodwood Festival of Speed. And while this means the engine has still some running-in to do, the brief throughout was to maintain the car’s stunning authenticity.

I never cease to be amazed by the faith owners of cars such as this place in people such as me when asked if we might be allowed to drive. The Straker’s owner sent me simply a fax detailing how to start the thing, a request to keep the revs to 2700rnm as it has done just 800 miles since its rebuild and a command to enjoy it.

The starting procedure is lengthy but not complicated. A tap underneath the car turns on the fuel (the original Brooklands tanks located in the forward bulkhead and tail having been discarded on safety grounds) and a traditional lever in the cockpit will eventually pressurise the tank to the desired 2psi after a considerable effort. Then you flick on the magneto and dynamo and, having made sure the ignition is retarded, hit the starter. Ki-Gass enrichment is available for cold starts but, on the warm spring’s day of our encounter, was not needed.

At Brooklands, the results of such labours are rather pleasing. Faces appear in windows while people talking into mobile telephones flee for cover before realising their flight is in vain. The noise gets everywhere, a loud, slow rumble, deep enough to envelop and overwhelm all competing sound sources. The engine itself is a development of the Eagle aero-engine Straker-Squire built for Rolls-Royce during the Great War. It features an overhead camshaft, operating valves with exposed springs and individual cylinders, between which daylight can be seen. By modem standards, it is an absurdly low-revving unit, but in its day, its day and night peak of 3000rpm was indeed heady stuff for a 3921cc engine. Kensington-Moir would often push it to 3500rpm if it spelt the difference between outright victory and a mere placing.

The power is diverted through a four speed gearbox with an external change and an exposed gate before being shuttled rearward, through a huge rear (Wand out to beautiful wire wheels with implausibly skinny beaded-edge tyres running at 60psi. Braking followed the convention of the day with both the foot-pedal and hand-brake operating large, unfinned drums on the rear wheels alone. The suspension semi-elliptic leaf springs with Andre Hartford dampers does a notably poor job of absorbing bumps, despite the inverted rear springs being fitted with double shock absorbers.

The cockpit is similarly straight forward. The ignition and hand-throttle controls are on the steering wheel as you’d expect while the beautifully simple instruments monitor oil and fuel pressure, water temperature, engine and road speed. The pedals follow the period tradition of placing the accelerator in the middle, displacing the brake to the right.

And that’s it that is all that’s needed to be known to jump aboard this time capsule and head off anywhere you like though, without headlights or wings today, this means a private test track.

Having never driven a purpose-built Brooklands racer before, I had little idea what to expect. Would it handle at all? Though a car would have had to have been manageable on the obscenely bumpy banking, little demand would have been placed on its ability to corner in a more conventional sense. Would it stop? Again, Brooklands placed no premium on stopping power and actively militated against it as every extra scrap of retardation would be achieved at the expense of weight, unsprung weight and aerodynamic efficiency.

It is a common suggestion that manufacturers of this era knew little of and cared still less for easing a car’s path through the air around it but the Straker begs to tell a different story. Place it beside a more conventional racing car of the era and it looks fabulously low and sleek. Look me in the eye and tell me its shape doesn’t look at least as modem and a deal more efficient than that of, say, the Bentley that won the Brooklands Double Twelve in 1930, a full decade after the Straker’s debut on the track. In 1918 it must have looked like a creature from another planet.

And when you drive it, you realise the looks do not deceive. A true 70mph is a mere canter, even within my religiously observed 2700rpm limit but what is more remarkable is what happens when you ask for another lOmph. Such speeds are modest by modern standards but if you gave a less remarkable but similarly powerful 1920s racing car a similar request, you’d be asking it to fight its way through an increasingly impenetrable wall of air. Not so the Straker. Its sharp snout pierces a hole in the wall while its long, elegant, tapering body slips through effortlessly behind. Given the full 3500rpm, my fag-packet calculations say it would be turning its wheels at exactly 110mph, a speed I do not doubt for a moment that the Straker would reach today given sufficient time and distance.

Today, we have no such luxuries and we flatten out at 85mph, the straight-six now roaring for more. Conversation, even jilt had had a windscreen, would have been by sign-language.

Less ambitious velocities reveal a rather gentler side to the Straker’s nature. Though its piston to displacement ratio is unusually high for the era, the long stroke ensures torque in abundance at all engine speeds. Swapping between the gears takes a little thought and timing but would hold no fear to anyone who had handled any pm-war British sportscar from an MG PA to the Forrest-Lycett 8-litre Bentley described by WB below. The trick, as ever, is to learn from the inevitable early mistakes and the lever and its gate soon hold no further fears.

The brakes, contrary to expectations, are superb, quite the best single axle System I have tried, though I do not pretend for a moment to be any kind of authority on the genre. All I do know is that, in a day’s running I never had cause to worry about them which is as high praise as any brake system can expect.

It even handles, so long as your route through any given corner is devoid of bumps. It has particularly pleasing steering, much more vintage than Edwardian in feel, while its brand new beaded-edge boots grip surprisingly well and then drift gratifyingly easy.

I drove the Straker back onto its trailer for its return to Brooklands with mixed feelings. I was delighted that a car I had feared would charm only for its historical significance had proven to be so startlingly able in almost all disciplines it attempted. It is a charming car and one which belies its age almost entirely. Eighty years ago and without the history it has since acquired, you know it would have felt and appeared no less special.

But I was and remain saddened that, like so many cars I drive for this magazine, the encounter was so brief and, in all likelihood, never to be repeated. This Straker-Squire is, of course, unique; but rather more importantly, it is also a delight both to look at and drive. I hope only that whomsoever still has their hand aloft when the bidding stops in Brooks’ auction room on 23 July, will spend the next few decades doing a great deal of both.

Our sincere thanks to Brooks auctioneers and Nick Howell Jr making this feature possible.

How WB found the Straker

A long time ago I was in my office at Motor Sport waiting for something to happen, like galley-proofs to correct or for a long-awaited road-test car to arrive, when the ‘phone rang and I was told that some old cars were stored in the basement of a Maples building due for demolition because of the Euston Road underpass project. They sounded interesting and I made arrangements to have a look. But I was unprepared for what I was to see…

A caretaker was found to give me just a brief visit to the dingy basement, which was scarcely lit, so that my inspection was restricted, with no hope of taking notes. Yet what I was able to see was both interesting and a surprise. A surprise because a Director of Maples, had indulged in the unique taste for one car of which the radiators were changed for those from other makes… After the passage of time and the dingy viewing, and so much to take in. I cannot now recall quite what was what.

Memory, however, recalls an early chain-drive Mercedes, an Edwardian Straker-Squire, a Buick, and a 20/60hp Sunbeam, and in dim corners, others difficult to recognise because of their substitute radiators. But what really confused me was a two-seater with a Vauxhall radiator of the kind found on the 1910/14 cars but with a six-cylinder, overhead-camshaft engine with separate cylinders. An experimental Vauxhall I supposed. My guide, pointing his torch, said there was a racing body up on a shelf, but still the penny did not drop for me.

What I had missed, as was subsequently proved, was the chance of finding a Brooklands racing car. For this apparent ‘Vauxhall’ was a Straker-Squire, as driven to many successes at the Track and in hillclimbs, etc, by Kensington Moir for his uncle Sidney Straker. The racing body was a legacy of those days and the radiator was presumably another fad of that Maples director.

Be that as it may, the famous racing car was bought by someone in nearby Warren Street, and then rescued by Tony Armato and H Bateman, who gave me a brief but rewarding run in it. It was acquired later by Philip Mann, who did a splendid restoration job on it and used it to good effect in VSCC events. The next owner was Adrian Liddell, who continued to drive the car on the road and very notably inVSCC events, in the 1970s.

In 1989 this Straker-Squire went into the trade again but was soon acquired by NJ Howell, who embarked on a complete rebuild in 1991, after driving it for a year. This was completed in time for last year’s Goodwood Festival, where the Straker-Squire formed part of the Brooklands Society’s display, attracting much attention, especially as it had the black and white zig-zag ‘dazzle paintwork’ which Liddell had reinstated and which Mr Howell has retained, a finish worn by the car at Brooklands, no doubt the better to bring it to the notice of the spectators. They would have seen it win at least six races, break records, lap at 103.76mph and set the Test Hill record to 9.45sec in 1920.

My dismay at not recognising this desirable racing car in the Maples’ basement deflected my attention from the remarkable transformation which the Maples director had effected on his new motor cars. It really is a fascinating quirk. If any of the family or company can tell me more, I would like to hear from them. WB

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