The HRG Aerodynamic caused quite a stir when launched almost 70 years ago. It still does…
Writer Richard Heseltine, Photographer Manuel Portugal
you could call it anti-expectation. This is an HRG, after all. The close proximity of the steering wheel to your chest certainly focuses your attention, the snort-like-a-pig hilarity as you crash down to earth with each bump being tempered by the knowledge that you might end up wearing it. The HRG Aerodynamic rattles your bones and your senses, that’s for sure, the exhaust note being best described as ‘rorty’ to borrow motoring parlance of yesteryear. It’s huge fun, the steering being light and disarmingly direct but you soon stop over-correcting – stop broadsiding – and look like you know what you’re doing; start acting like a grown-up.
You know what to expect even if the dramatic outer wrapper might have you believing it’s more modern than it actually is. In 1946, when the Aerodynamic was first unveiled, there was nothing cautious or bet-hedging about the visuals. The rest of the car? Not so much. But, as with any other HRG, get to know it, understand its foibles, and you will be amazed at how quickly you can cover ground, and have a bundle of laughs while doing so.
Outwardly, at least, the Aerodynamic appears to have had one foot in the times and another in a world of its own. It is no great surprise that it caused such a furore the better part of 70 years ago. It must have seemed ultra-radical. Previous HRGs had been perpendicular and slab of side, but they consistently punched above their weight on track and in rallies. This was to be expected given the resumés of the men behind the marque.
The ‘H’ of HRG was Ted Halford, a former director of the Vale Special car company, ‘R’ was ex-Trojan man Guy Robins and HR ‘Ron’ Godfrey – formerly the ‘G’ of GN – provided the final initial. They looked after administration, production and design/engineering respectively. However, by the time the first car emerged in 1935, their baby was not what you might call adventurous in outlook: it comprised a ladder chassis with two parallel C-section channels running fore and aft, strengthened by tubular cross-members, the front beam axle jutting way out front supported by quarter-elliptic springs and located by the arms of the friction dampers. With semi-elliptic springs to the rear, there wasn’t much in the way of elasticity to keep all four wheels in contact with the road, the ash body frame being designed to flex and absorb some of the loads.
But it worked, and 1.5-litre Meadows-powered HRGs proved highly effective in motor sport. One example, driven by Peter Clark and future BMC Competitions Department principal Marcus Chambers, claimed class honours at Le Mans in 1939 (a year after 1.1- and 1.5-litre Singer-derived engines became standard equipment). The Autocar tested one equipped with the larger-displacement ‘four’ and recorded a top speed of 83mph and a 0-60mph time of 18.1sec. Just imagine how much faster it would be if it cleaved the air more efficiently…
The HRG Engineering Company’s management was acutely aware of where the future lay. During 1938, they devised a plan to ramp up production of the 1100/1500 models to 150 units per year in 1939-40 and began building up stocks. However, this was to be just the opening salvo of expansion plans that called for an entire range of new cars to come online in 1941-42. These would address the shortfalls of the existing products, with a longer and wider chassis being shared between variants. These would include a semi-streamliner, a drophead coupé and a supercharged, ultra-aerodynamic competition model. Power would come from a new Singer-based ‘four’ but with an aluminium crossflow HRG head.
Unfortunately, WWII scuppered the company’s plans. A prototype semi-streamliner dubbed the Continental was completed, however, with input from Clark, Chambers and Laurence Pomeroy among others, and in a roundabout way this led to what became the Aerodynamic (the Continental name was dropped on account that much of continental Europe lay in ruins at this time).
In austere post-war Britain, there was a severe shortage of raw materials and HRG, like any other car manufacturer, needed to be pragmatic, hence the decision was made to adapt the basic concept to suit the existing 1500 platform.
A rolling chassis was subsequently dispatched to coachbuilder Fox & Nicholl, which was well-versed in shaping light aluminium panels given its recent experience of wartime aircraft production. The new body was mounted on a supplementary – and skeletal – two-part frame that added little in the way of rigidity – and, it has to be said, the firm didn’t have the best reputation for build quality. It also refused to countenance changes being made between the prototyping and series-production phases, which led to a parting of the ways.
Not that the car emerged quite how its makers intended, anyway. On paper, it had a much lower bonnet line but that would have necessitated a smaller radiator with a remote header tank. Nevertheless, Chambers and Clark drove the prototype to France for the big reveal at the ’46 Paris Motor Show, where press and public received it warmly. That same year, The Autocar’s Sammy Davis drove one to the continent where Paul Frère took it for a spin. Davis wrote: “Paul demonstrated it to all and sundry, and at truly exciting speeds, rain or shine.” The car averaged 43.7mph from Zurich to Brussels, but not without one or two niggles. “Certain rattles developed and an exhaust pipe bolt needed to be tightened,” Davis added. In 1948, HRG rally man John Gott wrote of his experiences driving an Aerodynamic in foreign parts, the future BMC works driver claiming a top speed of 89mph with the car fully laden. What’s more, he felt it would be capable of at least 100mph with an aero-screen.
Aerodynamics proved particularly adept in long-distance events, usually competing in the up-to 1.5-litre class. HRG claimed the 1948 Spa 24 Hours Coupe du Roi prize and team honours on that year’s Alpine Rally (although the team comprised Aeros and regular 1500s). Nevertheless, production car bodies emerged heavier than expected, while the ultra-firm suspension and whippy chassis played havoc with the ally panels. This ultimately led the Tolworth firm to call time on the Aerodyamic after only two years, by which time around 45 cars had been made.
The example pictured here was sold new in Portugal, in August 1947, and had a longer competition career than most. Its first owner, expatriate Norwegian Simon Knudsen, entered it in countless events although, just to confuse matters he is listed in various periodicals of the time as Simon K Hansen or ‘Hansen Knudsen’. He competed in the following year’s Lisbon International Rally and, against strong opposition, finished 46th. Scroll forward 12 months and he took fifth overall while also taking category honours. Other class wins were taken on the Miramar Rally, the Viseu Rally and Esposende’s Standing Kilometre.
Our hero kicked off his 1950 campaign in northern Portugal, finishing runner-up in class on the Spring Rally before crashing out of the Lisbon International. A year later, he steered the HRG to seventh place at the Arrabida hillclimb meeting near Setúbal, before rounding out its career in 1952 at a hillclimb event in Gradil.
At some point, a 2.5-litre Lea-Francis engine was substituted, the Aerodynamic later suffering the ignominy of being sold to the scrapman before the hugely enthusiastic João Mendes de Almeida rescued it. The Madeira Island man diligently set about restoring the car, right down to sourcing an era-specific 1.5-litre engine, before selling it to Portuguese collector Carlos Cruz in 2012. The HRG went on to claim a class win in the following year’s Cascais Concours d’Élégance and it currently shares garage space with assorted Allards, Sunbeams, Denzels and a DB-Panhard.
Parked in the shadow of the Autódromo do Estoril’s grandstand, the HRG appears agreeably eccentric. It isn’t exactly beautiful, not even close, but it’s hard not to love. Indeed, it proves to be an irresistible draw to just about everyone.
The thing is, the more you look, the more you drink in the details, the more sceptical you become. The HRG’s outline is compelling, but the profusion of louvres, not to mention the flat-pane windscreen and slatted grille, don’t exactly scream ‘wind-cheating’. In true period style, you sit bolt upright with the high-set four-spoke wheel near vertical. The body-coloured dash is comprehensively equipped, with the dominant speedo and rev counter flanked by smaller gauges for oil pressure, oil temperature and suchlike. Unusually for a British sports car of the day – or even for one 20 years its junior, it also has wind-down windows.
On the move, what strikes you is how smooth the engine is. It isn’t especially powerful, but it is utterly docile. Tractable, too. It doesn’t throw a strop in traffic despite the heat, nor does it feel on the verge of detonation at higher revs. You just don’t expect it to be this flexible. And it sounds good, all bark and bluster, which goads you into driving harder. In other respects the HRG is typical of its age, cornering power being generated as much by chassis flex as by suspension and damping.
A degree of physical dexterity is required to get the best out of it, though. Ideally, you should double declutch on up and down shifts, but the pedals are close-coupled so this is no easy task. Also, just about everything else is either brushing your chest hairs or digging into your lower extremities. You soon revert to vintage car mode, however, and generally let it do its own thing and in its own time. The four-speed ’box, meanwhile, is easy to guide between planes without snatching. The drum brakes also work well, but then they have only 814kg to arrest.
Ultimately, it’s the handling that really excites… except it doesn’t really corner so much as pivot around you. To begin with, it’s almost eerie. After 20 minutes or so, its ability to take each turn faster than the last makes you laugh like a loon. HRGs have that effect, the sad part being that the company made only 241 cars before production ceased in 1956. That said, a pretty Vauxhall-engined prototype emerged following a decade’s hiatus, but it didn’t bring about a renaissance and remained unique. The firm only closed its doors following the death of chairman and principal shareholder Lord Selsdon. Tellingly, it was one of few specialist marques ever to fold of its own volition. What’s more, nobody was left out of pocket, with remaining spares along with the jigs, patterns and drawings passing to the HRG Association, which remains in business after five-and-a-bit decades.
HRG’s tagline was ‘The Sportsman’s Ideal’. It’s debatable whether this maxim applied to the Aerodynamic, but it holds true in broad outline. It was a bold experiment, but one that ultimately made ripples, not a waterfall. The Aerodynamic didn’t do anything any better than a regular HRG, but then modernisation isn’t necessarily the same thing as improvement.
Thanks to: Carlos Cruz, Adelino Dinis, Ian Dussek and the HRG Association