A new line for amateur "Special" builders

S. H. Statham suggests bigger engines to give reliability as well as performance

Whenever enthusiasts for-gather, either over pints of weak war-time ale or over cups of strong tea, the conversation soon turns to the subject of “specials.” The backs of beer mats, old envelopes, or any other scraps of suitable material are quickly covered with diagrams of chain drives, drilled frames and big twins. Inevitably the point arises that divides the party into two different camps: Is the “special,” as it appeared in pre-war competitions, finished as far as the purely amateur constructor is concerned? Before proceeding further, it is necessary to put a limitation on the word “special.” As far as this article is concerned, the word is intended to cover the essentially home-designed and home-built machine which formed the bulk of the more interesting entries in pre-war sprint events. Such cars are Wilkes’s G.N. Special, and a host of others, most of the better known of which were covered in an article in this journal in July, 1940, Specials such as the Appellton Special, special M.G.s, and similar cars, I feel, come into quite a different category.

Those that dare to make the almost sacrilegious statement that the special is doomed base their argument on the following points. They say: First, take the cost and time necessary for construction. Admittedly, if most of the work is done at home the labour cost involved is negligible, apart from bodily injury inflicted by breast drills and hack-saws. However, material cost and special work always come out at twice that allowed in the most liberal estimate. Secondly, so much time is spent on constructional work that inevitably not enough time is left for tuning, and, if it is, the machine is usually in really good running order about twice in a season. Half the events in which the owner wishes to compete he views as a spectator. Thirdly, unless the machine, when finished, is of the calibre of one of the Bolster “Marys” or the “Freikaiserwagen” (incidentally, the latter was reported, I believe, to have cost over £600 in its final pre-war form), it has little chance of even a class award against most of the opposition likely to be met in the smaller supercharged classes which usually contain a fair sprinkling of works entries. Another point thrown into the hay, and which is certainly true in some respects, is that there are only a limited number of twin engines available of the “Mowgli” calibre, most of which are in the hands of good owners at the moment. Finally, when asked what they suggest for the amateur who wishes to take part in sprint events, the upholders of the above line of argument say, “Buy either car on which most of the donkey-work has already been carried out (if you can find one) or a good second-hand M.G., and spend what you can on having it blown and really well tuned. Then you will have a car with which you have a good chance of obtaining at least a class award in some of the smaller events and one which could be used with every prospect of success in trials.

The supporters of the “special” in its traditional form have many potent and pointed replies to all these statements. As to cost and lack of time for tuning, they say if the car is properly thought out and designed before ever a hole is drilled or a piece of metal cut, endless work can be saved. Also, only parts that are going to be easy to fit without a lot of alteration to the part and modification to the design should be bought. The enthusiast should control himself strictly when visiting garages and breakers’ yards and not buy parts merely because they “look as if they might do for the ‘special.'”

The point about not standing a chance even of a class award is generally countered with remarks to the effect that the special builder usually counts his enjoyment of the Sport in getting the car running and driving it to the best of his ability, and its performance, for the pure enjoyment of so doing. He is usually not a pot-hunter. Any mention of lack of suitable engines brings forth streams of suggestions, ranging from the fitting of numbers of dirt track J.A.P.s connected to the rear axle via yards of chain, to the use of braces of Square-Four Ariels mounted behind the driver.

As to the suggestion of blowing and hotting-up M.G.s and similar cars, this produces moans and cries of such magnitude that one wonders if some of the listeners are suffering physical as well as mental pain.

There must be many groups of enthusists who at times have heated discussions similar to the one outlined above, and for the moment I do not intend holding a brief for either side. I do, however, feel that there are a number of ways by which the prospective “special” builder might increase his enjoyment of post-war sprint events.

The article by Kenneth Neve – “Why not Class I” in Motor Sport, August 1941 – suggested concentration on the smaller machine as the way to save the true “special” from extinction; but as this proposal was discussed at the time, it is not intended to go into its advantages and disadvantages again to now. It is my own opinion, however, that those smaller machines lead but to the “doodle-bug.” In fact, even in pre-war events there were numbers of machines running which had already sunk so low as to be fitted with undersized wheels – tyres by courtesy of the corporation ‘wheelbarrow.

In my opinion there is only one solution: concentration on the larger capacity classes with “specials” fitted with biger engines in lighter chassis. The larger capacity classes, with a number or notable exceptions, were usually the province of the big, fast sports car and rarely attracted the home-brewed machine.

One of the most potent and successful cars running before the outbreak of war was the Hudson-engined Skinner Special. Although the last time this car won the cup for the fastest Shelsley Special the Editor sof Motor Sport was moved to say that in his opinion this car did not qualify as a true “special,” I feel that in the construction of similar cars lies the only hope in the future for the amateur. The late Richard Bolster had, I believe, practically completed a Hudson-engined “special,” but the war prevented it appearing on a starting line. The Buick-engined Lloyd Special is another machine that comes to mind as favouring the large American engine, albeit of rather “imitation-Indianapolis” conception.

When one thinks of the amazing amount of power that people have been able to extract from side-valve Austin Seven engines, I do feel that the big American engine has not received its full share of unorthodox tuning, and therefore its possibilities as the power unit for a sprint car have not been fully exploited. As most readers will know, in Australia and New Zealand, where the difficulty of obtaining spares for some of the older English and Continental sports cars is considerable, American engines have been substituted with some success. There is no excuse for such vandalism in this country where, in my opinion, the results obtained from properly rebuilding most vintage cars repay any expenditure of time and money. It cannot be denied, however, that there is a number of machines, such as 1,100-c.c. Altas, “Brooklands” Rileys and some Bugattis, owned by enthusiasts but whose engines have been caned to death in the hands of former owners. No amount of work on such cars, apart from obtaining a new engine, will produce a standard of performance that could not be bettered by, say, a good second-hand Hillman Fourteen. Here, then, seems to be a possible source of supply for suitable chassis, which could be strengthened to take the extra torque from a large engine. I do not intend to go into the technical difficulties that would be encountered in fitting large engines into small frames as so much depends on the type of engine and chassis used, but obviously weight distribution and wheelspin would not have to be overlooked. If, to obviate wheelspin, the fitting of the engine in the rear or the car was considered, the final drive would present some difficulty if rear independent suspension was not possible. However, as far as pure constructional work is concerned, after the article by K. B. Salmon in the January, 1943 issue of Motor Sport, nothing seems impossible. In fact, Mr. Salmon’s article seems to have shaken quite a number of people who hitherto imagined themselves rather handy at whipping engines in and out and changing axles when the spirit moved them.

Now all this may suggest the development of what has been termed the “non-traditional type of racing car,” which serves no useful purpose in technical development. Who can honestly say that any amateur sprint “special” built in the ten years previous to the outbreak of the war has had the slightest effect on the conception or design of works-produced racing or sports cars? There is no doubt that whatever form post-war motoring sport takes, there will always be a large group of enthusiasts wanting to run cars that they have built with their own hands. To such people the larger American-engined “special” [or the use of large engines of non-American type, preferably, surely? – Ed.] does appear to be one of possible means of achieving faster times at lower cost. Let us hope, then, that the day is not far distant when some bold competitor will wait at the starting line with, say, a 12-cylinder Lincoln “zephyr” engine mounted behind him in a Morris (or similar) chassis! [We find Mr. Statham’s suggestion interesting, but debatable. The development of a small-engined “special” is fascinating because one is exploiting an engine or an engine-chassis combination farther than it has been exploited in other forms. The bigger engines, however, give so much performance that unless competition led to the need to tune them and lighten the chassis into which they were unstalled, the “special” would be little more than an Allard without wings. Given sufficient opposition – and that is essential for healthy development of any sort of competition car – obviously the big-engined “special” might well become a most absorbing study. But then reliability could very easily suffer, or, if it did not, it seems dubious whether the power-weight ratio of thw 1,100-c.c. “specials” would ever be approached. – Ed.]