The Editor talks to Vernon Balls
In the nineteen-twenties the names Vernon Balls and Amilcar were synonymous. Mr. Balls sold these popular French sports cars from his well-known premises at 95, High Holborn, WC1, and also gained some very notable successes driving Amilcars at Brooklands and elsewhere.
Motor Sport interviewed Mr. Balls in 1925 (January 1926 issue); that I was able to conduct another interview with him 47 years later is an indication of how well he has stayed the course! Nostalgic for the old days of motoring and motor racing, of which he retains his medals, trophies, photographs and cuttings books and other mementos—including a good memory—Vernon Balls, now over 80, still drives, favouring an Issigonis Riley 1100, which stands in the garage at his house in a private road in Wimbledon, SW London, alongside the 1899 Oldsmobile which he has driven in almost every London-Brighton Run since the formation of the VCC in 1930. He found this veteran in Lympsham and paid £15 for it; he has since refused £4,000.
Mr. Balls’ father, grandfather and great-grandfather were Veterinary Surgeons, as are his two sons today. “I was the one who broke away”, he says. As a boy he constructed his own motorcycle, based on a de Dion-engined Ariel tricycle but incorporating his own variable gear, and by 1907 he was in charge of repairs at the Motor House in the Euston Road. Incidentally, he purchased the de Dion tricycle and an 1899 Daimler for £10 the pair—”I wish I had them now!” He showed me a picture of a chain-drive Rocket-Schneider with left-hand-rotating engine, 1.t. magneto and leather mudguards, used for a holiday in Worthing in 1908; he remembers the 15-h.p. Napier as “a very good car”, and recalls selling a De Dietrich to two young fellows who never paid for it but who pushed it over the side of a ravine and set fire to it, having first insured it, as a means of making some easy money.
During 1914/18 Vernon Balls was driving a Mercedes taxi on special war-duties, surviving the zeppelin raids, and was also using a reliable 14/16 Belsize. Returning to the Motor Trade, he handled Mors spares from premises in Fulham, where he also repaired these cars. While in Paris in 1923 he met the Amilcar partners, two Frenchmen, Lamy and Akar, and bought one of their sports models. Entering it for an Essex MC Brooklands Meeting he won his first race, by a very narrow margin from Hawkes’ Morgan, at 63 1/2 m.p.h., and he decided to sell Amilcars in England.
This original Amilcar raced by Balls was a blue and aluminium skiff-tailed 961-c/c. Petit Sport with his wife’s initials, KN, in a circle on the scuttle. This was the beginning of a long racing career at Brooklands, during which Balls had a very good time and thoroughly enjoyed himself. He got a reputation for spirited cornering, which he first displayed with an Amilcar in the 1925 JCC High Speed Trial. This embraced an exciting hairpin bend on the Paddock approach road, on which Balls and an acrobatic passenger had much fun before the engine ran completely out of water.
The Amilcar lapped at nearly 77 m.p.h. during the 1924 season and encouraged Balls to race a 1,074-c.c. version. He used a dark blue streamlined two-seater for the 1925 season, its lap-speed increasing to 77.21 m.p.h., getting a third place at the last meeting. Various well-faired bodies were used on Balls’ Amilcars, the front cowling of one of them having the air inlet in the form of an Ace of Clubs. Vernon Balls concentrated in vintage times on those BARC 75-m.p.h. Short and Long Handicaps in which such a fascinating variety of racing cars faced the starter. He had several places in these and in similar races organised by the Essex MC, but his best performances were in more serious long-distance races. In the short Bank Holiday events, however, he got round the Track at 80.72 m.p.h. in 1926 in a red Amilcar, finishing second in a “75 Long”, and the following year he lapped at 87.99 m.p.h. in a blue four-cylinder Amilcar.
Moving from Fulham, Balls opened his famous High Holborn garage at a time when London was getting congested, so he was able to offer garaging for cars in a very convenient, central location, as well as doing general repairs and expanding the Amilcar side of his business. He employed up to eight fitters and, employing skilled mechanics, never needed a separate racing department. Inman, his Foreman, acted as a very enthusiastic head racing mechanic, riding with Balls in the longer races, and Lockert was brought over from France, “a very, very good mechanic” on Amilcars, while Lawson of Solex would advise about carburation.
The fame of the Amilcar was built up by the excellent CGS Grand Sport and CGSS Surbaisse models. They had good road-holding, the chassis stiffened effectively by an undertray, and Vernon Balls’ racing appearances kept them well in the limelight. The little 1,087-c.c. chassis was also sold with closed bodywork, from a very smart little pointed-tail coupé to quite commodious fabric saloons, of which the latter were used frequently by Vernon Balls and his growing family. He arranged to have short registration digits for the sports models, so that the plates would fit neatly between the front dumb-irons, where those with two letters and four digits wouldn’t go. (Later, when by a bit of wrangling Boon & Porter took over the Amilcar concessionaire-ship, they had to use longer number plates, which is how Amilcars sold by B. & P. before they became Riley agents can be distinguished from the Vernon Balls cars.)
By 1928 the Amilcar was thoroughly well-established in the affections of the sporting fraternity and was also marketed in more sedate versions, such as the Balmoral saloon, Sandringham saloon and Canisbrooke coupé, type-names evolved by Mr. Balls, who also devised a Pegasus mascot for the Amilcar. It is difficult to estimate how many he sold in entirety but he thinks it was “at least a couple of hundred”. Among his customers was that much-liked racing man J. G. Parry Thomas. While Boon & Porter were selling Amilcars from their premises close to Hammersmith Bridge, Vernon Balls was sending his agent, Nigley, to Paris to buy cars for him, which he shipped in via the channel Islands. So he never gave up selling Amilcars and later resumed the sole agency, as Amilcars (Gt. Britain) Ltd. At first five or six chassis at a time would be collected from the factory at St. Denis and driven to the coast by Balls himself and other drivers, but later ”they were delivered to London more or less by the railway”. In 1930 the straight-eight Amilcar was introduced, with 1,980-c.c. single-o.h.c. engine, perhaps because the Amilcar designer had grown overambitious and kit it essential to keep up with the Joneses. In spite of what a well-known writer in a certain encyclopaedia says, Vernon Balls says this “wasn’t a good car. The complicated valve gear gave trouble and it was never possible to keep it on eight cylinders”. He sold very few of the straight-eights.
Apart from his Amilcar interests, in 1927 Vernon Balls designed the good-looking sports Vernon-Derby and shortly afterwards worked with Crossley Motors on the team of sports/racing 1.100-c.c. Vernon-Crossleys, which he raced in 1932. Of the latter venture Mr. Balls says it is possible for a manufacturer to work for or against you and Crossley was perhaps in the latter category—like the Crossley-Bugatti, the Vernon-Crossley never got going properly, although the cars were not to blame. Mr. Balls recalls that the Vernon-Derby caused a certain amount of jealousy in Amilcar circles and was sold by Morgan Hastings Ltd. of Berkeley Street. He smiled as he pointed to a drawing of the rear 1/4-elliptic suspension of the Vernon-Derby, each spring secured to the chassis bracket by a single clamp. “After one of these had broken, causing the car to spin round, I insisted on a pair of clamps on each spring”, he said.
I asked Mr. Balls whether he ever took to aeroplanes while at Brooklands. “No”, he said rather emphatically, “but Duncan Davis once cajoled me into a joy ride in an Avro 504. He flew to Hounslow and we spent a long time in the bar, while my two boys were marooned back at the Track.”
Reverting to racing, late in 1924 the Amifear concern had branched out ambitiously from side-valve cars to the remarkable six-cylinder racing chassis with 56 x 74-mm. twin-cam engine, having a crankshaft running in seven roller bearings, roller big-ends and Roots supercharger. These were small racing cars of the most advanced conception, sold to customers in racing trim, with four-speed gearbox and 16-gallon fuel tank, making Amilcar in the 1,100c.c. class the equal of Bugatti in bigger-engined categories. Later plain-bearing versions were sold and their worth compared to the CCS Ann!car can be gleaned by the respective prices. For instance, at the 1928 London Motor Show you could buy a Grand Sport Amilcar for £265 (and, incidentally, a Brooklands Riley 9 for £420, a GP Salmson for £265), but the Amilcar Six cost £625 as a chassis, £695 ready to race—and in 1926 the chassis had cost £725.
When Vernon Balls failed to persuade Arnilcar to send a team of these wonderful little cars over for the 1925 JCC 200-Mile Race he entered a side-valve car with a well-streamlined body. Unfortunately the gearbox mainshaft was found to be broken when the car was being driven to the Track on the morning of the race. A new gearbox was fitted in 75 minutes, Mrs. Balls helping the hastily summoned mechanics, but the work was hampered by the undershield and although the Amilcar started on time, the six copper rivets securing the clutch centre sheared and caused Balls to retire.
For the 1926 “200” Balls used a shortened chassis and a special engine, with a Cozette supercharger driven from the front by spur gears and blowing at 7 lb./sq. in. He had seen these superchargers on Amilcar engines on test at the factory and had sought out the handsome, bearded Mon. Cozette in another Paris suburb. This blower suited the Amilcar engine very well, but Balls failed to finish the race on this occasion. He had retained the side-valve engine, although in the same race one entrant was using a push-rod o.h.v. conversion which had become available for Amilcar engines. The three works Amilcar Sixes of Martin, Duray and Morel dominated the 1,100-c.c. class, breaking the former Salrnson monopoly. They had been sent over with very definite instructions to finish 1, 2, 3, which they accomplished! For the 1927 200-Mile Race Vernon Balls had one of the works sixes, his team-mates being the friendly Morel and Martin from France, whom he looked after while they were in England, putting them at up the “Hand & Spear” in Weybridge. They nearly won outright, Morel failing to catch Malcolm Campbell’s admittedly sick Bugatti by just over a lap. Balls was third, Martin fourth, the Amilcar Sixes again 1, 2, 3 in their class. They were identical two seaters, except that Martin’s car had a partially-cowled radiator, an experiment in keeping it cool. Mr. Balls remembers these as “most marvellous little cars”, with excellent acceleration. They would run up to 6.500 r.p.m. but the factory was not particularly co-operative about releasing roller-bearing engines. However, Balls found that the plain-bearing engine stood up as well to high revs. The Amilcar Six became deservedly popular in this country and all those acquired here originally were sold through Vernon Balls’ company. They were driven in those days by drivers such as Balls’ racing partner Harcourt Wood, Mrs. W. B. Scott, Brian Twist, Major A. T. G. Gardner. R. T. Horton, etc.
In the 1928 “200” Balls maintained his reputation for hectic cornering, hitting one of the sandbank markers, stalling his engine, which he quickly hand-cranked into life again. Troubled by misfiring after a fine run, he nevertheless won his class and was fourth overall. He had a similar misfortune in the 1929 BRDC 500-Mile Race, after leading the field in the early stages and setting a new Class G 200 mile record.
In order to compete in British sports-car races with the Amilcar Sixes Balls devised road equipment for them, with vertical two-pane windscreen, mudguards, spare wheel mounted on the side, and starter and lamps energised from a dynamo belt-driven from the engine. In this form he drove them on the road, which must have been truly exciting—but he frequently drove his earlier Amilcars from Holborn to Brooklands, tuning them at his shed behind the Paddock. The dynamo belt was always coming off, on the sports Sixes, and Scrutineer Hugh McConnell’s sharp eyes soon spotted this, which earned disqualification, so Balls used to fit three belts, of which one drove the dynamo and the others could be slipped into place when required. Apparently the factory wasn’t interested in road-equipped Sixes, so Balls found them “not all that helpful”. He ran one of these Amilcars in the 1928 TT but crashed when the brakes failed coming through Newtownards, landing himself and mechanic in hospital, although they soon returned to watch the race, Balls with an outsize bandage round his head.
There is insufficient space to record all Vernon Balls’ racing successes. Suffice it to say that apart front being placed in some of the longer outer-circuit Brooklands races, he lapped at 103.76 m.p.h. during the 1928 season in an Amilcar Six—without being placed, such was the handicapping. Only one of these cars ever lapped faster— Miss Maconochie’s, by 0.65 m.p.h. At the 1930 March Brooklands Meeting Balls won the Essex Long Handicap in a grey Amilcar Six (presumably awaiting its coat of blue paint, so perhaps an ex-works car) front Marendaz’ Graham-Paige and Brackenbury’s Bugatti, his best lap at 95.78 m.p.h., and he finished second to Waite’s blown works Austin 7 in the August Mountain Racing Handicap, lapping at 60.52 m.p.h., which shows that none of his skill in cornering had diminished. In 1931 Balls transferred his attention to an Ulster Austin 7, “another excellent car”, with which he finished the course in the JCC Double Twelve Hour Race and was placed in shorter races.
Apart from motor racing, Vernon Balls, as befitted someone whose ancestors came from a famous coaching family, used to ride his horse “High Holborn” in flat races but although it frequently came in second or third it never actually won, although the ever-present hope caused its owner to spend a lot of money on it. He also recalls with pleasure how, when his sons and fellow veterinary students wanted to go to the Derby by coach, he hired “The Paragon” from Thomas Tilling, who drove it himself, behind the last four greys Tillings had kept, past Victoria Station and through the London motor traffic of the 1930s…. And up to a few years ago Vernon Balls hunted with the Surrey Union.
During the Second World War he was Assistant Director of Tanks (TT3AR) in the Ministry of Supply. In comparatively recent times he has owned some good cars, including a Mk. VI Bentley OXV 1— he likes a “1” registration—and a Railton. The latter met him on its last run at Euston Station and his driver backed it up to the platform, which buckled its exhaust pipe, pushing it upwards. On the way home the back seat cushion caught fire and the car was completely gutted.
Vernon Balls has lived a full and eventful life but always will his name be linked with his beloved Amilcars. — W. B.
[Perhaps I should have called this article “More About Amilcars”, because a technical discourse appeared in Motor Sport for July 1947 and some of the more special Amilcar Sixes were covered in the issue for May 1948. Copies are available from our Photostat Department. —Ed.]