Gordon Brettell's Pre-war Austin Seven Racing
Gordon Brettell’s Pre-war Austin Seven Racing
ALTHOUGH the Austin 7 is not raced as much as it was before the war, when it represented almost everyone’s first-car and an excellent beginner’s competition proposition (apart from which, the factory ran very professional side-valve andtwin-cam racing Austins), there is still much interest in them, and this account of the pre-war competition activities of the late Gordon Brettell and his Austin 7s is a splendid reminder of how it was done before Hider intervened. I have been able to present this record of Brettell’s motor-racing with the co-operation and permission of his brother Terence. who still attends meetings, wielding his camera, and who took the trouble to carefully chronicle his brothers’ racing, rather as Prince Chula did for “Bit-se”, but without, as in Chula’s cuss-these writings going into print.
I asked Terence Brettell how he and his brother “discovered” Brooklands in the first place. He tells me that it happened in 1932, whcn he was aged 12 and his brother was 17. At that time the boys were interested in aeroplanes and hardly at all in cars, until an Uncle took Gordon to a meeting at the Track and he returned home full of enthusiasm. They both attended the last race-mecting there in 1932 and when, that winter, the samc Uncle lent Terence Birkin’s book “Full Throttle” he was completely hooked. Because he was at boarding-school at the time it was only possible to get to Brixtklands during the holidays. He managed to get to the 1933 Easter Meeting and was “enormously impressed by Straight’s black Maserati” — a simple statement which nevertheless conjures up so vividly the excitement of arriving at the Track, the action, the colour, and the enthralling sounds and scent of dope-fuel and burnt castor-oil, at the meet fascinating place on Earth. . . Terence’s dearest wish was to see the Napicr-Railton and he remembers that, passing a newsagents, he saw its picture on the front cover of MOTOR SPORT. which is how he came to read this magazine! Cobb’s new car was due to run at the 1933 August. BARC Meedng but Gordon Bredell was abroad and, as their Father hadn’t she smallest interest in anything mechanical, there seemed no way in which Terence was going to get to Brooldands that day. Fortunately for him, a family friend happened to be staying with them and was willing to make the journey. (I was less fortunate in 1932 when Loot taken for a holiday in the New Forest by family friends. in a 9/15 Renault saloon, although desperately anxious to be at Brooklands, where Birkin and she single-seater Bentley were due to attack she, lap-record). In fact, Brettell’s Father had decided to go if all else failed. even though he was becoming uneasy at his sons’ increasing interest in a sport he disliked and feared — such are the sacrifict-o parents make for their children. . . . So Terence saw the Napier-Railton in action and thereafter he anti Gordon went to Brooklands whenever they could. Their Mother had a 1926 Chummy Austin, which she now gave to Gordon, and they also went to race meetings in the family Morns Eight. Other family cars included a brown Austin 12, these grcy Austin 12, and a Vauxhall Light-Six, bought in 1934 and retained until their father’s death in 1949. I cannot do better than quote Terence about the memories he has of those happy days at the Track: “Somehow, whenever I
think of the old Track three things come instantly to mind. The Multi-Union going on to the Members banking seta prodigious speed, the nose pointing well down; Cotton in the ERA and Maclure in the blown Riley coming down to the Fork side-by-side in a Mountain race, standing on the brakes at the last moment; but, above all arriving early on Easter Monday 1935, when from behind the Hill came a rising, high-pitched scream and suddenly a pale green car shot into view — Raymond Mays practising ill the 2-litre ERA, my first sight of one of these cars. It started an instant love-affair which has lasted to this day. To my intensely patriotic being, longing for British success, this was THE car. You could keep your Mercedes. Auto-Unions and Alfas. . . .” Those were the boys who raced the Brettell Austin 7 before the war. The Chummy Austin was soon improved upon! The boys pvc it an Alta head, Ballamy split-axk independent front suspension, an odd Bugatti-like tail to a two-seater body and an even-odder exhaust system,ind renamed it The Tiddler” (PE-8772). Its tirst competition event, driven ho Gordon Brettell im what was al..° his baptism in competitive motoring, was the 1935
“Jack & Jill” Trial, a threecornered match benveen the WASA (Women’s Automobile & Sports Association — remember?), the Cambridge SAC and the Oxford 13 MDC. Run in the Hindhcad area of Surrey, thernial took in such observed-sections as Blind Lane, Blackhorsc Hollow, Begley Farm, Oakshot, Abester’s Hollow and Whitmore Bottom — you can almost smell the warm mud on overheated exhaust systems! Stolen climbed the first four but failed on thc last nvo, due to lack of power and starting too slowly, respectively, finishing with 86 marks out of a possible 100. “The Tiddler’s” next appearance was in the Inter-Varsity speed trials at Syston Park. Hectic preparations were put in hand but the head gasket blew, so the car was beaten in its class, although clocking thc quite good time of 47.6 sec., running with cycle-type mudguards in place. Next, the converted Chummy was run in the Aston Clinton speed trials, in the 1,100 cc. class, in which it was out-classed, although doing 20.4 sec., later improved to 19.6 sec. A more ambitious protect was the JCC High Speed Trial at Brooklands. Unable to go “The Tiddler” ready in time, Gordon lxirrowed an Ulster Austin 7 for practice, in which he lapped the “road”-course at 52 m.p.h.. reaching 70 m.p.h. He had to non-stan,
which was perhaps just as well in such a slow car as “The Tiddler”. Gordon Brettell’s first taste of racing came at the 1935 JCC Donington Park Meeting, held over the Manufacturers’ circuit. He entered Iota 3-lap and a 5-lap race, both individually handicapped. Alas, the handicappers were very hard on the novice driver in his ancient Austin 7, asking it to give the latest MGs a start in the short race and an advantage of only three seconds over a 1934 Smger Le Mans In the longer one. It was too much! Although she car was running very .11, reaching 70 m.p.h. down Starkey straight, its brakes were too weak for this circuit. However. Gordon had she satisfaction of passing one of the MGs in his first race and of battling with iron the final lap, the Austin finishing two lengths ahead. “The Tiddler’s” last 1935 event was the Inter-Varsity reliability trial, again in the thrldhead area. The little car made a poor start, with cooling problems, but a refill of water mysteriously cured this and after an acceleration-test on Scotland Hill ft got up Oakshott in One style and romped up the first part of Steep. Wheelspin stopped it on the second part of Steep but Brettell now had the lead in the 850 c.c. class, for the Faulkner Cup, and had only to finish to win it. Alas again, the crankshaft broke. Realising that the ex-Chummy was too old for racing, for the 1936 season Brettell bought from Hugh Conway, who had been Secretary of the Cambridge SAC, the ex-Marquis de Belleroche Ulster Austin 7, for £45, proposing to spend some £30 getting it into good condition — the happy days of inexpensive racing! These plans had not materialised by the time of the Brooklands August Meeting, so Gordon borrowed Ian Connell’s 11/2-litre Vale Special a car fully described in MOTOR SPORT at the time) and entered for one outer-circuit and two Mountain races. In practice he lapped the former course at 102 m.p.h. and thc latter at 67.2 m.p.h. Unfortunately the cylinder head cracked and the car non-started. Meanwhile, Peter Monkhouse of Monaco Engineering Ltd. at Watford, had ambitious ideas for making the Belleroche Austin into a “wizard racer” The aim was to make this the slimmest car racing, narrower even than Doreen Evans’ Q-type, MG Midget. In the end the Austin emerged with a body only 17″ wide, or a whole inch narrower. it was thought than the slim MG, raced by that slim girl driver. Later it was discovered that the Brettell car was. in fact, three inches narrower! The new body and its
framework were constructed of light-alloys such as RR66, a duralumin sub-frame taking the driver’s seat and a 10-gallon fuel tank behind. The steering box was mounted on the side of the chassis to bring the steering column at an angle into the cockpit, and the steering wheel had a diameter of 16″. The rear 1/4-elliptic springs were underslung, to bring the axle in line with the transmission and crankshaft. The gear lever was placed outside the carets the left. Five weeks were occupied in carefully assembling the engine, to which a Cozette super-charger blowing at about ten lb./sq. in. was fitted. lubricated via a motorcycle drip-feed with glass sight. The ports were spaced to the manifolds by a special light-alloy distance piece, a new exhaust system being made up. The radiator was mounted well forward, on a light steel framework, leaving space for a bigger supercharger to be fitted if required. The 4.9 to 1 back axle was retained, as different wheel sizes were to be used to alter the overall gear ratios. A minimum of instruments was fitted, dominated by a large tachometer on the °is of the facia. The weight was 61/4-cwt. The rather ugly but exciting
little car was painted blue and was tested initially for 200 miles on Brooklands. The car’s first appearance in its revised form was to have been at the last Brooklands meeting of 1936 but a piece of solder from the new petrol tank choked the carburettor and it failed to qualify. At the Inter-Varsity speed-trials at Syston Park in 1937, Brettell being Secretary of the Cambridge Club, the Austin monoposto was driven by Peter Monkhouse, and there was instant success. Peter won the 855 cc. class and made third fastest time of the day, in 31.21 sec., aftcr a first run in 3206. sec.
Gordon Brettell’s turn came at the Easter Brooklands Meeting, where he was down to run in two Mountain races. In the first of these, giving Almack’s special Austin 7 six seconds, and starting 53 seconds before Gerard’s scratch 11/2-litre Riley, he passed Almack immediately after the banking corner and later lapped the other Austin, pulling well clear of all but five cars and winning at 61.9 m.p.h. by a margin of 17 seconds. That was a mistake, because in the second race Brettell was re-handicapped 2 seconds! He even had to make up four seconds on a 30/98 Vauxhall and Gammon’s scratch 2-litre Riley was off 32 seconds after him. Just failing to catch Hughes’ Vauxhall, the Austin had been overtaken by Inn.’ MG Magnetic and Lemon Burton’s Bugatti but she latter retired, net Brenta was third, 0.8 sec. behind the 30,98. His best lap in the first race was at 64.02 m.p.h. (twice) and in the second race 66.02 m.p.h., on his final lap. He improved his s.s. lap speed by 2.6 m.p.h. At the Lewes speed trials Monkhousc drove, hats plug oiled-up. Gordon Brown then entered the little car for the Whitsun Brooklands Meeting, very confident after his third place at Easter. In the Coronation Mountain Ilandicap he had to give Mond in Watson’s OP Bugatti 15 seconds, and Arthur Dobson in the ERA was on scratch, 43 seconds behind. It would obviously be necessary to hurry! Hurry Gordon did. FSe lift his cut-off point for the banking corner too late and on the second lap slid over the edge. A sapling held the car as it fell onto its side and Brettell escaped with multiple fractures of an elbow. Sammy Davis, who referred to the Austin as the smallest single-seater ever fitted to a large man, reported that when asked what had happened, Gordon said the little car had slipped off his foot. . . . Incidentally, “The Tiddler” was sometim. used for towing the single-seater, on a bar, with Terence steering and braking the racer; “enormous fun, but very cold”. He recalls them
stopping at Woolworth’s to buy gloves, coming home from Shelsley Walsh, and such a crowd collecting to look at the cars that a worried policeman was moving people on.
At the Pock speed trials, on a very hot day, the Austin was suffering from oiling-up of the plugs and a sticking dutch. It was third in its dam (25.97 see, Dorothy Stanley-Turner’s Q-type MG Midget being 0.9 see. quicker, but Gordon did beat a Frazer Nash by 0.1 sec. No practice was allowed and the Poole Park course incorporated a very tricky S-bend, which the Austin had to take without cutting out. The sight of the driver more out of his car than in it apparently amused the spedators and in the Paddock the two Austins of Brettell and Maclachlan created great interest, the latter’s blown at some 20 lb. ‘sq. in. The next engagement was the Autumn Shelsley-Walsh hill-climb. On the eliminating morning runs Dowler’s MG at first beat the Austin. which was misfiring badly. Then Gordon beat both this and a Montlhery MG Midget, with an ascent in 49.62 sec. In the Meeting proper the Austin was 5th in the 750 c.c. class (47.87 see, toed it was faster than some more formidable cars. and only 0.25 sec. slower than Connell’s ERA on that car’s better run.
For the last Brooklands Meeting of 1937 the Brettells decided to have a real fling. and the Austin was entered for races over two of thc three circuits. In his first experience of the outer-circuit in a proper race Gordon had to give 28 seconds to an MG Midget and had only 74 seconds advantage over the 41/2-litre Bowler-Hofman-Special. However, running extremely well, the Monaco Austin was leading after a lap and it eventually came in 5th, after getting round at 91.55 m.p.h. In the Campbell circuit ra., starting 66 seconds before Count Trossi’s Maserati, the Austin led for a lap and a half, was passed after a fight by Wilson’s 0-type MG Midget, then had a great duel with Hugh Hunter’s 2-litre Frazer Nash-BMNY,7 and gained a useful lead, which it haiked like keeping, when a plug melted its points and it domed, although still in third• place until the Maseratis tit Austin Dobson and Coon, Tross, came by. So Gordon Brettell netted another 5th place. He had lapped at exactly 60 m.p.h. on his best circuit. The 1937 season concluded with the cot’ wet Southsea speed trials, torrents of rain being lashed by a howling gale. Gordon took the bends carefully, to avoid wasting time in skids, but he 000 (0 trouble wit 11 a tot obstinate gear-change, oiling up of the plugs, and loss of the
slow-running screw, which caused the throttle to shut at awkward moments. Due to the gear changing difficulty. the engine was taken to 7,500 r.p.m. before getting out of bottom. The car had been entered out-of-its-class, in the 1,100 and 1,500 c.c. categories, but it was 2nd in each of them, beaten, however, by Rogers’ MG “Mucky Pup”, normally a slower car. There was the consolation. though of beating the Maclachlan Austin. . .
The boys had good reason to be quite pleased over this 1937 season of amateur motor racing. Oct • of six races entered the Austin had been placed twice in the first three, in sprints it had gained a first, two seconds and a third in its class.
The 1938 season opened for them when Gordon ran “The Tiddler” at Syston, but it was too slow to do him justice, its best time being 50.01 sec. The single-seater, unchanged except for slightly improved streamlining, was entered for an outer-circuit and a Campbell circuit race at the opening Brooklands Meeting. In the outer-circuit handicap it got away very fast and was doing 98 m.p.h. befitre the Members banking bump. Carburation trouble then set in and it retired. In practice the clutch had packed up and the car had only just been got to the start in time. More feverish work got it to the start of the road.circuit race, in *which “Bin’s” 3-litre Maserati was giving it 62 seconds and it was giving Miss Dorothy Stanley-Turner’s Q-type MG five seconds, fair enough as it had beaten this car the previous year. Lack of practice and not being used to the smaller front wheels now fitted to the Austin were a hinderance but Gordon wasn’t passed by St. John Horsfall’s 2.1(re Aston Martin until the second lap and he regained second place by taking Dorothy’s MG os he Railway suaight on the same lap. It looked as if the Austin was safely in 2nd place but it was not to be — “lira” was coming up fast. Gordon finished 0.2 sec. behind the Maserati, in 3rd place, after lapping at 61.36 m.p.h. The race was won by the Aston Martin. It had been hoped that for this 1938 season it would have been possibls to acquire the engine out of the side-valve Arks car that had been damaged in practice before the 1937 BRDC Brooklands 500 Mile Race, when Parnell’s MG Magnette slid down the Byfieet banking into Mrs. Petre’s Austin, putting her into hospital. The Austin Motor Co. was not very keen to co-operate but the Brettells did get this power unit early in 1938, only to find that it would not go into their, presumably standard, Austin chassis! There was a plan to race the Austin at Cork but this fell through because its brakes were deemed inadequate. So the next exercise was the Brooklands Easter Meeting. Two Campbell-drcuit events were entered for and for once excellent handicaps were obtained. A nee’l ‘Powerplus supercharger blowing at more than 20 lb./sq. in and a four-speed gearbox had been fitted. On the Tuesday before the Meeting the car W. fetched Irom Monaco Engineering but the Power above 4.500 r.p.m. VMS disappointing and the blower-drive broke, so they towed it back to Watford. The next day a tougher blower drive was installed and the car taken to the Track again. It wouldn’t exceed 5,600 r.p.m. in top .d he blower drive broke again. It was towed back to
Watford. It was discovered that the supercharger supports were flexing over the bumps, musing thc drive to shear, so Thursday was devoted to making stiffer mounts and a new drive. No practice on Good Friday, and on the Saturday hope diminished again, because the car still wouldn’t go. It needed a bigger carburettor. Gordon went to Brighton to fetch one late that night but it turned out to be the wrong sine. F.arly on race-day they try apin but there is no real speed. No. 3 plug keeps burning out, and the blower opens up a small crack in tho cylinder block, the edges of which get vehite hot. The car is withdrawn. . .
For the Whitson Brooklands races the old blower was re-installed, and the very badly cracked block welded up and rebored by 0.4 mm.. which made the capacity the unfonunatc one of 755 c.c. In the first Slap Campbell-circuit race the Austin had 105 seconds from Dobson’s ERA, from the limit position. Gordon got off to a fine start and was leading on the last lap when the brakes gave out at the Tcst Hill hairpin. He managed to hold the car, completed the rest of the race brakeless, and won by 4.6 sec., at 61.64 m.p.h. from Smith’s MG Magnetic and Cotton’s ERA. The best hip was at 63.30 m.p.h. Wendt had made history by being the first driver tonion 5-lap Campbell-circuit race. . . Back in the Paddock the bnikes were found to bc hopeless. The linings had gone and the shoos had melted! With the noise of cars revving-up, Gordon failed to hear the hooter for the start of his next race but the brakes were useless anyway. At the Aupst BARC Meeting the Austin was entered for an outer-circuit Handicap. Peter Monkhousc was away at Limerick but Wilson proved a very competent substitute. It was the handicapping that wcnt apinst the tiny car and its enthusiastic driver. Brettell had to give Charles Follett and Powell in their respective 11/2-litre Alvis and Lea-Francis cars three seconds start and in this 3-lap race Oliver Bertram was sent away only 115 seconds later, to the very Into 8.Iitre Bamato-Hassan. However, making a line noon, Brettell soon caught and passed not only the Alvin and Lca-Francis but Tuson’s Fiat which had been lla.ed away eight seconds before it. Ile emerged from behind the Members hill with a considerable lead, proof of the excellent acceleratiott of the lightweight. very slim blown Austin 7. As the cars ovenaken got into theu stride they passed the Austin but it held 4th position until the 1.st lap,
when four very quick cars swept past it in a bunch, including the scratch Bantato.Hassan. So Brettell was 8th, but quite pleased. as in practice the engine had boon down on power, until a la, bolt had been found in No. 3 inlet-port. having apparently passed through the supercharger! His best lap was done at 92.23 m.p.h.
For the Dunlop Jubilee Meeting at Brooklands, remembered for the menace of Munich. emphasised by the huge black thunderclouds that rolled up before the last race of the day, which could so easily have been the last ever to be held at Brooklands, Gordon Brent!! had entered for three events, two on the outer-circuit, one on the Campbell circuit. For the I.st he had the Austin but for the faster races he had borrowed Woolcy’s 3.1itre single-seater Roesch Talbot. The car proved unsteady in the extreme. contra, to expectation. In practice Gordon wcnt on to the Byflect banking too low and almost lost control and then the radiator cap opened and hot water blew back over his face. However, ho found that by pulling early off the Home banking he could win a duel with Gerard’s 3.1itre Dotage. So difficult was this Talbot that Chris Staniland said to Terence before the nice: “Better not say anything. but I hope he will be alright”. And Staniland had driven the car. . . . In the 7-lap Dunlop Jubilee Cup Race the Talbot had to give Baker-Carr’s Hotchkiss 20 seconds but was off 98 seconds before the Barnato-Hassan. He left in company with Elgood’s Bentley, which ho couldn’t hold, and he finished in 8th position. having lapped at 118.02 m.p.h. This was good going for a driver of his limited experience. He started the 5-lap Handiap 32 seconds before the Bentley-Jackson but had 33 seconds to make up on Baker’s Graham.Paige. Froy false-started and the race was held up. This caused the Talbot to get extremely hot and although Gordon kept his foot lint doom throughout, the car ran erratically, for no obvious reason, unless from fuel starvation. It lay 4th fora while, was passed by Couper’s Tally’ and the Bentley-Jackson, but re.took its place bv catching tho Brooke-Special and Baker at the Fork. This time the fastest lap was at 112.42 m.p.h. The Austin was thcn bmught out for the 5-lap Campbell-circuit Handicap. in which it had to make up 55 scconds on Metcalfe’s Balilla Fiat and was started only ten seconds before E. I)obson’s
Brettcll left with Castello’s Austin 7 Special but far out-clistanced it and was also drawing away from the scratch-placed Riley. There was some baulking but ho got the Fiat absolutely on the finish-line, finishing in 4th place, after having been re-passed by Bracey’s MG on the Railway straight, but getting by again on tho twisting section of the course. The Austin’s best lap was at 62.02 m.p.h. That ended the Brettells’ 1938 season. The two boys had great plans for the following year. “fhe idea was to sell the Monaco single-scatcr Austin and build up an exciting new chassis. in which the ex-Kay Pore engine would be mounted behind the driver. We have seen how the advent of the Grand Prix Mercedes-Benz had influenced the shape of ARE7TELL — continued cars like the Mufti-Union, Dr. Roth’s Talbot and Esson-Scott’s Type 51 Bugatti. The Brettells were obviously impressed with the Auto-Union GP cars. Peter Monkhouse and Monaco Engineering were to be entrusted with this ambitious project. Careful streamlining and better
It’gtsorlstIeL7tiinissang4t;t17cd:;:allicat:gfeed! thee even to happen. Funds ran out and the war overwhelmed everything.
Gordon Brettell joined the RAF. Involved in a battle over France during a daylight raid on a factory at Lille, in which his Mk V Spitfire was ritgaged by nine Messerschmitt 109s, he shot one down and, in spite of very severe injuries when a cannon-shell exploded against the Spitfire’s cockpit, causing him to faint from loss of blood fern while, he got back to England and lended safely. He had been working before the war as a freelance journalist node poignant account of his battle against such great odds exists, in the form of a little booklet “There Were Too Many Huns”. reprinted from the Sunday Pictorial. which Pilot-Officer E. G. Brettell wrote at the request of his doctor while he could remember vividly the details of the encounter and dicey flight home. Ile recovered to fly again, only tube shot down over Brest by AA fire. The cockpit hood jammed and the aeroplane went into the ground at very high speed. Gordon was desperately wounded but again he recovered. No wonder his brother thought hue to be indestructablc. After that hr was aiptured by the Germans but escaped several times from prisoner-of-war camps. On onc of these cscapcs he and a friend nearly made it to freedom but the train they were hiding on was !tatted because of an RAF raid and the Gestapo had time to search it. for spies, and discovered the too RAF Officers. Gordon Braidt was later milting another escape with the same friend. This time they got as ferns Danzig, before they “ere caught. Instead of being taken back to camp for interruption they were led to a lonely wood and shot, suffering the supreme sacrifice, as so many Young men of such calibre had done, no that Britain should be free from Nazi domination. This is but a small and very htunble tribute to their mcniory. — W.B.