Letter to readers

Author

Denis Jenkinson

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A Problem

Dear Reader

When you are involved with vintage and post-vintage cars, where they are built on a steel chassis frame with engines, gearbox, axles and bodywork forming separate components, which when assembled in the correct pattern form an entity that can be described as motor car, then there is a problem.

It is not a new problem, it is one that has been with us for a long time, and one that I hope will stay with us for a long time to come. This problem is the visionary person who becomes a special-builder, the sort of person who desires to build something for himself but hasn’t the finance or facilities, to build a special from scratch.

Last month in Motor Sport the editor chatted to Mr Challenor-Barson about the twelve specials he has built, an entirely personal and fascinating variety; in fact Mr CB is a classic example of our problem, except that he dealt mostly with road-going specials, whereas here I want to deal with racing specials. The specials themselves cause no problems, neither do the builders, but the problem of the builder arises from future owners of the cars. It is most unlikely that one man’s special will appeal to the next man, and really there ought to be an unwritten rule that specials should not be sold, but should be broken and destroyed when the originator has tired of them.

Most racing specials have been conceived from parts of obsolete cars, the special-builder giving an extra lease of life to an interesting engine, or a chassis frame, or even a body, when the assembly is no longer race-worthy. Since the advent of the Vintage car movement and the increased interest in racing historic cars the re-assembly of components to form an historic entity has lost its way, because if a major component is missing it is no longer possible to find another one, or even a similar one that could be adapted. The result is that in this affluent age in which we live, new components can be made to replace any that are missing, and while being made these components are redesigned using later knowledge and technology. But I am getting too far ahead!

To return to the basic problem, that of moving components about. One Special that still exists today was originally conceived as a pretty fast single-seater Grand Prix type of car. The specials builder took a well-known 1927 chassis, complete with axle, brakes, body and transmission, but less its 1927 engine, and installed a much more powerful 1931 engine of a different make. This engine had come from a two-seater racing car that was built in 1931, which was abandoned when the “new” single-seater was built. The single-seater was raced until 1939, when it was put in store for the war years, while the original two-seater, without its engine, was given a new lease of life in a different racing category by installing a proprietary 4-cylinder racing engine in place of the original 8-cylinder.

In 1947 the single-seater was obsolete, but the engine was still healthy, so it was removed and put into a completely new chassis and body, and the basically 1927 car was abandoned. Many years later, when the 1947 special had become obsolete, the engine was put back into the 1927 chassis to reform the 1933 special single-seater in the form it had been in 1939. While all this was going on the original 1931 car, from which the 8-cylinder engine had come, surfaced and was restored as new except that the engine was not available as it was back in the 1933 special!

Only two of these engines were built in 1931, to go into the two racing cars of a team. The second car still exists, remarkably original, complete and untouched in fact virtually untouchable, but the first car of the team badly needs its engine back.

We now have the problem of there being one engine and three cars, all of which have a claim to the engine, and all three created a small piece of motor racing history in their time. The question is, which car should have the engine? The 1931-33 car was a virtual total failure in its day, the 1933-39 special was reasonably successful, and the 1947-52 special was interesting but did not have much success. At the moment the engine is in the 1933-39 special.

There is another example of this problem, caused by the special-builder in which a well-known 6-cylinder engine, virtually a one off, has been in three historic chassis and is now in none of them, but healthy and active in a fourth chassis. The original car is complete and in fine fettle, but forced to use a standard production engine, because the original engine is still in use in the latest special. The two intervening cars could be resurrected if the engine became available, but again which one should have it?

The cottage industry that is quietly getting on with creating “famous historic racing cars” would make some more engines, but to the historian that would be completely unacceptable, especially while the original engine exists, for in both cases cited above it was the engines that made the specials historically interesting. To install new engines in any of the existing cars would make them hysteric and only suitable for mass-media museums and of little interest to enthusiasts.

This problem of the special-builder using one engine in two cars has recently reared its head again, with sinister connotations. A 1935 sportscar, with a very potent supercharged engine, was turned into a single-seater racing car within a short time of its birth. It made its mark in racing history more as the single-seater than as the sports car. So far so good. When the single-seater became obsolete the engine was removed and installed in a special, the chassis frame being sold to another special-builder, when he used it to build himself a sports two-seater on the line of the original car. Legally, in those days, the registration number was given to the chassis, so it stayed with the recreated sports two-seater. Eventually the special containing the original engine became obsolete and was broken up, but the engine was retained, so we arrived at the situation of one person owning a sports two-seater using the original chassis frame and another person owning the original engine, neither of them wishing to part with what they had. The owner of the chassis and registration number was happily driving about using another engine and a new body, while the owner of the engine was building a single-seater car around the power unit. He was not building another special using vision and imagination, but was building up a new version of the original car! For argument’s sake we will call the original chassis frame number 1234, which gives it a definite entity in the factory records, which still exist. The owner of the engine has made a brand new chassis frame which he has stamped 1234RC, stating that RC stands for “reclaimed” but personally I cannot see how this can be justified when the original chassis from 1234 still exists. Even if the new frame had been stamped 1234F (I won’t say what F stands for!) it would still not be acceptable in my eyes. If it had been stamped 1, or 3 if the builder was on his third special, it would be acceptable as a special, even though it is so unimaginative that it looks like the original car in its single-seater form.

If this sort of use of number stamps is accepted officially within the VSCC and other responsible clubs I fear it will set an unhealthy precedent.

The examples given of problems caused unwittingly by special-builders, are just the tip of a very large iceberg, and the problems arise solely because of the fashion to own something historic and by inference something valuable. If only more special-builders would be active, rather than re-creators of historic cars, we could all go on having a happy time with our old cars. — DSJ

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