Rivals of the famous baby

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The famous baby is, of course, the Austin 7, and to suggest that it had rivals in racing in the 750 cc class is something of an exaggeration. Because such rivals were not very conspicuous, although it has to be agreed that the MG Midget had the legs of the Austin 7 in the 1930s. There was some excuse for this, because when it first appeared in competition, such as in the 1930 JCC ‘DoubleTwelve’ marathon at Brooklands, the little MG had an 847 cc engine, against the A7’s 747 cc.

Later the battle commenced in earnest, when this overhead-camshaft MG power-unit had its stroke reduced from 83 mm by 10 mm, while retaining the original cylinder-bore dimensions of 57 mm, to bring it into the 750 cc class. Both Austin and MG were anxious to be first officially to record a speed of 100 mph or over in what was popularly called the ‘babycar’ class. To this end, both used superchargers and MG had the advantage of overhead-camshaft engines, against the side-by-side valves of the more aged Austin 7, which had made its appearance in 1922, seven years before MG Midget production.

MG got to that target first, went on to do 100 miles in an hour, and finally cleaned-up all the records that mattered in the International Class H for cars of between 500-750 cc.

The superiority of the MG from Abingdonon-Thames became apparent in the aforementioned ‘Double-Twelve race. At the end of this long stint, in which eight teams had started, two of the privately-entered MG Midget teams beat the sole remaining Austin team by a narrow margin — and the A7s had the advantage of using supercharged engines. By the time the 1931 ‘Double-Twelve’ came around, Abingdon had the C-type 747 cc Montlhery MG Midgets in production (£295 ready to race). Some 13 came to the start of the JCC sports car classic, to meet 10 A7s. It is significant that, out of a total entry of 49 cars, 23 were in the up-to-750 cc division. Although they had some troubles, the MG Midgets finished in the first five places in this handicap race, taking the team prize and all the baby-car awards. From then on the dominance of the MG in racing and record-breaking was something the side-valve A7s couldn’t match, although, as a matter of fact, the first vehicle to achieve that 750 cc ‘ton’ was Mrs Gwenda Stewart’s 741 cc Morgan-JAP in 1930. If you want chapter arid verse it is all set out in one of the best motor racing books of them all, Maintaining The Breed by John Thorley OBE, published originally by Motor Racing Publications in 1950 and in many editions since.

Apart from this late MG superiority in terms of race and record-breaking successes, there was little to compare earlier with the performances of the A7 in the 750 cc category. Before we look at this, it is necessary to enquire into the classes under which worlds, international and local records were recognised. In the beginning these were constituted in an odd manner, the origin of which dated from 1912, based on maximum engines sizes expressed in cubic inches. With capacities expressed in cc, this gave rather odd spacings (from Class A. up to 1639 cc, to Class) for cars of over 13,929 cc, with, for example, Class E for cars between 4999 cc and 7384 cc ie 306 and 475 cubic inches in-between). In addition, the Brooklands authorities had their own record-classes, based on RAC hp, in itself an anomalous tax-rating calculation, favourable to longstroke, narrow-bore engines, these running from 16 to 90 RAC hp in six classes.

These classes remained in use until 1925 when, largely through the offices of Colonel Lindsay-Lloyd, clerk of the course at Brooklands, they were tidied-up into eight capacity classes, catering for cars of up to 750 cc to over 8000 cc. These new divisions were recognised by the FIA, so were adopted in Europe, and later two other classes, for cars of up to 350 cc and from 351-500 cc were added. Before that a light car class, for cars with engines of up to 1500 cc, had been added to the cubic inch classes, to cater for the new breed of postwar small cars, which the first of the other catagories did not cater for, starting as it did at 1639 cc.

Here it should be stated that each class was a law unto itself. In other words, even if a car in one of the lower capacity divisions took records at a higher speed than a car or cars in a higher division, it could not claim records out of its own capacity class. This seems reasonable to me, especially as world records were recognised, for cars of any engine size. What has been less acceptable is the fact, which still applies, that supercharged cars compete in each class with non-supercharged ones. As a supercharger could give a very considerable increase in power, this has been a long-disliked matter. However, I suppose if separate classes were provided for blown and non-blown cars, the records list would not only become cumbersome but there might be arguments that other distinctions should be made, between other design factors, such as overhead valves/ side valves, multi-cylinders having an advantage etc. There would be no ending to it…

Even before the new classes came into being in 1925, fresh classes had been added to those prevailing in the previous 13 years. For instance, the light car class has already been mentioned. In the 1920s and previously there had been divided opinion as to whether a light car was one with a top engine capacity of 1500 or 1600 cc. The FIA decided on the former engine size for its new post-war light car class. (I have dealt previously as to how this, and no allowance for supercharging, caused a furoure between the Darracq and Alvis companies in 1924.) The record classes of 1912 had been identified by letters, starting with ‘A’ and going up to T for the biggest cars, ‘I’ being ommitted, presumably to avoid confusion with the letter ‘J’. When the increasing number of post-war small-engined cars made extra classes desirable, this caused some anomalies. The 1500 cc light car class was unlettered, and when it was decided in 1921 to add a class for cars of over 750 cc but not exceeding 1100 cc, this was given the letter ‘K’ even though Class J was at the opposite end of the capacity spectrum.

It is not clear how the class divisions were decided. For those 1912 classes they started with increments of 25 cubic in, but the capacity gaps widened considerably after the first four, possibly because it was felt that the bigger engines were less efficient in terms of hp-per-litre and thus competition between them was less keen. Apart from which, a line had to be drawn over how many classes were reasonable.

It was much the same with the new classes of 1925. The divisions were at 350, 400, 500, 1000, 2000 and 3000 cc, up to the over-8000 cc class.

For 1923 another new class, that for cars up to 750 cc was announced. Quite why this was not set at 700 cc, to give that 400 cc gap to the up-to1100 cc Class C I do not know. (Incidentally, this new Class H would have confused those who had previously known of Class H as being for cars of 7798-13,929 cc, all the letter-designations having been reversed!) Nor shall we know whether Sir Herbert Austin increased the size of his famous baby from 696 to 747 cc because a little more power was deemed desirable in standard form, or whether he had had a tip-off that there was soon to be a 750 cc record and racing category…

It will be remembered that, as early as 1923, Gordon England’s A7 took records in this new Class L and was lapping Brooklands at nearly 80 mph with a two-seater body. It seems that the new class had been announced late in 1923, because the JCC had omitted it from its 1923 200 Mile Race. So England ran his A7 in the 1100 cc category and finished second to a Salmson of that size. This so impressed the JCC that, from then on, their race had a 750 cc class, well supported by the A7 fraternity. When Capt (later Colonel) Arthur Waite took the works ex-Brooklands A7 to the 250km 1923 Italian GP des Cyclecars at Milan (he prudently said that if anything went wrong he would be as far away from home as possible) he was up against the Italians, Ororici (Anzani) and Pegnetti (CL). But nothing did go astray. The Austin won, the first British car to do so in a major race since 1914. A 750 cc class was observed for this event, the 1100 cc section going to Benoist (Salmson), at a lower speed than that of the tiny A7.

A team of A7s had bearing trouble and King’s car overturned in the 1923 Boulogne GP, for which a 750 cc class had been instituted. The winner was the bearded Senechal, in a Senechal, after the only other classrunner, a Ready cyclecar driven by Milo Duforest, had also overturned. It may come as a surprise to some that the Senechal wasn’t in the 1100 cc category but in those days both this make and Salmson sometimes used engines of less than 750 cc. Thus, a Salmson and a Senechal beat two A7s at the Le Mans GP des Cyclecars later in 1923, the French again having been prompt in introducing a 750 cc class.

As we have seen, a class for such cars was introduced for the I 924 JCC 200 Mile race at Brooklands and at the opening of Montlhery track that year Gordon England took over a team of A7s for the 108-mile 750 cc race. They were dominant, taking the first four places, their rivals being a Sandford three-wheeler three laps in arrears and a Benjamin and another Sandford which were flagged off. (In Britain, three-wheelers ran in separate ACU classes.) England then raced against the 1100 cc cars, his A7 beaten only by the team of works Salmsons. Perhaps wisely, the 750 cc Senechals kept away, that weekend.

A very interesting rival to the A7s was entered for the new class in the aforesaid 200 Mile race at Brooklands, in the form of a Vagova, a product of Vareilles-et-Godet of Lavallois-Perret. It was entered by Spencer Grey, a former A7 exponent. The engine was a supercharged six-cylinder of 49.7×64 mm (745.26 cc). Its centrifugal blower ran at five times engine speed, sucking from the carburettor. The crankshaft ran in four ball bearings and there were roller bearing bigends. The separate cylinders were bolted in pairs to the aluminium base chamber and surrounded by a one-piece alloy water jacket. The overhead valves were opened and closed positively by two camshafts and fulcrum rocker-arms, this desmodromic valve gear being patented by the car’s makers. Tubular con-rods and aluminium pistons were used and the engine was said to run up to 5500-6000 rpm, and to give 35-40 bhp.

The chassis had a three-speed and reverse gearbox, no differential and no rear brakes. The front brakes had Hersot operating-gear. Suspension was semi-elliptic at the front, and by two quarter-elliptic formed into semielliptics by a saddle round the back axle casing, with a ball-joint to allow for oscillation. The final-drive used part torque-tube, part open shaft with a centre universal joint, along A7 lines. The engine was three-point-mounted, and there was a transmission brake, which pedal or lever applied with the front brakes. The single-plate clutch was Ferodo lined, the Rudge wheels were shod with 710×90 tyres and the Maron-Pot body was well streamlined, the back axle and even the radiator cap being enclosed. Alas, as has happened to so many revolutionary new racing cars, the Vagova failed to appear.

The 750 cc class was becoming well established, but I believe it wasn’t until 1926 that the handicap speed-table used for the Index of Performance contest in the Le Mans 24 Hours was extended downwards in that direction. The brave effort to run an A7 there has been told fully in MOTOR SPORT (November/December 1956) by its entrant Charles Metchim. The cars entered in this category up to 1939 were d’Yrsan, Simca, MG and Fiat. Metchim’s brave attempt with an A7 at least to complete the course at Le Mans in 1933 and 1934 was not accomplished. Le Mans was not kind to the Longbridge tiny-tots. England and Samuelson had tried in 1925, with the prototype GE Cup model, the works cars were there in 1937 (Goodacre/Buckley, Kay Petre/Mangon, Dodson/Hadley) but all retired, as had the ‘Grasshopper’ based A7s (Goodacre/Turner and Driscol/Parish) in 1935, although the third Dodson/Richardson car finished last, behind the privately-entered A7 of Carr/Barbour. However, there were really no rivals apart from a 568 cc Simca with which Aime/Plantivaux won the Index of Performance in 1938 and were 14th overall.

This is not intended to be a racing history of the A7, which was rather fully described in MOTOR SPORT in March/April 1947, but rather a look at its so-called rivals. These were few and far between, and not notably successful, until the arrival of the MG Midgets.

Vic Horsman, the famous Triumph motorcycle rider, turned to the Triumph Super Seven as a baby-car contender from 1929-1932. He had a single-seater with the side-valve 56×83 mm 832 cc engine, a modified cylinder head giving a compression ratio of 7:1 , a special camshaft, twin Amal carburettors and improved main and big-end bearing lubrication. The worm-drive axle had a 4.5:1 ratio. For long-distance sports car racing Horsman used two-seaters with manx tails, the engine size reduced to 747 cc by using a shorter, 74 mm stroke, and supercharged with a Cozette compressor. These mods were not successful, supercharger springs being blown into the cylinders and the head gasket expiring. Horsman’s faithful mechanic Quinn was responsible for the Triumphs and rode with him in races. I wonder, is the present jockey of this name a relation?

Two of these two-seater Triumphs were entered for the 1929 Ards TT, to be driven by RWG Grimley and Horsman himself. Grimley crashed into a stationary OM with fatal results and Vic was flagged off at the end, no match for the four supercharged A7s, which were 1-2-3-4 in Class H. that of Frazer-Nash third overall. At Brooklands Horsman had better luck, gaining two first places, four seconds and four thirds in the short handicaps, the single-seater eventually lapping at 84.41 mph and in another race running consecutive laps at 80.46 mph. One of the 747 cc sportscars was run in the 1929 Essex MC Six Hour race, but whereas Stanley Barnes’s A7 was seventh overall, the Triumph was withdrawn after only 90 minutes with lubrication problems. Nor were these cars successful over the Brooklands ‘Mountain’ course. However, Horsman persevered, and at the 1931 Whitsun Bank Holiday races he ran Triumph I and Triumph II, respectively black and grey, the former in a ‘Mountain’ race, the latter taking one of the second places on the outer-circuit.

Apart from an odd cyclecar, such as the Avon-JAP, the only 750 cc opposition the Austins encountered was from a 60×66 mm (747 cc) Ratier, which that great enthusiast, who stayed in racing to an advanced age, Sir Francis Samuelson, bought to replace his GE Brooklands model A7. These typical French sports cars were made at Montrouge, on the Seine. Samuelson’s had a wide blue two-seater body and a pear-shaped radiator, He appeared at Brooklands with it early in 1927; I saw it running later on my first visit there. although it did not race for long!

Technically it was interesting, having a roller bearing, overhead-camshaft engine, a chassis frame underslung at the back, and inverted quarter-elliptic rear springs. Samuelson put it in for the JCC 200 Mile race that same year; it survived skidding round at the Fork on one lap and was running at the end – in last place. These days you may see it at Brooklands Society film-shows, when it is invariably referred to as a Bugatti…

That’s about it! It is nice to remember how the gallant little car from Longbridge was supreme in the class from 1923 until 1930, in this, the year of its 70th anniversary.

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