Sound and fury
There is something about a supercharged racing engine that makes the adrenalin flow when you hear it start up. If you love engines, the hard purposeful sound of a highly supercharged engine is like a magnet and you just have to gather round to enjoy the noise and the vibrations. Accompanied by the smells of alcohol fuel and racing oil, the sound of a Grand Prix Bugatti or Tipo 159 Alfa Romeo is something special that simply cannot be reproduced on video or TV screen. Anyone who was fortunate enough to be in the paddock at the recent Grand Prix of Europe at Donington Park, when Tom Wheatcroft started up the 1939 Mercedes-Benz, will know what I mean. The more complex the engine the more exciting it seems to be to listen to it at close quarters.
In the vintage years there was one engine that excelled in its mechanical complexity, and even in unsupercharged form it was an engine that inspired anyone standing by it when it was running. To drive the actual car was something for the gods! This was the 1922 TT Vauxhall, a four-cylinder three-litre with two overhead camshafts, four valves per cylinder and three sparking-plugs per cylinder, so that the combustion chambers were very full of holes and casting the cylinder heads was a pattern-maker's nightmare.
By the end of the 1920s one of these engines was supercharged by Amherst Villiers. It was a hillclimb and sprint project for Raymond Mays and sometimes it was called the Villiers Supercharge, at other times the Vauxhall-Villiers, the latter being the more popular name. Villiers developed the robust four-cylinder engine to a very high state of tune and in 1932 a young man working on the project for Mays was one Richard Chapman, then as now an avid MOTOR SPORT reader.
Chapman was working on the car in preparation for the 1932 sprint and hillclimb season, overhauling the complete chassis and running gear, and rebuilding the engine from the crankshaft upwards. When it was finished Mays did some initial running-in on the deserted Fenland roads to the east of Boume, in Lincolnshire, where he lived, until the car was deemed to be ready for a serious try-out. This was to be a full-blooded "blast off" from a standing start, up through the gears to something like 100 mph, on the open and deserted road. Dick accompanied Mays, squeezed into the narrow two-seater cockpit, his job being to read the various gauges while Mays concentrated on the narrow road ahead.
The sound, the smell, the heat and the excitement of that first full-blooded, full-throttle take-off was something that he has never forgotten. He was fortunate enough just to be in the car, and it was an experience to savour all his life. It was complete recompense for weeks of work. It made it all worthwhile.
The Vauxhall-Villiers is still alive and well today, owned by Anthony Brook in the Vintage Sports Car Club, and when it is started up in a VSCC paddock at a sprint or hillclimb it is one of those pure 'vintage' sounds that immediately draws an interested crowd of onlookers.
By 1936 the Vauxhall-Villiers was being raced by SE Cummings, Mays having passed it on when the ERA project was started in 1933. My own first visit to a pure speed-event was in 1936, 'Speed Trials, on the Race Hill, Lewes', run by the Kent & Sussex Light Car Club. It was August 22 1936 and the course was one-third of a mile long, slightly uphill, running up to the famous Lewes horse-racing course. The tarmac road was pretty narrow and cars ran one at a time against the stopwatch. A new course record had been set earlier in the year by RGJ Nash in his Frazer Nash Union Special with a time of 19.06s, but Cummings had held it previously, recording 19.25s in the Vauxhall-Villiers.
For me, there were lots of interesting cars at that first meeting, but none so exciting as number 36, the 2998cc supercharged VauxhallVilliers, driven by Cummings. When it came up to the line the noise was wondrous and I stood on the bank to the left with my Kodak Box Brownie at the ready. As Cummings floored the throttle pedal and the twin-rear wheels spurn furiously, I pressed the camera trigger with trembling finger. It was my outstanding memory of that first Lewes Speed Trial that I went to.
That run in Class 12 did not give Cummings fastest time of the day, nor even a class win, but it mattered little. The excitement of the moment was more than enough as far as I was concerned. FTD went to Geoffrey Taylor in his 1500 cc Alta, with a time of 19.81s. The last class of the day was a handicap for allcomers, in which most people had a go just for fun. The Vauxhall-Villiers came out again, and this time it was really on form and Cummings recorded 18.88s, a new course record, but unofficial, as only runs in the normal classes could count for the record. The handicap event was won by a Brooklands Riley and the Vauxhall-Villiers was third, but it had showed its true potential with that extra run.
To have stood so close to all that exciting machinery as it did its standing-start was memorable to me, so I can just imagine what it had been like for young Richard Chapman in 1932, to be in the cockpit, with Raymond Mays at the controls.
Thank you, Mr Chapman, for recalling that glorious machine. D S J