Fanning the flames of hispano history
Our founder editor once owned a 1914 Alphonso Hispano-Suiza which gave him more than a little trouble. But he was sorry to see it go, especially when it later went to auction…
David Burgess-Wise has reminded me that I sold my 1914 Alphonso Hispano-Suiza when the rot in the body got out of hand. In fact, the bottom gear had broken up, to be replaced with a neat sleeve by Alan Southon at his Phoenix Green garage, and the cylinder block was porous.
Mr A W Smith, who had a fine collection of the right sort of cars and an equally fine library of motor books, had been seeking an Alphonso. He persuaded me to sell mine to him for £100. After his death it went to Germany and raised £5200 at auction.
At this time there were only four Type 15 T-head, side-valve, 3.6-litre Hispano-Suizas in this country – the 1914 car, whose previous owners were Smith, Fuggle, Abbott, Wike and Tim Carson, Bridport’s 1913 short-chassis ex-Fuggle, with replica body, Hill’s 1912 short-chassis ex-Cuthell car, and Major Pitt’s 1913/14 bolster tank two-seater which he ran in the 1946 RAC Rally and used for a Swiss tour, and for which I was able to supply spares from some which came with the Lycett car. The 1913 cars had three-speed gearboxes. When the VSCC decided to have a class for Edwardian cars Forrest Lycett, in whose famous 8-litre Bentley I had some exhilarating road journeys and 130mph laps round Brooklands, asked McKenzie, who looked after his cars at his London garage, to find him a suitable car which was this 1914 15T H-S, its original carburettor changed for a more modern large SU, fed by an Autovac which replaced the engine-driven air pump.
The reputation of the 15T H-S as a pedigree small Edwardian Sporting car was displayed when HRH King Alphonso of Spain drove his own Alphonso Hispano. In the French L’Auto Cup contests Sizaire-Naudins won the 1906-1908 events, with cars of single and twin cylinders having strokes of up to 280mm. It took until 1910 to beat them and the Lion-Peugeots, when Paul Zuccarelli’s Marc Birkigt-designed Hispano-Suiza won the 280-mile Boulogne race at 55.6mph, with Chassagne third behind Jules Goux’s Lion-Peugeot. From this victorious Hispano-Suiza came the production model 15T which British motorists who could not afford a Prince Henry Vauxhall would buy. The Swiss marque (later French) lacked little in relative performance. At Brooklands the Hon R Westenra, Lord Exmouth, Leslie Nicholson, Gresswell and Dr de Costa raced theirs, Nicholson’s doing a lap at 81.5mph.
With his new possession Lycett won the pre-war class at the 1937 Littlestone speed trials, was second on formula at the 1938 VSCC Lewes speed trials, best on formula with a third place at the 1939 VSCC Welsh Rally hillclimb and second place on formula that year at Prescott. When the car had a puncture young VSCC members started to change the wheel for Lycett and as it was removed a cascade of rusty razor blades fell onto the road, obviously used to maintain the drive after the splines had worn out!
Disgusted, Lycett discarded the car, which for a time was used daily by John Seth-Smith until he was killed in a flying accident. Cecil Clutton was then asked by Mr Lycett what to do next. Clutton rang me asking would I like an Hispano-Suiza. “No,” I said. “I couldn’t afford it, or its running costs.” “But it’s not a 37.2hp,” Clutton told me. “It’s a 1914 3266cc Alphonso.” I agreed at once and the generous Mr Lycett offered to reimburse me for the cost of collecting it, which I refused.
The car had a smooth cone clutch instead of the former multi-plate Hele-Shaw clutch of the earlier 15Ts and a nice four-speed gearbox. It was apt to catch fire occasionally, causing my wife to make a hasty exit, if opened up too soon from cold but the flames would soon be sucked in by the engine. I used it for the SMM&T London and Cardiff Cavalcades, in spite of the gears occasionally jumping out of mesh, which my passenger, Joe Lowrey, adroitly dealt with. On the return journey it made a brisk climb up the old Birdlip hill, four-up, as we had given two hitch-hikers a lift, re-starting easily on the 6:1 second gear. I also used it for a long-distance road trial in which we had just enough time for a very hasty meal; as we left a man asked if this was the car with the 80x180 engine and it still bothers me that there was not time to show it to him.
I also competed in ‘Alphonse’ in the Elstree speed trials and in two speed hillclimbs.
At Charterhouse we finished first on formula, in spite of Jenks letting his foot slip off the pedal that opened the exhaust cut-out, this change of exhaust note causing me to lift-off momentarily thinking the engine had blown-up. At Sandhurst I came first in class, but all the tools and dirty rags fell onto the course through the disintegrating floor and I had the embarrassment of having to walk back and retrieve them under the gaze of the smartly dressed military spectators.
The Hispano towed a Frazer Nash from London to the Elstree speed trials. In this event it was just leading John Bolster’s 1911 Rolls-Royce away from the start when the carburettor gave trouble and slowed me up. I never had to change the 2/6d CSMA sparking plugs at any time. Petrol thirst was about 18mpg.
I had had a reminder that the car’s body was in a poor state when Jenks and I went to a practice day at Silverstone and a boy asked if we went past Stowe school on our way home. We did and told him to get in the back seat. Jenks then remarked that I should slow down as he did not think the boy could run any faster – his legs had gone through the floor but he politely did not want to tell me.
I took the car to Laughton Goodman’s in London’s Edgware Road, as they did coachbuilding as well as making 20/70hp Whitlock cars. They looked at the Alphonso and said its body must have been hewn out of a solid piece of wood and unless I could find a suitable-sized tree they could not help!
After Mr Smith to whom I had sold the car had died it went to Germany and, as David says, sold for £5200 at auction. Much later it returned to England, fully restored (that tree trunk?) and I was asked if I would like to drive it again when I was next in Sussex. I said ‘very much’, but I never heard any more.
Fleeing town in a Gwynne
In thinking of the many readers who sent me birthday cards it was good to know that some had read Motor Sport for 50 or 60 years, and one had all the issues from No1 of The Brooklands Gazette, as it then was.
It may interest them to know that all my loose copies are contained in a large tin box with a mouse-proof lid – very important, because when Jenks took down one of his volumes bits of paper fluttered down! After my war-widowed mother died I went to live with friends and this box, labelled Cameron Building Society, went with me. I watched it departing on a horse-drawn cart. In my many moves after that the box went with me, becoming heavier, until in 1936 I became editor and was given yearly bound volumes, requiring extra bookcases.
When war broke out and my attempts to learn to fly or join the Army had failed I was posted to the RAE in Farnborough. When enemy bombers disrupted travel I had to leave my lodgings in London and live there. I went to bid goodbye to my landlady and took with me the box full of Motor Sports.
Setting off through the dismal London suburbs in my 1924 Gwynne Eight tourer I got as far as Collier’s Wood when an air raid alarm brought traffic to a stop and wardens insisted on everyone going into the shelters, so I parked in a side street. When I resumed my journey the precious box was safe.
I had bought my Gwynne for £5 from Cecil Peacock, an enthusiast. He had run the engine on paraffin for a while but it responded quite well to a return to petrol.
I had two more Gwynne Eights, the first with a coupé body and an ABC gearbox (above). The other G8 had a Rover front-wheel-braked front axle and a boy-racer body and I soon got rid of it. Ian Walker’s occasional Gwynneformation Circular keeps us informed about G8 affairs.
The girl with a GN chassis under the bed
In researching the Hurtu story (overleaf) I was reminded of the thoroughness of the girl who became Monica Whincop, and a Bugatti enthusiast. She was an exceptional lady long before that, driving long distances alone from the family home at Seaford, near Brighton, to Brooklands and the Crystal Palace to see some motor races, in a very early Austin 7 Chummy named ‘Abdul The Damned’ – I never knew exactly why.
After meeting her on the 1937 Brighton Run she invited me to come down and see her, to “talk motoring”. I had on road-test for Motor Sport a 684cc two-stroke DKW in which I drove as fast as it would go to Seaford. Arriving at 11.30am Monica said, “Let’s go up to my bedroom, I have something to show you.” Both surprised and somewhat taken aback I followed her, to find that what I was to see was a rusty GN chassis which she kept under her bed – a good after-dinner story? I think the GN may have prompted ‘Chatterbox’, a sprint Special with which she was soon involved. In later times her cars were a Sports Fiat Balilla and an 1100cc HRG, the latter now being driven in VSCC events by her nephew Tony Brooks.
Soon after this her mother rang to ask whether I was going to Shelsley Walsh and if so would I kindly accompany her daughter; separate rooms had been booked at an hotel where the drivers normally stayed. I think she thought I was a reliable middle-aged writer who would be going in his own car. In fact, I hadn’t a car at the time, so we went in the Austin 7, Monica driving there and back. After dinner, in the bar she said she was tired and would go up to bed, and when she left me on my own I was regarded with some raised eyebrows and mild whistles occurred.
On the long journey home I remembered that I had a family friend, Cecil Fifoot, at Oxford. He had studied law, written books about it for ordinary people, had broadcast from the newly-opened 2LO [precursor of the BBC] and was a barrister. As an undergraduate he rode an ex-WD Douglas motorcycle from Oxford to the family home in South Wales on vacations. At this time the family cars were a rear-braked Austin Twenty laundaulette, supplemented by a Citroën tourer, then by a Chevrolet tourer, followed in succession by two Overland tourers probably prompted by efficient local agents.
In the respectable Oxford street where Cecil lived there was no-one in, but soon the now Oxford Don and his Norwegian wife were seen returning from church on their bicycles to find the yellow A7 with ABDUL THE DAMNED in large letters on both its sides and a girl in racing overalls with a chequered-flag on her breast pockets. Years later, my wife and I paid another visit and I asked whether my previous visit was remembered. “We’ve never forgotten it,” was the frosty reply.
S C H ‘Sammy’ Davis – the ‘final autobiography’
I remember how, at the age of 19, I waited impatiently for the ‘Sammy’ Davis book Motor Racing, which he had written in 1932 while in hospital after the Invicta accident at Brooklands. As Sports Editor of The Autocar Davis had a large number of readers, for whom he wrote of his racing at most of the British and major Continental circuits, including Le Mans and trials and important rallies, with the Bentleys, AC, Alvis, Riley, Lea-Francis, Singer, Austin 7, Morgan three-wheeler, Aston Martin and 328 BMW.
In this, his final autobiography, Davis recalls all this and also hitherto unknown and fascinating aspects of growing up, Westminster school, apprenticeship to Daimler’s, and marriages, family, friends, and call-up in both World Wars, in his semi-humorous, semi-serious way, including fun in his 1897 Leon-Bollée tricar ‘Beelzebub’ in the Veteran Car Brighton Run. There are 18 pages of notes he made from short journeys, in now extinct forgotten cars, such as La Ponette and Pilot, with pictures, and many of his celebrated cartoons and some of SCHD’s correspondence when he was at The Autocar. One thing not mentioned is when my wife and I had tea with Sammy and Susan. I had to tell my wife not to show surprise when they both lit up their pipes. An epilogue to this deluxe 192-page book about Sammy’s son Charles Houghton Davis is provided by Peter Heilbron.
Whether you have his other book or not you must not miss this one!
Published by Herridge & Sons, Beaworthy, Devon ISBN 978 1 9061 33 02 3, £22.50
From Hurtu Brighton
The news that last year an 1899 5hp Manchester-built Marshall dog-cart was valued at around £100,000 and its Westmoreland EC2 numberplate at £30,000 reminded me of going on the 1937 Veteran Car Run to Brighton on Capt Wylie’s Hurtu and made me wonder if there was a connection. Whether, in fact, a Hurtu had been mistaken for a Marshall, because they looked so similar. The praiseworthy VCC Dating Panel dispelled this idea, confirming that the Hurtu’s engine was cooled by water tanks and condensation, the Marshall by frontal gilled tubes. So Captain Wylie’s veteran was definitely a Hurtu.
The Marshall had been bought for £12 in 1902, forming part of the Potter family’s collection at Kirby Stephen, but by 1930 it was derelict in Sheldon, children playing on it. In 1933 it was sold again, for the same figure of £12. It was stored behind a garage near Whitby until 1961, when it went to auction and was bought by the brothers Tom and Chris Porter.
In that well-remembered Brighton Run I was invited by Capt Wylie, RN, to ride on the Hurtu, its East Sussex registration number RT4946.
We left Hyde Park at 8am, Capt Wylie saying the Hurtu would be very slow and he was anxious to get to Brighton because Jean Batten was Guest of Honour at the VCC dinner and he was to receive her. She had just set a time of five days 18 hours and 15 minutes from Australia to England in a Percival Gull Six (265mph in standard form), having landed at Lympne a few days before the VCC Run. Male pilots took until 1938 to better her time, and then only by 13 hours 54 mins.
Alas, at about half-distance the putter-putter of the Benz-like vertical engine in the boot ceased and we coasted onto the roadside verge; the automatic inlet valve had fallen onto the piston. I managed, however, by holding the spring down with a screw-driver and with a pair of pliers to re-insert the tiny cotterpin into its hole in the end of the valve stem, so we could restart, arriving at the finish by about 5.30, candle lamps alight.
While we were stationary Wylie said he had known I was a motoring writer but not that I was a skilled engineer! I could never have done the same thing again. Meanwhile Monica Strain (later to marry A E Whincop, the Bugatti enthusiast) and a boyfriend brought us cups of coffee from a roadside stall. Wylie was delighted, saying the young are often so inconsiderate and he said we must all come to the dinner. So instead of taking a train back to London I went to Monica’s family home at Seaford, further along the south coast, to be lent a badly-fitting dress suit for dinner. Being a non-dancer I spent a long evening watching her dance with the boyfriend, and had to get home the next day in various trains.
Motor Sport having taken the DVD line reminds me of how much I enjoyed the 12 DVDs of Brideshead Revisited based on Evelyn Waugh’s famous novel, filmed by Granada Television in 1981 and superbly acted. The cars included an impressive Edwardian Mors tourer (inset) owned by Dudley Gahagan (who had a garage business in Aldershot and also owned a Grand Prix Bugatti and an ERA), an elegant Delage with a very odd radiator driven by Julia Flyte (in the story the attractive sister of Sebastian), a Singer Junior saloon and chauffeur-driven Rolls-Royces. When Sebastian (played by Anthony Andrews) is taking fellow Oxford undergraduates out in the borrowed Mors it goes backwards a few feet before moving off, reverse gear having been mistaken for first gear. Was this a realistic item having been the producer’s idea or was it (more likely) Andrews’ unfamiliarity with the Mors? Anyway it is a nice touch! A new version is being filmed. But has the Mors survived?
Tourist Trophy centenary show
Later in the year the VCC is holding an exhibition at its headquarters, Jessamine Court, Ashwell, Herts, to commemorate the centenary of the 1908 Isle of Man TT race won by W Watson with a Hutton at 50.3mph over 338 miles of the difficult course. The exhibition is being organised by Nick Pellett, who had a 1914 TT Sunbeam and tells us that the Hutton is being brought from Argentina for the occasion.
Appropriate medals, event programmes and photographs are being loaned, including the WO Bentley picture album for the 1922 TT and the Le Mans races, never before seen in public, and the Manx Museum has provided documents covering the TT races. More relevant material has already been received but Nick would welcome more – especially if anyone has any cine film. E mail: email@example.com
There will be other TT cars plus items from the Beaulieu Motor Museum, and the opening date will be late September to October 5.
Fiat rebuild continues
Duncan Pittaway’s restoration of one of the monster Fiat S76 record cars is making good progress. Duncan has machined a new gearbox from original drawings and attached it to the vast engine, and the car is now a rolling chassis. However, the projected completion date – this summer – may need to be extended…