The Motor Racing Brains Trust

Rivers-Fletcher and Bill Capon put over a very original form of motoring entertainment at the Rembrandt Hotel on January 31st, when they got five august persons to form themselves into a Brains Trust to handle questions sent in by enthusiasts, with Cecil Clutton to keep the “brains” up to scratch. The Brains Trust on this occasion comprised Peter Monkhouse, Laurence Pomeroy, Peter Berthon, Leslie Ballamy and Fred Thatcher, with Clutton as Question Master. The following gives some idea of what happened, editorial comments appearing within brackets.

The first question, set by J. Lowrey, B.Sc., concerned the advisability of using independent rear suspension for sports cars. Pomeroy stated that swing axles were abandoned on the Continent because they are unsuitable for transmitting over 300 h.p. On the score of complication, noise, .etc., this form of axle seemed undesirable. Maserati always used ordinary rear axles, and their racing cars were nearly as fast as the German cars. Monkhouse said the driver could control the back part of a car when it was sliding about, but not the front, so that it was essential to steer while the back-end was swinging. He voted against the swing axle, except for the fastest types. Ballamy said independent suspension, in itself, is unstable from the steering aspect, and many manufacturers have hastily gone back to rigid axles. A rigid rear axle steadies a car directionally, so front i.s. is better than independent rear suspension, and with all wheels independently sprung you get “four wheels doing funny things.” He thought a good rigid front axle might let you get away with i.r.s.

The next question was, “Why do racing drivers so often wear funny clothes, not only when racing, but in private life? ” Monkhouse rose nobly, and said it was all to do with racing folk being individualists—selfish ones at that— and wearing what they liked. He liked the clothes he wore, and, if the colours clashed, well, he couldn’t see them! Pomeroy pronounced that he didn’t know why drivers wore funny clothes, but he would like to know why the engineer’s who designed the cars did such funny things: Berthon felt the answer lay in racing drivers being nervous, temperamental, highly-strung, individualists, and Ballamy reminded us [no need!] that cars so quickly ruin clothing that drivers are soon reduced to wearing anything they can come by. Thatcher thought colours allowed people to pick out a given driver on the track. He wore a Cambridge-blue hat and shirt in his M.G.

The next query rather evaded direct answer—whether the larger the headlamp the greater the efficiency, and, if so, was there an optimum size? Chalon suggested that P100 lamps were often fitted mainly as a good selling point, and that streamline form would not humour either great size or high-placing of headlamps. Pomeroy felt that with a perfect reflector size did not affect efficiency, but that in practice this was never attained, and the bigger the lamp the better the beam, quoting searchlights as an example. Thatcher complained of being dazzled by masked lorry lamps on a recent night journey down from Crewe, and started off on a theme of his own until brought to heel by the Question Master. Ballamy thought 30-watt bulbs in Zeiss lamps powerful enough for anyone, and Monkhouse felt that P90 Lucas lamps were ample for all requirements.

Next we had: “Should crash helmets be compulsory, and why are they not used by Continental aces?” Monkhouse wasn’t in favour of making them compulsory, but thought you were safer with one. He thought them infernally uncomfortable, although people told him they were not if properly fitted. Accidents were not in greater proportion on the Continent, so the practice of Continental drivers did not affect the issue. Berthon thought (a) that crash hats looked unsightly, and (b) that the head was not necessarily the most vulnerable part. Motor-cyclists did need crash hats. Pomerby thought it all depended on whether you had your accident inside your car or whether you came out. If inside, you tucked yourself up and hid below the scuttle, but a crash hat was useful if you got thrown out—he once used to dash everywhere in a Bugatti, and this form of headgear certainly saved him when he fell out in the middle of Hyde Park. [The fact remains that when we were forcibly ejected from an Allard-Special at a certain speed hillclimb a much softer section than the Editorial brow was the first to meet the ground.] Pomeroy found his crash hat comfortable and its peak was useful in the sun. With a detachable-steering-wheel sort of car such protection would be unnecessary, as you couldn’t be thrown out. [But you might then have to go with your car through a few trees, walls and a house or two, with little time to duck.] Berthon thought wind pressure on a crash hat added to its discomfort, and Thatcher thought they were unnecessary, but made you feel safer, especially when on a horse. Ballamy made the point that here we nurse our drivers, but on the Continent racing drivers can break their necks if they wish and no one objects. [A poor point, because in this country the popular press encourages us to commend accident prone drivers and British crowds invariably stand in the most dangerous places unless driven away, whereas on the Continent the drivers know their job, the crowds likewise, and racing is safer in consequence.]

Came a question about the future of plastics. [not a racing topic], and then: “Which firm has done most to enhance British racing prestige?” Monkhouse thought E.R.A., and Pomeroy said that was so, but that the M.G. Car Company, Ltd., had sold cars all over the world that had been successfully raced by amateurs, and in America, Australia and New Zealand M.G.s existed that would beat-up locals in V8s. Peter Berthon seconded Pomeroy’s view, and recalled Major Gardner’s 200-m.p.h,records with an M.G.— “a fine job and really worth while.” This the Question Master referred to as a generous statement, doubtless thinking of E.R.A. achievements which Berthon has helped to make possible. Clutton also wondered what of Bentley and Sunbeam. [And as the question concerned purely racing prestige and not commercial prestige, enhanced by racing and breaking records, Sunbeam’s 1923 Grand Prix victory and Bentley’s great chain of successes at Le Mans surely deserved more prominence.]

The following question concerned how best the beginner could take up the Sport, and much general comment about depth water could be added to an alcohol fuel before the water came out of suspension, but he agreed with Clutton that 4 per cent. was a more usual proportion, although not so helpful in suppressing detonation. Monkhouse recalled accidentally emptying a pint of water into the tank of Maclachlan’s Austin Seven at Lewes, when it had to be refuelled in a hurry, with no apparent effect on its subsequent run up the course.

The next question produced the most pleasing retorts of all from some of the assembled brains: “Will the American type car become the standard type, ousting the sports car?” This drew a very emphatic “No!” from Monkhouse. Pomeroy pointed out that in America they know not the cyclist, child and old woman who literally pop out, making it necessary to stop or swerve, which is just as well, because they cannot see out of their automobiles anyway, and could not stop or swerve suddenly if they would. He reminded us that a long sea journey pre-conditions those who travel from this country to America to withstand rolling motion, and Ballamy observed that naval officers seem to favour American cars, and that when one of these gentlemen gave him a ride in such a car he was terrified, whereas the owner seemed quite happy, while never before had he experienced a motoring sensation so akin to water-travel. [We have been likewise terrified by Ballamy when he has been demonstrating his suspension on American automobiles.] He thought if certain American racing cars were raced on, say, the Crystal Palace circuit, they would require scraping off the Walls. [Which they seem to do when let loose in any form of American race, Indianapolis somewhat excepted.] Pomeroy said that American cars are literally designed to keep on keeping straight, to combat high winds blowing off the oyster-plains, which is why they do not feel right in this country. Individual Britishers would never tolerate an era of all-automobiles was the general inference.

The audience were now allowed to fire questions at the brains. Darbishire wanted to know if you could add methylated spirit to Pool petrol to help high-compression engines, and was told that it would not stay in suspension unless the fuel was put in in half-gallon doses or stirred like a batter pudding. Marcus Chambers asked what effect 100-octane fuel had on a low-compression engine, and was told that valve seats, etc., would be damaged and cause hot-spots, and Humphreys asked all sorts of embarrassing questions about future forms of prime-mover, rotary valves, two-stage supercharging, and the like. Of the audience, Arbuthnot was able to say that his all-independently-sprung 3.8 Alfa-Romeo had steered well, but seemed to need plenty of the track, and Peter Clark said he had used 12 per cent, water with non-alcoholic, indeed Pool, petrol in his Le Mans H.R.G. [as described in Motor Sport early in the war] with very good results when it was going in—the difficulties were practical rather than technical.

Anthony-Heal asked why so much time elapsed before engine output per litre again approached that of the 1924-26 V12 and straight-eight Delage engines, and Pomeroy thought it was due to the expensive construction necessary, naming the use of immense numbers of ball and roller races calling for very accurate machining, as employed by Delage, which made other manufacturers afraid to copy such designs. Pomeroy had recently counted 64 such races in the straight-eight Delage engine. Berthon agreed, but recalled the amazing output of the un-supercharged T.T. Vauxhall engine running on ordinary petrol, a 1921 design. He could not agree with Clutton that these engines suffered from cylinder head trouble, although the head was more holes than metal.

The question of ideal racing car transmission was raised, and Monkhouse favoured a 4 or 5-speed crash or synchromesh box for racing car events and a self-change box for sports car racing. Berthon said that E.R.A. went back to a crash box because power loss was traced to skipping of the shaft of an E.N.V. box, which a new design, with central bearing, would probably have overcome. He preferred the self-change box, as it enabled the driver to keep both hands on the steering wheel; he had not tried a Cotal box. J. H. Fall queried why independent suspension was regarded so highly when Ettore Bugatti obtained such excellent results from normal suspension, This drew the view that Bugatti might do even better with i.f.s., and Ballamy said he had converted a Bugatti to i.f.s. and it cornered faster than formerly. [He was referring to a type 37A once raced by Eileen Ellison and T. P. Cholmondeley-Tapper, which he subsequently altered at the front end; Ballamy’s remark is interesting, as this car’s subsequent timed performances never gave any basis of comparison by means of which the effects of the new suspension could be estimated.]

The session concluded with Denis S. Jenkinson’s two questions: “Why do people warm up racing engines by ‘blipping’, whereas Dixon warmed up Rolt’s E.R.A. at a steady speed, and aero engines are warmed up likewise? Is it because it sounds nice? ” “Why do people use Castrol R? Is it because it smells nice?” Pomeroy said that “blipping” was useful with a fixed-choke carburetter and large jets, as it avoids trouble due to a coarse mixture and deposits of fuel in the manifold. With an S.U. type carburetter steady speed is better. He said castor oil has a high rate of film spread and is sticky, but is soluble in alcohol, and so dangerous with alcohol fuels. Monkhouse said it was essential to warm a racing engine through rather than to warm it up, and he thought even, steady running best, as it keeps the oil down the cylinders. He found 1,500-2,000 r.p.m. a good speed for an M.G., once it was initially warm. Castor oil was rapidly dying out, and Pratt’s “Esso R” was better, having a graphite content and being unaffected by water—it had saved an engine of his on two occasions. Someone asked if “blipping” was dangerous on a roller-bearing engine, as it set the rollers skating. . . . Ballainy outlined the well-known practice of warming up on soft plugs and then substituting hard plugs, and believed in “blipping” until the “petrol has turned into gas” to “pull the oil up without oiling plugs.” Berthon said “blipping” really belonged to sprint practice, when highly tuned and boosted engines with appreciable piston clearances were liable to suffer from oil dilution, due to mixture getting past the piston rings, unless the throttle was “blipped” to get the oil up, clear the induction pipe of fuel, and generally to keep the engine clean while warming up. Castrol R was regarded as the best racing oil in its day because it functioned so well at high temperatures, but mineral oil has replaced it; castor oil carbons-up badly. E.R.A. actually used water in the lubricant of their team cars in order to emulsify the oil. [Doubtless, Berthon could have told us a deal more about this had he felt so disposed. We believe this is the first time this fact has been disclosed, although unkind people have suggested that the Editorial Lancia has probably been running with water in its stump for years.)

From the foregoing it will be seen what a really excellent affair this Brains Trust was, and the next session, which will happen on March 28th at the same place, but preceded by lunch, merits even greater support and a greater number and variety of questions. Further details will appear in the weekly motoring papers this month, but we can disclose that Donald McCulloch, the Question Master of the B.B.C. Brains Trust, himself a great enthusiast and a one-time 3-litre Bentley owner, has agreed to fill this post for the motoring brains on March 28th —which, incidentally, is the very best sort of publicity for sporting motoring we could hope to have. It behoves every enthusiast who can do so to be present. Reverting to the January meeting, we hasten to apologise to any or all of the “brains” if we have misquoted or misrepresented any of their statements in the foregoing report. If any sufficiently-expert stenographer would like to help us to do better at the next session, the lunch is hers! Apart from those people already mentioned, the following were present: Artist Cresswell, Douglas Tubbs, L. G. McKenzie, Holland Birkett, P/O. Mallock. H. L. Biggs, Gordon Woods, Penny Fletcher. Mrs. Darbishire, John Ogle, Capt. J. H. T. Smith, Eric Findon, of The Light Car, Graham Davis, of The Motor, Patric Baker, of The Autocar, and the Editor of Motor Sport.