Austin's Proposed Land Speed Record Attack

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[Mr. F. T. Henry, who joined The Austin Motor Co. Ltd. at Longbridge in 1926, has written some very interesting memoirs for the magazine of the Austin Apprentices’ Association and otherwise dispensed Austin history. We asked him for something on these lines and he has kindly sent us the following article, which deals with the almost unknown attack Mr. (later Sir) Herbert Austin intended to make on the Land Speed Record. There have been many books about this most exciting of motoring endeavours, the absolute speed title, including my own, but none so comprehensive as that by my friend Cyril Posthumus (Osprey, 1971) which includes chapters on untried and paper projects. Even so, Posthumus says nothing about Austin’s plans. It will be interesting to see if any more is recalled about them. – ED.]

IN 1910 Herbert Austin built an incredibly advanced 300-b.h.p. engine which he installed in a speed-boat christened “Irene I” after his eldest daughter, now the Hon. Mrs. Arthur Waite, and with this boat he became the fastest man on water at Calshot. The following year the output was increased to 380 b.h.p. and the engine was installed in an improved boat “Irene II” with which he again bettered his record.

In 1912 a new boat was built by Saunders & Co. of Cowes, Isle of Wight, and was named “Maple Leaf IV”. In this boat two of these engines were installed, giving a total output of 760 b.h.p. Piloted by Len Webster, whom I believe was a Canadian, it won, from America, the British International Trophy Contest, at 50.78 m.p.h. repeating this again the following year, at Calshot. It was the engine from “Irene II” which it was proposed would power a Land Speed Record car, which Col. Arthur Waite was to have driven for Austin after the war.

When I first joined The Austin Motor Company in 1926 this engine was stored in a basement under North Works machine shop, where it remained with a number of interesting Austin aero engines built between 1914 and 1920, including the three and five cylinder radial engines which powered the little Austin Whippet light aeroplane which old for £275 just after the first World War. It is a tragedy that after the death of Lord Austin on May 23rd, 1941, these engines were sent to the scrapyard to provide material for World War II.

Whilst I cannot be certain of details, I recall the general layout of this engine and I have endeavoured to convey this by means of the accompanying sketch. When one examines the rather crude engines of the 1910 era, one immediately appreciates just how advanced this creation of Herbert Austin was. It had twelve cylinders in vee formation, twin chain driven overhead-camshafts and twin magnetos and carburetters. The cast-iron cylinders were mounted on an aluminium crankcase and the crankshaft ran on seven bearings, forming a very compact unit. For starting purposes a small ABC flat-twin engine was used.

Many readers will remember the fleet of Austin 3-ton trucks used among others by the Marylebone Council for refuse collection until the end of World War II. These vehicles, built in 1913, had a low-level space frame and a transmission system more appropriate for a racing car than to truck of that period. It is not surprising, therefore, that Herbert Austin and Arthur Waite, when planning their Land Speed Record car, should decide to base the chassis on this vehicle.

The 3-ton truck had a unique twin-drive transmission. The gearbox had the layshaft alongside the input and output shafts, providing a very flat four-speed gearbox. The differential gear was built into the gearbox, providing two output shafts and, coupled to each of these, a propeller shaft ran along the chassis side-members independently, to each rear wheel hub, which housed an enclosed bevel reduction-gear. The solid rear beam axle supporting the hub housings was mounted on four half-elliptic springs, two each side, one above the other. This can be seen in the photograph, which also shows one of the two propeller shafts.

With suitable modifications, this transmission would have been ideal for the record car, as it would have permitted an extremely low driving position and overall height. The chassis frame was very low and, although light in weight, it was exceptionally robust. The steering-box was mounted inside the front end a the off-side frame member and could easily have been set at a suitable angle to provide a central driving position.

Whilst I have no details of the proposed body shape for the car, one can assume from Herbert Austin’s advanced ideas of stream liming, demonstrated in 1911 on his exceptionally slim Austin racing car “Pearley III”, with which Percy Lambert achieved many successes, that the body would have had a good aerodynamic form.

Unfortunately, the LSR project never got beyond the design stage, as the trade recession of that period and the financial problem tho followed forced The Austin Motor Company to abandon it and concentrate on competition cars based on standard production models, as these gave the maximum value in publicity.

Had the project gone through, one wonders what speed might have been attained. Looking back at subsequent records one finds that it took 350 b.h.p. to achieve 151 m.p.h. and 500 b.h.p. for 174 m.p.h. and perhaps these cars were not as well streamlined as the Austin might have been. Tyres were a limiting factor but Harvey du Cros af the Dunlop Rubber Company was a very, close friend of Herbert Austin and, no doubt, suitable tyre, would have been made available. Therefore, one could reasonably expect the Record Car to have reached a speed approaching 160 m.p.h.