Last month 1 commenced this feature with a tale of how I tried to trace the career and eventual outcome of the aero-engined car built originally by the famous pilot and racing motorist Harry Hawker, which was in use at Hunt’s Garage in Leominster up to at least the mid-1930s as a breakdown truck. Alas, the trail has grown cold.
I met Mrs Hunt, wife of the proprietor of this country garage, in Cheltenham and she confirmed what I had known before, namely that her husband was a RFC pilot during the 1914/18 war, so that he would probably have known in later times that the old giant was lying derelict, probably at Brooklands, and thus had it brought to Leominster for use as a breakdown vehicle. He flew with 21-Squadron and after the war joined the aviation staff of Vickers, his friends including such well-known people as Capt. Broome, who flew a Vickers Vimy to the Cape in 1920, the fellow Vickers’ test pilot Stanley Cockerell, and Air Commodore Maitland, the airship pioneer who died when the R38 crashed over Hull in 1921. Earlier, in RFC days, Capt. Hunt had known Segrave, who also served in the RFC until invalided out.
I was shown old albums containing photographs of BE2C and other RFC machines, the twin-engined Vickers bombers, and letters about the Cape flight. So there is every reason to believe that Capt. Hunt knew about the great motor car which had laid unused after Hawker, its creator, had died while testing the 167 mph ABC Dragonfly-engined Nieuport Goshawk prior to the 1921 Aerial Derby, in which he was to have raced it. (Incidentally, before this tragic flight he rode to Hendon from Brooklands on a two-stroke Hawker motorcycle) The old car had probably stood in the Sopwith sheds at Brooklands or Kingston after Hawker’s fatal accident, or it could have come to light when the row of old wooden hangars at Brooklands was pulled down in 1933 / 34, to make way for the modern Boulton & Paul hangar — although I was there at the time and do not remember it, so it was probably taken to Leominster much earlier.
At all events, it was serving in its new role there by the middle of 1934 and a number of old people in the town still remember it. Indeed, trying to establish its ultimate fate, I was directed by that skilful navigator David Filsell (whose father also served in the RFC) to a place on the outskirts of the town which had once been a breaker’s but is now a garage, where a modern Lancia graced the yard. It was New Year Bank Holiday but work was in progress and the owner who was working beneath a car said with a twinkle in his eyes that he certainly recalled the car and would have remembered had he broken it up. He referred me to another local one-time breaker, but here I drew blank. Curiously, most people remember the 40/50 hp Rolls-Royce which Hunt’s also used as a breakdown truck, together with a Sunbeam, before they recall the big Sunbeam-Mercedes. After leaving Vickers Ltd, Capt Hunt had built his Leominster garage in 1926; in later years he went to work for Dowry’s in Cheltenham and the garage became Fryer’s, managed by a Mr. Edwards, before it was taken over by Henly’s.
Mrs Hunt told me that there was considerable competition for bringing in crashed or broken-down cars, so the speed of the ex-Hawker car came in useful, the Police being helpful in dropping hints when an accident had been notified. Apart from this, Capt Hunt had some interesting cars for his own use, one in particular being an Austro-Daimler tourer, circa 1927, a 20/70 model I think if not the famed 19/100 model. Mrs Hunt’s son followed in his father’s wheeltracks in winning awards in rallies after the war and her married sister drove with success, partnered by Lord Austin’s daughter, in an early RAC Rally, in what I think must have been an Austin 10/4 or 12/4 sports model.p>
Unless a reader comes up with fresh information, the trail has now grown cold, as I said, and we must, I suppose, assume the Harry Hawker hybrid was scrapped, along with so many other worthy cars, during the Second World War. This is a pity, because it was a most individualistic creation. Hawker, who was not only our foremost test pilot, but who raced the fearsome 350 hp V12 single-seater Sunbeam for Louis Coatalen, surviving a trip through the Brooklands’ Railway-straight fencing in it after a tyre had burst at high speed, and was the first driver of a 1 1/2-litre car to exceed 100 mph, with the AC which he also raced at the Track, with a Hawker body of his own design, built the Sunbeam Mercedes as an exciting personal road car. Hawker started to build the car in 1918, soon after moving with his wife Muriel into “Ennadale” in Hook, not far from Brooklands, and fitting out a workshop adjoining the garage, in which they kept a 25 hp Talbot, a sports version of Model-T Ford, and a small Gregoire that they had run on coal gas during the war, when Hawker had owned a 27/80 hp Austro-Daimler tuned to do some 80 mph. With his hybrid in mind he obtained two 225 hp V12 side-valve Sunbeam aero-engines, which I think were probably Cossacks, abandoned by Sopwith’s (but if I am wrong I am sure Anthony Heal or someone will correct me) and a 35 hp Mercedes chassis. The first problem was a chassis cross-member that got in the way of the four-speed Mercedes gearbox. After pondering on scrapping this and using two-speed transmission, Hawker decided to move the cross-member back 10in in the frame. It was then possible to install the engine, but there was very little clearance round the sump or flywheel. The chassis was duly strengthened and lengthened and rear flat-set cantilever springs were constructed from the original half-elliptic ones by incorporating extra leaves and inverting them. Hawker removed the aero-engine reduction gear and fitted a Mercedes flywheel, reduced to half its original weight directly to the crankshaft. CAV found him a massive starter of the kind used during the war in tanks. New induction pipes had to be made up, using two Claudel-Hobsen carburetters instead of the four employed when the engine in question was used in a Short seaplane, in which, incidentally it had done only 18 flying hours. These inlet pipes were on the outsides of the two paired cylinder blocks that formed each bank of the vee-12-cylinder engine. The exhaust manifolding on the insides of the cylinder blocks, within the veer, was coupled to a single chamber leading to an outlet pipe and silencer on the off-side.p>
To equip the big engine with the starter teeth had to be cut in the periphery of the flywheel but the effortless starting made this worthwhile. There was not much room beneath the seven-foot bonnet, which was made from aluminium sheet riveted up, Mrs Hawker doing one side, her husband the other. A hole had to be provided in the radiator core for the front end of the water pump and there was only just space to get the raked steering column past the induction pipe and the rearmost cylinder block. The radiator, which had Bugatti lines, or perhaps it was more reminiscent of a wartime Austro-Daimler, had a header tank but no fan.
When the time came to start the engine of this exciting car for the first time Hawker had to swing it with all his might, as the batteries were so low the starter would only just turn it over. But at last it burst into life, but only on one bank of cylinders. Even so, the noise from the unsilenced power unit in the confined garage was deafening. Hawker was delighted, however, that his prodigy was working — you may know the feeling — and did not notice, as he watched, that the induction pipe was red hot, causing the solder to run, until his wife switched the ignition off.
Had damage been done, there was the other engine for spares, but some brazing the next day put matters right. As a chassis with two bucket seats the Sunbeam-Mercedes was finished about the end of 1918 and a trial run showed extraordinary acceleration and hill-climbing qualities, although it was impossible to use the full power with so little weight over the back wheels. Surprisingly, the car was very quiet and would run at a crawl in fourth speed, exhibiting astonishing flexibility. A test with a measured gallon on the Kingston-on-Thames hills and labyrinths showed a petrol consumption of 16 1/2 mpg. At first, plug oiling was experienced but this was cured by using adaptors for the KLG plugs.
Much impressed, the famous airman set about making an aluminium four-seater body. Rather unusual at this early date, the artillery wheels, which had detachable rims, were covered with cycle-type mudguards, although at first these were united by conventional running boards. A screen was provided for the occupants of the tonneau, another feature ahead of its time. On one occasion Hawker stripped the car of road equipment and tried it out on Brooklands, where it reached, 107 mph. But with the single-seater Sunbeam doing over 135 mph he decided that anything less than 110 mph was insufficient for racing and so he used the Sunbeam-Mercedles as his road car, his wife also driving it. It proved outstandingly powerful, as the adventures recounted last month show, and it was also associated with some dramatic, even sad, events. When Hawker and Grieve (see later) went to Buckingham Palace to be presented to HM King George and Queen Alexander they travelled in an open 40/50 Rolls-Royce, as did the successful aviators Alcock and Brown who made the first crossing by an aeroplane in 1919 in a Rolls-Royce-powered Vickers Vimy, whereas Hawker was forced to ditch, but I believe that on both these auspicious occasions the Sunbeam-Mercedes was in close attendance. . . .
The year following the building of his hybrid monster, Hawker was commissioned to attempt an Atlantic flight in the 350 hp Rolls-Royce-engined Sopwith “Atlantic” biplane. Due to overheating caused by a blocked radiator it was forced to come down in the sea. Hawker, and his navigator Grieve, were rescued (as later was the aeroplane) by a small boat devoid of radio. They had come down after flying for 14 1/2 hours, and as it was nearly a week before contact could be made with any other ship, it was naturally assumed that Hawker and Grieve had been lost. The King sent a message of condolence to Muriel Hawker, Lord Northcliffe, on behalf of the Daily Mail that had instituted the Atlantic flight prize, guaranteed to make provision for Mrs Hawker and her small daughter, and prayers were said in the little church at Hook. It was immediately after this that news of the rescue reached Mrs Hawker! The airmen had been transferred to a destroyer and were to be put ashore at Thurso. A special train later conveyed them to London.
Meanwhile, Mrs Hawker, after attending another service at Hook Church, a thanksgiving one this time, was driven by her brother to the Piccadilly Hotel in the Sunbeam to celebrate, an Australian flag (Hawker was an “Aussie”) attached to the radiator cap. They were stopped for speeding on Putney Hill, but were waved on as the Police recognised them. Muriel Hawker was to meet her husband’s train at Grantham. At every stop along the line enormous crowds had greeted Hawker and Grieve and at King’s Cross he was met by the faithful Sunbeam. Australian soldiers almost carried the big car away, until Hawker, fearful of damage to it, climbed out of it and over the shoulders of the crowds. (Perhaps that was why it later appeared sans running boards and front mudguards)) The Sunbeam was boarded again with difficulty after a welcome at the Royal Aero Club and driven to Kingston for a reception arranged by Sopwith’s staff — they are said to have towed it for the last two miles of the journey.
Nor was that the end of it, for the aero-engined car was used to tow a lorry laden with the Schneider Trophy Sopwith racing seaplane from Hythe to London, when the lorry refused to start and alterations were urgently needed to the machine’s floats, and after Hawker’s sad death it was this car, half hidden in floral tributes, that was driven by Mrs Hawker’s brother Captain L. Peaty, to the funeral at Hook — I believe he was later to use a Bleriot-Whippet at Brooklands.
It was odd, especially as the VSCC had been formed before 1939, that nothing is known of the fate of this unusual motor-car, and sad that no-one marked its passing. W.B.
V-E-V Miscellany.- The Chairman of one of our older motor clubs, the Somerset AC, has been looking at some of its history. The Club was started in 1905 with about 50 members. Among the first to join was Major R. B. Greaves-Kynfton of Uphill Castle, close to Youghal Lodge where Committee meetings are now held. One of the first meetings was held in the grounds of theCastle, which is still in the ownership of the same family. Another founder-member was Commander Bayntum Hippersley of Ston Easton Park, a High Sheriff who drove a Daimler and an Orient Express and was at the Glastonbury meeting when the Club was started, it is thought at Budeigh Court, the home of Neville Granville. Mr Grenville was born at Windsor Castle before going to Eton and Cambridge and he built himself the Neville-Granville steam coach, in the red-flag days. His son, John Hippersley, died last year and one wonders if there is any connection with Hippersley-Cox who ran a GN at Shelsley Walsh? Another founder-member was C. Hill Dawe, one time Lord of the Manor of Ditcheat, who used to have a pre-1914 18/25 Austin tourer which he changed in the mid-1920s for a Chrysler tourer.
The Chairman of the Club, John Rowland Hosbone, recalls that Mr Hill Dawe had a dread of glass windscreens until laminated glass was invented, so his cars were screen-less until he had the Chryslers. He also had a fad about dirty oil, so used the choke as little as possible, starting from cold on coal gas supplied from a jet in his garage, and all his cars had radiator shutters. The story goes that he sent a sample of oil that had been used for 26,000 miles in the Chrysler to Ducldiam’s for analysis and it was the same as unused oil! The Somerset Club’s first President was Sir Wroth Lethbridge of Sandhill Park, Bishops Lydeard, now a hospital, and another founder was Mr Paddon, who drove an Essex Super Six and a Marmon Little Eight. He had them fitted with wire wheels instead of the more usual wooden wheels with detachable rims and used to drive to Walter Driver’s cycle shop in Waterloo Street and remain in his car, smoking or reading The Times, while it was jacked up and the wheels were cleaned . . .
Apart from the VSCC 50th Jubilee celebration events based on Malvern, which will take place between July 3rd-8th, the 75th anniversary of the Morgan is to be commemorated by the Morgan Motor Company, also in Malvern, from July 27th-29th taking in Eastnor Castle near Ledbury and Prescott hill, a big parade of Morgans of all kinds, from the three-wheelers onwards, being the attraction at the latter venue on the Saturday afternoon. By the way, the Vintage Motor Cycle Club has its practice day at Donington Park on March 7th, and racing there, at which three-wheelers compete, on April 23rd; and the popular Banbury Run is scheduled for June 17th. Stuart McKay of the De Havilland Moth Club is working on a book, largely pictorial, about the DH Tiger Moth and would like to hear from those who can lend photographs of Tigers of any kind or condition for inclusion. The book is scheduled to appear towards the end of 1984 and letters from those who can help will be forwarded. — W.B.