Counting the Akelas

Akela-engined GNs made a big impact on British race tracks, and a few still survive

After WW1, the GN was one of the most successful racing cars in its class. GNs have a fascination of their own anyway, something I know Edward Riddle and others will readily endorse. So thinking in terms of their racing performances is good mental therapy.

Ron Godfrey and Capt “Archie” Frazer Nash made these sensible cyclecars for a living but were also very happy to drive competition models, as well as sell the standard i o e 90-degree vee-twins. “Kim l” forsook that simple engine for a pushrod oily one with two inclined valves per cylinder, designed originally for the 1914 loM Cyclecar GP, which the war forestalled. As a boy I was enthralled to read a description of “The Fastest Cyclecar in the World” in my treasured copy of The Light Car & Cyclecar for June 19, 1920, which I still have. It illustrated well this slim single-seater air-cooled racing job and I was equally pleased when I learned that Derek Dent had made a neat model of “Kim II”, based on Meccano parts but with model maker’s wire wheels. This was an age when Rudyard Kipling was much admired and Godfrey and Nash obviously felt the same acclaim for this patriotic author and poet, calling their GN racing cars and engines after his characters. “Kim”, “Mowgli” (the elephant boy), and “Akela” (the lone wolf). Later there was the Plus-Power-engined Frazer Nash “Rikki-Tikki”, named after Kipling’s mongoose.

The exploits of these racing GNs have been well documented. “Archie” Frazer Nash scored numerous wins in speed trials and hillclimbs and was not averse to putting a claustrophobic hood on “Kim” and driving it all the way from the Wandsworth works to a race meeting at Skegness. Chain drive using a six foot run of exposed roller-chain behind the cylinders for the overhead-camshafts of the “Vitesse” vee-twin racing engines as used in the racing GN “Mowgli” was found suitable for sprints. It also served the great Basil Davenport and “Spider” (FTD at Shelsley Walsh from 1926 to 1929) very well. But when the go-ahead Junior Car Club took a deep breath and announced a 200-Mile Race for 1100cc and 1500cc cars at Brooklands in 1921, to win either class of which would be valuable prestige indeed, the GN partners Godfrey and Nash decided that the trouble the chain timing-drive had given them had better be eradicated before this important but stressful event.

For this purpose the GN “Akela” racing vee-twin engine was designed. It retained the same bore and stroke 84 x 98mm as the standard models and former pushrod ohv racing GN engines; the latter had sometimes been given an increased bore of 89mm or a stroke of 120mm to put them in the 1 1/2-litre record-breaking class. “Kim II” (the racing GN Nash used at Brooklands after an accident there when “Kim l” skidded and went through the Railway-straight fence upside down) was exhibited on the GN stand at the 1920 London Motor Show.

The new 1921 racing engine was named the Akela and was very sophisticated for a two-cylinder cyclecar. At the time, the pattern followed for the best racing cars was four valves per cylinder operated by twin overhead camshafts, and this was the format adopted by Godfrey and Nash for their new vee-twin power unit. The valves were in detachable pent-roof bronze cylinder heads secured with eight studs (against four that sufficed for the bronze heads of “Kim I”) and each pair of valves was prodded by a separate short camshaft. The camshafts rotated in opposite directions in order to fling oil over the tappets. So this could be termed a four-cam engine. The camshafts were driven by a cross-shaft and bevel gears to the two cylinders, which in turn was driven by a vertical shaft rising from the crankcase; the engine’s nickname became “I swear”, an epithet that legal luminaries should readily understand…

Side by side conrods were used instead of the former forked rods of the earlier GN engines, and two ML magnetos side by side on a platform ahead of the crankcase fired two plugs per cylinder, one on each side. Lubrication was less sophisticated, a large tank beneath the cockpit floor holding lubricant that was fed to the engine bearings and cylinder walls by two submerged plunger pumps, operated by driver or mechanic when necessary (Cushman gave three squirts a lap, apparently). However, as engine speed seldom exceeded 3500rpm and roller big-end bearings were used, this was satisfactory.

It is said that the Akela engine was ready within three months of chain failures with the Vitesse engines at the 1921 Boulogne Speed-Week and Grand Prix. The new engine was put into a normal chain-and-dog transmission GN chassis, with a neat two-seater pointed-tail body and a large cylindrical petrol tank mounted, half-submerged, across the tail. As no water radiator was involved, an open-fronted cast GN dummy was used.

One entry was made for the 1921 200-Mile Race, the driver the burly, ever-cheerful “Archie” Frazer Nash, his passenger Arnold Cushman. As is well-known, the result was eminently satisfactory. Although Salmson had sent over a twin-cam four-cylinder car with their French driver Lombard for this ambitious and well-publicised race, he ran into the pit-wall, broke two wheels and lost 15 minutes. So it was the GN which came home winner of the 1100cc class, at an average speed of 71.54mph. To show no loss of stamina the last lap was timed at 77.45mph. It was on 200 x 75 Palmer tyres. Afterwards Nash said; “The GN ran splendidly, using six gallons of petrol (the carburettor was a Zenith triple-diffuser) and 2 1/4 gallons of oil.” To put things into perspective, the Salmson averaged 67.91mph while the victorious 1-2-3 finish by the Talbot-Darracqs in the 1 1/2-litre class was led by Segrave, who won at 88.82mph. That the GN was still in good form was seen when Frazer Nash took records with it soon afterwards; the mile at 81.86mph, 100 miles at 77.24mph, on the same tyres as used in the race.

During 1922 Nash used “Kim II” and “Mowgli” for sprint events and the Akela-GN once or twice at Brooklands. Then it was time to prepare for the 1922 “200”. Encouraged by Nash’s win the previous year a team of three GNs was entered and three new engines were prepared much as the T-drive one, but with the camshaft’s drive-shafts running up in front of the cylinders, in place of the cross shaft.

The 1922 GNs were bodied as before and the drivers were named as Nash. Godfrey and F N Pickett. The latter was an astonishing man who, after seeing the enormous ammunition stores around Boulogne during his war service, realised the scrap metal value of the millions of unused shells and afterwards, obtaining a £50,000 bankloan, acquired thousands of acres of shell-dumps in the Calais-Marck area. He prepared to sell the metal from the defused ammunition but met much opposition from worried local residents and was fought by two powerful newspapers. Clearly a resourceful man, he bought both papers anonymously and reversed their published views. He also had a private army with orders to shoot on sight anyone who looted his nine factories (that at Boulogne employed 10,000 workers) and he would lock up in his private prison anyone who disobeyed him. The dangerous nature of his business probably made such permission possible. He soon became a millionaire.

Francis Pickett was an Englishman who loved motor racing sufficiently to organise the Boulogne Speed Weeks and the GP threat, which he encouraged British drivers to attend. He was also a director of Frazer Nash Ltd, hence his entry in the 1922 “200”. Before that, his wife had completed in a ladies’ race at Brooklands in a GN against Frazer Nash’s wife in an Akela-GN, presumably the 1921 car. Mrs Pickett came third, but Mrs Nash lost the bottom-speed chain and failed to get away… Possibly because business kept him in France, Pickett’s car was driven in the “200” by Hawkins, a well-known GN private owner.

Frazer Nash had Cushman as his riding-mechanic and made him lie prone on a mattress throughout the long race to reduce wind resistance! He had found nothing in the race regulations to prevent this, to which Cushman is said to have commented: “No, nor does it say the mechanic has to be alive”! Although three of the revised Akela engines had been prepared, for some reason Nash drove a GN with the T-drive engine, thought to be the 1921 car. Perhaps the third new engine was unready (the GNs had practised late) or was held as a reserve.

David Thirlby, who knows more about GNs and Frazer Nestles than I ever will, has it in his first Frazer Nash book (Macdonald, 1965) that the 1922 engines were numbered consecutively. The T-drive one was numbered 309, Pickett’s V-drive Akela 309-2 and Godfrey’s 309-3. A photograph of Godfrey’s car prior to the race shows its number as IT-354 however we know how number plates were changed about, don’t we? In the race Nash’s car had this number!

It is just possible that a second T-drive engine had been made but this seems unlikely. If not, Nash had to rely on the 1921 engine for the “200”. He decided to use a new type of piston, maybe after trouble in a short handicap race. This was his downfall, because the nearside one broke up and although he and Cushman replaced it (in 35 minutes or 42 minutes, depending on which report you read) and completed the course, (65.50mph), the Salmons were first and second, the famous Robert Benoist winning at 81.88mph. Godfrey, with Finch as his passenger, was third at a speed 2.87mph higher than Nash’s winning average the previous year. Hawkins also finished (71.82mph), making GN the only intact team, and before his problem Frazer Nash had set a new 50-mile class record, at 78.78mph. During the 1922 season, Pickett’s and Nash’s GN appeared at Brooklands with streamlined bodies, Pickett’s driven by Hawkins, and Nash’s single-seater being placed second in two races (lap speed 89.41mph), in 89 x 120, 1 1/2-litre form.

Having promised a count, I intend to do my best. But it is no easy task, made more difficult because some think that further Akelas were made, and it is difficult to recognise from faded photographs whether an engine is a V-drive Akela or a Vitesse or whatever. It is a line I would not have liked to tackle without the help provided by Ron Sant, who kept a record of later owners and who helped Davenport revitalise “Spider” after the war. I am grateful for his valuable assistance; but if anyone knows more, I would appreciate hearing from them.

When Nash left GN Ltd to form his own company he took his 200-Mile car with him, but had to buy it. It seems as if Godfrey and Cushman also kept theirs. Having lost the Pickett Cup to Salmson in 1921 and failed to contest it in 1922, Nash was keen to enter a team in 1923, composed of himself, Godfrey and Cushman. Godfrey became ill, so his entry was taken over by C Ringwood, Pickett’s chauffeur. The GNs, two-seater bodies replaced, were entered as Frazer Nashes to publicise Nash’s business. Ringwood proved to be a good driver and he led the team home, followed by Nash and Cushman, in the 1100cc class. This secured for them the coveted Cup, as although two Salmsons beat them, the third one retired.

The “200” came soon after Boulogne. Only one GN was entered by Pickett for Nash the words “Frazer Nash” emblazoned large on the body sides but it retired. After that, the Akela-GNs found private owners.

The versatile girl racer Ivy Cummings acquired what was either Nash’s car or a spare car (EL 8123). With it she did extremely well in sprint events (see table) and in 1924 it was given a single-seater body and a somewhat altered front end. Ivy even took it to the Gaillon hillclimb but was disqualified as the car had no reverse gear (trust the astute French to protest at this even the BARC had overlooked it in the 200-Mile Races). But she was allowed to make an unofficial ascent and was faster than the class-winning Amilcar.

The car was shared with LCGM Le Champion, a contrast to his Brooklands giants. It shed a back tyre in a race, but Le Champion took Class G, records at the Track with it in 1925, the 8cwt GN covering the flying-start mile at just under 80mph. Ivy had used the car for record work in 1923 in two-seater guise, with “GN” blanked out on both sides of the body, the standing-start mile covered at 68.58mph.

During 1925 Miss Cummings sold the car to E L F Mucklow, who ran it at Shelsley Walsh until 1928, when W H Hylton took it over. The next owner seems to have been H P Prestwich, who used a single-seater body rather like a more bulbous version of that on “Spider” and entered consistently, especially in sand races. Quite what happened next to this GN is shrouded in the mists of time but J W Ecroyd apparently found it and passed it on to Basil Davenport, who was contemplating building up an Akela replica. When spent a week-end with him in Macclesfield in 1957 he showed me a shed full of parts, and later with the help of Ron Sant the job emerged with the V-drive engine in 1 1/2-litre size, and with “Spider”, made very welcome appearances up to about 1960, when the timing gears stripped. Sant bought it in 1978 and put it back to its original engine capacity and competed with it and “Spider”; a nostalgic reminder of the great Davenport era. This Akela-GN is now owned by Charlie Smith, who raced it at VSCC Silverstone last year.

Before the 1924 200-Mile Race Ringwood, who had either bought or been bequeathed Pickett’s GN, experimented with supercharging, using a German centrifugal blower, if contemporary reports got it right. But when on full song the insulted vee-twin blew up in a big way, damaging a cylinder head. It may have been a Vitesse or other engine, because he was able to start in the “200” with an original-looking car and V-drive power pack. He was said to have put revised timing gears into this engine and warmed it up a bit. Whatever, he finished second in the 1100cc class, behind the Englishman O Wilson-Jones’ Salmson, in the old GN (or Frazer Nash!), but at only 74.06mph compared to the French car’s 85.70mph. Undaunted by the artificial “road course” which the JCC introduced for its 1925 “200”, Ringwood again entered his back-braked GN but retired as a result of what he diagnosed as plug trouble, but which was actually ice in the carburettor.

After 1922 it became ever more confusing as to which Akela was which. For instance, in 1923 Pickett nominated a car for Nash to drive at the Easter Brooklands Meeting but Cushman drove instead (lap speed 79.68mph). Then, standing at the side of the Railway-straight with my Box Brownie at the ready during practice for the 1929 Brooklands Easter Meeting, I was delighted to see an Akela-GN crackling past, as these cars would have done in 1922, apart from its paintwork being blue, with white wheels. It belonged to A P F Dempster. Later I was told that Godfrey had sold this car (XL 6458) to Dempster in 1928. But by 1930 it had acquired an FN radiator and a sidevalve four-cylinder 1 1/2-litre Anzani engine and was re-named the KHG Special, after Kingston Hill Garage, where Dempster was either the owner or a customer. Speed had gone up by four to five mph, but with no better luck…

Further confusion! A photograph shows a Mr Cole coaxing what looks to be an Akela-GN up Dalton Bank in 1928, at the Huddersfield MC’s freak hillclimb and in that year A Marshall drove such a GN at the opening car meeting at Greenford dirt track. As for the Ringwood car, the trail grows cold, but the car may have gone into KMG Anderson’s Special, before he passed it on to Nigel Orlebar, who in turn passed it to Wing Cmdr Craddock, for his reconstruction of an Akela-GN, in which I had a pleasing flip at Greenham Common aerodrome in 1964. The body was a very accurate replica of the original. After Craddock’s recent death Arthur Gibson was able to take over this GN, and when I visited him just after Christmas last year he had been using it as a road-going machine and intends to race it this year. I have heard that another V-drive engine is also known to exist, which may one day be united with a GN chassis. As it has “FN” instead of “GN” on the disc-like cambox covers it is tempting to think that perhaps it came from Dempster’s car, when the Anzani power unit was substituted, but of this I have no proof. Then how do we identify the GN (U 7884) which Capt Trubie Moore, a friend of Godfrey’s, drove in North Country speed events from 1923 and which Jack Cole had in 1928, before Jack “Moses” Moor cannibalised it when building his famous GN “Wasp”? Craddock had seen an advertisement in MOTOR SPORT for the T-drive GN engine and although then he was unable to get to Leeds to buy it, this historic GN heirloom was still there in 1963 and was duly acquired. Gibson now has it and unless anyone can prove otherwise, it is the only one of its kind, as used in the 1921 and 1922 “200s” by “Archie” Frazer Nash. It is No 309, and now has twin carbs.

E A Stafford-East spent many years in his workshop meticulously re-creating another Akela-GN, making missing parts exactly to the original patterns. Godfrey had intended to build up “Kim l” but when I visited him at Bramley shortly before he died he was busy with the water wheel at his mill house, and had just told the electricity company he would no longer need their supplies, as water power was adequate for house and workshop! So Stafford-East was able to have his GN parts, and bits of an Akela engine came to him from Davenport during the mid-1950s. Davenport later built up another one.

Godfrey’s 1921 car went in 1926 to the brothers Nigel and K M Asprey, who ran it in sprints as PE 9074. Following motor-racing tradition, Donald Bird and his brother, of the famous custard-powder family, had it by 1928 and they are thought to have increased its engine size to 1 1/2 litres. The following year KB Showell took it on and turned it into a single-seater. After a spectacular accident at the September Shelsley Walsh meeting he apparently supercharged the veetwin engine and dispensed entirely with the bodywork. When Showell went to farm in Norfolk he dismantled the GN and by 1931 the parts went into Davenport’s store.

That three Akela-GNs survive is excellent, the more so as, if some parts are not original, many are, and the rest have been accurately copied. I hope Messrs Gibson, Smith and Stafford-East will continue to delight us with further appearances in these effective racing cyclecars this year. WB