Half-pint heroes

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From modest origins as a cheap self-build class, 500cc racing became the route to the top. Bill Boddy recalls the part he and Motor Sport played in its inception.

During World War Two with Motoring Sport Moribund, all manner of plans were formulated for what could be resumed when Hitler could be vanquished. Among these was the idea, arrived at almost simultaneously by that avid enthusiast the late Kenneth Neve and MOTOR SPORT, who were both contemplating the possibility, of a new inexpensive racing class for cars with engines of up to 500cc. We propounded the scheme in the issue of August 1941, as follows:

‘Class 1 – cars up to 500cc – has formerly existed only in the sphere of record-breaking. Kenneth Neve visualises its introduction in sprint events and possibly in racing after the war. We have to confess that we are distinctly intrigued by the idea. However, we see little hope of it remaining the unmolested playground of the impecunious amateur for more than one or two seasons. By spending sufficient money 500cc cars of real potency with a maximum of better than 90mph will be possible, and when they are, the amateur builder will no longer be able to absorb the limelight. However, the comparative inexpensiveness should keep up the competitive element, even if a few trade, semi-trade and rich amateur entrants invariably scoop ‘fastest time’. If it can be proved that even quite inexpensive examples can be endowed with reasonable potency, then we are all for inclusion of this new class. It merely remains to be seen whether 500cc `specials’ can be made sufficiently potent to lift them out of the midget or fun-car category.”

Neve advocated such a development in an article in the same issue, citing the wide variety of motorcycle engines and the low cost of construction, running and repair. “How much cheaper to find one `pot’ or big-end than four or six!” He went on: “By developing Class 1 (500cc) a class is formed in which amateurs will compete against amateurs without fear of factory-backed entries overshadowing them”.

Joe Lowrey had provided technical support for 500cc road and racing cars. Neve had in fact started to build a racing single-lunger which had a front-mounted Ariel motorcycle engine, Morgan IFS, a GN back axle, A7 wheels and a two-chain final-drive from the gearbox under him. As the war ran towards its close interest in the new class increased. Colin Strang built his Strang 500 when the new class was confirmed, Clive Lones of Morgan fame the `Tiger Cat’, and it is history how John Cooper saw in the Fiat 500’s front suspension the front and rear ends of the JAP-powered Cooper 500, and how it went into production. The motorcycle power-units were the mainstay, Neve’s Hartley-tuned, and his 6ft 6in wheelbase chassis had dampers that were originally from a racing motor cycle and BSA three-wheeler steering.

Consequently, when a 500cc class was introduced after hostilities ceased there was plenty of enthusiastic support. By early 1945 the VSCC had agreed to a 500cc class, as had the Bristol MSC, the latter suggesting not more than two cylinders, single-seater bodies, and a ban on blowers. We wondered whether the new ‘one pot’ racers would be slower than the established 1100cc Shelsley Specials but it was, we thought, worth a try. The RAC was dilatory in drawing up rules, but the support of the Bugatti OC and the Midland AC had been added and Tim Carson, Joe Fry and Dennis Poore were among those said to be building suitable cars.

At the May 1946 Prescott hillclimb the new class was won by the neat Strang Special (59.05sec, in the wet). Lones’ Tiger Kitten clocked 59.1sec. Strang’s car had a revamped Fiat 500 chassis, the driver sitting well forward ahead of either a dill track or a TT Vincent-H RD alcohol-burning engine. The TT engine developed 45bhp, and had a big megaphone exhaust. A primary chain drove a Norton gearbox, with final chain drive. This well-contrived 500 is still about and is likely to be rebuilt. The Tiger Kitten was in effect a special A7 with a TF JAP engine, later with a modified chassis and a 42bhp, 6000rpm JAP speedway motor.

Some builders of these crackling little cars preferred two cylinders, such as the Triumph Twin, of which Frank Atkins was an exponent, using a rebuilt Fiat Mouse frame and a Norton gearbox. Racing cams and aluminium cylinders had helped it along, but this was a rear-engined job, which did not always help cooling. At Shelsley Walsh in 1946 Strang beat Lones by 1.32sec. This hastened the construction of more 500s, Tim Carson, the then VSCC Secretary, deciding on an A7 propelled by a Norton ES2 engine for sprints, or a Model 18 for races, but he took both to meetings in case of a blow-up!

Stirling Moss was an early supporter of the new kind of racing car, becoming a director of the Kieft company with his manager Ken Gregory, and did many races in these 500s before turning to Cooper-JAPs. As things progressed the 500 Club was formed, its name changed to the Half-Litre Club after complaints from Richard Attenborough and John Mills that members were using their club of the same name in Albemarle Street… Gregory was the first secretary.

Such was the interest generated that the celebrated motorcycle tuner Francis Beart gave a lecture to Hants and Berks MC on racing bike power. He confirmed that a racing Norton engine could be tuned to give 45bhp on alcohol fuel without loss of reliability. Beart claimed 6000 to 6200rpm could be maintained throughout a 100-mile race, and gave detailed hints and tips for those building up racing engines. Standard Norton cams were satisfactory, even at Brooklands laps of 115mph, though power fell off above 6200rpm. Beart favoured the Norton engine, but he reminded us that a factory-tuned Triumph Twin held the Brooklands motorcycle lap record and that a bike with a Rudge Ulster engine had lapped at 110rnph. BMW ohc engines could improve on Norton power but were unavailable here and the push-rod BMWs were not as powerful. The 40bhp dirt-track JAP was light and cheap but it was the Norton he recommended, of which the latest TT one gave 50 bhp on petrol/benzole. But all this hinted at how 500cc racing was to move from a low-cost sport to a costly one. In motor racing the main aim is usually to win, and soon the twin-cam ‘double-knocker’ Norton engine was the one to race with and, as supplies dried, up those who could afford to bought complete racing Nortons, disposing of the bicycle after removing its engine…

At Prescott in July 1946 Strang again beat Lones, while John Cooper’s Cooper-JAP began its stride into prominence with third place in the 500cc racing car class. At Brighton John proved that his beautifully turned-out car had truly arrived when it was faster than seven cars of over 750cc along the Madeira Drive, clocking 62.48mph, quicker than the celebrated Lightweight Special in the 850 class. After which the Coopers of Brandon and Cooper were 1,2 in class at West Court, beating eight others, five of them supercharged, in the 1100cc class, Brandon only 1.1sec below FTD by Salvadori’s 2-litre Riley. Strang then scored at Prescott, and made FTD at VSCC Prescott, while at Shelsley Walsh in this empirical year of 1946 the Tiger Kitten was 0.31sec quicker than the GN Spider, answering our earlier question. John Bolster, one of the greatest special builders, said that the new 500cc cars were theoretically capable of a 44sec time up the Midland AC’s famous hill and saw “a brilliant future for them”, but the ‘experts’ scorned this as impossible.

Interest in the new racing class developed rapidly and there were enough 500s to have well-fielded races by 1948. At the opening of the new Goodwood circuit the race for them was won by Stirling Moss at 71.92mph for the three laps, from Brandon and Dryden, all in Coopers, with another six starters.

Space precludes a full history, but this is how 500cc racing was born. It gained a big boost when Stirling Moss made his debut in a Cooper 500 in 1948, and became so proficient that he led such races easily, able to wave to friends at corners with 10 victories that season. By 1950 the FIA recognised it as Formula Three. Other drivers such as Peter Collins, Ivor Bueb, and Lewis Evans added to the prestige in what I recall as very closely fought events offering much excitement. The privateers joined in, including Lord Strathcarron in Marwyn and Kieft 500s, and the trade began to offer ready made racers. When Stirling had his first International race victory in a Cooper at Zandvoort in 1949 the seal was set…

Dean Delamont, later to have a top job with what is now the RAC/MSA, ran Iota, journal of the 500 movement, and Don Parker won many such races, having perfected the blocking of would be overtakers, even along the straights, causing much eyebrow and fist raising. Perhaps the situation is best illustrated by the 1948 pre-GP F3 race at Silverstone, when ‘Spike’ Rhiando, John Cooper and Sir Francis Samuelson finished in that order, Rhiando winning at 60.68mph, followed by Brandon’s Cooper-JAP, Coward’s Cowlan-Norton, Coldham’s Cooper-JAP, Philips’ Fairley-Norton and Stoop’s Spink-Rudge. Moss’ and Sanders’ Coopers, Underwood’s Underwood, Bosisto’s Buzzie, Messanger’s Messanger, Strang’s Strang, Lord Strathcarron’s Marwyn, Fry’s Freikaiserwagen, Clark’s ASA, Smith’s Smith, Grose’s Grose, Smith’s CFS, Aitkens’ Aitkens and Page’s Cooper retired. Temperamental! The troubles included broken chains, a broken gearbox, plug trouble, three engine seizures, engine bearers giving out, a split fuel tank, a broken engine sprocket, brake failure and big-end failure, all in 50 miles. Such was the variety of drivers and cars among these little monsters.

Eventually Formula Two took over from the F3 scene, but now that the 500s have become historic, with their own Association, the VSCC and other clubs put on races and hill-climb classes for them. The 500s are cracking again!

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