Home-built specials were the lifeblood of British Motorsport before WWII and the genesis of a Formula One revolution after it. This latecomer to their ranks has been winning for almost half a century. By Paul Fearnley
Hats off to the British special-builders. For theirs was the spark of innovation that fired this country’s domination of the sport. The lack of closed roads generally held Britain back at the highest level during the 1920s and ’30s, but while the thoroughbreds of Alfa Romeo, Auto Union, Bugatti, Maserati and Mercedes lapped it up on the Continent, the insular quirks of Brooklands’ speedbowl and up-the-gardenpath hillclimbs gave birth to a spirit of make-do-and-mend, forged the priceless ability of stretching a little to go a long way. True, they also fathered fantastic leviathans such as John Cobb’s Napier-Railton and Ernest Eldridge’s ‘Mephistopheles’, but it was the less-patrician, blue-collar specials, beetling about in their shadows, that held the greater legacy.
For their creators were the original garagistes. The next step was to productionise their wares, which is precisely what the Coopers did. Colin Chapman did likewise, and the resultant momentum was unstoppable. Dick Hardy is not a direct member of this lineage, but his offshoot retro approach spawned one of the most successful hillclimb and sprint cars. The second Hardy Special — his first was based on a Riley 9 — came to fruition in 1955, but was constructed mainly of pre-1931 bits because Dick wanted to contest VSCC events. Like all good specialbuilders he used what came to hand, which is why two other specials and 17 marques — cars and bikes — comprised his new racer, from O.M. rear brakes to a fine crenellated Sunbeam 20 fuel filler cap. Like all good special-builders there is a hint of the madcap to him, which is why one idea was to fit a Gypsy aero-engine (offered for 1,10, still in its packing case) into a whippy, spindly GN chassis of 1921 vintage which had once borne the Meo Special, a racing car Hardy discovered under a pile of bomb rubble in a Hampstead garage (in 1953!) and bought the bulk of for 125. Like all good special-builders, however, some sense prevailed. And like all good special-builders he chose his ‘heart’ well.
‘Barry’ Baragwanath banged in 100mph laps of Brooklands by the sidecar-load astride Brough Superiors during the 1920s and ’30s. An intuitive engineer, his tweaked JAPs, especially his V-twins, were the ones to beat. Yet even he excelled himself with the rare, supercharged, bronze-crankcased, 50-degree, 996cc twins that emerged from his Brooklands workshop in 1928. One of them ended up in the Hardy Special via another special, the Sumner-JAP, an equally eclectic machine — part Lancia, part Brescia Bugatti. It was wrecked at Prescott in 1938 and, although it was rebuilt, made only very few post-war appearances before Dick, as all good specialbuilders would, interrupted his honeymoon to buy its engine in 1954.
The Meo’s chassis was beefed up via three sturdy crossmembers, two of which were used to mount the JAP longitudinally behind the driver — Dick had been a big fan of the Auto Unions. Added to the mix was Morgan i.f.s., a GN solid back axle, a Norton fourspeed ‘box (designed for 16bhp but now expected to cope with 85-90), Morgan cableoperated front brakes, and steering from a Raleigh Safety Seven (a three-wheeled delivery van of the 1930s). Total spend? 1,80.
Good special-builders hit their budget, preferably undercut it, so you can imagine Dick’s chagrin when, at the behest of those bothersome scrutineers, he eventually had to clothe it all in a bare aluminium body, at a cost of 1,120. Luckily for his pocket, Dick had chopped an amazing 18in from the car’s original chassis, the new 7ft 6in wheelbase drawn from some judicious measuring of a new Lotus at Silverstone in the late ’50s.
The car was quick once Dick had recarbed it (inch-and-seven-eighths SU), replaced the almost square cams with milder ‘touring’ JAP 8145 items and upped the blower pressure, but it was still prone to detonations. The bronze crankcase was, and still is, up to it, but the bearings of the day weren’t, and the impecunious owner was forced to sell it (briefly) to Frank Lockhart. The latter proved too big for the cramped cockpit and he shipped it on to John Barton-Hall, who owned it from 1961 to 1974, during which time he conclusively proved that racing overstressed the car.
In 1974, the Hardy fell into the hands of Dr Brian Gray, who has doted on it and campaigned it ever since. His first year of ownership saw him and long-term helper Ted Roberts complete a nut-and-bolt rebuild, since when steady evolution and constant fettling has been sufficient. Though hardly a thing of beauty, the car Was the apple of Brian’s eye: like Hardy, he is an avid A-U and Rosemeyer fan; a biking background (his father owned 38 second-hand-bike depots) means V-twins are dear to his heart, while his love of chains (in the strictest motoring sense) is confirmed further by his ownership of a 1933 TT Replica Frazer Nash. The Hardy had the lot Plus a swathe of quirkiness. Another of Brian’s prized possessions is a 1920 Zenith Gradua bike, with its revolutionary adjustable belt drive, while a painting on his dining-room wall depicts the wild Coupe de l’Auto Peugeot, its gudgeon pin-straining stroke bursting through the bonnet into the drivers’ eyeline: this semiretired Tewkesbury GP likes to be different. And competitive.
In his hands, the Hardy has racked up class records at Shelsley, Prescott, Curborough, Wiscombe and Loton. And it has, in its time, had the unusual distinction of simultaneously holding vintage and Post-Vintage Thoroughbred benchmarks at avenue. This peculiarity stems from Brian’s sense of fair play. “It was classed as vintage, but it was built in the 1950s. Plus it has advantages in terms of size, weight distribution and traction.” So he asked the VSCC to reclassify it The PVT boys must wish he had stayed where he was. They will be particularly peeved when I reveal that Brian takes care not to overdevelop the car. He has fitted BSA front brakes (still cableoperated) but states, with some pride, that “They won’t lock the wheels — even on my gravel path.”
The solid back axle still features the original GN cups-and-cones bearings, quarter elliptics and radius arms, and is ‘controlled’ by tightened-down Hartford friction dampers. The tiny Norton gearbox (constant-mesh, pull back for first, push for up, pull for down) has made two concessions to Baragwanath grunt — a strengthened 14tooth bottom gear and a steel casing instead of the original aluminium. Dick Hardy fitted a mag alloy unit given him by F3 legend Don Parker, but this finally split asunder in 1980.
Other concessions to reliability and the passage of time have been new cylinder heads and barrels, two single-cylinder Lucas magnetos in place of a V-twin unit which would give one strong and one weak spark, and a JAP gear pump for the dry sump instead of the original drip-feed Pilgrim item. The Murderers’ Row of bent con-rods and chewed pistons that adorns the window ledges of Brian’s garage suggests that the car has been far from flawless, but the problems have tended to come in batches and, in fact, this is one of the more reliable specials. Nicknamed ‘The Hardy Annual’, it is sturdy in a fragile way. Most specials are drilled until they resemble Bonnie and Clyde’s Tommygunned getaway car. “Dick didn’t put much effort into making the car light,” says Brian. “You could lose another Xcwt [it currently scales 71Acwt] if you wanted to.” Another concession — opposition take note. “It’s actually all surprisingly smooth. If you feel a vibration it’s a sign to switch off as something’s about to go wrong. It’s not even that noisy now we have been forced to run long pipes with silencers [in place of the original stubs].”
Smooth? A big twin, a supercharged twin, with its awkward, uneven firing intervals? Their tuning was deemed a black art in the 1920s, giving rise to closely-guarded theories. These included the given that one cylinder had less time than the other to prepare for its big moment. To compensate, Baragwanath fitted different-sized inlet valves in a bid to even up the explosions. But Brian has done away with this to no ill effect. He also uses pure methanol (4mpg, 7.5:1 compression) rather than the recommended, complex dope brew — again with no ill effect. And those enforced, long, silenced exhausts have led to an increase of torque with no loss of power.
What Brian has kept is the long induction pipe from the chain-driven Centric 260 vane-type blower. This routes around the far side of the engine, acting as a plenum chamber, smoothing out the pulses and providing a constant steady supply of compressed mixture. Despite the ‘weight’ and this ‘smoothness’, the Hardy is still as quick as a 11-litre ERA to the Sleepers at Prescott (a seven-second burst from the start) and can crack 80mph, in third, across the finish at Shelsley, clocking a best (37.17sec) faster than Raymond Mays managed at a venue he dominated.
The good doctor is disarming. Underplays it all. Just a bit of fun. It is, but appearances can deceive: Brian aboard the Hardy is very spectacular — the bog-standard Norton dutch is dumped, wheelspin takes care of the rest.
“It’s best to try to keep it smooth through the slower corners — almost on the overrun,” he explains. “I usually have the brakes on all the way round a corner rather than powering through it. It’s smoother that way.”
Still underplaying it He fitted a Model T steering box, halving lock-to-lock to a single turn, in a bid to catch the powerslides that go crossed arm-in-arm with the only midengined special allowed by the VSCC. There would have been another had Dick Hardy had his way, but the club determined that Hardy III should be front-engined. “I was on the committee at the time. It was all a bit embarrassing,” admits Brian. A source of irritation? Not at all. Just another hurdle to be cleared. And cleared it will be: Dick is adamant III will eventually be quicker than II. Now in his 70s, he is, like all good special-builders, indomitable and magnanimous. And still watching the pennies: Hardy III’s steering was originally fitted to a 1930s three-wheeled delivery van.