The amazing adventures of Spider Man

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Basil Davenport beat serious pre-war hillclimb rivals in a series of skimpy home-built V-twins – and most famous of these was ‘Spider’
Writer Simon Taylor | Photographer Howard Simmons

It’s always pleasing in motor sport when a four-wheeled underdog, an apparently shabby, primitive, out-dated machine, beats the latest highest-tech equipment. ’Twas ever thus. In the 1920s and 1930s a curmudgeonly, uncompromising North Countryman called Basil Davenport achieved huge success in the specialised sport of hillclimbing and sprinting. He used a 1500cc V-twin special based on old GN parts, with a deliberately scruffy exterior that belied the fact that it was constantly improved from season to season.

In those days every event at Shelsley Walsh was of major importance, attracting international works entries and the occasional Grand Prix car. Basil’s air-cooled, chain-driven device, christened Spider, broke the outright hill record there four times and set six consecutive Best Times of Day. Among the cars it vanquished were Raymond Mays’ 2-litre Mercedes and his 3-litre Vauxhall Villiers Supercharge, and the mighty V12 4-litre Sunbeam.

In 1930 the great Rudi Caracciola came to Shelsley in his works 7.1-litre SSK Mercedes, with Alfred Neubauer in attendance, and Basil beat him. His big disappointment was taking on Henry Segrave’s Grand Prix Sunbeam in 1925, and very nearly humiliating it. Sadly, on the steep final straight to the finish line, Spider broke a con-rod and its engine seized. Basil coasted over the line – and still finished second, only 0.8sec slower than Segrave.

Spider was towed to and from events on its wheels behind another equally primitive home-built car, the BHD. Also GN-based, this skimpy 1½ seater would often also carry Basil’s brother’s racing motorcycle roped to its left side. Over 10 seasons between 1922 and 1931 Basil achieved an extraordinary 161 wins in hillclimbs and sprints up and down the country. He then retired to devote himself to the family silk business in Macclesfield. But after World War II he built a 2-litre version of Spider, using a narrowed HRG chassis – H R Godfrey having been, in partnership with Archie Frazer-Nash, the ‘G’ of GN. Back at Shelsley in 1946, against far more modern opposition, Basil set BTD for an unsupercharged car. He continued to compete at Shelsley and elsewhere well into the 1960s, winning more awards and always achieving astonishing times against the moderns. In 1963, by which time he was 60, his 45.27sec climb was only 4.6sec slower than six-times hillclimb champion Tony Marsh in the modern quasi-F1 Marsh-Climax.

Basil died in 1979, but his cars live on, looking as they always did. They are campaigned regularly, and continue to win. Shelsley is smoother now, its banks better trimmed, and David Leigh has taken the 1500cc Spider up in a brilliant 37.94sec. The 2-litre car, its engine now displacing 2300cc, has set an astonishing time of 34.79sec in the brave hands of current owner Martin Spencer. Having watched them many times in action, I had long wondered what these extraordinary projectiles felt like from the cockpit. So Robin Parker, the BHD’s current owner, gathered together a trio of Davenport machines for me to sample, where else but on Shelsley’s hallowed 1000 yards. Spider II was temporarily indisposed, but David Leigh brought the original Spider, Robin was there with the BHD and Malcolm Leyland brought the 1100cc single-seater Grub.

Spider’s engine is a V-twin of 1487cc, with chain-driven overhead camshafts operating four valves per cylinder. Despite its deliberately homely appearance, its mechanicals were meticulously developed not only for performance but also for reliability. When Basil won a 100-mile race on the beach at Southport he drove with the offside front wheel in the edge of the water, so that the spray would cool the cylinder barrel on that side. After a disastrous blow-up at an event on the Colwyn Bay promenade, when bits of engine flew over the heads of the watching crowd and into the sea, he had a new crankcase cast with offset cylinder barrels, and at a sprint at Blackpool Spider crossed the finish line at over 100mph, still accelerating. Nobody seems sure today what power the engine develops, but overall weight is about 1000lb, so clearly the power-to-weight ratio is exceptional. Basil used to mix his own fuel in a hen-house in his garden, a witches’ brew of acetone, methane, ethyl alcohol and methylated spirits.

Spider has brakes on the rear wheels only. Basil experimented with front-wheel brakes in 1930, but discarded them as being too heavy. Once aboard you search in vain for the brake pedal: the only braking is via a lever mounted outside the cockpit. For road use there was, and still is, a legal requirement to have two braking systems. Basil got around this by simply having a second hand lever on the other side of the car.

The shortened GN chassis has quarter-elliptic springs front and rear and of course, like any GN, the car is chain-driven, with a separate chain for each ratio, each engaged by a dog clutch. There is no differential, so both rear wheels have to travel the same distance however sharp the corner. So every corner is taken, if you are inexpert, in an untidy series of bites like the circumference of a 50p piece; or, if you know what you are doing, in a controlled tail-out drift. And of course no power is lost by spinning the inside wheel.

I have been lucky enough to drive a lot of varied motorcars in my time, from a blower Bentley to one of the V16 BRMs, but the impact of driving this extraordinary device ranks as one of my more memorable four-wheel experiences. Part of Basil’s deliberate attempt to thumb his nose at his wealthy fellow competitors, with their highly polished cars tended by retained mechanics, was to compete in an old brown cow gown with a length of string tied around his middle. This made a stark contrast to the immaculate Raymond Mays, who took so much care over his appearance. For authenticity I borrowed a brown cow-gown, and I drove Spider bare-headed, just as Basil did until the rules forced him into a pudding-basin helmet. A modern crash helmet would have been completely wrong.

From pointed prow to pointed tail, Spider’s battered body is wonderfully idiosyncratic, and skimpy in the extreme. From the high front it slopes down towards the large, high steering wheel, so that when driving in anger you seem to look through it rather than over it. There is nothing so sissy as an aero screen. Having inserted me, just, into the tiny cockpit, David Leigh talks me through the drill. Pump up the oil pressure via a plunger in the outside oil tank, and recruit an army of helpers for the push start. When successful, this is greeted by a cacophony of spine-jarring thumps from the big V-twin. Then I come to the start line and pump up the fuel pressure via a lever on the dash. There are just two gauges, a rev-counter reading only from 3000 to 5000rpm, and a fuel pressure gauge. I lift my left foot off the clutch, both rear wheels spin in unison (no diff, remember) and a massive clattering shove in the back propels me away up the hill.

Running now on 100 per cent methanol, the engine delivers huge torquey grunt, and I arrive at Kennel Bend at what seems to be frightening speed. That is when I discover that the steering is incredibly quick, with barely half a turn from lock to lock. Spider responds instantly to very small movements at the helm, so that one thinks rather than steers around a corner. The gears, operated by another hand lever outside the cockpit confusingly near the handbrake, snick in surprisingly easily, provided you are confident and get the revs right.

After negotiating Crossing, the Esses approach at serious velocity. I lift far earlier than Basil would have done, or David does now, but this allows me to haul on the handbrake (to little apparent effect) and then change down. Braking and changing down at the same time, which would presumably be the quickest way, seems impossible. David’s technique is to brake, then release the lever briefly, slot the gear lever back into the lower cog, and go back to the handbrake again.

This all has to happen in a fraction of a second with rapid movements of the right hand, and the gearchange has to be precisely right, and very quick.

I negotiate the left and right at a more circumspect rate and, having got this far without catastrophe, I focus on the final climbing straight. I accelerate as hard as Spider will go, in second and then into third, before lifting off well before the finish line lest I should disappear into rural Worcestershire. Sprouting unprotected out of that narrow little cockpit, it feels ferociously fast. By any measure this is still a very rapid car, and in the 1920s it must have been sensational.

Playing myself in to this trio of astonishing machines, I started with the BHD. Basil built this up out of GN bits for occasional road use, but he competed with it as well. At a Chester Motor Club event in 1925 the car rolled and caught fire. A spectator, one Cecil Parker, rushed forward and pulled him out of the wreck. The grateful Basil said to him: “You saved my life. When I’ve finished with this car it’s yours.” Fifty years later Robin Parker, now vice-president of the Chester Motor Club, had a phone call from a man with a broad Cheshire accent. “Davenport here. I promised this car to your father. You’d better come and collect it.”

I marvelled that Basil used the BHD as a tow-car, even on the sparsely-populated roads of the 1920s. The cockpit is barely wider than Spider’s and the seat is metal only, so the driver’s backside receives a merciless hammering. The thumping two-cylinder, again with chain-drive valve actuation, has a surprisingly strong pull at low revs. Retardation is again by rear wheel brakes only. This time there is a brake pedal, but this too is just for legal reasons, and Robin advised me to ignore it and stick with the handbrake. The BHD is a very fast car, too: in a recent sprint on the runway at Colerne with Robin’s son James at the wheel, it was timed at 115mph.

As a teenager Malcolm Leyland got to know Basil well, and effectively became his mechanic, learning much about life in general and GNs in particular and helping with the recreation of Basil’s first GN, a two-seater registered MA 5098. The Grub, which Malcolm put together more recently from Davenport’s huge pile of GN bits, is beautifully turned out, and Basil might have disapproved of its polished panels. It is very much a single-seater, with a very narrow cockpit, but it has three working pedals and is a lot easier to drive than the other two cars. On the hill it feels 20 years more modern than Spider, and much more forgiving. Its 1100cc JAP engine is lower-revving, but in every way this is a wonderful period car. The two-seater is now in Malcolm’s care also.

At a Curborough sprint in 1975, when he was 72, Basil had his last competitive run in the 1500cc Spider. He died four years later. But Spider 1, Spider 2 and the BHD, plus the Grub and the two-seater, are all still just as they were, and are exercised regularly. The sight of David Leigh ascending Shelsley at full noise, or indeed Martin Spencer in Spider 2 beating ERAs, is awe-inspiring. Having had my brief introduction to three of Basil Davenport’s cars, my respect for David and Martin, and for Basil himself, knows no bounds.