Evolution of a Shelsley "Special"

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Some of Barry Woodall’s endeavours, recounted by Monica Whincop

During the summer of 1934 I developed blood poisoning, which involved a stay of eleven months in hospital, but before this contretemps I had insisted upon being taken to Shelsley Walsh. Needless to add, it rained all day in true Shelsley fashion.

During my spell of imprisonment my parents moved further out into the country, so that my first garage and workshop gradually took shape in the oldworld atmosphere of oak beams and formal gardens, my peaceful convalescence being spent studying the principles of the internal combustion engine. I was naturally delighted to find a three-wheeler Morgan in the village garage, its Blackburne engine dismantled and thrown amongst the general debris; the mechanics were sympathetic and allowed me to spend many hours reassembling the bits, giving me great assistance and encouragement. When completed, the car was offered to me for £7, but parental permission to purchase was unfortunately withheld. However, a few months later I was permitted a 1929 Calthorpe 350-c.c. o.h.v. motor-cycle, fitted with h.c. piston and several other modifications. This machine, although giving much pleasure, confirmed that my main interest lay in cars and not motor-cycles, so, during December, 1930, I decided to commence building my first “Special,” my original intention being to put the Calthorpe engine into an ash frame (an idea provided by “Bloody Mary”), With motorcycle forks for the rear suspension. The drive was to be on one wheel only, with Austin Seven hubs. This idea was fortunately short-lived, as I discovered a G.N., complete with full road equipment, in the district. I sold the Calthorpe for £3 10s. and bought the G.N. for 30/-. It was duly towed home, to the amusement of small boys and the concern of my friends. The body was removed, the brakeless front axle replaced by a Singer component, and the steering centralised. After several other modifications had been incorporated I realised that the engine was far from satisfactory for a sprint machine, so I decided to search for a really good “twin.”

It was whilst looking for this engine that I came upon a 1931 Morgan, fitted with competition tyres and used solely for trials work by the previous owner. Unfortunately, it passed into the hands of a friend, owing to my inability to raise sufficient funds at the time, but in March, 1937, I induced my mother to give it to me as a birthday present. I ran it as a road car until the following September; but, after spectating at a Donington meeting, I decided to make four wheels my ultimate goal, and in a short space of time I located and bought a “Brooklands” Austin Seven. I advertised the Morgan locally, but it attracted little interest, which was probably rather a good thing, because it made me decide to fit the engine into my “Special,” plus Morgan front suspension.

With this idea in mind I met Kenneth Harper, a local Morgan enthusiast, and we rapidly became firm friends. Ken sportingly offered to help me build the proposed “Special” during the winter. We spent many hours, often working far into the night, constructing our four-wheeled creation. Our ambition was to have the car completed in time for the opening meeting of the new Prescott hill climb, and although we had initial setbacks we never changed the basic design. The Morgan frame was strengthened by steel side members, and I can still vividly remember the hours spent drilling holes with a breast drill and bending angle iron to the desired shape. The village blacksmith was consulted several times, but we found that we used more energy explaining our requirements than actually doing the job ourselves!

During the winter months my mother would pay frequent visits to the stable, showing much interest in our activities, although she would often remark: “But when I came yesterday it was almost finished!” Of course I would explain that most parts were impossible to obtain, either new or second-hand, therefore I was obliged to make them myself. Her second remark: “What are you going to do with it when it’s built?” was slightly more difficult to answer. I rather suspected that her incredibly innocent expression was due to her knowledge of my carefully guarded plans, but that she was hoping that I might still be induced to change my mind. However, my reply never altered from: “Maybe sell it, but I shall have to race it first to prove its speed.” This fortunately saved further argument, and in due course I entered “Chatterbox,” as we had christened it, for Prescott.

The great day arrived, Ken Harper and my cousin Victor acting as mechanics and supplying the tender car. On this occasion the last-named was Vic’s Daytona Hornet “Special,” although by the time we had piled in spares and equipment there was precious little Daytona visible. I took my seat in “Chatterbox” and duly became hooked to the rear by a flimsy steel tube, or so it seemed from my view! Fortunately the journey proved uneventful and we reached the venue at about 10.30 a.m. on the Saturday (practice day) and were greeted in an extremely cordial manner by the organising club. We proceeded to our allotted space and began to unpack our equipment. The entire day seemed to be spent in changing chains, due to the axle having bent under load. We were naturally depressed, but by the time we left the “Hop Pole” at Tewkesbury that evening, having partaken of their magnificent grill, we felt much happier and made plans for the morrow.

Before leaving a still-sleeping house on Sunday morning I carefully put two tickets on the hall salver, a bait which I am glad to say worked! We reached Prescott to find that delightful scrutineer, Mr. J.D. Aylward, awaiting our arrival to explain that we must obtain an efficient fireproof bulkhead. This caused great activity; Vic and the Daytona were off to the nearest village, having apparently seen an enamelled sign “Lucas Batteries Charged Here.” With the squealing protest of tyres, the sign was rapidly conveyed back to the paddock. Tin snips and copper locking wire did the rest!

The meeting proved that the torque-arms were not in line with the countershaft, and this in turn caused chains to fly in all directions. My parents apparently discovered the tickets and duly arrived in time for the first run; fortunately they were completely captivated by the excited atmosphere and I had no further opposition. Perhaps the following extract from the Light Car will best describe my debut: “E.B. Woodall in J.A.P.-engined chassis (composed of girders very suggestive of the side members of a bedstead) motored up with the driving chain he probably needed most dangling uselessly.”

Work was soon commenced to rectify the trouble, “Chatterbox” being completely stripped and the back axle remounted; this involved an incredible amount of labour, especially as the distorted axle had necessitated overcoming sundry other snags before reassembly. On test it appeared perfect, but on letting the clutch in with maximum r.p.m. once again the axle bent, damaging the selector gear and bevel-box. “Chatterbox” was then towed over to the Morgan works and left in their tender care. To overcome future chain trouble I decided to fit a centre bearing, and after much thought this was finally contrived; using the old rear wheel forks and two bottom halves of a Chev rear spring anchorage. These latter, cupped together, formed a housing for the ballraces; slits were cut in the centre between the races and a 1 1/4″ x 3/8″ iron strip played therein and duly welded, the forks being reversed (left being put on the right and right upon left), the whole ensemble then being bolted to the iron strip. Since this modification the axle has given no further trouble. Another modification I incorporated at this period was a special induction system with twin Amal carburetters.

My next entry was again at Prescott, Ken, Victor and the Daytona forming the crew, and we were welcomed on arrival at the paddock in the same delightful manner as before. My first run took 54.34 secs., and considering my previous bad luck I was quite satisfied that “Chatterbox” could be made to motor well if carefully assembled.

My mother tells an amusing story about this meeting. She was watching at Pardon Bend when it was announced that I was on the line, whereupon a man standing beside her turned to his friend and remarked: “Oh, you must watch this fellow; he comes into the corner (Orchard) incredibly fast, and if anyone comes to a sticky end he will!” On leaving Orchard Corner I broke a chain, jammed the selector and turned completely round! 

After this event I began to build “Chatterbox” a body, the tail being completed in time for the September Backwell Hill Climb. It was about this period that I heard of a good mechanic, an ex-racing motor-cyclist, in the district, so I arranged for him to accompany me on the afore-mentioned Bristol run. It was planned that he should be introduced to “Chatterbox” the evening before the event, and that I should pick him up in the Riley “Kestrel” family hack, some 20 miles distant from our house. We reached the stable at about 6.30 p.m., Joe being so enraptured by the sight of chains and a J.A.P. engine that it was after 4.30 a.m. when he was finally conveyed home, the arrangement being that he should call at the house by 8.30 the next morning. Unfortunately, he arrived to find me still asleep, and by the time he and the family had shaken me into consciousness practising had already begun. In an attempt to make up for the lost hour I put the car on to my boat trailer, but the extra weight proved too much, cracking the trailer chassis and reducing our speed considerably. We arrived a few moments too late for practice and I was only able to walk up the hill to form a rough idea of the course and so planned a slow first run. Although not making full use of the available power (I misjudged the first bend) I clocked 27.8 secs., being beaten by Wilkes, who did 27 secs. dead. However, “Chatterbox” won his first tankard.

Shelsley was the next fixture on the sprint calendar, but the whole day we seemed to be dogged by bad luck. Only one practice run proved uneventful, and even this was slow (52 secs.), owing to my unfamiliarity with the course. The second run was made with clutch trouble; we removed the engine to rectify it, spending much valuable time hunting for the tiny balls from the clutch race amongst the paddock gravel. Practice had ceased by the time everything was reassembled, so we returned home, hoping for better luck on the morrow.

My first run on the Saturday morning was successful as far as the Crossing, after which the magneto proceeded to scatter in all directions. The ensuing search revealed all but the contact breaker ring, so the Riley “Kestrel” was pressed into service and we dashed some 20 miles to obtain a spare. The “Kestrel” must have broken all local records en route, but unfortunately we returned to the paddock two minutes too late to put in the qualifying run, so we became rather depressed spectators. A few days later the “Chatterbox” equipage appeared at Beechwood Speed Trials, but proved unsuitable for the course, hopelessly undergeared.

My last event during 1938 was Prescott, and once again St. Christopher seemed to bear me a personal grudge, although he did at least allow my soul to be lifted at the prospect of being the fastest unblown car until almost the last run of the meeting, when Bear’s 3-litre Bugatti, having unexpectedly reappeared after a violent attack of axle trouble, recorded 51.35 secs. against my best time of 51.02 secs. This meeting was overshadowed by the threat of war; one couldn’t help capturing a little of the sadness in the outwardly buoyant atmosphere. During the winter “Chatterbox” was fitted with a complete body and overhauled in anticipation of the next season. I also began work on a new car, the “Prescott Special,” but owing to lack of funds it was never completed. It was to have been a four-wheel-drive job with two V-twin J.A.P. engines, surrounded by masses of ingenuity and B.S.A., G.N. and Morgan parts.

My 1939 season began with the Stanley Cup event held at the Crystal Palace. This was “Chatterbox’s” debut on a road circuit and I thoroughly enioyed the experience, even though our previous bad luck still appeared to follow us! Once again I will quote a Press extract, this time from the Motor: Woodall with ‘Chatterbox,’ a compound of three-wheeler Morgan and some other breed, led well at first, had trouble, rectified it, and proceeded with great determination to the finish.” The trouble referred to was grit under the float needle and resulted in the special fuel badly stinging my face as it was blown back from a completely starved engine.

My next hill climb, Prescott, was also uneventful. I recorded a very poor time and developed sundry running faults, but I thoroughly enjoyed the closed Bugatti Club Meeting held in June. The class run solely for “Specials,” with a cash prize for the fastest time, greatly intrigued us, and I believe that it was much appreciated by other hybrid builders.

My desire to compete in road-racing events rapidly developed during the summer months, so I began to search for a suitable car. Eventually I found a “Brooklands” Riley Nine, which seemed to fulfil my requirements, but before commencing my plans for reconstruction I decided to use it as my road car, and I was agreeably impressed by its general handling and design. After this purchase my finances were somewhat low, so I decided to miss the International Prescott, but to enter for the July meeting at Wetherby. At this event “Chatterhox” very mysteriously became immobilised, owing, I later discovered, to the highly developed maternal instinct of Joe, my mechanic. The last minute preparation of the car, three nights of snatched sleep, and the added rush involved by the construction of a special tow-bar fitment before the “Chatterbox” equipage could be attached to a friend’s ever-willing car, and the all-night drive to the course, had left me in a somewhat lethargic state. We unpacked and proceeded to fit Coventry racing chains during a thunderstorm accompanied by torrential rain; this seemed to be the last straw, so, having at least two hours to spare, I decided to curl up in the tow car. Joe, whilst passing the car, apparently thought that I had lapsed into unconsciousness and hit upon the diabolical scheme of removing a portion of magneto to ensure my being a non-starter. My faith in fellow-drivers was almost shattered that afternoon, Joe and my friends allowing me to believe that they were as surprised as I at the failure of a spark. However, all is now forgiven!

Shelsley Regs. arrived, but I didn’t feel justified in entering, especially as I had accepted Percy Maclure’s and Horace Richards’s invitation to act as mechanic in their pit for the T.T. Alas! the war clouds had gathered and the T.T. became just a hectic preparation before the chameleon change from white overalls to uniform.

I sold my “Brooklands” Riley some months ago, but its place is now taken by a REAL motor, the “White” Riley, a car with which in due course I hope to add to my already numerous memories of the Sport. The stable, which I call “Scuderia C.R.S.,” is at the moment composed of “Chatterbox,” the “White” Riley, a Riley-G.N. trials car and two spare G.N.s, to say nothing of my vast store of Riley bits! All is ready to go into action as soon as this war is over, with a choice of motor according to the season of the Armistice, although I sincerely hope that it will not be too long before I smell Castrol “R” and P.M.S.2 again – somehow Army fuel lacks excitement, even though the trucks possess quite a turn of power.