The cars of "Archie" Frazer-Nash
Described to the Editor in a recent interview.
“Archie” Frazer-Nash, M.I.Mech.E., well known in motoring circles as the “N” of G.N., subsequently achieved fame in other spheres of engineering and served his country well in respect of gun-turrets for tanks and aircraft and other projects of this nature.
But when I set off to interview him at his fine house and adjacent drawing office on Kingston Hill last month, passing en route close to Brooklands Track, scene of many of his racing successes at the wheel of various G.N. cyclecars and later cars bearing his own name, often at the expense of very large and expensive racing cars, and coming within yards or a mile of the A.C. and A.B.C. factories from whence rival small cars used to emanate in G.N. days, finally to pass along the one-time notorious speed-trap stretch of road by the riverfront, past Nash’s former Kingston premises and up the hill, where the late Lionel Martin, creator of another famous small-car in the guise of the Aston Martin used to reside, it was not to talk of G.N. and Frazer Nash racing exploits or his war-time inventions, but rather of Frazer-Nash’s personal motor-cars.
Although a very busy person, Fraser-Nash and his wife made me extremely welcome, and in a modern consulting office the years rolled back.
Nash, with a twinkle in his eyes, told me that he commenced driving at the age of 12 or 13, on a 4-speed, tube-ignition Daimler. That was in the days before the Motor Car Act. His mother had a rear-engined 4 1/2-h.p. de Dion Bouton and after she had had two mild accidents, turned to her son, who was willing and ready to drive this car for her, although he had only a motor-cycle driving licence, taken out in 1904. After all, a de Dion of that period passed readily enough for a quadricycle, if the licence had to be produced….
Eventually the de Dion was sold at an auction in the Euston Road for £25 and Frazer-Nash acquired a vehicle of his own, in the form of a Phoenix Quad with water-cooled twin-cylinder Fafnir engine. This he converted into a more sociable side-by-side 2-seater, which involved casting new brackets in order to move the pedals to one side, etc. He took it up to Norfolk and it proved quite satisfactory, the main trouble being tyres, as the covers were far from new when the machine was purchased. The young owner was about 19, and the vibration from the engine and 2-speed epicyclic gear no doubt passed unnoticed.
After this came a number of motorcycles, while Fraser-Nash was an apprentice with Wilians & Robinson (now English Electric) at Rugby, after he had attended City & Guilds College. Returning home to his mother’s large house in Golders Green Road, Hendon, this youthful engineer decided to build a simple 4-wheeler, using a wooden frame, 1/4-elliptic springs, and a crossed-belt drive from a 7-h.p. air-cooled Peugeot motorcycle engine. He built his own wheels, machined all the parts on a foot-operated lathe and thus laboriously progressed to the great day when the maids gave him a push off, he dropped home the half-compression device and shot off far faster than he had anticipated, straight across Golders Green cross-roads and up Bull and Bush Hill.
This primitive but effective vehicle had no brakes of any sort, but as there were no floorboards the driver was able to retard progress to some extent by dragging his feet on the ground. This was scarcely sufficient on the return downhill journey but a safe landing was nevertheless accomplished in the stables that constituted the Frazer-Nash workshop.
The vehicle was rebuilt and on it the enthusiastic builder set off with his brother for Scarborough. The first day saw them get only as far as Potters Bar, so they returned home for some redesigning. Setting off again the following day they reached Biggleswade, where further redesigning took place. The next day they reached Retford, and in the third day arrived triumphantly at their destination.
Nash had intended to incorporate a “Fitall” 2-speed gear he had ordered but it was late in arriving. He had it sent up to Scarborough but an error in machining of a pulley flange caused this proprietary gear to belie its name on this occasion. Even so, the “Creepabout,” as the vehicle had been named, came satisfactorily home, still sans clutch or gears.
H. R. Godfrey, whom Frazer-Nash had known at City & Guilds in Rugby, now joined him at Hendon and the G.N. cyclecar came into being. The Motor Cycle of December 29th, 1910 carried a description of the original G.N. and although they never advertised in those early days, enquiries poured in. It was common for the postman to carry sacks of mail to the newly-named Elms Works, still in reality the family stables.
Production was embarked on, albeit lightheartedly, outside supplies being few, apart from the Michelin tyres. One of Fraser-Nash’s first road cars was a sporting, and spartan, G.N. with his own 90-deg. V-twin engine, using Peugeot cylinders. He drove out to compete in the 1913 Cyclecar G.P. in a 2-seater G.N., but in the race the overhung crankpin came adrift.
There is no need for me to explain how singularly successful the G.N. was, and how many awards it won in sprints, hill-climbs, and on Brooklands Track where, amongst other victories, Frazer-Nash won the 1,100-c.c. class of the 1921 J.C.C. 200-Mile Race at 71.56 m.p.h. He is refreshingly modest about these fine achievements, remarking, for instance, that some of the good roadholding and steering of a G.N. was attributable to luck as much as to design—the axle beam was a straight tube for economy reasons, with the springs mounted directly above it, but thus was roll kept strictly in check. Again, wire-and-bobbin (“string”) steering was another dictate of economical production but gave more sensitive feel on hills like Sutton Bank than the later bevel-box.
So the long summers of the nineteen-twenties saw Nash and Godfrey competing in all manner of speed events, and occasional freak hill-climbs at Alms and Rosedale Chimney, in various versions of the G.N. By 1920 “Archie” Frazer-Nash possessed the fastest cyclecar in the World in the G.N. “Kim I,” built in the new factory at East Hill, Wandsworth. I still recall the thrill of reading a description of this G.N. under the heading “The Fastest Cyclecar in the World” in The Light Car & Cyclecar of 1920; it inspired D. M. Dent to embark on his splendid series of Meccano-based racing-car models. A nasty accident in this car at Brooklands probably started by a softening tyre and ending upside down through the Railway Straight fence, kept him out of racing only as long as it took a broken collar bone to heal.
I am concerned here with road, not competition, motoring, but the single-seater G.N. “Kim” was driven to the different venues, even having a small hood for use in really bad weather. Moreover, Nash’s aforesaid road G.N. of 1911 would do 55 m.p.h., his pre-war belt-drive racing G.N. over 80 m.p.h. yet, as he reminded me, “towing was a luxury we didn’t indulge in.” There is one delightful photograph in confirmation, of the racing “Kim” equipped for touring, which merely means it had some traction engine oil-lamps hung onto it! It wasn’t until the Frazer-Nash “Ricki” was built, using a water-cooled 4-cylinder Power-plus engine designed by McClare, late of Anzanis, that Nash’s cars were towed to meetings.
Here I may digress to remark that the very effective G.N. front suspension, using a 1/4-elliptic leaf-spring above the axle tube and a radius rod, later replaced by the arm of a Hartford shock-absorber, below it might never have come into being had not the Waverley people suggested litigation when the earliest G.N.s appeared with dual springs arranged as on Waverley cars—the solution was to replace the bottom leaf-spring by a rod, with beneficial results.
Another road car used by Capt. Nash was an 84 x 98 mm. belt-drive G.N. lengthened to take a 3-seater body. The longer propeller shaft had a bad out-of-balance period, cured very simply by putting in a cross-member and an ash block surrounding the shaft with 1/8 in, clearance, which effectively damped out the period.
After the G.N. went out of production Frazer-Nash made the famous chain-and-dog transmission 4-cylinder cars bearing his name, up to 1928, when the Aldingtons took over. Naturally, he used various cars from the works during this period, one of the last being a delightful polished-aluminium Anzani 4-seater in which he drove from Golders Green to Cromer, before the bypasses were built, in 2 hr. 57 min, without exceeding about 80 m.p.h.
Here I must go back a bit to explain that Frazer-Nash had been in the R.F.C. in a technical capacity, and had gone solo in a month, on an Avro 504 at Northolt. He subsequently piloted B.E.s and D.H.6s and in 1919 bought a Le Rhone Avro of his own. In this he took Godfrey to the Paris Salon that year, his visa stating under mode of transport, “pas air, si possible.”
It was possible, although the single magneto of the 110 h.p. Le Rhone ceased working near Abbeville on the return flight, just as Godfrey was going to have a crack at taking the controls. Nash got down in a ploughed field and a passing de Dion piled with furniture took the intrepid aviators into the town. They returned home by train and boat and Nash went back alone with another magneto, after Godfrey had thought up a suitable excuse. The two drivers of the G.N.s that had been on show at the Salon were intercepted in Paris and one of them joined Nash for the return flight, the Channel crossing being navigated on a normal motoring map and the Avro successfully making Hounslow and Stag Lane.
Perhaps it was the building of the racing Frazer Nash “The Slug” that destined Frazer-Nash to forsake car manufacture for more lucrative pursuits. At all events, it was an invitation to his friend Eric Burt of Mowlem’s to come down to Brooklands to watch “The Slug” in action and that gentleman’s refusal to come on account of an important Board of Trade conference he had to attend concerning the safety of jib cranes, that led “Archie” to dig out an old envelope and sketch on the back of it an indicator that would show what load a crane was about to lift. This saved the day for Eric Burt (whose daughter Patsy enlivens present-day sprint meetings) as his cranes were in dire danger of being banned. The first F.-N. crane indicator was demonstrated on a Smith & Rodley crane and put into production as the Vickers-Nash Indicator. From that day onwards the irrepressible “Archie” Nash decided there was better money to be made than by the manufacture of sports cars on a small scale.
However, family cars had been, and were, still required. One of these was a Deemster, “quite a successful car,” which he kept for a long time, alternating its services with those of a Frazer Nash. Then there was a 12/20 Darracq Weymann fabric saloon, a huge car with “a very good engine” but a quite frightful petrol thirst, and a Rover Meteor saloon, which “wasn’t too bad” except that after a couple of applications the Dewandre vacuum servo brakes had a disconcerting habit of ceasing to function.
Mrs. Fraser-Nash had a rear-wheel-braked bull-nose Morris in which she used dutifully to follow “Archie’s” Frazer Nash up to Norfolk, and there was an Austin 7 fabric saloon, remembered as “a good little chap,” in which he and his wife took a tour together.
A Wolseley Hornet, bought when this diminutive-six had been in production for over a year, had a “most silky engine” but consumed back axles, while a 1933 Austin Ten was “used by the boys and girls of the family and stood it very well” but was too dull for the subject of this interview.
A Talbot 95 saloon appeared next in the Frazer-Nash garage. Nash liked its ” wonderful engine,” eventually used as workshop motive power on turret test work, but found that the big front brakes made for too much unsprung weight and heavy steering.
In March 1936 a new 3 1/2-litre Bentley was purchased, disregarding advice to wait for the 4 1/4-litre model, for which the smaller-engined car was exchanged that summer. This car was retained until 1952 and then sold, after 100,000 miles, without having depreciated one penny! The 3 1/2-litre, developed while Royce was alive, was “good from the start” but Nash had to do various things to his 4 1/4-litre before it attained the same standard.
An overdrive 4 1/4-litre Bentley, bought in 1938, served as a war-time standby, when urgent journeys of vital importance had to be made at short notice, but afterwards it was sold and the 4 1/4-litre CXU 309 kept until the bigger-engined 4 1/2-litre version replaced it, a car Frazer-Nash uses today.
His wife has had a series of Rovers since 1936, commencing with a Twelve in 1936, followed by a Sixteen in 1938, another Sixteen in 1946 and an overdrive Rover 90 in 1958. She loved them, preferring them to the Bentleys, but her engineer husband found the steering wander of the two more recent Rovers irksome.
That concludes this account and fine cars as he and his wife now enjoy, I think he will probably feel, with me, that the Golden Age was when his G.N. and Frazer-Nash racing cars crackled round Brooklands and he and Godfrey droned across France in 1919 in the Avro.—W. B.