Some time ago a reader noticed old signs for Talbot and Napier cars on a building in Tonbridge and this resulted in a letter from Mr. H. E. Hall, whose father had founded the motor business at these premises. Encouraged by a friend of Mr Hall’s whom Motor Sport had reunited after they had not seen one another since boyhood, I drove recently to Devon, which was a chance try out the new Ford Fiesta on a long Motorway journey, to talk about the early days with Mr. Hall and in particular about a most interesting eight-cylinder car built by his father’s Company during the First World War.
H. E. Hall & Co. came into being in 1899. Its association with motors originated with a De Dion Bouton bought in Paris in that year anti driven back to Tonbridge. (The present Mr. Hall rode in this at the age of six months.) The garage was the first in Kent to stock petrol and it took over the Darracq agency, exhibiting at the Crystal Palace Motor Shows of 1902 and 1903. As the business expanded, with its own blacksmith shop, forge, machine shops; and coach-building and paint shops, agencies were acquired for various good makes, including Talbot, Napier, and the Belgian Germain. One of many 60-h.p. Napiers sold went to Frank Baring-Gould, chairman of De Beers, a friend of Mr. Hall’s, which was fitted with a Polyshoe carburetter.
Mr. Hall, Senr., was a Founder Member of the SMMT and of the MTA, etc. Soon after Brooklands Track was opened he decided to race there. For this purpose the touring body was removed from a 14-h.p. Germain and its effective gear ratios raised by the simple expedient of making up oak blocks, Which were fitted into the existing wheel-rims, larger rims being fitted over the blocks and secured by wood screws which went through both rims and into the wheel. Carrying a seat made by cutting a cheese-box in two and with a big disc to display the racing no. 2 on the back of this stripped chassis, the Germain ran in the first 26-h.p. Standard Car Race of September 1907. Although having the smallest engine, it won, at 53 1/2 m.p.h. from a standing-start, aided by the gearbox and back axle having been drained of oil. I was shown the letter, written in longhand to Mr. Hall, and signed by Rodakowski, BARC Clerk-of-the-Course, when paying Mr. Hall the £80 first prize. Later an 18-h.p. Germain was tried but it was not suited to racing. The present Mr. Hall, then eight years old, saw his father win the 1907 race and he remained a regular Brooklands habitue into the 1920s.
The family used to go to France to watch the great motor races, a practice they followed in post-war days, with visits to San Sebastian, Strasbourg, etc. Mr. Hall also remembers going with his parents to Rheims in 1909 for the first Flying meeting and seeing the Wright brothers, Lotham, Bleriot, Voisin and Farmen in action. Another car for which they had an agency was Studebaker and in 1912, when bringing one from London to Tonbridge, tho young Hall was permitted to take the wheel. He was given a test by the Kent Licensing Authority and granted a full driving licence when he was only 16 years old and in May, 1913 had his first motorcycle, a two-stroke TDC made in Birmingham. There was also a four-cylinder FN with the frame lengthened, and a single-seater cyclecar using the same engine, in a tubular frame with 2-speed gearbox and a live back axle. Mr. Hall recalls owning all manner of cars, Studebakers, Maxwells, Singers, including a hotted-up 1924 Singer Ten, Morrises, Essex, Overlands, Willys-Knights, Invicta, Erskine, etc. Today he drives a 1968 Triumph 1300 and retains a 1962 side-valve Ford Popular saloon for emergency use.
The Germain aforesaid was driven to and from Brooklands and after the war Continental races were visited by the Halls in the new Studebaker Sixes, fine cars, capable of 60 m.p.h. under favourable conditions. (Before the war, when Studebaker were not allowed to exhibit at Olympia, their subsidiary make of Flanders was shown to arriving visitors from a stand on the platform of Addison Road Station.)
Soon after the war had commenced Mr. Hall began to think in terms of a new car to meet peace-time conditions. He had tried to interest Mr. H. Vane, Managing Director of Napier’s, in an eight-cylinder car, but Napier’s, being committed to the six-cylinder engine, wouldn’t listen. So Mr. Hall set about making an experimental chassis of his own, in his Tonbridge works. The business now had branches in Norfolk and elsewhere and were fully equipped to make complete cars.
The 8-cylinder conception was an advanced one, for apart from the veee-eight De Dion of 1910, which Cadillac copied in 1914 and the much earlier Adams and Rolls-Royce vee-eights, there had been no production car with as many cylinders, and it was not until 1920 that the Leyland brought out the first British production straight-eight. Mr, Hall chose a horizontally-opposed engine, as he wanted the power unit to go centrally in the chassis, under the seats, to achieve a good weight distribution. A chassis frame from an old Arrol-Aster was altered in the works. Full Cantilever springs with radius-rods were used front and rear, made by Jonas Woodhead. The cylinders were from a Bayard, in pairs to form the flat configuration. Ambrose made the crankshaft, the con-rods, flywheel and clutch were 12 h.p. Talbot. The crankcase, which was cast in Tonbridge was split vertically and it was possible to sit on the car’s running-boards and remove the pistons and con-rods in half-an-hour. The gearbox and back axle were Studebaker Six, imported specially, at this date, from America, the Hall Eight being built in 1915. A front axle from a Studebaker van was pressed into use and a radiator front a 25-h.p. Talbot sat ahead of the very short bonnet. A Bosch magneto was used. The Hall workshops were equipped with lathes able to take a 24 in. cutting job and with milling machines, etc. so the construction went ahead speedily. But the body-shop was no longer operating, notwithstanding which a smart landaulette was made for the chassis, by a firm in Tunbridge wells, and painted egg-shell blue.
This very interesting Hall Eight had some other advanced features which remain a secret to this day, but the car had the desired weight distribution of 12 cwt. on the back axle, 11 cwt. on the front axle. It was skid-free, in consequence, on plain-treaded 895 x 105 Michelin tyres. At first the petrol tank was accommodated beneath the foot-long bonnet but later a rear tank from a Flanders was substituted.
This extremely advanced and ambitious Hall Eight, which was of 70 x 120 inn, bore and stroke and rated at 23.6 RAC h.p., never went into production. But it was registered KN 1 and it ran well, giving 19 to 20 m.p.g. from its leather-bellows SU carburetter. By 1919 it had covered some 4,000 miles. It was eventually laid up, a design well ahead of its time, around the mid-nineteen-twenties. Mr. Hall continued to believe in eight-cylinder engines, however, but, going to Olympia in 1920, was obliged to ask the Leyland salesmen where they bought their nuts and bolts, after observing the multitude of these along the bonnet of Parry Thomas’s straight-eight… Incidentally, I asked whether the notorious S. F. Edge was frequently encountered, as Hall & Co. had such a very good Napier agency, to be told, no, they only listened to Mr. Vane and if Vane said so, it was so. During the Coronation of HM King George V a facsimile of a Napier in front view was made up for display on the outside of the first floor of the Tonbridge showrooms and illuminated with myriads of lights. This was full-size, in box for, with the lights shining within crystal balls. Transparencies of King George and Queen Mary were in the driving and passenger seats—one wonders what Daimler’s thought!
The present Mr. Hall left the Motor Trade soon afterwards. But during the 1930s he continued to take a warm interest in the older cars, competing in several Kent Messenger Veteran Car Runs, in his 1904 Peugeot.