Book reviews, May 1978, May 1978
“The Lea-Francis Story” By Barrie Price. 144 pp 10 in. x 7 1/2 in. B.T. Batsford Ltd., 4. Fitzhardinge Street. London. W1H 0AH £5.50.
There have now been so many one-make books that few gaps remain to be filled. The story of Lea-Francis was one of them and the manner in which this has now been done is a model of how such books should be written. In the past I may have said of certain one-make books that they have set a high standard but none has achieved this better than Barrie Prices Lea-Francis history. It proved to be one of the most enjoyable books of its kind I have yet read, the more pleasing because, although I knew that Barrie Price was the founder of A. B. Price Ltd. which bought all the assets of the car division of the old Lea-Francis Company 26 years ago, I had no idea that he was also an accomplished author.
Barrie Price had the complete records of the concern about which he was writing to assist him, which has made his “Lea-Francis Story” very authentic and complete complete to the extent of quoting dates of first drawings of new models, chassis numbers of production and competition-models, the numbers produced of the various models year by year. with the makes of bodies fitted, annual profit and loss accounts, and so on, and also some fascinating anecdotes and “inside stories” about the Coventry Company and its personnel. But his knowledge of the subject extends even further than that. He is able to link, up Coventry Motor Industry personnel and companies in a most interesting manner. describing the close association between Lea-Francis and Vulcan, for example, and he traces such connections as the Francis-Barnett motorcycles with the “Francis” of Lea-Francis, etc. What is more, whereas I usually feel the need to check some of the racing facts in books such as this, especially those relating to Brooklands’ results and lap-speeds, Price’s text has such a ring of authenticity that it was not even contemplated in his case.
Altogether, then, a first-class work, essential to Lea-Francis enthusiasts but also conveying splendidly the atmosphere of those vintage and pvt years from a small-output car-manufacturer’s viewpoint, so that it will give pleasure to those historians not particularly Lea-Francis-minded. Price writes without bias, of this notable Coventry make, and gives en route, a comprehensive but not boring list of the make’s considerable successes (and failures), trials, rallies and races. etc. More than that, all manner of new facts and figures arc gleaned from reading “The Lea-Francis Story”.
I did not realise that Vulcan pioneered the small six-cylinder engine along with Armstrong Siddeley, Mathis and Wolseley, before enlarging this into the 14/40 twin-cam unit, the shortcomings of which Price deals with briefly but adequately. The book contains other interesting side-lines, such as those about Coventry-Simplex engine origins. Bernard Shaw using a Lea-Francis motorcycle, the “Bass-bottle” Lea-Francis sidecar-outfit, the odd Lea-Francis cyclecar with friction-cone drive (I encountered a Gwynne Eight with a similar transmission some years ago and wonder if there was any connection?), and their Col. Dawson being the first British owner of a Bugatti. The mystery posed for me when R. Tooms Horton mentioned, when I was interviewing him about his MG racing days, driving the old works hack while he was working for Lea-Francis, is immediately cleared-up; this car must have been the original-type Altlerson-designed. 18 h.p. side-valve Lea-Francis which the works retained until 1936. surely?
All manner of small but interesting facts like this emerge can you imagine, for instance, a sports 12/50 Lea-Francis on 710 x 90 tyres, which some customers preferred to the new high-pressure tyres? We meet a Burghley-bodied Lea-Francis, with flaired wings as on the Austin 7s of that body-maker, note that there were two Lea-Francis economy cars, one of them Bradshaw oil-cooled, learn that The Motor bought the first of the twin-carburetter 52 b.h.p. 12/40 “Brooklands”-model Lea-Francis, etc.
Naturally, the chapter about Lea-Francis Ltd.’s racing exploits is great stuff again with new facts, chassis numbers, and many “inside” stories. As the author remarks, after they had been bemused by winning the 1928 TT Lea-Francis planned a full season in British races for 1929, on a budget of – £1,500! The only minor criticism I have is that a GP Bugatti is said to have won the 1927 Surbiton MC fuel-consumption race, whereas an Austin 7 won on handicap, and I wonder whether the inlet pipe of the 8.9 h.p. really went “over the top of the engine”, or the 1929 racers a rev. counter “on top of the steering-column”?
Space precludes reference to all the enthralling things in this book, but there is much to be learned which make of small French sports-car Lea-Francis bought, to investigate supercharging, what happened when six 14/40 twin-cam tourers set on a six-hour high-speed demonstration run at Brooklands on a Lea-Francis Day there, to the fortunes of the Company through the “Ace of Spades” and Hugh Rose era, famous persons who owned Leafs, such as Earl Howe, Widengren. etc., the proposed Bentley merger, the Bentley/Hyper race round N. London, into the 1970, ending with the good news that the famous name may yet re-emerge.
The pictures are exactly just what were needed, if rather “sepia” depicting all the important and one-off Lea-Francis models, the motorcycles, the high-grade bicycles which preceded these, and enlivened by “snapshots” such as those showing how a 200 Mile Race Lea-Francis was taken to and from Coventry to Brooklands, the old factory gates, girls in lea-Francis publicity pictures, and portraits of important Lea-Francis personnel, etc. As I have said, one of the best-presented. most readable and most comprehensive of all the one-make car books. As Barrie Price knows a great deal about the Motor Industry (and is a Bugatti OC Council member), one hopes that his writing tasks will not be confined to this one enjoyable book. – W.B.