Veteran - Edwardian - Vintage, May 1978
A section devoted to old car matters
The Amilcar Six
After making a series of acceptable voiturettes and small four-cylindersports-cars, based originally on the Le Zebre light-car, the Ste Nouville pour l’Automobile Amilcar of St. Denis, in a Paris suburb, introduced one of the most coverable little motor-cars ever made available to ordinary customers. News of this, the beautiful twin-cam six-cylinder Amilcar 6C, reached this country late in November 1925. It was seen that this was to be a pure racing-car, of 1,097 c.c. Whether the Amilcar concern had produced it to combat the coming threat in competition affrays from the straight-eight Salmson, or whether they sought to increase the marketing scope of their already popular 1,100c.c. four-cylinder sports models isn’t clear. But as it was at first announced that the 6C would be made in the Amilcar Racing Department and be administered to by the racing mechanics, if this delectable little motor-car was to come on the market, it seemed that it might be sold only to selected customers, who could be expected to do justice to it.
At this time, apart from the Type 37 GP Bugatti, proper racing cars scarcely appeared in the catalogues, although AC had listed their single-overhead-camshaft 1½-litre single-seater at £1,000 for a time, and the tiny Jappic racing cyclecar was intended apparently for small-scale production whatever Amilcar’s intentions in this direction, their new model was certainly exciting. It had a Monobloc cylinder and crankcase casting, the bore and stroke being 56 x 74 mm. Two valves per cylinder were inclined in the fixed head and operated via light followers by twin overhead-camshafts, driven from the back of the engine by a train of spur gears. These camshafts and the timing gears ran on bail-bearings. The crankshaft was machined from a solid billet of steel and ran on seven roller-bearings and the big-ends were also of roller-bearing type. The gudgeon-pins were fixed in the Alpex pistons.
This racing-type engine was supercharged by a well-ribbed Roots blower driven from the nose of the crankshaft and sucking from a single Solex carburettor. It fed the six cylinders through a straight, six-ranch, buffer-ended inlet manifold on the off-side. On the near-side a similar but tapered exhaust manifold took the gases to an external exhaust pipe, and beneath this the magneto, and behind it the water-pump, were driven through Vernier-couplings from the timing-train. Lubrication was by dry-sump, the oil tank being mounted neatly between the front dumb-irons, and the usual scavenge and feed pumps being used. Above this flat-topped oil tank ran the starting-handle shaft, engaging with a dog on the front of the supercharger. The sparking plugs, one per cylinder, were inclined rearwards to clear the large diameter valves.
This engine was installed in a low-built chassis, rather on the style of the 1924/5 2-litre Delage Grand Prix cars, sprung on flat half-elliptic springs, shackled at the back, for the upswept tubular front axle, and on short quarter-elliptic springs at the back. To enable a flat undertray to e used, the engine was mounted on a cross-tube passing through the crankcase and supported on trunnion-brackets bolted to the top of the chassis side-members, at the front, and on a flexible two-point mounting at the back. The four-speed gearbox was in unit with the engine and the back-axle was devoid of a differential. The first cars had a scuttle fuel tank but later the tank was incorporated as part of the rear of the chassis. I believe that the first engines had two breathers on the near-side, one on the off-side but that later all three of these lidded, vertical tubes were on the off-side. The chassi had a wheelbase of 7 ft. 3 in., a track of 3 ft. 4 in. given as 8 cwt. 40 lb. The axle ratio at this time was 3.6 to 1, the tyre size was 700 x 80 (!) on centre-lock wire wheels, and non-servo four-wheel-brakes were used. The steering-column ran well forward to the steering box. The power output was quoted as 83 b.h.p. The bonnet-top was a mere 2ft 9 ½ in. from the ground. The worth of this new Amilcar was seen when it made its debut at the 1925 Gaillon hill-climb, driven by the works driver Andre Morel, and beat everything except the 10½-litre V12 Delage of Rene Thomas and one of the “Invinciple” 1 ½ -litre Darracqs handled by Chassagne. The little Amilcar was reported also to have lapped Montlhery at 118 m.p.h.
Nothing more was heard for some time, although in France Morel was doing very well with a single-seater Amilcar Six, and in 1926 the Amilcars of Morel, Martin and Duray dominated the 1,100-c.c. class of the GP du Salon race at Montlhery. The same thing happened in the 1926 JCC 200-Mile Race at Brooklands, this time against Salmson opposition, when the Frenchman Martin won the 1,100 c.c. class at 66.23 m.p.h. over the Brooklands artificial road-course, from his team-mates Duray and Morel, the last-named delayed by a slipping clutch. This naturally caused great interest in the Amilcar exhibits at Olympia that October. The cars were being sold here then by Boon and Porter Ltd. of Barnes and sure enough, on Stand No. 25 at this 1926 Show, they had been able to exhibit an Amilcar Six chassis. It was splendidly stark, devoid of bonnet or body, but with the big fuel tank now mounted on the rear part of the chassis. The price was £725 in this form, whereas a four-cylinder Amilcar chassis could be had for £250 and a complete Grand Sports model for £285. However where else could you buy a proper twin-cam racing chassis in 1926? Neither Bugatti no Alfa Romeo, introduced twin-cam power-units for some ears, the former not until 1931, the latter in 1928.
So, the Amilcar Six created a justified sensation and wealthy enthusiasts set about acquiring them. At Arpajon Marin had done a standing start kilo. At 78.34 m.p.h. and Morel a flying kilo. At 122.67 m.p.h., in the works car, which must have inspired buyers to part with their money. By 1927 Vernon Balls had re-acquired the Amilcar agency in this country and at the Olympia Show that year he exhibited the six-cylinder Amilcar on Stand No. 5. It now cost £695 in chassis form. It was said to be able to lap Brooklands at over 120 m.p.h. Alas, it didn’t work out quite like that. while the works car lapped Montlhery at 126 m.p.h. when being got ready for the 1928 Arpajon Speed Trials, where it vanquished the Salmson opposition, the best lap-speed at Brooklands, at all events as officially-timed in a full-scale BARC race, was 104.41 m.p.h., by Miss Machonochie’s blue car, while the expert Vernon Balls (by the way, what a lovely surname to possess, when the police started asking questions!), after trying a blower on a four-cylinder Amilcar, lapped at 103.76 m.p.h. in his blue Amilcar Six.
The fact was that the customers were being provided with cars having plain bearing engines, whereas the works cars used roller mains and big-ends. But nevertheless the Amilcar Six was quite popular here with those who could afford it – in 1928 its price of £695 had to be set against the £525 asked for a Grand Prix 1 ½ -litre Type 37 Bugatti, or compared with the 2-litre GP Modifee Bugatti which cost £675; a full 2-litre Grand Prix Bugatti was listed at £1,100.
At Brooklands in 1928 Harcourt-Wood raced his red Amilcar Six, Major Goldie Gardner, MC, a red example, Balls his blue car, apart from the girl who went round faster than an of them, and the undergraduate Llewelyn had one which he ran in the Inter-‘Varsity sprint meeting and at other similar events. By 1930 Brian Twist had joined the fraternity, with a red car, with which he won the Racing Long Handicap at the BARC Club Meeting, lapping at 96.71 m.p.h. on both his flying circuits.
Nineteen-twenty-eight was the best vintage year for these cars. They were intended as pure Class-G racing jobs but Vernon Balls produced road-equipped versions, I believe with some difficulty so far as the addition of a dynamo and starter was concerned, and ran his in long-distance sports-car races, such as the Essex (later BARC) Six-Hour Race at Brooklands. This was not wildly successful but Balls persevered and even ran an Amilcar Six in the Ulster TT. He was joined by Harcourt Wood in the very first of these TTs, but both failed to finish, Balls crashing and breaking his collar bone. In the 1929 TT Ron Horton joined Balls but again without success, the Amilcars overheating, after which they gave up competing in this particular race. However, at the 1928 Olympia Show the red TT car of Balls had a place on the Amilcar stand (the last time this splendid little Six was displayed there) although it was to be moved if one of the new straight-eight Amilcar chassis had arrived before the Show closed. The price had arrived before the Show closed. The price was unchanged but, amusingly, the road-equipped two-seater was described as a touring car . . . !
There is no doubt that the best showing of these cars was in the JCC 200 Mile Race at Brooklands, in which they beat the factory four-cylinder Salmsons. In the 1927 race Vernon Balls had a works car, along with Andre Morel a C. Martin, these said to be now developing nearly 100 b.h.p. Morel finished in second place overall, unable to catch Malcolm Campbell’s sick straight-eight 1 ½ -litre Bugatti, but his average speed of 75.17 m.p.h. being only 1.45 m.p.h. slower. Balls was second, delayed by plug and wheel changes, Martin third, wiping up the 1,100-c.c. class. Morel did some wonderful skids, but whether from French exuberance or the low build of his car not giving him much warning, I do not know – Balls was also to blame, in the 1928 “200”, in which his Amilcar Six finished first in its class at 66.78 m.p.h., ahead of W.B. Scott, who came in second in that class, covered from head to feet in warm oil from a recalcitrant engine in his Amilcar Six, at 62.04 m.p.h. Balls had been troubled with mis-firing after he had been going very strongly in the early part of the race and Harcourt Wood, whose Amilcar Six engine had new pistons, was troubled by boiling and the need to adjust his brakes, delay ensuring because his French mechanic did not understand him! Incidentally, when Balls had spun at a sandbank corner in this 200-Mile Race, he had to leap out and re-start his engine on the handle, and poor “Bummer” Scott had so much oil about the cockpit of his Amilcar that rage had to be wrapped round the steering wheel, to give him a grip on its rim . . .
If the Amilcar Six tended to e temperamental, it was far too good a car to be abandoned and in the post-vintage racing period these cars were used at Brooklands and elsewhere by Byrom, Clayton, Payne, Humphreys, Faulkner, Oats, Courtney, Monkhouse, and others. The later versions seem to have had 27 x 4.40 tyres, gear ratios of 11.75, 8.2, 6.2 and 4.5 to 1, and to have given about 24 m.p.g. in road-trim; a pleasing aspect was the use of twin tachometers, driven from the rear of each camshaft. However, as with the Riley Nine, in these post-vintage years the basic design tended to get modified, and certainly more speed was attained. Henken Widengren had a single-seater, prepared by Alec Francis, which at Montlhery put the Class-G hour record to 115.31 m.p.h., taking it from Fredddie Dixon’s Riley, I understand with a plain-bearing engine. This Amilcar lapped Brooklands at 110.92 m.p.h. there was no lack of stamina if these cars were properly prepared, because Morel had put short-distance records to over 127 m.p.h. in 1928 and in 1933, when Widengren’s car was going so well, Duray and Gavardte relieved Riley of class records up to 24-hours in France, at 85.07 m.p.h. Humphreys’ car had lapped Brooklands at 105.97 m.p.h. on two occasions by 1931 and was learing its class that year’s BRDC 500-Mile Race, with three laps to go, when the front axle broke – a weak feature of these cars. Oats took over this car and ran it without the supercharger and Clayton’s Clayton-Amilcar, with a Villiers-Roots blower, eventually lapped Brooklands at 121.47 m.p.h., in 1937. After the war Owen Finch ran both the Clayton Amilcars of engine “swops” and further modifications.
However, the Amilcar Six is far too significant a motor-car to be overlooked when sports-car history is under discussion and those who, as they say, have long memories (but some are longer than others) will recall the car which Desmond Peacock ran at fairly recent VSCC meetings. Finally, as I said when I concluded the remarks on the Brooklands-model Riley Nine in the March Motor Sport, I hope the Production Department will find some decent pictures on which to hand this article – W.B.
(NB. Once again, we are confronted by different engine dimensions. When introduced the Amilcar Six as quoted being of 55 x 77 mm. bore and stroke (1,097 c.c.). Later it was given usually as 56 x 74 mm. (1,093 c.c.) but the catalogue said 1,094 c.c., which extra c.c. Miss Machonochie quoted on one of her entry lists. However, in 1928 the works engine was given as 54.87 x 78.98 mm. (1,096 c.c.) and in 1929 Major Gardner quoted his as 56 x 77 mm. (1, 137 c.c.) which put him into Class F. – W.B.)