Veteran to classic

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Telltale Tails?

Invictas will be remembered as well-contrived sports-cars which were first made in 2½-litre form and later as Meadows-engineered high-chassis 3-litre and 4½-litre machines. There were also 1½-litre Blackburne-engined Small Invictas, including the 12/100hp supercharged model.

But the epitome of an exciting high-performance job among the pre-war road-burners was the low-chassis 100 mph Sports Invicta. This appeared in 1931, just after the period defined by the VSCC as marking the end of the true vintage period in sports-car design – which is perhaps appropriate.

With its very low build, slab petrol tank and outside exhaust-pipes, the low-chassis 4½-litre from Noel Macklin and Sir Oliver Lyle’s Cobham factory in Surrey was a rival to cars such as the 4½-litre Bentley and the 30/98 Vauxhall which were thought by some to be out of date. This highly individualistic big sports car was well-publicised by Raymond Mays, who had a highly-developed special version which he got India Tyres to sponsor while he was testing its products.

It must be remembered that Macklin favoured performance achieved mainly in top gear. But if the earlier standard models did not quite live up to their 100 mph tag (The Motor tried the £950 four-seater GK 3890 early in 1931 and said it would “exceed 90 mph and should be capable, in first-class condition, of 100 mph”), perhaps more to the point was the 0-60 figure of 14.4 seconds.

Out in South Carolina, the enthusiastic John R K Robson owns what could well be one of the 4½-litre TT Invictas, whose history he is still trying to piece together.

It seems that an Englishman, Major Granville-Taylor, was responsible for the car finding its way to the USA, where in 1946 it was purchased by a Mr Haugh of Arizona. Mr Haugh was told that this S-type was a composite of three which were used at Le Mans, a claim which cannot be substantiated because only one Invicta ever ran in the 24-Hour Race – Davies and Fiennes retiring in 1929 when a big-end failed just after dawn when the car was already well behind (this was the year Bentleys finished 1-2-3-4).

Major Granville-Taylor had apparently sold the Invicta to film-star Tyrone Power, who passed it on to a car-fancier called Bob Oliver. It seems that up to that time the car’s instruments were set across a wooden dash-panel (very deep and cut away to accommodate the driver’s knees, quite unlike a standard S-type panel), and it also had two manually operated fuel-feed air-pressure pumps to augment the dual electric pumps. But Oliver apparently put in aircraft instruments on a new dashboard, and an aircraft component adapted as a cut-away steering-wheel (which probably explains why the Bakelite centre, like the original, now bears German inscriptions for the throttle and ignition levers). At this time, in 1950, a Buick engine was installed.

Before Dr Robson acquired the car it had been owned by a Canadian ex-RCAF bomber navigator, who after buying it in 1959 tried to ascertain the car’s history. He discovered that the straight-cut crown-wheel and pinion have a ratio of 2.9:1 (the standard ratio was 3.9:1).

The present owner was told by an Invicta expert that this high axle-ratio was used for two cars “prepared for record and racing work” by Invicta, and that in 1934 Gardner’s, the diesel-engine maker, also ordered a chassis with this ratio, as a mobile engine test-bed – but that this car was later bought by that great Invicta enthusiast the late Donald Monro, who refitted a normal engine and presumably axle-ratio to the car, which became his well-known “Red Gauntlet”.

Other features which suggest Dr Robson’s Invicta was one of the competition cars are the body (which, while it is similar to the normal Carbodies type, from scuttle to back seats, has less space in the rear compartment and is much narrower than the standard body, with a cramped cockpit with an outside handbrake) and particularly that it has the longer tail used on some of the racing 4½-litre Invictas, necessitating an angled extension to the filler cap of the standard slab-type fuel tank. In addition, there are two pads welded underneath the chassis at the rear, as if to accommodate a “quick-lift” racing jack.

One thing which troubles Dr Robson is that his car was first registered (JJ 332) in December 1932, which he thinks might be rather late for the low chassis number of S90, because cars 30 to 102 were apparently registered in 1930. However, a competition car might well have been run on trade plates for the first two years of its existence… It is interesting that there is photographic evidence that in 1938 this long-tailed Invicta was used by its owner for a run to Switzerland for winter sports, but by 1957 its original number had been changed to MP 4658, which had been issued originally to a 6½-litre Bentley registered in Middlesex in 1928!

All this makes it worthwhile to look at Invictas which competed in the Ulster TT.

This true road race for sports-cars attracted much attention after Lea-Francis had won the first of the series by a narrow margin from a FWD Alvis in 1928, and then the great Rudi Carraciola had won in the rain for Mercedes-Benz in 1929. By 1931 the S-type Invicta was on the scene, and what was undoubtedly a works entry was put in that year – a 4467cc car for Dudley Froy.

Froy broke his arm in practice, so at the last minute the motoring writer Tommy Wisdom took his place. He did very well to win his class, although this was a rather hollow victory, there being no opposition after the team of 4.9 Bugattis had been withdrawn following a Le Mans accident. Wisdom was in fact 19th and last overall, at 70.04 mph; another Invicta, handled by Major FH Cairnes and G Field, lost a wheel at Ballystockart and completed only 27 of the required 30 laps.

Invictas appeared again in the 1933 TT, when Lace and Field entered the only two cars in Class Three. But after 18 of the 35 laps the latter’s engine blew its head-gasket, and two laps later Lace was out with useless main bearings. Lace teamed up with the Riley driver EK Rayson for the 1934 race and Lou Fontes drove a second car; engine trouble (in Lace’s car a piston failure) put them out after 18 and 22 laps respectively.

That was the sum total of Invicta involvement in the TT, but it seems quite likely that Dr Robson’s car is one of these few. Field’s 1931 entry had the normal slab-tank rear, but Wisdom’s in the same race and the Lace/Rayson car of 1934 both had extended racing tails; that on the Wisdom car conforms more closely to that on Dr Robson’s (which by the way also has a fold flat windscreen and two subsidiary aeroscreens).

There is one more clue. Dr Robson says the massive aluminium bulkhead of S90 bears evidence, in the shape of a repaired crack, of having at some time received a tremendous blow. Well, Sammy Davis had just such a big prang at Brooklands early in 1931, when his low-chassis Invicta slid down the Members’ Banking during a Mountain Handicap, hit a telegraph post and overturned, putting him in hospital for some time.

Davis had made fastest lap in the wet, from scratch, but: “In a flash the tail came round to the right, downwards, came round very fast and, as I spun the wheel over to full right-lock, down we came incredibly quickly, crabwise… There’s going to be a dickens of a smash in a moment… The whole car leapt suddenly right up in the air…” This car was a works entry, but with a slab tail. It could easily have been repaired however (or at least the scuttle repaired) and used as Wisdom’s long-tailed TT car four months later.

TT and other Invicta exponents were among those who raced at Brooklands, where their lap-speeds make interesting reading. In 1931 Field managed 108.27 mph, Cairnes 107.10 mph; in 1932 Berger did 108.74 mph, Froy 108.03 mph; and in 1933 Morgan clocked 108.27 and Lace 106.65 mph. Clearly, these were very definitely 100 mph-plus cars when in racing trim.

Let us hope someone can supply some more information about S90, because Dr Robson says he is moving to the Isle of Man, and would not want to leave his Invicta behind if its racing history were to be proven. He will already be shipping over his blown FWD Alvis, a 12/50 Alvis, a recently-acquired 1918 5½-litre Type 34 Marmon and a Cesare Sala-bodied Tipo-8 Isotta-Fraschini, “so one more should not make much difference.” WB

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