Riddle of the sands
In pre-war years readers of motor magazines sometimes took censuses of the cars encountered on a long run or seen from the roadside; as a boy I took mine mostly beside the London-Bicester road, at Waddesdon. In the days when no monthly sales statistics were available from the SMM&T, these published surveys served to show which cars were popular: in the later 1920s the Morris was well ahead.
To record such a census it was necessary to be able to instantly recognise most, if not all, of the passing cars. But in the summer of 1927 one car defeated even a motor racing spectator who, while watching Dan Higgin win the 100-Mile Race on Southport Sands in a TT Vauxhall, could not get close enough to an impressive black-and-yellow coupe parked on the shore to discover its make, although he saw it do a few laps of the course after the racing, at an estimated speed of 80 mph. He wrote to the motor papers for enlightenment, to be told that what he had seen was a 31/100hp Excelsior.
It was to Motor Sports credit that we tracked the car down for a road test, beating the weekly journals — well, not a test of the fine coupe seen at Southport, which was a demonstration car belonging to the agent, Hayward Automobiles of King Street, St James’s, but a test-chassis devoid of bodywork, rigged out, in fact, with just bonnet, canvas mudguards and bucket-seats. By this time Excelsiors had finished first and second in the Spa 24 Hours sports-car race, and the winning car had been brought over to Brooklands for the Essex Six-Hours Race, only to retire, it was said, with a choked oil-pipe.
The test Motor Sport conducted may not have been a long one, but at least the bare chassis had the triple carburettors and other mods which distinguished the Super-Sports from the standard chassis used for the mysterious Southport car. Hayward’s claimed 85 mph for that, and 95 mph for the Super-Sports job, which is possibly why they gave us the chassis and not their eye-catching coupe.
On leaving the agent’s showrooms, this chassis was soon found to have a quiet, flexible top-gear traffic performance, which was fortunate because even Editor Lionel Hutchings admitted that some practice was required to get a silent change with the gated, central gear-lever, and that if one was missed the car had to be stopped before any gear could be engaged.
On the twisty road from Esher to Hersham the steering proved light, and flinging the chassis round the bends produced no roll. But the brakes, while very powerful and smooth, were badly adjusted, causing the Excelsior to dart to the right when they were applied hard. It was to the credit of the springing that Hutchings felt safer when pressing on along the undulating Seven Hills Road near Cobham on this chassis than he had on any other test-car. His destination was Brooklands Track, where his passenger was no doubt glad to arrive, having found only a precarious hold on the naked bucket seat.
Although 95 mph (even 100 mph) was claimed for the Super-Sports Excelsior, Hayward’s had apparently fitted a low axle-ratio to this chassis and tuned it for acceleration rather than speed. Moreover, there was a gale blowing up the Railway Straight, making the Fork the fastest part of the course, and the engine was new and stiff. So the 87 mph held all round the track (except when it dropped to 82 mph against the wind) was creditable, although there was some vibration at fullchat, and I find myself wondering if these were speedometer speeds. Motor Sport recorded 28, 44 and 65 mph in the lower ratios before the aforementioned vibration intruded.
Finally, before the drive back to London, it was found that the Test Hill held no terrors for this 5.3-litre six-cylinder overhead-camshaft Excelsior. Its price in chassis form was £1250, the standard chassis being priced at £1150 (there was also a tempting 110 mph Grand Prix chassis with dual ignition, at £1300).
The post-war Excelsior was undoubtedly a very fine car and the King of the Belgians had consented to it being given the typename “Albert 1”. At that time the 32/34hp sleeve-valve Minerva was usually regarded as Belgium’s best car, and in comparison the Excelsior, if more sporting, was also more expensive. That “Southport” coupe would have set a buyer back £1700, when the big Minerva limousine cost £1325.
In fact, the fast triple-carburettor Excelsior, the Series-C, had appeared as early as 1922, the first one going to King Albert himself; a trading company introduced it to the British market as the Adex-Excelsior a few years later. Hayward Automobiles first showed the Excelsior at Olympia in 1927 and, unless visitors were distracted by the adjacent Bertelli Aston Martin and Bugatti exhibits, they could hardly have failed to be impressed by the cabriolet by d’Ieteren Freres in primrose and black on the 31/100hp chassis. After the Show a 30/60hp model was announced, intended for town-work, with reduced compression-ratio, three-speed gearbox (four speeds being optional) and lower gearing.
The only Excelsior I have driven was a Series-O Maythorn two-seater, with the three Solex carbs and the later Bosch electrics, but a Scintilla magneto. It was smooth and accelerative, had a slow, tricky gearchange but a very light clutch, oversteered somewhat on its cantilever back springs, and had very good brakes. I was quite impressed, and have never understood why the Excelsior was not more popular in its heyday, or more sought after later by VSCC connoisseurs. WB