Veteran to classic -- Specials

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Chalenor-Barson’s Specials

Specials-builder supreme, not just in the vintage period but right up to the present, I took the opportunity of chatting about these cars with Mr E Chalenor-Barson while he was over in this country from S Africa, where he has lived since the war. It was not all Specials, and Barson will be remembered as racing the Frazer Nash ‘Patience’, with the Dubonnet-type ifs which he had fitted and which he crashed heavily at the Crystal Palace. But it was mainly about the Specials of which we talked.

The “fever” began with an AV Monocar, bought in bits for £2 10/- at the age of 16, and built up before he had a driving licence. There followed Seabrook, Albert, Eric Campbells, etc, at a time when the family cars had included Morrises, an Essex, and a Terraplane, Standard etc. The young Barson’s first Special was an ash-chassis cyclecar with engine, gearbox and axles from an air-cooled vee-twin Humberette, built in the cellar of his parent’s house while he was an apprentice at Stone’s at Deptford, at that time aged 17. It had inadequate brakes and was abandoned before completion. But it was the inspiration for the GN based Specials Nos 2, 3 and 4 powered by a 1928 Salmson GP engine and having a 4-speed gearbox and a Coventry-Premier front axle. These cars were developed into Special No 5 after front brakes had been experimented with. This surfaced in 1931/32, when the Barsons were living at Anerley, in SE London. By this time the motive power was the GP Salmson engine via a Brescia Bugatti gearbox, the Coventry-Premier springs supported a San Sebastian front axle, steering-gear was from a Riley 12, and the brake-gear incorporated Morris Cowley and Lagonda components. This was a very smart little Special, set off by an EricCampbell radiator with filler-cap from a Morris Commercial. It had good road clinging and a top speed of some 83 mph. Although trained as an engineer, Barson was not averse to adapting a Castrol oil-tin for the vacuum fuel-feed tank and he fitted a racing Bosch magneto and a Le Jarnac carburettor.

By this time his Special-building instincts had become incurable. The next venture was much more professional; Barson Special No 6 Reg No AKT 588. Finishing his apprenticeship, Barson had joined the Ford Motor Co at Dagenham, using Special No 5 to travel there. In this rather spartan car Barson once took his clergyman father to officiate at a cousin’s wedding at Blaeravon in South Wales, quite a drive in 1932. However, that ended when the car slid on black ice under the tailboard of a tipper-truck on the Parkway, Dagenham, the lorry shedding its load of bricks and rubble on the driver, who narrowly escaped being sliced in half by broken glass. Having lost his means of transport he took a job at the nearby Beckenham Motor Co, run by Ted Batten, himself a keen Special-builder and close friend. With the insurance money from the accident, Special No 6 was commenced. Its underslung Morris frame was supplied by the Beckenham Motor Co, using flattened half elliptic springs front and rear. The engine was a pre-Roesch six-cylinder 12/30 Talbot, retaining the Talbot gearbox, and radiator. A very nice slab-tank body was made of aluminium panels over an ash frame, constructed while Barson was working in Thomycroft’s experimental department at Basingstoke. It was at this time that he joined the new VSCC at Hartley Wintney, through Tim Carson, an ex-Thomycroft tester.

Barson Special No 7 was a refinement of the sports car theme and was based on the well used No 6, the front half of which was completely re-built. At this time Ted Batten was re-building his Beckenham Special and Barson purchased his discarded AC engine which Ted had presumably found too heavy. Ted later discarded his Sage 1380 cc engine and finally used the 12/50 Alvis engine in his GN-based Special, known as the Beckenham Special (Nos 1, 2, 3).

He finally dumped the GN chassis, axles and springs and fitted an ABC back axle with transverse underslung rear spring similar to the Fords. At this time Ted and Jim Batten were busy building and selling their Ford vee-8 Batten Specials professionally.

Barson Special No 7 used the AC-6 engine together with Ted’s Isotta Fraschini clutch driving through a short shaft to a 12/50 Alvis four-speed gearbox, together with a Hyper Lea-Francis radiator and front axle with large front brakes. The result was a handsome low built sports two/four seater with cycle type front wings, reminiscent of a Bertelli Aston Martin.

Barson Special No 8 was a completely new car and formed the basis of Specials Nos 9, 10 and 11, and reflected the builder’s desire for a more substantial car with independent suspension. To this end a very substantial frame was made following the shape of the old No 7 body which was re-used. At the front a modified Lancia Lambda front suspension was used, (later used on at least 2 Beckenham Specials) and at the rear a swing axle suspension with a single transverse rear spring was used together with long radius arms at each side. Its Achilles heel was the Morris universal joint used in the halfshaft set up — Dick Caeser bought the old AC engine and used it in his Caeser Special. The Lea-Francis radiator was retained but the power came from a 2-litre Lagonda engine with twin RAG carburettors and a 7.5:1 compression ratio. The power was such that the Morris U/Js failed, so Barson substituted a normal Ford V8 back axle, mounted on Bugatti springs facing to the back of the car. The Lagonda gearbox was beneath the front seats with 6-volt batteries on either side and the brakes were Lea-Francis. Later on, a very durable preselector gearbox from an Armstrong Siddeley was substituted, making Special No 9.

Just before the war Chalenor- Barson had the chance to acquire an experimental straight-eight 4.4-litre Alvis engine, which he put into the chassis of No 9, later changing the ifs to that from an 8th series Lancia Lambda, forming Nos 10 and 11, and making a new bonnet and brake-gear, etc. The radiator was enclosed in a shell from an Auburn.

The war had started and this prolific Special builder was posted to South Africa but was able to take No 9 and a case of parts and tools including the Alvis engine with him. Once he had settled he rebuilt No 9 into No 10 changing everything ahead of the fire bulkhead and installing the new straight eight engine (Alvis 4.4-litre). Soon after this conversion was completed, he and his commanding officer were unfortunately destined to collide at a cross roads and the spare Lancia series 8 ifs had to be fitted — thus was No 11 completed. This car is now in the US and is owned by David Van Schaick who often races the Barson in local races. (Schaick also owns 4-1/2 and 6-litre Bentleys and a type 57 Bugatti and intends to use the Barson in American hillclimbs.)

The cars had become quite sophisticated but reverting to the days when it all began to jell, under the auspices of the Beckenham Motor Co, the brothers KB and ST Salmon built a special in 1935 which had another underslung Morris chassis, the Salmson axle from one of the Barson Specials, a 12/50 Alvis engine, a Bugatti gearbox also ex-Barson No 5, a Ford back-axle suitably cut-down, Talbot 65 brake-gear and a shortened Amilcar body. This was raced, as was the ifs Barson No 8 at Prescott, etc. Before the war Barson built the Duroy car in partnership with its designer Gerald Palmer, also a Special builder but better known for his Jowett Javelin.

You might have thought that was enough. Not at all. . . . Now resident in S Africa, Mr Barson, apart from building an ocean-going yacht and being chief Scoutsman for the RAC of SA for 20 years after the war, built himself a delectable residence and then got on with the job of constructing more one-off motor cars.

At the Motor Show in 1960 he had admired the Fiat 500, so bought one for his wife. Later came Abarth-based Fiats, an air-cooled Fiat 500 given VW barrels and a finned spacer, to push this 2-cylinder power unit up to some 700cc, another Fiat powered with a Borgward Lloyd ohc twin-pot engine to which a supercharger was added, which necessitated Fiat 850 brakes, etc, and later a Fiat 600 with the 4-cylinder engine and transaxle was used with the radiator behind the old grille. This was finally cleaned up when Renault R8 power turned it into a very quick little car, later used by one of Barson’s sons to tow his racing motorcycles to meetings.

Today there is still a Barson Special in the family — two Honda coupe bodies cut in half and reunited to accept a Ford Kent engine with twin Webers, a Capri gearbox, rear suspension with trailing arms and Opel coil springs, a Panhard rod, and ifs consisting of cutdown Capri struts, Honda links locating the back springs and Ford wheels and brakes but Barson motors in a normal Mazda 626, and his wife has pinched the Special (No 12). Apart from remembering all these one-off Specials, Mr Barson recalled owning, among others, two 4-1/2-litre Lagondas, a M45 and an L6, a 2-litre Lagonda Speed Model, a tubular-chassis Austro-Daimler, the Rover Meteor dh coupé, now owned by Peter Sutcliffe, a 1960 Alfa Romeo Giulietta into which he put a 1600 Alfa engine, several Rileys, and a Ford Escort Sport. It was a fascinating afternoon, of furious note-taking, with nostalgic memories of the hey-days of Special-building, still existing for the industrious and enthusiastic Chalenor-Barson. — WB