Veteran to classic -- Silver Hawk

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Out in a Silver Hawk

Through the generosity of Austin/Rover I was able to investigate, at their Solihull test-track, Chris Gordon’s 1920/21 Silver Hawk, the only one of its kind extant, surely, although there is an engine and gearbox of a different type at a Sussex museum. How Chris was able to add this interesting racing light-car to his stable which includes amongst others the 1915 Hudson, Tamplin cyclecar, Shelsley special “Granie”, and Anna’s Austin 7 Chummy was as follows.

The 1373cc Sage engine and gearbox were entered for a Sothebys’ sale, but chassis, axles and wheels were thought to be too rusty for inclusion by the vendor in Weybridge and were not included, but were subsequently purchased, having lain in the garage in Weybridge for 50 years.

This chassis had been bought around 1940 for £12 10/- from a Polish airman to prevent him turning it into a trials special. But nothing was done to it until it was rediscovered around 1987. Chris took it up to Birmingham and assembled the car, making a very good replica 1920 Le Mans-type bolster-tank racing body for it with the help of his friend John Selway. The origins of these components are unknown, but as the chassis was in Weybridge, a former racing Silver Hawk is suggested. Could the airman have found the car languishing at Brooklands, perhaps when the old aeroplane sheds were pulled down in 1934? As for the Sage engine, this has similarities to a special version used by Capt Noel Macklin, who built about ten Silver Hawks at his house at Cobham in 1920/21. Contemporary reports speak of 4500rpm, equalling 80mph from Macklin’s racing Silver Hawk.

When I was trying to identify the car it seemed that it could not have been one of the three raced in the voiturette race at Le Mans in 1920, or the one which took records at Brooklands, as these had undrilled chassis side-members. However, it now occurs to me that such lightening would have been unacceptable for a road race or on Brooklands, but might have been done later, for hillclimbs and speed trials.

Sage engines were notable for their shaft-driven oh-camshafts and separate cylinders and were made by F Sage & Co, shop-fitters, of London, Peterborough and Paris. They went over to aeroplane parts, and even complete aeroplanes, during the 1914/18 war, EC Gordon-England, of later A7 fame, being in charge. After the war they turned to engine manufacture, with these advanced designs, in four and six-cylinder versions.

Gordon’s Silver Hawk is exciting to look at, and to drive. It looks every inch a racing car, narrow, with outside levers and exhaust pipe, a tapering bonnet and a radiator remarkably like those on the later Invictas, and with spidery wire wheels shod with 710 x 90 Dunlop tyres. I am told that the handbrake came from an Invicta and the engine’s racing ancestry is suggested by the absence of a starter ring on the small flywheel, straight-cut gears, Martlett pistons, tulip valves, and the elaborate form of the exhaust manifold and inlet pipes, which suggest a “works” car.

The unusual 1-1/2in twin choke 30DHK Zenith carburettor protrudes from the bonnet on the offside, under the black painted cylinders were traces of green paint, the axle-ratio is 4-to-1, and the engine is geared about 20 mph per 1000 rpm, high for a light-car, all suggestive of a racing car. The back axle is thought to be from a Gwynne 8, a later replacement no doubt, for which, after a halfshaft broke, Chris had to have a new one made, costing £100. There is a possibility that the engine may have been sold to Eric Campbell for their 1922 200-Mile Race car and then used by Ted Batten of Batten Special memory, in a GN Special.

Be that as it may, Chris Gordon’s car is no pedestrian vintage light-car. As I was soon to discover, it possesses good acceleration and plenty of life. The cone clutch engages smoothly once you have got used to the long pedal travel and the gear-change is by no means difficult, the gate-positions normal for a 4-speed box, but I would have made a better job of changing down had I had more time to get accustomed to the aforesaid clutch action, which slowed the double-declutching process. The big cordbound 4-spoke steering wheel controls light, notably high-geared steering, at less than a turn, lock-to-lock. This is very much a 1-1/2 seater, but Anna was able to ride with me, thereby recalling that old Chick advertisement for a Silver Hawk: “Just right if you fancy the girl; you have to squeeze up close to both sit in it.” Although small-shoed, I was unable to operate the rh throttle and brake pedals separately, but fortunately the outside handbrake was powerful enough to lock the rear wheels.

Having lapped the Rover test track cautiously in this enjoyable light-car, which will surely enliven VSCC Prescott if Chris runs it there on August 4, I was able to take stock of this rare possession. The Type 5F engine has an external oil-pump driven off the back of the camshaft and at the front a water pump and magneto mounted transversely, a door in the offside of the bonnet covering the latter — except that bonnet-sides have been dispensed with. The bolster fuel tank on the body holds ten gallons. The valves are operated via roller cam-followers and the gearbox has ENV gears. There is no windscreen and on the dashboard the driver is confronted with, from left to right, the air-pressure pump for the petrol-feed, with a very large plated knob as a handle, a “period” air-pressure gauge, two plated levers for air/mixture control and choke, (the advance and retard lever protruding from the steering wheel centre, a big rev-counter or tachometer (unconnected), its dial bearing the inscription “Sizaire-Berwick” (I wonder which model of S-B that came from?), an oil-gauge calibrated 0, 10, 20, 30, 40 lb/sq in, and on the extreme right, a big magneto switch, again very period in style. Across the centre of the dashboard there is a lap-scorer with flip-recorder, said to have been used on Guyot’s Delage, a reminder, if you like, that at that 1920 Le Mans’ light-car race Noel Macklin somehow managed to obtain the services of the French driver Rene Thomas, who had won the 1914 Indianapolis 500 Mile Race at record speed in a GP Delage from Georges Boillot and Jules Goux, and who had finished second in a Ballot in the 1920 Indianapolis race. With the Silver Hawk he came in seventh, beaten by Gedge (a shadowy, but keen Brooklands character about whom I have been able to discover practically nothing) who was driving another Silver Hawk, at Le Mans.

Whether Gordon’s Silver Hawk (or its engine) was driven by one of these famous drivers, or by C M Harvey, the Alvis exponent when he took records at Brooklands, isn’t clear. But this is certainly a very fine vintage light car, of no mean performance. (Further information about Silver Hawks appears in Motor Sport for August 1963, while the issue for September 1984 contained some notes on Sage engines). — WB