Ernest Eldridge and his Specials

Ernest Eldridge, whose money came I believe from financial lending, was a versatile racing driver. And a brave one. is well remembered for his two giant hybrids, lsotta-Maybach with its 20.5-litre aero-engine and the giant FIAT “Mephistopheles” powered with a six-cylinder aviation engine of the same make. But these were only Eldridge’s fun-cars, although with the latter he became the last driver to take the LSR on a public piece of road, at no less, at 146mph no less, and he just lost a daring Match race against Parry Thomas in his more civilised Leyland-Thomas at Brooklands, the FIAT almost out of control and shedding tyre during this dangerous assault. However, a good deal has been written about these two monster racing cars recently (see “Aero-engined Cars at Brooklands”, Haynes etc).

At much the same time this indomitable, versatile, bespectacled man built himself a little racing Gwynne Eight, with the driver perched on a seat behind the back-axle of the GN chassis. But these were just preliminaries. Eldridge was a considerable engineer, who became closely associated with Capt G E T Eyston, OBE, in the building of the latter’s record-breaking cars, such as “Speed of the Wind”, “Flying Spray” and the 36 1/2litre 345mph “Thunderbolt”. Eyston paid tribute to Eldridge’s engineering skills and said how much of a loss he felt when Ernest died of pneumonia on October 27 1935 in a London nursing home, the unhappy aftermath of a fall into icy stream while they were fishing in the American outback.

Eldridge’s more serious racing and record breaking was done with his series of smaller Eldridge Specials. His first move was to put a side-valve Anzani engine, that well-trusted and low-weight power-unit, into an Amilcar chassis (endowed appropriately with what had been referred to as an Eldridge-type radiator cowl), thereby increasing the engine size from under1100cc to 1496cc. In 1925 he caused quite a stir at Brooklands when this Amilcar, with supercharger and Gordon England fabric single-seater body, set the 1 1/2-litre two-way kilometre record to 113.20mph, which lasted until Segrave in the Talbot single-seater raised this to 114.71mph. This was followed in 1925 by two very advanced Specials. Although London-domiciled, Eldridge was mainly now a resident of Paris, where these cars were constructed. He was still a semi-amateur and one of the first to build such specialised cars for his own use. One of these Eldridge Specials retained the Grand Sport Amilcar chassis, with a wheel-base of 7ft 7 3/4in, but the Anzani side-valve engine was now supercharged, and was said to develop 80bhp at 5500rpm. Of his later Specials, one car was a single-seater for track use, the other a two-seater for road racing, but the mechanic’s seat could be faired over. Following the practice current at that time, the cars were extremely low, with undershields close to the ground, rivetted to the chassis as a stress-absorbing member. The height of the road-racing car was only 31in from ground to cockpit cowl, the driver sitting low; the width was the same and ground clearance was 5in.

The engines of these Eldridge Specials were very advanced. The detachable head had two valves per cylinder, inclined at 90deg operated by twin overhead-camshafts driven by chain from the front of the crankshaft. The built up crankshaft ran on three Hoffman roller-bearings and the I-section con-rods had roller-bearing big-ends. The valve gear incorporated an adjustable idler sprocket for chain tensioning and piston-type steel tappets sliding in cast-iron guides to obviate side-thrust on the stems of the Ricardo-pattern shrouded valves. The valve timing was pretty abrupt and 100lb valve springs were used. The engine was supercharged with a Roots-type blower driven from skew gearing on the front of the crankshaft, ratios of 1:1 and 0.33 engine speed being available. The vertical blower fed the inlet ports by means of piping under the sump to Y-shaped manifolding on the off-side. It sucked from a Solex carburettor provided with a funnel shaped air-intake protruding from the bonnet on the off-side, thus delivering cool air at a modest extra boost.

There was dry-sump pressure lubrication, from a big oil tank placed beside the driver, while the oval exhaust piping swept cleanly down the near-side of the body, being attached to a chassis cross-member. An oil radiator was mounted below the water radiator, which was fed by a combination of pressure and thermo-syphon, with water circulated round all the exhaust valve seats and drawn from the cylinder head at eight points, using a couple of four-branch pipes. To keep the radiator low a header-tank of approximately one-gallon capacity was carried under the car’s scuttle. Ignition was by a Marelli combined dynamo and distributor, feeding two sparking plugs per cylinder. The twin-cam engine was in unit with the gearbox, and transmission was by torque-tube enclosing the propeller-shaft, the half-elliptic springs taking the drive. In accord with the very low body, the steering column was horizontal, with the steering-box held by a bracket at about camshaft height. Perrot-type four-wheelbrakes with ribbed drums were used, operated by an enclosed mechanism and with adjustment from the cockpit. The well-base wire wheels were shod with Dunlop tyres, and the radiator was cowled with a rounded nosepiece.

Of these two cars, the road machine had a wheelbase of 8ft, the track car one of 8ft 4in. The chassis were of Eldridge design. Although other Specials, such as the Ha!ford and the Thomas Specials, were built at the same time, they were not so ambitiously raced as those from the Ernest Eldridge stable. The twin-cam heads on the Amilcar cylinder blocks were Eldridge’s work (surely it was not until the advent of the Squire sports cars in 1934 that Anzani supplied twin-cam engines, which were special to this make of car?). The more advanced of these Eldridge engines was said to develop 112bhp at 5500rpm.

The effectiveness of these cars had been shown when Eldridge took one to nearby Montihery track (he was not averse to attacking records on Christmas Eve), where it caused something of a sensation by putting the 50-mile figure to 116.39mph in 1925, among many other shattered 1 1/2-litre class records including the five-miles at 121.76mph. But when he brought the track car over to Brooklands for the August Evening News 100-mile handicap he had the disappointment of a conrod breaking as he was warming up the engine in the Paddock. Nor was the two-seater ready for the 1925 JCC 200-mile race, but in the 1925 Grand Prix d’Ouverture at the French track he had come home fourth, beaten only by the “Invincible” team of Talbot-Darracqs, in the s v Amilcar with the “appropriate” radiator cowl. But he was 20 laps in arrears, after tyre trouble. Even more ambitious, Eldridge shipped the new Eldridge Specials over to America in May 1926, for he and Douglas Hawkes to have a crack at the famous Indianapolis 500-Mile Race, with its temptation of big prize money, which even then totalled $100,000.

At the thorough Indy scrutineering it came out that the engines had 5.2:1 compression-ratios, were quoted as giving a maximum speed of 5600rpm and 122bhp, that the Roots blower drew from a single 1.73in Solex carburettor, and that a 12-volt Tudor battery fed the Marelli sparks. The tyres were 30×31/4. Clutches and back-axles were of Eldridge design, with 3.9:1 or 4.0:1 final-drive ratios and no differentials. The worm-and-sector steering-gear was also laid out to Eldridge’s ideas and it seems that the Rudge Whitworth wheels had Duesenberg rims — presumably to accomodate the then compulsory Firestone tyres. It is clear that one car was the token two-seater, the other the track Special. Not much change, if any, for the long grind ahead! Before which, all the drivers would have been mustered for the traditional group photograph. (I wonder who the Englishmen took as their mechanics?

It was to no avail. The Eldridges were too slow to keep up, in a race ended by rain after 400 miles, and both retired. Hawkes with what was described as a “frozen camshaft”, Eldridge with a fractured steering-knuckle, after 81 and 43 laps, respectively. Impressed by the performances of the Millers, (Frank Lockhart’s had won at 94.63mph for the 160 laps) and like Zborowski before him, Eldridge imported the Harry Hartz car and did wonderful things with it at his home track. This left the Eldridge Specials out in the cold, although Hawkes drove one in the 1926 GP de l’Ouverture but went out with supercharger trouble. Meanwhile, his friend Ernest must have been pleased with a row of records with the 2-litre Miller, including wresting the coveted World’s hour figure from Parry Thomas’s big LeylandThomas, with 126.51mph, achieved on New Year’s Eve. 1926. While all this was going on, Douglas Hawkes took one of the Eldridge Specials out at Brooklands for the 1926 JCC 200-Mile race, but on the very first lap he hit the tail of George Eyston’s Bugatti, both cars retiring.

Apart from using his Specials for track events and record runs, the designer-driver had run them in road races. The side-valve car was driven in the 1925 Italian and San Sebastian Grands Prix. Eldridge and his crew had loaded the racing car onto a Model T-Ford one-ton truck and set off for distant Monza, driving through day and night and having to push much of the way up the Mont Cenis Pass. It was a completely wasted if brave effort (unless the starting-money was compensation) because they were never in the picture.

Count Brilli Pen’s Alfa Romeo won and he was mobbed by the ecstatic Italians. For Eldridge, San Sebastian was another fiasco.

The Millers however were very effective, especially remembering Frank Lockhart’s two-way flying mile at 164mph in 1927, with a 1 1/2-litre Type 91. Eldridge made very good use of his Miller in the record-breaking field, both in 1 1/2-litre and 2-litre form. But on one of these runs at Montlhery in 1927 the front axle broke up and the Miller overturned, seriously injuring its driver, who lost the sight of his right eye among other injuries. That was the end of his motor-racing career, apart from a few minor forays, but he was able to continue to assist Eyston with his engineering problems. It was the end, too, of the racing activities with the Eldridge Specials. After that these cars, unlike the 1 1/2-litre Thomas Specials which were raced by others for some years after Parry Thomas had been killed at Pendine, and the Halford Special, which is still in running order, they seem to have just disappeared.

However, in 1934 I heard of a rather special sportscar for sale at Booth & Croft in Pavilion road, Knightsbridge, and went to investigate. It had apparently been built for a Mr E A K Langdon, but he went off to the war, serving in the RAF. He was thought to have later run a 1750 Alfa Romeo. When I inspected this chassis it had the engine said to have been in the single-seater Eldridge Special, complete with the twin-cam cylinder head. I think the chassis, which had dual-sprocket Frazer Nash chain transmission, was actually MG, but with the front dumb irons sawn off to accommodate Frazer Nash-type quarter-elliptic springs. It seems that during the war a sale fell through under unhappy circumstances. But the car still exists after a chequered career.

The mystery of the twin-cam Anzani engines of other than Eldridge origins is rendered the more confusing because during the war I knew a very enthusiastic girl who owned and worked on her Frazer Nash, which had a twin-cam engine thought to be of Anzani manufacture, but not from a Squire. This car, with touring body, should therefore have been easy to trace, especially as it had a separate switch for every lamp, yet it has passed out of the ken of the Chain-Gang archives. W B