1937 Alta

Had it not been for this advanced single-seater, Eagle might never have won a GP and Lotus might never have won at Indy, because it was the car that inspired this profilic engineer

This goes back to when I first became interested in motor racing. Aged about 9 or 10,1 started to go to Crystal Palace, around 1937, where the George Abecassis Aka was my favourite car and I began to bone up on it It was that car which got me sufficiently interested to become a designer myself. I was very pleased to see a couple of them at the Goodwood Revival.

I consider Geoffrey Taylor, the Alta’s designer, as a sort of pre-war Colin Chapman ahead of his time and very concerned with lightness. And he designed and built virtually everything the engine, supercharger and chassis.

That twin-cam engine was very novel: it was built in an unusual way so it was easy to convert from 1100cc to 1500 or even two litres. Each pair of cylinder liners formed a block within the main aluminium block, which effectively formed a water jacket around it. You could pull out the liners and swap them; the stroke was always the same. It was tuned for torque rather than outright horsepower, which is important because a racing car spends the majority of its time accelerating, and only a little bit braking and cornering.

He was getting over 180bhp from the 1.5-litre version. And a development of that engine went on to power the Syracuse GP-winning Connaught It was supercharged with a Roots blower he designed himself; like everything else, to fit his own concepts which he’d been developing since the 1920s on his 1100cc sportscar. That was very low with an underslung chassis, and he utilised it as his prototype for new ideas. He used it for about four years in trials and rallies before he was ready to produce Alias.

He did most of the machining himselfhe was a perfectionist, and not an easy man to get on with. Alta was always a small company; I’m sure he had ambitions to grow, but was always short of finance.

He was ahead of his time in building a very rigid chassis with independent suspension front and rear, which relied on sliding pillars between cross-tubes. There were single pillars at the front and twin pillars at the rear with the driveshafts passing between them. And no shock absorbers at all, just the friction of the mechanism. The Wilson preselector gearbox meant the driver could concentrate on other things it just needed a stamp on the pedal at the right moment. He was also one of the first people to use twin-leading shoe brakes, even if they were cable-operated. The chassis was very rigid for its time, a narrow single-seater with channel-section rails, but with the open sides outwards so you could undo the cross-members more easily for repair, and the fuel tank formed the tail of the car.

I think the Alta’s rigid chassis and independent suspension would have had much more influence if the war hadn’t in the war got way. It was very light the car weighed 11.cwt, less than the ERAs, the 4CLT Maserati or the MG and Riley specials it was up against With a 2-litre engine it began to match, even sometimes beat the ERAs, which were the top voiturettes at the time. And I don’t think Abecassis was a top-line driver; he was not in the class of Raymond Mays or Arthur Dobson.

The car had excellent traction, and Taylor increased that by using twin rear wheels at Crystal Palace; before that they were used in sprints and hillclimbs but hardly ever on circuits.

The Abecassis car was good-looking, too; Hugh Hunter also bought one, but it had a different body built by Jacksons at Brooklands.

After seeing Abecassis race at the Palace, and going once to Brooklands, I decided I was going to be a racing driver and a designer. I raced for about five years in the 1172 formula. I was never any good, but I think it was important then for a designer to have done some racing. Not so much now, when the drivers all come up through karting and the cars are like very large karts.

But I was about 30 when I eventually got into the business. I’d been racing the JVT Special, a Lotus 3B copy, which I rebuilt into the first Terrier. Then Brian Hart asked me to build Terrier Mk2 for 1172 racing, which took 18 wins out of 21. I went to Lotus, leaving them in 1959 for Gilbey, where we built an Fl car for 1.5000! I don’t think people appreciate how much influence Taylor had. Although he only built five or six Altas before the war, and the Cooper-Alta afterwards, he went on to be involved with HVVM and Connaught, who of course brought Britain’s first post-war grand prix victory with a development of his Aka engine. That Syracuse race was won on torque, which was always his target.

Len Teny was talking to Gordon Cruikshank