It was hardly blue-blooded, but Basil Davenport’s raw Hill-climb special broke records galore in the twenties, making many a pure-bred racing car look over-designed. And it’s going faster than ever. By Gordon Cruickshank
As the lanes get narrower and the tractor mud gets thicker, it’s obvious that Spider, a very special Special, doesn’t live in a flashy workshop with other racing cars. It lives with its devoted owner in a tiny Staffordshire village, just by the pub. An agricultural setting for an agricultural machine.
That’s not to disparage it: this chisel-nosed bedstead has a history of embarrassing ‘proper’ racing cars. Faster up Shelsley Walsh in 1926 than anything else, Spider collected another three consecutive hill records and spent a decade harrying, and sometimes humbling, exotic racing devices up the hill. Looking something like a fully-faired bicycle slung between four wheels, it’s hard now to see it going head-to-head with exotic metal. The streamlining seems redundant, considering how the bulky heads of the massive 90-degree V-twin poke into the airstream — not to mention the driver. Skinny tyres and brakeless front wheels sounds Edwardian, and a guesstimated 75-80bhp isn’t exactly going to tear Tannac, but Spider was bred for one particular job, at one particular place, and more than 70 years on, it’s still more than capable of feline pigeon-scattering.
You might say this was the grandaddy of all vintage specials. First of a famous trio of GN-based, bug-nomenclatured one-offs (Wasp and Gnat being the others), Spider turned an assemblage of unassuming parts into a sprint car which, on its own turf, was unbeatable. Since then, unfeasibly fast specials have been at the core of VSCC racing; and Spider has mixed it with them, on and off, throughout that time.
But, for the non-VSCC members among you, beware the two Spiders. Basil Davenport, the single-minded eccentric behind Spider, brought the car out after WWII, and was so encouraged by how the old machine perfomied against recent opposition that he built a new version with a thumping 2-litre V-twin. That one, usually known as Spider 2, is not the one we are looking at. Davenport himself called them merely Spider and Big Spider, so let’s stick with that.
For convenience, Davenport stripped parts from the original to build Big Spider, and as owner David Leigh says, ‘The cannibalisation is the subject of great debate.” It seems that the body did service on the later car for a while.
But as chassis, engine and axles were clearly different, the car Davenport later reassembled has to be substantially the same vehicle. Like any special, it has matured in phases from its 1923 inception, when Davenport bought the prototype V-twin 1086cc air-cooled Vitesse engine from Archie Frazer-Nash and slotted it into a light GN cyclecar chassis, converted to centre-steering. Though looking promising in sprints and hill-climbs through 1924, Spider only took off when Davenport bought the engine from Nash’s works racer `Mowgli’.
This 1500cc powerhouse boasted four-valve cylinder heads and twin-spark ignition, and throughout 1925 brought Davenport a mixture of impressive results and engine seizures.
The following year saw Spider take its first major scalp — a 48.8sec record up Shelsley Walsh, the first-ever to crack 50sec, beating Raymond Mays’ TT Vauxhall. Suddenly, this gawky interloper was a major player. In 1927, after redesigning the crankcase with staggered barrels, to allow straight conrods, and switching to alcohol fuel, Davenport intensified his duel with Mays, that lover of all things refined — which did not include a plebeian hill-climb special. First, his supercharged 2-litre Mercedes-Benz, and then his very powerful Vauxhall-Villiers found Spider heading them; and when the German aces came to Shelsley Walsh in 1930, Spider scaled the hill in 44.6, almost 2sec quicker than Rudi Caracciola’s SSK Mercedes, and again taking the record from Mays. Frustratingly, Hans Stuck’s Austro-Daimler then put up a record-shattering 42.8. But the point was clear: you didn’t need factory expertise to run at the top.
Through the early ’30s, Davenport tweaked the car, but progress overtook it, and when business intervened, Spider retired to the workshop until that post-war revival.
David Leigh has been chain-driven most of his life: his father has run Frazer Nashes since 1945, and David has campaigned them since he was 20. His passion for Spider goes back to 1979 when, on a trip to Shelsley Walsh, he met the car and its ageing creator. They struck up a friendship, and soon David, though still at school, was visiting Davenport and doing small jobs on the car. He became hooked on the spindly machine, and says that he remembers waking up one night thinking, ‘I have to own that car’.
When Davenport died, he left the car to Ron Sant, who had worked on it for many years. But when the time came to part with it, the buyer was obvious. Leigh sold his own Frazer Nash trials car and, in 1994, became Spider’s new custodian, and probably only its third driver. Since then he has driven it frequently, and it’s getting quicker and quicker.
Having been the first to break 50sec at Shelsley Walsh, Davenport’s life-long ambition was then to break 40sec. He never managed it; but in 1997, David did it for him. It was one of the great moments of his tenure.
“It’s due to modem tyres and the new track surface,” he says modestly, though there has been mechanical progress along the years, too. With a tiny motorbike oil pump squirting the necessary to the main bearings through a drilled crank instead of the gravity-fed drips of old, David can stretch to 5000rpm, a grand up on what Davenport dared. He has dropped the smaller 17in wheels Davenport latterly used for more period-looking 19in rims, but says the Avon GP bike tyres they wear are ideal. Like any chain-drive GN or Nash, Spider has a solid rear axle which gives fierce traction. “The first SO yards are extraordinary ,” says Leigh. “I can keep my foot nailed to the floor up to the Esses — but it takes a bit of courage.”
On the Worcester climb, where, as Leigh points out, “You only have to slow once,” Spider’s lack of front brakes is no handicap.
The next trick is to fiddle the ratios: chain drive means any of the four sprockets on the rear axle can be changed simply, and Leigh plans to make third lower than second to give him the perfect punch out of the Esses as he works his way up the ‘box.
Spider has had plenty of use since Leigh took over the stewardship — almost every vintage Shelsley Walsh meeting and several others a season. But there was an enforced lay-off in 1997 after the engine turned itself inside out halfway up the hill. David cheerily pulls out a box of twisted rods and shards of crankcase to illustrate the drama, which erupted just after he had put in Spider’s bestever time on the hill — 39.23sec. This metallic mayhem meant making new patterns to cast a new crankcase, though the broken one only dated from the ’70s, part of the car’s continuous development saga. On the other hand, Leigh says the heads, camboxes and magnetos are the same ones which Davenport bought from Archie Frazer-Nash in 1924.
Leigh’s mechanical minder Phil Spencer reassembled the machine in time for the MAC’s Shelsley Walsh Centenary last year, letting David score his other major highlight — beating the ERAs. Alright, it was only on the wet Saturday, and come Sunday they were several seconds ahead again, but the fact remains that, in the drizzle, Spider’s slender Avons sliced through the spray 3sec faster than the racing cars from Bourne.
After climbing aboard, the driver has only two pedals to play with, a dainty throttle and a clutch; a lever on the side stirs the brakes. And so does the lever on the other side — Davenport’s neat way of heeding the law’s requirement for two stopping systems.
Squeezed into the hip-hugging F1-tight cockpit is an old leather seat (“It’s not as old as it looks — the leather’s from a settee”), while overhanging it is a hefty cord-bound steering wheel, which has been a lot higher than the top of Shelsley Walsh.
“Basil only crashed the car once, but he turned it over and smashed the old wheel. He got this one from a Handley-Page bomber.” You need the leverage because it goes from lock to lock in about half a turn.
“She’s so well balanced, you just nudge it,” says David, grabbing the wheel with both hands to demonstrate. It’s clearly far from featherweight Behind its four slim spokes, the cast-ally bulkhead carries a bare survival pack of instruments: big rev-counter, two mag switches and a gauge for the air-pressurised fuel system. Not much to distract you.
That human torpedo body, which lifts off with the twist of six wing nuts, is heavier than you’d think, which is probably why it has lasted. Dents, scrapes and welded tears are its duelling scars, with a truncated tip to witness Davenport’s wheelbase-shortening exercise for the new engine — down to a corner-cutting 7ft 6in. But that bonnet is just a front Remove that rearing prow and there’s nothing underneath but a wooden bar to stiffen it. A neat exercise in image promotion which has made, and kept, Spider as one of those instantly recognisable characters on the vintage scene through eight decades.
But it has worn a different outfit in the past, During the ’20s, you had to have a mechanic aboard to race on Southport’s sand. Having tried a perch for his mechanic on the tail, Davenport gave in and produced a two-seater body with a sliver of a seat behind him — the result looked like a child’s pedal car.
In the carefree days after WWI, Davenport often drove Spider to meetings, though later he would tow it behind his road-going GN. David still has Spider’s logbook (and its entire paper history), which shows it as chassis No EX145: “I expect Basil just made that up.”
Today it hitches a lift by trailer; but it is taxed and registered, and David has been known to drive it the five miles to Curborough Sprint with its detachable silencers attempting to quell the thumping rasp of the big V-twin, unfiltered Solex carbs noisily gulping methanol from the tiny tank in the tail.
“We’ve got it running on one set of jets for all conditions now; Basil was always swapping them, but I think he just liked to fiddle,” says David, laying a brown coat over the bonnet Davenport always wore one, and his successor does, too. Another continuity in the long and dedicated life of a very special Special.