The Motor Sport 90th Anniversary Trophy will be a feature of the Donington Historic Festival in May. As the event approaches, we gathered a select group of eligible, inter-war cars
Writer: Gordon Cruickshank, Photographer: Mitch Pashavair
We had a flag to wave and had to decide where to wave it. This magazine has been reporting on cars and racing for nine decades, during which progress in performance, sophistication and efficiency has brought the automobile to a pitch our editorial team could never have imagined as they assessed the latest Ballot or stood in the Brooklands paddock, scribbling notes on the new works Delage.
Remarkably, the Surrey speedbowl still exists, but racing there is long past. Brands Hatch, Silverstone, Oulton Park – all of these came later than the Brooklands Gazette, which is how we started out. But there is still a circuit our founding fathers would know, even if it doesn’t date from ’24 – Donington Park. That’s where, at the Historic meeting from May 3-5, we will present the Motor Sport 90th Anniversary Trophy, a double-header for pre-war sports cars, the type our forebears enjoyed on both road and track.
To introduce it there was no better place than Donington Park itself, where on the historic Melbourne loop we assembled a spread of machinery that would have been familiar to MS readers in the 1920s and ’30s, from an unsophisticated mass-produced two-seater every young man could aspire to, through to a Grand Prix car only a very few would even contemplate.
I used two phrases above that would need clarifying to any of the tiny and fluctuating staff who kept this magazine afloat in the ’20s: ‘pre-war’ is shorthand to us for whom WWII is the more recent landmark. To them it was ‘post-war’, as ‘the war to end all wars’ faded behind them.
And I said ‘on the track’. We see Donington as a pure race circuit, but for Motor Sport’s staffers Mason, Twelvetrees and ‘Baladeur’ it wasn’t that. It was a road-racing course, whose varying bends and slopes offered challenges much closer to everyday driving than the banking and constant radius bends of speedways such as Indianapolis, Montlhèry and our own Brooklands. Fashioned from the drives to Donington House and the estate roads, it was an exciting home-grown version of the open-road racing happening on the continent but barred in Britain, and it offered a more realistic test of the sporting cars the enthusiast could buy than Brooklands’ bump-ridden concrete.
And the car most of those enthusiasts aspired to was a Bentley. In 1924 that still meant a 3-litre, so it’s very appropriate that we have a ’24 example here. Graham Carr has owned it for 20 years, though he didn’t mean to buy one. “I hadn’t had Bentleys before; I was looking for a vintage car and went to see an Alvis I didn’t fancy, but was told about a chap nearby selling a couple of Bentleys and thought we’d drop in and waste his time for an hour or two. Ended up buying it.” For a change this one is maroon, not green, and though it has a light sporting body it doesn’t carry all the Le Mans extras beloved of the marque. And Graham arrived with the hood up – eminently suitable as touring car races of the time often required at least some laps to be run like this.
“It was a saloon,” says Graham, “a very light Gurney-Nutting – possibly the GTi of its day! Oddly enough the original saloon body still survives, too. Peter Paige built that Le Mans replica body on it in the 1960s, and made a nice job of it. I’ve not even painted it.”
Many Bentleys have received all the well-known upgrades over the years, but not this one. “It’s very original,” Graham says. “It still has the original crank, heavy flywheel, cone clutch, ML magnetos and it still runs on an Autovac.
“I have changed the gearbox, though. It had a C box, the favourite for racing 4½s, but I came across an A box that the team cars ran at Le Mans, had some new gears made and it’s been in ever since. The A has a closer spread of gears with a higher first, so it’s better for everything except trialling.”
Useability matters to Graham, because this is no display item. “I drive it everywhere. I’ve raced it, sprinted, hill-climbed it, even trialled it last year, though that wasn’t a success. It’s just too high geared. I did a Pyrénean tour, too. It boiled off a lot of water but I just carried a jerry can.”
For the wealthy young man of 1924, this is very likely just what he would do with his Bentley, too – the epitome of the sporting motor. And hopefully his family would be as keen as Graham’s: his wife goes trialling, his son Robert races an AC-GN and his daughter Gillian, who helped us assemble today’s quartet, was the VSCC press officer for a long time and now works for the HGPCA, among others. “As a child I used to fall asleep in that back seat on the way home from events,” she remembers, looking in over the vestigial rear door. Meantime Graham resists the usual Bentley upgrades. “A lot of people have tried to convince me that putting in a 4½ engine would be better, but this is how I bought it and how I like it. It’s much rarer now.”
If instead of Bentley’s heavyweight engineering he hankered after something lighter, trading comfort and prestige for abrasive urgency, the inter-war enthusiast might have unclipped his fountain pen and written a cheque for a Frazer Nash. Throwing convention to the dogs, Archie Frazer-Nash ignored the usual box of gears and instead fitted four chains driving four sprockets on the rear axle, one per ratio. All the chains turn constantly, making a glorious racket, though only one at a time is keyed to the intermediate cross-shaft, itself driven from the prop shaft by a bevel gear. As the French said of the bicycle derailleur, “C’est brutale, mais ça marche…” With four sprockets spaced across the rear axle there’s no place for a diff, of course – so Archie gave his machine the most limited-slip of all – a solid axle about as wide as a lawn mower. Although the Anzani and Meadows engines these machines utilised weren’t the biggest hitters – most of them only 1 ½ litres – the fantastic traction of a solid axle and their skimpy structure brought impressive performance. If racing was higher up your priority than mere transport, you’d be trotting along to AFN Ltd in Isleworth to bag one of these raw devices.
You’ll find various engines in various ’Nashes including six-cylinder Blackburnes and AC units. But the lean, green 1930 example we’ve invited along is a bit special even for these rare beasts. Hidden under all those louvres is the rectilinear profile of a Bugatti engine. And it’s no mere 1½ but the powerful 3.3-litre eight from a Type 49. Chris Batty, cradling a hot cup of coffee in his chilled hands after a bracing drive to the track, is the machine’s handler. “Duncan Pittaway fitted the engine in the ’90s,” he says, “but I’ve had it five or six years and race it in a number of VSCC events. I did the Pomeroy Trophy in it and performed quite well… except they zeroed me on a brake test.”
How does the chain-gang set-up handle Molsheim muscle?
“It’s still running on a bevel box, though I’ve got heavier chains on as it tends to snap them. At Donington Park a couple of years ago it stripped the pinion gear off the shaft, so I’ve re-machined that with extra keyways so it can take the power, and I haven’t had a problem since – although it makes your head hurt a bit when you’re setting up the timing. It runs twin sparks, so that’s 16 plugs off a double-ended distributor rotor arm.”
As Chris owns an investment casting foundry, a bit of engineering is no problem. And here’s a nice connection – his firm casts the bonnet badges for today’s Bentleys. Mind you, Chris has always had oily fingers. “I bought my first car when I was 13 – an Austin 7. I’d saved up since I was six! An open two-seater, but a wreck. In crates, really. I’d get a tyre for my birthday and another for Christmas, I built up the body myself, made the doors, everything. I’ve just always been keen on old cars.
“But it’s just a brilliant car. I use it a lot on the road – I went to the pub in it last night. Although the engine is a lot bigger there’s a lot of aluminium in there. It’s heavier than the Meadows engine but I wouldn’t have thought it was a lot heavier than the 2-litre AC. It’s surprising that this engine fitted straight into the engine bay without any alteration to the chassis or engine. It’s a perfect fit.”
He lifts the bonnet and we admire the angular powerplant. “It looks so good inside,” Chris says, “and the noise! The sound from the exhaust is wonderful. I can leave most modern cars at the traffic lights. Going into Melton yesterday I overtook about five cars in one go. For an old car it’s a brilliant thing – it has so much poke, it’s a two-seater and is just so useable. The ride is fine and it’s just a really nice car to drive.”
As far as I know no one did insert Bug power in a ’Nash in the ’30s, but it’s a perfectly plausible conceit for that era of simple engineering, especially against a back story of the big-engined specials being constructed to bellow around Brooklands. Typically for VSCC people this isn’t Chris’s only old car: he’s restoring a Willys jeep and has a 3/4½ Bentley, a Hyper Lea-Francis and a supercharged MG J2 that he’s built into a J4. That’s why he is bending over our next machine and swapping MG talk with the owner.
MG. A badge that has been around as long as Motor Sport. There’s a bit of debate about the actual founding, but the first distinct model to bear the octagon appeared, like us, in 1924 and MG soon became a by-word for small, reliable, affordable sports cars. Combining mass-produced Morris parts with attractive, compact bodies, the names Midget and Magnette soon peppered results sheets and record lists across Britain and farther afield – witness the remarkable team prize for Earl Howe’s trio of supercharged K3s in the 1933 Mille Miglia.
Among a constant evolution of new models with the distinctive radiator shell, 1935 produced the PB – a little bigger than its J2 predecessor with larger brakes and three-bearing 939cc OHC engine of a restrained 43bhp. But by now founder Cecil Kimber had sold out to the Morris company, which immediately cut back on all this expensive racing nonsense. Trialling, though, was hugely popular – period photos show hundreds of spectators lining some climbs – and was the scene of serious rivalry among Singer, Riley and MG. And it wasn’t so costly, especially if you were merely supporting a privateer. That’s how the Cream Cracker team (founded in ’34 and named for the firm’s cream and brown livery) came to have rather hot supercharged PBs prepared by the works but sold to the Cracker trio, Maurice Toulmin, J E S ‘Jesus’ Jones and Ken Crawford, with the agreement that they would be bought back later. The three cars were almost unbeatable in late ’35 and ’36, and one of those very cars sits before us right now.
“I’ve had it for about 10 years,” says Richard Frankel. “My father had a PB – called Phoebe – and I always wanted a Cream Cracker. This one is Jones’s. I got it from the States where it had been restored after being found derelict in a barn, but we’ve had to do a lot to it. I don’t think they realised what a works PB was. The detailing is superb – much better than the production cars.”
He points to the chunky Marshall supercharger, heavily finned with a long snout to its drive pulley. “Almost doubles the horsepower, to about 90bhp. You can’t believe the performance; at four and half thousand it sounds as if it’s about to break, but it doesn’t. It’s a beauty on the road. A wonderful friend.”
Unlike the sophisticated R-type and Q-type racers the factory had developed, there was nothing clever about these works PBs beyond straight-cut gears and Telecontrol rear shock absorbers. But that was why they were so valuable to MG sales: here was a more-or-less production car, much cheaper than a Continental exotic, which was fun on the road and had a winning pedigree. In 1935 a three-car team of PBs crewed by women finished Le Mans, garnering immense publicity for the make.
“I do race it, but as I have other cars it doesn’t get used as often as it should,” says Richard, “but on high days and holidays we take it to the pub. It’s Mille Miglia-eligible as well, so it ticks all the boxes. Apart from the fact that I’m a large man in a very small car…
“I used to have a copy of it that I took trialling,” Richard adds, “and I’m thinking of buying it back to do some more. It’s identical, but worth a third as much as this one, so I won’t feel so guilty.” But this Cream Cracker does have one definite date this season: Richard has entered it in the Motor Sport Anniversary race at Donington, sharing it and his TT Bentley 3-litre with his brother, our own Andrew Frankel. And being built in 1921, the Bentley will be the only car in the race that pre-dates the magazine…
Completing our sweep of inter-war machinery is the exotic one, the one small boys in school caps would crowd around in the paddock and later dream of themselves as its heroic driver. This is the pure racing car, Italian, red and raucous. A Maserati Type 26, the first individual product of the Maserati brothers. This one belongs to Roland Duce, who happens to be at a meeting nearby and zips over in a McLaren 12C to say hello, but looking after it is Mickey Hudson. This one came by trailer, but it doesn’t take much to wake it up once it’s down the ramps. A little underbonnet tickling, a prod of the button (yes, it has electric start) and it breaks into a cheerful crackle. Mickey wipes his hands and stands back regarding the engine. “A lot of fuss for 1½ litres,” he grins. It’s true: although the Type 26 has a sizeable eight-cylinder block with widely splayed twin overhead camshafts and a supercharger on the crankshaft nose, it conforms to the 1926 championship regulation limit of 1500cc, smaller than the 2-litre Diatto engine from which the brothers developed it. Yet it produces 120 horsepower, a remarkable yield per litre for the time.
This one breathes through a good old SU carb, though Mickey says they have the original Memini too. “It’s just that conventional wisdom says that for useability the SU is a good bet.” Which is important even for this car: it has lights and a tax disc, “And we always obtained an MoT until we no longer had to do that.” Built for an era of riding mechanics and road races, this is a one-and-a-half seater that could contest a road event as easily as a Grand Prix. And the 1926 Targa Florio was the model’s debut, Alfieri Maserati finishing ninth and taking the 1500cc class. Not that any of those becapped schoolboys would be British: the Type 26 did not make it to either of the RAC Grands Prix at Brooklands, in 1926 and ’27. Maserati would have worked through several variants – the 2-litre 26B, roller-bearing 26M and 2.5-litre 26M – before the trident was a regular sight on these shores.
Meanwhile Mickey is wiping up any oil drips ready for photographer’s orders. No, it’s not temperamental, he says. “The boost isn’t very extreme. We run it on pump fuel with a bit of octane booster. To be honest it does about 100 miles per year so it’s not critical. It only does short events like Prescott and Shelsley so we don’t have any cooling problems there.
“It’s quite a handful at slow speed. The steering is stiff and it feels very solid; it’s a hard ride, definitely a racing car not a touring car. I’m sure it’s fantastic at 6000 revs around Copse Corner but I’ve never tried that!”
I comment on the massive brakes, almost the size of the wheel. “They’re fantastic,” says Mickey. “It just stands on its nose. It’s a Perrot shaft system so they’re not brilliant halfway through a corner – you tend to do your braking before the corner and make sure you’re back on the throttle in the bend.”
It’s time to test that: we want some action shots. One by one the cars fire up and run down towards the old Melbourne hairpin, ease around and surge back up the hill, gently at first, then with right foot well planted, the Bentley thump a bass line to the Bugatti bark, sizzling whine of MG blower rivalling the Maserati snarl as they pound up the slope. This surging rise would be the setting of some of the most dramatic images in British motor racing, when German engineering in the shape of Auto Union and Mercedes soared over the crest, flying high over anything Britain, France or Italy could proffer before a different machine, the Wehrmacht, ground into action elsewhere.
But those events are at the far end of our time window. As our drivers refine their cornering lines and gearchange points, grins getting wider, we’re setting our Tardis co-ordinates for a few years before, when Donington Park and Motor Sport magazine were both young.