Material wealth

The pioneering Brooklands spirit that served motorists and aviators so well

Last half-term I took three of my grandchildren to the marvellous Brooklands Museum. Quite apart from seeing its cars – including my beloved Napier-Railton – one grandson in particular is utterly besotted by aeroplanes and the Museum displays many Brooklands-built aircraft. The volunteer staff and guides are simply terrific. The kids oohed and aahed at the displays, were shown ‘Uncle Jenks’s’ Duesenberg, then a guided missile and Barnes Wallis’s bouncing bomb. While one grandson adored sitting in Ayrton Senna’s McLaren MP4/6, our aerophile preferred the captain’s controls in the Sultan of Oman’s royal VC10. And then it was time for ‘the Concorde Experience’ – in the Museum’s ‘Delta-Golf’ – the fastest, highest-flying supersonic civilian airliner of all (above).

Visitors settle themselves into the slimline Concorde cabin’s 2x2 seats, former BA Concorde chief pilot Mike Bannister addresses them on video and we take off on an incredibly convincing ‘Mach 2’ flight – with sound effects and remarkably realistic vibrations. Indeed, the take-off was so convincing that upon throttle-back my much-travelled two-year-old granddaughter glanced around, clearly felt this was the time when cabin service commences and asked her mum “When do we eat?” Told there wouldn’t be any grub, Charlotte’s face crumpled and, my, how she bawled. Mum briskly removed her to the rear cabin, to avoid spoiling ‘The Experience’ for our fellow passengers.

Back there, Delta-Golf’s fuselage is unlined, showing off Concorde’s heat-resisting structural skin, machined from solid Hiduminium ‘RR58’ alloy. Not only was 30 per cent of each Concorde airframe built by the British Aircraft Corporation at Brooklands, using this material, but Hiduminium itself has another historic link with the old Motor Course.

The Hiduminium or ‘RR’ alloys were high-strength, high-temperature aluminium mixes developed for aeronautical use by Rolls-Royce before the Second World War. They were manufactured and later co-developed by High Duty Alloys Ltd of Farnham Road, Slough. The trade name was derived – self-evidently – by combining the maker’s name and ‘aluminium’.

In the early days of racing, Brooklands commonly echoed to the thump of large-capacity engines using hefty cast-iron pistons. Their weight limited engine speed. Dr Fred Lanchester – for one – had pioneered lighter pistons in machined steel, gaining rpm and horsepower. In 1907, when Brooklands opened, Maurice Sizaire’s Coupe de l’Auto-winning single-cylinder Voiturette used a lighter, thin-walled piston machined from a solid steel billet.

In 1911 German metallurgist Alfred Wilm had a tough new aluminium that he alloyed with four per cent copper brand-named ‘Duralumin’ after his then employer, the Durener Metallwerke.

In 1912 Italian engineer Giulio Cesare Cappa used light alloy – apparently duralumin – pistons in his racing Aquila-Italiana. In 1913-14 genius Harry Miller in California adopted aluminium-copper-nickel light-alloy pistons in the 1914 GP Peugeot that finished second in the 1915 Indy 500 and won the 1916 race. Miller ‘Alloyanum’ pistons would then feature postwar in the 1921 French GP-winning Duesenberg. I believe Mercedes successfully tested duralumin pistons for its 1914 GP car, but conservatively raced cast-iron and still finished 1-2-3.

At Brooklands, WO Bentley’s French DFP class record-breaker ran alloy pistons cast by the Corbin foundry, reliably permitting higher revs and power. Bentley advised aero engine manufacturers Rolls-Royce and Sunbeam of his Corbin piston experiences and alloy pistons were widely adopted. In wartime the National Physical Laboratory’s Y-Alloy then entered production, in effect duralumin with two per cent nickel and 1.5 per cent magnesium added, to great benefit.

WWI-era aero engine builder, Peter Hooker Ltd of Walthamstow – which traded as The British Gnôme and Le Rhône Engine Co – gained particular expertise in manufacture and use of Y-Alloy pistons. But orders dried up in the recession and, after voluntary liquidation, the company was wound up in 1927. Ironically, just too late for Hooker, a major alloy pistons order then arrived from Armstrong Siddeley.

It was to equip later-variant Jaguar 14-cylinder twin-row radial aero engines – and was accepted instead by Hooker’s departing works manager, the forceful Colonel Walter Charles Devereux.

John Siddeley loaned him the money to buy Hooker’s necessary equipment and to re-employ some of its specialist staff, and Devereux established High Duty Alloys Ltd at Slough to do the job. Production quickly commenced and HDA became very successful. The ‘RR Alloys’ or Hiduminium were developed from four per cent copper/two per cent nickel, halving both constituents before adding one per cent iron, then pinches of magnesium, silicon and titanium to taste. In 1969 HDA won the Queen’s Award to Industry for its innovative Concorde skin material. In 2000, HDA was acquired by the Mettis Group which remains a leading aerospace materials supplier today.

Back in the 1930s, Devereux had recognised the value of motor racing as a testing ground, and he helped back a Brooklands racing project emphasising the shared demands of motor racing and aeronautics – the Multi-Union.