More than a fairey tale

How ingenuity turned an elderly Alfa Romeo into an unlikely, high-speed star of the 1930s

Chris Staniland raced both motorcycles and cars while working as chief test pilot for Fairey Aviation.

He drove an elderly 2.9 Alfa Romeo Tipo B Monoposto cared for by Chertsey motor engineer J S Worters.

Staniland knew High Duty Alloys and Col Devereux (see left) through both flying and racing, and in 1936 he and Worters, backed by Jack Emmott of Lockheed and using HDA light alloys, modernised the Alfa.

Worters reworked the straight-eight supercharged engine, a new four-speed gearbox replaced Alfa’s original, Lockheed hydraulic brakes were fitted and a new body was modelled after the contemporary Mercedes-Benz W25’s. Staniland christened the silver-painted projectile the Multi-Union.

In 1938 he drove it to win Dublin’s Phoenix Park road race at more than 97mph. On the Brooklands Outer Circuit he won a couple of handicap races, one at 127.77mph and the other at 133.26.

For 1939 the car was further modified as the Multi-Union II, with much larger superchargers, changed carburetion and much more power. It was described as retaining the Alfa Romeo Tipo B chassis side-rails and split drive – though probably remade by Worters. Tecnauto independent front suspension replaced the Alfa front axle, located by trailing links and coil sprung.

The rear axle was now suspended on coils instead of leaf springs. Even bigger hydraulic brakes and driver-adjustable hydraulic dampers were added. The body was remade and lowered, and if anything now looked even more ‘Mercedes’.

Staniland already held the Brooklands Class D Outer Circuit lap record in Multi-Union I at 141.45mph – impressively close to John Cobb’s 143.44mph outright record in the eight-times larger engined Napier-Railton…

He looked set to break Cobb’s record in the final August 1939 meeting – only for a piston to fail. Staniland ran the car regardless in a handicap race that day, finishing fourth and still lapping at 140mph with a hole in one piston. The car’s pace on just under three litres dismayed the stuffiest Brooklands habitués, who adored the notion that you needed 10-tonners and at least eight litres to do the business. That such a road racer should be so fast really upset some of them, rather like the Indy railbirds’ reaction to the rear-engined ‘funny cars’ from Lotus in 1963-65.

Chris Staniland died in June 1942, when testing a Fairey Firefly that disintegrated in mid-air over Sindlesham, Berkshire. His wonderful Multi-Union survived the war in poor condition, its engine metallurgy having suffered badly from damp storage. It was owned into the 1970s by the Hon Patrick Lindsay, but in more recent years has been cannibalised as the basis of a (financially more valuable) Alfa Romeo Tipo B look-alike.

The unique second-fastest car ever around the Brooklands Outer Circuit had been sacrificed. Of course, any car owner is free to do whatever he likes with his own property. But don’t expect applause. The Multi-Union project embodied much more than one might think about what made Brooklands so significant for broad-spectrum British engineering.