"The Ghost Car"

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Some Notes on a Brooklands Calthorpe

The subject of this discourse was dubbed “The Ghost Car” by the Daily Express, when that newspaper published a photograph of it, I assume on account of its thin, wraith-like outline, because there was otherwise nothing unusual about the car, in the context of the Brooklands racing light-cars of the period, although as you will see from the photograph, this was probably the narrowest single-seater ever made, and a single-seater (unless a farm tractor) is the very stuff of motoring sport.

The little car with which we are concerned was built by the Calthorpe Motor Co. of Birmingham for the 1921 season. It was only to be expected that such a firm would think in terms of keeping its name before the buying-public by racing at Brooklands, especially as it was selling sporting, aluminium-bodied small-cars that should appeal especially to the Brooklands fraternity. AC, Aston-Martin, Hillman, Wolseley and others were using the Track for this purpose, spending much moneyand employing professionals, and Calthorpe sought to follow suit. But whereas several examples of rival makes would appear in the Race Cards, Calthorpe used only this one, very slim, scarlet single-seater, after Woolf Barnato had tired of racing one of their cars.

The special Brooklands car was designed by C. Pole Wedmore and is said to have cost the then vast sum of £2,000 to build. Before the war Calthorpe’s had done a lot of racing and the axles of the new car were from one of the pre-war racing Calthorpes. Although the chassis was extremely narrow, it was quite high, in the manner of those days, but the engine and gearbox were slung unusually low in it, the top of the gearbox being well below the level of the bottom flange of the side-member and the exhaust manifold just above the top flange, to provide a low centre-of-gravity and a straight-run for the prop.-shaft. Wedmore used long 1/2-elliptic non-cambered road springs, mounted at an angle, the front pivots considerably higher than the rear shackles, as he believed this to give good road-holding and to better resist starting-torque, a trick borrowed from Daimler. He achieved a central steering-column by placing the steering-box just behind the cylinder block, with a long drag-link on the O/S. The side-valve engine had the 65 x 95 mm. (1,261 c.c.) dimensions of the standard side-valve 10.4 h.p. Calthorpe and used many of it’s components. It had the 5 1/2 to 1 compression ratio of the sports engine and Wedmore’s “broad-bean” cam-forms, so that 30 b.h.p. was developed at 4,000 r.p.m. The final-drive ratio was 3.5 to 1, a metal rear universal-joint was used, and the wheels were steel artillery shod with the 710 x 85 “bicycle” tyres of the period, made by Palmer. The radiator was set quite Into but the need for a driver increased the car’s height. Even so, a frontal area of 5.8 sq. ft. was attained and the racing Calthorpe weighed 9 1/2 cwt. laden. The spring-rates had been assessed against this weight and 10-stone for H. Humphries, who was to be the driver, “which was about right”, and road-holding was good in spite of the absence of shock-absorbers. The power curve scarcely flattened at 4,000 r.p.rn. and this engine speed was considerably exceeded when the Jaeger speedometer recorded 96 m.p.h. along the Railway straight. Thus the car created for Mr. John Hillhouse, Calthorpe’s Director. The body was made by Mulliner’s, later a Calthorpe subsidiary. The brake and gear levers were naturally outside on the right, and the exhaust pipe ran along the near-side. The Calthorpe was entered for the 1921 Easter races but gave trouble. Rumour suggested sabotage, the prop.-shaft having been bent with a crow-bar and the universal joint damaged. So much was then at stake over light-car honours that this may have been true, or it could have been an muse for the Calthorpe’s poor showing.

The situation was well retrieved at Whitsun, when Humphries won the 75 m.p.h. Short Handicap at 79.13 m.p.h. from the celebrated AC of Harry Hawker, to which it had given a 28 sec. start in 5 3/4 miles, the Calthorpe lapping at nearly 89 m.p.h. in the process. Calthorpe’s must have felt it had been money well spent. Especially as, although terribly heavily re-handicapped for the remainder of the meeting, the car was third behind Clement’s Bentley with which it had started, and a Douglas, in the two-mile Sprint Handicap. Severe handicaps and some trouble with steam-pockets forming round the valve chests, due to the low-set radiator, necessitating external piping high above the bonnet to condense this and return the water to the engine (as shown in Plate 45 of the “History of Brooklands Motor Course”, the car also figures in Plate 25) for the Summer Meeting prevented the Calthorpe quite attaining its former lap-speed. But it continued to be a regular performer, lapping at well over 80 m.p.h., and Humphries took it to Shelsley Walsh as well unto Weybridge. The luck ran out in 1922, with E. C. Davidson as driver, and the following year the Calthorpe was acquired by Axel Whale, who ran “Whale For Motors” in Park Street (now Park Way), Camden Town, in NW London, and who was a Calthorpe agent.

I believe that whereas the car used to be sent to Weybridge by train from the Birmingham factory and met by a truck, Whale would get into the narrow cockpit, and drive the little racer from London to Brooklands, using Trade-plates: on other occasions he would tow the car, which may be why it now had higher sides to the cramped cockpit. The engine was developed by using different camshafts, carburetters, etc., each one carefully labelled with revs, and speeds attained, and for several years the car proved very competitive. Like all fast cars it had its moments. On one occasion Whale failed to pull up after a race with the primitive rear brakes and ran into a barrier across the Track. Then wheel wobble used to intrude, so that the scandalised BARC officials made the driver run up and down the Finishing-straight before they were convinced the Calthorpe was safe to race. And sometimes a half-shaft would shear. The prop.-shaft universal joints often tore out and were later replaced with Hardy Spicer metal couplings. Whale was helped nadir Track by his wife’s brothe, Peter Waylor.

The successes chalked up by Whale included a close 3rd in the 1924 Easter 75-Long behind Barnato’s Wolseley Moth and a Bugatti, an easy victory aided by an extractor-cone on the end of the exhaust-pipe in the Summer 75 Short, led in the 75 Long, 2nd in the 1925 Easter 75 Short, 2nd it the 90 Long, 3rd in the 1926 August 75 Short, with a fine win, the reward for much development work, in the Autumn 75 Short from Taylor’s Bugatti and Gillow’s Riley, the aged red Calthorpe lapping at 84.56 m.p.h. Later in the day, re-handicapped as ever, it went round at over 86 m.p.h. Anyone who knows how difficult it was to beat Handicapper “Ebby” will appreciate that this was a fine record for m old light-car at the big BARC meetings, especially by a non-works entrant.

Early in 1927 a con.-rod came out of the engine. Whale decided to look for more speed by installing a 1 1/2-litre two-port 4ED Meadows engine, as used in Frazer Nashes. At the same time a Moss gearbox and a Timken rear axle were installed and the car was endowed with wire wheels, a dumb-iron cowl, the body was cleaned up, and it was given a fresh coat of red paint. In practice things looked promising, with the lap speed at around 103 m.p.h. But during the season performance deteriorated. All was well up to 3,700 r.p.m., above which the engine would mis-fire. Various carburetters and magnetos were tried in an endeavour to cure the malady, to no avail. The lap speed continued to deteriorate. From going round at 84.74 m.p.h. at Whitsun but then retiring, it was down to 77.21 m.p.h. and another retirement at the July races, and the car failed after a very slow standing-lap at the Autumn Meeting. The engine was removed and sent back to Meadows in Wolverhampton and there dismanded in Whale’s presence. Only then was the mystery resolved. One cam was soft, upsetting the timing as it wore down.

The engine was never reinstated, eventually finding its way, with the gearbox and rear axle, into a 12 h.p. Calthorpe owned by a Doctor. Whale gave up motor racing for flying at the Brooklands Aero Club, driving down to the aerodrome with his family in, for instance, an appropriatelybadged Austin Sixteen. The Calthorpe franchise had evaporated and “Whale For Motors” now dealt in Austin, Citroen, Humber, Hillman, Morris, Rover and Standard cars and a service station had been opened in Arlington Road; later the Citroen and Hillman agencies were relinquished but that of Riley was added.

The once-famous Calthorpe was relegated to the loft above the Park Street showrooms, surrounded by the various components that had been used in maintaining it along the years, and it remained there, unwanted, into the 19386. Here the “ghostly” aspect surfaces again. When war broke out I wondered what had become of the old single-seater. Whale had moved to Galley and his premises had become a Government paper-store. I obtained permission to enter them after some persuasion in bureaucratic circles. All trace of the Calthorpe had vanished. . . Yet I had never heard of it being scrapped and no-one, even those closely associated with it, had a clue what happened to it. Whale died of cancer in the late 1950s, which closes the story. — W.B.