Out of the past, November 1983

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These days, when every manufacturer worth his salt lists one, the diesel-engined private car is taken very much for granted. But there had to be a beginning. The examples of vintage cars like Lagondas and Bentleys fitted with experimental heavy-oil-engine installations and how they were submitted to observed runs and even entered for the Monte Carlo Rally, etc are fairly well known about among Motor Sport readers. I remember being at Brooklands on a dismally wet day when Capt. G. E. T. Eyston demonstrated his streamlined AEC-Diesel saloon which, along with Reg Munday’s converted Perkins-powered “flat-iron” Thomas Special, established some of the first class records for diesel-engined cars, I remember the Cummins Special coming to Brooklands and years later the disgruntlement on the face of the person who had entered two immaculate Mercedes-Benz, a 500K and a 540K if I remember correctly, for a Hampshire “beauty show”, on hearing that he was unlikely to get a prize because both had diesel-engines beneath their long bonnets, and were bound to be penalised heavily under the “originality” clause. In fact, I recall that the gentleman packed up and drove away before the judges arrived.

It goes even further back than that. In my comparative youth I was a frequent visitor to Great Portland Street, London’s “street of cars”, home of many used-car dealers (sleazy Warren Street close by, with its kerbside car-copers, was less interesting). In “the street” you might, on a lucky day, encounter the ex-Rapson / Parry Thomas single-seater Brooklands Lanchester Forty standing at the kerb, outside Sprosen’s I think it was, causing the throbbing Tillings-Stevens and other LGOC ‘buses to drive round it, or see one of the 1922 TT straight-eight Sunbeams in a showroom window. It was while seeking out such pleasing discoveries in 1930 that I noticed a rather remarkable vehicle pass by. It was a Vulcan chassis devoid of bonnet and bodywork but equipped with mudguards and running boards. Because it had no bonnet the engine could easily be seen. It was a vertical single-cylinder power-unit and as it had a square-shaped water jacket I thought at first that it might be a Lister stationary engine that some unfortunate who had blown up the car’s correct four-cylinder 12 hp power unit had substituted. Then I noticed that behind the two exposed bucket seats was literally a barrel or cask, suitably strapped down, and that on this was inscribed: “Pratts Diesel Fuel Oil, Anglo American Oil Co Ltd, London”. Perhaps a Lister stationary engine converted to burn heavy oil, I thought, as this odd apparition passed out of sight, a bulb horn attached to the driver’s seat. It was nothing of the sort, as I was to discover later.

The engine that was installed in this early rear-wheel-braked chassis was, in fact, none other than a CLM two-stroke diesel engine of 594 cc, with opposed pistons giving a combined stroke of 210 mm in the 60 mm-bore cylinder, said tube good for eight hp at 1,000 rpm and another two bhp at maximum revs of 1,200 rpm. The engine had been made under German Junkers licence by the Compagnie Lilloise de Meriers and the reason I had encountered it in London was because Mr C. B. Warclman was interested in the new form of propulsion. That I had seen it running up and down Great Portland Street was explained by the fact that Mr Wardman, a former Chairman and London agent of Lea-Francis Ltd, had been presented with the lease of the showrooms in Great Portland Street, as compensation for having to relinquish his office when Lea-Francis got into financial difficulties. These premises, I learn from the splendidly in-depth Lea-Francis history written by Barrie Price (Batsford, 1978) were in former times the residence of Dr. Johnson’s biographer, Boswell…

I would think that the one-time sports-car exponent soon became tired of his new toy, which with the Vulcan’s gearing (those conversant with Lea-Francis history will express no surprise about the make of the chassis employed for the experiment) was flat-out at 20 to 25 mph. The other side of a distinctly dreary coin was the economy, with better than 50 mpg attainable, which as diesel fuel then cost only 5d. (approx 2p) a gallon, ten miles could be done for the equivalent of the old penny. Indeed, the thing was driven from London to Brighton and back for a fuel cost of nine pence. It occurs to me that if a Vulcan Register member wanted to own a near replica it would only be necessary to put a large stationary engine in the same sort of chassis. But I am not sure I would recommend it! W.B.