When one attempts to do original research into the more obscure corners of motor racing history, one comes across two main problems. The first is that magazine reports and articles of 25 years ago were much thinner than those we expect today, unless one is dealing with races for the major formulae. The second is one has to ask one’s informants to stretch their memories which, in this case, means going back for over a quarter of a century. In preparing this article, I enlisted the help of over two dozen people, all of whom gave willingly of their time, but the more I slxike to people, the more discrepancies occurred. What follows is, therefore, often a majority verdict, culled from memories, but which lacks documentary substantiation. Perhaps readers can also search their own memories to fill in some of the missing pieces in the following account.
When Archie Butterworth went ahead with his interim engine in 1952, he laid down components for a batch of six but is unsure whether all were built. One certainly went to Cyril Kieft with pistons and barrels for both 1,500 cc and two-litre versions, though only one crankcase was supplied. Two went to the Aston-Butterworths, one went to R. R. C. Palmer and there may have been another which went to another private individual.
R. R. C. Palmer fitted his engine into a sports car with a frame by John Tojeiro. I have traced a report of the car dated mid-1957 while it was still abuilding but when it lacked a body. Archie thinks that it may never have raced or even been completed. Nigel Woollen thinks it was finished and used as a road car but Palmer had problems with the Steyr heads. Can anyone shed further light?
The two Aston-Butterworth cars are both in existence. In 1952, it was the Montgomerie-Charrington car which saw the most action, but was plagued with problems, none of which had anything to do with the engine.
At Goodwood, the original swing axle rear suspension of both cars gave trouble and both were quickly converted with the addition of an extra universal joint in both driveshafts and lower wishbones. At Silverstone, the car lost all gears bar top, at Montlhery it had clutch trouble and it ran out of fuel at Chimay. Monza saw a wheel bearing go, the wrong fuel was put in during a pit stop at Spa, when the car was lying seventh and a universal joint went at Reims. Montgomerie-Charrington called it a day and sold the car while he emigrated to the States. It eventually fell into the hands of Bill Wilkes, who used it for spares to keep his Cooper-Bristol going and from Wilkes it was bought by Nigel Woollett.
Woollett has run it but currently it is in pieces awaiting a rebuild with a view to running it in Historic races in the future.
The original engine, however, is missing but Woollen has both the engine from Bill Aston’s car and also the swing valve unit out of “Sabrina”. This is now fitted with two-litre barrels and pistons and Woollett is confident that he can overcome the exhaust valve problem which blighted the engine in 1957. Bill Aston raced his car only occasionally during the several years he owned it. If Montgomerie-Charrington had anything but engine problems in 1952, Aston seems to have made up for it, in particular with a batch of rocker arms which had a habit of breaking. Contemporary reports are unclear why his car failed in the half dozen races it started in 1952 (“retired — engine” covers a wide range of ailments) but it has been suggested that, running a very high compression ratio, the head had trouble in containing all the gas. No other AJB engine has had this problem so it might have been an isolated instance or, more likely, Archie’s explanation of fuel feed problems in correct. Diclde Metcalf bought the car in 1957 as a rolling chassis and had it converted into a sports car with a body designed and built by Maurice Gomm. For my money, this is the prettiest special ever made, the body epitomising more completely the spirit of the ’50s than any individual classic sports racer. Metcalf bought the car as a rolling chassis, fitted it with a Coventry Clim. FWA engine and competed with it. In 1964, it was sold without engine or gearbox to Brian Shaw who fitted a supercharged 1,500 cc Ford engine. Shaw kept it for 10 years before selling it to Graham Bovet-White who still uses it for sprints. The whereabouts of the MontgomerieCharrington engine remains a mystery. There is a display engine in the Donington collection but this is a dummy apart from the one-cylinder head which has been cut away for display purposes. The swing valve head on this engine was taken
from “Sabrina” after one of the exhaust valves had damaged it.
The engine sold to Kieft was apparently supplied with barrels and pistons for both 1,500 cc and two-litre units. In 1955, Kieft planned both a front-engined Fl car, using the Coventry Climax “Godiva” engine and a two car team of sports cars, based on the little fibreglass-bodied car which won its class in the 1954 Tourist Trophy, using modified AJB engines.
With help from both the Norton works, and Ron Mead, Kieft fitted “double knocker” Norton heads to the engine making a 2-litre unit and ran it in several minor events. Cyril Kieft reports that there were cooling problems on the rear barrels which they were unable to overcome, and to the engine was shelved. Overheating of the rear cylinders was a common problem with the engine but was normally solved by placing a shield between the front and rear cylinders and then ducting air to the rear. It was sold to Chris Stunmers who intended to fit it to a car but who then sold it to Graham Eden. Eden had Jim Whitehouse of Arden Conversions do a lot of work an it, together with the Norton specialist, Bill Stuart. They used the 1,500 cc barrels and pistons, bought from Summers, and put it into the back of a Cooper chassis for use in Fl. Testing was apparently promising and the car, known as a Cooper-Arden, raced once in a club meeting at Silverstone in 1964, where it encountered some minor problems with the camshafts, which were only a question of adjustment. It was then put aside as, after spending a great deal of money, Eden was temporarily short of cash. It went then to Jim Thornton, Chris Summers’ mechanic, who snipped it of items such as the Amal carburetters and it was found in the back of an old transporter belonging to Thornton, by Ian Richardson, who may be remembered for his driving of a Cobra a few years ago.
With barrels and pistons bought from Archie, Richardson converted it back to two-litre form, carried out yet more detailed modifications to it, and fitted it in a sprint motorcycle, “Moonraker”.
Ian Richardson estimates that the engine gave 210/220 bhp running on alcohol, and he had a great deal of success with his bike, being able to do the standing quarter in around 10.6 sec. Eventually it was supercharged (giving an estimated 260 bhp) but no gearbox / clutch assembly could be found to take the power. In Richardson’s possession, conventional W & S valve springs replaced the Norton hairpin springs. A few years ago, Richardson sold the frame of the bike to a hero who fitted a V8 Chevvy engine in it and the engine went to Deryk Harbison who has installed it in a Lotus 23B. It has made a couple of appearances in sprints, and Harbison is currently aiming to have the car in Historic events in 1985. He has fitted Weber carburetters in place of the original Amals. It is a tribute to Archie Butterworth’s initial design that, 30 years on, the engine is still performing well (Harbison estimates a power output of arotmd 200 bhp but concedes that the engine is “peaky”). The bottom end of the AJB engines seem to have been indestructible.
I have alluded to some missing engines but the AJB / Kieft / Norton unit itself poses a mystery even though I think I’ve successfully traced its history. A number of people thought it had spent some time in Germany (Ian Richardson certainly used it on the Continent) before re-appearing in Britain. The most common belief, though, was that the engine had been sold to Australia. This point constantly cropped up during the research period.
So, are there gaps in my history of the engine or was there a second AJB engine which underwent a similar conversion and is now in Australia? — M.L.