HRG – An Honest Sports Car

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1985 sees the 50th anniversary of HRG cars.
M.L. tells the story of the marque.

If every ideal car planned by a group of friends over a few glasses of ale in a pub was built, there’d be an awful lot of “ideal” cars. Yet a few conceived in such circumstances have seen the light of day and one of them was the HRG, “The Sportsman’s Ideal”. It was conceived as a rugged, reliable sports car which a sporting motorist could use every day on the road and yet could be raced, rallied, hill climbed and used in trials and driving tests as well.

To show how well it was to succeed in its aims, in 1937 the example owned by A. C. Scott had a clean sheet from Stockholm to Monte Carlo in the Monte Carlo Rally, finished second in class at Le Mans and took part in the Tourist Trophy and Donington 12 Hours. Another, owned by John Gott; featured in four successive Alpine Rallies, believed to be a unique achievement, and won a Coupe des Alps on die fourth occasion in 1951. Cars could be supplied with a spare pair of wheels for “mud plugging” and, under the bonnet were four additional sparking plugs for use in racing. In an innocent age, that was all that was needed for an all-round sporting car.

“HRG” might have stood for “Handsome, Reliable, Gutsy”, for these were the prime characteristics of the car, but the name actually derives from the three men who sat in a pub in 1932 and who discussed their car: E. A. Halford, G. H. Robins and H. R. Godfrey. Of the three, Godfrey was best known to the motoring public for he was the “G” of “GN” who, with Archie Frazer-Nash, had built sporting cyclecars from 1919 to 1923 (the company lasted longer, to 1926). Godfrey had left the active motoring scene, and was quietly running a garage which specialised in servicing and rebuilding GN cars.

Work on the prototype began in February 1935, in a rented workshop in Norbiton, and was shown that October. Public response was such that a limited company was formed in 1936, Godfrey bought a plot of land on the Kingston By-pass, Halford chipped in with a legacy and the recluse shipping magnate, Sir John Ellerman, put up a debenture. From the start HRG’s work took in sub-contracted engineering.

The prototype was light (14 cwt) and conventional, something in the contem­porary Frazer Nash mould. Front suspen­sion was by beam axle and quarter elliptical springs, with half elliptics at the rear and friction shock absorbers all round. Cable operated brakes were specified and were fitted to the majority of the 241 cars produced between 1935 and 1955, though an hydraulic option became available in 1952 and, later, four cars were fitted with discs. Initially a four-cylinder, 58 bhp, 1,497 cc long stroke Meadows engine was specified but this was modified by HRG with, according to 1937: a “special crankshaft, fully balanced, altered con-rods and ‘Y’ alloy pistons. Each engine is hand-assembled at the HRG works”. Transmission was via a four-speed Moss gearbox with remote control gear change.

Bill Boddy’s test report approvingly declared that the “HRG is definitely the ‘real thing’, scorning synchromesh, automatic ignition control and direction indicators etc.” From the beginning HRG cars were old fashioned and the company never did manage to get abreast of the times with its technology.

Top speed was never an HRG virtue and the car ran out of steam at just over 80 mph. Early advertisements boasted of a 90 mph guaranteed maximum but this was soon moderated to 85 mph. Motor Sport’s test car set a flat out lap speed at Brooklands of 82 mph and it reached a maximum of 88 mph. Acceleration, by contrast, was considered “excellent” in fourth and truly astonishing in second and third. Ride was reported as being hard but not harsh and the steering and finish were both highly praised. The test showed that 10-60 mph could be covered in just 12.5 sec. It could be bought for £395 in one of four finishes (special colours cost an additional £2 10s) and options included a second spare wheel (£7 10s or £10 with a Dunlop Sports tyre), a bonnet strap for £1 7s 6d, while Andre Telecontrol rear shock absorbers cost another £7 15s.

As with most new makers, initial production was quite slow as the company got into its stride and, indeed total pre-War production was less than 40 cars, but though few in absolute terms, they were soon making an impact in club motor sport. The cars were beautifully made and engineered and the works became the headquarters of an unofficial club of owners, a tradition which continued throughout the company’s life. Though a small company, it had ambitions and, with the appointment of Antony Curtis as sales manager in 1937, began to make preparations to increase production to 200 cars a year by 1940.

At about the time that Motor Sport tested an early 1500, there were a number of changes taking place within the outfit. It was felt that the Meadows engine was nearing the end of its development and so HRG cast around for an alternative unit. The Salmson engine was considered but finally the firm chose Singer units and began to offer two models, the 1500 with a Singer Super 12 engine and an 1100 with a Singer 8/9 engine. These were mated to Singer four-speed gearboxes which had synchromesh on the top three gears and alternative ratios were available. Pre-war, 26 1500s were built (with Meadows or Singer engines) together with eight 1100s (all Singer) but there was also a single-seater.

E. A. Halford took a standard chassis in late 1936 and ·commissioned R. C. Cross to design and build a special rotary valve head for the Meadows engine. The whole was clothed with a racy single-seater body. The only trouble was that the thing wouldn’t go and the chassis was eventually fitted with a coupe body (still retaining the standard, traditional, lines forward of the scuttle) and given a Triumph engine. In HRG circles his is referred to as “The White Coupe” but the works called it “The White Elephant”. Halford left the firm soon afterwards to pursue a successful career in horticulture. He’d played his part in setting up the company but once things were under way he found he was not suited to running an office. The rotary valve head was eventually used as hard core when the works needed a new road. It was an act which eloquently summed up the company’s feelings.

In 1939, HRG switched full-time to the war effort (it was an established Vickers subcontractor) and expanded greatly, the workforce quadrupling to 80. Among other things, the firm made handles for the bomb winches on Wellingtons and parts for portable radios for use by paratroopers. Naturally the plans which had been formulated pre-war, an independently sprung chassis, an aerodynamic body and a two-litre car among them, had to be shelved for the duration and were further delayed in the immediate post-war time by the need to “export or die” which led the firm to continue to produce its pre-war models in order both to survive and to obtain the materials with which to build cars.

It was a seller’s market and the cars were soon being made in larger numbers than ever before. Sixty-eight cars were built in 1947, for example, nearly twice as many as total pre-war production and the firm continued to undertake general engineering work as well so it was existing on a sound financial basis.

In 1946 the “Aerodynamic” model, the body of which had been developed in 1939, was added to the range. This consisted of a standard 1500 chassis with an enveloping body built by Fox & Nicholl, mounted on outriggers, and distributed through Charles Follett Ltd instead of being sold direct from the works. The body was large and the chassis narrow and fairly flexible, so even slight movements in the chassis were exaggerated by the time they reached the outer extremities of the car and the bodies had a tendency to crack. In addition the “Aerodynamic” appealed to a different type of buyer, the man about town rather than the motoring sportsman and these, lured by the style, soon found that they were not truly at home in a rather harshly sprung car. Only 30 “Aerodynamics” were built (they cost £1;246 against £882 for the standard 1500) and the model was quietly dropped at the end of 1947.

Although business boomed in the immediate post-war period, the first rumblings of a crisis were beginning to be felt within the company. HRG was beginning to encounter difficulties in obtaining parts since other firms were not so keen on supplying what were, after all, tiny numbers of components. Development work, the responsibility of H. R. Godfrey, was not being done, he was into his sixties and perhaps his appetite had been dulled. Worse, there were differences among the three principals within the firm: Robins, Godfrey and Lord Selsdon.

Lord Selsdon had taken over Sir John Ellerman’s debenture because he wanted to be involved with a car-making company and, naturally, wanted the business to continue to produce cars. Robins felt that the future lay in other directions, particularly in fork-lift trucks. HRG was already supplying parts for Lansing Bagnall and had made a hand-operated pallet truck marketed by Lansing. IN strictly commercial terms, Robins was probably correct in his analysis but strict commercial sense has not always played a large part in the thinking of small specialist car companies. At the end of 1949 Robins resigned.

The company clearly needed new blood and Godfrey brought in Stuart Proctor, an aeronautical engineer (and RAC scrutineer) who’d built aero-engines including a four­cylinder twin-cam unit. Proctor’s task was to cope with the problem of obtaining parts to keep the existing models in production, to improve the product and to develop new ideas.

A hard top was introduced in 1952, though few were sold and the same year saw a hydraulic brake option. Proctor looked at the engine and devised a dohc head which nearly doubled the output of the long-stroke Singer engine to over 100 bhp but neither the crankshaft nor the drive could cope with this. In 1949 Singer started making the shorter stroke SM engine and Proctor turned his attention to this. A Bristol­engined prototype chassis was built, the rear semi-elliptical springs being cantilevered in the Rolls-Royce fashion so they effectively became quarter-elliptics, but the company felt that too many others were going the Bristol route and so decided against further development, the car never even being bodied by the works. It is now in Australia.

Although HRGs were a popular choice with club competitors, and regularly appeared in international races and rallies, their greatest sporting successes were obtained in one year, 1949, and were the result of a private effort headed by Peter Clark. Ironically, these successes coincided with rapidly falling sales.

Clark and Jack Scott had both raced “Aerodynamics” in 1947 and ’48 and had been part of the HRG team in the 1948 Spa 24 Hour race. They decided that though the aerodynamic body gave a speed advantage at the top end, it was really too heavy and so they set about making their cars as light as possible. The result was basically an aluminium tube on a lightened but otherwise standard 1500 chassis which weighed in at 12½ cwt. A third car for Eric Thompson and BBC radio motor racing commentator Robin Richards was built from a rolling chassis bought .from Charles Follett. The conversions were carried out by Monaco’s of Watford, largely by John Wyer. The object of the exercise was simple: the 1½-litre class in the 1949 Le Mans 24 Hours.

In terms of sprint performance, the cars appeared not to stand a chance but, as they say, “to finish first you’ve first to finish” and they could certainly be relied on to do that. Thompson and Richards had co-driven the latter’s 1100 at Montlhéry in 1948 and had put up a reasonable show helped by good pit work. The effort was mounted on the twin bases of reliability and pit work.

Richards overturned a car in testing and broke a leg so Jack Fairman replaced him. The team drove to Le Mans, to run the engines in, but the cars practically fell to pieces on the way and so had to be rebuilt at the circuit. In the race they were no match for the speed of their chief rivals, the French DBs but went steadily around at their own pace. An early blow was when the car of Peter Clark I Morris Goodall fractured its top radiator hose and there being no spare carried on the car, it was out. The other drivers then did their stints with a spare flexible hose stuffed in their overalls. In the night the car of Jack Scott I Neville Gee cracked its engine block and retired. Thompson I Fairman soldiered on and as the opposition dropped out was left in charge of the class.

The three cars formed the HRG team for the Spa 24 Hours which took place shortly afterwards and all arrived without a rebuild after Le Mans. Again they were far slower than the main opposition in their class, the Gordini-Simcas, but again the opposition dropped out and four HRGs (Ray Brock’s “Aerodynamic” was also present) came home 1-2-3-4 in class taking the team prize, then a major award, and awards for the best performance by a British car and the best performance by a British driver. It sounds like total domination but was far from that, indeed the four cars were the only ones left in their class by the end and were in a sorry state. Scott’s car was limping slowly around with bodywork problems (while sprung weight had been reduced, nothing had -been done about unsprung weight and the cars vibrated badly) and a collapsed radiator. Clark’s spent most of its time in the pits in the latter part of the race, emerging to do a single slow lap every hour – it too had body problems and was running on two cylinders. The fuel tank on Thompson’s class winning car fell off and had to be lashed on and as for being the best British effort, they finished well behind St John Horsfall’s Aston Martin but since Thompson won his class and Horsfall finished only second in his, the HRG collected the pots. Even a Jowett Javelin saloon finished ahead of the HRGs but wasn’t counted because it was “only” a saloon car. Still, the cars had been built for the 24 Hours of Le Mans and it was a miracle they managed to finish a total of 48 hours of racing.

Clark’s car was sold to David Blakely, who ran it competitively for several seasons and it was used as the test bed for the Proctor-developed twin cam Singer engine which ran in the 1953 Goodwood Nine Hour race. Later it fell into decay but is now owned by the HRG Club’s Spares Secretary, Ian Mahany, who hopes it will shortly be out again with a twin cam engine.

Scott’s car was bought by Len Gibbs who raced it with his wife Bluebelle. Eventually it was fitted with a handsome body reminiscent of the AC Ace and is still to be seen on the circuits in the hands of Tony Searson.

For some reason the Thompson car made only a couple of further racing appearances, both were in Goodwood handicaps which it won. Then it was sold and, so far as racing is concerned, it disappeared for 10 years before re-emerging around 1960. Five years later it was bought by Ian Dussek who has restored it and races it though, as he is quick to point out, he has no pretensions about being a serious racing driver. Ian, incidentally, is secretary of the HRG Club and his book on the marque is due to appear shortly. He has generously, and invaluably, helped in the preparation of this article.

Another lightweight car was made in Australia by Tony Gaze based on an “aerodynamic”. This had a streamlined body but exposed wheels and was known as the “Woodside”. Ten 1500 chassis were exported for this venture from which emerged a single-seater, the “Bathurst”.

Three other HRG single-seaters were built, there was Halford’s pre-war car and two post-war cars. One began to see the light of day towards the end of 1948. This was a single-seater complying to the then F2 regulations with a standard 1500 chassis and a tuned Standard Vanguard engine. Most of the work was done at the HRG works by Marcus Chambers but when Chambers went to Uganda to grow ground nuts under a notorious government scheme, it was completed by Peter Clark.

Sir John Black, head of the Standard Motor Company, heard about it and sum­moned Clark to Coventry. Apparently he said something like “we’ve been asked to put money into this BRM project but here you are going racing with one of our engines, how can we help?” The upshot was a free engine.

The car raced in 1949 and part of 1950 but the engine was neither very powerful nor very reliable. A 1,750 cc Lea Francis engine “Vas fitted for 1951 and ’52 which improved matters but the chassis was not very good at over 100 mph and so the car was never quick. Eventually it was bought by Len and Bluebelle. Gibbs who raced it for a while before scrapping it. Parts survive in other HRGs.

The third single-seater was a sprint special built by Douglas Hull (brother of VSCC Secretary, Peter) for Sir Clive Edwards. This car, which survives, was a modified 1100 fitted with a 1750 Lea Francis engine.

While recording special cars, there was a long chassis sports car built for John Gilbert, presenter of BBC TV’s “Inventors’ Club” which had a pre-war Maserati engine.

Although the immediate post-war period saw the car-making side of HRG prosper, the truth is that the world was starved of cars and almost any maker could sell every­thing he could produce. The 68 cars built in 1947 was to be a highlight which was not to be repeated and total post-war production of the “traditional” models was only 197 (156 1500s, including “Aerodynamics”, and 41 1100s) and production finally petered out in 1956. Other manufacturers were marketing more advanced sports cars, HRG’s replace­ment model was slow in appearing for Stuart Proctor was having to perform a large number of roles, and with increasing specialism in the sport, the days of the multi-purpose road/competition car were quickly coming to an end. By 1950 the HRG was looking decidedly old hat and expen­sive, production was down to 11 cars and the 1100 was dropped. Only nine cars were made in 1951 and just six in 1952.

Work began on the replacement in 1952 and this was to be a radical departure for the firm. The tubular chassis was all-independently sprung with transverse leaf springs and coil springs and wishbones at both ends. HRG cast its own alloy wheels with detachable rims and these were fitted with Palmer aircraft disc brakes which were unusual in that the disc was mounted to the wheel spokes and the caliper operated on the inside of the disc. Similar brakes were fitted to Mk9 Cooper 500 cc cars.

The engine was a dohc version of the Singer SM and the whole was clothed in an aluminium body which, while quite pretty, was hardly exciting when viewed alongside its contemporaries in 1955 when it was announced. It came too late, the asking price of £1,867 was far too high and only four were made, not three as most reference books state. The main problem, however, was supply of engines for Singer had been taken over by Rootes and this, more than anything, killed the project. It was a shame for, though hard to tune, the engine was powerful and reliable.

Production finally ceased in 1956 and the company folded its car-making side while the general engineering business flourished. HRG did a lot of sub-contract work for Cooper and Brabham, for example, and manufactured the Derrington crossflow head for the BMC series “B” engine. Later Proctor was to design conversions for the Ford 105E engine, including an overhead cam version.

Cars were not entirely forgotten, though, and in 1963 Proctor designed a new space­frame chassis to take Ford running gear. This was running the following year but only as a chassis but since so many Ford­based cars were appearing on the market, it was felt that it would be unwise to add another for it would detract from the dis­tinctiveness of the marque, similar thinking to that which aborted the Bristol-engined car. The chassis was sold when the company liquidated in 1966, the purchaser fitted an MG engine but later the car was destroyed in a crash.

If Ford-based cars were too common for HRG’s taste, the same could not be said of Vauxhall-based cars and the final HRG, shown as a prototype in 1966, was based on Vauxhall VX 4/90 component’s with the enthusiastic co-operation of the Luton firm. The chassis consisted of two central tubes, making it effectively a “backbone” frame, suspension was independent all round and the aluminium body was by Wakefields of Mosley. It needed detail refinement, the centre section was too long to be aesthet­ically pleasing and the interior – trim was a little garish, but those who drove it were enthusiastic about its handling and poten­tial. It is just possible that it would have been put into production except for· the death of Lord Selsden. Selsdon’s executors wished to liquidate the investment. The position was rather more complicated but, in essence, if it was to continue, the firm had to restructure financially.

Of the three original partners, Ted Halford had left in 1937. Guy Robins had resigned in 1949. Henry Godfrey had retired, through ill health, in 1962 and died in 1968. At the end the company was run by Stuart Proctor, Grace Chapman (nee Leather) and David Eadington. Grace Leather had started with HRG in 1936 as a part-time secretary, working in the even­ings, had then been taken onto the strength full-time, replaced Halford as Company Secretary and had become a director during the war. David Eadington joined as work­shop manager at the outset, accepted a directorship during the war, then resigned from it and re-accepted a directorship when it became clear that the company might have to be wound up.

Most of those who showed an interest in acquiring the assets of the company, which was still financially sound and a prosperous little outfit, were deemed to be unsuitable for they appeared more interested in asset stripping than continuing the HRG tradi­tion. The directors were determined that the firm’s reputation had to be maintained. Since this did not appear to be possible, HRG went into voluntary liquidation and did so with dignity and compassion.

The works were sold to Gala Cosmetics which adjoined them. Most of the machine tools went to Brabham. The dozen employees were all found jobs and then were given, if not “golden” handshakes, at least a share of the monies realised by the sale – an unusual gesture at the time. Spares went to private hands but were later bought by the HRG Club.

So ended the story of a small but distinctive company. In all, 241 HRGs were made and most are still in existence. 231 of these were 1500 and 1100 models and the remain­ing 10 were special chassis in which number is included the four dohc production models. The marque might have been a success had it not been for the war and the wasted years which the conflict caused for it sold a quality product and would surely have capitalised on its early reception with the sort of flexibility one expects from a small maker. As it was it lost its impetus, partly because of the six-year gap and partly because of the restrictions on materials imposed in the immediate post-war years, and the principals, growing older, were unable to pick up the threads again.

Even though comparatively few cars were built and all the competition successes were by privateers, for the company felt that motor sport was a distraction from the business of making cars, there was a period when HRGs enjoyed enormous sporting success. The car was essentially a clubman’s car and there was a time, just after the war, when many classic events such as Le Mans and the Alpine Rally were, in essence, international clubmans’ competitions. Finally the marque was caught between two types of car, the mass-produced sports car (Jaguar XK120, Triumph TR2, Austin-Healey 100) and a growing number of makers building specialist sports-racing cars, personified by Lotus. HRG was not the only firm to be so caught, Frazer Nash was another.

As is so often the case when one examines motoring history, one sees a company which produces a product for a time. It is successful but times change and the company does not respond to the new conditions. – M.L.