Veteran to Classic: Fragments of forgotten makes -- the Astral

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The Astral was a car of advanced design which had a very brief spell in the limelight, lasting from its inception in 1923 to its demise the following year.  It was the product of the Hertford Engineering Company Ltd., of Bridge Works, London Road, Barking, in Essex, of which no trace appears to remain.

It is interesting that recent cars dealt with in this series, the Dorman and the Seabrook, also had small-capacity engines with overhead camshafts, a type of valve-gear then quite rare and which was apt to be mistrusted by the ordinary run of car-buyers. There does not seem to be any common line between these three cars apart from the reasoning that an attractive sales proposition would be a car of modest size and fuel thirst yet one powerful enough to give an adequate performance, in the case of the Astral when endowed with a roomy four-seater body.

The Astral was designed by W. Richards, who used some unusual items in his concept of such a car. He laid out a four-cylinder engine of 65 x 115 mm bore and stroke, giving a swept volume of 1,720 cc (the Dorman and Seabrook had ohc engines of 69 x 120 mm = 1,795 cc), so that although the taxation rating was 11.9 hp there was the advantage of a 1.7-litre power unit, if a notably long-stroke one.  Mr. Richards apparently had long experience of such design work and was able to economise on construction with a view of the complete car being marketable for less than £400.

The Astral’s crankshaft was so substantial that it was considered sufficient for it to run in only two bearings, and these were unusual in being ball-races, as being more easily renewed than the conventional plain bearings. The big-end bearings were of normal plain type, however, and the first engine built had cast-iron pistons. The lubrication system was extremely simple. A plunger-type oil pump was driven from a spiral gear at the front of the crankshaft, this pump drawing oil from the sump via a large-bore pipe, and feeding it through other pipes to the ohc valve-gear, from where the lubricant drained down gutters to the troughs which gave a supply to the big ends. An oil filter was dispensed with, and the layout obviated the need for drilling oil passages in the engine components. A small orifice bled oil to the bronze clutch-spigot.

The overhead-camshaft was driven by a vertical shaft and bevel gears, the lower pair of gears forward of the oil pump driving gear, and here another unusual piece of design was incorporated, namely the securing of the camshaft bevel gear to the camshaft by means of a split boss, a collar, and three set-screws, the idea being to give very accurate valve timing, as the camshaft could be moved without disturbing the drive. The camshaft operated two vertical valves per cylinder, tappet adjustment being accomplished by compressing the valve spring and turning by hand the hardened head on which the cam worked, this being possible because this was serrated and these serrations engaged similar serrations on a disc which was located in the threaded hollow tube of the large valve-stem, two flats on each tube-like valve stem locating the large disc, and the valve return spring normally preventing the disc from turning. (There is a touch of Hispano-Suiza, I fancy, in this form of tappet adjustment and I believe the Astral’s oil-pump was a proprietary Roto-Plunge). The camshaft ran in two bearings on the detachable cylinder head, a cast bracket supporting the tail end of the back camshaft bearing and the skew-gear driving a vertical distributer for the Lucas coil-ignition system.

The Astral was notable for its clean engine exterior, achieved by a neat camshaft-cover and by hiding the h.t. leads and the petrol pipe under covers. The single Zenith carburettor fed directly into the offside of the cylinder block and the engine was four-point mounted, with the oil-filler protruding from the o/s front engine bearer, which further enhanced the neat under-bonnet appearance.  Further design simplication was seen in the use of thermo-syphon cooling, two large vertical outlet pipes taking the coolant to the handsome radiator. The dynamo was located beneath the front crankcase bearer-arm.

An aluminium clutch housing was bolted to the rear of the crankcase, and care had been taken to render the cone clutch and the gearbox easy to remove. The gearbox gave three forward speeds, with a central lever, this being deemed adequate for the engine’s power output, although this was not quoted. To avoid a too-long propeller shaft the designer used a short shaft running to a ball-and-socket joint at a cross-member, the ball at the head of a short torque tube: there was nothing particularly unusual in this, and the A7 had it, but some of the details on the Astral were a bit special. Two universal joints of mechanical-type were used for the front prop-shaft, although this took on a rather acute angle unless the car was fully laden. A quite substantial three-piece back-axle was used, designed to reduce machining to a minimum and to facilitate that which was unavoidable. The differential and final-drive were held by the malleable-iron centre-section and the sleeves took part of the car’s weight, the driving-shafts being splined to the differential and the wheel hubs secured by tapers and keys. Adjustable worm-and-wheel steering incorporating ball-bearings was used, the pressed-steel chassis frame had plenty of cross-members and was sprung on flat half-elliptic springs, in which the shackle-bolts for the rear pair were horizontal but the axle pads and clips inclined to increase the damping action. There were four wheel brakes with fabric-lined aluminium shoes, grease-gun lubrication, and the Michelin disc wheels, which enabled centre-point steering pivots to be incorporated, were shod with 710 x 90 Michelin tyres, later increased to 760 x 90. The 8-gallon petrol tank was between the back dumb-irons.

The Hertford Engineering Co. was obviously all set to try for sales, and a depot was opened at 3, Blenheim Street, off New Bond Street, in London’s West End. Not only that but an Astral was fitted with a racing body and wire wheels with those large drum-like hubs normally associated with the Unic of this period, its engine tuned, and it appeared at Brooklands driven by Capt. David Drummond, son of the banker of that name. This suggests to me that the financing of the car-making project may have come from the Drummond Bank but enquiries to that source some years ago met with a chilly response. . . . Anyway, early in 1923 the Hertford Engineering Co, was ready to market its new car, having fixed the price of the chassis at £320, the two-seater at £365 and that of the four-seater at £375. The chassis had an eight-foot wheelbase, a track of four feet two inches, and gave 8-1/2 in ground clearance, and was described by one critic as a very workmanlike job throughout.

The racing Astral, nicknamed “Goshawk”, its aluminium body picked out with red and yellow stripes, with white wheels, was ready for the August 1923 Brooklands Bank-Holiday Meeting, and as usual with a newcomer, was given a cautious handicap, having to start after some quite fast cars in the second heat of the popular President’s Gold Plate Handicap. In fact, had it not been re-handicapped, Felix Scriven’s Austin 20 would have been flagged away only three seconds after the Astral but as it was it had seven seconds to make up. Capt. Drummond did his standing-lap at 70.02 mph, at exactly the same speed as Capt. Woolf Barnato in his Wolseley “Moth II”, and then out-paced that car with flying laps at 86.17 and 86.32 mph, but was unplaced, the race being won by O. Wilson-Jones’ Salmson, from Major Coe’s 30/98 Vauxhall and C. J. Randall’s limit-started 8/18 hp Talbot. In fact, Drummond was last but one home, only Capt. Fiennes’ 3-litre Bentley “Wilfred” failing to catch him, from the 20 sec (or virtual scratch) mark. In the Final of this race Drummond pulled out better laps all through, his best at 88.94 mph, but again he was unplaced. He then essayed the 75 mph Short Handicap, going faster still, with a flying lap at 90.22 mph. But the aforesaid Final had been won by Noble’s Deemster and now the Astral was again unplaced;  R. C. Morgan’s Aston-Martin was the race winner.

Unplaced in yet another race, the 90 mph Long Handicap, that day, the Astral non-started in all three of the races it should have run in, at the Brooklands Autumn Meeting and I don’t think it ever ran at Brooklands after that. But a stand, No. 176, was secured for the London (Olympia) Motor Show of 1923, and thereon were exhibited a chassis, a large four-seater, and a good looking two-door, four-seater sports model, priced at £535. I believe the sports Astral had a four-speed gearbox and it certainly had the later wire wheels. The new make was given quite a good reception, being described as having performed consistently at Brooklands, with one of the cleanest chassis at the Show. Yet it was never exibited again and as I have never seen an Astral advertised as a used car, I assume none was ever sold.  A still-born make, as it were…

So what had happened? The son of one of the partners of the Hertford Engineering Co. had been badly gassed in the war and his father decided that the flatlands of Essex were no good for him. So he built a house at Thorpe behind the Holloway Building on Egham Hill, where Holloway’s Little Liver-Pills had been made, as this had become a hospital during the war, and it was thought that the location would be good for the patient. This may have been why the Company was closed down so hastily, all the machine and hand tools, the Astral cars that had been shown at Olympia, and sufficient components such as exhaust pipes, crankshafts, etc.,  enough to build some thirty cars, being taken to the house in Surrey. All this was still there some twenty years later, a chassis and two tourers rotting in the open. But I suspect that the only link with the Astral car that still exists is one of the pattern boxes for casting the cambox covers of the overhead camshaft engines, which is in my possession, inscribed “Hertford Motor” and not “Astral” as might have been expected. (I believe the hospital became Holloway College, an out-station of London University.)  — W.B.