Veteran to classic -- two GNs

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Having re-acquainted myself with a fast Morgan three-wheeler recently, I thought it would be fun to do the same with a GN. Who better to approach than Edward Riddle, who is a firm believer in the creations of Ron Godfrey and Capt Archie Frazer-Nash, competing regularly with them in VSCC events? Edward was receptive to the idea. Indeed, his generosity extended to letting me try not one GN, but two.

Meeting him in rural Dorset, we began by talking about the older motor-cars in general and it transpired that Edward had become enthralled with them, as I had, even before the VSCC was formed. From 1922, in fact, when the family bought their first car, an 11.4hp Citroën, to be garaged in the coach-house attached to their Blackheath house. To make room for the new acquisition a 1914 Grand Prix Morgan with that tall Napier-like radiator cap, which was temporarily occupying the space, had to be started-up and driven away. A fascinating sight and sound for a small boy!

However, it was Major Malcolm Saunders, on the staff of The Commercial Motor at the time, who a couple of years before this, had sparked-off Riddle’s interest in GNs, this gentleman having spent his Army gratuity on one of these sporting cyclecars, to his wife’s great annoyance. In the meantime, family cars followed. There was a Crossley, a Chenard-Walcker, a much-liked Humber, and a Newton Ceirano which tended to run its big-ends. So motoring was early instilled into the boy and while at Dulwich he bought his first GN and introduced the idea to his friend John Garland.

By way of variation Edward invested in a twin-cam Salmson and a bull-nose Morris Cowley with the Oxford engine. But he always returned to GNs because, he says, he found them more satisfying to drive. Meanwhile, his sister was driving her fiance’s 1-1/2-litre Alfa Romeo coupé, with her brother’s approval, although Edward thought its small six-cylinder engine a little light on torque, due to the luxurious body… The war then intervened and motorcycles were favoured for economy reasons. When peace broke out Edward bought a 24hp Ford Model-A coupé, which was a vintage car, as it was a 1929 model. This served equally well for a holiday in Barcelona as it did as day-to-day transport. Then, in 1958, he was fortunate enough to obtain a sort of triple-basket-case of dismantled GNs. With the addition of JV Bolster’s old Vitesse engine, discovered in Caterham, and with the knowledge of these cars which he had accumulated in pre-war times, Edward was able to tackle a number of reconstructions with reasonable confidence, including his familiar touring ioe GN and the Vitesse GN now owned by John Blake.

Running parallel with his favourite make, in a second attempt at diversifying, there was the 1921 Model-T Ford coupé, kept for 25 years, an 8/18 Humber which was a nice little car but limited in cruising-speed, and a 12/50 Alvis, regarded as good but thought over-rated. After which came another Morris Cowley with Oxford engine, still in action.

These days the “Chain-Gang” theme takes precedence. The two GNs I was to try over the Dorset by-ways were Edward’s well-known ioe touring version and his push-rod vertical-ohv model. But first, with his help, let us look at the background to the various permutations of these 90-deg vee-twin engines. The overhead inlet, side-exhaust-valve engine was the normal offering, designed by HR Godfrey, it is said by scaling-up a 1903 Clement Bayard 300cc vee-twin motorcycle engine and later discarding automatic inlet valves for those prodded by push-rod and rocker. It seems likely that the over-hung crankshaft of the GN engine was logically adapted from steam-engine practice which Godfrey would have been aware of during his apprenticeship at Willans & Robinson’s at Rugby. For racing, both valves were put upstairs, and such a vertical-valve pushrod engine is thought to have been used for Godfrey’s belt-driven GN “Bluebottle”. This ohv arrangement was also used for the regular 1920 sports GN. However, as Capt Frazer-Nash was not the sort of person to allow his business partner to possess a racing GN as fast as his own, oh-valves inclined at 90-deg were used on his famous “Kim 1” single-seater.

Ordinary GN heads with slightly inclined valves are few and far between, but I did once have a pair, which ended up among Basil Davenport’s stock of GN bits and pieces. Some of the French-built GN engines used this layout, with hairpin valve springs, but normally such GNs had ioe engines, made under licence by Salmson, which were virtually the same as those being turned out at Wandsworth. Last year Riddle found one in Maidstone which he has restored as a spare engine, kept in his bedroom, to the annoyance of his wife. The push-rod vertical oh-valve heads were offered as a sort of extra power-option, around 1924. None has survived and these days the rockers have to be copied, the most nearly-accurate set being on Tony Carlisle’s GN, although Edward’s set are pretty close to the original.

Here I should remark that Riddle has a theory, formed after owning both push-rod ohv and Vitesse oh-camshaft GN engines, that there is no worthwhile power advantage to be gained by using inclined valves actuated by overhead-camshafts, relative to the more simple vertical-valve layout. “Why should there be?”, he asks. The difference in technology is not sufficiently marked for it to matter, remembering that both heads are cross-flow and that the over-hung crank limits one to 2200rpm, so valve bounce is hardly a factor. He does not think many customers took up the push-rod ohv option anyway. Perhaps 98 per cent of all GNs had the ioe engine. Thus if total output was 2500 cars, only about 50 had ohv as standard and perhaps another 50 the “bolt-on goodies” ohv conversions.

For serious racing however, GN built overhead-camshaft engines. The GN that won the 1100cc section of the ambitious 1921 JCC 200 Mile Race at Brooklands had overhead-camshafts operating four valves per cylinder, driven by a vertical shaft and a cross-shaft. For the 1922 race the same arrangement was repeated, but with two of the GNs having the oh-camshafts driven by shafts running up the front of each cylinder barrel. Late in 1922 the ohv Vitesse engine had its oh-camshafts driven by a long chain behind the cylinders.

However, Edward Riddle believes that oh-camshafts on a vee-twin are madness. He points out that the camshafts are miles away from the oil and that chain-stretch on a Vitesse engine upsets the valve-timing. He thinks push-rods are more sensible, as then the cams are centralised and can be properly lubricated, that with the aforesaid rpm limit there is no worthwhile advantage in power output, and that the engine looks more like that of an ordinary GN.

It was now time for me to sample Riddle’s 1921 ioe GN. It is quite normal apart from a raised compression-ratio and an old-fashioned brass-bound Solex carburettor instead of the more usual Capac. I was reminded that the original phosphor-bronze main bearings are still in place after 90,000 miles, plus the previous owner’s mileage. I found the GN experience quite fascinating, as we devoured the sunlit lanes at a cruising speed of 45mph, to the gentle beat of the air-cooled vee-twin engine. There is nothing with quite so much character as a GN cyclecar. It is as different, one might say, from an Austin 7 as a Hillman 14 is from a Mercedes Sixty. I felt that Godfrey and Nash had got the formula for 1920’s economical motoring just about right! The long wheelbase ensures a comfortable ride, on those quarter-elliptic springs, ingeniously restrained at the front, there is more than ample leg-room in the doorless two-seater body (with cape-cart hood had it rained), and the dashboard, with just a 60mph Smith’s speedometer before the passenger, emphasised the simplicity of the cyclecar theme. Ahead, the pointed prow has only the GN inscribed petrol-filler cap to break the stark outline of the bonnet.

I enquired about economy and was told that 40 to 45 mpg is customary, giving a range exceeding 100 miles from the three-gallon tank, but that driven with thrifty circumspection a GN driver might get as much as 65mpg. Lubrication is on the total-loss system; Riddle believes that the GN’s demise was linked closely to failure by first-time buyers to make proper use of it, although motorcyclists were conversant with it. The oil tank holds three-quarters of a gallon, it is streamlined for a neat appearance in its stance on the off-side running-board and its plunger-pump should be operated every five miles; on both his GNs Edward reaches across and rotates a minute turn-button on the dash, rather like lap-scoring, to remind him that he has carried out this essential operation. I was captivated by the GN’s simplicity. Apart from that speedometer, all the dash carries is a Bowden-lever for the choke, a cut-out button for the Bosch magneto, two tiny lamps-switches (“They work if I have a battery on board”), and a GN plaque donated by Ron Godfrey.

Allowed to drive, I found the very direct steering accurate and certainly not heavy, the response immediate. It was expedient to use the brakes alternately on down grades, to even-up the wear, as the pedal applies the shoes in one drum, the out-side lever those in the other drum, on the differential-less back axle. The hand-brake ratchet is contrived by spring-loading the lever against a rack on the side of the body, as on many veteran cars. The rh lever actuating the famous chain-and-dog transmission is inside the body. It selects reverse and top towards the driver, first and second being forward; the shifts are made very easily but a careless movement out of bottom will cause the reverse gears to grate.

Open up and you are rewarded by brisk pick-up, to the crackle of the twin cylinders. So much more fun than the subdued purr of the average four! That is GN motoring and very enjoyable it was. I would have been happy to have gone on all day in the August heat over those deserted country roads in this cyclecar that is as adept at going down the road to buy a paper as it is winning awards in VSCC trials and driving-tests. Or, for that matter, undertaking long-distance tours, as many GN owners did in the 1920s.

What else? The tyres are those excellent Avon 3.25 x 19 Triple Duty Mk II Sidecar covers well-known in A7 circles. There is the typical single headlamp, and Fontayne side-lamps. Also a “Heath Robinson” hand-propelled screen-wiper, and a one-gallon spare petrol can on the off-side matches the battery box on the near-side running board. There should be a full-length undertray but like most GN exponents Riddle has retained only the rear one, to protect the chains. Having been shown the fun and fascination of a touring GN, it was off in Edward’s push-rod ohv car. The greater urge was immediately apparent, with a fiercer bark from the engine, as it accelerated up to a 50mph cruising pace, accompanied by a rather enchanting scream from the straight-cut bevel-box gears.

Otherwise the two GNs are similar. The ohv car has a Brolt System “cyclops” headlamp, by Brown Bros, and Smith & Sons of Great Portland Street sidelamps. The dash is equally uncluttered, but with another 60mph speedometer for the passenger to study. Exciting as this ohv GN is, Riddle points out that it does not give the sometimes expected 60mph. Considerable improvement in acceleration and hill-climbing ability, yes. More speed, no. He finds that an ohv GN will cruise at 50mph or a shade more, against the ioe’s 45mph. But that is all! This theory he explained eloquently in the summer issue of The Light Car journal of the Light Car & Edwardian Section of the VSCC, stating that the reason is that power will go up by only about 3bhp with ohv, to about 16bhp, whereas to get 60mph another 13 or so bhp is required.

Riddle believes that all good vintage touring cars, if you are honest, be they 12/50 Alvis, Anzani Frazer Nash, Rolls-Royce Twenty, bull-nose Morris or A7, cruise at about 45mph, because power to overcome air-resistance has to be increased as the cube of the speed. With this cube-law, their relatively low power, and high drag-factor, it is, Edward says, easy to see why vintage light-cars have a sharply restricted top speed.

The ‘Nash felt taut, was quiet and accelerative — but its best cruising speed was around 50mph. It has, by the way, the three-speed transmission but with its ratios like the upper three of a four-speed ‘Nash. In this nice aluminium-bodied product of the old AFN concern we went to look at the impressive view from Shaftesbury’s battlements and visited the town’s cobbled Gold Hill. After which I drove back to Warminster for the night in the 2-litre Ford Sierra 4×4. As I did so I reflected on what a pleasure in must be to own a GN. I have always wanted one. But by the mid-1930s they were getting scarce and those that did turn up were quickly snapped up (the going price was 6/11d), so that they could be lowered, the steering centralised, the body scrapped, ready for an appearance at Shelsley Walsh. I had to be content with a few GN parts found in Leeds during the war, the chains in an old hip-bath of dirty oil . . .

I can understand Riddle when he says that if he had his life over again (we are both the same age) he would be content with a bog-standard ioe GN with a well-sorted engine, the doorless D-back two-seater body, and in it to travel at 40 to 45mph, with nothing to prove. For trials he would use a big sprocket, to get hill-climbing equal to that of an ohv GN, and he would still enjoy better performance than that of the average A7. A spare ioe engine would obviate the car being laid up for overhauls, giving Edward time to polish his brass and tidy the body, rather than having to attend to recalcitrant push-rods and rockers.

Well, it seems to me he has not done too badly as it is! Apart from the three cars I have described, he has completed a rather special GN ohv engine of some 1700cc, thus following the lines adopted by Basil Davenport for “Spider”, and before that by GN themselves for Brooklands’ record-breaking. The aim is to get effortless cruising speed and hill-climbing without exceeding that crucial 2200rpm. With this in mind, the cr is only 4-1/2 to 1, and a slightly overweight flywheel is fitted, together with a small carburettor and weak valve springs, the whole plot compounded with a 2.5 to 1 axle-ratio, in the hope of proving that “there is no substitute for litres”.– WB

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