An interview with John Bolster

Although competition motoring came to an end over three years ago, it is still possible to picture quite vividly John Bolster driving his four-engined Bolster Special "Bloody Mary" round the Crystal Palace circuit or enticing his earlier twin-engined car of this name up Shelsley or Lewes. Vivid as these happy memories are, they added rather than detracted from the pleasure of seeing once more these, and others, of John's ever-intriguing stable. First of all, we had to admire his imposing, very Parisian 31.7-h.p. D8/100 straight-eight Delage two-door close-coupled coupé, now newly finished in two shades of blue and in fairly frequent use for Home Guard duties. The engine very adequately fills the under-bonnet space and the four S.U. carburetters on the near side must have put up the power considerably – the maximum speed is in the neighbourhood of 90 m.p.h. The gearbox is a Cotal electric and we were interested to learn that even when the batteries are so flat that the starter fails to turn the engine it is still possible to get positive selection of any gear. John has had no failures from this box in a long spell of hard usage and the Delage Company told him that none of their cars so fitted gave any trouble in this department, a record not shared by the crash-type box fitted as an alternative to this model.

The engine is somewhat rough at high speeds, but possesses admirable urge and a very inspiring exhaust note when idling. The present braking system is full Girling, beautifully carried out by "Bentley" McKenzie, to whom Bolster delivered an axle at a time. Throwing open some garage doors, he revealed his mother's six-cylinder 23.8-h.p. D6/70 Delage, with single carburetter on the off side of the engine. It is very similar to the bigger car and, although its overall dimensions seem much smaller, it actually measures a few inches longer over the bumpers. We next went to see Bolster's Isotta-Fraschini, with which he intends to fulfil his craving for big motors after the war. This is an 11' 2" wheelbase, short-chassis(!) job and now carries a 2-seater body with bulging scuttle and huge rear tank with spare wheels behind. The engine now has four S.U. carburetters, the radiator has been dropped between the side-members of the chassis, very decent internals and a nine-bearing crankshaft reminiscent of a racing Alfa-Romeo. The gearbox gives only three speeds, but a brief trial has revealed that top gear performance is extremely good and acceleration of that ratio very pleasing.

Two big headlamps are mounted in front of the radiator, as the owner intends to use the car for gentle touring. He recalled that the steering kicks in a fashion reminiscent of a Lancia. A short run in the Delage took us over to Bolster's mother's house, and our eyes at once alighted on the "190" Panhard which Bolster drove in Veteran Car Club events; a chain-driven, tonneau-body car, now carefully preserved until better times. Another veteran owned by Bolster, which should one day make a most fascinating Brighton Run car, is a 19th century Locomobile, in which a Clement petrol engine replaces the original steam power plant. In its own garage was the famous Bolster Special with four 980-c.c. o.h.v. air-cooled J.A.P. engines. The skill and ingenuity required to incorporate all the chain drives and to get the exhaust pipes clear into pipes that would accommodate Brooklands silencers when required, can only be fully appreciated by leisurely examination of the car. Each engine gives well over 50 b.h.p., tuned to run on dope, with 11 to 1 compression ratio, and the complete car weighs about 11 cwt. S.U. carburetters are used, the settings being perfected first on one engine, although the mixture is actually such that the engine is taking all it can get without hunting. The drive passes through the biggest Borg and Beck clutch it was possible to accommodate and some slip was still being experienced when the car was last raced, which Bolster hopes to overcome by using yet stronger springs. He also toys with the idea of a differential in the back axle.

The engines are decently reliable, a tendency for the crankcases to split being the weakest feature, and never once has John "lost" a plug. Indeed, these engines will tick-over and propel the car round the paddock on "hot" plugs without oiling. To provide an adequate driving position was not easy and improvement is still being sought, a comparatively cramped position being endurable for Shelsley but very hampering for a 10-lap race. Some idea of the difficulties may be gained when it is mentioned that the near-side rear engine is so close to the pedals – the driver sits to the left – that a small inspection door in the bulkhead is required to give access to the rear sparking plug. Incidentally, there are no instruments of any sort to watch, but four force-feed lubricators require attention; the left-hand brake lever is outside the exhaust pipe and the driver's left elbow comes unpleasantly close to the near-side rear wheel. Doubtless, after the position he adopted to drive the first "Mary," John finds navigation not too grim; ordinary mortals like ourselves are left gasping at the mere thought of sitting behind four J.A.P. engines – two would be ample, thank you! As we expected, any trouble beneath the bonnet has a most adverse effect on handling; if a corner is being taken at maximum permissible throttle opening and a cylinder cuts from any cause, on opening up the car tends to slew off the road.

The compact independent front suspension is beautifully carried out and, John being a firm believer in sound braking, the brakes were devised after much consultation with Lockheed and Ferodo. Even now they could be better, probably because the drum size is not entirely adequate to the car's performance. On the matter of braking Bolster was most interesting. He recalled how, when racing a Bentley over the manufacturers' Circuit at Donington, it was possible to lap at up to about 85 m.p.h. and brake quite effectively for old Starkey's corner, yet, on increasing to some 87 m.p.h., all anchorage would seem to have vanished. That is how it is, and lining-material, cooling, area and actuation must all be carefully considered if satisfactory braking is to be achieved, and sustained, under racing conditions. Showing us his original "Mary," it was seen that the single rear brake had been supplemented by Austin Seven brakes. These proved quite ineffective when cable-operated, but became very useful when the cables were replaced by a rod-operated system – which may contain a hint for Austin Seven exponents. By removing any two engines from his four-engined car, Bolster can put the original Bolster Special into operation at short notice; the Gamage steering wheel from this car has also been transferred to the later car.

As regulations call for bodywork, John had much pleasure in constructing one for his 4-litre job – virtually a one-piece bonnet that drops over the eight cylinders. When first tried out at Shelsley Walsh very bad vibration periods were experienced, and the front pair of engines were later rubber-mounted. The gear ratios were altered to suit each venue at which the car ran, the engine sprockets being changed to achieve this. In the garage we noticed a tiny rear axle with central chain-drive, and John smilingly explained that he had started building a miniature car for his private grass-track to obviate accidents thereon, in which he and his friends were continually involved, in spite of using nothing more potent than a two-stroke motor-cycle. This he had never completed, nor has he proceeded with his Class I Special.

Leaving behind the racing cars and the Delage and sundry Fordson tractors – one of which threw a rod recently in true racing fashion – we returned to Goose Farm in Bolster's 1927 Rolls Royce Twenty, running on petrol for this brief journey, although a Bellay gas-producer is carried at the rear and works very well indeed. Against the background of the country house the old Rolls Royce looked very aristocratic. We now found that, in the meantime, Jock West, of B.M.W. fame, had driven over, and after tea he went out to help Bolster perfect his recently acquired Ariel motor-cycle. Jock is doing important aircraft engineering work and drives a Rover saloon, although he has recently had much fun and good service from a 350-c.c. Lloyd two-stroke car.

So terminated a most enjoyable afternoon, and we left with the greatest admiration for John Bolster, now a very fit, extremely enthusiastic farmer who, before the war, not only drove his "difficult" creations very effectively indeed, but undertook all the work of preparation himself. It will be recalled that his first "Bloody Mary," a combination of G.N. and J.A.P., with home-devised wood frame, weighed 5 cwt. and climbed Shelsley Walsh in 45.8 secs. In twin-engined form it weighed 7 cwt. and clocked 42.2 secs. The present four-engined 200-b.h.p. car put up fastest time of the day on its initial run at Lewes, although coasting over the line with dead engines. After the war…?