Vintage Postbag, October 1969

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More About “Babs”

Sir,

I visited Mr. Owen Wyn at Capel Curig in August and had a long and most interesting talk with him, together with a fascinating look at “Babs”. He has made considerable progress with the engine and chassis, and I think that there is little doubt that the car will run next year.

The dimentions you suggested I might check are as follows: Wheelbase, 11 ft. 7 in.; front rack, 5 ft. 1 in.; rear track, 4ft. 10 in.

In the absence of rear wheels, the dimension had to be estimated on the probably relation of the rim to the hub of the wheels.

The hand-brake, as you surmised, as a pull-on action.

An interesting point is that the near-side king-pin was found to be sheared in two places, within the upper bearing, and apparently had faces of one fracture being rubbed with movement.

Another fault unknown, it would seem, was in the bearings of the camshaft drive shafts at the front of each bank of cylinders. As you may know, each shaft has a plain bearing at the upper end and a ball race (I think) at the bottom end. Apparently, if the engine has stood for more than 24 hours, oil should be injected through plug holes at the rear of the camshaft housings, which would then work its way along to the drive bearings at the front. Thomas was either unaware of this procedure, or didn’t bother, for both upper bearings were damaged, and one had half melted away, white metal covering the race at the bottom end of the drive.

Wyn Own is puzzled by a piece of thick leather, about 18 in. square, found in the cockpit of the car. It is thonged one edge and has a small rectangular piece cut out which obviously had a purpose. First thoughts were that it was Thomas’s helmet, but it is too thick, and is flat, and not shaped at all.

The four Solex carburettors have no choke or mixture control whatsoever, and it is wondered how the engine was persuaded to start on a cold day. There is no flywheel at all, and the slow running must have been very uncertain, or non-existent. The mulitplate clutch contains Ferodo discs with drive teeth formed on their outer edge. When Wyn Own dismantled the drum forming the clutch housing there was as strong smell of burned Ferodo—after all those years!

Another puzzling point is that the underside of the fairing forward of the driving sprocket, off side, was cut by the broken chain in an upward direction, opposite to the rotation of the chain.

A small dilemma for Wyn Owen is that regarding the flat sand deflectors fitted behind the front wheels. Each of these was a plain rectangle of sheet aluminium, with sharp corners and plain edged, and a stiffening length of angle down the centre. If Owen makes a workmanlike job with beaded edges, it will not be authentic, whereas if he duplicates the originals, folk will say that he has made a rough old job of that!

An interesting point raised by Wyn Own is that regarding the drive fairings fitted over the sprockets, prior to the 1927 attempt. These had undersides, and the rear of each formed a large trap for sand thrown up by the wheels. They were naturally full of loose sand when the car was unearthed, but Owen found later that hard-packed sand, black in colour (tyre dust?), was caked right inside, and he estimates that a total of half a ton of sand could have accumulated at the rear-end in this way. If the car was so sensitive to weight distribution that Thomas saw fit to trim it with lead-shot ballast, as he did, what effect would the large load of sand have had on handling?

I gather that the exercise of unearthing the car at Pendine surprised Wyn Owen by its comparative simplicity; he had expected a three-week chore, whereas the car was uncovered in two days and raised in three, being in his shed at Capel Curig less than four days after they had set out with Land Rover, trailer and shovels.

It was probably this unexpected rapidity which caused the lack of preparation for the event itself.

Windsor. C. F. Thacker.

* * *

The Lottery Grand Prix

Sir,

The affair of the 1933 Tripoli Grand Prix . . . Is it, after all, such a mystery?

According to your résumé of the Garrett version (I have not read the book) he appears to have lifted it from Neubauer’s book. This book is most entertaining but one doesn’t have to get far into it to realise that it is highly coloured, to put it mildly, and it surely needs to be taken with a considerable pinch of salt! Quite apart from the musical comedy antics of Nuvolari at the end of the race, he brings in Chiron as finishing one lap behind and he (Chiron) isn’t even in the list of finishers, according to Motor Sport. The Motor also have a reasonably detailed report in the issue of May 16th, 1933, and it tallies almost exactly, as far as it goes, with that in Motor Sport.

However, there is not smoke without fire and this legend is certainly not the product of post-war journalism. In The Motor of May 23rd, 1933, there is an interview with Birkin about this race. To quote: “Another item that had not been reckoned upon was the fact that a huge State-controlled lottery was being held in connection with the race . . . What is more natural then that some of the drivers should strike a bargain with the ticket holders, and demand a share in the proceeds if they won or, alternatively, were placed. One driver, at any rate, stood to benefit to the extent of £15,000. Anyway, many bargains were successfully driven.”

So it would seem that Wm. Court, in his marvellous book “Power and Glory”, just about sums it up. After all, neither Varzi’s nor Nuvolari’s car gave any trouble, if the contemporary reports are to be believed, and two such drivers would have had no difficulty in faking a close finish that would appear genuine. And I cannot see why a ticket holder should have any difficulty in contacting Varzi at his hotel. [Except that Varzi might have handed him over to the police.—Ed.]

Crowborough. R. Baillie.

———

Sir,

Having read with much interest the article in your September issue on this subject, I was prompted to have another look at Piero Taruffi’s admirable autobiography, “Works Driver” (Temple Press, 1964).

On page 35 of this work he makes only this reference to the Lottery G.P.: “This was the Tripoli G.P. which turned Varzi, Nuvolari and Borzacchini into millionaires and caused a great deal of bad feeling among other drivers.”

I have always felt that Taruffi must have known what occurred, but felt that where chicanery had marred the good name of motor racing it was a case of “least said, soonest mended”.

East Sheen. R. L. Govett.

———

Sir,

I have just read W. Boddy’s interesting article about the 1933 Tripoli Grand Prix. He mentions an extract from Count Lurani’s autobiography.

I have finished reading another of his books, “Racing Round the World”, and in it he says that “the race was hotly contested and again Achille Varzi won with a Bugatti ahead of Nuvolari with an Alfa Romeo, while ‘Tim’ Birkin, who had entered as an independent with his Maserati, came in third”.

This seems to agree with the Motor Sport report on the race, which seems to me to be a fairly accurate description of it.

Bewdley. Paul Heggie.
[Books are often “ghosted” but on the evidence it does seem that if Tripoli 1933 was a faked race it was not faked so obviously and luridly as authors like Eoin Young and Garrett are prepared to believe—Ed.]

* * *

Pembrokeshire Motor Museum

Sir,

I was interested in your account, in the September issue, of Chester Smith’s Motor Museum in Pembrokeshire. Although that strange vehicle, which was formerly the property of the late Mr. R. P. Lawson, is there, I presume that the Léon Bollée described is mine. In which case the date is early 1897 and the cylinder dimensions are 76 x 145 mm. This is probably not the earliest Léon Bollée in existence as some are claimed even accepted as 1896, but it is the only one running with the original engine. By mid-1897 the engine dimensions had been increased to 85 x 145 mm. and some earlier machines were undoubtedly converted.

Leamington Spa. E. P. Sharman.

* * *

“The Cars that Nobody Wants”

Sir,

I was delighted to see the photograph of the 1939 Armstrong Siddeley in September’s Motor Sport: surely proof that it is still possible to buy a car of character without pandering to the hysterical inflation of recent months.

But is it a Fourteen? Unless someone has been swapping engines this surely one of the immediate pre-war 16-h.p. models with the 1,991-c.c. unit found also in the “Hurricanes”, “Lancasters” and “Typhoons” of the 1945-9 period. In this case your correspondent has got himself a delectably dignified carriage that will go quite a lot faster than its stolid lines suggest: I tried one in the summer of 1967 and was more than a little surprised.

Maybe some expert on matters Armstrong Siddeley can explain to me why the Sixteen I drove had its rocker cover swathed in leather? It looked to be original too.

Midhurst. Michael Sedwick
President, Armstrong Siddeley Owner’s Club.

[It does have the leather valve cover (why?). And it is the Sixteen.—Ed.]

* * *

A Putrid Little Machine

Sir,

It would be inappropriate to say “Dear Sir” after having read your remarks about my lovable little Alvis on page 866, August issue!

Being a very sensitive person I was hurt when the V.S.C.C. Bulletin descried my motor as “a nightmare of a car”. Mr. “Talbot” Blight was more polite when he said, “I will never be rude about your car because I do not recognise it as a car!” You, Mr. Editor, shatter all my illusions by telling me that my Alvis is “the worst example of uncouth special ever permitted to disgrace the V.S.C.C. scene”. This so depressed me I decided to sell my Alvis Special, only to find the Motor Sport had shattered the sales potential together with my illusions!

I am now compelled to live with this horrid little monster, and, I suppose, spend most of the winter working on it. Not to make it look like it did 30 years ago, but to prove that this putrid little machine, which looks wider than it is long, with a heavy inefficient engine perched forward, will motor as well as, or better than, its more beautiful sisters.

It will never fit me, Motor Sport will never like it, but I will get quite a lot of fun out of it!

Bath. J. A. Earle Marsh.