Veteran to Classic: "I tested racing car tyres"

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I had an interesting meeting with Mr J. F. Andrews, who used to test racing-car tyres for the Dunlop Rubber Company Ltd. We met at that convenient centre, the Midland Motor Museum in Bridgnorth, the route thereto taking me over one of my favourite roads, that from Knighton via Brampton Bryan, Diddlebury, and Morville, which the Ford Sierra XR 4×4 took in its usual capable style. Before working for Dunlop Mr Andrews, now 83, was with the Bentley Motor Company at Oxgate Lane, as the BDC well knows, when the only car made was the famous 3-litre. He started there in 1923 and worked on such cars as Dr Benjafield’s Brooklands two-seater, etc.  Before that he was with the Golders Green Motor Co., where the first car he ever worked-on was one of the ex-war-surplus sleeve-valve Daimlers, from the Slough disposal dump, in for overhaul before taking up civilian duties again.

It was in 1923 that Mr Andrews started his tyre testing for Dunlop, at Brooklands Track. The staff were actually at the Albany Street Depot in London and used to be taken down to the Track almost daily. Norman Freeman was the Technical Expert on the racing side and the two fitters, “Dunlop Mac” and his elder brother ”Big Mac” are well-remembered by the motor-racing fraternity. Mac joined the Brooklands’ staff in 1921 and eventually he and his brother were given a Triumph box-sidecar, later replaced by a van.

In 1924 a proper racing research and experimental department was formed, and two racing cars were acquired for test purposes, one of the 1924 200 Mile Race Alvis cars and the ex-Capt Malcolm Campbell 4.9-litre Indianapolis Sunbeam. The former was painted yellow, the latter was still in Campbell’s colours and was bought from the Sunbeam Motor Car Company Ltd, being driven on the road from Wolverhampton to Fort Dunlop in Birmingham and then on to London. The Belgian ex-racing driver, Paul Dutoit, who had been Segrave’s riding-mechanic, was appointed to drive both racing cars for Dunlop and he named them, respectively, ‘Firefly 1″ and “Firefly 2”. The Alvis is the car which in comparatively recent times has been so beautifully restored by E. J. Benfield and raced frequently by him in appropriate races. Incidentally, when the Sunbeam was being driven in London and the Police objected to the noise, Mr Andrews was able successfully to convince them that Dutoit, who was at the wheel, was a Frenchman, unable to speak any English, which he wasn’t and could, and that the piece of paper he was waving at them was his Continental driving permit, which again it wasn’t!

The Alvis used to be started on soft Champion plugs and run on hard KLGs, a racing type that cost one guinea, at a time when ordinary sparking-plugs sold for 5/- (25p). It had a habit of jumping out of top gear, so for the 200-mile race C.M. Harvey had a chain fitted to go over the gear lever and hold it in place. The Sunbeam used to give Andrews a very rough ride so he had a strap fitted to the cockpit floor to which to cling, instead of placing his right arm through the hole provided for the purpose behind the driver’s seat. With these two cars they used to carry out innumerable tyre tests, of perhaps up to 200-miles duration at a time. J. G. Parry Thomas also used to help out with the big Leyland-Thomas: he would ask where they would like a tread removed and discard this at any part of the Track, but how he accomplished this remained his secret, whether by sliding the car slightly or lifting-off suddenly on the accelerator, or whatever, never being disclosed…

Mr Andrews spent two very happy years at Brooklands, among the loveable and often wild characters there, and missed it greatly when he was moved to Fort Dunlop. He recalls the many pranks that enlivened the days there and the general good fellowship. The test department at the Track was formed in 1924 and the Dunlop pagoda built in the Paddock, opposite Pratts’ petrol station. Even in the winter there would be testing to do, often on the otherwise deserted concrete, or the racing-cars to be worked on, although these never required stripping down completely, and were generally reliable, although the Sunbeam’s Scintilla magneto tended to “cease-fire” without warning. Mr Andrews remembers how hard it was to push-start the Sunbeam for Dutoit, when this charming but somewhat temperamental man became impatient, however.

After joining Dunlop’s test department in Birmingham, Mr Andrews was given a brand-new side-valve 12/40 Alvis, purchased at the Motor Show. It was used for tyre testing but did not like flat-out runs on the Track, until a hardened crankshaft and different rods had been fitted. Dunlop kept a large fleet of tyre-testing vehicles, which we illustrated in Motor Sport  many years ago. Bull-nosed Morris tourers predominated but around 1927-28 the fleet included a flat-nose Morris-Cowley, a Hillman 14, a Sunbeam for Mr Paul the Manager, and other cars, even a Pierce-Arrow two-seater, apart from pedal-cycles, motorcycles, including a Brough-Superior sidecar outfit, and several commercial vehicles, among them a Guy truck. There were some splendidly-equipped vans for tyre-changing away from base, as on long-distance bicycle road-racing record bids, etc., and Mr Andrews remembers having to drive a taxi chassis round and round London, stopping and restarting frequently, to assess the effect on its tyres.

Even Dunlop sometimes slipped up and in the early nineteen-twenties the Magnum tyre gave continual trouble due to a casing defect, the London “cabbies” queuing-up with their taxis for replacements. Another amusing episode was when the inventor of spiked-mats got the Police Forces interested in laying these down at road-blocks, as a means of puncturing the tyres of get-away cars. A demonstration was arranged in 1928, using a 12/50 Alvis Beetleback. Mr Andrews drove over the mats at speed and disappeared into the distance, as even when the tyres punctured, they stayed on the rims. He used to go over to the IoM TT motorcycle races, where Dunlops used a 23/60 Vauxhall tourer. He remembers very well the shed erected specially for testing LSR tyres, the building made of steel to restrain tyres that burst or flung treads, and of how the wheels became oval at high speed on the test-rig, and of how loose the spokes would be after a short run. That was at a time when Dunlop supplied successfully the very special tyres for the 150 mph, 180 mph, 200 mph and 300 mph Land Speed Records by Campbell, Segrave and Parry Thomas. Around that time the Dunlop Company had ideas of installing a bungalow at Montlhéry Track in France and supplying tyres for the World Championship Delage GP cars, but nothing came of this, although in the British Grands Prix at Brooklands in 1926 and 1927 the victorious Delage teams ran on Dunlop covers. A most interesting talk; incidentally, Mr Andrews now drives a faithful Hillman Avenger. — W. B.