Humber speculation

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Recently I was able to call on Miss Marjorie Burgess, daughter of Fred Burgess, designer of the 1914 TT Humbers which in recent times have posed some formidable problems for motor racing historians. Right from the start, in fact, these Humbers presented conundrums. They closely resembled the successful 1913 Coupe de L’Auto Peugeots in having 16-valve twin-cam four-cylinder engines, but whereas the Peugeots had their exhaust pipes on the near, or mechanic’s, side, Burgess put his on the driver’s side, a practice followed only by Minerva in the TT and later by Alvis for the 12/50 and Bugatti for the Brescia. No badge or other identification ascribed these racing Humbers to the famous Coventry factory.

One of them went to Bentley’s in 1919, the chassis of the 3-litre Bentley being closely related to it, Burgess having joined WO Bentley by that time. Prior to working during the war for Humber on cars and Bentley rotary aeroengines, he had been with David Brown’s Valveless and Dobson car ventures. Burgess went back to Bentleys in the 1920s and died in 1929. Burgess drove one of his Humbers in the two-day 600 mile 1914 TT, the others being entrusted to Sam Wright, and to WG Tuck who had the most powerful of the team, perhaps with the idea of breaking up the opposition. In fact, none finished, Tuck’s going out in the first day with a broken valve, Burgess’ with a seized piston and Weight’s with valve trouble on the second day. Brian Demaus, the Humber Register’s historian, has drawn my attention to a rather remarkable advertisement which Humber Ltd. issued on the eve of the TT, saying that “Even if a manufacturer loses his races, he gains more than his competitors if he applies scientific analysis and deduction to results in metal fatigue, lubrication, cooling, springing etc.” Almost as if they had anticipated the race retirements, and were excusing them!

But if the TT was a fiasco for Humber, Tuck used one of the TT cars to win a race at the very last fateful Brooklands Meeting before the First World War. Years later, in 1929, CD Wallbank won another, with one of these Humbers which he had bought in Folkestone in 1927, under the impression that it was a Peugeot! Incidentally, I was at the track that day, having gone down with my mother and a friend in a fabric top-hat A7 saloon… Since then these fascinating 1914 TT Humbers have caused problems that might well defeat a master chess player! For instance, were three or four built, and if there was a spare race car, why was it never spoken of or revealed? Which Humber went to Cricklewood for copying, when the 3-litre Bentley was being evolved? Which of these Humbers was raced after the war by Philip Rampon, WG Barlow and CD Wallbank?

Only one survives, the car so ably campaigned in VSCC and similar races by Kenneth Neve, and raced in the 1920s by the Welsh racing motorcyclist Sgonina. Miss Burgess was able to show us many photographs, which may or may not throw fresh light on the speculation surrounding these 1914 racing Humbers. She was not born at the time of the TT but has a splendid snapshot of her father’s TT Humber outside the family house, surrounded by admiring schoolboys. She remembers holidays in a 3-litre Bentley tourer, with her brother sharing the back seat with herself and the luggage, and later drives in the family 3-litre Bentley saloon and of being driven on Brooklands in Bentleys, imploring her father to drive faster and faster…

Her souvenirs include the costing sheets for the prototype Bentley chassis, done by FT “Monkey” Burgess for WO, the cost coming out to over £950 with gearbox, back axle, brakes, tyres, etc. She also produced a photograph of the car driven in the TT by Tuck being tested, prior to the race, at Brooklands, very interesting to those of us who have been at the “chessboard”, as it was thought at one time that the cars went over to the IoM equipped with Humber’s own well-known quickly detachable wheels but that, for some reason, these were changed for Rudge knock-off hubs on the eve of the race — yet this Humber on the Brooklands’ banking has Rudge hubs!

Verily, racing cars can present historians with complex puzzles! Another little problem is why, after the TT, Humbers converted the hubs back to their own, although Neve’s car still has the Rudge hubs. Incidentally, there is much about this car in Neve’s book A Bit Behind The Times.

Miss Burgess’ mother was a keen driver, of Humbers naturally. Her son’s first car was a Model-T Ford (of which he was rather ashamed) and after an important career in the aircraft industry (she has flown in Concorde), Miss Burgess too retains a love of driving, running a Ford Escort. WB

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