It has been said that truth is stranger than fiction. Here is a racing mechanical disaster which endorses this. We have heard of drivers coasting to the finish of a race because their car has suffered a breakdown or has run out of fuel, even of them pushing a stricken car over the line. But these episodes have nothing on what occurred to E C Gordon England’s Austin 7 when it won the 1924 JCC 200 Mile Race at Brooklands.
In 1923 England had finished second to R Bueno’s 1100cc Salmson in the 1100cc section of this long distance light-car contest. For the following year’s “200” the advent of these very quick A7s caused the JCC to institute a 750cc class, which Gordon England, now very much into the Baby Austin commercially after a successful career as a test pilot, a glider exponent and driver of an aircooled ABC at Brooklands, was anxious to win. To this end he prepared a very well streamlined two-seater racing A7, with a special crankshaft, pistons and valves, a raised compression ratio and a very light body, as recounted previously in MOTOR SPORT. These little cars had been running big ends when their engines were asked to turn over at exceptionally high speeds, a calamity which had befallen England at one of the smaller 1924 Brooklands meetings.
But with an extra oil supply he felt confident of winning the new 750cc class in the prestigious 200 Mile Race. So it proved, although at one point a fearful noise emanated from the little car and just as its driver was thinking he had better pull in to his pit he discovered it was caused by the fact that the aluminium seat had slipped, so that it was being struck by a projection on the propellor shaft. He continued non-stop, to win at 75.61 mph, having spent 2 hours 40 min 15 1/2 sec in the cramped cockpit — England was a big man. The tiny engine had maintained 4700 rpm throughout, lubricated with Speedwell oil, fed with BP petrol from Zenith carburettors, ignited by a BLIC magneto, the chassis damped by Hartford shock absorbers and running on Palmer tyres. The standard A7 crankcase was praised for standing up to this treatment.
Towards the end of the long race, after 69 of the 74 laps, one cylinder had cut out, but it was too late to stop and investigate. This would explain why England’s 1924 winning speed was one mph slower than his speed in the 1923 race, although before the engine lost power he had done one lap at nearly 90 mph but had otherwise held the engine back to the aforesaid speed in order to prevent what he knew was a weakness with the big ends. (Of the eight A7s that started the race, six retired due to big end failure). After the loss of power he drove the remaining laps at 70 mph.
Now we come to the remarkable part. After the finish of the race England drove the winning A7 straight into the official enclosure, since he was not allowed to touch it, and handed it over to the Official Observer. Later that afternoon the winning cars Darracq, Salmson and the A7, were driven over to the aeroplane sheds and locked up for the night. The A7 went there still firing on three cylinders. The next day their engines were stripped for submission to the Official Measurer. Imagine the surprise that was caused when, the A7’s cylinder head having been lifted, no piston or con-rod was to be seen in number four cylinder. The big end of the broken con-rod was still attached to its crankpin and no damage was apparent. Investigating further, after getting the car back to Gordon England’s works, more suprise was occasioned when it was seen that laying on the gauze oil strainer that topped the sump were the bits of the shattered piston, an undamaged gudgeon pin and a doubled-up con-rod! Any A7 owner who knows how restricted are the apertures below the cylinder bores may well find this surprising and the reader of a weekly motor paper could be excused for expressing doubt that it could have happened.
His letter caused Gordon England to explain that the familiar failure of number four big end, which he had been driving to try to avoid, had caused the light tubular con-rod to snap and double up when struck by the crankshaft. The gudgeon pin had slipped unharmed out of the little end of the rod and the piston, so thin that it could be crushed by gripping it in the hand, it had been reduced to many minute fragments of aluminium. After this unusual mechanical calamity all that was needed before the same A7 went off to race successfully at Montlhéry, were a new piston and rings, a new con-rod, and a replacement crankshaft, the latter put in only because it incorporated a slight modification to the oil feed to the big ends. The car then won the Cyclecar GP, with its Birmingham mates 2nd, 3rd and 4th and went on to break records at nearly 81 mph, lapping at 86 mph. While at the French track the England A7 ran some 1000 miles, the only parts requiring replacement being three tappet pads.
No more big end failure was experienced because, four days after the 200 Mile Race, Sir Herbert Austin had found a solution. WB