Battle of the 20/4s

When I was posted to Harrogate during WII, I was able to pop over to Bradford to interview Felix Scriven about his Brooklands cars.

His first was the Austin Twenty which appeared at the 1921 Easter races and won easily, and was third in another race. It had been driven down from Bradford. The Austin Motor Company had agreed to his modifications of 1/8in shaved off the cylinder head, a high-lift camshaft without altering the standard timing, careful balancing and assembly of the side-valve 3610cc engine, a lightened flywheel, a big-bore copper inlet manifold for the single Claudel-Hobson carburettor (found to be more effective than two carburettors), wire wheels with 820×120 tyres and the back axle ratio raised from 3.93 to 3.48:1. The engine was run at 3500 to 3700rpm, and at 4000 for brief periods. Oil-filled Deriton dampers helped to keep the 26cwt car on track.

One wonders how much this all prompted Austin’s to bring out its sports Twenty later in 1921?

The Austin, later called ‘Sergeant Murphy’ after the 1923 Grand National winner, lapped at 83.31mph on its first appearance. A protest was made that the engine must be larger than Scriven had declared on his entry form. It would be invidious to wonder who did this; the disadvantaged cars were the ACs. Felix was furious and insisted that the Austin’s cylinder head be removed for officials to measure the engine. All was in order, and one assumes Scriven then left in the late afternoon for his six-hour journey home!

Although Austin’s were in financial trouble, a receiver being called in by April 1921, a rival car was built, in the form of the works two-seater Twenty ‘Black Maria’, driven by Lou Kings, Austin’s test driver, and sometimes by Capt Waite. They not only competed against Scriven with Black Maria (black body, white radiator shell) but also with a tandem-twoseater 20/4, entered by Mrs Waite and driven by Arthur Waite, Lord Austin’s son-in-law, until he was involved with the two racing A7s.

Scriven would drive the 500 miles to Weybridge and back, sending his car’s back-seat fairing, its racing tail, wheels, tyres and tools by rail to his Weybridge hotel in a packing case when he needed all four seats; as a two-seater, two spare wheels with racing tyres, were carried one on each side of the Austin’s pointed tail.

With Black Maria challenging it, extra speed was now required from Sergeant Murphy. Capt Archie Frazer Nash of GN renown designed a new camshaft, made by Laystall’s, and a high-compression head was fitted. 880 rear tyres (with wheel discs) raised the final-drive ratio still further and a lighter body was used, sometimes with a cowled radiator.

Sergeant Murphy wasn’t only raced — including a second in an Essex MC Brooklands race — but also competed in sprint events, for example at Kop, Holme Moss, Tong Hill and Beacon Hill. It was also used for trials and as daily transport. Scriven stopped using it to concentrate on his Scriven Specials: ‘Mother Goose’ — so called because “it was stuffed with sage” (a Sage engine) — and ‘No No Nanette’, which was named after the popular 1920s play and was fitted with a Hooker-Thomas engine.

Alas, the famous Austin 20 was sold for £25 to a Bradford breaker.

The BARC handicap scores were: Sergeant Murphy (1921-26): 41 races, non-started in eight, retired from six, five firsts, five seconds, one third. Best lap: 94.86mph;

Black Maria (1921-23): 22 races, non-started in one, retired from three, two firsts, three seconds, four thirds. Best lap: 98.04mph;

Tandem two-seater (1921): four races, one first. Best lap: 91.38mph.