WB miscellany, October 2005

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Spirit of pre-war days

With all our respect for historic Maseratis and Ferraris, etc, in historic car races today it is the ERAs which capture best the spirit of the pre-war days for me. Last year more than three-quarters of ERA and ERA-engined cars appeared in at least one competitive event.

The continued attraction of these racing cars is very well captured in the ERA Club’s magazine. It may not be as glossy as other such publications, but, by Jove, it very well conveys the allure and excitement which present-day ERA drivers provide.

The magazine’s current issue has a most interesting six-page account of the work done on R4D when the 27 year-old Scot Ron Flockhart bought it from Raymond Mays, its Zoller supercharger having to be dismantled five times for surprising reasons.

Flockhart made good use of R4D although he had previously raced mainly with motorcycles and an MG. In 1952, just after he had acquired the famous car, he was fifth in the Libre race on British GP day and won the Libre class at Crimond, and in 1953 he won Libre races at Winfield, Crimond and Snetterton and made FTD at the hillclimbs at Bo’ness and Rest and Be Thankful.

After which, Ken Wharton taking over the ERA, Flockhart did very well in sportscar events, winning Le Mans twice, with Sanderson and Bueb, before racing successfully with Lotus-Climax and F2 Coopers. He then turned to aviation. He was killed in April 1962 on a second attempt on the Australia-England record when his Mk21 Mustang crashed near Melbourne.

Also in the magazine, Mark Gillies describes the differences between driving R2A, R3A, R4D, R9S and a 6CL Maserati. All of which and more should be of great interest to those who follow such racing. The ERA Club is open to non-ERA owners; secretary Guy Spollon, Arden Grange, Tamworth in Arden, Warwickshire, B94 5BX.

***

Developing Riley’s Nine

As we do not have a Mr ‘Ask Me’ Goodwin as Autocar does, I try to answer readers’ questions myself. Now here is one of mine. The Riley Nine, with its hemispherical-head 1098cc engine which did not use the complication of twin overhead camshafts, and its stylish radiator and modernistic bodywork, made an attractive proposition when it was introduced in 1926.

Parry Thomas and Reid Railton saw its potential as a sportscar and they produced the Brooklands model with shortened, low-hung chassis, etc. Thomas was killed at Pendine in March 1927, so did not see the success it achieved, but Railton continued its development and, although not exactly a racing driver, he won the 90mph Short Handicap at Brooklands with the prototype, his fastest race lap being 98.82mph. Victor Riley was the entrant, and that November he got George Duller to drive one of these Rileys, lapping at just over 100mph.

For a short time the newly-formed firm of Thomson & Taylor sold these Speed Model Rileys, but the Riley company soon took over, the price £420 against the imported Amilcar Grand Sport (£285), the Salmson Grand Prix (£248), the Senechal (£250) and the Vernon Derby (£275).

In 1928 Victor Riley once again entered a car, for George Duller, who took a third place, Dr Benjafield non-starting and Staniland unplaced but with a lap of 100.61mph. A V Wilkinson and Mrs Martin, Lionel Martin’s wife, also raced Riley Nines.

The popularity of these cars can be substantiated by an entry of a dozen in BARC races in 1930, the fastest ones going round at 90 or more mph. More professionally, there were 10 in the 1928 Ards TT, with K S Peacock winning his class, and seven of them in that race in 1929, with a 1-2-3 class result, the drivers being S C H Davis, W P Noble and C R Whitcroft.

By 1930 T&T were advertising “the improved Riley and superchargers fitted”. Victor Riley now entered a supercharged Riley at Brooklands for the capable ‘Sammy’ Davis, The Autocar’s  sports editor, to drive. He took two seconds, one on the ‘Mountain’ course, the other in the Gold Star handicap with a lap of 111.17mph. In the Riley race for Victor Riley’s Ten Guinea trophy and the Riley MC’s £6 Cup  Railton entered a supercharged car for Davis; it non-started, and Ron Horton’s non-supercharged Riley won with a lap of 92.74mph.

Does this suggest that Railton was called in to help Riley develop the supercharged engine; and how was the supercharger drive mounted, and what boost did it give? Sammy Davis was full of praise for the production Speed Model Nine, from which he got 92 mph on the Track and 80mph when road-equipped.

***

The Remarkable Railton

Schools and colleges for would-be journalists were rather before my time or I expect I would have been told that before starting a story you should have a run-in explaining it. I prefer to think that I am a motoring enthusiast who was driven to writing, not a journalist, but I do have a reason for remembering the Railton.

When I was doing the car part of the monthly magazine Brooklands Track & Air  we did road-test reports like the other journals. Early in 1934 a £1380 3-1/2-litre Bentley tourer came to the Track, in the charge of a chauffeur who told us he had to remain with the car at all times — rather bad for him as we intended doing speed checks round the outer circuit; he stoically occupied the draughty back seat. The magazine’s owner, Capt V  Holmes, and I were very impressed with this silent fast car of Rolls-Royce refinement and quality.

A month later we were to appraise a Railton Terraplane tourer. Hardly a rival of the Derby product; why, it had side valves, only three forward speeds, splash lubrication with no oil gauge, and six-volt electrics. But having put it through its paces we were of a very different opinion. You could buy two Railtons for the cost of a Bentley, one for yourself and one for the wife, or mistress maybe if the Daily Mail  was in investigative mood. Comparing performances disclosed that the Anglo-American car could do 0-50, 0-60 and 0-70mph slightly quicker than the car from Derby, and that it was quicker by 1.8sec over a standing-start quarter-mile. The Bentley was faster, doing 90mph, the Railton just over 80 with a lap at 80.4mph, screen raised (Track repairs had stopped us from doing a full lap in the Bentley).

There were other cars based on American engines and chassis, but the fact that the Railton was probably the best of them was because of that talented engineer Reid Railton, who had already given us the Brooklands-type Riley Nine, about the only British small competition car to join the number of French sportscars of this size. Railton went on to truly great achievements, including those LSR monsters, culminating in Cobb’s 400mph Railton and the Brooklands lap-record Napier-Railton, etc.

What Reid had done was to lower the chassis, improve road-holding by fitting André-Hartford telecontrol dampers front and back, and add a modified fascia, Lucas lamps and a new radiator. Noel Macklin, whose idea this was, sold these exciting cars from his Fairmile factory at Cobham, Surrey. They were ready for the 1933 Olympia Show, priced at £499. There had been a suggestion that it was better to buy a car at such a price which would last for four or so years than one costing more but able to last for longer. Whether this affected Railton sales or was a ploy to increase them over the decades, I do not know.

There was, however, no doubting the astonishing performance gained by using the unchanged Hudson-Essex straight-eight 75x114mm (4168cc) engine in a light chassis. By 1936 the 24cwt £628 saloon reached 92mph, went from 0-70mph in 16sec and returned 15-17mpg. It could average 25.5mph up the Test Hill from a standstill.   lt had gear ratios of 9.40, 6.30 and 3.90, with 16×6.25in tyres on bolt-on wire wheels.

The real Railton sensation was the 19cwt Light Sports Tourer of 1935. It had a doorless four-seater body of aluminium and duralumin, the back seat 38in wide, with two bucket front seats and a pointed tail covering the fuel tank, which had a quick-action filler cap. The engine now had a Scintilla Vertex magneto but retained a single downdraught carburettor. The Marles steering had a higher ratio, the brakes were enlarged, there was a straight-tooth back axle, extra wheel nuts, an outside fly-off handbrake lever and a remote-control gear lever, and a steering wheel with flexible spokes. The wheelbase was 9ft 8in, the track 4ft 8in and the overall length 13ft 7in. Equipment included two aeroscreens and a main fold-flat screen, and the gear ratios were 8.7, 5.8 and 3.6 to 1 with the 16in tyres.

The performance of this was truly phenomenal. Top speed was over 100mph, the Brooklands lap speed 96.73mph, and 0-70mph took only 13.6sec. The reserved HR Linfield, The Autocar’s  road-test writer, got one of these Railtons (OPA 231) up the Brooklands Test Hill in 29.66sec, or at nearly 30mph, all wheels well off the ground at the summit and not coming down for 35 feet. At £878 it cocked a very definite snoot at many other sportscars. The standard chassis cost £433 and many special coachbuilders built bodies on it, the drophead Fairmile coupé being shown on the Hudson stand at Olympia.

S C H Davis drove a Railton in the 1935 Monte Carlo Rally, and Leon Cushman lapped Brooklands at 104.85mph, taking a second in a BARC Handicap; Charles Follett was second in the 1938 BARC 50 mile race, averaging 107.8mph, and third at the Dunlop Meeting, with two laps at 111.13mph, both times in Railton Light Sports Tourers.

***

Debatable figures

The Paris-Madrid book by Michael Ulrich, reviewed last month, is an epic reminder of the wonderful victory in this tragic race by Fernand Gabriel, on a 60hp Mors, who averaged 65.3mph for the reduced distance of 342 miles. Barbaroux, whose Benz left last, is quoted as saying this win was “probably superhuman, with 81 slower cars to overtake in their clouds of dust”.

No ‘probably’ about it!  Gabriel’s race, which took just under 5-1/4 hours including the controls, was a marvellous achievement. There were dust clouds in circuit races, but the courses were known; Gabriel had to drive at times at up to nearly 100mph over an unknown course, those dust clouds a lesser factor than the encroaching crowds and seeing the scene of the many horrid accidents.

But whether the flying Fernand had to overtake quite so many competitors has been queried. Ulrich’s book lists 315 entries and 94 nonstarters. Gabriel’s number was 168, and the number of non-participants he did not have to pass is given as 49.

However, Kent Karslake, whose scholarly ‘Sideslips’ articles were a welcome part of Motor Sport, pointed out that there were no doubt some cars stationary with troubles or being refuelled, and others which had crashed, the terrible toll of which ended the race at Bordeaux. This would have reduced the number the Mors had to get past. But that in my view takes nothing from a very wonderful drive by Gabriel under these conditions on a primitive racing car.

***

Bibendum in Britain

Michelin Centenary, a handsome book detailing, in celebratory fashion, the tyre company’s first 100 years in the UK, is full of fascinating pictures of Michelin-owned vehicles: from early Renaults, those Michelin-shod two-cylinder taxis that plied for hire in Edwardian London, to those snub-nosed Morris vans.

The 1911 Fulham Road building, with its famous tiles depicting motor racing, and the present vast Stoke-on-Trent HQ opened in 1929 are among these clear illustrations of every aspect of the company’s activities, including the WWI Breguet bombers. There is much Citroën data, Michelin having owned the firm from 1934. But best of all for me are the many pictures of Mr Bibendum, to which I shall turn when I am depressed.

But it was in 1927 not 1923, that Segrave’s Sunbeam first achieved 200mph, and it is absurd to suggest 300 to 400 fatalities in the Paris-Madrid race. Historian Malcolm Jeal has estimated 16 crew deaths, and it is ludicrous to suggest that 284-384 spectators died.

Still, this is an informative, valuable account of Michelin and the family who ran it. The authors are Paul Niblett and John Reynolds. Published by Michelin, ISBN 2 06 711 495 6, price £19.99.

***

Williams Bugatti sale

When I receive business flyers they fly straight into the waste-paper bin. But one from the Bugatti Trust told me that it would soon have on display the “extraordinarily original” Type 35B Bugatti with which the British racing driver Williams won the first Monaco GP in 1929.

Then comparatively unknown, William Grover Williams was competing against seven other Bugattis, three Alfa Romeos, three blown Maseratis and Caracciola’s supercharged SSK Mercedes-Benz, and against drivers like Etancelin, Lehoux and Zehender. But the green (for Britain) Bugatti was soon leading and battling against Caracciola. On one lap the Mercedes was ahead exiting the tunnel, but Williams soon passed it; he gained time in the pits as the Bugatti needed fewer tins of petrol than the big Mercedes, which also required new rear tyres. So after nearly four exhausting hours Williams won at 49.83mph, 1 min 23sec ahead of Bouriano’s Bugatti and 2min 22sec from Caracciola in third.

After the strenuous race, the car spent the war years in Friderich’s Nice showrooms before it was acquired by a Vars wine merchant. Around 1950 he was obliged to sell it; a young enthusiast bought it for 120 francs and kept it for the next 55 years. It is described as “completely original and in full working order, one of the most significant unspoilt race-winning Bugattis in existence”. It is due to go to a Bonhams auction at Goodwood on September 16.

I hope it remains in England, or does not go further than France or Monaco. The cup which Williams won was presented to the BOC by his widow in the 1960s, and the Bugatti Trust retains it.

***

Eccles Type 37 query

Among the spread of queries to which readers hope we might be able to unearth answers, with your help, is one from the present owner of a Bugatti which is thought to have been the first Type 37 which Lindsay Eccles owned, among the other cars of this make which this keen and successful amateur racing driver had, up to his Type 59.

I interviewed this Bugatti-orientated enthusiast going from Powys to the Gower coastline in Wales in 1971, when we discussed all this in some detail. Eccles bought all his Bugattis from Papworth’s, the well-established London experts — which is where my close friend Tom Lush served his apprenticeship, and where he was told on his first day to fill the radiator of a Renault 45, which he was warned would take some time; he duly went back and forth from tap to the great car time after time, unaware that it had been placed over a drain with the radiator tap open, the background workshop noise drowning the dribble…

To return to what our enquirer would like to discover: who had this Type 37 before Eccles bought it around 1931?  It was apparently first registered in 1928 and taxed for road use in 1936, registration number CVK 103, having been sold by Papworth’s in 1935 to a Mr Burn.

***

Obituary

I was sorry to hear that Major Charles Lambton had died, aged 83. With his friend Major Chichester he called on us in a 40/50 Royce which they had driven to the UK from Palestine. The two Majors later opened Wiscombe Park hillclimb in Chichester’s estate. I recall the jolly parties at Lambton’s mansion at Mortimer Hill, ending with a conga procession through the house.

Lambton let me drive his Type 37 Bugatti, a car he used for some 36 years, and my young daughter drove his Type 52 electric Bugatti, a contrast to his HWM-Jaguar and his V12 Packard.

Our condolences to the family.

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