"Scuderia Impecuniosa"

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 [It has long been a private theory of ours that many advantages attach to clubbing together over the matter of sports-car ownership. This is admirably borne out by the excellent article by Jack Cooper which follows. Incidentally, lightly as the article is written, most of us realise what a tremendous lot of hard work and enthusiasm must have been occasioned by the conversions mentioned, while this amateur scuderia certainly exudes just the kind of keenness and outlook that made “real motoring” so dear to us in the days before this war.—Ed.]

THE Scuderia Impecuniosa first came into being seven years ago in Leicester, when three friends at the same school exercised a mutual worship of fast motor-cars by heated and inaccurate argument on the respective merits thereof. This enthusiasm culminated in the communal purchase of a 1921 Wolseley Ten chassis from a local scrap yard for 15/- . . . the Scuderia’s first vehicle. Much experiment, and a lorry magneto most precariously driven by bicycle chain and sprockets, succeeded in making this device run, though, as none of us was old enough to hold a driving licence, it was never taxed.

About that time motor-racing made its abrupt entry into the Scuderia’s curriculum; firstly, the Cambridge University A.C. held their Speed Trial in Gopsall Park, and secondly, Donington was opened for motor-car racing. Both these momentous events were attended by all three members of the Scuderia — on pushbikes! Not one of us has missed more than three meetings of car racing at Donington since.

Shortly afterwards, the Wolseley took its last run—at some velocity through a neighbour’s hedge, after which unfortunate occurrence, it was deemed advisable to dismantle it. Then, becoming old enough to motor with the approval of officialdom, I over-persuaded my unfortunate parents into providing the Scuderia with its first practicable transport, a “flat-rad” Morris-Cowley of 1927 vintage.

The treatment accorded this patient and long-suffering vehicle beggars description, but in spite of it all, the Morris did very good service, and taught the Scuderia an immense amount. Among many tours worthy of mention undertaken by the Morris was one Sunday’s excursion to Elstree for a J.R.D.C. speed trial; a big end ran somewhere round Dunstable, and the remaining 15 miles there, and the entire 95 miles back, were covered on three cylinders at 20 m.p.h., with a most distressing racket emanating from the engine-room! The subsequent inquest revealed, among other peculiar things, that only one of the four big-ends possessed the oil-scoop to which it was entitled, while not one piston boasted either a top ring or top ring band, these adjuncts to compression having long since been discarded via the exhaust system.

This motor was succeeded by the Scuderia’s first Alvis, a side-valve “12/40,” circa 1923; then followed an o.h.v, version of the same, of 1928 manufacture, with a very heavy family two-seater body. This machine was the mainstay of the stable for 2½ years, and 55,000 miles; this included, for over two years, the daily conveyance of myself to and from Coventry and the Alvis works, where I was then apprenticed.

Meanwhile, a casual visitation to the scrap yard whence had come the Wolseley led to the discovery of an aged but very exciting Sunbeam—a genuine racing-car. What matter that it was rusty, and that the fabric with which the body was covered was tattered and torn to blazes? This simply had to be acquired, and the honour of purchasing it fell to the only one of us who was not then running a conveyance and had therefore a sufficiency of shekels: this was Harold, Post Office engineer and a Scott enthusiast. Curiously enough, the Sunbeam was one of the first racing-cars that we had seen in action : that was two years previously, when the late Duke of Grafton had driven it in the C.U.A.C. Speed Trials. Afterwards he had sold it to a Dutchman who was then at Loughborough College; it was later seized for debt by a garage, and drifted into the scrap yard, whence the courageous Harold rescued it. The earlier history of this machine is shrouded in mystery, but as far as is known, it is one of several cars built for the 1919 Indianapolis “500,” in which, however, they did not start. It was later run at Brooklands, conducted, among others, by E. L. Bouts and Oliver Bertram. It is of almost 5-litres capacity, and has a six-cylinder engine with four valves per pot and twin o.h.c. gear, driven at the front. Some day it is the owner’s ambition to run it in speed trials, when it is restored to original condition.

Shortly after the purchase of Sunbeam, the third member of trinity, Pat, forsook his Douglas two-wheeled traction for something almost more dangerous—an Amilcar. This device, although the possessor of a good and sturdy engine, had rather poor land-gripping qualities, and definitely inadequate anchors. I shall long remember one run in it as passenger to Donington, via the Scuderia’s special short cut; on our arrival there, miraculously unscathed, Pat decided to check the pressure in the beaded-edge tyres, these having been haphazardly inflated beforehand. The fact that they were at nearly double their normal pressure may have accounted for the hair-raising cornering en route.

On another occasion, on the same route, though in the reverse direction, the Amilcar distinguished itself by discarding, on a sharp corner, one of its rear tyres, and executed a neat right-angle full in the path of the rest of the Scuderia, who, with others, were following very close behind. That a major disaster was averted is held by all of those present to have been a convincing demonstration of the powers of St, Christopher.

Not very long afterwards I, smitten with the need for economy, purchased a 1931 M.G. Midget in place of the trusty, though aged, Alvis. Luckily, the latter was not easily sold, so that when, anon, the crankshaft broke, I had the Alvis to fall back on, while the necessary (and not so economical) dismantlement was taking place. The Midget’s sole claim to fame lay in the possession of a really beautiful gearbox, a four-speed roller-bearing E.N.V. like that fitted to Montlhery M.G. Midgets. It, however, was the cause of one humorous incident of which I have never heard the last, and never shall. Thinking, one Friday, that the clutch was in need of adjustment, I removed the minute and inadequate inspection cover over that component, and proceeded to waste some of my employers’ valuable time in the performance of the acrobatic feats necessary to that operation. Unfortunately “his spanner slipped from his nerveless grasp” (vide detective fiction), and entered the clutch pit, from which I could, try as I might, not remove it; worse, I could neither see nor locate it. So, in desperation, I determined to motor gently home, gently to and from Donington next day, and to devote Saturday evening to the partial removal of the gearbox and the recovery of the spanner.

Two-thirds of this programme was completed without let or hindrance, but on the return run from Donington came disaster. Having become involved in a dice, all caution was forgotten and the Midget motored right merrily until a hump-backed bridge dislodged the spanner, which then rested against the flywheel, setting up a peculiar whizzing noise. Muttering curses, I stopped and again removed the inspection cover from the clutch pit. However the spanner was still remote, invisible and unattainable; moreover, on restarting the engine, the noise was found to have stopped, the spanner having presumably returned to its rest position. Therefore, still minus its inspection cover, the Midget continued the dice. Alas and alack, just as the rev, counter needle was nearing 5,000 in second, the motor hit another bump . . . . and the cockpit was full of flying metal. Talk of shrapnel and grape shot; pieces of clutch fingers, withdrawal levers, pivot pins and lumps of cast iron flew about; also, incidentally, one small spanner, slightly bent, but in good order! The rest of the journey back to Leicester was accomplished on the end of a string, and the Sunday afternoon spent in removing the gearbox completely, and rebuilding the clutch.

That Sunday morning, however, included a most unofficial but highly amusing speed trial, at the ungodly hour of 6.30 a.m., on a deserted stretch of road just over the Warwickshire border. The participating vehicles ranged from one of those very short chassis Jowett saloons to a modern Aero Morgan.

Also present on that occasion was the Salmson, Pat’s successor to the Amilcar. This machine, picked up derelict at a Warwickshire garage, was much more of a motor than its predecessor. Though not very much faster, it boasted four speeds against the Amilcar’s three, and really miraculous road-clinging capabilities. Of course, like all interesting barrows, it had its vicissitudes, one being the sudden and spontaneous ignition of its petrol-soaked floorboards beneath a leaking petrol tank. Again, one day it decided that a battery was unnecessary, and forthwith discarded that expensive article, to its great detriment, upon the King’s Highway.

Meanwhile, one or two more penniless enthusiasts were swelling the ranks of the Scuderia: Pete, member of (of all things) a Leicester banking establishment, who has motored in “Brooklands” Riley, P-type M.G. Midget, and “12/60” Alvis, in that order, and Bill, also of the Alvis staff, who had been unfortunate enough shortly before to lose his right arm in a crash, but who had made a miraculous recovery to drive a suitably modified Riley “Imp.”

Deciding that the M.G. was not proving as economical as I had hoped (a broken crank and a stripped crown wheel make the saving of money a difficult matter), I looked round for a fresh motor at a negligible price; this, as usual, escaped me for some time, and in the interim, what was perhaps the Midget’s most epic run took place. Having made up our minds to attend the “500,” the usual question arose, that of transport. Eventually it was decided that I, in the M.G., should go to Rushden in Northamptonshire to pick up Pat, who was working there, while Harold should follow later on his conveyance of that time, a 500 c.c. Rudge solo. We all arrived at Brooklands more or less safe and sound, but on the return journey the fun began.

Darkness fell early, and it started to rain heavily. The Rudge’s only illumination consisted of a push-bike lamp, and not many miles from Brooklands we lost Harold; on retracing our wheelmarks, we discovered him searching the road, practically on hands and knees, for the aforementioned glim, which had detached itself from its bracket. Continuing by a weird cross-country route, as we wished to return to Leicester via Rushden to collect the Salmson en route, we became lost in a maze of narrow roads somewhere in the vicinity of Tring; a collection of unexpected S-bends on one of them nearly ruined the Midget, and how the practically lightless Rudge negotiated them in my wake is a matter of speculation to this day.

However, we reached Rushden with no mishap further than the loss of the pushbike lamp for the second time, and, it having by then stopped raining, our spirits improved materially. Pat dug out the Salmson, I stowed the Midget’s hoodage, and we set out for Leicester. Pat led, as he knew the road blindfold, and I have never had a more nerve racking half-hour in my life. How Harold and the ill-used Rudge kept company with us I still have no idea; to start with, the roads were still completely rain-soaked, and the Salmson had four good tyres, while those on the M.G. were, without exception, as bald as a billiard ball. As if this were not enough, we ran into fog, and while Pat knew the way backwards, we did not. Two moments in those thirty-seven miles I shall certainly not forget; the first when, as I strained my eyes to catch the Salmson’s rear light (I knew we were approaching a corner), Pat decided to dispense with the assistance of his headlamp; unfortunately, he inadvertently switched off all his lamps. As, horrified, I reached for what anchors I possessed, there was a sudden blare of noise, and the Rudge, in almost total darkness, shot past me at well over 50 and disappeared in the murk; Harold, having dropped behind, was making up time! By some miracle, none of us hit anything; Pat remedied his lack of radiance and we proceeded. The second fragrant minute was that of entering Market Harborough; to do this, on the road from Kettering, one descends a very long hill, at the bottom of which there is a slight but nasty bend beneath a railway bridge. The road surface is glassy when dry, which it was not. Being extremely high-geared, the Salmson ran away from me down the hill, so I arrived at the bridge in hot pursuit with everything wide open; my next piece of motoring was in anything but a straight line! I only just succeeded in straightening out my affairs in time to negotiate the next, and sharper, swerve, some 300 yards farther on. The remaining miles of the journey were familiar to me and less eventful, the sole remaining incident occurring when the Rudge once more shed its lighting system; this time finally, as the bracket had broken. This little difficulty was surmounted by suspending the lamp from the rider’s neck by a piece of string, in which position it pointed anywhere but forwards. Still, we eventually arrived in Leicester, sure proof that the devil looks after his own.

In the following spring, I took the opportunity of exchanging the M.G. for a “big-port” 12/50 Alvis two-seater, then owned by another member of the Alvis staff; this motor I still have, 2½ years later. During the intervening period, various changes have occurred within it; for instance, a set of close-ratio gears and several engine modifications, including a special camshaft utilising a modern cam form, raising the compression, and, at different times, three induction systems—downdraught S.U., single horizontal S.U., and now twin horizontal S.U.s, which function very nicely, thank you. This barrow also took me daily to and from Coventry until the outbreak of war, and since then has ferried me back and forth across Leicester four times daily; I should like to know its total mileage, for I have covered upwards of 60,000 miles in it, while it was ten years old when bought it.

However, to return to the saga; shortly after my acquisition of the above Alvis, Pat decided to modify the Salmson’s outward shape. At least, the Salmson did the deciding, for her immensely long overhanging tail commenced to drop off. In about two days, the radiator was moved back and dropped, likewise the scuttle, and the tail removed; later, considerably shortened, to be replaced. The petrol tank was moved to the rear, and an Autovac introduced to supply the single horizontal carburetter, which was changed at about the same time from Solex to S.U.

Meanwhile, of course, every conceivable race meeting and speed trial was attended, from Poole in the south to Wetherby in the north. During the close season, 1938-9, the Scuderia discussed at great length, and finally carried out, the removal of its workshop to what had been the blacksmith’s shop in the village of Queniborough, outside Leicester. Just previous to this momentous event Harold, suspending activity on the Sunbeam, announced that he must have a real motor, and elected to construct one by inserting two Scott motor-cycle engines in an early M.G. Midget chassis. Such difficulties were encountered, however, that this form of power unit was eventually discarded in favour of that from a Riley Nine; incidentally, this machine is still in process of construction, though progress is at present rather spasmodic. [Latest news is that car has had a trial run. —Ed.]

In the spring of 1939 a further recruit was added to our ranks, making a total of six. The latest addition, Guy, also with Alvis Ltd., and the son of the house of Archie E. Moss, Ltd. of Loughborough (which garage will be well known to many Donington devotees), was a Bentley enthusiast, and ran a “Red Label” 3-litre. We then discovered, in another scrap yard, a 6½-litre Bentley saloon, alleged to be a Speed Six. Guy proposed to purchase this, strip it, and run it in speed trials and the like. The idea being instantly acclaimed, almost the entire Scuderia accompanied him to the yard to view the wreckage in question. There were, of course, difficulties. To begin with, the minions attached to the scrap yard, hearing Loughborough mentioned, leapt to the conclusion that we emanated from that town’s College of Engineering, with the inmates of which they had apparently previously been at variance; they were, therefore, extremely reluctant to have anything to do with us. Having reassured them on that score, we found the Bentley remarkably difficult of access, as it had been there some months, and was almost buried beneath subsequent additions to their stock. Finally the goal attained, the body was found to contain various feathered beings which we unfortunately identified as doves; this greatly annoyed their owner, who took great pains, with the exercise of no little eloquence, to make us realise the extent of our ignorance in so designating his racing pigeons! We explained that the windows were dirty . . . .

After all this, investigation proved the Speed Six hypothesis mythical; however, Guy bought the barrow, and took the opportunity very shortly afterwards of exchanging it for a genuine Speed Six saloon, which he acquired in partnership with another Loughborough Bentley enthusiast. Most of the body was speedily removed, and the motor made two appearances in minor meetings at Donington that summer; both, unfortunately, brief and inglorious, for on the first occasion a big-end ran, while on the second the oil pressure dropped to such an extent that a hasty halt was called ere the same calamity occurred again. The war, alas, has put a stop to work on that motor, as on many another.

The seventh, and last, member of the Scuderia was only enrolled a month or so before war was declared; Harry, one-time member of the Alvis drawing office, later of that of E.R.A. Ltd., and later still of Morris Engines, Coventry. His wayward fancy has led him from Morgan to blown “Ulster” Austin, and thence to “12/50” and, still more recently to “12/60” Alvis, now sorrowfully packed away for the duration.

When war came, car design hung fire somewhat; I therefore transferred my energies to the manufacture of armaments, in Leicester since I could no longer get sufficient petrol for my daily Coventry-and-back dice. The Scuderia then became rather split up; since that time, of course, a fortiori, ”by so much the more.”

Still, the spirit is not yet dead; Pat, only two short months ago, purchased a real big-crank “Brooklands” Riley, and runs it now. I, therefore, annexed the Salmson, and am stripping and rebuilding it with a view to inserting a “12/50” Alvis engine and gearbox, though the job is, perforce, a matter of very occasional attention.

So there the Scuderia stands; it is now fairly widely represented in the Services, since Pat is Lieut., Ordnance Corps; Guy, Temporary Sub-Lieut., R..N.V.R.; Harry, Pilot-Officer, R.A.F.; Pete, Leading Fireman, A,F.S.; in fact, we only lack representation in the A.R.P. department! Nevertheless, I am prepared to stake much gold that there is not one of us who is not praying fervently for the cessation of hostilities and the resumption of the thousand and one enthusiasms and aspects of “real” motoring. Think of it, petrol without coupons, lamps unmasked . . . .

On re-reading this effusion, I am chiefly conscious of the things I have not mentioned, such as the famous circuit of secondary roads just outside Leicester, always referred to as “the T.T. course,” and the unofficial attempts on its lap record ; still, what of it? Sufficient unto the day! And if any reader finds himself in Leicester and at a loose end at any time, I shall be overjoyed to meet him and discuss matters motoring; so make a note of it. The name is John Cooper, and the ‘phone number Leicester 7156.

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