Number plates

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BGH 23 

Any manufacturer who pursued an active programme of sports-car racing, especially in the days before transporters, when cars were driven to race meetings, inevitably had a good collection of famous number plates to their credit. Clement Talbot Ltd, or the London Talbot firm as it was often known to distinguish it from the Talbot firm in France, was a typical example during the nineteen-thirties. They usually registered their team of cars all at the same time, obtaining a series of numbers and there was the well-known PL registered cars, the GO registered cars, the PJ ones and the 1934 team of BGH cars. It is the third car of this final team that is featured in this article, not only because it was the last factory team car, but it is undoubtedly the most famous, and certainly the fastest of all the Talbot factory cars. 

In 1934 the Talbot factory were persuaded to build a team of three cars on the 105 chassis to compete in the Alpine Rally. This was done by WM (Mike) Couper, Hugh Eaton and Tommy Wisdom, and the Talbot agents Pass and Joyce Ltd agreed to sponsor the team. The 1934 Talbot 105 used the pre-selector gearbox, but otherwise was a developed version of the 1931 design. The three Alpine Rally cars were built with 2/4-seater bodywork with enormous rear-mouted fuel tanks and a hinged pointed tail, exactly like the Fox and Nicholl team cars of 1931. These new cars, which were the ultimate competition version of the AV105 model were registered BGH 21, BGH 22 and BGH 23 and Mike Couper allotted the first one to Tommy Wisdom and his wife, the second to Hugh Eaton and works mechanic Ben Higgins and the third to himself and works mechanic George Day, one of the most experienced men at the Talbot factory. Normally a team-leader would take the first car, but Couper decided to lead the team from the back, reckoning that the Wisdoms had an abundance of driving skill and navigational knowledge between them, but no mechanical knowledge, Eaton and Higgins had a combination of driving skill and mechanical know-how, and he and Day could bring up the rear with management skill and the best mechanical knowledge. The Wisdoms were unlikely to default on the route or the time-keeping and if anything went wrong the two works mechanics would soon be along to help. Thus did Mike Couper decide to drive BGH 23, little realising how famous the car was to become. Had he decided to lead from the front he would have taken BGH 21 and that car could well have become the most famous Talbot 105. 

The three cars ran through the Alpine Rally faultlessly and more than justified their building and the sponsorship of Pass and Joyce Ltd. They won the Team Prize, all three cars completing the six days of motoring through the French, Swiss and Austrian Alps without a single mark being lost. This was to be their only competition outing as a team, though they competed individually in various competitions afterwards. At the end of the year the factory disposed of the first two cars and kept BGH 23, for Couper had been racing it at Brooklands and was keen to keep on in competition with it. Although Clement Talbot Ltd. were going under and being absorbed by the Rootes Group, the decline from Talbot into Humber/Hillman was slow and the eminent Talbot Chief Engineer, Georges Roesch decided to use BGH 23 as a mobile test-bed for engine development work and to use the BARC racing at Brooklands as a public test-bed with Mike Couper doing the driving. 

Couper raced BGH 23 consistently between 1934 and 1938 in events on the banked oval, the triangular Mountain Circuit and the artificial Campbell Circuit road course at the Weybridge track and was successful in all three types of racing. However, it was the flat-out banked oval that appealed to Roesch for that was a test of engine power and reliability and in its Alpine form, with high axle ratio and stripped of all superfluous weight it lapped the banked track at 107.1 mph in 1934. The following year, in the MCC One Hour High Speed trial it recorded 99.61 miles in the hour, running with full road equipment and carrying a passenger. For 1936 Roesch fitted the latest type of Talbot engine to the car, enlarged in capacity from 2.9-litres to 3.3-litres to form the model 110 and during the season Couper raised his best lap speed to 119.43 mph, winning a race at 112.29 mph. Development work on the engine was continuous, with detail attention to breathing, raised compression ratios, camshaft contours and so on. In 1937 its lap speed was up to 123.58 mph, and the following year with added refinements to radiator cowling, under-trays and valences, it won a race at 119.86 mph, while recording a best lap of 124.51 mph. 1938 was to be its last season, for the take-over by Rootes was now complete and activity at the Barlby Road factory of Clement Talbot Ltd. came to an end, but BGH 23 rose to the occasion by recording a Brooklands Outer Circuit lap at 129.7 mph when Mike Couper tucked in behind a faster car and got a monumental tow. It was the last time that BGH 23 raced at Brooklands and was a fitting end to an impressive career, for on all occasions it was driven from London or St Albans down to the Surrey track and back home again afterwards, the “tuning” at the track consisting of the removal of the mudguards, lamps, spare wheel and windscreen. Between times, especially in the earlier years, it was used on the road as a “demonstrator” from the factory and on one occasion Couper used it for a publicity stunt whereby he travelled on the footplate of the 100 mph Royal Scot steam train and took the engine driver as passenger in BGH 23 at 100 mph round Brooklands.

Throughout its life it never used more than one down-draught carburetter to feed its six cylinders, while everyone else was going mad on multiple carburetters or super-charging and at all times it was incredibly quiet. The Roesch designed Talbot engine, with its seven bearing crankshaft and super light overhead valve gear was noted for its smoothness and silence and even though the engine in BGH 23 ultimately developed 164 bhp at 6,000 rpm, it lost none of its Talbot characteristics, even with a compression ratio of 11.4 to 1.

Before the Talbot factory finally succumbed to the Rootes Group, Mike Couper purchased BGH 23 and took it away to his motor business in St  Albans. He sold it during the war as he could not foresee racing resuming on the Outer Circuit at Brooklands, and he knew that without Georges Roesch behind the car on development it would never go as well as it had gone in 1938. At a 750 Motor Club meeting in West London during the war years BGH 23 appeared looking a trifle travel-stained, but complete with its Brooklands radiator cowl and still in its traditional apple green with olive green mudguards, but it was temporarily wearing different number plates! After the war the body was removed and a rather primitive two-seater body was made for it but it soon disappeared from the competition scene until it was discovered in 1960 in a very derelict condition by Charles Mortimer. He began to resurrect it but before completing it, he sold it to Anthony Blight, who with the aid of John Bland restored BGH 23 to its former glory, having a new body built exactly like the original one. The car took on a renewed competition life in VSCC events and gained the same stature in club racing as it had achieved in pre-war BARC racing. Some years after the resurrection, the original body was discovered on a 41/2-litre Bentley and was re-united with BGH 23. 

A few years ago Anthony Blight let me borrow BGH 23 for a glorious week of high-speed motoring and it was a revelation, its performance, steering, brakes and road-holding could match anything in normal fast road motoring. At the time I was running a 4.2-litre Jaguar coupe and between London and Cornwall I doubt whether the Jaguar would have saved five minutes over the Talbot. It’s performance between 70 and 110 mph, which were the normal limits for a fast road run in those happy pre-70 limit days, was every bit the equal of the E-type and 100-105 mph was its easy cruising gait.

It is still active in VSCC events today, driven by its enthusiastic owner and lives in Cornwall in a motor house alongside BGH 21, recently returned from South Africa, and with the earlier Fox & Nicholl Talbot team cars GO 51, GO 52, GO 53 and GO 54. Until recently a resurrected BGH 22 also lived there and surveying them all together each with its personal history there was no denying that BGH 23 was the greatest of them all -DSJ.

[Most of the above information comes from Anthony Blight’s magnificent tome “Georges Roesch and the Invincible Talbot” published by Grenville Pub Co Ltd, in which not only the complete story of BGH 23 appears but also every other competition Talbot and the whole history of the firm.] 

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