Calthorpe and Alvis

— A meeting with Ian MacDonald.

The other day I drove to Bath in the Peugeot 205GTi to lunch with 92 year-old Ian MacDonald, who used to drive Calthorpe and Alvis cars in the competition events of the 1920s. His first run in a car was in a 3 1/2 hp Benz, with hot-tube ignition.

He began his competition career, after leaving Marlborough, with an ex-Percy Brewster 3 1/2 hp Norton, on which, for example, he gained several awards, including first-in-class and second on formula, in the 1912 Inter-Varsity speed trials at Aston-Rowant. Other motorcycles he owned included a 1911 7 hp vee-twin Rex, and a 1914 7 hp vee-twin Indian with Armstrong three speed gear. His friend Cuff had a Roc motorcycle and an uncle ran a 1914 Bianchi tourer. The war saw Ian MacDonald in Ceylon where the British were quelling, or trying to, the religious riots. They used Overlands and his first car was the brass-radiator Model-T Ford for which his Company Commander designed the two-seater body.

After the war Mr MacDonald became a headmaster and, impressed by the smart appearance of the chocolate and aluminium 10.4 hp sports Calthorpes, he ran several cars of this make. In 1923 the York & DMC had the bright idea — too bright as it turned out! — of offering gold medals to anyone who managed to cover 1,000 miles in 50 hours or less, ie at an average of 20 mph, the prevailing speed limit. Mr MacDonald then owned one of the new four-speed 12 / 20 hp Calthorpe four-seaters (BD 7135), in which he decided to try for the medal.

Although a private owner, he used to take part in trials in which Calthorpe Company helped with running expenses and for what was regarded as a strenuous run he took the car’s designer, Cecil Davidson, a mechanic and an RAC observer. Davidson had had the idea of sinking the valve-seats in the coolant for this engine, as I once explained and discussed in some detail in Motor Sport. Whether the complex castings were the cause I do not know, but the first run ended when a porous cylinder block caused constant mis-firing. (Afterwards, the engine was re-designed as a normal 69 x 100 mm (1,496 cc) side-valve with an ordinary detachable head, as on the example I own. Rumours that Hugh Rose did this are not substantiated by Mr MacDonald).

They started again, the route chosen being from his home at Oundle in Northampton and back, taking in, as the regulations required, some hills, in his case the Cat & Fiddle, Shap Fell, Beattock, Amulree, Trinafour and the Grampians. The two days-and-nights marathon started at midnight, the car scaling 19 cwt. Conditions were wintery, with mist and slippery roads. But before breakfast they had reached Carlisle, 250 miles, Beattock was a top-gear climb, and at Stirling the number had to be temporarily painted on the radiator core, because a suicidal duck had removed the number plate.

Roads were different then, and after the severe ascent of Amulree in sleet and a gale, engine on the boil, the descent to Kendal was over rutted, slimy tracks. Stopping at Newtonmore to send “all’s-well” telegrams home, a bolt was seen to be missing, one of the ones holding a front-spring to the axle, but another was made up at the next hamlet and the outward run finished with a late dinner at the Station Hotel in Inverness. They were behind time but this was made up by Stirling and in very unpleasant weather the run was completed along the so-called Great North Road in the dark, mission accomplished. Shell had laid on petrol at Newcastle. They clocked in three minutes ahead of a 20 mph average.

This run had aroused so much interest that the Temple Press journal The Light Car & Cyclecar (the bright weekly characterised by its fine photographic front-cover) decided to co-operate with the York Club and present Merit Badges to anyone able to emulate or better Mr MacDonald’s feat. Alas, objections were raised that this encouraged breaking the 20 mph speed limit, a question was asked in Parliament, and so the scheme was quietly abandoned. Amusingly, after a half-page announcement in its April 20th, 1923 issue, The Light Car made little further reference to the matter!

Meanwhile, Ian MacDonald was off on the tough 2,500 mile Tour de France in the Calthorpe. There were only two other entrants in the 1,500 cc class, a Gobron and a Buc with a 1,300 cc two-stroke engine with two communicating cylinders fired by a single plug and a cream four-seater streamlined saloon body. The 750 cc cars had to average 17 1/2 mph, the large ones 25 mph. From Paris the first day’s run ended at Boulogne and a flawed stamping caused a steering-arm to break on the Calthorpe. However, for many kilos, the car continued with one front wheel steering itself! Going to a button-factory, an improvised arm was made up of strip steel and a call was put in to Birmingham for a spare. The Calthorpe Company had the initiative to fly one out to France (in 1923, remember) but somehow it never caught up with where the car was. The 1,100 cc Madon also broke a steering-arm, so bad were roads in post-war France. Alas, later the Calthorpe hit an aged man who had jumped from a tram while it was still moving, with fatal results, putting a deep dent in the n/s font mudguard of the car. The French officials behaved very well, not deducting the consequent time-losses, while Police enquiries were made but Mac returned home, at Bordeaux, designer Davidson taking over, with The Light Car’s representative acting as mechanic. An observer seems to have been on the car as well, but this left a seat for Mrs MacDonald on the final stages, when the competitors were showered with flowers. The 1 1/2-litre class was won by Boulmier’s Gobron, the Calthorpe losing only 60 marks and experiencing no further trouble.

Later MacDonald turned to the 12/50 Alvis for his competition car, driving it from Derbyshire where he was living to Brooklands, and sending it back to the works in Coventry for tuning after each event. He tended to do the longer races and the High Speed Trials over the Brooklands’ entrance roads and down the Test Hill rather than outer-circuit handicaps. He still possesses a fine silver cup awarded to him almost certainly for winning with his Alvis the 1926 JCC 50 Miles race at nearly 79 mph, from Hendy’s A7 and Purdy’s Bugatti. At first he used a duck’s-back bodied 12/50 but late his Alvis had an airship-tail and deep side valances — I was interested to learn this was adapted from a body from one of Sir Alastair Miller’s Wolseley racers, which he had bought from the racing baronet. (Incidentally, at around this time Davidson had gone from Calthorpe’s to Lagonda’s, to design them a real motor-car.) From then on Ian MacDonald had more cars than he can now recall. He used a reliable sleeve-valve Voisin as his road-car when the Alvis was used more for racing, a Mors at about the same time, also a sports Chenard-Walcker with no rear-wheel brakes and later, before he went abroad again in 1934, there was a Healey with unusual Italian two-door closed body with a rib down its roof, a very handsome Delahaye (NLA 999), a big Siddeley Special saloon which ,was “not particularly catching but quiet and sedate”, and a 3-litre straight-eight Bugatti Weymann saloon which “for a Bugatti gave very little trouble and was grand to behold, under the bonnet especially”.

Reid Ralton was friendly with Davidson and that may have forged a link with MacDonald’s last competition car, a T & T-built Brooklands-model Riley 9. He drove this in the first Ulster TT in 1928, partnered by Flying Officer S. Hatton, but a grabbing brake caused it to ram the pits, at half-distance . . . It is all a far cry, meeting with this active gentleman in 1984, from his first Norton which he recalls was assembled in a small building in Birmingham almost floor by floor, beginning with the frame at the top floor, a complete motorcycle emerging from the basement. He met me wearing a Brookland Society tie, still attends their Re-Unions and 12 / 50 Alvis Register events, and had recently changed his Honda Accord, damaged in an accident when he was a passenger, for an Alfa Romeo 33. W.B.