Walter Hassan OBE

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Gordon Cruickshank recalls the impact the skills of this gifted designer have had on motoring and racing

The passing of Walter Hassan in July ended a chapter in British motoring which stretches back to the First War, and encompasses several of the most significant engines on road and track. Not many items as inanimate as a car power unit gain an identity of their own, but Hassan can claim at least two of them.

Born in Hackney, London, Hassan (the name denotes the family’s Middle Eastern origins) was only 14 when he apprenticed himself to W O Bentley’s new company in 1919: one of the very first staff members, he remained at Cricklewood until the demise of the company in 1931.

Inevitably, Hassan’s duties included being part of the race crews for the works cars. Some weeks after the unsuccessful 1925 Le Mans foray, he prepared Duff’s 3-litre for the successful Montlhery record run. Returning the next year intent on breaking 100mph for 24 hours, though the team met disaster — through Hassan himself. When Duller pulled into the pits, groggy after spinning in the dark, he found most of the team absent. Only Hassan remained; he was not a named driver, but in his youthful keenness, he jumped into the streamlined machine and set off. Moments later the returning crew heard the sounds of disaster. Hassan had spun and rolled the car into a ditch, and was lying unconscious beneath the wreckage.

He recovered, but “The Slug” was scrap. W O Bentley proves his own saintliness when recalling this in his autobiography: given the twitchy car and the greasy concrete, he says, “it was to his credit that he managed a third of a lap before crashing”. Hassan did no more competition driving, but he did contest the 1928 German GP, as riding mechanic to “Tim” Birkin.

When in 1931 economic reality overtook W O’s hopes and Barnato’s fortune, Hassan himself was one of the company assets Barnato retained, along with Old No 1; it was that engine which in 1934 went into the Barnato-Hassan, which with its narrow chassis, offset single-seater body and streamlined nose, became the second-fastest car ever to lap Brooklands, beating Birkin’s single-seater but being itself supplanted by the Napier-Railton. Hassan rebuilt it in even narrower form with 4-litre chassis rails, and 50 years on, in the hands of Keith Schellenberg, it remains one of the celebrities of the vintage racing world.

In the same year, Hassan and Wally Saunders built another Bentley special for E W Pacey. Although something of a “moonlighter” built in a small garden garage, Hassan designed his own specially-pressed chassis side-members to produce a proper central-seater instead of the Barnato-Hassan’s offset layout; that and the 4 1/2-litre engine were clad in a slim body by Thomson & Taylor, and it too can still be seen at appropriate meetings.

Hassan’s association with Barnato came to an end in 1936, and despite a job offer from Rolls-Royce to develop their independent front suspension, he chose, on Barnato’s suggestion, to move to ERA at Bourne. He already knew Humphrey Cook from Bentley days, and many ERA people through working with Thomson & Taylor at Brooklands, where much of the ERA assembly work went on.

In 1937, after only six months at Bourne, Reid Railton asked him to return to Thompson & Taylor to work on a 400mph Land Speed Record car for John Cobb. Railton remained the designer throughout, Hassan’s job was to manage contracts and make the project happen, with the result that Cobb twice broke the LSR in the streamlined twin-engined machine.

It was also in 1937 that Tom Wisdom suggested to Bill Heynes of SS that he use Hassan’s talents to help extract more power from the forthcoming 3 1/2-litre version of the old Standard six Early SS models used the 2 1/2-litre version, but Heynes and Lyons knew they needed sophistication as well as capacity and the result, with its Weslake head, twin SUs, and two triple exhaust manifolds, had an impressive 125bhp. In the saloon it became arguably a Bentley rival, while in the SS100 it produced sensational acceleration and a flag-waving 100mph. Heynes and Lyons clearly approved of Hassan’s contribution: in 1938 he joined SS full-time as Chief Experimental Engineer. Almost immediately planning began for an all-new power unit, but because of the war, drawings did not appear until 1946, labelled ‘Jaguar’.

Lyons had a clear picture of his new engine: he wanted it to be “glamorous”, like a Bugatti, and to exude 160bhp, a figure Hassan and Heynes had already wrung out of a 3 1/2 on methanol. X-engines in F, G and J form were tried, but it was under the designation XK that the goals were realised. Hemispherical combustion chambers, crossflow layout and double overhead cams under aluminium covers, plus the target output of 160bhp from 3442cc, made it a state-of-the-art device. Somehow the proposed new Mk VII saloon seemed a low-key home for such a magnificent heart to be revealed. Pre-war, it was the SS100 sportscar which had attracted the attention; so with the 1948 Motor Show only months away, Lyons ordered the creation of a two-seater sports model. The rest is legend; planned as a small-production flagship special, the XK120 stunned the motoring world and catapulted Jaguar into the front rank of sportscar makers.

For over 40 years, that XK engine propelled every road-going Jaguar; it also went racing, first in works 120s, then customers’ cars, factory competition machines, short-run racers, and specials of every sort, achieving no fewer than five victories in the toughest test of all, Le Mans. It fought wars in Scorpion tanks and armoured cars, fought fires in fire-engines, went to sea in power-boats, and was still able to silently waft Very Important People around in the huge Daimler limousine.

But in 1949, Hassan had changed direction again, joining the small engine firm Coventry-Climax. His task was to design, with Harry Mundy, small light-alloy pump engines, whose high efficiency soon saw them transplanted into sportscars and racing cars. It was the period of Cooper’s rear-engined revolution, and the light and reliable twin-cam FPF proved the ideal partner for the 1 1/2-litre Grand Prix formula. In 1959 and 1960 Jack Brabham and Cooper-Climax became world champions.

To succeed the four, Hassan drew up the FWMV, the quad-cam V8 motor which powered Lotus to championships in 1963 and 1965; but the advent of the new 3-litre rules demanded a new engine, and Climax had in 1964 been absorbed by Jaguar, who did not see F1 as appropriate to its market. Climax concentrated on fork-lift trucks, and there were no more GP engines.

Back for the third time with Sir William Lyons, Hassan faced a daunting challenge. By the late ’60s several makes could claim to be threatening Jaguar’s hitherto unrivalled blend of speed and sophistication, and the firm’s planners wanted to leapfrog everyone else with a technical tour-deforce, a V12. Even Rolls-Royce had reverted to a simple six for all its post-war models; Hassan’s brief was essentially to build the best engine in the world.

Having seen the days of D-type domination decline with the arrival of the E-type, a superb tourer but struggling as a winning sportscar, the idea of another Le Mans victory seemed tempting. Ferrari’s mid-engined prototypes were the target; the weapon was the XJ13, built in 1966. Within the sensational body throbbed a four-cam 5-litre V12 of 502bhp. The secret project was quickly shelved, but the lessons of that unit blossomed into the silky 12-cylinder which powered the top Jaguar and Daimler saloons from 1972 on. Producing 314bhp from 5343cc, the big 60-degree single-cam V boasted an alloy block and transistorised Lucas ignition, and made the XJ12 the fastest four-seater in the world.

Squeezed with difficulty into the last of the E-types, it found a better home in 1975 with the arrival of the XJ-S, the controversially styled coupe which overcame initial doubts to mature into one of the marques great cars, and a successful Group A racer. Although Hassan and Mundy investigated a 48-valve unit, this was not to be, though it eventually led, in other hands, to the 24-valve AJ6. Nevertheless it was again Le Mans which closed the circle of Hassan’s career, 7-litre versions of the V12 winning in 1988 and 1990. The V12 was Wally Hassan’s last individual project; he retired from Jaguar in 1972, though consultancy work for BRM, spiritual successors to ERA, made another historical connection. An OBE in 1971 recognised his contributions to the industry.

In his latter years he moved to one of the retirement homes of BEN, the Motor Industry Benevolent fund, where he was amongst other motoring characters such as Jack Fairman and Billy Rockell. On his 90th birthday last year, a big lunch-party brought together representatives from almost every facet of his motoring career, all of whom were pleased to raise a glass to a man whose engineering expertise and intuition have left an indelible mark on motoring.

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