The Real Story Of The Hudlass Specials

Some time ago a MOTOR SPORT reader discovered the remains of a Hudlass Special and enquired what we remembered about it. We filled in as much as we could. Fortunately our remarks were seen by John Hudlass, whose father Leonard, at the age of 90, still recalls the cars his family built, and he has kindly sent us the following account of the Hudlass family and the Hudlass Specials.

Felix Isherwood William Hudlass, OBE, MIMechE to give him full title, was born in Southport in 1874 and at the age of 18 was working in his father’s sewing machine factory. After receiving an inheritance on his father’s death he took over a small workshop in Southport and started to make motor cars in 1894. With the exception of the coachwork, Felix designed and hand-built these vehicles himself, including engines, each one of course taking a considerable time, but he successfully built and sold around a dozen motor cars between 1894-1903. The family still possess the original glass-plate photographs of these vehicles, and a scale model depicting one made in 1896 is in Southport museum. Production ceased when his last car in build was destroyed by a fire at his coachbuilders. Without the funds to start building another, Felix moved to London around 1903 and started building cars using two-stroke Villiers engines. These were prone to seizing-up and had to be left to cool down for a few minutes, after which they would go for a while longer. It was around this time that Felix nearly joined up with Rolls. Regrettably. however, Rolls decided to partner Royce!

Around 1904 Felix joined the RAC as their only engineer. He was seconded to the British Red Cross during the First World War to design and oversee the building of ambulances. These were built in the UK, latterly on GMC chassis from America. and Felix regularly went over to Boulogne to oversee a large repair workshop there. After the war he was awarded an O B E for his efforts. For a few years he made some three-wheel vehicles in a small workshop in Mitcham, after which he rejoined the RAC, where he rose to the position of Chief Engineer until his retirement. He died in 1965.

Felix had three sons — Maurice, Harold and Leonard. Maurice followed in his father’s footsteps, also becoming Chief Engineer at the RAC. He was keen on all forms of transport, and had a long association with Brooklands as a Scrutineer. He never built a vehicle himself, however, and died prematurely in 1958. Leonard was the youngest of Felix’s sons and was born in 1906. After leaving school he helped his father build his three-wheelers for a few months after the war, and in 1923 joined Wolseley Motors, moving on to the Standard Motor Co in 1926. In 1924, at the age of 18, Leonard had started building his own three-wheeler with two ash chassis sidemembers joined with five tubular cross-members. At the back of this a triangular structure of steel tubes carried the 596cc single-cylinder air-cooled JAP engine driving by chain to a three-speed Jardine gearbox with final drive to the back wheel by another chain. This arrangement of a pivoted cradle for the engine, gearbox and back wheel meant that there was no variation in the tension of the chains and the back wheel could be prevented from lateral movement. The pivoted unit carrying the engine and transmission was ingeniously sprung with helical springs, arranged so that movement compressed one spring and expanded the other. Front suspension was by short quarter-elliptic springs to an axle with a central torque-tube attached to a chassis crossmember so that front brakes could be fitted, although they never were.

The engine was cooled by a fan blowing air from a scoop in the n/s of the body, driven from the engine by a pulley and leather link-belt. Another such belt drove a sixvolt dynamo, which although mounted on the frame, was close enough not to cause too much alteration in belt tension. Engine lubrication was by a hand-pump mounted conveniently on an oil tank on the o/s running-board, and starting was by means of a kick-starter on the same side of the car. To provide room for the driver the steering column was almost horizontal, running to just behind the dummy radiator, were it was connected to the drop-arm by bicycle chain and sprockets, with a transverse drag-link. This three-wheeler Hudlass took 15 months to complete; it had a hand-throttle and two 6in expanding brakes on the back wheel. Registered PG 6800, it was favourably reported on by a motorcycle paper in 1926 and a motor journal in 1928.

On returning home from a last photo-session with a motor magazine Leonard turned his vehicle over in Willesden. In pouring rain the wooden blocks (common in town centres in those days) became very slippery and together with the tram-lines made driving somewhat hazardous. Willing hands from passers-by soon had the car back on its three wheels, however, and with nothing more than a broken windscreen he continued on his way. Leonard ran this vehicle until 1931, by which time he had finished building his new four-wheeler, begun in 1929. Built in a garage at the rear of his father’s house in East Sheen, London, he obtained permission in advance from a neighbour to remove a fence panel on completion, as this would be the only way to get it out of the garage. The leathercloth-covered plywood body was fixed to a substantial home-made chassis. The vehicle, registered PG 8833, was originally a two-seater and was powered by a vee-twin 1096cc 10/40hp two-cylinder ohv watercooled JAP engine mated to a Riley gearbox. It was high geared but as was usual with the JAP engine suffered from a certain amount of vibration.

In 1939 Leonard, by now working for the RAC, bought a Riley engine which had been used as a test-bed unit. The cylinder block of this longstroke engine had been rebored to almost 1600cc and it had a broken con-rod. After reconditioning the hunt was on for a suitable gearbox to be installed with the Riley engine in this HudlassSpecial. By chance, a short time later Leonard was sent to inspect an RAC member’s car damaged by a bomb blast during the early part of the Second World War. The coachbuilders where this inspection took place had an old Lanchester rolling chassis, which was used to transport heavy car bodies from one section of their workshop to another. The propshaft had been disconnected to make pushing easier and Leonard noticed a pre-selector fluid flywheel gearbox which appeared to be in excellent order. He purchased this, with the proviso that he removed it from the chassis himself!

The Riley engine was of course considerably longer than the JAP and some extensive surgery was therefore necessary to fit the new engine and gearbox to the Hudlass. The wheelbase was extended by about 2ft to 9ft 5in and a rear seat was fitted. The gearbox castings were made by the Barnes Aluminium Bronze Co. A magnificent solid nickel radiator with an aluminium surround was purchased, its capacity of two gallons ensuring there would be no overheating problems. The steering gear again incorporated a horizontal column and the chain-drive connection, to a 3:1 steering box, with 5in of adjustment available at the steering wheel. There was no track-rod, each wheel being controlled separately. Suspension was by quarter-elliptic springs, the robust tubular front axle was underslung, with foot operated front brakes, and the knock-off hubcaps incorporated the initials “LH”. Transmission was by torque-tube and the substantial chassis side-members had seven cross-members.

Leonard ran this car until the early 1950s when he sold it to his nephew Michael, the son of Maurice Hudlass. By the time it finally left the Hudlass family it had covered well over 100,000 miles.

I am indebted to John Hudlass for this explanation of the Hudlass cars, and hope that the one recently found will soon be on the road again and perhaps be seen in VSCC events. W B