Bill Boddy

TT Humbers: a curious case

I suppose it will never be known why Humber, makers of top-class, dignified family cars, with war imminent, built a team of sophisticated racing cars for the 600-mile Isle of Man TT, how their designer Fred Burgess contrived to copy an all-conquering Peugeot four-cylinder 16-valve twin overhead-camshaft engine, or why he reversed its block or valve ports — the latter a disguise perhaps; nor was there any external identification!

For the two-day race the drivers were Burgess, F W Tuck and Sam Wright, Humber’s test driver. All three cars retired, Burgess’s with a seized piston, the others with valve failure. The race was won by K Lee Guinness in Coatalen’s Sunbeam, also with a Peugeot-crib power unit.

Some historians thought that four, or even five, of these Humbers were built. Without the aid of Sherlock Holmes, who never drove a car although he rode in Watson’s Model T Ford, I hope to dispel this notion.

Which drivers raced which cars after the war is a problem researched by members of the Humber Register, myself and by Kenneth Neve. He was a great help, although he told me he would, “Prefer to leave it to those sagacious and diligent chaps, the historians”, allowing him to go back to his workshop, “where problems are finite and life serene”. Anyway, his Humber had a known history. It had been bought from Humber in 1917 by Charles Sgonina, the wellknown Welsh racer of bikes and a GN. It was registered in Cardiff in 1921. Neve bought it late in 1939 and used it regularly after the war had ended in numerous VSCC-type events; by 1988, the car had made some 260 starts with only three retirements. Today his daughter, Judy Portway, continues to compete with the Humber with much enthusiasm, which has encouraged me to return to the subject of these racing cars.

The three Humbers were advertised for sale during the war, two of them in November 1914 “tuned up and overhauled”, and Tuck’s car in January 1915 by Henry Garner Ltd in Birmingham, for £495, and all three in June 1915 by Charles Lane of Euston Road, London, for £500 each.

Early in 1919, when W O Bentley was working on his first 3-litre, Burgess, with whom he had worked at Humber on aero-engines during the war, persuaded him to copy a TT Humber for the Bentley chassis, and early that year one arrived at Cricklewood. It was put up for sale by Bentley and Burgess late in 1919. W G Barlow, who knew W O and had an early 3-litre Bentley, raced the Humber at Brooklands in 1920, registered AA 8444. In the TT, Tuck’s car had an extended starting handle, as had Barlow’s but, uncertain that Barlow had the Tuck car, Neve remarked that Barlow’s mechanic could have made the same conversion in a morning. As Neve said, this prevented bloody knuckles if you wanted to swing, as distinct from pull-up, the engine. He also thought that there was a difference between the two handles.

Philip Rampon had the other TT Humber at Brooklands, also in 1920. In 1921 after a 95.96mph lap, it blew up and the engine was replaced with a mysterious Vauxhall one, and then a 14-litre V8 Sunbeam Arab aero-engine was substituted. This Humber presumably was then broken up.

In 1925, W D Wallbank found a car at the back of a Folkestone garage which he bought as a GP Peugeot, but which was, in fact, a 1914 TT Humber. The `four-car’ argument included this, and made five with a prototype TT car.

I will now try to demolish this. The suggested prototype/test car could have been brought up to race specification with a few mods. Barlow began racing a Bentley in 1921 and I suggest that his Humber could have been left at the garage from which Wallbank bought it. Wallbank raced it at Brooklands in 1927 and 1929 with a crude self-made track body. He won a race, Burgess greeting him with tears of joy. He tried later to sell it via a garage close to Brooklands, to no avail. By 1930, it was in the hands of a Mr Lawrence in Basingstoke. Kent Karslake wrote it up in Motor Sport’s ‘Veteran Types’ series in 1931, as Cecil Clutton did Neve’s car in 1942. The Wallbank car was thought to have been broken up in 1938/9 in County Durham.

So by my reckoning there were only three TT cars: one in the hands of Burgess, Sgonina and Neve; the second Tuck, Barlow, Wallbank; the third Wright and Rampon. This is endorsed as no spare car was ever seen in the IoM. The ‘four-car’ fraternity had a seeming breakthrough when a P Hamilton-Adams reported owning what seemed to be a fourth TT car, bought in Birmingham in loM form. But his dating was vague and I suggest he had it in 1931. Wallbank would have realised that to sell his car he must take off its crude body, under which was the original 1914 bolster-tank body. Wallbank also lived in Birmingham, and I suspect he sold it to Mr Adams.

A Mr Morrell-Miller was said to have bought one of the Humbers in late June 1914 and taken it to France in July, where the French Army commandeered it for fast message-carrying. If it was later returned to its owner, it could have been left at Folkestone if Barlow had not done this. The crankcase of Neve’s car is stamped No4, but I plead that as Humber had spares for these cars in the late 1920s this could have been due to a repair after the race or by Sgonina, and cannot be used in evidence of a fourth car.

I am no Lord Hutton or Lord Burton, but this thesis is unbiased.