Small wonder

This HRG 1500 won its class at Le Mans and Spa in 1949. Richard Heseltine bounces into orbit then descends to tell its story. Photography bt Glenn Dunlop/LAT

The goal was patently not to achieve aesthetic perfection. As meaty as a skeleton, the bodywork jury-rigged to this HRG 1500 displays little in the way of decorative flourishes. Form follows function, the assorted dings, dents and chips only accentuating its antiquity. Within the cabin, for want of a more appropriate word, slivers of daylight peep out from beneath what pass for pedals, the throttle being roughly the size of a watch face. By comparison the steering wheel is vast, fronting a shapeless, roughly hewn aluminium dash that, in the words of one former owner, can handily double as a guillotine should you invert it. As one period driver did.

But… is it fun to drive! Until you reach a bump. Or even a pebble — the sort of surface imperfection that in most cars you wouldn’t even notice. Here, you’re sent flying with the sort of pelvis-puréeing landing that compresses vertebrae and prompts your teeth to lose touch with their moorings. At some point during the build phase, someone clearly neglected to instal suspension. But then this is all part of the HRG experience. Apparently.

When the triumvirate of Halford, Robins and Godfrey pooled the respective capital of their initials to produce the first HRG in 1935, their baby was already practically obsolete, its technology owing more to the previous decade: a rugged chassis comprising two parallel C-section channels running fore and aft, strengthened by tubular cross-members, the front beam axle stuck way out front supported by quarter-elliptic springs and located by the arms of the friction shock absorbers. With semi-elliptic springs at the back, there wasn’t much in the way of elasticity to keep all four wheels in contact with the road, the ash frame beneath the skimpy but attractive body being designed to flex.

Thing is, HRGs handled and these 1.5-litre Meadows-powered machines soon proved effective in competition: one example, driven by Marcus Chambers and Peter Clark, won its class at Le Mans in 1939, a year after 1.1 or 1.5-litre Singer-derived engines were substituted.

Yet when the marque returned after the end of WWII it was a significantly different HRG that hit the market. Gone was the squarerigged, perpendicular body, in its place a radical full-width silhouette that lived up to its Aerodynamic nomenclature. Unfortunately, this new strain had one fairly fundamental flaw. Beneath the skin was essentially the same basic structure as before, and the aluminium coachwork wasn’t up to the task of countering the flexing; it generally rattled a bit before shaking apart.

Nonetheless, the Aerodynamic did prove itself on the circuits, Clark gathering together four cars for an attack on the 1948 Spa 24 Hours, where they won the Coupe du Roi. However, Clark reasoned that for the following year’s programme he should dispense with streamlining and opt for lightness instead, so his example was reskinned at Monaco Motors in Watford where the new Le Mans outline, swiftly dubbed the ‘Mobile Galosh’, was created under John Wyer’s invariably precise direction. Clark’s team-mate Jack Scott followed suit, and a third car was created for Eric Thompson.

“I was all fired up by enthusiasm,” recalls future Connaught ace Thompson. “My friend Robin Richards had asked me to drive with him in the Paris 12 Hours at Montlhéry in 1948 — so, at the age of 29, I became a racing driver. It was such fun that Robin and I bought an unused frame (according to the bill of sale ‘One shop-soiled and obsolete HRG 1500 chassis only as seen and accepted’) from Charles Follett for £475 after spotting an ad in the Evening Standard. We towed it from Piccadilly up to Monaco’s behind my 1921 14/40 Vauxhall. It was snowing at the time”.

And thus in June 1949 all three ‘Hurgs’ arrived at the Circuit de la Sarthe for an attack on the 24 Hours classic, with Clark teamed with ‘Mort’ Morris-Goodall, Scott with Neville Gee and Thompson joined in ‘our’ car by Jack Fairman after Richards “turned his car over testing it at Boreham and broke his legs.”

It was Thompson who took the start — eventually. After the traditional sprint to his car it wouldn’t start, despite him “pushing some knobs, pulling others, waggling the gear lever and kicking the clutch”. On eventually getting under way he tore through the tail-enders and was running close behind the sister cars before handing over to Fairman at 7pm. The future Aston regular’s stint was unremarkable aside from the dawning realisation that it was getting very dark very quickly. But then he was wearing tinted goggles.

At half distance NPB 71 was running in a respectable 15th overall, pulling 105mph on the Mulsanne Straight. Six hours later Fairman pitted to have the kingpins greased after putting two wheels in the sand; aside from being markedly down on braking power, there were no more dramas and the only HRG left in the race crossed the line in a remarkable eighth place overall, taking the class win.

So having survived one round-the-clock classic, Tolworth’s finest headed for Spa. Two weeks on from their Le Mans triumph NPB 71 and three other HRGs competed for the coveted team prize, but the bumpy track punished the drivers, as Thompson recalls: “The fuel tank broke away from its mountings and we had to effect a repair using rope and a broom handle!  It was in a bit of a state by the end of the race.” Writing for Autosport,  Fairman commented: “When passing the pits it sounded like a cartload of empty dustbins, but the gallant chassis would still knock up nearly 100mph along the smoother straight. The engine was running just as well at the 48th hour (of competition) as in the beginning.” Thompson and Fairman had just taken their second class win in as many weeks.

From there Thompson drove the car in a couple of Goodwood handicaps, winning them both, before selling it on: “It wasn’t really suitable for courting in.” The car then disappeared to the Isle of Man, having been involved in a colossal shunt. Marque authority Ian Dussek rescued it in 1965, faithfully reviving the Le Mans veteran to period-perfect condition. This diminutive device later headed Stateside before returning to the UK in the mid-90s.

Today, some years on from its restoration, NPB 71 appears a mite used. And all the better for it even if the sheer lack of, well, everything does intimidate on first contact. Minimalist doesn’t quite cover it.

Yet when under way few cars are as amusing as this. It is soooo much fun to drive, whether at cruising speeds or at a cruising altitude. With only 65bhp delivered at 3500rpm this isn’t remotely a fast car, but the throttle response is so immediate that it feels fast.

Despite (apparently) having synchromesh, it’s best to treat the Singer four-speeder as a crash ‘box, cog-swapping being easy after mastering the lack of discernible gate bias. And the steering? With only 1-3/4 turns lock-to-lock it’s disarmingly direct and precise.

Which makes it all the more pleasurable to hustle. There’s no real power so you can balance the rear end on the steering all day. It is utterly faithful as the lack of meaningful suspension doesn’t seem to affect its ability to whoosh through the switchbacks. And whoosh it does, the bodywork making a bid for freedom with each incremental rise in speed. You’re constantly aware of things flapping, creaking and vibrating, the ally tonneau attempting to part company after accidentally nudging the pull cord under particularly hard cornering. But then the only bracing is above the front axle and the scuttle.

Brakes aside — there don’t appear to be any — there’s so much to love. While the bodywork gets jiggy at walking pace, the rest of the car feels taut and tied down. Driving it for 24 hours, let alone 48, is too horrible to contemplate unless there’s an osteopath on standby. But should there ever be a 24 minutes of Le Mans for historics, get in line.