1984: Major engine derangement and laying up, changes in priorities, the passing of Robert Wicksteed and a nut-and-bolt restoration

Returning from the VSCC 50th anniversary event at Silverstone in July 1984 – where he was a class winner in the speed trial and driving tests – the engine ‘threw a rod’. The resultant damage to crank, sump, crankcase, bore and other vital bits of motoring history proved a seemingly insurmountable hill for Robert to climb. The arrival of grandchildren the year before meant priorities were reassessed and HP6161 was effectively put into hibernation and Robert’s successful racing career brought to a premature end.

Despite the lack of an engine, HP6161 was always kept smart and polished for the occassions where its presence was requested or needed.

One such occassion was the Silverstone Centenary event in August 1996, where HP6161 was a guest on the Alvis stand and, as can be seen from the picture of Robert at the family home near  Kettering, the car was well lokked after.

At the end of the nineties, Robert and his wife Doreen moved from Northamptonshire to be closer to his daughter Lulie, granddaughter Natalie and son-in-law Robert. Doreen had sufferred a stroke shortly before the move and sadly died a year later. Robert was diagnosed with cancer shortly afterwards and passed away on 30th June 2002. In the months before his death, he and his son-in-law spent many evenings talking about the car and what to do with it and eventually it was agreed that it should be restored. The two Roberts (Wicksteed and Hunt) talked to a number of specialist companies who could provide the expertise required and decisions were made on major items such as the crankshaft and conrods while Robert Wicksteed was still alive.

HP6161 had been left in Kettering at Barton Hall (which the charitable trust bearing Robert’s name owned at the time) and it was brought down to Herefordshire so that it could be restored. Major elements were sent away and the spring evenings were spent by the two in the kitchen sorting through the multitude of boxes and identifying which bits went where. It had been intended to reassemble the car in Robert W’s garage but his untimely death meant that the combined workshop and potting shed that Robert H was building for himself and his wife had to be redesigned and repurposed as a new home for HP6161.

What follows in the 4500+ hours of restoration was the subject of an article written by the current pilot, Robert Hunt, that appeared in the Alvis Register Bulletin of Autumn 2007. The Alvis Register is the club for Alvis Car owners whose cars were built in the vintage period upto 1931. As with Robert Wicksteed’s earlier opus, it captures and summarises the four-year period between Robert Wicksteed’s death in 2002 and the car’s return to front-line duties in 2006. If you have already read Robert Wicksteed’s piece on this site then please feel free to skip, or at the very least speed-read the ‘History’ section, as it relies heavily on the original. As with the original, this piece has been cut and the remainder appears in the Driving section of the website. Notes in italics did not appear in the original article but are inserted to guide those not intimately familiar with Alvis fokelaw through the piece.

The reawakening of Racing Car No. 1 (by Robert Hunt)

Having just returning from Vintage Prescott, with No.1 performing faultlessly (as a spectator), I am torn between writing this note and delving into the garage for more fettling.  Since we passed our MOT in May, the car has enjoyed invitations to the Brooklands Centenary and the International Alvis Day at Wimpole Hall.  For both of these we arrived courtesy of someone.  Prescott, however, was achieved under our own power – and it was particularly satisfying to be able to arrive at our ‘local’ event without the assistance of others.  The return journey was slightly more interesting (more of which later), hence the wish to return to the workshop; but for the moment the spanners will have to wait.  These three events, all in quick succession, have generated more interest than I anticipated and, as someone commented recently, a new generation of Alvis owners is beginning to emerge to whom the car is nothing more than a page in a reference book or an entry in a list of times at Prescott or Shelshely. I hope therefore that what follows is a balanced mix of historical detail and practical information gained from close on 4500 hours work in the restoration; as well as being an unashamed evocation of the mystique and charisma of the marque in general and this unique vehicle in particular.  To illustrate and lighten my prose I have included photographs, some new, some very old, that hopefully capture the essence of the car.

Alvis Works Racing Car No. 1 is probably one of the most written about and photographed cars in the history of the company.  It has been the subject of much attention since it was first built in 1923, but has been out of the limelight for the last two decades (apart from one isolated static appearance at Silverstone in 1996) because of a pinch bolt ‘mishap’.  This well-documented Achilles heel in an otherwise pretty bullet-proof engine, to mix metaphors, was responsible for substantial damage to much of the lower part of the engine, and at one point the near loss of unique and irreplaceable original parts.  The scale of the destruction, together with other circumstances served to keep the car out of sight for the longest period in it’s eighty-three year history, so I have a bit to catch up.  But let us start at the beginning:

Chassis 2091, Engine 2454EX (for EXperimental), Car No. 7577 Alvis 12/50 SA Works Racing Car No.1 was built during the early summer of 1923 and first driven by the works racing driver Maurice Harvey at South Harting on July 28th.  The car was, in common with others built around that period, a mix of 10/30 and 12/40 parts with the new 1496cc OHV engine.  In common with the later No.s 2 & 3 cars, the chassis used was one of a batch of (very) lightweight subframe series from Thompsons whose background was recently covered in David Gregory’s excellent article in the Summer 2006 issue of the Register Bulletin.  Many of the 12/40 models that used these chassis’ were apparently exported to Australia – presumably because problems caused by any inherent weakness in the design would be less likely to be publicly aired if they were 12,000 miles away.  Indeed, the bantam-weight robustness of what was to become one of the most enduring – some would say iconic – sports car marques of the 1920’s has, in the case of No.1, been reduced to the absolute limit of acceptable strength by extensive lightening.  So much so that during the recent restoration I was able to carry the complete but bare chassis from garage to workshop without assistance.  The previous custodian of No.1 – Robert Wicksteed (my father-in-law) estimated that some 20lbs weight had been taken out by drilling the chassis rails alone.

As well as the liberal provision of holes of up to 2” in diameter in the web of the main chassis members, cross members and sub frame assembly; the front cross member was moved back some 6” and the engine 4½” to redistribute the weight more evenly.  The chassis number, stamped on the rear nearside (left) dumbiron is not duplicated on the front, (the front stamping was apparently added prior to delivery) leading one to speculate that the car was never intended to remain outside Alvis’ possession and why it did so I will hypothesise upon later.  In common with a number of early cars, No.1 also bears the scars of a nearly complete crack through the web of the nearside main chassis member close to the scuttle.  This had been roughly welded and a fillet inserted into the web to reinforce things.  The fit and gauge of the fillet, and the design of one of the cross braces between main member and sub frame would appear to indicate that this probably happened early on during it’s career before passing into private ownership.

Virtually every component on the car has been lightened – the gearbox contents, the flywheel, clutch and crankcase are all obvious by inspection.  Even the spring shackles and the control pedals have been drilled.  Less obvious, and probably known only to a few people at Alvis and Midland Motor Bodies at the time, and to Robert Wicksteed who during his custodianship re-bodied the car some four times, was that even the Ash frame members were drilled to save weight.  Similarly, the less obvious bits – crank, conrods, pistons and the like, all lost their fair share of metal in the pursuit of competitive success.  This transfer of weight was not all one way, however:  As with the No.s 2 & 3 Cars, a dry sump system was used to eliminate oil surge, with a double oil pump acting as a combined scavenger/pressure unit.  The 3¼ gallon external oil tank, slung like a menacing torpedo on the nearside main chassis rail, extracts a high price both in overall weight and in the cost of an oil change.  No electrics were fitted and there are no front brakes, speedometer, fuel pump or much else, really.  Air pressure to the top of the petrol tank is provided by a hand pump mounted on the nearside body panel.  Perversely, the original dashboard (replaced by Robert Wicksteed along with some of the instrumentation in the late 40’s) carried a clock.

Many of the Alvis works competition cars of the 1920’s were dismantled for parts or broken up, and why Racing Car No.1 wasn’t became more of a mystery than the name.  Indeed, Arthur Cummings, the machine shop foreman who was responsible for much of the lightening and special engine and chassis work on all three of the 1923 Racers was insistent that all of the cars had eventually been dismantled or destroyed, right up until the point at which Robert Wicksteed parked No.1 outside his house in Ascot in the mid ‘70s to prove him wrong.

For whatever reason, however, a little over a month after the Brooklands victory, Racing Car No.1 was transferred to Tommy Simister, sometime racing driver and Alvis agent for Macclesfield who, alongside Harvey, campaigned the car during the spring and summer of 1924 at sprints and hill climbs around the country.  This is perhaps the clue as to why the car survived – it was still very competitive:   Indeed during that second summer it beat a 3 litre Sunbeam at a Southport event to win FTD.  Under private ownership (nominally at least) and at the hands of a now famous works driver, yet bearing a much closer resemblance to the production 12/50s that were now coming out of Holyhead road (the site of the Alvis factory in Coventry) , this was a powerful advertisement for the model on which Alvis had pinned their hopes of future survival. In the end the model prospered, and the Marque survived.  Having done it’s job, Racing Car No.1 was finally sold on to Jack Linnell at the end of the season for £250, clearing the way for the 1924 200 miles race cars.  In the interest of balance, it is also worth noting that the No.3 car (Brayshaw’s) was stripped of the racing fairings underneath the engine and behind the driver, exposing a lower slung but otherwise identical bolster tank, registered as HP6145 and also raced by Harvey with some success during the same period.

So Jack Linnell, a prospering clothing manufacturer, became the second owner of No.1, using it for everyday motoring as well as occasional racing, much in the manner one would a race-prepared sportscar today.

In this latter guise, Jack piloted HP6161 to victory in the Henlys Alvis trophy race at Brooklands in 1929, with a slightly windswept passenger onboard as ‘racing mechanic’.  Although the identity of the passenger isn’t known (it is believed to be someone from the Alvis sales organisation as he appears elsewhere in publicity shots), that of the starter is – being none other than Kaye Don, one of the most successful racing drivers of the time and the then lap record holder for the outer circuit.  Incidentally, seven weeks after this photo was taken, Don lifted this flying lap record to over 134 m.p.h.

By this time, the exploits of Racing Car No.1 had already come to the attention of it’s next owner, my father-in-law Robert Wicksteed.  Robert fondly reminisced to me of his first encounter with the car as a young child as it was charging down a Northamptonshire lane with Jack at the wheel and disappearing beyond a corner without slackening pace.  (This is a direct quote from Robert, although from the writer’s perspective and with the benefit of now having driven a road-legal 1923 racing car without front brakes, “slackening pace” is a somewhat subjective term).  The car spent much of the following fifteen years as an everyday sports car, being well suited to attracting all sorts of attention.  Robert and Jack later became lifelong friends, at one time being joint editors of the Register circular, and the car was later gifted to Robert. 

Deemed unsuitable for use with the Home Guard in 1940, Racing Car No.1 was retired to a field during the hostilities, and to quote Robert again, was retrieved after the outbreak of peace with the help of an ex WD mine detector and a scythe.  The hardier parts of the car had survived quite well, but the upholstery, floorboards and some of the instrumentation had suffered to the point that they were beyond repair.  In order, a ‘40s Jag, some plywood from blackout screening and the contents of a similarly war-worn aircraft (of which there were, at the time, plenty; and in the context of Jack Linnell’s rôle as founding director of Sywell aerodrome, relatively accessible) came to the rescue.  Several body styles emerged (all more practical two seaters) and as a result the car remained in (fairly) constant use during the 50’s and 60’s as an everyday means of transport.

Thankfully Robert never threw anything away, so when Alvis called in 1970 to ask, Please Sir, if the car could be present at the firm’s Golden jubilee, he worked like a thing possessed to re-convert his latest stylistic creation into the original, and turned up on time, albeit with the car clad in undercoat only (and wet at that).  For this reason, the car that many will remember during Robert’s successful campaigning during the ‘70s and 80’s was actually sporting the original body, and it is only during it’s most recent restoration that I have finally retired it on the grounds that further use would have either damaged it or required unsightly bracing.  I strongly believe, as Robert did, that HP6161 should not become a museum piece, but in the event that it does the original body is still there, mounted on the wall of No.1’s home as a testament to earlier glories.

In daily use by both Jack and Robert, the car has had an eventful past.  The liberal drilling of the chassis and consequent ability to fix things thereto with relative ease exposed No.1 to a certain amount of abuse over the years.  In Northamptonshire carnivals it has been disguised variously as an airplane, a steam train and a Viking longship, with instructions shouted down to hidden driver from cockpit, footplate or bridge.  It was borrowed on more than one occasion by Alvis themselves for much the same purpose.  An aircraft has crash landed on it, and it has been rolled several times (the last time at Cadwell). 

Despite the one-and-a-half seat configuration (the mechanic’s seat is offset to the left and rear of the driver’s), my wife fondly remembers being taken to school in the car along with her sister on a regular basis during her early childhood.

Robert’s racing successes during these times are well documented elsewhere:  An astonishing 49.2 seconds at Shelshely in a car that lacked front wheel brakes, combined with a best ever time at Prescott of 53.48s; now forever captured by that famous picture of No.1 exiting Pardon on two wheels.  One sometimes forgets that, at 84 (written in 2007), Racing Car No.1 is no longer in the prime of it’s life (I have been struggling to determine the gender), and I recall reading correspondence alternately praising and abhorring the use of such machinery in the manner for which it was originally intended.  Robert took on the mantle of ownership in a different age, the car was younger, and – to be scrupulously fair – standards were different.  It was his policy – some may say trademark – to drive No.1 to and from the circuits at which he was competing.  In this respect, the fact that the car was and is licensed for the road gave Robert the rare opportunity of familiarising himself with it’s characteristics before joining battle.  More than one correspondent has, over the years, commented that the pleasure of watching Robert and No.1 competing at such-and-such a meeting was only surpassed by the thrill of being overtaken by the same pair on the M1 going home.

As an Engineer, and MD of an engineering company, Robert could make or repair parts quickly and cheaply, and went to sometimes extreme lengths to chase the performance ideal, but very firmly with a 1923 hat on.  So the car never gained front wheel brakes, for example, but the conrods were machined and lightened to the absolute limit, and it was this that was ultimately to lead to near disaster.

The Rebuild

Returning from one such event in 1984, the No.2 conrod sheared at the pinch bolt saw cut, and the resultant damage to crankshaft, crankcase, sump and camshaft effectively brought an end to Robert’s racing career.  Over the intervening 20 years business commitments, grandchildren and the sheer scale of the task of repairing the damage meant that the job was never really started.  Retirement and relocation to Herefordshire raised the possibility of repair, but it was diagnosis of terminal cancer which provided the final impetus to finish the job.  Sadly, Robert didn’t live to see out the engine work, and I, as his son-in-law, was left with a substantially complete car, but an engine reduced to it’s smallest components.  We had jointly decided to put a Phoenix crank and rods into the repaired crankcase on the basis that if the car was to be used and not to become a museum piece then we couldn’t afford the risk of another major incident.  The new crank and rods are, however, substantially lighter than the standard Phoenix offering, although not pared down to the almost featherweight proportions of the components Robert was using previously.  A new cam to the original racing specification was commissioned from Leonard Reece and the original block, sidelined in favour of a later version after having cracked during a wartime-long soujourn in a field, was repaired by Cast Iron Welding Services.  A further two months was taken getting this right and whilst the repaired block shows signs of all of this abuse, at least it’s at home in the right place again.

Robert’s untimely departure ultimately removed the urgency if not the impetus of the rebuild, and added another dimension.  We were left with a car that had not been driven for over 20 years (and never by me), a list of jobs from Robert (some minor, some not so minor) to be done before the car could be considered roadworthy, and a copy of TVAM (The Vintage Alvis Manual – the mechanical Bible for any Alvis owner) that, whilst a godsend in the coming years, required adaption and translation to the one-off nature of No.1.  (Actually, there is far more to No.1 than the car itself.  Robert’s archive, going back to Jack Linnell’s time, actually fills an entire cupboard – photos, correspondence, including letters to and from many of the famous names at Alvis, drawings, hand-written engineering notes together with much else to guide the novice Vintagent.)  And so it was that I took the route of a full nut and bolt restoration – as much for self preservation as for anything else.  Within three weeks, the car had been reduced to it’s major components and the job started.

There are a number of milestones that are worth recording here:  Shot blasting the chassis revealed the elusive number where previous investigations had not.  The four point close ratio gearbox had one of the mounting lugs sheared off (and how long had it been driving about like that?), and I was told in no uncertain terms that it’s repair could only be effected with the innards removed.  In this way I came to comprehend layshafts and their purpose in the great scheme of things.  The radiator was re-cored and an excellent job they made of it too, re-enamelling the badge to make up for the nearly twelve months that they had the thing, so no recommendations there.  One other suggestion:  (The author of TVAM) Mickey Radford’s comment that there is little point in joining the club whose members have, single handed, removed and replaced the rear axle complete is good advice and I entreat others to follow it (I will next time) (its weight is close to 70kgs).  Wandering up to Red Triangle (the official Alvis spares and service business in Kenilworth) or Register Spares (the vintage Alvis club spares service) has not always been the solution, as many of the parts are non-standard, so copying worn out parts has been, as often as not, the order of the day.

Probably the most significant, and outwardly visible, part of the restoration was to be the body, such as it is.  The original has been reunited with the 1923 dashboard, and retired.  Before this, however, exact copies of the individual parts were made using well seasoned Ash.  I say an exact copy, but you will see from the accompanying photographs that in one respect it is far from exact and it is here that I must make another historical diversion to explain, if not justify, my actions. During the summer of 1923, the car had a series of successes in sprints and hill-climbs around the country, but one may speculate that the car had, like many things in life, something of an ulterior motive about it, and I believe the clue is in the name.  It was called Racing Car No.1, (I have a copy of the despatch record proclaiming the same), yet clearly wasn’t the first Alvis racing car.  It is generally agreed that this honour goes to the 1921 car that Harvey campaigned in the Coup des Voiturettes and elsewhere.  HP6161 was, I believe, built for two reasons:  Firstly, to publicise the introduction of the new 12/50 model and secondly, to act as a mobile test bed for the cars that ultimately raised the profile of the marque to such heights that they have passed into Alvis folklore.  Why, for example, would you lighten the chassis and other components to the extremes that have been taken, and then fit a dry sump system which adds weight on a sprint car?  Calling HP6161 Racing Car No.1 was, I submit, a clever piece of early PR hype, and it worked.


The iconic picture of Harvey in No.1 at East Harling Heath on 16th August 1923 shows a car that hasn’t been seen in that form for over 63 years – I refer of course to the lack of the Edwardian-style bolster tank.  Both this picture and a slightly later one taken at Morecombe in late September 1923 show Racing Car No.1 with an inboard tank, and this led me to the obvious question: When was it changed?  The pictures on pages 504 and 505 of TVA2 (the second edition of The Vintage Alvis) show the car with the bolster tank, knock-on wheels and, most tellingly, a white circle on the offside of the body – all essential requirements for Brooklands. What follows, although speculative, is supported by enough circumstantial evidence to have a ring of truth.

We know that Joseland (the Alvis service manager) drove Racing Car No.1 to Brooklands for the 1923 JCC (Junior Car Club) race.  It is also well documented that Harvey’s car (No.2) was nearly destroyed by an engine fire earlier in the week of the big race, so one could speculate that No.1 was hastily rigged as a replacement (not reserve) car should it be needed.  The smaller inboard tank was replaced by the bolster tank, and one might assume that a different CWP (Crown Wheel and Pinion) was used to give a higher top speed at the expense of some acceleration.  Knock-on wheels were fitted, and a white circle added for a racing number that would have been required at Brooklands.  In the event, the men at Coventry had No. 2 ready in time and No. 1 wasn’t needed, so the third Alvis entry reverted to the works demonstration driver J.A. Brown.  The addition of the bolster tank would have increased the endurance to that needed for the 200 mile event, and for this reason I believe that these photos show the car shortly before it’s departure for the race. Having achieved this historic victory, Alvis needed to keep the publicity machine running.  Displaying the winning cars in Henlys’ London showroom or towing them around Coventry would soon pale with the motoring public, so No.1 was transferred to Tommy Simister to race as a privateer.  The Rudge wheels were exchanged for normal ones, but the bolster remained, as it has since.  It was the discovery of the cut out mountings in the original ash frame members that for me drove this line of enquiry (although Robert was aware of this before), and ultimately led to the decision to replace the bolster with something that is at once closer to the original, but also (in my opinion) much more in keeping with the car’s past.

From summer of 2004 I had substantially all of the parts ready and commenced the reassembly.  When stuck, I would call a growing list of contacts for advice, and was encouraged by the occasional visitor (some in 12/50’s) to keep going.  As with the major engineering previously described, I cannot claim it was all my own work – there are two exceptions:  The original leatherwork had perished and been replaced, so I had no problem in replacing this with new leather with wider and more historically accurate fluting.  A recommendation from another Register member came up trumps and someone who came down to Ross from Redditch every day for a week trimmed the car in situ.  Similarly, first attempts at coachpainting exposed my limitations in this department and professional help was sought from a local firm in the Forest of Dean.  (I have also toyed with the idea of painting the bonnet, as it was in 1923, and perhaps this is a future project.)  The rest of the work I take the blame for. A nut and bolt rebuild requires, in my humble opinion, one quality above all; an ability to cope with despair, and there have been times during the last three years when I really have felt it was all too much.  Learning (vintage) car restoration with little or no assistance on a car as historically significant as HP6161 was, with the benefit of hindsight, risky, if not foolhardy.  Taking things apart is (mostly) common sense, Radford and a digital camera.  Cleaning, polishing and, where necessary, having replacements made can be mundane.  Reassembly demands patience, patience and patience.  Never, ever rush things.  If it doesn’t work, or you are tired, stop and go to sleep.  I made more than one mistake, thankfully none serious and all reversible, but they were all made at the end of the day when I was tired or when I had been going for too long.  Despite the fact that I recorded pretty much everything as I dismantled it, with hindsight I should have written, photographed and measured much more.

In the end, the turning point was when I had completed the painting by hand of the chassis (I used a two pack, by the way) and could start to put bits back on.  The slow re-emergence saw milestones in the rolling chassis, the addition of the engine and drivetrain, and finally the painted body.

Understandably enough, the engine took the longest (since I had not been responsible for it’s dismantling) and thanks are due to a patient wife for letting me read my now oily copy of Radford in bed late into the night.  The body was finally fitted to the chassis in early 2006 and electrics added afterwards (a mistake as it happens, and one that I am rectifying at present).

By the Spring of 2006 the car was substantially finished.  After a series of false starts and a lot of cursing caused by hopelessly inaccurate BTH magneto timing, No.1 swung noisily into life on the 19th of May.  During that summer, a few minor gremlins – air leaks in the pressurised fuel system, elastic brake rods, high oil pressure (yes, high oil pressure!) (12/50s are sometimes known for low oil pressure problems) and a cracked exhaust manifold took time to cure, and ultimately meant that I missed the opportunity of a debut at last year’s Prescott.  Work commitments meant that, after the initial restart, the car was over-wintered with little more attention.  I’ve since added brake lights, side lights and indicators, hopefully balancing visibility with discretion and a nod to historical accuracy.  All of these, together with the Klaxon are powered by a pair of small high capacity batteries located out of sight behind the instrument panel.  A set of headlights can be added in under two minutes, so we’ll see how it goes.  Oh, and I have to make a more authentic petrol cap. Having finished the restoration I can without hesitation say that I feel totally in tune with the soul of the car – for those contemplating anything either on this scale or otherwise, I can only say ‘just do it’ – the 12/50 is a remarkably simple, well-engineered bit of kit.  On several occasions during the last three and a half years I have returned in the dark from my workshop to the house, looked ruefully at the modern car that sits outside, and no matter how poor the day’s progress has been; it has been, in comparison to the modern motoring experience, infinitely worthwhile.