2006: A new custodian, learning what it's like to drive a vintage racing car, invitations and constant fettling
Driving No. 1
For a person who’s only contact with vintage motoring up until now was a memorable journey to and from an early 70’s Prescott in the back of the late Sam Clutton’s magnificent 1908 Itala, it’s asking quite a lot to describe how No.1 is to drive. In truth, to start off I was very reluctant to take the plunge and venture out. However, by May 2007 I realised that I was putting things off out of a fear of the unknown, so I finally plucked up the courage to not only start No.1 again, but contemplate driving it the fifteen or so miles to the MOT station (Trumpet Garage, Ledbury) and back. Wife followed behind with towrope, rudimentary toolkit and emergency instructions – we had agreed that calling my mobile was a pointless exercise and that a persistent blast on the horn was necessary to warn me of any impending detachment of an item of significant or historic interest. The day was not without mishap – brakes started binding and overheating on the way, and on the way back (after an MOT pass by the way) the idle screw dropped out of the Solex carbuettor, causing air leakage and a backfire. Forward motion was finally halted some five miles from home when the gearbox spider Woodruff key sheared. Earlier during the rebuild I had seen in Robert Wicksteed’s notes that he had a similar problem at Silverstone in the 1970’s. At the time his solution involved a junior hacksaw and a length of wire from the nearby stock fencing, so perhaps this act of felony has finally caught up on us. I now carry several spares.
Apart from this particular example of a need for vintage resourcefulness, the first outing taught me quite a lot. No.1 is not, for a novice, a relaxing car to drive. The gearbox demands a subtlety that I have yet to master and I have been easily distracted by all the unknown noises. I am, however, beginning to realise how unique a car HP6161 is – after all a 1923 racing car that is road legal is a rarity, and in the context of modern motoring, a potential risk.
Starting No. 1 is becoming a simple, first time affair, and in a way I am pleased that I don’t have the luxury of an electric starter. Check the petrol tank, close the sealed cap (to be replaced with something more in keeping when I get a lathe for Christmas…) and pressurise to about 1 – 1.5 p.s.i. Open fuel tap and prime the carburettor. Check ignition off (the dash switch in this case, although there is another on the steering boss) and turn the engine over a couple of half turns. A little hand throttle and full retard (both on the column), ignition on and another half swing brings the engine to life.
Turn down the throttle a bit and ease up the timing advance to about a third, replace the carburettor cover on the side of the bonnet, check oil – usually well over fifty when cold – and wait. Now the timing and fuel are reasonably well sorted, the engine settles into a patient tickover at about 1000 r.p.m. (lower than this and it gets a bit grumpy until it’s rubbed the sleep out of it’s eyes and warmed up). In the meantime the driver is still revelling in the joy of the internal conversations that all of the moving parts are having: to a modern car owner it all sounded a bit dangerous at first but with growing experience one begins to relax and I still find it hard to resist stroking No.1 every now and then whilst this is going on.
To mount, swing right leg over left hand cockpit side and step up, sliding under wheel and into bucket seat. I say mount, because one sits more ‘on’ than ‘in’ the car and the driver can with little movement observe tarmac not only on both sides but underneath as well. In front of you the instrument panel boasts, from left to right, Petrol tank pressure gauge, Oil pressure gauge, Klaxon button (since replaced with a clock from a 50’s Alvis saloon, shown here in 2013), combined Lucas ammeter/switch assembly, Water temperature gauge, Rev counter (redlined at 5250 rpm) and Mag switch. Above these sit a small rear-view mirror and the Brooklands screen. On the typically massive steering wheel is a second Mag switch, Mag advance/retard and the hand throttle, which we now reduce to minimum, half depress the clutch (no clutch stop), lightly ease into first gear and away we go. As revs and speed mount, the orchestra under the bonnet gives way to a rising whine from the straight cut gears under one’s knees, interspersed by cannonfire from the exhaust behind you. I cannot find the words to adequately describe the combination of sounds that massage the senses, but it is truly a Wagnerian experience.
Pickup is remarkably quick, and the speed limit around town is reached with worrying rapidity. Robert Wicksteed always said that it would see off MG’s at the lights (he was talking about MGB’s) and from my fading recollection of driving them in the 70’s and 80’s I think he was probably right – the engine is still tight (less than 150 miles so far) and promises much more if I can be patient. Living as I do at the top of a hill, much of the first 5 minutes driving is done on a trailing throttle with the popping exhaust note reflecting back from the surrounding tree canopy. Emerging onto the open road, however, allows one to indulge in the pleasure of listening to the individual detonations merging into a continuous bark with the promise of something more once the engine is run in. Even on the overrun, the crackle from the exhaust drowns many other noises, and makes conversation with one’s passenger difficult to say the least.
The central accelerator caused me a lot of worry during the rebuild, but underway this worry disappeared – left foot stayed near or on the clutch leaving one to either accelerate or brake; and in any event the rear-wheel-only brakes are so ineffective that one tends to use the handbrake as an auxiliary means of braking, or taking avoiding action as required.
Cornering is sure, direct and achieved with very little fuss. The steering is neutral and even when cornering hard (on the damp Mercedes Benz track at Brooklands), the feedback from the steering is such that one is able to judge the point at which grip is beginning to go with some accuracy. I am sure that the handling has been positively affected by Coventry’s decision to relocate the engine and radiator rearwards. As the cornering forces increase, so does the force required to maintain a specific line, and the necessity for such a large steering wheel becomes self-evident. The seating (built to the original geometry, but see below), steering wheel and cockpit side all support the driver well and one can concentrate on the job in hand without sliding about or having to hang on, which is more than can be said for the unfortunate passenger. The half seat, to the left of and behind the driver is not uncomfortable, and it requires one to adopt what I call a ‘chaise longue’ position. Closer examination of early side on photographs show a driver’s seat squab some 3 inches higher than the one I copied, so that’s another job for the future, but in the meantime, it’ll do.
A word about being a passenger. Having delighting in taking friends and relatives for a blast down the lanes, my brother-in-law returned the compliment and I must say that, for me at least, the left hand seat is a very uncomfortable place to be. Even the miniscule protection that the Brooklands screen affords is lost to the passenger, who with less support and things to hang on to must rely on the benevolence of the driver if nerves are not to take over. In a straight line it is just about manageable, but cornering is a different matter entirely. The best way to describe it is to compare it to a racing sidecar outfit – on left turns one tries to lean away from the driver but because of the aforementioned chaise position you cannot get the leverage, and on right turns you grasp out for the nearest handhold with your right hand. This is, of course, the exposed exhaust.
Despite what the passenger may think, there is little roll, even when cornering hard. Suspension deflection is another thing, however, as I found to my cost on the return from Prescott. Some 1000 yards from home, there is a dip in the road at the centre of which is a patched pothole. I sailed over this without noticing, only to have the engine stutter some 700 yards further on. A quick glance at the tank gauge showed no pressure and furious pumping made no difference. The engine died, I coasted to a halt outside the church and dismounted to find petrol pouring from a UJ shaped indentation in the underside of the tank. This soon slowed to a trickle as a vacuum built up above the liquid, and we were able to tow No.1 home with little effort. Emptying the tank and jury-rigging a gravity feed (imagine a saline drip by a hospital bedside) allowed me to drive the car up the slope in the garden and into the combined workshop/garage for the evening. The familiarity gained from the rebuild allowed me to later remove the bodywork complete in under two hours, although the tank took an hour longer because of (my) poor mounting design. This has now been rectified and once the hole is repaired (and the underside of the tank suitably reprofiled) we’ll be on the road again.
I will resist the temptation to fit stops on the basis that the extra headroom above the UJ created by the new tank shape should prevent a reoccurrence, and try and anticipate things in future. On this subject (anticipation, that is) it is a skill that generally I do need to hone. I have already indicated that velocity can be built remarkably quickly and, given the lack of speedometer, without one’s awareness. Wish that it were so that the reverse were true. Braking efficiency is best measured with a sundial. The handbrake helps, but when used in extremis only serves to lock up the back brakes. I will have the pads relined during the winter but doubt that significant progress will be made. Oncoming drivers beware, and Oily Tics who cut in before me when slowing for roundabouts should be prepared to have their boot punctured by two extremely robust dumbirons. Anyhow, there is little point complaining about the braking of a sprint car, and Robert Wicksteed’s eventual decision, after much deliberation, to eschew front anchors was probably made with this in mind. I concur, but there are times when it don’t half worry me.
Around town this isn’t too bad; as your writer, being a self-confessed peacock, is driving slowly enough to get himself noticed. People wave to you, let you out into traffic and are generally sympathetic to the point of condescension, not knowing that it is really Toad behind those Mk. 9’s. I am still developing my petrol station etiquette, but have waited patiently for other customers to finish their transactions (at their request) so that they can come out and watch me start it. I should have been on the stage. Nonchalance is easier, I find, behind sunglasses rather than goggles, and I do (rather guiltily, it has to be said) wave back. As one passes the last 30 m.p.h. sign and the road opens up, it is truly impossible to resist the request from the engine to press the centre pedal. With 20 mph coming from just 1000 rpm in top, running in at 3000 rpm is a joy. There is, it has to be said, a period of vibration at about 55 mph which I had put down to the usual Alvis reasons, but am now advised is actually due to wear in the splines in the sliding joint in the propshaft. This is on the list of jobs for winter, but in the meantime is easily solved by a little more speed (shame). I am pretty diligent in keeping the revs down, despite regular invitations from the exhaust note, as on the few occasions when I have exceeded this limit one can tell that the engine is doing it reluctantly.
Accidents do happen, of course, and sometimes they can be embarrassing. A stuck throttle on the Brooklands test hill at the centenary event with Wife as passenger caused some excitement, but switching off the Mag as we breasted the top – rather more quickly than on earlier attempts – worked efficiently. Closer examination outside the cafe at the top showed that the hand throttle control linkage on the carb had gone over the 12 o’clock position and caused the jam. This was quickly fixed, and down back onto the Member’s Banking we went, closely followed by a Napier Bentley being driven by a Bowler Hat (at least that’s what it looked like in the rear-view mirror).
At the same meeting a marshalling mishap had us on the MB circuit immediately in front of another Napier – this time the famous Railton – during the cavalcade of LSR cars. The (inaccurate) ad hoc commentary over the PA raised our profile well beyond what one could modestly call artistic licence, so our short-lived glory soon gave way to discretion and we pootled off to the Byfleet banking instead. Thankfully Mrs. H had camera to hand.
The unmistakable view of the Byfleet banking at Brooklands, taken from the cockpit of H6161 during the 2008 centenary celebrations
The Brooklands screen performs no useful function that I have yet been able to discern, save perhaps diverting the larger insects away from one’s teeth, but when I do relax, I find myself noticing the countryside – we are sandwiched between the Wye Valley and the Forest of Dean – which itself is a natural speed inhibitor. Driving is becoming a joy again, and whichever way I go, the return is invariably back from Ross up a hill which rivals (in my imagination at least) Prescott, with the engine under load this time, and the exhaust announcing our return.
Since returning HP6161 to its original condition, the car has seen some local road use but not on the scale that Robert Wicksteed used to enjoy. The first and second competition visits to Prescott in 2008 and 2009 were made under our own steam and allowed me to answer with some certainty the second of the three most popular petrol forecourt questions that get posed by passers-by and other onlookers:
When was it made?
How fast will it go?
What’s it worth?
On the sprint gearing that it has sported for the whole of its life, apart from a very brief interlude in October 1923 when it was prepared as a replacement for the fire-damaged No.2 at Brooklands, HP6161 will reach 87mph flat out (140kph). In 1923, the No. 2 Racing Car with a faired-in body and race gearing won the Brooklands 200 miles race at an average of over 93mph. To put this into context, when Alvis introduced the 12/50 in 1923, most sports cars would struggle to reach 40mph so it was quite an advance with the factory guaranteeing the standard 12/50 would achieve 60mph.
All in all, No.1 is a tremendously satisfying car to drive. It is a very sociable car, attracting attention from all quarters and it’s manners are generally impeccable. My current work (mostly overseas) means that I have no need of a modern car, borrowing Lulie’s when necessary, although I can easily anticipate No.1 making the journey to the local Waitrose when stocks of wine get low. Much of my recent experience must be second nature to 12/50 owners but for me it remains a joy to revel in these new-found pleasures.
Over the last eighteen years, I have also begun to understand No.1’s sense of purpose – there is nothing about it that lacks direction. In 1923, the great and the good at Holyhead Road knew what they wanted to achieve, and Racing Car No.1 was a single minded result that, as late as Brooklands in 1929 and in many fine performances since then, has borne testament to exactly how advanced the 12/50 was for it’s time. That No.1 would inform the design of the cars responsible for the most notable racing success in the marque’s history was no doubt planned, but it’s continued existence after 1924 was not. In that sense, I feel hugely privileged to be custodian for another generation.
Throughout the whole rebuild, by a curious combination of architectural serendipity and climatic conditions, the weather-vane above my workshop would reflect the late afternoon and early evening sun through the window onto the re-awakening shape of No.1 in an eerie yet comforting copper-hued glow. This vane, depicting Robert Wicksteed driving HP6161 had been fashioned, by him, some four-and-a-half decades earlier, and on more than one occasion I have felt his hand guiding me. With photographs on the garage wall from Harvey’s first excursion, the preparation for the JCC race, Jack winning at Brooklands at the end of the roaring twenties, and Robert at Prescott; I stand quietly, with my hand on HP’s radiator, surrounded by ghosts.
More details of the car’s most recent exploits will be featured in the ‘Events’ page which is currently under construction.