Introduction (by the late Robert Wicksteed)
It is not often that a fifty year old car had one owner for forty-nine of those years. This is the case with the 1923 12/50 S.A. Works competition Alvis which has been owned since 1924 by my lifelong friend A.J.Linnell.
To celebrate the fiftieth anniversary of this notable car, and in gratitude to Jack Linnell who has let me use and enjoy this vehicle for long periods over many years, I have endeavoured to write a history and give a description of H.P. 6161.
I first remember this car when it was four years old. I was a young boy. My brother, sister and myself were being taken for a walk in the country when this red and silver monster went by at a seemingly enormous speed and round a corner without slackening pace. For the last twenty-eight years I have had a sort of love/hate relationship with this car. I rebuilt the engine in 1947; I rebodied the car in 1948; I crashed it badly and rebuilt again in 1949. I rebuilt and rebodied it again with the original body in 1970. The engine was nearly wrecked in 1970 when a rod broke and it was rebuilt yet again. In 1971 an oil pipe fractured and it ‘ran’ a big end. The engine was stripped and rebuilt. The next time out it ‘ran’ two big ends and so the engine came out again. The gear-box was out in 1972 for new bearings and so on and so on. I know the car very well.
I have devoted hundreds of hours to restoring this car to fair and original condition. My wife has threatened to divorce me on several occasions because of the attention I have paid to ‘the old banger‘. Heretic!
Since I know practically every nut and bolt on this car I feel I have been in contact with the craftsmen who built it I know their mistakes, their errors, their skill in using a file or scraper or their ability to turn or mill a component. It fascinates me, as an engineer, to appreciate the state of the art of motor engineering at that time. They were exciting days of rapid development and ‘let’s try’, when almost any bright mechanically minded person had a chance to produce something as good as the best or even a little bit better.
The Alvis Car and Engineering Company completed a car record sheet describing H.P. 6161, not surprisingly, as an Alvis car No. 7577 S.A. despatched on the first day of December 1923 to Mr. T. Simister, Car frame No. 2091, Engine No. 2454 E.X. Remarks: Racing Car No. 1. Type O.H.V. Racing. Body Maker: Midland Motor Bodies, Red.
The designation of No. l Racing Car has caused comment because it was not the first car to be raced by Alvis. Captain G. T. Smith-Clarke in a letter to me referred to the car as being the ‘first so—called racing car built after I joined the Alvis Company in 1922 and was intended for freak hillclimbs (which were the fashion in those days) and sprint runs and in the hands of the late Maurice Harvey it did very well indeed.
Why so-called racing car? I don’t know.
It maybe, therefore, that it was meant to be ’12/50 Racing car No. 1′ or ‘1923 Racing Car No. 1.‘, or was it just ‘so-called Racing Car No. 1.’?
This car has been referred to in various publications giving snatches of information but a recent rebuild has presented me with the opportunity of recording the particulars in greater detail than hitherto. So, I will endeavour to write a more comprehensive description of this interesting vehicle.
It is well known by Alvis ‘cogniscenti’ that Smith-Clarke intended to make his presence felt at once and proceeded to plan for a team of outstanding cars for the next season. It was general practice to build racing cars from existing components and the 10/30 (‘a bad car and badly built‘ Smith-Clarke said) was the basis on which he had to work. During the winter No. 1 only was assembled and built ‘to the highest possible standards‘. I shall have more to say about that later.
‘This hand built car, – and I can vouch for that! – was on the road in the spring. It was thrashed up and down the Cannon Hill road to the top of Gibbet Hill and back to the factory early in the mornings. This caused such a disturbance that Harvey was advised to seek more uninhabited parts secretly to find out what would break (and he did!) I say secretly from the publicity angle only as this car made a quite unacceptable amount of noise even for those days, so we should be in big trouble before long. In fact it was banned from Brooklands around 1929 until it had made arrangements to reduce its decibel output.
to continue: little is recorded of the first few months of its existence except that an early report says that ‘the best run over the measured mile was no less than 78 m.p.h.’ They must have breathed on it with some success because it went much faster than that shortly afterwards and indeed could be made to beat that even now fifty years later.
Anyway, No. l driven by Harvey was soon making F.T.D. at sprint meetings and Hill climbs. On the 28th July Harvey scored two firsts at the South Harting Hill Climb. On 11th August he put up the F.T.D. at the Kent A.C. Sharnden Hill Climb and also at the Sheffield and Hallamshire M.C. Ringinglowe Hill Climb on the 18th August. At Thetford on the 16th August Harvey was first in the 1500 c.c. class and made second F.T.D. in the Standing Start kilometre at 36.22 seconds (picture, left). There were numerous other successes including Peak Hill Climb, Shelsley, and a first at Southsea Speed trial and even a first in the open class at Kopp.
We know that Nos. 2 and 3 were built during August and early September basically similar to No. l in many respects, with the exceptions of knock-on wheels, rear axles, brakes and bodies. One of the two, I do not know which, won the Brooklands 200 miles race at an average of 93.29 m,p.h. This was the years most important fixture in England. E.R.A.’s were the only other British car ever to win this race which were run from 1921 to 1928 inclusive at Brooklands, 1936 and 7 at Donnington and at Brooklands again in 1938, making eleven in all.
It is reported that 53 b.h.p. was obtained at 4000 r.p.m. from No. 2 Engine and No. l Engine can be credited with much the same. Reports of 70 b.h.p. at 4400 r.p.m. are much more likely to apply to the 1924 Engines. A third Alvis which filled an unexpected last minute vacancy in the 200 miles race was a slightly stripped standard 12/50 S.A. Duck’s back taken from stock and driven by works demonstration driver J.A. Brown. Why, you may ask (I hope) did they not use No. 1? It must be remembered that the Alvis Company was in financial difficulties at this time and that the next year a receiver was appointed. It behoved them therefore to husband their resources and it was apparently decided not to put all their baskets into one egg.
Website Editor’s note:
Robert Wicksteed subsequently corrected his speculation regarding Brooklands as can be see in the hand-written note on the back of the original copy of his magnum opus. It reads:
“The low profile wedge shaped tank was replaced by the present 12 gallon cylindrical tank before the 200 mile race.
This indicates that for a time they must have considered that HP6161 might compete.
So No. 1 was kept for sprints and hill climbs and they did not risk damaging it in a long distance race. Actually the body, such as it is; would be less ‘streamlined’ than a Ducks-back body and the extra weight of a D.B. body would not significantly affect the maximum speed if the engine out-put was nearly the same. In any case, I suggest that it was prudent to keep No. l in reserve as a supply of spare parts. It is unlikely that there were any other spares.
No. l had a blow-up at an early date when the number two rod had broken and knocked a hole in the crankcase, and indeed it may have happened at this time and could not be repaired in time for the race. You can take your pick.
No. 1 was transferred to Tom Simister, a Macclesfield Alvis agent, on the first of December. I use the word transferred advisedly as successful competition cars were frequently reregistered in new names in order to be able to compete in certain closed events.
Harvey seems to have driven the car after it had been ‘sold’ to Simister and it was first on formula in the class for cars of any description at Kopp and they were in action again later in the year at Shelsley. Tom Simister sprinted around competing here and there and included one notable win in August in a 10 mile race at Southport for cars up to 3000 cc’s. A three litre Sunbeam was second.
Shortly after this the car was bought by Jack Linnell for the princely sum of £250, and he has owned it ever since. He is a remarkably ready lender of cars and aeroplanes and you know how people tend not to look after other people’s possessions. This to my mind, makes it all the more surprising that the car should have survived this long in such a reasonable a state of repair.
H.P. 6161 was smoking badly when Linnell bought the car – pipe smoking that is – from the large bore straight through exhaust pipe. No doubt the inhalation of Southport sand did the engine little good. Soon the car had to go back to Alvis works for a rebore to 68.55 m.m. following a warning from the Police (pollution conscious in 1924!).
After that No. 1 was entered for the odd minor rally or competition from time to time up to 1929. The details were not recorded. We do, however, have details of the 1929 Alvis Day at Brooklands held in June. There were fifty-two entrants for the F.W.D. and 80 m.p.h. models Handicap race which was run off in two heats and a final. One enthusiast and competitor was heard to ask ‘who has the nerve to enter that old wreck?“
Jack Linnell won the second heat and the final by two lengths at over 70 m.p.h. That marked the end of the pre-war competition career although it was entered again for the same event the following year. On the journey down to Brooklands it suffered a cracked cylinder head between two ports. That was the most unfortunate thing that has happened to the car.
The head was sent back to Alvis for repair who later reported that they had lost it. (I sympathise: it would have been a difficult job to have successfully accomplished in those days). However, it is thought that the present head is a very close replica of the original head. If not, then I have wasted a great deal of time in removing large quantities of metal and in polishing ports and passages.
There is a bit of a mystery concerning the replacement head supplied by Alvis. It was a standard small port head. This I modified somewhat in 1947 but not to what I think were the original dimensions. This was because I did not have the facilities at that time for mechanical assistance or the money to pay engineers to do the job. However, much toil and sweat by hand effected an improvement. I carefully measured the results and recorded them for every valve port and throat.
There followed a year to two after my marriage when I had nothing more to do with the car and it had some appalling treatment for a cracked cylinder block. Anyway the firm in Northampton must have got things mixed up a bit when it came to replacing the mutilated block and the cylinder head. When I carried out the 1970 re-build I discovered that the head had shrunk to small port dimensions again! The 1925 head has been dealt with properly this time. If someone thinks that they have a 1923 racing head they are sadly mistaken.
From the time that the car was bought it was used as every day, and night, transport from home to office, eight miles, and visiting other factories in the family clothing manufacturing business, which were spread out in different directions and all at seven to eight miles radius. It will be appreciated that the annual mileage was considerable. There were, of course, the pleasure purposes also. How one could do any courting in such cramped yet exposed conditions I do not know. There may be no connection but Jack Linnell did not get married until 1970, forty-six years after he bought the car.
There is a splendid collection of photographs showing the car laden with camping equipment; in company with other fine cars, and at many sporting and aeronautical events over many years. There are photographs of the car dressed up for carnivals and pageants as the ‘Rocket’ (Stephenson’s that is) a galleon, a steamroller and a railway tank engine and other things. The much drilled chassis provided an excellent Meccano set type frame for bolting things there onto.
The radiator must have boiled merrily for hours on end as it proceeded at walking pace completely enclosed in strange bodywork with the unsited driver obeying ‘Left-hand down a bit – No! the other left’ instructions of the numerous crew.
The car was used less often in the latter part of the 30’s and was sometimes loaned to friends for extended periods.
Seen here with Bob Lewin
When war first broke out the Alvis was back at home again and in use as it was less thirsty than the stablemates of supercharged Sunbeam and 3 Litre Lagonda class. And so some service for King and Country in the Home Guard is recorded. Eventually it was reluctantly considered by the High Command not to be the ideal vehicle for defending the Realm against a heavily armoured enemy and the Alvis was literally put out to grass.
After the war the car was salvaged with the help of a mine detector and a scythe from the grass and nettles which had by now enveloped the machine and grown through the floor boards. The upholstery had perished and some of the joints of the ash framework had rotted.
A lash-up tail was made of aluminium from an old furniture van, a coat of paint applied, the wheels re-built with solid rims, unfortunately, and the car was mobile again.
Demobbed, I arrived on the scene and being so fascinated by the car, but not appreciating its full historic value, I asked whether I could recondition the engine and build a new body. The result was a cross between the No. 2 sister Brooklands track body and a mid 1930ish looking sports car. The bonnet was nine inches longer and the scuttle came almost up to the lowered steering wheel with two curved fairings a la mode. A Brooklands windshield completed the ensemble.
Actually it did not look too bad but it was not very well done because I had little money and had to use materials available (free).
I intended to race the car at V.S.C.C. meetings, and the like, so the engine had to be attended to. In the event little was done other than letting down a few bearing caps, scraping a few shells, fitting new valve springs, piston rings and grinding tappets and valves. That was about all. I lived above some stables at the time and I had the engine up there in my bedsitter and pushed the engine under the bed at night. The gearbox was in a shocking state but as the gears were unique I could do nothing about it at the time. Military aircraft instruments were fitted comprising water and oil gauges, vacuum gauge, and air and oil pressure gauges and the original ammeter and tachometer. They did nothing to improve the performance. The car went well, however, and at an aerodrome meeting beat the current type M.G. for the standing start kilometre. I do not recall what the time was.
I was using the car as everyday transport and covering considerable mileage for business and pleasure purposes. H.P. 6161 proved to be a most reliable form of transport and although I had once or twice to carry out running repairs it always made home.
I entered the car for an event at a 1949 V.S.C.C. meeting at Silverstone and for this I opened out the cylinder head ports. On the way there I had to take violent avoiding action at a sharp corner to miss a bus full of children which swung wide, I spun on the grass verge, rolled the car and squashed the body almost flat. I didn’t do my own any good either as the scars on my face and head bear witness.
I made a better job of the re-build which looked pretty well but it was still nothing to be proud of, from a quality of workmanship point of view, but was very light. Only the steering wheel and one side light were irreparably damaged.
The old car has in its amazing existence defied a multitude of attempts to destroy it. One incident must be very rare.
No. 1 had a duty to perform during the course of an Air Show at Northampton aerodrome at Sywell. Jack Linnell was a founder member of the club and a Director of the company owning the airfield and a private pilot of note for some forty years. I had parked the Alvis near a hanger. A Proctor aircraft did all the wrong things coming in to land; panicked; flew hard at the hanger, bounced off, clouted a Rover car and the No. 1. was hit. The aircraft was written off, and so was the Rover, but the Alvis suffered little obvious damage apart from a bent rear wheel. The shock, however, immobilised the car because a halfshaft was broken.
The insurance claim for recompense for damage caused by collision with a flying aircraft must be uncommon. I remember standing within a few feet of the incident and watching in horrified fascination. Nobody was badly hurt. The insurance people must wonder what Jack Linnell will next claim for because on another occasion he claimed for damage done to one of his aircraft by a horse which liked the taste of the fabric and ate quite an amount of one wing.
The car appeared at, and performed at, various meetings and events over a year or two and then I got married and handed the car back to Jack Linnell. There followed a period when Jack Linnell and others piloted the car to various rallies, shows and parades.
Later I was able to take an interest in No. l again and was not at all happy with its condition.
Then one day The Alvis Company decided, quite properly, to have a fiftieth birthday party. I pondered on this for some time. The train of thought went as follows -‘fifty years is a long time, I can remember No. l when it was about four years old – I am now old enough to want to see it as Alvis made it and I am sure enthusiasts will wish to see it so as well’.
Fortunately I inherited a ‘never-throw-anything-away-you-never-know-when-it-may-be-useful’ habit from my father. There were nine nights and eight days to go when I told Jack Linnell that the car should be put back to original form. This subject had been raised several times before but no enthusiastic response had been forthcoming and on this occasion there was some hesitancy in the unconvinced affirmation. Jack was obviously thinking that my eyes for the object were greater than my capacity to do the job in the time and would have taken a bet that the car would be in a thousand bits on the day.
We arrived at the fiftieth anniversary party a little late for lunch, the undercoat of paint still wet. I had to work for the last twenty-seven hours non-stop which, of course, indicated that to rebuild completely a body on this car required ten evenings and two weekends to do it in comfort. I shall know next time – but heaven forbid!
And so today in 1973 the car is to the original specification in all but a few small details. Most of the ash framework is original, and, the few replica parts which have been made are faithfull reproductions of the original parts which were available as patterns.
An unused spare tyre was damaged on the way to Coventry when the tail pipe of the exhaust became dislodged and projected a jet of hot gas at the spare wheel. On the next Journey to my works to have the offending pipe re-directed and welded I had to stop at a Give Way sign. On take—off, a gentle one, Just as I changed into second gear there was an almighty bang. I immediately declutched but the engine continued to run albeit with a spine chilling clattering. There were three hundred metres to go. We made it at tick-over speed not using the throttle.
When a piece of wire poked through the No. l plug hole disappeared into the crankcase and down into the sump my engineering training proved invaluable and I diagnosed trouble. A pinchbolt had sheared. Result: a disintegrated piston and two bent rods, a cracked sump and a badly scored cylinder wall.
The engine re-build is described elsewhere. Anyway at the time of writing the car is going well. Thus ends a general description of the first fifty years – and great fun they have been. I just hope that the old girl settles down to a quieter tempo of life for the next fifty and confines its activities to gently besporting itself at proper functions with the occasional rush of petrol to the jets at selected competitive events.
Since Robert Wicksteed penned this document some 40-ish years ago, more has been discovered about HP6161 – some by Robert himself and some by the current custodian, Robert’s son-in-law: Robert Hunt, who has edited this website. The remainder of this history section adds these details and brings the car up to date. Read on…….
The six lives of HP 6161
Genesis, and early racing successes with works racing driver Maurice Harvey; the Alvis team JCC Brooklands 200 miles victory and subsequent transfer to privateer racing
1924 - 1939
Hill climb and sprint activity at the hands of Tommy Simister and Maurice Harvey, publicising the launch of the new 12/50 Sports Car, sale to Jack Linnell and entry in various races and rallies, and HP 6161’s subsequent use as an everyday sports car
1939 - 1970
The start of Robert Wicksteed’s involvement and a series of more practical body reincarnations
1970 - 1984
Restoration of original body and involvement in vintage sport car racing, major engine derangement and laying up
1984 - 2006
Rebuilding of engine, total restoration of car and new bodywork
2006 to date
A new custodian and a return to Prescott.