Continuing the Loose Fillings Blog about the
history of air-cooled racing cars …
IN 1948 THE COLOURFUL SPEEDWAY DRIVER Spike Rhiando had the idea of putting an 8/80 JAP V-twin engine in the back of his new Cooper. Little did he know what he was starting. With this brilliant combination of power and lightness, a number of drivers – and the novices Stirling Moss and Peter Collins – set out to do battle against the front-engined might of Ferrari, Maserati, Alfa Romeo and others.
A number of development strands coalesced in the making of the Coopers and one of them first emerged in California way back before World War 1. We can even precisely pick the day because it was at a car race at Venice, near Los Angeles on 10 January 1914. There was another 20th century first there too – the debut before the movie camera of Charlie Chaplin’s famous Tramp.
The wholly improvised film was largely about a bewildered little tramp getting in the way of the racing cars. As a logical step up from ‘pushmobile’ or ‘soapbox’ racing, the races were for cars which boys (no girls are mentioned) had built and fitted with motorcycle or boat engines.
Charlie Chaplin’s first appearance as The Tramp was at race meeting in the streets of Venice, California in January 1914, Cars were boat and motorcycle-engined creations built by the boy drivers themselves.
Watching all this was 17 years old Harry Hartz who had been building a twin-cylinder motorcycle engined ‘roadster’. He quickly changed his plans and was soon the champion of this new class of racing for under 19s, which rapidly expanded through southern California. In his ‘twenties Hartz was to become one of the all- time Indianapolis ‘greats’, being placed in the top four no less than five times in the nineteen twenties and winning the American Automobile Championship in 1926.
Young Hartz wrote three articles in the magazine Motor Age in May 1917, which put the history and construction of what he called the ‘junior racing car’ on the record. While early races had been classified according to the number of cylinders, a new formula was soon adopted, said Hartz.
What he called ‘Class A’ had a front mounted engine ‘under the hood’. Drive was by chain or belt to a jackshaft and then by chain or belt to the rear wheels. Hartz’ first car, as used at Culver City, Los Angeles in 1914, had been one of these but he found that it wanted to tip over on turns. That was when he had the idea of the Class B outside engine location.
Harry Hartz, standing, shows how his racer works. The Indian V-twin engine was slung out on the left-hand side, like the example below at Tacoma, Washington in September 1914.
‘Class B presents an entirely different view to the eye,’ said Hartz. The engine was placed on the left and outside the chassis, driving to a jackshaft or directly to the rear sprocket. Cars sometimes had three-speed gearboxes, but for racing, Hartz said, these were unnecessary.
With this type of car, Hartz said, he had won practically all the races run in the west; at Ascot recently he had run a mile in 54 seconds, which meant a speed of 80mph on the straights and 60mph on the turns. He had a 75in wheelbase and 26 x 2¼in interchangeable wire wheels. Such a car would cost anything from $100 to $300. ‘Interest in the tiny cars is growing rapidly and it is believed that in the near future the sport will have grown so that it will rival motor car racing in the eye of the public,’ concluded Hartz.
After World War 1 these and other cars developed into what became known as ‘midget’ racing on short urban dirt tracks. In the mid-‘thirties, this spread like wildfire to the middle and eastern states of America, where it soon became one of the most popular spectator sports. Spot fires spread rapidly to Australia, South America and soon reached Britain, where there had already been tentative attempts at dirt-track racing.
Probably with an eye on the popularity of motorcycle speedway, on 23 June 1928 the Junior Car Club (JCC) had held what it described as ‘Britain’s first authorised dirt track car racing’ on a ½ mile trotting track at Greenford in Middlesex. The final was won by Archie Frazer-Nash. It didn’t lead to more than occasional events of the same kind, but motorcycle speedway promoters, always looking for novelties, sometimes had car races or record attempts during their meetings.
For example, Light Car and Cyclecar reported that on 1 November 1929, at Leicester’s Melton Road speedway before 10,000 spectators, H Brayshaw in an Alvis had won the mile scratch race. A Shipley had won the handicap in a Salmson. ‘There was a lot of excitement’, it said, when at Wembley Stadium on 1 October 1931 ‘HJ Aldington, Mrs Wisdom and RGJ Nash drove Frazer Nashes before a roaring multitude which seemed to number about half-a-million dirt track fans:
The idea was to set up a car lap record, upon which attempts will, no doubt, be made from time to time. At the end of the programme when the ordinary gladiators had done their stuff, the heartening whine of a supercharged car engine beat upon us in the packed stands, and out into the arena came Mrs. Wisdom and her venerable supercharged model which she and her husband have handled at Brooklands, Shelsley, in trials and everywhere else for some years.
There was a tremendous roar of welcome from thousands of throats as she put in a couple of preliminary laps and then as she shot across the line for her timed lap. Her broadsiding was spectacular and the crowd shouted its applause. The tail of the car swung in a great arc; once it thumped the fence, and a wave of dirt shot up from her rear wheels in the accepted manner. Her time was 24 seconds
The evening came to a close in a highly dramatic manner as Nash – who, having burst ‘The Terror’, had taken over Mrs Wisdom’s car – hurtled into one of the bends, with the bonnet of his car pointing at right angles to the line of travel, the dirt heaped up in front of his sliding wheels, the car tilted, hung poised for a breathless second, and then, while the crowd leapt to its feet, went right over against the fence. Happily no one was hurt, and crowds roared and cheered its relief. I have never seen such enthusiasm for a car event.
Eventually this activity came to the attention of the powers-that-be, the Competitions Committee of the Royal Automobile Club (RAC). It had given a bit of thought to the dirt track business back in 1928, when it had issued a permit to the Junior Car Club (JCC) for its racing at Greenford. It had also agreed to inspect a track at Audenshaw, near Manchester. Various other brief but inconclusive mentions can be found in the minutes.
On 19 September 1933 it was recorded that a request had been received for inspection of the track at Belle Vue speedway, Manchester, with a view to issuing permits. The committee agreed to carry out an inspection and then, on 11 December, without further explanation, it was minuted, ‘Speedway car racing on loose cinder tracks did not constitute car racing as visualised by the RAC General Competition Rules.’ The Competition Secretary noted, ‘not to control’ and that a sub-committee was to ‘deal with what is required’.
Only a few weeks later it is briefly recorded that the ‘Committee considered a reference back from the [main] Committee of the Club re speedway’. It seems the status quo was to remain in place, and the RAC was to purport to have control of speedway car racing. Certainly an RAC permit was issued for a short lived revival of racing at Greenford on 5 May 1934 when Viscount Curzon was head steward.
Dirt track racing at Barnet, north London, c1936. Left is Vic Gillow who was a well-known Riley driver at Brooklands. Right is Les White who later raced a Skirrow.
There was racing at Barnet on a track which had started out as grass in 1929 but eventually became a dirt track. On 28 July 1936, the North London Motor Club was held to account by the RAC for its activities at what it called ‘Barnet Speedway’. Again the minutes are brief, but the club had obviously (at last?) made an application for approval of the track, it had been inspected, a fence was required all the way round and if that were done it could be ‘classified as a permanent track for the purpose of General Competition Rule No.15’. In fact it closed down and the land was sold for housing.
Even Bugattis did it. This was an unsuccessful attempt at starting up American-style dirt-track racing at Greenford, Middlesex in 1934. Photo courtesy Ivan Dutton.
While it lasted even Bugattis did it here and there but details are few and far between. Ivan Dutton has a photo of one racing, probably at Greenford in 1934 when competitors include “A.Baron 3 Litre Bugatti’ and ‘TP Cholmondeley-Tapper 11/2 Bugatti’. In his book, Amateur Racing Driver, Tapper reported that he won the final but instead of his two guineas starting money and £80 prize money he only managed to take home £20 and an IOU which he still had at the time of writing.
I have a photo I have wanted to use since I copied it 40 years ago. It shows Cec Warren’s type 37 leading two more Bugattis at Richmond, Melbourne sometime in 1932. There were also, as Pur Sang reported back in 1980 (V20,#2, pp26-27), two Bugatti-engined American midgets, one of which, at least, had a Brescia engine. I believe Ivan Dutton has one of these engines along with an interesting collection of dirt track cars. These include two of the three or four surviving Skirrows (I have another) and one of the cars built for Belle Vue speedway which has an Elto two-stroke outboard motor.
Bugattis did it in Australia too; Cec Warren leads three of them at Richmond, Melbourne in 1932.
Meanwhile, organized car-only dirt track team racing on motorcycle speedway lines, independent of the RAC, made its British debut at Crystal Palace, London on Good Friday, 30 March 1934. There was a large crowd, said Light Car, giving it a smaller headline but equal space to its report of the Monaco Grand Prix on the same page.
There were three teams, each of three drivers and a reserve. Crystal Palace was captained by Jean Reville and drove Palmer Specials (front wheel drive BSAs), Wembley Park was captained by Victor Gillow and drove Rileys while ‘New South Wales champion’ Tommy Sulman captained Wimbledon Park driving a ‘Bitza Special’. Dick Nash in ‘The Spook’ made a record attempt over two laps. ‘Cutting-out on the bends and zooming with a roar along the straights’, he was said to be much faster than he looked, with an average speed of 40.81mph.
This team racing was initially concentrated on London and the Home counties. The cars still tended to be stripped-down sports cars but it was becoming clear that modified road cars didn’t provide the spectacle that made solo motorcycle speedway a big hit and car dirt-track sensational in America. The British motorcycle tracks, with a deep surface of cinders, short straights and tight turns were not suitable for the cars then being used.
What was needed was cars specifically tailored for the job and, as with the solo motorcycles, it took several years of trial and error for a suitable format to emerge. New rules were promulgated to define the midget racing car. Engine capacity was to be limited to 1100cc and superchargers banned. Wheelbase was to be no more than 56in and track was not to exceed 42in. Wheel diameters were to be between 12in and 14in and exhaust pipes were to extend to the back axle.
One of the earliest cars built to this formula was Jean Reville’s ‘Gnat’, and late in 1934 it was announced that it was to go into production with talk of a run of 50 cars. Most of these weren’t to eventuate, but at least four were made, and at least two had 500cc single-cylinder engines.
The twin-cylinder version of the Gnat was distinguished by having a fore-and-aft, big-twin engine with the rear exhaust exiting between the driver’s legs. It was every bit a midget, and was billed as ‘the world’s smallest racing car’, a clever claim which appeared in newspapers all over the world.
Four of Jean Reville’s Gnats put on a show for the press at one of the London tracks in 1935.
In late 1935 Jean Reville took a small team of drivers and three of his cars to race in Australia where he settled down, never returning to Britain. But others in Britain had realized the potential of the big-twin JAP, and better midgets were to follow his pioneering efforts. The 1935 season had seen midget car racing expand to more motorcycle speedway venues around Britain, not without a great deal of opposition from two-wheeled interests.
The following year the Eric Fernihough inspired JAP 8/80 engine was put into production for the dirt track Skirrow Special, Spike Rhiando raced one and, after the war, he put the engine in his Cooper. The rest, as they say, is history.
Bill Reynolds took this JAP-engined Skirrow to New Zealand then Australia in late 1938. He raced a Cooper 500 post-war, amongst other cars.
By Terry Wright, 13 December 2015