THE GAS FLOW GIANT
Harry Weslake will be remembered with a tribute race at Goodwood’s 75th Member’s Meeting next month. We salute the engineer who improved some of Britain’s greatest cars
The name Weslake will be forever associated with BMC’s fruitier products. The Austin 3 Litre and MGC’s Morris-designed C-series engine relied on his company’s patents and he was also responsible for the venerable A-series’ cylinder head. But Harry Weslake’s work went further than that, with clients including SS-Jaguar as well as Formula 1 engine manufacturers.
Harry Weslake was born in 1897 in Exeter, Devon. His father was a director of Willey & Co, a local gas engineering company, and after education at an Exeter public school, Harry joined his father’s business as an apprentice, learning about gas flow technology. Like all keen petrolheads, he soon had his own wheels, and began to take part in local motorcycle events.
After his parents died, he set up a small factory to manufacture Wex carburettors. Subsequent racing at Brooklands gave his factory plenty of publicity but Wex Carburetors closed in 1926, forcing Weslake to move to Automotive Engineering Ltd, having established himself as as something of a gas flow research guru. Within a short time he was invited to W O Bentley’s Cricklewood headquarters where he was shown an 11bhp 600cc sidevalve engine and tasked with giving it more power. By the following day he and assistant Jack Connor had increased its power by more than 50 per cent. As a result, he was retained by Bentley, and was soon working on the cars it was entering into the 24 Hours of Le Mans.
In 1934 he approached William Lyons of SS Cars, offering to improve the performance of the Standard engine the manufacturer used. Fitting an overhead valve conversion to the 2.6-litre engine gave an easy 103bhp. Harry’s experience in gas flow technology, combined with his research into combustion chamber design, also helped him to troubleshoot a new Austin engine, swiftly curing its persistent ignition knock and adding to his growing reputation within the industry. Before long he was working for Coventry Climax, Riley and even Citroën.
Weslake manufactured more than 500 2.6-litre Ford V6 engines in Cologne before the fuel crisis killed it off.
After the war, Weslake set up a new research laboratory at Rye Harbour in East Sussex, coming up with the heart-shaped cylinder head for the 1.2-litre Austin A40 Devon. This design feature would later be seen on BMC’s A-, B- and C-series engines, with Harry receiving royalties on every engine the corporation sold.
Using wooden mock-ups, Weslake worked on cylinder head design for Armstrong Siddeley and developed an advanced idea for pressure-feeding self-adjusting valves operated from oil taken from the engine’s lubrication system. His link with William Lyons was rekindled around this time when he was involved with the XK engine’s hemispherical cylinder head design.
Harry then worked on the Austin-Healey 100/4, to create the 139bhp 100S and the 292bhp supercharged 100/6, which averaged 203.11mph in tests in the USA. As a result of a tie-up with BRM in the early 1960s, he worked on the Rover gas turbine Le Mans car – with the chassis and transmission drawings originating in Rye in January 1963.
By the mid-1960s, four-valve F1 engines were coming into vogue and Weslake was at the forefront, especially at BRM, where he was part of the development team for its complex V12 race engine. In 1966 a car fitted with this engine ran in the Italian GP, but suffered with fuel starvation problems. But in spring of the following year, the revised 435bhp engine helped Dan Gurney to clock the fastest lap in the Race of Champions at Brands Hatch. Around the same time, Harry took commissions from Ford UK for the twin-cam Lotus Ford cylinder head and the ‘S’ head for the works Mini Cooper engine.
Clearly impressed with his work at BRM, Ford’s marketing supremo Walter Hayes, visited Rye in 1970 and agreed an investment of £30,000 for a long-distance V12 race engine to be used in the Gulf-Wyer Ford GT40s. However, Gulf refused to take delivery on the pretext that the engines were not delivering the required horsepower, even though testing saw 463bhp, some 20bhp more than the equivalent DFV-Cosworth engine could muster at the time. With costs haemorrhaging within Weslake, Harry’s stepson Michael Daniel (who was running the business by this time), sold the Ford V12 engine programme just to keep the business afloat. However, the extensive work Harry had done for Ford’s competition Department resulted in a highly successful race programme involving the Capri. A by-product was the volume production of 2.6-litre V6 RS engines. Some 500 were assembled in Weslake’s factory in Cologne between 1970 and 1976 until the fuel crisis and petrol rationing led to its abandonment.
Two years later Harry suffered a fatal heart attack. Weslake closed its Rye Harbour site in 1983 to focus on work for the Ministry of Defence and construction of microlight engines, before turning to the research and development of gearboxes and reciprocating engines. This led to major advances in motorcycle engine design and development of a successful Scotch Yoke engine (which transposed linear motion into rotational movement), which signalled a world first.
More recently, Weslake has been involved in the production of a range of opposed position two-stroke diesel engines for aircraft and marine applications (among others) at Weslake Air Services. Meanwhile, Michael’s son Dean is concentrating on the range of competition engines that Weslake produced throughout the 1960s and 1970s under the auspices of Weslake Heritage. Thus the name of Weslake is being kept very much alive – as it will be at Goodwood this coming March.
‘By the following day he and assistant Jack Connor had increased its power by 50 per cent’
Racer Derek Bell once said that there was little to choose between the 3.0-litre Gurney-Weslake V12 and Cosworth’s DFV V8 engines.
Putting a Jaguar engine through its paces on a testbed at Weslake’s research laboratory in East Sussex.
Machining a cylinder head billet at Weslake’s Rye Harbour facility.