Sunbeam factory hill climber
It’s a place where mythical engines burst into life and Edwardian cars seemingly grow out of the ground – welcome to the weird and wonderful world of ‘Hicky’ Hickling
Ihope you’re not going to make me look like a mad professor!’ laughs ‘Hicky’ Hickling as he steps over various pieces of snow-covered machinery and part-submerged bits of early Dodge and Cadillac to greet me in his yard in rural Worcestershire. It’s self-deprecating humour on his part, because he knows full-well how the world sees him. With multiple pairs of glasses perched on his head in the manner of Theophilus Branestawm and a first name that remains a mystery to most, he’s best known in the classic world as the custodian of massive-engined Edwardian competition cars that terrorise Vintage Sports Car Club events. ‘You’d think vintage cars are owned by another species of people, but they’re not the preserve of posh inheritor types at all. The VSCC is a club of 13,000 nutcases, who elect a group of ten eccentrics to run it!’ he says.
‘It all began with a calendar I had when I was a kid, with pictures of vintage cars on it,’ he explains. ‘I decided from a very early age that I liked these old, interesting cars, and much preferred learning about engineering and playing with Meccano to football. When I was old enough to drive, I wanted one of these cars but it would have been too big a step so I started off with motorbikes. My first was a 350cc Matchless, SMD 183 – which I’ve learned is still around and was restored and put on display in a London motorbike showroom – then I graduated to a series of 500cc machines.
‘A friend of mine who was also a motorcyclist back then, Pat Baker, turned up to my house one day and said, “guess what I’ve got?!” It was a very rare and unusual Ford sidevalve-engined Morgan three-wheeler. We took it for a drive, and once I realised this kind of motoring was within my grasp I went out and bought a 1934 Morris 10/4, my first post-vintage car – the term “vintage” correctly refers to cars of the Twenties, although the definition is very loose nowadays. That was followed by an Armstrong sidde ley Hurricane drop head coupé and an Alvis Grey Lady. Then I read Lord Montagu’s book, Lost Causes of Motoring, which led me to visit his Beaulieu estate for the first time.
‘I’ve always loved Alvises,’ he continues, gesturing towards his three self-built workshops surrounded by piles of what he regularly describes as ‘wonderful stuff and nonsense’ collected from hoards, autojumbles and scrapyards the world over – ‘Somewhere in there I’ve theoretically got two of them.’
‘I’ve had this too long!’ jokes Hicky of one of the most spectacular cars in his collection and the star of a popular online video – his 10-litre Pope-toledo, which contested the 1905 French Gordon Bennet Race. ‘I bought it as a kit of parts in 2003. I thought I could get it done in two years because most of it was there, I just had to build it. But it had gone through three or four owners – as a pile of bits – and its previous owner was too preoccupied with his Lotuses to get round to doing anything with it. I’m bad enough – I spend too long mending Sunbeams and Dodges.
‘I reckon it’ll take another month to finish. It was supposed to be done by now and I had every intention of taking it out for a drive today, but my modern Toyota Estima daily-driver let me down! It did a number of important races in period. After the Gordon Bennet it ran in the Vanderbilt Cup in 1906, then the Pikes Peak Hillclimb in 1907, before the Pope firm went bust in 1908. After this it was sold to Art Austria who used it for dirt racing – essentially motorcycle speedway, but with cars – and gave it a different, more streamlined body and fitted this ten-litre Hallscott engine. It was built by Nordyke & Marmon – the company behind the Marmon car, a great name in the early days of the Indianapolis 500 – and still has Austria’s name stamped into the top of the cylinder block. It’s a pity I don’t have the original engine from the pre-austria days, that was a 12-litre!’
Hicky marvels over the cockpit details, pointing out the switchgear which was in all probability sourced from the same manufacturers as domestic light switches in the Edwardian era. ‘It has interesting wheels too – they have both wooden and wire spokes, the added metal was for extra reinforcement during hard cornering. Originally it only had a hand throttle, no sprung foot pedal. It’s a scary thought – I think the MSA might have had something to say if I turned up to a race circuit with it like that nowadays, especially because it ought to be capable of 110mph and only has brakes on the rear wheels. The ‘diver’s helmet’-style rear lights are aluminium, as are the housings of the headlights. It wasn’t a weight-saving measure, it’s just the material the manufacturing company happened to be using at the time.’
‘This one isn’t actually mine,’ Hicky admits of this exquisitely-engineered Coventry-built light-car, ‘but I’m doing some work on it for a friend and fellow VSCC member to prepare it for the Light Car and Edwardian Weekend in March. It’s typical of the sort of projects I get roped in on though.
‘The Calcott was designed to compete with the Austin Seven and Morris Minor, but was so much better engineered. The gearbox alone, with the elegant casting of the casing and that open gate like you see on Ferraris, is a work of art; and there are two sets of drums on each rear wheel, mounted concentrically and operated independently – the handbrake works one pair of brakes, the footbrake operates the other pair.
‘As you can imagine, it was rather expensive to make in a market where the cars were being designed to be cheap, so Calcott went bust, but it’s a real shame it did because they were beautiful cars – you just need to look at the radiator grille surround to see that.’
1916 Dodge ‘Hill Climb Car’
‘Any vintage car that sits for too long in my engine workshop becomes a shelf!’ notes Hicky as he clears armfuls of parts away from a chassis sitting in the corner. A part-rebuilt engine sits clamped to a stand in the other corner, and Hicky dangles the radiator surround in front of it to remind me of its identity. It’s one of four much-loved Dodges that Hicky owns, including a black tourer that’s been roped into local festive duties and a yellow ex-granville Hornstead Brooklands racer with modular duplex bodywork that’s won Hicky 17 competition trophies, but this one has a surprisingly high-tech secret hiding under a nearby bench.
‘This 1916 car will have a 16-valve cylinder head. It doubles the horsepower of the standard engine to 69bhp in one jump. With twin carburettors it goes to 82bhp, but that’s with the dreadful valve timing of the era – the exhaust valve closes two degrees before top-dead-centre, and the inlet closes two degrees after. It’s a similar technology to the type found on vintage Bentleys. Most things were tried in the vintage era but often the metallurgy wasn’t up to the job. Nowadays we can improve on that – with a proper crankshaft I can get 125bhp.
‘The 16-valve engine uses a single camshaft, with wishboneshaped rockers acted on by eight pushrods. It’s a very similar design to the Triumph Dolomite Sprint, which won a Design Council award for it in 1973 – history had repeated! It happened again, more recently, when Honda designed a five-valve-percylinder engine. It bought a Benz engine to analyse, because Benz had attempted to increase combustion efficiency the same way in the Edwardian era, but had run into problems because it was unsure whether to make the fifth valve an inlet or exhaust valve.
‘I’m looking forward to finishing the Dodge, because it’s a car I’ll be able to drive hard. It’s easy to repair a Dodge engine if it goes bang and I have lots of spares, whereas with the Pope or the Sunbeam they’re essentially powered by one-off engines. It’s also a ‘bitsa’ car with no significant history attached to it. I bought it half-finished from an American collector and am finishing it with parts from the shipping container I brought over, plus I’ve had high-compression pistons specially made for it. Once the mechanicals are complete, I fancy making a body for it inspired by a picture I have of a long-tailed Edwardian board-track racer. I’ve wanted to make the car ever since seeing the photo.
‘The 16-valve cylinder head is rare, but not unknown in the US. It dates from 1915-16 – the Americans didn’t stop building cars during WWI, which they saw as a skirmish abroad until they joined in 1918, so American industry could afford to keep innovating at a time when European industry was at a standstill.’
They’re barely visible today, but hiding under several inches of snow are two Reliant Scimitar GTES – an SE5 and SE6.
‘I love Scimitars, they’re wonderful things,’ says Hicky. ‘I only wish someone would do a similarly-designed sports estate nowadays, with a glassfibre body. They’re a superb design, especially for a supposed ‘non-firm’ like Reliant. They drive well, they’re nice comfortable places to sit in and they have lots of torque from their Ford Essex V6s – they’re like modern vintage cars. I once used the SE5 to tow the 1917 Dodge to the Nürburgring, and all weekend I was fending off Europeans who wanted to buy it – they ignored the Dodge!’
The keeper – 1911 Sunbeam hill climb special
‘This Sunbeam was the car photographed on the startline at Shelsley Walsh in 1912, according to the definitive book on Sunbeam by Anthony Heal,’ says Hicky of the pride of his collection, housed in its very own garage. ‘I bought this as a pile of bits from a person who’d had it for 28 years as a pile of bits, and it was a pile of bits when the person before him owned it too.
‘I brought it home, built it back up, and went to see Heal with the unusual drilled conrods. Heal said Sunbeam put 14 holes in the ones in its Brooklands racer and 15 in its factory hill climb car, so mine must be the hill climber – the Shelsley photos certainly back this up. They’re lighter, but that bottom hole nearest the crankshaft makes them rather weak, so they wouldn’t have lasted long. Heal actually made some corrections in biro in my copy of his Sunbeam book – if anyone else had done that I would’ve lamped them. He believed they’d raced this car at Brooklands too and was going to look into it for me, but sadly he died three weeks later.
‘Beyond the evidence in the book we don’t know a vast amount about it – I don’t do paperwork! – but according to Heal it didn’t use the usual 4HP chassis. Louis Coatalen, who went on to design most Twenties Sunbeams, drove it in competition. I took it to the centenary of the 1903 Paris-madrid road race, which originally had to be stopped at Bordeaux after too many competitors had died.
‘It has Amal carburettors. Amals are usually found on British motorbikes of the era, and I couldn’t make them work, so I called up the company and they denied ever making them! Eventually, I had an apologetic phone call back after they found them in an old 24-page brochure in the archive, which they faxed to me.’
The Joker – Swift 3-Litre engine
Hicky leads us to another self-built shed to reveal perhaps the most unusual item in his collection – not a car, but a huge engine disassembled in a series of crates. ‘You probably know Swift as a maker of light cars, like that Calcott and the Austin Seven,’ says Hicky. ‘Well, it also built this big 3-litre engine. Most people I meet, even those who know their Swifts, say it doesn’t exist. But there it is! One day I’ll put it back together and get it in a car of some description.’ We’d better let him get back to work.
Below: Hicky has owned his duplex-bodied 1917 Dodge for more than 40 years, and has used it for all the events the VSCC can throw at it
Right: cherished period photo shows Hicky’s 1904 Popetoledo in its original 12-litre road-racer form
Above: somewhere under there is a Reliant Scimitar GTE! Hicky owns two and uses one to tow his 1917 Dodge.
Right: a long to-do list to work through before the 10-litre Popetoledo fires up once again, and tackles its next VSCC hillclimb