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

Classic Cars (UK) - - Welcome - Words SAM DAW­SON Pho­tog­ra­phy LAU­RENS PAR­SONS

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.’

1904 Pope-toledo

‘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.’

1923 Cal­cott

‘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.’

Reliant Scim­i­tars

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

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