Hornet's Nest

Octagon Newsletter May 2000

By Peter Lee

All of us have heard at least one story of the enthusiast who discovers a vehicle long since forgotten by its owner. How many of us have fantasized about finding the car in the barn? The dream of opening those doors with the cracked and peeling paint, the rusted padlock and matching hinges to reveal a prize entombed many years before. I could probably continue with "All it needed was a rub over with an oily rag then primed with fuel and " But you've all had this daydream, and I'm way ahead of myself, let me start this story from the beginning.

During a trip to Vancouver, I was standing in a body shop admiring a recently restored 'E' type Jaguar body shell when I picked up on a voice behind me saying, "If anyone wants any old car magazines there's a pile there, help yourself". Anyone who really knows me would recognise this as an offer not to be refused, rifling through the pile to find the oldest and or most interesting, I carried away all I could safely hold. Upon my return home, an enthusiastic "Look what I've got", directed at my wife was countered with 'that look' you know the one, the 'just what we need, more magazines' look. Undeterred, I concealed them under my chair to be perused at a later date. The said later date arrived and flipping through the pages, a letter caught my attention. It was requesting any information on "March specials" and in particular Wolsley's'. The two words "March specials" had activated a memory of long ago.

The location was probably somewhere like Prestcott or Shelsley Walsh where a vintage sports car meeting was being held. The date would have been the summer of 1957 and I would still have another year to go before my application for a driving license could be posted. Until then, I had to satisfy myself by watching rather than driving. Being an apprentice at a fairly large garage had placed me in quite a privileged position. My employer owned a large share in Mallory Park racing circuit and always supplied the breakdown staff and I was a part of that staff, whenever possible. Consequently my interest in cars was divided into two distinct parts, ancient and modern. The modern was sports/racing cars of that era, TR - MG - Lotus - AC - Elva, etc. It was very enjoyable to watch racing, but completely out of my reach considering the pay cheque of an apprentice.

The ancient, however, was a different matter. Pre-war sports cars such as Singer, Triumph and MG were available for a pittance. Being certain I could borrow a pittance from some one in my family if I was desperate enough, I always took a tour round the car park in search of a 'for sale' sign on a suitable vehicle.

Naturally, amongst the dross through which I was searching, there was the exotic to catch my eye, Zagato bodied Alfa Romeo 6C or Riley MPH were two I remember lusting after. On this particular day, I was in the company of my Uncle, the proud owner of a Singer Le Mans and the only way I could get to these obscure venues. Whilst browsing through the car park, he pointed out a rather nice Alvis commenting "That's a March special". The sleek flowing lines, that started with an upright radiator were typical of an early 1930s car. The vehicles I was most conversant with were Singer and MG, both of these having fuel tanks and spare wheels across the back of the car. Functional, cost and space efficient though they may be, esthetics and streamlining left a lot to be desired, but here in front of me was a body-style of excellence, an elegant tapering tail that enveloped all of the 'ugly bits' that adorned the rear of lesser makes. From the tip of that tail to the two huge headlamps (Lucas P100's?) it was quite beautiful. On the badge bar, just underneath those headlamps, was a march hare, either in chrome or brass, my memory misses this detail, standing on hind legs, front legs extended, like a dog begging and ears vertical waiting for the sound of a lurcher that will send it coursing desperately downhill. This beautiful Alvis was duly entered into my mental filing system under the heading of 'If I ever have enough money'. There were undoubtedly other vehicles in the same file but the two that have endured are a Type 35b Bugatti and an Aston Martin Ulster. The file's still open; some dreams are given up easier than others.

Most of the vehicles acquired by me can be placed in the 'It'll be fine after I fix it' category. My first, despite my aspirations towards a sports car, was a 1937 Hillman 10. In hindsight it was the best vehicle I could have had, it taught me many lessons about motoring and was relatively forgiving towards the unsympathetic abuse heaped upon it by an eighteen year old, after all I only paid (in old pounds) 7.10 shillings and it lasted a year. The second was really up market, for 25 pounds my prize was a 1947 Jaguar one and a half litre sports saloon. The reason for the princely sum the rear axle had broken off its saddles and was rolling up and down the springs during acceleration and braking. 'It'll be fine ' Indeed it was for a time, but I was nineteen and even a sports saloon was no substitute for a genuine sports car.

This was made clear to me when a good friend rolled up in his latest acquisition, a Wolsley Hornet. It featured all the things a young man dreams of (in a sports car that is) fold flat screen, copper exhaust, cycle wings, remote gear change and, to quote the slang of the day, 'A real tart trap'. Now Keith, the owner, was a cook and this was his first car. Having read about hydraulic brakes, he checked the reservoir and, finding it empty, duly filled it with oil. Unfortunately, in his ignorance, he chose Castrol XL. I, upon hearing of his proud achievement, felt it necessary to speak my involvement with Wolsleys began.

Feeling quite envious of Keith, I decided to look in earnest for a similar vehicle, fortune again was smiling upon me? after all these years I can add the question mark, because only days afterwards another friend of mine offered me an MG. The price? 50 pounds, the catch?, he couldn't get it to run. Yes you've guessed it 'It'll be fine when'. Being familiar with the single overhead cam engines of a Singer made it easy to check a 'P-Type' MG. The camshaft was a quarter turn out, it didn't stand a chance of running. Armed with the confidence of youth, I quickly paid the fifty pounds before resetting the camshaft (just in case he changed his mind). Before long the little engine burst into life and very nearly into flames as well. The carburettors were leaking fuel from every joint! Accompanying confidence was a large amount of innocence (or most probably ignorance) and as the carburettors were on the opposite side of the engine to the exhaust I decided to risk driving it home. Shortly after that I took to wearing a St. Christopher, obviously someone was looking after me so any extra insurance was worthwhile. The problems with the MG turned out to be, not just timing and fuel, a compression test resulted in four very different readings. Upon removing the cylinder head a variety of faults were discovered. Broken piston rings, burnt valves and a cylinder liner out of place meant a complete strip down was inevitable. It was during the next few weeks, that I was to realise the similarities of the Wolsley and the MG and begin my involvement with the latter for years to come.

The magazine requesting information on March specials was about seven years old, which in restoration terms can be a blink of the eye and, as the request was accompanied with an address, I decided to write. My curiosity had been reawakened, the reply was a story that would make finding a car in a barn to be an everyday occurrence.

In 1967 Barry was, for some reason, visiting a chalk pit close to where he lived when he discovered an abandoned car. Even though it had been vandalised, enough remained for it to be identifiable. Unfortunately, it was "only an old Wolsley", his words, not mine, because nowadays almost any sports car of that vintage would be described as desirable. In that time, it was very different. An "old Wolsley" didn't make the grade, almost as a matter of interest a few items were removed as prizes to be kept. These included a horn and a badge with 'March' written on it. The vehicle was of great interest to Barry, but being short of money and, not having storage space, meant walking away from it. The story now jumps twenty years, much water had flowed under the bridge and fortunes had changed, time, space and money were now more available. The question being was the Wolsley still there? Here I take a direct quote from his letter the remains were still there, but in poor state I decided it was worth doing something with, but where to start?

My research had proved that it had passed through the hands of various RAF officers and ended it's days at RAF Upavon from where it was 'dumped'. I also found that a firm in London, Chas. Bowers, had taken the publicity photographs of March Wolsleys and still had the plates. Looking at the photographs of the demonstrator car, I realised that it was the same car (the March horn badge was only fitted to that car!). Rivers-Fletcher had been involved with the design and confirmed my thinking thus my letter in the Automobile in 1990.

Vintage motoring aficionados will recognise the name Rivers-Fletcher from his exploits both pre and post war and his involvement with sports and racing cars.

An article in the Automobile, printed in 1995, offered the theory that the J2 MG was the archetypal British sports car. Once more Barry was prompted or should I say goaded to write a letter suggesting this was rubbish, since the J2 did not appear until June '32, and then only with cycle wings, while the March Wolsley was introduced in April '32 with the long flowing wings!

Another theory de-bunked, all the staunch MG followers will have to re-write their history books, but the idea that their prized possessions didn't start the revolution happened years ago when the prized over head cam engines were discovered to have been scourced from the Wolsley company. May I offer slight comfort by adding that Wolsley don't come out of this appearing all holy. The lineage of the over head cam engine is quite traceable to the Hispano Suiza aircraft engine that Wolsley built, under license, in the early 1900s. Britain couldn't design an engine reliable enough, the continent supplied the know how to power the top British aircraft of the day.

But to return to the March special, Barry decided to drag home the remains with the intention of rebuilding. He managed to locate and purchase the original engine, so he certainly had the basis of the vehicle. The body being a traditional metal clad Ash frame had deteriorated to a point of non existence. He started to build a new body based on the photographic plates of Msrs Chas. Bowers and so, while visiting my daughter, who lives in Bath, I took the opportunity, during a drive in Wiltshire, to see, first hand, the subject of our correspondence. A rolling chassis with a newly constructed frame was complete and waiting for the ministration of a panel beater, so the project is on going, and as anyone who has ever undertaken a restoration of this magnitude knows, it is time consuming and very expensive. I should add that Barry is really an Austin seven aficionado, which translates into him having the right kind of madness to attempt a project of this sort. Having seen the fabric bodies he produces for Austin Sevens I am quite certain the Wolsley is in good hands. Before I left, Barry was aware that I didn't intend to return for about five years "In that case you can have a drive in her." I admired the confidence in his voice, I also look forward to the day.

For the historians amongst us, may I add that the 'March' in question is Freddy March of the coach‑building firm of Kevill-Davies & March. His son is Gordon, the Earl of Richmond, whose name may be familiar to you in connection with the Goodwood festival of speed.

As a final note (final for this article that is), if the Wolsley enthusiasts gloatingly point out that their racing heritage dates to a time long before MG, it would be polite to observe that their funding was derived from the manufacture of sheep shearing equipment, the phrase "Pulling wool over our eyes" should remain unspoken.

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