Musings From The United Kingdom

Octagon Newsletter May 1097

By Henry Stone

Whilst in South Africa, as guests of the MG Car Club's Johannesburg Centre, Phil Hill (who was Guest of Honour for the October 'Indaba' Zulu word for gathering or meeting) and myself were asked to give a talk on racing and record breaking memories. This took the form of cross talk between us, each of us interjecting snippets of information as prompted by the other's memories.

After introductions, I began with a short account of the building of the EX 181 'The Roaring Raindrop'. The very specialised tubular chassis, DeDion rear axle, quarter elliptic rear springs, conventional front independent suspension, mid-engine, forward seating position, 1500 cc twin cam engine and Shorrock Supercharger of some 2 litre swept volume. The shape was peculiar to this car. Also, for the first time, we had used a full sized mock up model in the wind tunnel discovering that it was too long in proportion to its height and width. The finished car as used was shorter. We at Abingdon had taken it to the American Air Base at Brize Norton which had a three mile long runway. Tom Haig, who was our tester, drove it at about 120 plus, so that we could assess the stability of the car's nose down attack angle. We wanted to ensure that if it hit a bump it would not take off.

Phil here said he understood that, in side elevation, the shape was an aerofoil which was intended to be wind cheating but not meant to fly. We knew the car's horsepower 298 b.h.p. at sea level, we knew the power loss at 4,000 feet (Bonneville Lake), we knew the body's total drag factor, so we knew its maximum speed. What we did not know were the imponderables such as directional stability near terminal velocity. This was where Phil came in. His job was to check if the car would yaw, attempt to turn on its axis, or run true. As Phil said, straight ahead speed would not worry him too much. He had driven Grand Prix cars to their maximum and although EX 181 had only some 7% lock to lock there was some 3000 square miles of salt to run around in before one could hit anything solid in a 200 m.p.h. skid.

Although the record was set up as a British venture with Stirling Mass as the driver, Stirling was tied up elsewhere prior to the attempt, so John Thornley asked Phil to do the preliminary runs. Phil told of his acceptance of the risks involved and also how we almost asphyxiated him on his first run. Apparently the turbo fan effect of the front wheels in their wheel boxes caused a depression in the cockpit causing it to fill up with the fumes of the nitro benzyl fuel we were using. On lift off, gas reversals back through, the carbs spilled into the engine compartment and were drawn back through into the cockpit. As I said then, the carb intake did not protrude through the body, but was behind a wire gauze protected hole in the skin, although we did have with us a streamlined intake which could have been bolted onto the hole and would have been out in the air beyond the two inch boundary layer of still air around the body. "How about that" said Phil "the car got bigger." We had surmised that the engine could breathe all the air it needed without any ramming effect from snorkels, as indeed was the case.

Phil said there was no real braking system as such. The tyres were skins, only one millimetre more of tread would have been flung off by centrifugal force. Dunlop had developed these tyres at vast expense. The single disc Girling inboard transmission brake was solely for steadying the car at very low speeds and for parking. We cut a slot in the right hand cooling duct from the nostril to the port side Shackleton radiator in the vicinity of Phil's face. It was depressed in the rear of it and prised out the front to give Phil some sort of breathable air without causing a howling gale in the vicinity of his eyes. Phil described the eerie feeling of the forward, way out, driving position with no wheels to focus on, only the far horizon to aim at and nothing with which to compare or correlate speed until one came to slow down at the end of the flying mile.

Six miles to stop with no brakes and a wind cheating body, which appeared to gather speed on lift off. Changing down through the gears to use the engine as a brake, the mile markers flying by and finally the little crowd of mechanics and others at the end of the thirteen mile straightway. Six miles run in, the flying mile, then six miles to stop, Turn around, check over and do it all again the other way, within the stipulated 40 minutes. How well Phil did his job is history now. His figures that year were never published. Stirling came along and did bit and collected the record, but had anything happened to delay Stirling that year, we did have Phil's times to publish officially recorded and witnessed by the necessary timekeepers.

As is now well known, Phil drove the car two years later, slightly over-bored and without its stabilising tail fin, to a record that still stands to-day, despite many efforts to beat it with modern techniques. The last effort failed with the end of Bonneville Speed trials in September 1986. What a tribute to those Abingdon engineers of the fifties!! So up to now, Phil is still the fastest man in that class and as we say to the fastest MG driver we shall ever know.

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