All in the breeding 1932 Invicta S-Type “Low Chassis” Competition Tourer. An aristocrat among British sports cars, this Invicta was once owned by Raymond Mays – and lays claim to being the finest British sports car of all. Words James Elliott. Photography Jonathan Fleetwood.
LOW CHASSIS INVICTA
Why it’s Britain’s greatest pre-war sports car
Britains finest pre-war sports car is a title all too frequently attributed either to the too-obvious – Bentley – or, to avoid such cliches, to obscurist fetishisms such as a Marendaz, the rather admirable Squire, or Donald Healeys Alfa-Romeo 8C clone, the Straight Eight Triumph Dolomite. Of course, a case could be made for all, as well as the Vauxhall 30-98 and a few others, but the correct answer is the Low Chassis Invicta. And not just any Low Chassis Invicta, but this very one, the fruit of the labours of two polymaths of pre-WW2 British motoring.
First of these was Noel Macklin, father not only of racer Lance, but also of the Railton and Invicta marques, Fairmile Marine and much else besides. The exploits of the Australian-born Old Etonian read like a fictional character from a Boys Own annual. They simply used to make men better, braver and more adventurous then (except for Alex Zanardi, obviously). Neither was one string enough for any bow. Just as Fon de Portago combined racing driving with bobsleigh, the multifarious Macklin was a jockey, ice hockey International (though you might speculate as to how talented you had to be to represent England at ice hockey at the dawn of the 20th Century) and racing driver.
The definitive Invicta came in 1930, along with a smooth 4.5 litres engine
His first foray into motor manufacture was Cricklewood s Eric-Campbell, followed by the less successful Silver Hawk (at Fairmile, the Cobham estate he inherited in 1918), before founding Invicta on the same site in 1925. With backing from sugar heir Oliver Lyle (more of which later), he set about building sporting cars using a 2.5-litre Meadows straight-six engine to endow them with huge torque. Starting with SC and LC – the only difference was the chassis length, the latter being 6in longer – the engine grew by two litres for the NLC and A-type. The definitive Invicta – the S-type, with its Reid Railton-designed low chassis underslung at the rear, hence its name – came in 1930, along with a smooth 4.5 litres.
The marque gained all the publicity it could handle via the exploits of drivers including Violette Cordery – Macklins sister-in-law, whose adventures included a round-the-world epic – and Donald Healey, who won the 1931 Monte in an S-type, but still fewer than 80 S-types were built. After an underpowered 1.5-litre model failed to turn the company’s fortunes around, Macklin sold Invicta (which ceased to make cars, for the first time, in 1935) to focus on his new baby: Railton, which used mainly Hudson power and lasted until the war.
Everywhere are tell-tales of what made Invicta great – and what led to its demise
Our other hero was neither Violette Cordery nor Donald Campbell, however, but Raymond Mays, the desperately patriotic racer-turned-manufacturer behind both ERA (English Racing Automobiles) and BRM (British Racing Motors).
Mays’ ambition and dedication culminated in the 1962 F1 Constructors’ Championship and nearly 200 Grand Prix starts from 1951 to 1977, and his career finished with selling special heads for British-built Fords, but before all of that he was better-known as a participant, campaigning his ERAs with fearlessness bordering on recklessness. Long before his ERAs, though, came the likes of Bugattis, ACs, Rileys and Mercedes. And Invictas, this being one of two he used extensively for two seasons.
This car is S119, known as Shelsley – most Invictas have a nickname beginning with S – and one of two White Invictas finished in Mays’ preferred racing colours of white with blue leather. The first, S35, was bought in 1931 and used to promote the qualities of India Tyres, racking up a raft of victories. Mays suggested in Split Seconds that S35 was the white Invicta that he also campaigned in 1932, causing huge confusion in the Invicta world over the importance and history of this car. The answer to the riddle lay in a 1969 article in
Vintage and Veteran magazine, in which former employee Richard Chapman recalled that an entirely new chassis – S119, TL 2327 – had been delivered to Bourne, lightened extensively, then fitted with the trick 4469cc Meadows engine (7517), which ran on methanol fed through a pair of Amal carburettors that replaced the twin SU HV5s. That was for the sports car events; it used a notoriously temperamental supercharged Villiers engine – Mays and Amherst Villiers were contemporaries at Oundle public school – for racing car classes.
A truly spectacular season ensued, with the Invicta setting new records at both Shelsley Walsh and Brooklands and spending the season dicing with Earl Howe’s Grand Prix Bugatti. Bear in mind that this road car with a slightly tweaked engine was up against the cream of Europe’s racing cars and it is testamant to both the qualities of the Invicta and the skill of Mays.
Its life was barely more sedate after 1932, with the car passing through a succession of owners and even spending some time in Aden, a former British colony in the Middle East. It was there that it was spotted in the early 1960s by a holidaying friend of the young Duncan
McGregor called Ian Delaford. Delaford took pictures and showed them to his friend, who recognised its significance and, between them, the two hard-up student engineers hatched a plan, largely funded by Delaford’s grandmother: to repatriate the Invicta.
The pair bought the car in 1965 and co-owned it until McGregor bought out Delaford in the 1980s. During his lengthy ownership, McGregor not only maintained and improved the Invicta – while retaining as much of its originality as possible – but also unravelled its complicated history, unearthed the long- forgotten 1969 article and reintroduced the ‘lost’ White Invicta to the world.
It is currently owned by Lord (Will) Pembroke of Wilton House in Wiltshire. A diehard petrolhead previously renowned for his Bugatti Veyron, his tastes seem to be devolving of late, with first the purchase of a Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gullwing W198 and now this foray into pre-war cars.
He explains how he got there: ‘My love of cars can be attributed to 1980s TV: The Dukes of Hazzard, The A-Team, Streethawk. My first road car was a Ford Puma, which I loved, then a Honda S2000. Pretty much every car I bought at that stage was twice as powerful and twice as fast as the previous one, until I ended up with the Concorde of cars, the Veyron.
‘My first classic was a 1972 Datsun 240Z in my mid-20s, which quickly fell apart. Then, in my late 20s, I got a Series 1 4.2 E-type and that just blew me away, made me realise how much fun you could have at sensible speeds.’
At that point his interest in modern sports cars – so frustrating, you just cant push them’ – waned and a Hotchkiss Jeep joined the fleet while the Veyron exited. But it was still a world away from what was to come. ‘I wasn’t familiar with Invicta until I went to Silverstone one day and Bonhams had brought the TT car, quite a rough, beaten-up-looking Invicta. I saw this low-slung thing and it just blew me away with its perfect blend of aggression and elegance.
‘I knew about French and Italian pre-war exotics, but the fact that the Invicta is British through and through – everything about it front to back mechanically is made in Britain, and it was raced by some great privateer and professional drivers – just made it more appealing. And then I found out that one of the financiers of Invicta was Oliver Lyle, business partner of my great-grandfather Arthur Tate – himself a racer who had the Dieppe 1908 GP Mercedes – and that was that.’
When this car came up with Robert Glover a year-and-a-half ago, Pembroke was determined to have it, but had a difficult choice to make. ‘I needed to flog a car to buy it and Tom Hartley Junior got me a great price for my 288 GTO, a car that only a year earlier I’d told him I would never sell whatever the price. But a 288 GTO is replaceable. They’re all fast, they’re all red and they’re all fun, but you can always find one. The Invicta is once-in-a-lifetime. I was gutted to see the GTO go, but I’ve no regrets.’
That’s a relief because, not only is the Invicta the first pre-war car that he has bought, it is the only one that he has ever driven. Talk about going in at the top!
That makes it quite difficult to explain to him quite how much this exemplary machine differs from the herd, from just about anything except the Alfa Romeo 8C. Simply wondrous. It is largely original mechanically and similarly its beautiful blue leather and its Carbodies coachwork – yes the taxi people, but they also did Rover and Rootes, Invicta and Railton – wear the patina of nearly a century of constant love and use. Everywhere are the tell-tales of what made Invicta great – and what led to its demise, Macklin’s refusal to compromise. In his quest for ‘luxurious speed’ the strong chassis is made of nickel steel, the bulkhead of aluminium, the fittings of the finest bronze. There are safety nets, back-ups and failsafes for everything, like an aeroplane. There’s twin- spark ignition via coil and magneto, plus adjustable damping and much more.
Then there is Raymond Mays’ contribution, not just the carbs that it no longer wears, but according to McGregor it was at Mays’ behest that Meadows built the special competition engine with cottered rather than slotted valves, lightened rockers and pushrods, a very light flywheel and high compression, plus solid-skirt BHB pistons to run on methanol. The standard con-rods were replaced by a set with fully floating small ends and four-bolt big ends.
Then Mays lightened it. And then he lightened it some more. Obsessively. With a proper inspection you can find drill holes not just on the chassis, but all over. You can see washers that have had their edges shaved, you can see where other bits of excess metal have been trimmed or lightened. Every gramme of flab has been removed from this motoring equivalent of a washboard stomach.
After hours immersed in the rich, multi-volume history files packed with pictures and life stories, I am ready to head out – alone; Pembroke insists I will never enjoy it properly if I have the owner looking over my shoulder. My host describes his own first experience with it. ‘Having never driven a vintage car, I was very much taking the plunge. I took the Invicta around the test track at Bicester and crunched all the gears, couldn’t get it into gear or out of gear, I’d never had to double-declutch before, but you couldn’t take the smile off my face.
‘I practised at home before I went out on the public roads. At the moment I love doing weekend pub runs in it, but I would really want to do Shelsley Walsh, or Goodwood or Silverstone. The thing is, I have to be so careful with that unique Mays-tweaked engine, and to look after it. So maybe some demonstrations and light trials would be more suitable.’
Was he suggesting I take it easy? Nah, probably not. I fire up the Invicta with a bit of retard and allow the noise to wash over me. It is a deep, dirty, Spitfire-esque guttural roar. Purposefully move it into first (everything with this gearbox must be done purposefully) and it squirms away in such a manner that you know second will suffice for getting off the line.
What you notice immediately is the huge surges of torque. I defy anyone not to distract themselves by experimenting over and over to find out exactly what that torque is capable of. For the record, after much and repeated in- depth investigation, I can confirm that in top it will pull from 10mph (just a few hundred rpm) all the way up to 100mph. Uphill.
The Invicta does feel light on the road and zipping along country roads at the prescribed 60mph is exactly where this car is in its element. The four-speed gearbox isn’t actually that recalcitrant for a pre-war car and the more you use it the more you want to, ramping up your forcefulness as you get more confident. That said, as in any car where it isn’t all idiot-proof, a good gearchange and banging it cleanly both up and down the ‘box with shifts at 2500-2750rpm can still be really satisfying.
The Manes steering is really surprisingly light, but well-geared and very accurate, while the brakes actually seem to stop it. It even has a decent turning circle. In terms of balance, that low-set engine, Mr Bluebird’s ground-hugging underslung chassis and the low centre of gravity plant the compact Invicta fantastically, which makes sweeping through bends almost as delightful as blasting out of them, especially as the Dunlop Racing tyres give great stiction. The original leaf springs, coupled with the live axle and Hartford friction dampers at the back (there’s a solid beam axle at the front) make the car ride better and softer than many. Overall, it’s a vintage car that remains extremely capable, highly usable and fast enough to keep up with modern traffic almost a century on. And that is remarkable.
Don’t just take my word for it. Alain de Cadenet has long been a champion of the Low Chassis, driving the ex-Donald Healey car thousands of miles and once famously proclaiming: ‘It’s my favourite car and much better suited to touring than my Alfa 8C.’
Pembroke – who is well aware that he is blessed in his pre-war motoring experiences – is so equally and conspicuously besotted that it is impossible to begrudge his good fortune: At 40-50mph you get the same sensations as doing 200mph in the Veyron. The sound and smell are addictive.’ Well, quite.
And you can add me to that list of devotees.
Just one question remains: will Pembroke’s next purchase be older still? ‘I have done the London to Brighton in my stepfather’s 1902 Panhard – it’s been in his family from new – but I don’t think I’ll be buying a veteran any time soon. That said, they do look quite fun…’
Clockwise from above: These hands had never steered a pre-war car until they were laid on the Invicta; low-slung yet square-set styling; a badge that graced so few cars yet remains in the firmament of true greats; gearshift requires commitment. Clockwise from top left: In its element along a British country road, the type that has changed little since the Invicta was new; interior is simple and elegant; adjustable dampers are evidence of sophisticated spec; Meadows straight-six bellows through these exhaust pipes. Top and above: Record-setting Raymond Mays, in trademark beret, at Shelsley Walsh in 1932; Will Pembroke with his first pre-war car.