Loaded with carbs. The straight-eight-powered Skinner Special started life with Peter Skinner of SU Carburetters 86 years ago – but, as Mark Dixon finds out, it didn’t always look like this. Photography Charlie Magee.
SKINNER SPECIAL They made carburettors – and fitted four
Klang! It takes me a second to realise what has just caused the loud metallic noise as I begin to execute a slow, sweeping turn in the Skinner Special. I’d forgotten that its twin rear wheels stick out considerably further than the fronts, and my beautifully judged cornering manoeuvre, which relied on the exposed front wheels for inch-perfect positioning, has just become an embarrassing faux pas as the nearside rear clipped a sandwich board at the side of the road – fortunately with no damage other than to my pride.
We’re at Old Sarum airfield, where the owner has very kindly allowed us to photograph the Special, and I’m trying to imagine what it must be like to hurl this 4.1-litre, straight-eight-powered single-seater up Shelsley Walsh or Prescott. We’ve already had to take the seat out just so that I can get in it, and my backside is now resting on a bit of scrap wood pilfered from one of the neighbouring hangars and jammed precariously over a hole in the floorpan, directly above the differential. Comfortable, it ain’t. Fun, it most certainly is.
‘The Skinner Special is like the proverbial woodman’s axe that has evolved into a chainsaw’
Old Sarum is just outside Salisbury, which is where the family that owns this car has its business. And the family business is very much linked with the car. Burlen Fuel Systems remanufactures genuine SU, Amal and Zenith carburettors – and this car is called the Skinner Special because it was first built for Carl Skinner, of Skinner’s Union, better known to millions of motorists as SU Carburetters (always spelt with an ‘e’, not an ‘o’.)
A visit to Burlens headquarters is a real eye-opener. It’s housed in a nondescript industrial unit, and there’s little to give away from the outside just how much stuff is contained within – literally tons and tons of components for carburettors (sorry, ‘carburetters’) and fuel systems, a lot of it new/old stock that dates back before World War Two. But equally impressive is the sheer enthusiasm evidenced by the offices of managing director Mark Burnett, and his fellow directors and brothers Jamie and Andy, which are packed with automobilia and generally cool car-guy stuff. I was particularly taken with the genuine, tripod-mounted WW1 Vickers machine gun.
While admiring a period hot-rod tucked away in one of the storage areas, I spot a slightly battered, bright red alloy bodyshell hanging high-up on the wall. Turns out this is from the Skinner Special in one of its previous incarnations. And there have been a lot of them.
You’ve probably heard the old joke about the woodman’s axe that is totally original, apart from having had a new handle and head along the way. Well, the Skinner Special is more like a woodman’s axe that has evolved into a chainsaw. there is no longer a single component from its very first iteration that survives in the current version, and yet it has the all-important feature of ‘continuous history’. Legally speaking, according to the precedent set by Mr Justice Otton of the High Court, ruling on the case of the much rebuilt Bentley ‘Old Number One’ back in July 1990, it is the same car.
Looking at the size of the straight-eight in the picture above, you’ll probably think it’s just as well there’s nothing left of the original car, when I tell you that it started life as a 1920s sidevalve Morris Minor. Actually, that’s underselling it a bit, because the original Special was a rather, er, special version of the Minor, fitted with a supercharged 847cc engine and a streamlined single-seater body. It had been constructed by Wolseley on behalf of Morris for a publicity stunt, whereby this £100 car would achieve 100mpg and also crack 100mph.
Needless to say, that wouldn’t satisfy the Advertising Standards Authority today; the car must have cost a small fortune to build, and it could only manage the two extremes of performance by having a change of SU carburetter halfway through – a large one for the high-speed runs with a ‘blower’ fitted, and a tiny one for maximum economy. But, rules suitably bent, it was officially clocked at 100.39mph and 107.4mpg, on which basis Morris felt entitled to proclaim it as the ‘£100/100mph/100mpg car’.
By this time, August 1931, the SU Company Ltd had been owned by Morris for almost five years, the business had been struggling in the depression after World War One, and Morris was its salvation, fitting its products across the huge range of vehicles in the vast Nuffield Organisation, thomas Carlyle ‘Carl’ Skinner had founded SU with his brother Bert in 1910, and he continued to run SU as general manager after the buy-out. Being ‘in’ with Morris allowed him to acquire chassis and engines on what might be judged a rather informal basis.
By pulling a few strings, in 1932/33 Carl was able to present the ‘triple-ton’ Minor to his son Peter to use in competition, the Minor chassis was replaced with a copy made of higher-grade materials and with extra crossmembers, and its streamlined body was swapped for a skimpier version built by Morris Commercials. In this form it was driven by Peter with considerable success in hillclimbs and sprint events.
Carl’s daughter, Barbara, was also a keen driver and she was given her own competition car, also built on a Morris Minor chassis and in fact using a spare supercharged engine from the triple-ton Minor. Her car was named the White Minor, and for the sake of clarity her brother’s Special was often referred to as the Red Skinner Special. Barbara went on to marry the well-known Special builder, driver and journalist John Bolster, but was killed in an awful traffic accident during the black-out in 1942. While travelling with John in their left-hand-drive Fiat Topolino on a foggy night, he pulled out into the path of a dimly lit oncoming bus, and Barbara took the full impact.
Peter Skinner would be involved in dramas of his own making, for he abandoned his wife and two young children in 1953 after having an affair with a recent widow and giving her a daughter; he then fled with his replacement family to South Africa. But all this turmoil was still a couple of decades in the future when he acquired the Red Skinner Special. In the less-complicated days of his youth, he enjoyed a rewarding few years competing with it, one early triumph being an 850cc class win at Shelsley Walsh in September 1933, which set the Morris cat among the Austin and MG pigeons. As the ’30s progressed, however, Peter and his father Carl decided it needed to be upgunned – which they did in some style in 1937, by shoehorning a 4168cc Hudson straight-eight into the Minor chassis.
To go with the engine, the Red Skinner Special gained a new body. It’s rumoured that this might have been an early commission from the Jensen brothers and it was certainly a lot more handsome than the previous effort. Clothing the eight-cylinder engine on a 6ft 6in- wheelbase chassis with a 3ft 6in track was a challenge but, with 138bhp to propel just 635kg, the reborn Red Skinner Special was a real tyre-burner and it took several class wins and awards at Shelsley. In the last-ever meeting to be held there before the war, Peter Skinner’s was the second-fastest Shelsley Special – just after his brother-in-law John Bolster’s.
After being laid-up for the war, the Red Skinner Special was bought in 1946 by Birmingham garage owner Ted Lloyd-Jones. He ran the Triangle Service Station at Shirley, near Solihull, and renamed the car the Triangle Skinner Special. More significantly, because the chassis was then showing signs of fatigue, he had a new one built with an extra foot in the wheelbase and track seven inches wider, the ’1937 body was ditched in favour of a taller, more rounded one with a central seating position, and a streamlined radiator cowl. Oh, and those twin rear wheels became an option.
After making a few engine tweaks, Lloyd-Jones improved his times in the Special considerably – but he sold it in 1950, to concentrate on a new project. By then simply referred to as the Skinner Special, it ended up being used by Arthur Owen for hillclimbs and sand races in Jersey during the early-to-mid ’50s, before beginning the metaphorical downhill slide that afflicts so many ageing competition cars, the Hudson engine blew up and was replaced by a Jaguar XK unit and then a Cadillac V8. Eventually, by then engine-less, it was bought in 1970 by Michael Browne, who began a six-year restoration that resulted in the meticulously recreated Special you see here.
‘My backside is resting on a bit of scrap wood, directly over the diff. Comfortable, it ain’t. Fun, it most certainly is’
The rebuild involved yet another change of chassis, however – which makes a total of four, if you count the original triple-ton Minor’s; a replacement Hudson engine and gearbox; and another body, the one that currently hangs on the wall of the Burlen storeroom is the Ted Lloyd-Jones version, and Browne had a close replica fabricated. Notice the triangular badge in the nose, as it was in Lloyd-Jones’ ownership, and the several cooling slots that have been cut into it either side and above the main radiator openings, giving it a kind of steampunk/ medieval knight’s helmet appearance.
Thats because the engine will overheat in the blink of an eye,’ grins John Burnett, semi-retired proprietor of Burlen Fuel Systems and father of Mark, Jamie and Andy, who has joined us in his daily driver Jensen 541, a car he’s owned since the early ’70s. (this is one very cool family.) ‘When we acquired it, the charging system didn’t work, so you’d arrive at a hillclimb with a full battery and hope it would last the day. You had to gamble on whether you could afford to switch on the electric fan or not.’ Because of its history with SU, John felt he had to bring the car home, so to speak, by buying it in 2011 from previous owner Andrew Harding, who himself had bought it from the late Michael Browne’s executors in 2000. Andrew had campaigned the car extensively and John has continued the tradition, although he professes to be a ‘lazy’ competitor: ‘As Andrew told me, one of the Skinner Special’s great advantages is that you don’t have to fiddle around with it endlessly in the paddock before a run. You just push the button and off you go!’
And now it’s my turn to find out how easy – or otherwise – this 4.1-litre missile is to drive. Even with seat removed and plank of wood substituted, it’s a tight fit. I’m pretty much wedged in by the cockpit sides, and the top of the aeroscreen is actually lower than the end of the bonnet in my sightline. Pedals are arranged either side of the central transmission tunnel: clutch positioned high on the left, brake and throttle lower on the right. If your joints permit such contortions, the latter seem nicely set-up for heel-and-toeing; my feet are simply too big. At least, that’s always been my excuse.
To misquote the old road test cliche, the gearlever falls neatly to gland – because it’s located between your thighs, in best Carry On tradition. Once you’ve adjusted to this unusual position, however, it’s easy to use, with a conventional H-gate to accommodate three speeds plus reverse – first being left and down, second and third on the right, here’s at least nominal synchromesh but you don’t need to do much gearchanging anyway because the engine has the proverbial stump-pulling torque. ‘At Wiscombe Park I use second, full stop, because it’s slightly downhill and changing gear just loses you time,’John had explained, earlier.
The steering is delightfully light, and the hydraulic brakes feel more than adequate for such a light machine. It rides comfortably, too. But without a doubt, the Skinner Special’s crowning glory is that eight-cylinder engine. You’d expect it to sound fabulous, and it does, with that transatlantic water-down-a-drainpipe burble that sounds so exotic to us Brits. Apparently, it’s safe to rev to 5000rpm – but only for short periods, since it has ‘splash’ rather than pressurised lubrication. It works well enough and long enough for sprints, anyway.
Which, sadly, is all I’m able to manage within the confines of Old Sarum’s perimeter roads. John says he finds the twin rear wheels make it want to push straight on in corners but, as Charlie Magee’s brilliant opening shot to this feature shows, the situation’s very different when you hit a bit of loose, then, oversteer is available for the asking – trust me, that isn’t driver skill on display there!
Setting aside trivial matters such as legality, I’d love to try this car on the road, where I think its combination of predictable handling, good braking and strong performance would be enormous fun. John Burnett is similarly smitten. ‘It’s such a beast, such an adrenaline rush, and it’s far braver than I am.’ Which is all you could want from a car like this, really.
TECHNICAL DATA FILE SPECIFICATIONS 1948 Skinner Special
Engine 4168cc sidevalve straight-eight, four SU HV3 carburettors, coil ignition
Max Power 138bhp @ 4900rpm / DIN nett
Max Torque 269lb ft @ 2800rpm / DIN nett
Transmission Three-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Worm and wheel
Suspension Front and rear: beam axles, semi-elliptic leaf springs, lever-arm dampers
Brakes Hydraulic drums
Weight 750kg (est)
Top speed 85mph (est)
‘Its crowning glory is that eight-cylinder engine. You’d expect it to sound fabulous, and it does, with that transatlantic water-down-a-drainpipe burble’
Clockwise from left A tall driver such as Drive-My’s dep ed sits on rather than in this Special; straight-eight gets hot very quickly in such a confined space, but is otherwise well-mannered. Anti-clockwise from above: Mark Burnett gives Drive-My’s Mark Dixon some driving tips; scrutineering stickers are evidence that this car has been well-used as intended; Dixon activates launch control; side exhausts produce a wonderful straight-eight burble. Anti-clockwise from facing page: Exposed front wheels make the car easy to place – if you remember the twin rears; 1947 Prescott Hillclimb plaque adorns dash; aeroscreen by Avro; suspension features lever-arm dampers and hydraulic brakes.