Squire Car Manufacturing Company: man and machine

Drive-My and John Colley 2017 / 2018

The Greatest Folly of Youth. The UK’s finest pre-war sports car and the kid who built the Squire. Squire: man and machine. How Adrian Squire created an Alfa 8C-baiting sports car on a shoestring. The Squire was one of the finest pre-war cars ever to turn a wheel, yet it was dreamt up by a single-minded schoolboy. James Elliott recounts the remarkable tale. Photography John Colley.

There is no energy source in the universe quite so powerful and intoxicating as youth. As people age, they tend to compromise, to settle, to reach no longer for the stars but for their spectacles – and then only to see restrictions and obstacles wherever they look. They rationalise.

Youthful vigour (or arrogance, depending on your age) recognises no such bounds nor commonsense limitations. Nothing is impossible. Of course, often the result of youngsters failing to acknowledge the protocol of what they should and shouldn’t be able to achieve at their age is catastrophic failure. Yet occasionally they leave a legacy, an historical aberration that reminds us all that if you don’t chance your arm you may never fail, but you sure as hell won’t succeed.

Such attitude as this has fuelled industrial, cultural and digital revolutions and – apart from the 1960s and the present day – this spirit was arguably never more prevalent than between the wars. For example, could you imagine someone barely out of their teens today setting out to be a motor manufacturer without being the son of an indulgent oligarch father? And not just of glassfibre specials or low-rent kits, but of a car designed using superlatives – a credible rival to the homegrown likes of Lagonda, Invicta, and Aston Martin, or transatlantic greats such as Cord and Auburn, or, dare we say it, the titan of pre-war sporting motoring, Alfa Romeo.

Yet that is the story of Squire.

If you haven’t heard of the firm, that is because only seven cars were built at the small works on Remenham Hill, just outside Henley. But what was made was magnificent. And the fact that the venture was dreamed up, financed and created by a bunch of kids is the stuff of Hollywood.

The wonderfully talented Adrian Squire (see facing page) was in his early teens when he came up with concept for the car that he wanted to create – and even went as far as to design his own six-page catalogue for the lightweight open two-seater 1½-litre four-pot. The nascent engineer’s certainty about what his car would be at such an early age is remarkable, but then his ambitions were lofty. According to Squire’s own teenage notes, it would be packed with cuttingedge technology. It would focus on unsprung mass, lightweight construction and a low centre of gravity. It would be the finest British sports car ever produced.

Squire was just 21 when he set up his own garage with financial backing from a clutch of friends. He then toiled for three years to turn his sketches and spec sheets into a rolling reality. By August 1934, however, he had a car. And what a car.

Although it deeply hurt Squire to shelve his dreams of an entirely bespoke design, including its own engine, he adopted the naturally aspirated Douglas Ross-designed 1496cc R1 dual-overhead-cam unit from British Anzani. That was originally due to be inserted into a relatively spartan small sports car that would rival and, at £795, undercut Hubert Charles’ MG K3 Magnette. However, one of Squire’s backers, schoolfriend Jock Manby-Colegrave, intervened and redirected the project upmarket.


From top: control for ENV pre-selector gearbox sits behind cut-out in dash; Art Deco badge and quickrelease rad cap; stylish tail conceals the spare wheel. Clockwise, from main: the car’s simple fascia is wellstocked with gauges and dominated by vast fourspoke wheel; neat body has luggage space hidden under a rear-hinged lid. From top: four-pot motor is fed through Roots-type blower; neat weather gear; car’s Ranalah coachwork looks well-resolved and sleek, especially in profile. From top: Squire utilised Anzani dohc motor; nicely trimmed rear; trafficators concealed in flanks; ‘our’ car on the 1936 RAC Rally and at Brooklands in 1937.


A David Brown Roots-type blown version of the straight-four (with Squire cast into the inlet manifold and nothing to identify it as an Anzani unit) was specified, fed by a single SU carburettor. Offering 110bhp at 3000rpm once fettled, and driving through the impressive Wilson ENV epicyclic pre-selector four-speed transmission, it was housed in a supremely sturdy dual-cruciform-braced ladder-frame chassis that was underslung at the rear.

Squire himself devised the sophisticated Lockheed-based braking system, with enormous 15 ½ in magnesium drums filling the wheels. According to Nick Georgano, the brakes were revolutionary in their day, pulling up the car from 30mph in fewer than 10 metres and being so powerful as to sometimes fracture the front spring shackles under braking.

‘IT WAS A CAR DESIGNED USING SUPERLATIVES – A CREDIBLE RIVAL TO LAGONDA AND INVICTA’

The cars became equally renowned for their rapid acceleration, the troublesome little Anzani unit with its three-plain bearing crank allegedly propelling the 2100lb machine to 60mph from standstill in just 10 secs and on to a top speed of over 100mph. When The Motor tested a Squire in 1935, its writers noted the car’s supremely agile handling and phenomenal ability to carry speed through corners. The magazine wasn’t exaggerating – when racing legend Phil Hill drove a Squire for Road & Track he reckoned its chassis bettered both the Alfa 8C and Bugatti Type 55. Similarly, after sampling a Squire back to back with an SS and Aston for C&SC in December 1992, Mick Walsh wrote that the Squire ‘felt a decade ahead in its performance and operation’, being especially impressed by the Marles Weller cam-and-lever steering.

The Squire was actually available in two chassis lengths, offering a wheelbase of 8ft 6in or 10ft 3in (for two- or four-seater configuations), the long chassis variant supposedly handling even better than the shorter car. There was a solid axle front and live-axle rear with semi-elliptic springs plus Houdaille hydraulic lever-arm dampers, while it rode on 5.25×18 tyres.

‘IT IS AS GRATIFYING AS IT IS SURPRISING THAT THE SQUIRES GENERATE FEVERISH APPROVAL’

The cars were initially clothed in stylish bodies by Ranalah of Merton or Vanden Plas, and later with cheaper Skimpy cycle-winged panelwork by Markham of Reading, but a proposed fixed-head never came to fruition.

Sadly, the Squire also came with a frankly ginormous, Bugatti-rivalling price tag of over £1220 that more or less rendered it unsaleable – bear in mind an Aston Martin Ulster was £750 at the time. Not entirely unsaleable, though: this one-of-two long-chassis was bought new by the rollercoaster riches of Kent-based motoring fanatic Val Zethrin. He ordered the first of the long-wheelbase cars with four-seater tourer body from Ranalah Coachworks, taking delivery in January ’36. Zethrin enjoyed campaigning it and showed his loyalty to the marque by buying up its remains when the firm went under later that year after just seven cars had been built.

The second owner of chassis number 1501 was Zethrin’s friend Thomas Gibson of Forest Hill in south-east London. With wife Doreen, the chief engineer of Sydenham gas works used the car widely for 18 years including continental tours as well as a trip to Scandinavia.

The Squire remained in the UK until the late 1950s, at which point it moved to the United States with new owner William Comer of Lake Park, Florida. It stayed in America for another half century, passing through the hands of various custodians, and latterly forming part of a Californian collection.

For something that was so neglected in period – in spite of its undoubted claim to dine at the top table of pre-war sports cars – it is as gratifying as it is surprising that the Squires generate such feverish approval today. All but one have survived, and they now reside in the finest collections in the world – not solely because of their rarity, but also as testament to the ambition and engineering of their creator.

They are now ‘event’ cars, and that helps to explain the furore when chassis 1501 finally came back across the Atlantic in 2011 to be unveiled by Fiskens in ‘barnfind’ condition at Rétromobile in Paris. It was swiftly snapped up by the current owner and was then painstakingly restored. The Squire has since graced both the Concours of Elegance at Holyrood House in Edinburgh and Concorso d’Eleganza Villa d’Este by Lake Como in Italy, as well as being put on display in the famous Rotunda at the Royal Automobile Club in Pall Mall, London.

As this issue of C&SC went to press, this remarkable car was heading back to the United States again, where it was due to be auctioned by Gooding & Co at the annual Scottsdale, Arizona extravaganza. It carried with it an estimate of $1.5-2m. Although a vast amount of money, it nonetheless seems appropriate for such a majestic machine, for a sensual footnote in 1930s British motoring history, and for a living memorial to such a man as Adrian Squire.

 

The man behind the marque

Adrian Morgan Squire was born into a middleclass family in Kensington in 1909. His father, George, was a graduate engineer from a church background while, unusually for the time, his mother Clare Knottesford-Fortescue was also a graduate. Adrian was one of four children, between elder sister Gertrude and younger brother Laurence, while the youngest was Janet.

The independently wealthy family later enjoyed a privileged lifestyle at Little Croft on the Berkshire Downs not far from Abingdon but, due to concerns about his health, Adrian was home-schooled until he was 10 years old. Thereafter he went to Downside, a Roman Catholic public school in Somerset.


The man behind the marque Adrian Squire

From top: getting to grips with a Vauxhall pedal car; his former home Little Croft pictured today; he wrote All Machinery Bimonthly aged nine; Squire aboard a Squire.


Even then Squire’s future seemed mapped out. Boyhood friend Benjamin Stafford- Northcote, recalled: “My clearest memory of him was his absolute passion for engines, in any form. I remember arriving at the Squires’ house when the road outside was being resurfaced. We found Adrian, aged about seven and having convinced the driver of his expertise, actually driving the steamroller up and down the road.” As a nine year old, Squire wrote and illustrated what he called his All Machinery Bimonthly.

At Downside he met fellow car-nut ‘Jock’ Manby-Colegrave, who agreed to use some of the considerable fortune he was due to inherit to fund the car Squire promised to create.

Just after leaving school at the age of 16, this precociously talented engineer-artist penned a remarkable document. It was a ‘catalogue’ for the 11/2-litre Squire and, while the style of the open two-seater body would change over the years, the mechanical specification remained remarkably consistent – particularly its low centre of gravity, which ensured ‘maximum stability in cornering’. He envisaged his car being powered by a 1 ½ -litre overhead-cam engine; the firm that built it would be called Squire Motors.

He spent some months in 1929 at Bentley but his brief apprenticeship was curtailed because by the summer he was involved in a short-lived, unprofitable garage venture in Gerrards Cross. He soon realised his mistake and sought an opening in the motor industry. After trying to obtain work with the likes of Aston Martin, Beverley-Barnes, Lagonda and Morris, his diary entry on 20 September 1929 stated: ‘Called by appointment on MG. Got job’.

The position was that of a chassis design draughtsman and just one year later, at the age of 21, he was assistant to chief draughtsman HN Charles. By then, however, and by convoluted means, Squire had come into an inheritance of his own – one that he controversially spent on pursuing his dream rather than helping his parents, who had fallen on hard times.

He bought Woodbine Cottage on Remenham Hill, close to Henley. In 1931 he transformed the front garden into a petrol station and built what he called his Remenham Hill Works behind it. Squire was soon joined by Manby-Colegrave and the works was initially used to prepare a string of racing cars that he would run.

Soon after the move, Squire re-established contact with Marion Terry, who he had met while at MG and whose father was a composer of church music. It is thanks to 42 recently discovered letters that he wrote to her that so much is known about his life at this time.

With the retail arm of Squire Motors flourishing from a showroom in Henley under the direction of Reginald Slay, work on the Squire started in 1932. There were further contributions from Manby-Colegrave and newspaper heir Gage Spicer, as well as friends, family and business associates, but the reality is that Britain’s most charismatic sports car of the 1930s was developed on a shoestring. Even so, on 25 October 1932 Squire wrote to Terry (who the following year became his wife): ‘I am VERY OPTIMISTIC about the future. We are embarking on rather thrilling plans…’ All too soon, however, youthful enthusiasm was overridden by harsh realism: the firm survived less than three years.

After a brief spell at Lagonda, in October 1936 Squire joined the drawing office of the Bristol Aeroplane Company. Two years later he was promoted to the post of personal assistant to chief engineer Roy Fedden. He was responsible for seeing the 53-litre, 18-cylinder sleeve-valve radial Centaurus aero engine into production.

Tragically, on 25 September 1940 at the age of just 30, Adrian Squire died in a German air raid on Filton. By then he had two young children – a son, Anthony, and daughter, Caroline. As his widow Marion later wrote of him, Squire had been a man ‘of exceptional brilliance… he could design, build and drive the cars he made. So often you are a designer, or a mechanic, or driver. He was all three’.


Squire the Man, the Cars, the Heritage by Jonathan Wood is priced at £100, or in limited-edition form at £200. Full details can be obtained on www.squirebook.co.uk With thanks to Adrian Squire’s son and daughter, Anthony Squire and Caroline Lye, grandson James Squire and to Mr and Mrs Stuart Gibson, owners of Little Croft.


 

A rarity restored

When this Squire was displayed at Rétromobile in 2011, it was difficult to imagine that it could ever look anything like it does today, even after a 4000-hour restoration. It had been stripped of paint, the rodents had only recently been evicted and, although near-complete, there were no spares available. Several modifications also needed to be reversed if it were to be returned to the state in which it had left the Remenham Hill Works in 1936.

In early 2013, it arrived at Classic Motor Cars in Bridgnorth for a nut-and-bolt rebuild. Work included fabricating many items, among them a replacement grille, dashboard and even the quick-release caps on the radiator and fuel tank. The original aluminium panels, meanwhile, were removed and re-beaten to preserve the original metal. The body repairs accounted for more than one year of work for CMC’s head panel beater Luke Martin. With the coachwork complete, the trimming was undertaken by Tom Hampton, who had previously resuscitated the interior of another Squire, X103.


Squire sport car resto


The restored car made its public debut at a special gathering at the Phyllis Court Club in Henley on 17 November 2015. Then, four of the surviving Squires were reunited to coincide with the publication of Jonathan Wood’s exhaustive history of the marque. The cars were joined by members of the Squire family, the event representing the largest comingtogether of the marque since the cars left the Remenham Hill Works in the 1930s.


 

Valfried Zethrin

The first owner of this car was a sportsman, motor racer and fanatic who was so entranced by the Squire that he tried to keep the marque on life support long after its founder had given up. Of Prussian extraction, Valfried Zethrin was born in London and indoctrinated into the joys of motorsport by his godfather, racer Arthur Andrews.

In July 1935, aged 25, Zethrin was doing the lap-charts for his godfather at Brooklands when he met Adrian Squire, later persuading Andrews to fund his purchase of the Vanden Plas long-chassis tourer. Zethrin competed with the car in both the 1936 RAC Rally (partnered by JJ Boyd-Harvey) as well as the 1936 and ’1937 Brooklands Junior Car Club Members’ Days, setting a best lap of 87.5mph.

When Squire went into voluntary liquidation, Zethrin snapped up everything that was left and tried to keep the marque alive, but managed to shift only two cars before the outbreak of WW2.

Post-war, he again tried his hand at motor manufacture, reinventing the Squire as a simplified sports car, the Zethrin Rennsport. With the Anzani R1 engine replaced by a Riley unit in a Benjamin Bowden body, the car never really went beyond a concept.


Valfried Zethrin and 1936 Squire 1 1/2 Litre Tourer


TECHNICAL DATA FILE 1936 Squire 1 ½ Litre Tourer

ENGINE: 1,496 CC Anzani DOHC Inline 4-Cylinder Engine  David Brown Roots-Type Supercharger Single SU Carburetor

POWER: 110 HP at 5,000 RPM

TRANSMISSIONS TYPES: 4-Speed Wilson ENV Pre-Selector Manual Gearbox  / 4-Wheel Hydraulic Finned Alloy Drum Brakes / 4-Wheel Solid-Axle Suspension with Semi-Elliptical Leaf Springs and Shock Absorbers


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