Ross Brawn’s #Wilson-Pilcher
. The #Formula-1
legend and his unlikely mount. Day Off Ross Brawn’s Wilson-Pilcher.
He’s the technical genius behind nine Formula 1 Drivers’ Championships. So why is #Ross-Brawn
’s passion now driving the unique London-to-Brighton #1904
Wilson-Pilcher ? Words Glen Waddington. Photography Andy Morgan.
We meet early-morning on a chilly Thursday in winter, Ross Brawn alert yet laidback, friendly without being over-effusive. He comes across as a focussed yet straightforward man, the kind of persona you might expect of someone with his career and reputation, albeit disarmingly down-to-Earth. He hops into the passenger seat of my car and directs me to where he keeps his collection, a few minutes' drive from his house.
It's an unassuming, anonymous industrial unit that photographer Andy and I are invited into, with the promise of coffee to warm our insides. Within are arrayed a number of cars, the stars of Brawn's personal collection. 'I tend to collect cars built by the manufacturers I've been associated with,' he smiles, before asking us to guess what's what under the covers. Without wanting to give away too much, we spy the outlines of #Ferraris-288GTO
and F40 - 'great on a track, if you like that sort of thing, but too fast for the road' - plus #Jaguar-E-types
and a #Mercedes-Benz-300SL
Gullwing, all reminders of time spent dominating Formula 1 at Ferrari (six consecutive championships with Michael Schumacher from 1999 to 2004), his period at Jaguar (he was lead designer on the #Jaguar-XJR-14
, which won the #1991
World Sportscar Championship), and the #Mercedes-Benz
buy-out of his own Brawn GP outfit after winning the manufacturers' title (and Jenson Button's Drivers' Championship victory) in #2009
There are others too, including an #AC-Ace
(the rare Ruddspeed-engined one, of which he seems particularly proud) and a 289 Cobra. Yet while most of the collection spans a not-unexpected era (from the 1950s to the 1980s, on the whole), there's one car in here that breaks with that convention. Massively. And it's the one that gets Brawn smiling more than any other, no matter what's lurking under those covers. It's the 1904 Wilson-Pilcher in which he completed the Bonhams London to Brighton Veteran Car Run last year - when it was 1.1 centuries old.
'We're blase about transport these days,' says Brawn. 'When this car was new, people had to adjust from riding a horse one day to jumping on and driving this the next.'
Even by 1904 standards the Wilson-Pilcher is unusual, and this one is believed to be the sole survivor. If you read the badge on its nose you'll discover it's actually an Armstrong-Whitworth, built at the company's Elswick works in north-east England to Wilson-Pilcher patents. Of which there were many. A flat-four engine, for a start, 'certainly the earliest I can think of', according to Nigel Parrott, who recommissioned the car for Brawn and has worked with London-Brighton entrants for some 30 years. There's also a four-speed semi-automatic transmission, achieved by two epicyclic gearpacks and a pair of crown wheels (one forward, one reverse) in the aluminium-cased live rear axle. It should come, therefore, as no surprise that the Wilson pre-selector gearbox popular in luxury cars of the 1930s was designed by the very same man. Furthermore, the engine is separated from the main chassis by a subframe, attached laterally by coil springs to the main structure.
'It's extraordinarily smooth for such an old car,' says Brawn.
'Walter Wilson [its designer] clearly got his head around the needs of the day,' Parrott tells me later, 'and discovered that motorists wanted less vibration and an easier drive.'
We'll find out more about that shortly. First some history. Walter Gordon Wilson founded the company in Westminster where, according to his grandson, he built perhaps the first 50 to 60 examples of his car, beginning in #1900
, and established 25 engineering patents in doing so. While his great friend Percy Pilcher was not involved in the car company, Wilson honoured him posthumously: #Pilcher
had died in a gliding accident in late #1899
at Stanford Hall in Leicestershire. #Wilson
had designed an engine for the flying machine but a last-minute fault meant the aircraft had to fly without it. Had matters turned out less tragically, the pair could have beaten the Wright brothers as the pioneers of powered flight by three years.
At the #1904-Crystal-Palace-Motor-Show
, Wilson displayed a flat-six- engined car - 'which must have been a monster!' says Parrott - but, though he was clearly a design and engineering genius, his prowess as a businessman was less assured. Already short of capital, in late 1903 Wilson had been persuaded by Sir WG Armstrong-Whitworth (of the armaments and shipbuilding conglomerate) to sell his business. That's why this car was badged as such and built in Newcastle-upon-Tyne. It is believed that 100 Wilson-Pilchers were manufactured there, re-designated as Armstrong-Whitworths, of which this one - registered BB 96 - is chassis number 52.
Henry Wilson is The Grandson of Walter Gordon. 'My father gave it to me when I was 21,' he tells me. 'I drove it on the Veteran Car Club Centenary Run in the 1990s and we made it - just. It drove my daughter to her wedding too. We had lots of work done by Patrick Blakeney-Edwards but we could make little use of it and it cost a fortune to keep up.' The family, worried it would leave the UK, reluctantly decided to sell the car at the Bonhams auction ahead of the #2012
If 150 or so Wilson-Pilchers were built, how come only this one survives? The answer is that it lived at the factory, close to the family. 'It was bodied as a fire tender and kept at the Elswick works. Apprentices there restored it during the 1950s and presented it to my father who, at the time, was the managing director of Self Changing Gears.' That's the company that grew out of the Wilson pre-selector business, and was based in Coventry.
'The Wilson-Pilcher sat in the foyer of the office block; the building was by Sir Hugh Casson, so it was quite an impressive sight. And it remained there until my father resigned soon after the take-over by Leyland.'
Yes, the Wilson transmission concern became a casualty of the Leyland empire. 'My father left to set up his own consultancy and the car went with him. It lived first at Stanford Hall, then at the Bovingdon Tank Museum.' Wilson had perfected the design of the first British Army tank; in MkV form it featured his transmission and could therefore be operated by one driver instead of four. For his wartime work, Wilson was appointed Companion of the Order of St Michael and St George in #1917
'From there it went to the Coventry Transport Museum, where it remained until it was restored by the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust's volunteers from 2006 to 2011 at the Derby works.' Walter Wilson had been a personal friend of Charles Rolls.
'I remember him as a great character; not an easy man but extremely talented,' says Henry. 'And the car was really quick when it got going.'
That's a Story In Itself. Ross Brawn climbs on board to retard the ignition timing via a lever on the steering column. Meanwhile, his mechanic Darren Glass busies himself by ensuring that the pressurised lubrication system is operating and that fuel is able to make its way to the carburettor. Then it's a swing of the crankhandle and 2.7 litres of 1904 fiat-four erupt into life with a pall of smoke from the exhaust... and very little other drama. In fact, the engine is mechanically very quiet, all the vocals instead arriving as a high-frequency phutt-phutt-phutt from the rear end of the car.
Brawn's delight is palpable as he invites me to clamber on board, and so I join him, to perch on a bench that's mounted directly above the fuel tank. 'My wife Jean sat there for the London-Brighton. I was surprised at how enthusiastic she was and she smiled all the way through, despite terrible rain and hail. She'd have had to pay a fortune at a beautician's for a facial to match what the weather managed that day! I thought she'd have hated it but she loved it. I didn't mention about the fuel tank though…
It takes a moment to engage drive as there's still a bit of work to be done on the epicyclic transmission, which has a tendency to slip, but up with the clutch pedal and we're away, without any hesitation or snatching. None of that ear-rending transmission whine you so often suffer with cars of this era, either, and the lack of roughness from that isolated fiat-four is nothing short of astonishing. With refinement of this level, London to Brighton would surely be a breeze.
Well, not quite - though it's hardly the car's fault. 'Driving it is a very different pleasure from what you experience even with an older sports car,' says Ross, slipping the lever (no clutch pedal required once you've set off, remember) effortlessly into the next ratio. 'What you really have to remember is how much you need to anticipate traffic; you have to be assertive...' (Right now, we're in the middle of the road, passing parked cars and facing down a white van that's coming towards us. We win.) 'Most of the time your hands are full, so it's fortunate there aren't many gauges to look at. You have to be aware that other road users don't know how much distance you need to stop or how much of the road you need to manage a corner. They don't mean to get in the way, but they do.'
We're purring along now, Ross measuring his accelerative success through the village by whether he can turn out from his storage facility and gain sufficient pace to make the 30mph warning sign glow. We manage it. Shortly after, we also demonstrate what was said about space for corners; another driver slows to take a look (and who wouldn't) and his car takes up the very patch of road we need to make the turn: time for a rapid exfoliation by a holly bush.
By the standards of its day, this is an easy car to handle, and - despite the intense cold of being exposed to winter weather with zero protection - it's comfortable, with a soft, bumbling, slightly lurchy ride. Yet the steering is always heavy, and the brakes don't offer stopping power so much as gentle attenuation. There's also what Ross describes as a pronounced castor shimmy through the steering wheel, which seems to be set off by the particular frequency of undulations on this road. It's the only real dynamic demerit the car suffers from.
There were reports of a Wilson-Pilcher being driven 270 miles from London to Newcastle in June #1903
, averaging 42.5mph and returning 20mpg, all the while proving remarkable for its absence of vibration and smooth running. This is a car that has always impressed. Except, perhaps, when Brawn first bought it. He immediately presented it to Nigel Parrott.
apprentices hadn't been able to get it to work properly,' he says. (Indeed, Henry Wilson had told me that they only got to the end of the Centenary Run by blowing into the tank to pressurise the fuel system!) 'We stripped the valves out and checked the timing, which was out by a full 45° - that meant there was only half an induction stroke; the timing marks turned out to be wrong and heaven knows who put them there. Things get changed over time.'
With that done plus myriad other details, Nigel found power and could get the car running without resort to bump-starting. Then he simply had to make it driveable. 'We stripped the top off the gearbox: there were no details or drawings available on how to set it up. It's a work of art. We had to get our heads round how it worked but we got it functioning properly. Then it was just a case of tightening the wheels and relining the brakes, then showing Ross how to operate it - which he picked up very quickly. He made good time on the London- Brighton; the thing certainly gets a move on.'
Which ought to suit Ross Brawn. Or so you'd think. Ironically, 'I'm not into competition driving,' says the Formula 1 legend. 'This has opened up an interest in older cars.' And just how does it pique that interest? 'I like to look at the solutions that were applied. That's what fascinates, seeing how Wilson achieved his objectives. A cam-driven inlet system is clearly better, but looking at the requirements of the engine and its atmospheric set-up, well, why not? Engineers of that era were empirical. They worked on intuition, experience. They didn't have great knowledge of materials and calculations but they had a feel for strength. Nothing here is over-engineered or crude. It's all been resolved within the limitations of the day.'
His favourite aspect? 'It's the product of one man; themes run through the whole car, rather like a single philosophy runs through a Formula 1 car. There's a quality of engineering that flows through it in a consistent way. The more I look, the more appreciative I become of how advanced it was for its day.'
The Wilson-Pilcher is more than 110 years old. And still counting.
THANKS TO Ross Brawn, Henry Wilson, and Nigel Parrott of NP Veteran Engineering Ltd, tel: 1435 813811. The 2015 Bonhams London to Brighton Veteran Car Run is on Sunday 1 November 2015, the first car leaving at 6.54am from Serpentine Road, Hyde Park. Entries open on Monday 30 March, veterancarrun. co. uk. The EFG International Concours d’Elegance will be held the day before, from 10.30 am to kpm at the Regent Street Motor Show in London.
Car 1904 #Wilson-Pilcher-12/16HP-Phaeton
ENGINE 2715cc flat-four, atmospheric inlet valves, cam-driven exhaust valves, fixed-jet carburettor with adjustable air controls
POWER 12/16hp RAC fiscal rating, max 900rpm
TRANSMISSION Four-speed epicyclic, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Worm and quadrant
Front: beam axle, elliptical leaf springs.
Rear: live axle, centre-pivot tie rods, elliptical leaf springs.
BRAKES Rear drums, rod-operated
PERFORMANCE Top speed 55mph (est)
Above and right Noweatherprotection and only an oil pressure gauge to see from the bench seat; new rear bodywork was fashioned from aluminium in the 1950s and restored 2006-11; original front wings are wooden.
'The engine is mechanically quiet, the vocals arriving as a phutt-phutt-phutt from the rear’
Left and above Ross Brawn shows writer Glen Waddington around the car before setting off for a drive. Note the vaned flywheel that acts as a cooling fan, and suspension tie rods pivoted from the gearbox.