One last time. Frazer Nash last competed at Le Mans in 1959 – in this car. Time for Tony Dron to test it on track at Gooodwood.
The gentleman driver #John-Dashwood
invited the accomplished club driver #Bill-Wilks
to share a Frazer Nash in the 1959 Le Mans 24 Hours. They'd heard about a Frazer Nash with a #BMW-V8
engine but, as no such thing was suitable, Dashwood bought this 1955 Le Mans Coupe from the Frazer Nash makers, AFN Ltd.
But hang on - the name Dashwood rings loud bells in any Englishman's mind. Was this John Dashwood related to the infamous rake of West Wycombe, Sir Francis Dashwood, who founded the notorious Hellfire Club of the 1750s? Yes, indeed, he was of that ilk.
These are arcane matters but the Dashwood baronetcy of West Wycombe is the Premier Baronetcy in the Baronetage of Great Britain. As a younger son in that line, the Dashwood who owned this car in 1959 had no title. He was just plain John and, also unlike his colourful 18th Century forebear, he appears to have led a thoroughly respectable, indeed blameless life - Eton, Oxford, 'something in the City', a nice house in Surrey, a successful marriage and two children - an all-round good chap, for sure.
After driving their car recently at Goodwood, I set about tracing Dashwood and Wilks but 55 years after the event it was not easy. In John Dashwood's case it was impossible but I did eventually track down his son, Tom, who gave me the sad news that his father had passed away in December 2013.
Bill Wilks, however, was eventually found - thanks to the 'VSCC mafia'. He's 80 now, obviously fit and happily retired in Dorset, but in 1959 he was 25 and had already made a name for himself as a quick man in Frazer Nash cars.
'Actually', Bill told me, 'I had just packed it all in because I was getting married and taking out a mortgage but then John asked me to join him at Le Mans and I thought, why not?' Dashwood, who was Five years older than Bill, had chosen well. Young Wilks wasn't just quick, he was also a proper engineer who recalled doing a lot of work on the car himself, putting it as right as he could before they set off for Le Mans, where the ACO had accepted them as first reserve.
The four-year-old Frazer Nash was hardly going to set the pace at Le Mans in 1959, to be frank, and Gregor Grant's Autosport race report stated: 'With the non- appearance of the Conrero Alfa Romeos, all reserves were called in, including the veteran Frazer Nash of Dashwood and Wilks.' Bill was well aware of that but, hey, you don't turn down a drive at Le Mans lightly.
Dashwood's aim was to take part in a good sporting spirit Even so, they reckoned the old Coupe might still be quick enough in its class - and its large fuel tank would ensure long stints between pit-stops. AFN's standard tanks varied from 14 to 25 gallons, with a 5 ½ -gallon auxiliary tank available.
Rumours that they added an extra fuel tank from an Austin Seven set off my personal bullshit sensor. No, Bill Wilks explained that they raised the fuel capacity to about 18 gallons by adding an auxiliary tank of about two gallons: 'I am absolutely certain it was not an Austin Seven tank - I made it!'
Its pace on the long Mulsanne straight in qualifying wasn't bad - pulling 6000rpm in top, which equated to 140mph with the 3.54:1 final drive they had fitted. At that speed, the kink in the straight should have presented no worries but Bill remembers getting a big shock there.
'I looked at that kink and thought, no problem, I can take this on full noise - easy!' As he turned in, the rear suspension jacked itself up, the car took a great lurch and Bill was looking into the trees. 'I thought it was Judgement Day - I really thought that was it.' But he held it and, back at the pits, investigated the alarming handling problem.
Excessive body roll was expected in those cars and earlier, back at the Isleworth factory, the legendary Harry Olrog of AFN had altered this Coupe's rear suspension, creating a Panhard rod arrangement. What Bill recalls now, very clearly, is that the real problem was not that but dodgy dampers. On closer inspection, they had been modified in a curious way, presumably to stiffen them up. 'I think I found some pieces of wood inside but, anyway, I put them aside and found a better set from a supplier in the paddock - Armstrongs, I think they were, but, whatever, they were much better.'
Apart from that, the car had gone well and Dashwood wisely nominated his more experienced co-driver to start the race. There was some concern over whether the brakes would last - some say that it had roadgoing cast- iron drums, though Bill insists that it had Al-Fin racing brakes - 'But they still weren't any good!' he adds.
Three hours into the 24, Bill came in to hand over to John. T told him to be careful because the brakes had gone but I had some sort of premonition as he drove off - I felt something was about to go wrong.
It did. The overheated brakes really were finished and John Dashwood did not complete one lap. At Amage comer the car buried itself in the mound of sand on the exit, where, as Bill recalls, it remained until the end of the race.
Dashwood was devastated, feeling he had let everybody down but you have to feel sympathy for the poor chap - it was really very bad luck.
Legend has it that the gearbox casing was split in Dashwood's effort to slow down before hitting the sand. Bill says that's wrong: 'Reverse gear did break in John's efforts to back out of the sand after the race. The steering was slightly damaged but they managed to patch things up enough to drive it back to England.
So ended the last appearance of a Frazer Nash in the Le Mans 24 Hours. Ten years earlier, in 1949, Norman Culpan and 'Aldy Aldington had finished in a blaze of glory, third overall in a Frazer Nash High Speed model, but that was to remain the finest hour of Frazer Nash in the 24 Hours. What concerns us now, however, is how the remarkable Le Mans Coupe of the later years came into being at all.
Since taking over AFN Ltd in the late 1920s, the Aldington brothers, led by the dynamic HJ 'Aid/ Aldington, had made heroic efforts to become big players in the high-performance motoring world. They had made the best of the fabulous chain-driven sports car designed by the company's founder, Archie Frazer-Nash - the man has the hyphen but the cars don't - but they always lacked the capital to become truly independent manufacturers.
That was overcome in the 1930s by a strong link with BMW. When the German company proceeded to design the world's most advanced sports cars, business boomed at AFN. The efficient Aldingtons were well-organised importers, with workshops and a talented team enabling them do far more than merely service the cars they brought in. They made parts and bodywork, modifying cars as required and marketing them as Frazer Nash-BMWs. They worked extremely well with the BMW management and engineers, who were right behind them, and things, you might say, were going great guns in the first months of #1939
When the world then came crashing down, AFN Ltd switched to war work. As peace returned in #1945
, they wasted no time in returning to high-performance cars. Had it been possible, the link with BMW would have been resumed immediately but German industry needed time to recover and, anyway, British buyers weren't that keen on German products just then.
Controversially, Aldy Aldington did retrieve some useful items from Germany at the end of the war, but that has probably been misinterpreted. He wanted to resume his business links with the German engineers that he admired so much but, in a radically changed world, he simply couldn't.
Instead, he looked for a link with a large British company. After unhappy meetings with leaders in the Midlands motor industry came to nothing, an agreement was signed between AFN and the Bristol Aeroplane Company to develop new post-war high-performance cars from the legacy of BMW's advanced pre-war models.
That should have provided the industrial muscle Aldy needed but the relationship was doomed. A relatively small business in the motor trade, led by a quick-thinking and impatient visionary, could not work with a large corporation accustomed to the different engineering ethics of the aeronautical industry.
They soon fell out and AFN Ltd went its own way, retaining an agreement for a supply of the new #1971
cc straight-six Bristol engines, which were based on BMW's pre-war engine and ideal for the new models that AFN planned to produce.
The basics of the post-war #Frazer #Nash
had been laid down by AFN's John Perrett, who designed a two-seater sports car based closely on the front end of a #BMW-327
, with transverse-leaf suspension and lower wishbones, and the rear end of a BMW 326, with longitudinal torsion bar suspension and a live axle located mainly by an A-bracket. The main frame was based on the tubular chassis of the #BMW-328
Aldy then managed to recruit a superstar: Fritz Fiedler who, as the chief designer of BMW cars from #1932
, had been behind all the great BMW sports cars of that decade. Arriving at Isleworth in #1947
, Fiedler took on the development of the post-war Frazer Nash chassis, suspension, body design and construction and also part of the work on the Bristol engine. A mild-mannered genius, he was a very well liked at AFN, if gently amused when they called him 'Doctor' Fiedler.
Fiedler returned to BMW after three years, having made a huge contribution to AFN's early post-war success. He went on to influence BMW's return to prominence, which was secured by the time he retired and continues to this day.
In 1952, a revised #Frazer-Nash
chassis was inspired partly by race driver Ken Wharton's wish for a single- seater Frazer #Nash-F2
car but also by a desire to produce a simpler chassis that was cheaper and easier to make.
By 1953, Aldy knew that the adventure as a manufacturer was all but over for AFN. It had been a glorious effort, resulting in some wonderful thoroughbred cars. The Le Mans Replica, a copy of the High Speed model that finished third in the 24 Hours, was and remains a truly great classic. Other superb post-war Frazer Nash models emerged from AFN but the enterprise lacked sufficient scale. The quality of the cars went without question and the few that they could make sold well despite being very expensive.
In the mid-1950s, AFN Ltd became the official importer of Porsche cars, a move that was destined to transform the company into a much bigger, very different business - #Porsche
Cars Great Britain Ltd.
Only nine Le Mans Coupes were made in all and the first of them, driven by Ken Wharton and HA Mitchell, took a fine class win and 13th overall in the #1953
Le Mans 24 Hours. By then the Le Mans regulations demanded enclosed wheels and encouraged coupe bodywork. AFN's Le Mans Coupe was therefore developed from the open two-seater Targa Florio model.
This particular Coupe was originally sold as a road car to Mrs Kathleen 'Kitty' Maurice (nee Gorst, later Mrs Thomas) in April 1955, and it had a well-documented engine change early in its existence. Kitty Maurice was a keen motorist and, as the landowner of Castle Combe, she had made the conversion of the wartime airfield into a motor racing circuit possible. She soon sold the car to a Dr Mawe, who used it in club competitions in #1956
before selling it back to #AFN
late in 1957, where it remained until John Dashwood bought it in March 1959.
Its next owner was the well-known racing driver and Gerrards Cross-based specialist motor trader Roy Bloxam, who fitted disc brakes and other mods such as a #ZF
limited-slip differential. He took second in class and tenth overall in the 1960 Autosport Production Sports Car Championship.
Its many owners in the half-century since then have generally cared for it well and it remains remarkably original. At the end of the 1960s, an owner in Malvern had the #Panhard
rod removed and an A-bracket restored, taking the rear suspension back to its original specification. By 1963, its original green had been changed to wine red but its Swedish owner in the 1970s, Ake Andersson, had it painted blue. Early this century the colour was changed again, going back to a shade of green close to its original colour.
One owner, though which one isn't known, changed it back to drum brakes - aluminium at the front and iron at the rear. The FLA papers issued for it in 19% show this had been done by then. And, about 12 years ago, a Laycock overdrive was Fitted - a type that would have been available when the car was new. With the standard final drive, an overdrive transforms the car, especially for normal road use - and it might even be about right were somebody to take it back to Le Mans to run it in the Gassic.
It is obviously eligible for top events such as that and the Mille Miglia but would also be ideal for great open- road driving events, such as the Colorado Grand, which it has done twice in more recent times.
My instant reaction on driving it at Goodwood is that it feels like a superb roadgoing sports car, even today - and it's certainly quick enough to outperform most modem traffic. By racing car standards it Is heavy - it was weighed at 2079lb (943kg) by the Le Mans scrutineers in 1959 - but against most of today's road cars it's a featherweight with a formidable power-to-weight ratio.
This car's obviously high value, of course, is largely the result of its genuine Le Mans history, so the normal preference of Frazer Nash fans for the open cars definitely docs not apply here. There's a lovely period feel to the small, high-quality tan interior but tall prospective owners should note that it is best suited to shorter drivers - the seat had to be completely removed for me and I sat on the carpet to drive it.
Even so, it was a pleasure to power it round the Goodwood circuit, where it felt quicker than I had expected. The handling was a bit skittish at first and I went back into the pits after just one lap to have the dampers adjusted. They had been on the hardest setting but, with them suitably softened, the car was much better.
It's a stable car at speed, a true thoroughbred of the old school in some ways - years of sound engineering and the black art of 'chassis-sorting' created a confidence- inspiring machine with sensitive steering. On the straight, it runs true but there is always the feeling that it's ever ready to tackle the next comer. It turns in well and immediately adopts a superbly neutral angle of drift, which the driver can make a little bit more or less pronounced almost by merely thinking about it. The famous Bristol engine is a delight and, in my short run, the brakes were fine - as we know, it takes three hours to knock them out!
This delightful post-war sports car has a great story to tell - the next chapter of which begins after its sale by Bonhams at Goodwood in March.
THANKS TO Tony Bancroft. Blakenoy Motorsport. Tom Dashwood, the #Frazer-Nash
Car Club and Archives. Goodwood Motor Circuit, Richard Procter, James Trigwell, and Bill Wilks. Bonhams is selling the car at the #Goodwood
73rd Members' Meeting on 21 March.
Car #1955 #Frazer-Nash-Le-Mans-Coupe
ENGINE 1971cc six-cylinder, OHV, three #Solex
POWER 142bhp 5750rpm
TRANSMISSION Four-speed #Borg-Warner
manual, rear-wheel drive
STEERING Rack and pinion
Front: independent, transverse leaf spring, lower wishbones, telescopic dampers.
Rear: live axle located by A-bracket, longitudinal torsion bars, telescopic dampers.
WEIGHT 963kg (2079lb - as weighed by #Le-Mans
PERFORMANCE Top speed 140mph claimed at Le Mans. 1959. 0-60mph c8sec
Above, left and right Closed bodywork was developed from the open-top Targa Florio - only nine coupes were made: power comes from a #BMW-
derived triple-carb straight-six.
‘DRIVING IT AT GOODWOOD, IT FEELS LIKE A SUPERB ROADGOING SPORTS CAR, EVEN TODAY’
Left. Surprisingly civilised inside for a Le Mans entrant, though it lacks headroom for the taller driver. Tony Dron had to remove the seat and sit on the floor...
Above. With 142bhp from its 2.0-litre straight-six and a (scrutineered) kerbweight of 943kg, the Frazer Nash was capable of 140mph on the Mulsanne straight.