BMW’s R32 motorcycle was a star at the 1923 Paris Salon. Max Friz’s Bayern Kleinmotor became a classic, yet another exhibit just as advanced is almost forgotten. Vauxhall had one also with shaft drive and an in-line 4-cylinder engine, against BMW’s side-valve flat-twin. Friz had already a horizontal 2-cylinder but for 1923 placed it sideways, its cooling fins out in the airstream, creating a motorcycling hallmark.
Frank Halford’s Vauxhall disappeared into history while BMW’s was to make it. Vauxhall had been in a quandary. It had a good war making 25HP staff cars for British officers but the 1920s’ outlook was bleak. Laurence Evelyn Pomeroy (1883-1941), its inspired designer and architect of Vauxhall’s Edwardian prosperity was leaving. Pomeroy had been responsible for the glorious 30-98, was experimenting with camshafts, but was off to America to work in aluminium. His successor, Clarence King, did not inspire confidence. He had worked with the Adams Manufacturing Company and the Société Lorraine, but was something of a mystic and had been trying to earn a living in France as a painter.
Vauxhall directors wanted something else. Losing the 1914 TT to Peugeot rankled, so in 1922 they commissioned two projects from the design consultancy of 37 year old Harry Ricardo. He was to restore Vauxhall prestige with a 3 litre racing car for 1923. “It was”, he said, “one of my most fascinating jobs; a racing engine for which I was given a perfectly free hand.” Provided with a budget the generosity of which astonished WO Bentley, see The Complete Bentley, he undertook the design himself.
But Vauxhall had also determined on a smart sporting motorcycle for returning servicemen so Ricardo turned to Major Frank Bernard Halford (1894-1955). A former Royal Flying Corps pilot Halford had ridden a 4-valve Triumph with a Ricardo engine to 13th place in the 1922 Senior TT so he knew about classy motorcycles. His inspiration was aircraft engines, which usually flew inverted, crankshaft uppermost, but for his motorcycle’s in-line 4-cylinder he put the crankshaft underneath. Full spec is in Vauxhall Model by Model.
Air-cooled, of “square” cylinder dimensions, with a wet sump, the overhead valve gear was fully enclosed. Wick lubrication was provided for the rockers on the vertical overhead valves; bottom-end oiling was by dippers on the ends of H-section connecting rods. The clutch was made with alternate steel and bronze plates, a 3-speed gearbox was in unit with the engine, and a shaft turned a worm and pinion final drive.
Two prototypes were made along with components for four more frames and 10 engines before Vauxhall directors lost heart. In Britain motorbikes were still staunchly working class and they feared a sports machine to compete with the Brough Superior favoured by TE Lawrence of Arabia might fail. Girder forks, single cylinders and belt or chain drive seemed good enough and sports motorcycles like they planned expensive. The project was dropped.
Bill Snelling of Classic Motorcycling Review rode the survivor from the Isle of Man museum, finding it heavy, with large mounting lugs on the side of the frame suggesting perhaps Vauxhall had the sidecar market in mind. He thought it “a fabulous machine, way ahead of its time.” It managed a lap of the TT course in top gear, though the engine was, “Very softly tuned.”
Halford went on to race cars at Brooklands. His AM Halford Special retired from the 1926 British Grand Prix with a broken drive shaft, after what Motor Sport described as, “a very good chance of winning.” He had a distinguished career in aero engineering with the Royal Aircraft Establishment at Farnborough and later with Arroll-Johnston. He was the “H” in the BHP aero-engine consortium with Beardmore and Pullinger, created the Cirrus engine for de Havilland in 1924 and worked on the flat-H liquid-cooled Napier Sabre, which so inspired Tony Rudd at BRM. Halford’s work with Sir Frank Whittle, the jet engine pioneer, led to the Halford HD-1 later renamed de Havilland Goblin, used in the Vampire fighter, and famously bequeathed in 1943 for the first American jet, the Lockheed Shooting Star.
I watched the BRM H-16 on the test bed at Bourne. It was impressively noisy. Tony always advised me to stand at 45 degrees to it when it was running, on the grounds that if anything inside broke loose at high rpm it was most likely to fly out either sideways or fore-and-aft.