The Ex-George Abecassis
1937 Alta Supercharged Voiturette Racing Single-Seater
Chassis no. 61IS
Engine no. 61IS (See Text)
1937 Alta Supercharged Voiturette Racing Single-Seater
Chassis no. 61IS
Engine no. 61IS (See Text)
Here Bonhams is privileged to offer a truly illustrious little all-British racing singe-seater from the immediate pre-war era of 1938-39, which will forever be remembered for its charismatic and extrovert second owner/driver, the great George Abecassis – later creator of HW Motors and of the HWM racing team which brought to the fore such world-class talents as Stirling Moss, Peter Collins and Lance Macklin.
For many years through the 1930s Geoffrey Taylor's Alta Engineering company, based in Surbiton, Surrey, had been building racing cars, all of which were conventionally sprung and which utilized a chassis of two-seater width that was interchangeable with the company's sports chassis. In these cars the engines and transmission were offset to the driver's left, with what was picturesquely described as "1½-seater" bodywork.
In 1937 an entirely new true slimline centre-drive single-seat racing car was built by Geoffrey Taylor to the order of an aspiring young owner/driver with a somewhat reckless reputation named Philip Jucker. The car was completed in time for him to take it to Douglas on the Isle of Man for the RAC International 11/2-litre race. Tragically, during practice, poor Jucker lost control of the little car on the Douglas seafront and crashed broadside into a pole, an incident which proved fatal.
His new car was returned to the Alta factory where Geoffrey Taylor assessed the cost of its repair and potential sale, if he could find another customer. Anglo-Portuguese racing enthusiast George Abecassis had coincidentally recently become an associate member of the British Racing Drivers Club, and he recalled how: "Desmond Scannell of the BRDC 'phoned me. He told me poor old Jucker's car was up for sale at £175. If I was interested I should contact the executors. I did so. I talked to Geoff Taylor, who undertook to rebuild the car for £240. Overall it cost me about a quarter the price of an ERA, which was then the car for drivers out to win races..."
George Abecassis was a born racer – he was also a born motor trader – as his son David writes in his magnificent biography of this great motor sporting character – 'A Passion for Speed: the life and times of George Abecassis': "George was never remotely superstitious and had no qualms about racing a car in which another man had been killed....So Geoffrey Taylor rebuilt the car in time for the start of the 1938 season, and fitted it out to his latest specification. At long last George had equipped himself with machinery in which he could show just what he could do, and during the winter he prepared for his first year in the top echelon of British motor racing...".
George Abecassis made his debut in the virtually new Alta at the Brooklands Opening Meeting of 1938, and at the following Easter Meeting he scored his first race win, in a handicap event around the Weybridge venue's newly-completed road-racing Campbell Circuit, the 2-litre-engined car averaging 70.72mph. Engine size was reduced soon after to the International Voiturette-class limit of 1500cc. That most sage observer Denis Jenkinson described in the first edition of his 'Motor Sport – Racing Car Review', published in 1947, how "With this car Abecassis improved his style very rapidly, and by the end of that season he was proving a serious menace to the ERA contingent, who had been having things pretty well their own way in this country. One of his best achievements was the winning of the Imperial Trophy at the last Crystal Palace meeting of 1938, at a speed of 52.08mph..." – evidence of the sinuous nature of the original London parkland circuit – "...from 'B.Bira' in his ERA. It was at this meeting that Abecassis set a fashion that was to become almost universal at the Crystal Palace, namely the use of twin rear wheels, which up to then had been kept more or less specifically for sprints and hill-climbs, although Whitney Straight experimented with the idea on his 2.5 Maserati as far back as 1933 on the Brooklands Mountain Circuit. It was in short circuit racing such as the Crystal Palace and Brooklands that this new Alta shone...".
By his own account George had been "...bucked to win fifty quid" when he had finished fourth at Crystal Palace on his second visit there, and July had seen him set a new climb record at the Bugatti Owners Club's new Prescott venue, Motor Sport's headline screaming 'THE PRESCOTT RECORD WELL BEATEN' while 'Bugantics' announced 'RECORD RAIDED AT PRESCOTT'. When he beat 'Bira's ERA to win that 1938 Imperial Trophy, 'The Motor' magazine report described his success as "...the sensation of the meeting" while he was the delighted recipient of £185 prize money – a considerable contribution to compensating him for his investing in the car in the first place.
He was also described by 'The Light Car' as "...the foremost exponent of this marque at the present time", the Alta had made him one of British motor racing's fastest-rising young stars.
In 1939 George Abecassis campaignd the Alta at Donington Park, while continuing to do very well on the shorter, tighter courses whose challenge suited not only the explosive acceleration of this lightweight and nimble little Alta, but also permitted its braking ability to compete with that of the rather more heftily-constructed ERAs. However, in a Continental foray to the Albi Grand Prix Voiturette race, after finishing fourth in the first Heat, the little Alta's engine seized abruptly in the second, he spun broadside across the track and was rammed by Leslie Brooke's following Brooke Special, the impact hurling both cars off into the roadside ditch. Neither driver was hurt and the Alta was repaired in time for the Crystal Palace race meeting on August 26, 1939 – barely a week before the outbreak of World War 2. However, Abecassis' luck was out again as on lap 2 of his Heat he lost control on spilled oil at Stadium Dip and folded back the offside front wheel against the unyielding safety bank.
Like so many of his on-track rivals, George Abecassis then enlisted in the armed forces, becoming an intensely proficient and talented Royal Air Force pilot, flying Whitley, Stirling and Halifax multi-engined bomber aircraft. In the Armstrong-Whitworth Whitley twin he nursed damaged airframes home so often he was nicknamed 'Single-engined-landing George'. He was eventually selected for Special Duties, dropping agents and supplying Resistance cells in occupied Europe. He made his last flight on October 6, 1944, in his Stirling, over Denmark, he and his crew being shot down by a night fighter but George achieving a survivable crash landing "...quite easily as the aircraft, being on fire, lit up the ground ahead!". After a few months as a prisoner of war, George Abecassis was freed by the advancing Russian forces, then escaped "from their care" and upon repatriation learned that he had been awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross. David Abecassis recounts how when he remarked to his father what an awful time he must have experienced during the war "George retorted sharply: 'You must be joking! I had the time of my life. I'd do it all over again...".
This Alta's illustrious second owner was indeed an heroic man in more ways than one, though that is an accolade he would have airily dismissed. Postwar – with his fellow enthusiast business partner John Heath - he created HW Motors Limited at Walton-on-Thames, and went on to race both his pre-war single-seater and later-model Altas, a Bugatti Type 59, an ERA, and ultimately his HW-Alta, HWM and HWM-Jaguar cars, while also being invited to join the Aston Martin factory team. Indeed on one occasion when Aston's illustrious team manager John Wyer loudly reprimanded the always elegant 'Gorgeous George' for having crashed one of their cars at Goodwood, the unabashed Abecassis retorted "Bloody hell John – when I crashed my Stirling they gave me the ----ing DFC...". He was quite a character.
He ran the Alta offered here, fitted with twin rear wheels, at Elstree in April 1946, and at Prescott that May. At Shelsley Walsh in June, despite heavy rain, he set second FTD in the car and won his class. He was also onef of the first British owner-drivers to return to Continental road racing, running this car - repainted green from its original bare aluminium or silver - in the 1946 Grand Prix des Nations in Geneva. A new tail had been made for it, deleting its original and characteristic headrest, but in 1947 George Abecassis sold the car at long last, its new owner being G.F. Sleight, beginning its long life as an ageing and progressively outdated single-seater racing car, before Vintage Sports Car Club and modern-style Historic racing began to beckon.
Its subsequent owners have included leading VSCC Alta exponent Hugh Clifford during the 1960s, who removed the car's original 1½-litre engine and replaced it with the 2-litre power unit from another ex-Abecassis Alta – the famous 'EOY 8' sports car – to achieve greater reliability. At that point the original engine appears to have been dismantled and its components dispersed.
Once the car was in the late Graham Gallier's hands in 2010 the 2-litre engine was sold on to the then owner of Alta sports car EJJ 703 (another illustrious ex Abecassis Alta) which was where this engine started life prior to being fitted to EOY 8. Graham considering it best for the engine to return to its rightful car and embarked on a money no object re-manufacture of the single seaters engine. At the same time the cars ENV 110 pre-selector gearbox was found to be very tired, Cecil Schumacher the countries foremost pre-selector specialist was engaged to rebuild it, again a money no object approach was taken and this was rebuilt at a cost of £17,000 (bills on file).
We understand that the car's chassis frame had deteriorated beyond safe further use, and that after Graham acquired the car from former owner Richard Last in 2004 (at a cost of £105,000) he had the frame rebuilt with new main longitudinal sections being united by what are believed to be still the original cross members. The original longitudinal sections are offered with the lot.
Denis Jenkinson in 1947 described this Alta's structure as follows: "...the chassis was channel section...and the ends of the frame were joined by a pair of large-diameter tubes, one above the other, which extended out to the wheels and carried the suspension units, which consisted of vertical sliders with coil springs above and below controlling the movement, an outstanding feature being that no shock absorbers were required. At the rear two sets of sliders were used on either side of the drive passing between them, from universally-jointed shafts taking the drive from the differential unit which was bolted to the chassis.
"The engine was a 4-cylinder, 69 x 100mm in the case of the 1,496cc cars and 79 x 100mm in the 1996cc car. The whole engine was of aluminium, with steel liners, cast in pairs, sitting in the one-piece block-cum-crankcase. Aluminium-bronze valve seats were screwed into the light-alloy head and two valves, situated at 68 deg. To one another, were used, with a single sparking plug mounted between them and inclined forward at an angle of 24deg. Two overhead camshafts were driven by a single roller-chain... A Roots-type supercharger mounted at the front of the engine and driven at 1 ½ times engine speed, supplied mixture from an SU carburettor at 22lbs sq/in which with an 8.5:1 compression ratio was claimed to give over 200bhp for the 1 ½-litre and 275bhp for the 2-litre, both at 5,800rpm..."
The restoration of the car has reached the point of approximately 60% completed and was ongoing at the time of Graham's death, as such it is sold strictly as viewed. We can report that the engine fitted to the car just before this Sale is freshly built by well-known marque expert Derek Chinn at a cost of circa £100,000 and has been tested on respected specialist Chris Connolly's dyno in Cambridgeshire...producing a lusty 250bhp/power curves on file). Mounted in such a comparatively compact, lightweight and historically better than well-proven single-seat chassis, the potentially highly competitive nature of this illustrious icon of British motor racing history is self-evident. We heartily commend it to the market.
The capacity of the re-manufactured engine fitted to this car is circa 2,300cc a size of engine not produced by Alta in period. This car is offered together with an enclosed four wheel trailer.
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