Some Derby Testers: an affectionate memory by Alan Swinden
This article was first published in The Bulletin No 159
On a morning in September 1937 I presented myself at the Experimental department offices by No 2 Gate, Nightingale Road, and asked for Mr Robotham. I was received by Harry Grylls, later to become my mentor and good friend, who eyed me with cool distaste and despatched me to No 30 test bed halfway up No 2 yard, round the corner from the Experimental garage. Thus began my two years of Derby testing, firstly car engines on the test bed and then on the road with experimental cars. They seemed at the time, and arguably were, the best years of my life.
No 30 test bed was run with calm efficiency by Trot Salt and two testers of markedly different character, Frank Hallam and Frank Potts. They were supported by a general labourer of dour appearance whose name at this distance of time evades me but could, improbably, have been Thatcher. He disappeared from time to time to tend the library in Leicester gaol, this being preferred to the payments under a maintenance order. He was certainly a contrast to the extrovert Bert Tomlinson on No 33 bed, whose regular light-fingered visits to Central Stores were of benefit to all save the accountants and shareholders. Frank Hallam, a tubby and genial man who told tales with wide-eyed solemnity, was the first to regale me with stories of Henry Royce. Sticking in my memory is an account of his driving down to West Wittering with a wooden mockup of a radiator which departed from the classical design. According to Hallam, Henry Royce looked at it without saying a word, fetched an axe and proceeded to hack at it until it once more resembled the proper shape.
Frank Hallam was the secretary of the Legal Aid Club, to which we all subscribed sixpence (2½p) a week and which was primarily designed to pay our fines if we were caught speeding. Additionally, it provided for its members an annual dinner, one of which I attended before the Club lapsed at the outbreak of war. By coincidence, the greatest beneficiary of the Club was Frank Potts, an energetic young man who, when I met him on No 30 bed, might have been described as an unfrocked road tester. He had apparently, while driving an experimental car on the Derby ring road between Uttoxeter and Ashbourne roads, removed a mounted policeman’s horse from under him, killing the horse and dumping the policeman in the road with damage to his person. Aid required from the Club was considerable, and I do not know whether that year the Club could afford a dinner.
After some weeks on the test bed I was translated to the experimental garage around the corner and there began for me the kind of job I had only dreamed about. By 1937 employment was picking up but simply to work was good. To work at Rolls-Royce made you the envy of your friends and contemporaries. To drive Rolls-Royce cars and be paid for it was good fortune beyond belief. The car experimental department at that time had a manufacturing resource in Horace Smith’s experimental department, an office for thinking and a garage for doing. The office was manned by what today would be called technologists – Grylls, Martindale, Waller, Leslie, Fred Hardy, Steadman and so on. The garage was manned by testers who had usually started as fitters. Those in the office drove some of the time. The garage testers drove all the time. Generally there was an educational divide, with graduates on the one hand and those who left school at fourteen on the other. It was rather like the days of gentlemen and players, when the gentlemen had their initials in front of their name and the players’ initials came after and in brackets. My own position was peculiar because I had been recruited in the first intake of graduate trainees, appropriately titled engineering pupils by Rolls-Royce, and I was now put to work in the experimental garage as a tester’s mate. The greatest of my good fortune was that the tester to whom I was allotted and with whom I worked day in day out for the better part of two years, was George Ratcliffe.
The experimental garage was run jointly as foremen by Frank Dodd, who during the war ran the very big transport operation and finally went to Crewe, and Harold Whyman, who went with Robotham to Clan Foundry when war came and remained very much his right hand man. Frank Dodd was able, confident and controlled. When, appalled, I had dented a wing on a brand new experimental car when reversing it in the garage and hitting a pillar, he simply said very calmly: “Don’t do it again.” I never did. The only time I saw him disturbed was when a pair of Marchal side lamps were stolen off his desk just before they were due to be fitted to a car whose wings had been specially modified to take them. He had Bert Tomlinson in and virtually shook him to make him admit to the theft, but Bert protested innocence with practised sincerity and the side lamps were never seen again. Harold Whyman, a flamboyant character, had as a young man been seconded to supervise the maintenance of the Maharajah of Patiala’s fleet of Rolls-Royce cars and his tales of India had about them a flavour of Kipling and curry. During the phoney war period and in 1940 when invasion became a very real possibility, Robotham, in the best tradition of Rolls-Royce individualism, formed a small private army, aptly known as Rumpty’s Rifles. Whyman was its NCO. Both Dodd and Whyman were good testers and beautiful drivers.
I pick out some of the experimental car testers only because they were the ones I knew best. Any other basis of selection would be invidious because they were a splendid team. Some were naturally better than others, but none was incompetent. Stan Dean was a good man, wholly reliable and another beautiful driver.
Percy Rose on the other hand was choleric, warm-hearted and generous but liable to take offence. He walked round muttering for quite a while after Robotham one day addressed him as Rose. “My name is Percy or I have a handle to it,” was his comment. His reaction times were lengthening too as he was one of the older testers and the practical evidence that this happens to us all was, and has, remained valuable to me. If you were driving behind Percy and saw what he could see ahead, you could start counting before his brake lights came on. If you were leading you were wise to keep an eye on your mirror.
It would be a pity to leave out Arthur Roberts, although I did very little testing with him. He was a brisk little man, married to one of Lady Hives’ sisters, and in two years I never saw him in anything but the best of humours. His associate, among what I have called the technologists, was Steadman, who was the radiator king, and subsequently left Rolls-Royce to join the Marston Radiator Company. They were exactly the same size, short and slightly bow legged, and a most well assorted couple. Arthur’s approach to driving might best have been described as full blooded and his driving position rather like that of a steeplechase jockey. My lasting recollection is of riding in the back of a Phantom III as Arthur took us at 90 miles an hour over the top of the switchback on the Ollerton Road crying “up – and into the blue.”
Of the people in the experimental office at that time, apart from Harry Grylls, I came to know Ivan Waller best and drove quite a long way with him. He had a fearsome reputation and drove very fast all the time. He did, however, have exceptionally quick reactions and as far as I am aware he never hit anything. His passengers simply died of fright. There was appearing at that time an advertisement for tyres which pictured a Jaguar in the foreground and straight tyre marks going back to infinity behind the car. Driving flat out into the finishing straight at Brooklands in a Jaguar which the Company had acquired, Ivan said “I wonder if that advertisement is true”, slammed the brakes on and held the steering wheel tight. No one counted how many times the car turned round before it stopped.
When the war came the motor cars were bundled out of Derby and the old order changed. Some went off to fight, some went to the aero engine division and what was left with new additions finally coalesced in Clan Foundry, where Robotham reigned supreme with Whyman as his trusty henchman. This was a different world and one of which I am not now writing, save to make a point. The Derby regime had been traditional with a nice distinction between what I have called gentlemen and players. Clan Foundry, because it was small and because there was a war on, threw everyone together, works, staff, testers, technicians, even draughtsmen and designers!
Eventually this was, of course, where the armoured fighting vehicle business took root and flourished, but during the phoney war period various other activities took place, including car testing. Some of the old Derby testers had come out to Clan, including Fred Hallam, no relation to Frank - Derby was full of F Hallams - who at the time of my wedding in 1941 gave me a book on how to run an allotment, which cost 2/6 (12½p) and is my constant standby even today. Bill Brazier was another, a good solid tester with whom I did quite a lot of driving. Bill, like others of his type, was of an enquiring mind and we had long discussions on every subject under the sun.
I have left to the end George Ratcliffe, I suppose the best single word to describe him was sound. But this is wholly inadequate. He was an outstanding and admirable man; quiet, restrained, almost dour. A man who worked alone and by far the best tester of his time.
Whereas other parts of the motor car were the concern of someone in the experimental office with the support of a tester, George was in total command of the carburetion scene. I have no idea how anyone persuaded him to have a young totally inexperienced graduate to work with him, but it was immensely to my advantage that they did so. His influence on me was profound. I drove with the dreadful confidence of a twenty-one-year-old who had driven for five years. George quietly taught me all over again to drive fast and safely with a minimum of effort. One day when we both drove the same cross country journeys clocking identical speeds and petrol consumptions he burst out with a rare “well done, mate” and I felt I had arrived. Only once do I remember being criticised. I had spent most of a morning changing the twenty-four plugs, some of them diabolically placed, on a Phantom III. “You wouldn’t make any bonus on that, mate,” said George at his most dour.
George Ratcliffe was the best driver I ever knew, although Hives, with whom I drove occasionally many years later, may have been his equal. There is a story of the time, long before I joined the company, when George, driving on his own, had a drop arm fail. He was apparently testing a car with steering characteristics and tyres which gave rise to acute wheel wobble. For reasons which are by no means clear he allowed the car to get into a state of violent wheel wobble, steering it by allowing the steering wheel to slide within his grasp. Suddenly, and approaching a corner, the steering wheel ceased to oscillate and it was clear that something was amiss. There was no longer any connection with the front wheels. Legend has it that as the car reached the corner, hit a bank and flew into the air George slammed both feet down, stopped the back wheels dead, got the gearbox into reverse and landed with the driving wheels going backwards, thus stopping the car in a meadow rather as reverse thrust stops a modern airliner. The legend went on to say that he then found a telephone, called the works to come and get him, and was sound asleep in the car when help arrived. It was characteristic of George that although the story was sworn to by his colleagues and contemporaries he never spoke of it to me during all the time I worked with him.
During most of 1938 we worked together exclusively on carburetion on the new Wraiths and the Bentley V, but in 1939 our relationship began to change when, with Grylls as my tutor, I started working on the power absorption of tyres at high speeds. I now planned the work and George and I shared the driving, but the partnership still worked and we got the results we wanted.
I have never before worked so closely and for so long with anyone like George Ratcliffe. Not only did he have a great deal of experience, but to someone just out of university it was clear that he had a mind as good as any I have known and better than most. Had he been born about twenty-five years later he would have been creamed off by the educational system and would have got a first in applied science. He might, of course, have gone off and read for something quite different, and someone like me would not have
had the opportunity of learning by the method, long despised by trainers, of ‘sitting by Nellie’, but it is coming back, they tell me, into its own. The other thing about George was that he was totally without ambition or desire for promotion. He only wanted to do the job he did very well. This, to someone brought up in a competitive system, was very odd, and has often caused me to wonder about the values we place on things.
On the morning of 1 September 1939, George and I were drinking tea at the little café in Wilson, one of our calling places just outside Derby.
We had, of course, in the best tradition of testers, located a number of establishments within fifty miles of Derby in every direction where the car could rest and recover its strength while we drank tea. We heard on the radio that Hitler had invaded Poland. We jumped into the car, which was, as it happened, the celebrated Scalded Cat, 11-B-IV, and drove straight back to Nightingale Road expecting the sky to be black with bombers at any moment. That night we each took a car home to get away from the works. The world was changing and nothing would ever be quite the same again. That Friday morning had been the last time George and I would drive together.
This article prompted the following letter from Lawrence Allen, printed in Bulletin 290:
In the article The Dangers of Road Testing in B287, pp40-41, there is mention of the mechanic W (Bill) Brazier. I was a test driver so I know the dangers. The article reminded me of some correspondence that I received several years ago. Members may be interested to read the following letter that was written and sent to me in 1999 by the grandson of Bill Brazier:
I’ve enclosed some information about my Granddad, Bill Brazier, that you might find interesting. P lease feel free to use any of it you want.
When I ‘phoned Frank D odd a couple of years ago, I asked him if he remembered Bill. He replied, “He was a first class test driver… mind you, I b****y near killed him once.”
Frank and Bill were working the 5am to midday shift – driving out from Chateauroux. They were driving as a ‘pair’, testing the first front wheel brakes. They’d both been out the night before - dancing at one of the French ‘celebration days’ in a wooden hut! After the shift, volunteers were asked to do some “extra miles throughout the night.” Frank and Bill agreed and made an agreement between themselves to do 100 miles each whilst the other slept.
The route was C hateauroux to Paris. Bill drove first and then, after 100 miles, handed over to Frank. FD began to feel sleepy – “smoking and an open window didn’t help.” FD was doing 70mph when he fell asleep while driving along a tree lined road. The car swerved, left the road, hit a pile of road mending stones between the trees and bounced back onto the road. Both F D and BB woke up – F D managed to regain control (with BB having slumped over his shoulder with the impact). F D persuaded Bill that he’d just missed running over a rabbit. I don’t think Granddad ever did find out the truth!
FD thought the car might have been as late as 35 E X (I don’t think so as I think Granddad’s test driving stopped before then) – he also thought the car was a S ilver Ghost tourer.
FD started in 1917, in the transport department. He started on the ‘car side’ after WWI – he’d been working on aero engines. He started as a tester on the Silver Ghost chassis. He told me he was paid 7/6d (seven shillings and sixpence, which is 37½p - Ed) a week but received a 5/- tip (five shillings, which is 25p - Ed) per week from the engine fitters.
Platford wanted F D to go to the south of France with R oyce’s car. F D was, by this time, with ‘experimental’. FD drove the first 25hp to France when he was twenty – to Le C anadel. He had to ‘take up lodgings’ and then meet Royce at a pre-determined place later on. F D didn’t speak a word of French. The car would take fifteen gallons of fuel and he would count out how many gallons to French garage keepers on his fingers.
Before leaving for France F D asked Mr Hives (as he was known then, not Hives) about his wages for the trip as he was ‘not out of time’ ie he hadn’t finished his apprenticeship. (F D felt he’d been asked to do the trip before anyone realised he was still only twenty). He was given a special ‘allowance’ of £5.00 per week.
Tony Brazier: 1 March 1999