An Amilcar Special
By Tony Caldersmith
Having been a VSCCA member and driving some “interesting” cars in the ‘50s (a Riley 9 and an SS1) and then putting that aside while I got married, bought a house and raised children, I eventually decided to get involved in motorsport again, which I did initially by building a couple of Holden engined racing cars and later getting involved in historic racing.
Eventually, after racing a variety of post-war cars and because of my continuing interest in vintage cars, I decided it was time to build a Group J (pre-1930) special and race that.
The common practice in the late pre-war and early post-war racing in Australia was to take a good handling European chassis and fit it with a tuneable larger US engine and gearbox. Most commonly that was by using a side valve Ford V8 or other straight six.
The chassis I focused on was the Amilcar, for a number of reasons; it had good handling, good brakes and was commendably light. At that stage, I had not focused on the engine/gearbox combination but was thinking about a 2 to 3 litre (preferably 4 cyl.) In the same fashion of the pre-war and early post-war cars being raced here. I was not a V8 fan, mainly because of its bulk and weight.
Good luck prevailed, in the person of Graeme Steinfort, who had similar ideas, but had been distracted by his Austin 7 projects. He had a G type Amilcar rolling chassis and some basic A Model Ford parts. We did a deal. He improved the space in his workshop and my project was underway.
I mentioned that I would need a new body for the project and Graeme introduced me to the guys at Black Art in Melbourne, who were doing great bodywork.
While dealing with the preparation of the chassis was pretty straightforward, the A Ford engine/gearbox was new to me as most of my experience had been with English mechanicals.
It didn’t take long to realise the wealth of A Type Ford information and tuning parts that were available, particularly in the USA. What really surprised me was what a clever piece of equipment the A Ford engine was. It’s physical size and weight for its 3 litre capacity is brilliant and while it was clearly designed for straightforward road use, the opportunities for tuning were almost unaccountable. The catalogue I got from the US had 200 pages of everything you could need from simple tuning to high compression piston, to OHV conversions and supercharging setups.
The standard Ford only has splash lubrication for the big ends and that wouldn’t suit me for use in historic racing, but good higher pressure/volume oil pumps are available, so that part was fine. The challenge was then to drill the crankshaft to get the oil pressure to the big ends and doing that myself was not something I felt up to, particularly I had managed to get a very late model counterbalanced crank and didn’t want to risk breaking a long drill hallway between the center main and a big end.
Fortunately, there was a modern machinist nearby, who simply popped the crank onto his computer-driven drilling equipment and sorted that out. I added a high volume/pressure pump and changed the original tin side plate that was used as the normal low-pressure oil delivery to the splash feed system. to a 3.8” aluminium plate that would be able to cope with the new high-pressure oil feed.
Best of all was that I managed to get a genuine Miller Schofield 1929 OHV conversion head, which, while the combustion chamber shape might not have pleased Ricardo or Irving, it certainly improved both the performance (and appearance) and totally confuses most people looking under the bonnet.
I decided that the Ford 3 speed gearbox suited both the engine (naturally) and the light weight of the car and given the Ford’s wide performance band, was all the gears I needed anyway.
The differential was another matter. There was no way the original Amilcar CWP would cope with the 3lt Ford torque and I overcame that by fitting a Holden crown wheel and pinion which included a limited slip center for racing plus stronger axle shafts.
I boxed in the chassis, which was quite “flexible” and added a new cross member for the Ford gearbox and torque drive.
Grant Cowie at Up The Creek Workshop fitted the larger 12” Amilcar front brakes and I installed my version of Bugatti’s balanced brake system, which uses rods from the F and R brakes and a chain to connect the R to L systems. That is then pulled on by the pedal via a rotating sprocket that ensures equal pull left to right.
I was lucky to find a pair of RAF French friction spring dampers for the front springs, which use conical friction material. Not something I had seen before, but they look ‘right’ and work well.
The body was built by the lads at Black Art Fabrications in Melbourne.
I had met them at Graeme Steinfort’s and was impressed with their workmanship and particularly their attitude of wanting me to be involved (not often a type of access offered by some bodybuilders). I sent them sketches of what I had in mind and when I arrived in Melbourne with the car in rolling chassis form, found that they had a full-scale layout already up on the workshop wall. Their workmanship and understanding of what I was looking to achieve were tremendous and the finished work was so good that I have been reluctant to cover it is with paint. It remains polished aluminium to this time.
John Cummins traded me an interesting distributor for a couple of SUs without knowing anything about its origin. It is beautifully made with twin points and various machined and engine turned components. It was only recently that I found out that it was a US aftermarket conversion for people who were using A Model Ford engines in aircraft, where the very basic Ford ignition system was unacceptable.
I knew that Percy Hunter had a system for doing “engine turning” on a panel and borrowed it so that I could do the firewall bulkhead and the dashboard. It is a clever process that uses a hand drill in a special frame and can result in the right effect. You really have to concentrate, because if you make a mistake, you cannot just correct that one. Because the swirls overlap you have to go right back to the start!
Eventually, we were up and running. Its shakedown run was at the 1999 “New England GP” a road event at Uralla, That was followed by the usual “shakedown” runs both on John Scott’s dyno and club days at Oran Park and Eastern Creek (as it used to be called), which sorted out the usual initial teething problems. A new set of vintage racing tyres and we were all set for Historic Racing.
The first race meeting was at Eastern Creek in the J and K event (it’s a Jb car) and ran well with no major problems. That was followed by a number of meetings, the best of all was winning the Tom Sulman Trophy at Wakefield Park.
Recently, having finally retired from racing, I decided that I would make the Amilcar roadworthy and fitted the guards that I had the Black Art boys make at the time. That plus a set of period French headlights and stop and tail lights and it’s ready for Conditional Registration.
By Tony Caldersmith, May 2018