WOOLLEY MAMMOTH

By Stuart Grant with photography by Oliver Hirtenfelder

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What do you do when an 8-litre Bentley or Grand Prix Bugatti isn’t enough? If you are Clive and Bruce Woolley, you build a 27-litre tank-engined Monster in the spirit of an early 1900s land speed or Brooklands racer and call it ‘Lucy’.

That’s correct: 27-litre or 1647 cubic inches. If that number doesn’t jump at you, then try 12 cylinders, 24 spark plugs, 1850kg and whopping 1550Nm of torque. Top speed with current ratios is 160km/h and it’ll get there in a flash of exhaust flames and smoking rubber. Clive Woolley is well known in the vintage car scene, having owned and raced vintage Bentleys and Bugattis both here and abroad. He’s a member of our Vintage and Veteran Club and has just short of 60 years of membership with the Vintage Sport Car Club of England.

It would appear that spending time amongst this machinery and like-minded people gets the creative juices flowing. For Woolley, the aero-engined machine bug bit decades back. He scoured around for a suitable power plant for years, before, in 1980, stumbling across a 1943 Liberty engine at Beaulieu Auto Jumble. The deal was done, and the hulking great lump sent down to South Africa.

Initially the Liberty V12-type engine was used in WWI aircraft but by WWII it had evolved into a tank unit. Being a 1943 unit the Woolleys’ lump originated from a tank. In essence it was the same thing, but accessories differed between the tank and plane variants to suit application. In ‘Lucy’ format the Liberty thumps out 1550Nm of torque and redlines at 1650rpm. Fuel is fed to the chambers, which are topped by a pair of spark plugs each, by a brace of Solex 2.5-inch carbs.

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With nothing to put it in and not wanting to sacrifice a perfectly good car, the project lay dormant in only dream form. Until 2008 that is, when a 1933 Rolls-Royce 20/25 saloon rolling chassis cropped up for sale by fellow Johannesburg vintage stalwart Peter Hall. A search of the chassis number (GTZ55) revealed that the donor car was in fact the show car used at the 1933 Olympia Motor Show.

With the body long-lost it was the ideal base for making that dream a reality. Working with his mechanically inclined (and useful racing driver) son Bruce, Clive set the wheels of the four-year project in motion. This must go down as one of the most exciting father/son projects to date and seeing Clive’s eyes beam as Bruce powered the beast around the old Zwartkops Raceway Drive-in section brought this home. The list of skilled craftsmen that eagerly lent a hand throughout the build is a feather in the cap for the local car fraternity and a magnificent display case for the expertise still lurking locally.

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Working from the front to back the Woolleys didn’t have an exact plan of action, as they stumbled across engineering issues, producing countless drawings and ideas for custom manufacturing. Sometimes it was only the fourth or fifth design that became a workable solution. A new three-piece subframe/crossmember structure had to be made up from 100mm x 50mm square tubing to accommodate the massive 620kg engine and custom-made flywheel combination. Bespoke engine mountings (using technology learned from pre-war Bugatti though) hold the powerhouse in place. Surprisingly the loss of the bodywork and the addition of the extra engine weight has kept the vehicle at almost the same 1820kg mass as it was in Olympia show car form. Even more surprising is the car’s near 50/50 weight distribution.

The added length of the block saw to it that the steering box and pedal arrangement had to be moved back 900mm while the handbrake moved further back by 1200mm. Rear axle location remained the same but combining a Bedford truck gearbox, Mercedes-Benz nine-tonne commercial came from a truck scrapyard. Silverton Radiators made up the imposing radiator and topped it with a hand-beaten shroud.

Creature comforts are minimal with some recycled wood making up the cockpit and dash. Seat frames, although inspired by international cars of the period, were made by a carpenter in Tarlton, the rattan side and back supports constructed by the Johannesburg School for the Blind and the leather came from a tannery in Springs – but distressed to look aged.

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One approaches ‘Lucy’ with trepidation, like a kid looking for a monster under the bed. Matt black paintwork is highlighted by the odd glint of copper pipe work, chromed exhausts and wheel centres, looking like the bright eyes of the bedtime monster. And then in an instant (without so much a whirring starter motor) the engine explodes into life with an almighty bang and shoots out foot-long flames. It is a scary beast.

But then you notice the mechanicals at work and it transforms into a thing of beauty. From the cockpit you see the external valve springs working furiously, the flywheel spinning below your feet and the massive carb butterflies opening as fuel shoots (in serious quantity) down towards the spark.

With steering-mounted advance/retard levers set, ‘Lucy’ pulls off effortlessly in second gear. With ample torque, first gear is never needed. With so much going on, one can be thankful that the pedal arrangement is ‘normal’ with clutch on left, brake in the middle and the loud pedal on the right. Gear lever pattern is also the norm with an H-pattern gate.

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As the butterfly opens and the velocity increases, so too does the heat coming from sawn-off-shotgun-styled exhausts. Acceleration is brutally strong and thanks to the low rev limit ‘Lucy’ hits fourth gear in a flash. Once in fourth there are not many hills on the planet that’ll offer any resistance. Bumps upset the chassis and stopping close to two tonnes at speed isn’t what a modern driver would feel comfortable with.

Before you realise it ‘Lucy’ has left all the modern-day traffic for dead and frightened all the kids. An appreciation of the early land speed record pilots sinks in. Even more kudos must go to the guys who flew around the bumpy tracks in this sort of machinery. Here we are on the newly surfaced R55 and it is frightening. Imagine bombing along a beach like Pendine or flying round Brooklands with nothing but a steering wheel and wicker chair to hold you in. ‘Lucy’ is a nightmarish monster but for Clive and Bruce Woolley it was the realisation of a long-held dream. With visible moving parts it brings out a tactile side to engineering, and the jaw-dropping moments it creates from onlookers mean you can bet your bottom dollar it has already got other mad men dreaming of their own insane concoction.

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THE NAMING GAME

So why call such a monster ‘Lucy’? Simple – something with such character becomes a living, breathing thing. And we all name living things. ‘Lucy’ was Clive’s mother’s middle name. Famed mechanical monster names include ‘Babs’ and ‘Chitty-Bang-Bang’.

While the name ‘Chitty-Bang-Bang’ rings a movie or theatre bell in the head it actually hails from a number of racing cars, built and raced by Count Louis Zborowski during the 1920s. Some say the title stems from a war song about troops in India paying a chit (an IOU slip) to the ladies of ill repute. In car terms the Chittys were built at Zborowski’s house near Canterbury, Kent and were so loud that reportedly a by-law was passed prohibiting them from entering within the city walls.

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Chitty 1 got power from a 23-litre six-cylinder Maybach aeroengine and won at Brooklands while Chitty 2 made use of an 18.8-litre Benz Bz.IV aeroengine to compete in the likes of the 1922 Sahara Desert expedition. Number 3 saw a 160hp Mercedes single overhead-camshaft six-cylinder aeroengine, worked to 180hp and lapped Brooklands at 112.68mph. Zborowski used this for personal transport too. Chitty 4 (also known as the Higham Special) was the Count’s largest, using a 450hp V12 Liberty, with a gearbox and chain-drive from a pre-war Blitzen Benz. It was the largest-capacity racing car ever run at Brooklands. Zborowski joined the Mercedes team in 1924 but died in one of their cars, after hitting a tree during the Italian Grand Prix at Monza.

John Parry-Thomas purchased Chitty 4, re-christened the car ‘Babs’ and rebuilt it with four Zenith carburettors and his own design of pistons. In April 1926, Parry-Thomas used the car to win the land speed record at 171.02mph. However, during a later record attempt at Pendine Sands, Wales on 3 March 1927, ‘Babs’ rolled and Parry-Thomas was killed. Following the inquest into his death, ‘Babs’ was buried in the sand dunes at Pendine. After 40 years, the car was excavated and restored to running order over several years by Owen Wyn Owen and is on display at the Museum of Speed.

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