The Cromard Special

A racing car from Wolverhampton

By Jim Evans

The Cromard Special was built during the winter of 1950/51, yet the parenthood of the car can be traced back to 1948.  The original conception of the car was the work of F. R. G. (Bob) Spikins. He was always interested in building specials and few will forget the remarkable performances he put up in pre-war days with his single-seater, supercharged 972-c.c. Singer, "The Bantam."  As chief of the Laystall Engineering Co. Ltd., of Wolverhampton, Bob felt that the best method of putting theories into practice was to build and race a car which could also be regarded as something of a guinea-pig for certain Laystall ventures.  The Cromard was financed entirely by himself, and he regarded it as a spare-time hobby.

In the beginning the car was called the Spikins Special.  The basis of which was an early Amilcar of supercharged six-cylinder type and into this was fitted a 1.5 litre post-war Lea-Francis engine. Almost the first development work that was necessary was to replace the Amilcar gearbox, as it was soon found that it was unable to deal with the power being developed by the new engine.  In its place was fitted a preselector E.N.V. gearbox and, after running in that form for a time, it was eventually decided that something more modern in matters of suspension was required and the car was then fitted with units from a German Volkswagen.  The trailing link and torsion bar front end was rebuilt, while at the rear the Volkswagen differential unit and swing axles were mounted, retaining the original preselector box.

The Cromard Special - driven by the Smethwick garage owner, Ken Wharton

During its running, both in short racing events, speed trials and hill-climbs, it would be driven mainly by B.G.P. (Basil) de Mattos, who was employed by Laystall and who was a friend of Spikins. The car appeared at the Prescott Hill Climb on the 12th September 1948.  In very wet conditions Bob Spikins and Basil de Mattos both drove the car in the up to 1500cc class, Spikins climbing in 60.14 seconds and de Mattos in 60.49 seconds to finish 9th and 10th in the class that was won by Peter Walker's ERA.  The first Goodwood race meeting was held on the 18th September 1948.  The Spikins was entered in what was classed as a sprint meeting, consisting of a large number of short races.  In a 3 lap race for racing cars up to 1100cc supercharged and up to 2 litres non supercharged, Basil de Mattos finishing 3rd behind the MGs of Folland and Kennington.  Bob Spikins then drove the car at the Brighton Speed Trials where he finished 6th in the class for racing cars up to 1500cc, the class being won by David Murray in a 1.5 litre 16 valve supercharged Maserati. The Motor Sport report said "Spikins drove his latest Spikins Special, consisting of the ex Rose, ex Sommer Amilcar Six with one of the new four-carburettor Lea Francis competition engines installed"

The 1949 season started at Goodwood on Easter Monday the 18th April.  Basil de Mattos started from the front row of the grid in the Lavant Cup race over 5 laps, positions being decided by ballot. The Spikins Special retired after 2 laps.  On the 26th May the car was entered for the Manx Cup on the Isle of Man circuit.  As the flag fell Stirling Moss, in a V-twin Cooper, forged ahead and at the end of the first lap was out of sight of the others, lead by Basil de Mattos in the Spikin.  On lap six de Mattos found the Spikin’s brakes useless and the car was retired.  Moss retired with engine problems, leaving victory to John Heath in the HW Alta.  Bob Spikin then took in the Brighton Speed trials on the 3rd September, winning the class for cars up to 1500cc.  The following week de Mattos competed in the International Prescott Hill Climb, finishing 4th behind class winner Bob Ansell's ERA.  And the week after, on the 17th, de Mattos finished 10th in the 5 lap Lavant Trophy race at Goodwood.

Towards the end of 1949 it was decided that the Volkswagen rear end was not too sound, for the engine had by now been modified further to bring it up to 1,767 c.c. and was developing far more power.  At this point the chassis work was taken over by Jimmy Raynes and Bernard Rodgers of Raybern Cars, a small firm in Richmond.  They built a new rear end on the car, using an E.N.V. differential unit, attached to the rear of the chassis, with swing axle drive to the wheels.  To position the axles, and withstand the various forces, two radius arms were used on each side.  The first was attached to the rear of the brake back plate, running parallel with the half-axle and pivoting on the same centre line as the axle’s universal joint; the second running from the front of the back plate, forwards to the chassis.  A transverse leaf spring was mounted on top of the differential unit and was coupled to the hubs for springing purposes only, taking none of the acceleration or braking forces.

By now the car had been renamed, and the name chosen was that of one of Laystall Engineering’s well-known products, the Cromard cylinder liner.  Needless to say the engine, although of Lea-Francis origin, had long since been extensively modified to Laystall’s idea of a power unit, with such things as new crankshaft, connecting-rods, camshafts and valve-gear parts.  The Cromard Special was entered for de Mattos to drive in the Lavant Trophy at Goodwood on the 10th April 1950.  But he damaged the car in practice and was unable to start the race.  Misfortune continued in the Isle of Man when rear axle problems caused the car to be a non-starter in the Manx Cup race on the 15th June.  Bob Spikins installed a larger power unit of 1767cc for the Brighton Speed trials on the 2nd September, but did a spectacular hop, step and jump when the pre-selector gearbox selected reverse instead of second.  His time of 30 seconds was 5.6 seconds slower than winner Raymond Mays in the ERA.  The Prescott Hill Climb on the 10th September was won by Dennis Poore in a 3.8 litre supercharged Alfa Romeo, in a time of 45.39 seconds.  He then tried his hand in the Cromard, still running with its big engine, recording a time of 50.49 seconds for the climb, finishing 3rd in his class.  Poore again drove the car at the Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb on the 23rd September, now with the original 1496 cc engine installed.  He finished 2nd in the up to 1500cc class.  On the 30th September 1950 de Mattos drove the Cromard Special in the 5 lap Madgwick Trophy at Goodwood.  Starting from the front row he failed to finish.  He then competed in a handicap race over 5 laps finishing 3rd.  de Mattos again drove the car, this time at Castle Combe, finishing 3rd in the race for cars between1500cc and 2500cc.

All this time the chassis frame remained as what was left of the original Amilcar after the modifications.  But naturally this was far too flexible for the rest of the car and, at the end of 1950, the Cromard as it stood was broken up and work commenced on a new car, using parts of the old one.  The engine, still of Lea Francis origin with push-rod o.h.v. from high set cams, now had a capacity of 1767cc with a bore of 75mm and stroke of 100 mm.  It spent the winter back at Laystall’s and subsequently delivered 130 b.h.p. at 6,000 r.p.m., using four S.U. carburettors and running on a compression ratio of 13.5 to 1.  Bob then went back Raybern Cars Ltd., for assistance in building the car.  The pair supplied a tubular frame, of the type which was rapidly finding favour with specials-builders.  This was formed with dual 2-in. 18-gauge tubes as side-members.  These tubes were placed one above the other, 5 in. apart and braced at intervals by vertical tubular members, while all cross-members were of 16 s.w.g.  This resulted in a very rigid and strong frame that was also very light in weight, giving a wheelbase of 8ft. 0in. and a track of 4 ft. 0 in.  At the front the Volkswagen trailing arms were used but the laminated torsion bars were altered to give a different springing rate, while a Citroen rack-and-pinion steering box was coupled up to the German steering arms.  The suspension and drive, designed by Raybern at the end of the previous season, were rebuilt on to the new chassis and an Armstrong-Siddeley lacing preselector gearbox was fitted.  A new Gallay radiator was made and fuel tanks fitted on each side of the driving seat joined by a bridge tank under the propeller-shaft.  Laystalls made special brake drums and these were designed to fit Austin A90 Girling 2LS brake assemblies.  They were actually the type used on the front of the A90 and were fitted to all four wheels of the Cromard.  The engine was returned ready for racing and fitted into the new chassis; and in this form the Cromard weighed 11.25 cwt.

It made its first 1951 appearance at the Easter Goodwood meeting on the 26th March in the Lavant Cup race over 12 miles.  Basil de Mattos finished 9th, one place ahead of the new Formula 2 Connaught which used the same Lea Francis based engine.  In the Madgwick Cup race that followed, Smethwick Garage owner Ken Wharton took the wheel to finish in 6th place.  Afterwards the car went to the G. P. des Frontieres at Chimay on the 13th May, having been altered to two S.U. carburettors.  It ran well and de Mattos was leading the first heat when a radius arm fractured, putting it out of the running on the last lap.  It was in this same race that the owner of the car, Bob Spikins, was involved in a fatal accident whilst driving his Frazer-Nash and, rather naturally, that curtailed the car’s racing for most of the remaining season.

However, towards the end of the summer, Basil de Mattos ran the car at the Brighton Speed Trials, finishing third in his class, and again at Prescott.  For the final Goodwood meeting, in September, he was not feeling sufficiently like racing to do justice to the car and offered his entry to Ken Wharton. After rather a limited amount of practice Wharton was beginning to get the feel of the handling characteristics and competed in two events. The first was the Madgwick Cup in which he was unplaced, though he ran well; and the second a handicap event, in which he was re-handicapped on the starting line, yet won with ease, at an average speed of 81.29 m.p.h.

It was indeed a major tragedy that Bob Spikins lost his lifeBritish motor sport lost one of its most popular figures and there is little doubt that, if he had lived, the Cromard would have been fully developed as a pukka Formula 2 car for International racing.  The Raybern chassis had shown up well in 1951 events, although a certain amount of trouble was experienced with the swing-axle suspension.  It was no secret that Spikins was interested in the production of an entirely new power unit and that plans had already been formulated for its construction.

The car was then acquired by Peter Clark and was raced in Ireland by Mrs. Joyce Howard.  On the 6th September 1952 she entered for the Wakefield Trophy race on the five mile long Curragh circuit.  Autosport reported that:  "Joyce Howard in the Cromard Special made a tremendous getaway, leaving Titterington (Allard) and Peter Clarks (DB2) yards behind, the car’s rear wheels leaning in at an odd angle on the swing half axles."  Later in the report:  "Mrs Howard had travelled round for several laps under the impression it was spitting with rain, but a glance at the thermometer told her that it was from somewhere else that that water was coming!  She came into the pits where the leaking water system was revealed. She was driving a fine race and the Cromard Special was going very well indeed."

The following year, on the 25th July 1953, Joyce bought the car to England and entered the USAF formula 2 (for cars up to 2000cc) race at Snetterton, alongside the usual Cooper Bristols and Connaughts, but retired on the first lap. The car then disappeared until being seen at some historic events in the 1990s.

At the end of 2001 the car was found on sale at the German historic car dealers, Auto Salon Singen AG.  They gave a list of drivers as follows:

F. Spikins
B. de Mattos
J. Howard
M. Bourchier
R. Crump
G. Russell
C. Sheriff
M. Siay
R. Tobisch

They also said that the car was restored in 1985, presumably by or on behalf of C. Sheriff, who was probably the owner as well as the driver.  They also say that "the last FIA papers were provided 1994" and that the car has been raced successfully at Goodwood and other historic racing car meets.


Motor Sport Racing Car Review 1952 by D S Jenkinson
Formula 2 by Gregor Grant.
A Record of Grand Prix and Voiturette Races. Sheldon and Rabliatti.
Autosport and Motor Sport magazines 1948 to 1953.
Auto Salon Singen AG, website.

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