Today, racing cars built in this country dominate almost every formula, but the first British team to find international success after WW2 is almost forgotten. It wasn’t BRM: the expensive and heavily hyped V16 was an abject failure. It wasn’t
Hersham and Walton Motors was run by partners John Heath and George Abecassis. Abecassis, a brave and stylish driver, had raced Atlas before and after the war, and went on to be a works driver for Aston Martin. Heath, a talented self-taught engineer, built up a streamlined Alta-based special for the 1948 season, and then followed it with an Alta-powered open-wheeler for 1949, winning the Manx Trophy on the Isle of Man. He called these two early cars HW-Altas.
Heath’s frequent overseas trips with the HW-Altas to races in
That season, on the tightest of budgets, the three HWMs took part in an incredible 20 international events in 27 weeks, across France, Belgium, Italy, Germany and Britain. Heath and Abecassis commuted back and forth to each race, because they had their garage business to run. The three cars stayed on the Continent, travelling from race to race in two old vans driven by three permanently exhausted mechanics, who also had to prepare, and repair, the racers. Chief of the three, at a salary of £10 for a seven-day week on the road, was an irascible and obsessive Pole called Alfons Koveleski. As Alf Francis, he went on to become perhaps motor racing’s best-known mechanic.
Drivers, apart from Heath and Abecassis, included Lance Macklin, the Swiss Rudi Fischer, Belgian jazzman Johny Claes, the racing motorcyclist Fergus Anderson – and the 20-year-old Stirling Moss, who’d never raced anything other than a little F3-type Cooper before. Moss was sensational. The HWM’s four-cylinder Alta engine lacked the power of most of its rivals, but its all-independent chassis handled well, and Stirling’s budding genius exploited it to the full. He finished third at Reims behind Ascari’s Ferrari and Simon’s Gordini, and, unbelievably, third in the F1 race at Bari behind the 159 Alfas of Farina and Fangio. He set fastest lap in the Rome Grand Prix chasing the F2 Ferraris of Ascari and Villoresi, and was leading the Naples Grand Prix when he was pushed off into a tree by a backmarker. Claes, meanwhile, scored the first post-war win by a British car in a race titled as a Grand Prix when he won the Belgian GP des Frontières at Chimay, while Macklin was sixth in the German Grand Prix and Fischer was sixth at
In between, there were blown engines to rebuild and bent cars to repair, the hard-pressed transporters frequently broke down, one of the racers caught fire the night before a race, and one of the mechanics, plus car and van, got lost in the middle of Italy, without money and unable to speak a word of Italian. But the team made it to the end of the season, and with good enough results to have built a substantial reputation across Europe. Most important of all, once the three cars were sold off after the last race, there was a small profit to show for all that toil.
Of those three 1950 works cars, one has remained in its Alta-engined form. Another was given a Jaguar XK120 engine by its new owner Oscar Moore, becoming the first in a long line of Jaguar-powered specialist sports-racers. And the third ended up in Hollywood, starring in a movie with Kirk Douglas, before gaining a Chevrolet V8 engine and going on to a second racing career on the USA’s West Coast as the Stovebolt Special. All three now live with enthusiastic owners in
For 1951, the works HWMs grew up into proper F2 single-seaters, and the team’s European exploits continued over the next three seasons. Other young drivers to cut their teeth in the green cars included Peter Collins, Harry Schell and Paul Frère. But the beautifully built HWMs tended to be heavier than their opposition, and the Alta engine, ever more highly tuned to try to stay competitive with newer machinery, was becoming less reliable.
So HWM then turned its thoughts to the sports-racing class, and in 1953 fitted a modified F2 chassis with a Jaguar engine and an all-enveloping two-seat body. Registered HWM 1 (later YPG 3), this first works HWM-Jaguar proved to be lighter and better handling than the C-type Jaguars. In the hands of Abecassis and others, it was very successful in British racing. Two more were built for customers, and all three are still active in historic racing today. A fourth was supplied as a kit of parts to receive a Cadillac engine, and is now in New Zealand. Meanwhile, hillclimber Phil Scragg was terrorising the hills, first in an HWM-built, Alta F1 chassised, cycle-winged sports car and then in a purpose-built HWM-Jaguar which has been happily raced and hillclimbed by a succession of owners ever since.
Abecassis himself sketched out the bodies of each HWM and, for the second generation HWM-Jaguars in 1955, he designed a neat functional new body. Two works cars were built: George’s was registered XPE2 and the second, for Heath, took over the HWM 1 number plate. It was in this car that John Heath decided to enter the 1956 Mille Miglia road race around Italy. In driving rain he lost control near Ravenna and the car hit a fence and turned over. A few days later Heath died from his injuries.
That, sadly, was more or less the end of HWM which still promised so much. Abecassis did build up one more chassis as a dramatically styled road-going coupé, but he gave up racing to concentrate on his burgeoning garage business. Today HWM, still in its original premises in Walton-on-Thames, thrives as a prestigious dealer in Aston Martins and other desirable and exotic road machinery.
Like all good racing cars, however, the handful of HWMs that came out of this courageous little team lived on, and most of them have never stopped being campaigned. Today they are cherished by their handful of lucky owners as important, and very effective, historic racing cars. Britain’s all–conquering motor racing industry owes a great debt to those pioneering European forays of John Heath and George Abecassis.
Our history has been impressive enough to warrant having a two-volume book written about it all. Below is a video of the author of the book talking about his inspirations and writing processes.