Unsung pioneer Hugh Dunsterville has died

| 19 Jan 2012

Engineering trailblazer Hugh Dunsterville, creator of the original Freikaiserwagen hillclimb special – the first British mid-engined single-seater – passed away on 12 November, just six weeks short of his 97th birthday. Back in 1936, he had just sat for his engineering degree at Bristol University (but not yet graduated), when David Fry of the famous chocolate family suggested that they should build a hillclimb special together, with Dunsterville supplying the know-how and Fry the money.

They bought a three-wheeled Morgan from a Bristol scrapyard for its engine and independent front suspension and a GN cyclecar for its chassis and chain-drive transmission. Dunsterville then placed the engine of the former in the middle of the chassis of the latter. Because he’d actually built the car, he was permitted by Fry to be the first to drive it ‘in anger’. This took place at the Backwell hill-climb near Bristol on 25 July 1936.

The owner of the Backwell site wouldn’t permit any practising, and Dunsterville was new to the car, so it was unsurprisingly ‘pranged’ at the last corner – though there was still enough momentum to cross the finishing-line, achieve second in class, and win a tankard that is still in his family’s possession to this day! After Dunsterville graduated, his direct involvement in the on-going Freikaiserwagen project ceased, his place being taken by Fry’s distant-cousin Joe. Dunsterville never lost interest in the car, however, and 65 years after building it he handed to his second son Rob – who had long since gone to live in Australia – his personal ‘Freikaiserwagen archive’ covering the car’s 15-year life, 1936-1950 inclusive. The car’s Teutonic name not unnaturally created the impression that it had been the product of Fry (Frei) and Caesar (Kaiser) – with a dash of Porsche’s Auto Union P-wagen thrown-in for good measure.

Whereas in fact Dick Caesar had only been consulted, before and after its construction; David Fry was only an 18 year old, in his gap-year between school and university at the time; and Joe Fry never even set eyes on it until Dunsterville had already driven the completed car at Backwell.

In all the riot of germanification there was no acknowledgement of its actual creator, a situation that Rob Dunsterville was determined to put right when he undertook to research and publish an account of the car’s true history – if at all possible during his father’s lifetime.  The resulting book – FREIK: The Private Life of the Freikaiserwagen – was launched at Shelsley Walsh in July 2008 to critical and popular acclaim, and sold-out in just 9 months.

While preparing the slightly-extended Second Edition, it was realised that not enough had been made in the First Edition of the fact that the Freikaiserwagen had been Britain’s first ever mid-engined single-seater racing car – 10 years before the first Coopers, and 24 years before the first Lotuses were given mid-engines – so the text was revised accordingly. The Freikaiserwagen name owes its lasting fame to the fact that on 11 June 1949, and with just 1100cc, a further development set a new outright-record at Shelsley Walsh – beating Raymond Mays’s record in the fastest-ever 2-litre Works ERA.

But the claim-to-fame of the original's creator, Hugh Dunsterville, lies in the part he played in changing the design of single-seater racing cars for ever.

Obituary by James Fack