Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

| 13 Feb 2024
Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

Producing just 26 cars before WW2 stopped play, Atalanta could so easily have become a footnote in the annals of motoring history.

That it didn’t was thanks to a dose of post-war pragmatism that allowed the company to survive as a car brand and carve a very different niche once hostilities ended – a tradition that, remarkably, is upheld today.

But the sheer glory, style and panache of Atalanta’s V12-engined cars built between 1937 and ’39 remained unsurpassed, representing an entirely viable and more bespoke alternative to more prolific Lagonda and Bentley models, offering a fusion of speed and grace for the well-to-do driver.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

Atalanta was born in a shed in Middlesex in 1936

When Motor Sport tested the Atalanta in 1939, it described the performance as ‘terrific’, managing 101mph on a flat stretch of public road and a 0-60mph in 12 secs.

It also described the car’s handling – Atalanta being the only British firm at the time to fit all-independent suspension – as ‘superlative’.

All of this dressed in a compact body, the design of which adhered to an unashamedly Art Deco style, yet, despite its indulgently sweeping wheelarches and this example’s veritable battery of chrome-plated illumination across its bumperless front end, managed a tasteful restraint compared with the excesses of some rival fare.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

This Atalanta V12’s non-original – and quite arresting – cabin trim accentuates the car’s period style

It says much for Atalanta’s founding fathers that the car evolved into what you see on these pages from such an inauspicious birth, in a shed on Staines High Street, Middlesex, in 1936.

Britain’s motor industry had by then been through the worst recessionary times in the late 1920 and early ’30s, and was approaching a period of greater stability and optimism.

Even so, established luxury makers such as Bentley (bought by Rolls-Royce in 1931), Lagonda and Invicta were still licking their wounds, leaving them vulnerable to rivals from new start-ups.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Atalanta V12’s front seats tilt forward for passengers to access the rear bench

Each of Atalanta’s directors had serious automotive experience, too.

Alfred Gough had been with Frazer Nash but resigned after the modified Meadows engine that he’d designed was ditched by the Aldington brothers in favour of a bought-in BMW unit.

Of the other two, Douglas Hamill was a former director of Dunlop Morris Commercials and Eric Scott had come from Specialloid Pistons; both had previously worked with Bentley Boy ‘Tim’ Birkin on a tractor design, before Birkin died from septicaemia following burns from his Maserati at the 1933 Tripoli Grand Prix.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

Atalanta logos on the wheels’ chrome spinners are among this car’s period-appropriate enhancements

The money behind the operation came from two Cambridge undergraduates, Neil Watson and Peter Whitehead, who provided funding for the three engineers to develop the first car.

It all started with a name that seemingly embraced their mission.

A local business – Atalanta Garage – had recently gone into receivership, leaving its moniker available.

‘Atalanta’, in Greek and Roman mythology, was a virgin huntress, noted for her fleetness of foot and great beauty – fitting attributes for the trio’s fledgling automobile.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

‘The Lincoln-Zephyr’s deeply warbling exhaust note is pleasantly at odds with being at the wheel of a pre-war British car’

Also fitting was Atalanta Motors’ new purpose-built, Art Deco premises on the London Road bypass in Staines, fully equipped with dynamometers, a tool room and machining equipment.

Gough, along with three engineers poached from Frazer Nash, promptly developed the company’s first model in a timescale that would beggar the belief of any modern-day motor executive.

It was even more remarkable given the advanced technology that was to underpin the new car.

Gough designed an all-new, rigid steel-channel chassis with the aforementioned independent suspension all round.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Atalanta V12’s dashing, cab-rearward look is in part thanks to the placement of the Lincoln-Zephyr V12 engine

At the front were twin trailing arms, with single trailing items at the rear, all made from Hiduminium (a high-strength alloy) to reduce unsprung weight.

Coil springs were used, vertical at the front, horizontal at the rear, running parallel with the chassis.

The Atalanta’s sizeable 16in drum brakes were made from Elektron magnesium alloy and employed a race-style Lockheed double-barrelled master cylinder, maintaining braking performance should one cell fail.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

This Atalanta V12 is fresh from a 12-year restoration

Aluminium bodies over ash frames for almost all pre-war Atalantas were supplied by Abbott of Farnham and included two-seater roadsters with different wing styles, two-seater drophead coupés, as well as four-seater coupés and four-seater saloons.

However, while the car’s chassis was state-of-the-art and its range of bodies appealing, initially its engines fell short of the mark.

Gough’s adapted Meadows unit (which the Aldingtons had happily let him take with him when he left Frazer Nash) was available in either 1.5-litre 78bhp or 2-litre 98bhp guises, each with a supercharged option, transmitting drive to the rear axle via a French Cotal gearbox or an American Warner unit with overdrive.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Lincoln-Zephyr V12 replaced Atalanta’s original Meadows-derived four-cylinder powerplants from 1938

But the cylinder heads of both engines were problematic and, despite the original two-inlet-valve/single-exhaust-valve unit being replaced by one designed by Aston Martin’s ‘Gus’ Bertelli, the powertrain proved disappointing for a car costing up to £780.

The entrance of a keen and knowledgeable owner at this point gave Atalanta’s products an unexpected lift.

Nigel Beaumont-Thomas had bought one of the company’s first cars, but become frustrated by the ambitious engine’s lack of reliability.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Atalanta V12 has a long bonnet and sculpted wing-tops

Either showing incredible insight or otherwise plucking the idea out of thin air, Beaumont-Thomas suggested that the V12 powerplant from the then UK-imported Lincoln-Zephyr might address the Atalanta’s woes, while imbuing it with some extra performance.

Unrelated to Lincoln’s larger K-series V12, this 75° 4.4-litre unit was based on Ford’s flathead V8.

Its valve-in-block design permitted a low bonnet line, which had already furnished the Lincoln-Zephyr production car with an impressive drag coefficient of 0.45.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Atalanta V12’s ride is a little on the harsh side

Other than having to increase the Atalanta’s wheelbase by one foot – giving it a distinctive cab-rearward look – few other modifications were required to accommodate the V12.

Once installed, it gifted the car with an ideal 50:50 weight distribution that it had previously lacked.

With the exception of chassis 1006, the Gough engine of which was later replaced by an Aston Martin DB2/4 unit, all other pre-war Atalantas from Beaumont-Thomas’ chassis 1005 (the fourth customer car) onwards were fitted with the 112bhp V12.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The elegantly simple wood-veneer dash in this Atalanta V12’s cabin

As revealed by Motor Sport, this gave the Atalanta an extraordinary turn of speed, leading to inevitable competition outings.

An impressive debut at the 1937 Lewes Speed Trials was followed by a works Le Mans entry in 1938 (the car failed after four laps, from damage caused by an early accident).

And after Watson and Whitehead sold their interest in the company to another Frazer Nash émigré, Midge Wilby, the new shareholder’s passion for rallying led to success in both the 1939 Scottish Rally and RAC Welsh Rally.

But, while Atalanta was riding high after an impossibly short rise to fame, the outbreak of WW2 halted further production.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The windscreen opens to improve ventilation to the Atalanta’s cabin

Like many others, from 1939 the company’s works reverted to turning out pumps and other essentials for the war effort, and the V12-engined model’s short-lived run ended.

The two cars with us today – chassis L1010, a four-seater drophead coupé which we’ll come to shortly, and L1018, a beautifully restored two-door, four-seater saloon model – represent perfectly the heartland of Atalanta’s pre-war range.

They are among eight pre-war cars known to survive, only four of which remain complete with their V12 engines.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Atalanta V12 drophead coupé’s steering feels more alive and responsive than in the four-seater saloon

The saloon, FLY 862, perhaps best shows off Atalanta’s unique aesthetic.

It was first registered on 4 April 1939 to Sir Henry ‘Walter’ Gilbey, of distiller W&A Gilbey.

He sold it to Donald Hume, later notorious for the 1949 murder of London car dealer Stanley Setty (he was only charged with the disposal of Setty’s body, with double jeopardy preventing his retrial after he admitted to the killing in a later Sunday Pictorial interview).

Garage owner Robert Henderson from Great Missenden acquired FLY in 1950 and sold it to Kidderminster auctioneer Leonard Joseland the following year.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

‘The view through the windscreen just needs a long gravel drive leading to a stately country pile to complete the picture’

The car stayed in the Joseland family until 1970, with Leonard’s son, Mark, taking on the car in ’53.

A Vintage Sports-Car Club member, he was keen to compete with it, but the club did not permit American-engined cars at its events.

A Rolls-Royce 20/25 unit was fitted, which reputedly gave FLY an easy cruising speed of 100mph, after it was equipped with a more free-flowing exhaust and new inlet manifolds with twin SU carburettors.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Atalanta V12’s Lincoln-Zephyr engine is best enjoyed from inside the drophead coupé

Mark also commissioned Dick Shattock, who had bought Atalanta’s parts stock and was responsible for the brand’s rebirth (see below), to fit new suspension, inboard Alfin rear drum brakes and finned front drums.

He then campaigned the car – sporting more modern Lucas lights – at various events, including the Vintage Sports-Car Club’s Pomeroy Trophy.

FLY was sold at auction in 1970 to Stanley Macadie from Kent, but its clutch failed while being driven home.

Macadie kept the car until his death nearly 40 years later, but the Atalanta remained unrepaired and was never driven again.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

More work is still required on this Atalanta V12’s gearing and brakes

Fortunately, a saviour was at hand.

In 2010, the Ward family took on FLY and reunited it with a correct (if not its original) Lincoln-Zephyr V12.

The car underwent a full restoration and, while there have been period-appropriate enhancements – additional coachlines to its body, a larger-bore exhaust and Atalanta logos on the wheels’ chrome spinners are the most obvious – the overall result is stunning.

From the outside, this Atalanta has a decidedly sporting stance and, after opening the vault-like, rear-hinged driver’s door, the impression is maintained as you settle into a surprisingly firm and narrow seat, with your legs stretched out to reach the floor-mounted pedals.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Atalanta’s tall gearing demands significant clutch slip from the off

Cabin detailing is exquisite, from the large, gently flexing four-spoke steering wheel to the chrome-plated steering column and two cream-faced main dials set in a richly veneered dash.

The Deco-style trim is not original, but sympathetic to what may have existed in ’39.

The view through the hinged front ’screen, down the majestically long bonnet to the sculpted wing-tops and the upper domes of the lights, just needs the addition of a long gravel drive leading to a stately country pile to complete the picture.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Atalanta V12 has a dog-leg three-speed gearbox

A loud woofle greets you on start-up, and engaging first in the dog-leg three-speed ’box is easy enough.

Insanely tall gearing (a change of diff ratio is on the cards) means that the clutch must be slipped initially, and it isn’t until about 35mph that engaging second feels comfortable.

FLY’s keeper acknowledges that more set-up work is required in these early days after its 12-year restoration.

This perhaps explains why, from the off, the steering feels ponderous and vague, and the ride quality – especially at the rear – is quite severe and not in keeping with expectations of how this car should go down the road.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

This Atalanta V12 drophead coupé wears its time-worn patina well

Equally, its braking performance – feel, linearity and bite – is somewhat removed from what it should be.

It’s just as well that the V12 drophead coupé, chassis L1010, also joins us today.

No pre-war history exists for this car, but from 1946, when it was re-registered with its current number, EJB 540, it went through five owners, before being exported to Texas in 1998.

It was then repatriated in 2012 by the Ward family and, while some mechanical and electrical work has taken place, it retains a lovely patina to its coachwork and cabin.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

Little is known about this Atalanta V12 drophead coupé’s early days

Crucially, EJB is a deal more representative of how an Atalanta should drive and how, hopefully, FLY will one day perform.

Roof down, the Lincoln-Zephyr’s deeply warbling exhaust note is pleasantly at odds with being at the wheel of a pre-war British car.

Gearing is shorter and, combined with a slicker shift and the more satisfying action of a top-mounted throttle (clutch and brake are still from the floor), EJB is instantly more biddable. Fast, too.

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

The Atalanta V12 drophead coupé has a sporting stance

Even after brisk acceleration to 60mph, mid-range performance way beyond that speed has a responsiveness that validates Beaumont-Thomas’ plea for the American motor to be installed.

There’s plenty of steering play off-centre, but the system is fairly light, more alert and confidence-inspiring in this car.

Curiously, the ride is vastly improved, too; perhaps the outboard rear drums work better to dampen gnarled road surfaces, compared to FLY’s inboard items.

Either way, it’s potent and engaging, and must have captured the hearts of those lucky enough to own one back in the day.

Had Atalanta continued along the same trajectory post-war, it may even have filled the empty shoes left by Bugatti.

Images: Max Edleston

Thanks to: Alister Ward; Julian Brown Classic Car Commissions, where both Atalantas are for sale; Saul Stevens

Atalanta: the post-war years

Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

Atalanta’s original factory in Staines, where just 26 cars were built before WW2

In 1944, Richard ‘Dick’ Gaylard Shattock built the first version of his own Special for competition, using a pre-war Atalanta chassis powered by a supercharged, 16v Brooke Marine engine.

In 1949, Shattock bought Atalanta’s remaining stock of parts to provide an aftersales service for owners of the company’s pre-war cars, Atalanta having by then moved into pump production.

He also acquired the rights to the ‘Atalanta’ name, prefixed with his initials, ‘RGS’, to define the company from the pump manufacturer.

Shattock produced between nine and 12 fully built RGS Atalantas from his Brookside Garage works in Berkshire, but the company had more success producing its ‘Kit of Parts’ for amateur car builders.

From 1952, after glassfibre emerged as a wonder material, RGS Atalanta also made and sold its own bodies across the UK, Europe and the USA.

Some car makers, including TVR and Buckler, even offered Atalanta body options for customers.

In 2012, 50 years after RGS Atalanta had sold its Brookside works, Atalanta enthusiast Martyn Corfield revived the historic name with the introduction of a reverse-engineered car, based on the pre-war V12 model with an open two-seater body and power from a 2.5-litre, four-cylinder Ford engine.

Adhering to modern IVA regulations, the new handbuilt Atalanta aims to retain the good looks and spirit of the original.


Classic & Sports Car – Atalanta V12: better by the dozen

Atalanta V12

  • Sold/number built 1937-’39/26
  • Construction steel chassis, with aluminium body over ash frame
  • Engine iron-block, alloy-heads, sidevalve-in-block 4379cc V12, single Ford carburettor
  • Max power 112bhp @ 3900rpm
  • Max torque 180lb ft @ 400-3500rpm
  • Transmission three-speed manual, RWD
  • Suspension independent, at front by twin trailing arms rear single trailing arms; coil springs f/r
  • Steering worm and peg
  • Brakes drums, with double-barrelled master cylinder
  • Length 14ft 8in (4470mm)
  • Width 5ft 5in (1650mm)
  • Height n/a
  • Wheelbase 10ft (3048mm)
  • Weight 2912lb (1321kg)
  • Mpg 20
  • 0-60mph 12 secs
  • Top speed 101mph
  • Price new £740
  • Price now £225,000*

*Prices correct at date of original publication

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