Something Special: the quirky world of low-volume British classics

| 22 Sep 2022
Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

What is a Special? In 1950s parlance, it’s a car assembled by an amateur from assorted secondhand bits and pieces.

Back then, when production sports cars were rare and unaffordable, an impecunious enthusiast could buy an old Austin Seven or an 1172cc Ford saloon for a few quid and replace the high, heavy bodywork with something lower, lighter and supposedly sexier.

A whole industry mushroomed offering bodies in the new wonder plastic material, glassfibre, as well as tuning for those wheezy sidevalve engines, higher back-axle ratios, and front axles chopped in half to make rudimentary independent suspension.

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

These quirky sports cars are celebrated at Historic Specials Day

Many builders got demoralised and their dream cars never saw the light of day. Most that did were, in those pre-MoT days, crude, unreliable and in some cases downright dangerous.

The glassfibre bodies that looked so good in the magazine ads – swoopy lines, faired-in headlights, tailfins, even gullwing doors – were often just bare shells, and cockpit and doors had to be hacksawed out.

Some Specials were very well made and looked good, but customers began to expect more sophistication and the arrival of the Austin-Healey Sprite and then the Mini sounded their death-knell. 

However, the crippling Purchase Tax on new cars prompted the availability of complete cars as kits.

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

Many home-built Specials were crude and unreliable, but they also proved a great way to avoid the expensive Purchase Tax attached to buying a new car

If the owner could show invoices from different companies for engine, chassis and the rest, and did some basic assembly, it escaped the tax. Even a new Lotus Elite could be bought as a kit.

Over half a century later a handful of Specials have survived, to be restored and cherished as period eccentricities.

Every August, Historic Specials Day is organised at Cotswold Wildlife Park & Gardens by the Fairthorpe Sports Car Club, which also caters for Turner, Rochdale, Tornado, Falcon, Ashley and others. It’s a fun gathering of cheerful automotive quirkiness – let’s meet some of those enthusiastic owners.

Nigel Spencer: Lotus Six

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

Nigel Spencer’s aluminium-bodied Six is a wonderful example of the first production Lotus

Colin Chapman started as a Specials builder.

The first Lotus was a 1930 Austin saloon that he rebodied in plywood. An 1172 trials car and a 750 racer followed, all with Austin Seven chassis.

Then in 1952 he came up with a spaceframe to accept 1172cc Ford 10 running gear and a simple aluminium cycle-winged body. It was an immediate race-winner, and orders rolled in.

It was light, handled well and could accept many engines – the prototype had a Ford Consul unit, and MG, Climax and even BMW were used. More than 100 kits were sold, and the rest is history.

Nigel Spencer’s car is a perfect example of the classic sidevalve Lotus Six, with polished aluminium body, split-axle independent front suspension with coil spring/damper units, solid back axle, and those unmistakeable Ford disc wheels.

It runs the later 100E Ford engine with an Aquaplane cast-alloy head, and the three-speed ’box has Buckler close-ratio gears. It’s been in the family for 50 years.

His father, a former Mosquito pilot, bought it in bits in 1970 but it was never reassembled. Eight years ago Nigel resurrected the car, and it’s now an immaculate example of the first production Lotus.

Derek Bentley: Turner Mk1

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

More than 600 Turner Mk1s were built, before the company went bust in 1966

Jack Turner built several one-off single-seater racing cars in his Wolverhampton garage before introducing a neat glassfibre-bodied sports car in 1955, with a ladder chassis and a BMC A-series engine.

Sold as a complete kit, it was a big step up from the average Special, and in its later versions with restyled bodywork it looked very smart.

More than 600 were built, and a number went to the USA. Later cars used Ford and occasionally Climax engines, and several lightened versions were successfully raced.

But Healey Sprites were cheaper, so in the 1960s Turner tried to market a more sophisticated GT coupé. Only a handful were sold, and by 1966 the firm was gone.

This Turner belongs to Derek Bentley, who is a serial Specials man. He also has a Rochdale Riviera and a Fairthorpe, and his Rochdale Olympic, which he’s owned for 50 years, has done 350,000 miles.

He bought the Turner in 1981 as a near-wreck and didn’t get it running until 2004, replacing the original supercharged 948cc engine with a 1275cc unit on twin SUs. He’s since clocked up a lot of road miles in this car, too, including visits to the Le Mans Classic.

Les Brown: Rochdale GT

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

A well-resolved body is matched to the Rochdale GT’s Ford-sourced chassis

After marketing a series of more basic shells, Rochdale launched its GT in 1956 as a very complete body for the 7ft 6in Ford chassis, with steel subframes and double-skinned doors with winding windows.

What made it different was that it looked right. Instead of an overstyled body perched on top of an unsuitable frame, its neat lines, from VW headlights to fastback tail, were nicely in scale with its running gear, and a skilled builder could put together a smart little coupé for a few hundred quid.

Hundreds were sold, and the profits funded the development of its successor, the glassfibre monocoque Olympic, of which some 400 examples were sold as complete kits.

Les Brown’s GT shows how early Specials can be reborn with more recent running gear. It now marries a 1973 all-independent Triumph GT6 chassis to a 1965 1098cc BMC A-series engine.

Brown, a schoolteacher, bought his GT as an engineless wreck and it was rebuilt as a lunchtime project by his enthusiastic pupils – “some of the kids got to be better welders than me,” he says.

It gets used a lot, and for this year’s Historic Specials Day he drove 344 miles to Burford and back.

Tony Thorpe & Adrian Leveridge: Falcon Peregrine & Bermuda

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

The Falcon Peregrine (left) and Bermuda feature a more practical body than the earlier Mk2

Peter Pellandine hit a good streak in the Specials days, and from 1956 his Waltham Abbey firm, Falcon Shells, was one of the more successful makers of glassfibre bodies.

His Mk2 looked like a mini-D-type: it never quite worked when perched on a Ford Pop chassis with 17in wheels, but it became a sharp little sports-racer when offered with a spaceframe designed by Len Terry. The D-type reference was underlined by the addition of not one but two headrests.

The Caribbean GT shell, designed to take the usual 1172 Ford components, sold well because it was quite elegant, although the four-seater version, the Bermuda, lost some of its flair and many fewer were made.

As with other Specials companies, Pellandine saw the writing on the wall with the increasing availability of affordable production sports cars.

So in 1961 he introduced the Peregrine, a Ford 105E-engined full kit, still using the Terrier chassis with proper coil/wishbone front suspension and a live rear axle riding on coil springs, but with a roomier and more practical body than the Mk2.

But it was more expensive than the opposition, and only two were made. Next came a stylish full-kit GT, the 515, and a young Howden Ganley briefly raced the works car.

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

Family resemblance is clear in the original two-seater Peregrine (right) and the more upright four-seater Bermuda

Only a handful were built before Falcon died. By then Pellandine had moved to Australia and, with a grant from the South Australia government, built a tiny roadster, the Pelland, which was powered by steam. It later resurfaced as a conventional VW-powered kit car.

The first Falcon Peregrine, as exhibited at the 1961 London Racing Car Show, was discovered in a shed 30 years ago by Tony Thorpe, now the Falcon registrar.

It originally had a hot Cosworth-Ford 105E engine but now runs a more sensible 1600 crossflow. “It’s really well engineered,” says Thorpe, who finds it quick and usable on today’s roads.

Leslie Ballamy’s LMB ladder frame was offered to Specials builders as a stiffer alternative to the floppy Ford 8 chassis, and Adrian Leveridge’s Bermuda uses this, with LMB split-axle front suspension.

The engine is still a Ford sidevalve, but with a supercharger sucking through a big SU and an Aquaplane head, and happily pulls a higher 3.7:1 final drive.

In a typical bit of ingenuity, severe kickback has been dealt with by mounting a shock absorber sideways working on the steering arm.

Chris Johns: Buckler MkV

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

A removable wheel helps owner, Chris Johns, get in and out of his much-loved Buckler MkV

Derek Buckler is a name to conjure with in the annals of Specials.

In 1949 he was the first to develop a proper triangulated spaceframe for sale to amateur car builders.

He offered these chassis in a multitude of specifications to suit any requirements, and over a prolific dozen years he also produced frames for 500cc single-seaters, karts, a Jaguar-powered sports-racer and even a dragster.

In 1961, when Jack Brabham and Ron Tauranac designed their first single-seater, the job of building the frame was covertly subcontracted to Buckler.

But the great majority of Bucklers followed the traditional Ford 1172 engine and running gear route, with the front axle split to give swing-axle independent front suspension.

Buckler also marketed a wealth of components for Specials builders such as close-ratio gears, inlet and exhaust manifolds, and wheels.

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

Johns regularly campaigns his Buckler MkV in trials

The first catalogued frame was the MkV – Buckler was not the first or the last manufacturer to imply that its first model had been preceded by earlier versions – and it was much used in trials and other competitive events.

Chris Johns’ MkV has been in the family for 65 years. His father didn’t build it, but bought it in 1956 to compete in trials, and Chris is still trialling it today.

Its homely aluminium-panelled body is rudimentary.

There is so little room in the cockpit that the handbrake has to live outside, and he has to detach the steering wheel to get in and out.

There’s no luggage room either, apart from a small rack, but this hasn’t dissuaded him from touring Brittany in his Buckler.

Geoff Roe: Austin Ruby

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

Geoff Roe’s Reliant-powered Austin Ruby is finished to a superb standard

Many Specials display dubious engineering skills, and seem to have been thrown together as the builder went along. But Geoff Roe’s jewel-like machine took 30 years of patient skill and creativity to complete, and it is a joy to behold.

Its ingredients come from a great variety of sources – as he says, “Everything you see is off something else” – and yet the car is so beautifully put together that it looks a coherent whole, with each element designed for its purpose.

Roe doesn’t like throwing stuff away. By 1986 he’d assembled a collection of Austin Seven parts including an old Ruby saloon body and some Big Seven running gear.

They needed a suitable engine, and a Reliant Robin 750cc light-alloy four-cylinder with 32bhp and synchro gearbox fitted nicely. The Ruby body was lowered and turned into a hatchback, with elegant helmet wings, and Minivan upper doors dictated the roofline.

A Fiat 500 provided the sunshine roof, a Seven Ulster the dash and a Reliant Rialto the radio.

It has all been assembled with superb workmanship, and bristles with clever details. It’s the first Special I’ve seen with proper door seals and guttering, interior trim details to factory standards, and windscreen wipers that actually do the job.

Dave Bumstead: Fairthorpe Electron

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

Dave Bumstead’s Fairthorpe Electron uses a Ford 1600cc crossflow engine, mated to a five-speed gearbox

Don ‘Pathfinder’ Bennett was a much-decorated Second World War bomber pilot who came early to the kit car market.

His products had the dubious cachet of being more basic and worse-finished than most of their rivals, but they were cheap: the complete Electron Minor kit with a Standard 10 engine cost £425.

It was a two-seater, but the wide cockpit allowed a child to sit, in those less safety-concious days, on a little cushion on the transmission tunnel. Unhappy earlier efforts used motorcycle engines, and the terrifying Zeta squeezed a full-race Ford Zephyr unit into an 88in wheelbase.

But the Minor was the big seller. Dave Bumstead bought his in a derelict state eight years ago, and rebuilt it to a standard of which original Fairthorpes could only dream.

Its gleaming metallic bright blue paintwork is echoed in the bright blue interior, with white upholstery and bright blue seatbelts. Even the engine block and rocker cover are bright blue.

Fairthorpes purported to be complete kits rather than Specials, but this car shows as much individuality – and improvement on the original – as any self-built car.

Steve Strutt: Dellow MkI

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

Steve Strutt’s Ford-powered Dellow MkI was built to compete in trials

The Dellow was built by Ken Delingpole and Ron Lowe in Alvechurch, south of Birmingham. It used the 1172 Ford sidevalve engine and running gear in a sturdy A-frame chassis, and was sold as a fully-built production car.

It was designed for the then very popular sport of trialling, while also being road-usable, and more than 200 were built.

The Ford front axle was unsplit, because this was thought to be better on muddy climbs, and doors were only available on the MkII, as an option.

At the age of six Steve Strutt was taken to a trial and allowed to sit in the passenger seat of a Dellow, and it made an unforgettable impression. But it wasn’t until 2003 that he was able to buy a bare chassis and enough bits to recreate his MkI.

The engine is the later 100E Anglia unit, with Aquaplane alloy head, and the Ford rear axle rides on coil springs, which was a MkII feature.

It also boasts a ‘fiddle brake’, a handbrake that you push forward to work on the front wheels and back to work on the rear. Very useful when inching up a slippery slope.

Dave Malins: Tornado Tempest

Classic & Sports Car - The quirky world of low-volume British classics

The unique fastback roof fitted to Dave Malins’ Tornado Tempest was fabricated by a previous owner

From the start, Tornado Cars of Rickmansworth offered a rigid ladder chassis to go with its racy glassfibre bodies.

The Typhoon was typically 1172-based, but the Tempest used the Ford 105E engine and had wishbone and coil front suspension, with coils for the live rear axle. The Thunderbolt was similar but with a Triumph TR3 engine, and the only one made was successfully raced.

Just as Rochdale moved on to the Olympic, so Tornado moved upmarket in 1962 with a very attractive full-kit GT, the Talisman. Around 180 were made before the company failed in 1964.

Dave Malins, the Tornado registrar, says only 15 Tempest chassis/body kits were sold, of which four remain – including one in a Spanish museum. His, like so many Specials, has had a chequered life. Early on a very tall owner extended the roof to create a distinctive fastback, and later it ended up as an Escort-powered hot rod.

Malins bought the car in 1980 and spent 10 years rebuilding it. He has fitted a correct 105E engine but retained the fastback as a period modification.

It’s very usable on today’s roads, and in the past 30 years it has done some 40,000 miles.

Images: James Mann

This was originally in our November 2021 magazine; all information was correct at the date of original publication


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