Wheelwrights and coachbuilders - from carriages to Blue Bird
Postcard view of Church Street. You can see Elson's on the left, slightly right of and behind the lamp-post. Image courtesy of Bourne Hall Museum.
Had Mr Walter Frederick Elson (known as Frederick or Fred) been given to blowing his own trumpet, which he certainly wasn't, we might know a lot more about him than we currently do. As it is, his grand-daughter, Angela Pugh, has spent many years researching his work and we hope that someone out there with an interest in and knowledge of pre-war racing cars will read this and provide further information.
James Elson was a wheelwright by trade. Born in 1845 in Reigate, his parents were Mark and Lucy (nee Smith). Mark, also a wheelwright, was born in Epsom, but moved firstly to Reigate and then Southwark. Lucy died in 1858 and was buried in Betchworth. In 1860 Mark married Ellen Stenning, by which time James was already working for his father. In 1876 James married Elizabeth Park. By 1878 he was operating as a wheelwright and coachbuilder in Church Street, Epsom, with his brother William. Walter Frederick, born in 1888, was their fourth and last child.
By 1911 James had retired and Fred was in charge of the business, although still living with his parents. However, James died in 1915, followed by Elizabeth in 1918.
Grave (F96A) of James and Elizabeth in Epsom Cemetery. Image courtesy of Gravestone Photographic Resource.
Mark (died 1899) and his second wife, Ellen (died 1898), are also buried in Epsom Cemetery (grave F97A).
Thanks to a reader of The Epsom Herald we have a picture of how the Church Street yard (more or less opposite the Baptist Church), looked back in about 1895.
Elson's works c.1895. Image source: Epsom Herald of 18 October 1981.
Another Herald reader was able to identify the gentlemen in the photo as (left to right) Jack Fuller (foreman), Thomas Ellis, Fred Coleman and Alfred Hines.
Fred was quite young to be running a firm, which was fundamentally still a wheelwright's business, but during his time it developed into coachbuilding for automobiles. We think that the bread and butter work would have been routine vehicle body repairs but from time to time they were handed something much more exciting - racing cars.
However, before we get to that, there was the matter of a war to go through, and Fred spent it in the Motorcycle section of the Royal Engineers as a dispatch rider, ending up as a sergeant, twice (he evidently did something that was sufficient to get him demoted to Corporal at one point, but had regained his third stripe by the time he was demobbed). His service records do not say at any point where he was stationed, but we know he was overseas. His (temporary) demotion to Corporal was confirmed in a letter dated 6 May 1917 and signed by Lt.Gen William Birdwood, officer commanding 1 ANZAC Corps, which was on the Western Front at that time.
We do not know how and when Fred met his wife, Hazel (nee Rich, born 1895 Ifield, Sussex), but it could have had something to do with her father's business interests - in the 1911 census he was described as a motor and cycle patent tube factor. In any event they were married in Horsham district in 1920.
Virtually everything we know about Fred's involvement with racing cars is down to his grand-daughter's research and she has also provided photographic evidence. I said at the beginning that he did not blow his own trumpet and we think that quite often, work was sub-contracted to him, with the main contractor getting the credit. Examples of this are three Lagondas, plate numbers BPK 201, BPK 202 and BPK 203, from 1934.
Lagonda is an iconic name in motoring and it all began in Staines, where American opera singer Wilbur Gunn, from Lagonda Creek, Ohio, began building motorcycles in his back garden. In 1907 he produced his first cars and here is one of them.
A 1907 Lagonda in the Louwman Museum at The Hague. Photograph by Wim Hoppenbrouwers via flickr.com and reproduced under this Creative Commons Licence
Records will tell you that the three 1934 Lagondas (the 4.5 litre Lagonda M45R Rapide, to give it the full name) mentioned above were 'produced' by Fox & Nicholl of Tolworth and here is a photo to prove it, but Fred Elson's firm made the bodies for these cars. Fred is standing on the left behind the car numbered 3.
Although the writing on the photo of the three cars says 'Ulster Grand Prix team', they were actually entered for the 1934 RAC Tourist Trophy, held at Ards near Belfast, but in those days this was the most famous and important race held anywhere. All of the major marques showed off their wares and, unlike today's Formula 1, when you could not imagine having a road version of a Grand Prix car, in the old days you could. None of the Lagondas won, but they were creditably placed. The star of the three became BPK 202 which, driven by Luis Fontes and John Hindmarsh, won the 1935 Le Mans 24 Hour Race; they covered more than 3006 kilometres at an average speed of over 125 kph.
If you happen to go to The Hague, you can see BPK 202 on display at the Louwman Museum: if not, here is a photo.
During her researches Angela Pugh was in touch with motor historian David Venables, an expert on pre-war racing cars, and he thought that Elson's had also made the body for the 1936 LG45R Rapide Sports-Racing two-seater, bearing the number EPE 97, which has been called 'the most famous Lagonda of all'. Again, the coachwork credit was given to Fox & Nicholl. This car, immaculately restored, was sold at auction for £1.5695 million in 2014 and you can read all about it on Bonham's website.
The 1935 Singer Nine TT team cars
We believe that Fred made the bodies for these, but have not as yet proved it. However, we do have a picture of one, racing number 38 (and registration plate AVC 482 if we could see it), in Fred's collection, so it is almost certain that he was involved. Here it is pictured at Brooklands in 1937, with its usual driver, Norman Black.
AVC 482 was one of only four single-seater TT racing models, numbered from AVC 481-484. There is further information about AVC 482 online by Steve McKelvie, describing a series of races at Snetterton in 1952, and he says that the car is still around, although it seems now to be a two-seater, according to this photo on flickr. There is a good account of the Singers at Le Mans and elsewhere on the North American Singer Owners Club website.
The 1936 BMW 328 Roadster (FGU 30)
This car is something of a rarity, with only between 400 and 500 models ever produced (accounts of the actual number vary), from 1936 to 1940, owing to the outbreak of the Second World War. When Fred received FGU 30, once owned by racing driver Oscar Moore, it was in a bad way, to put it mildly. Here he is surveying the damage.
This next picture shows what a BMW 328 (minus hard top) looks like in pristine condition.
A BMW 328 in 2007. Photograph by Lothar Spurzem via Wikimedia Commons.
Thanks to Motorsport Magazine of January 1965, we know a little more about the car in Fred's yard. It had been removed from Munich just before the war started and seems to have been in Hungary, as we are told that it had Hungarian plates before becoming FGU 30. Miss Betty Haig (died 1987), a racing enthusiast and acquirer/driver of iconic sporting cars, took a share in it and bought out the other shareholder(s) after the war; she described it as 'quite fantastic - a new conception of motoring'.
In due course Miss Haig took the car to Switzerland for hill-climbs, driving it herself, and the magazine tells us that one day, at a hill-climb in England, a young man came over, introduced himself and said he had a similar car: this was Stirling Moss, just about to begin his stellar racing career. As of 1965 Miss Haig still had FGU 30 at her home (Shellingford House, near Faringdon, Berkshire) and said it was 'as good as ever', so we must have Fred Elson to thank for that.
BMW was so proud of the 328 that, to commemorate the 75th anniversary, it introduced the 328 Hommage, based on the original car. There is a video of both on YouTube.
A particular Jaguar XK 120
These sports cars were produced between 1948 and 1954 and caused a sensation when unveiled. Fred's daughter told the family that Fred had made the hard top for the one shown below.
If you think the owner looks rather familiar, that's because he is: it's the film star Tyrone Power and the next picture shows why a hard top was essential, albeit that he mostly used the car in Hollywood.
I mentioned Blue Bird at the beginning and, although it should have been first chronologically, it is obviously one of the most iconic vehicles ever (in all its incarnations) and deserves to be the grand finale. Fred's grand-daughter has put a lot of work into researching this, and there has been input from the late David Venables, mentioned earlier, and the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.
You will all know of various Blue Birds (which became Bluebirds when Donald Campbell took over the name from his father, Sir Malcolm), but the one we are concerned with is the Napier-Campbell Blue Bird II - the first to be custom-built by Sir Malcolm and a legion of assistants/contractors (there was a previous Blue Bird, but that was a modified Sunbeam and not built from scratch). Mr Venables said in a letter dated 1996 that, having viewed Fred's photos, he concluded they showed Sir Malcolm Campbell's 1926 model; he went on to say that Sir Malcolm's autobiography states the body was built at Horley by two panel-beaters whom he had engaged for the job and Mr Venables thought that Campbell must have got them from Fred. He was happy to give Fred the credit for the body and so are we, especially as we have proof in Fred's own handwriting, from a diary in which he recorded details of various family crests - heraldry was his hobby.
The entry reads 'Campbell. A Boar's head. The crest of Sir Malcolm Campbell. This is a first copy painted on the panels of the first Blue Bird on which Sir Malcolm attained the first land speed record. I had the honour of building the body for this car'. Note that he corrected himself about this being the first Blue Bird, because of the previous Sunbeam.
The Napier-Campbell Blue Bird II on Pendine Sands in 1927. Image source: Wikimedia Commons.
Blue Bird II broke the world land speed record in February 1927 at Pendine Sands, Carmarthen Bay, reaching an average speed of 174.883 mph.
Fred sold the Church Street business to Edward C Micklewhite in 1953 and retired to Hampshire, where he died on 1 June 1979, followed by Hazel in 1981. Their daughter, Margaret (her name was Margaret Jane but she was always known as Jane) married David Orton and they were the parents of Angela Pugh, who has done so much to help me. In fact, there would have been no article without her!
Fred's old premises have long gone and the site now forms part of the Kirkgate development (19-31 Church Street).