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Wally Hassan: The Wizzard of Brooklands

It was late in the afternoon in July 1990 when an elderly gentleman made his way down the steps of the High Court of Justice on the Strand in London. It had been oppressively muggy that day and Walter Hassan OBE had spent most of it in court. Actually, it had been his first time in a courtroom of any kind. Wally had been retired from the motor trade for almost twenty years. Then, at the beginning of the year he had been called as a primary witness for the defense in a case before the high court involving the sale of a car he had been instrumental in building a lifetime ago in 1929. Wally had almost forgotten about it but as he sat down that morning in the witness stand the memories had all come flooding back. (Photo: below left: Walter Hassan)

It had all started in 1920 when, less than enthused by his father’s clothing business he had apprenticed himself to W.O. Bentley in Cricklewood. From his first day in the former aircraft engine factory, Hassan absorbed information like a sponge, determined to become familiar with every aspect of the cars the company produced. His talent came to the attention of Frank Clement, Bentley’s only professional racing driver who suggested Hassan join the company’s racing mechanics. (Photo: Walter Owen Bentley. founder of the venerable company that bears his name to this day.)

In 1926 the Bentley team came to Montlhery outside Paris for the first ever attempt to set a 24hr record of over 100mph. Woolf Barnato and George Duller were to drive the single-seater “slug” racecar prepared by Wally Hassan. More than 1000 miles into the record attempt George Duller skidded on the banking and returned to the pit to allow Barnato to take over. He was surprised to find it deserted but for the 21-year-old Hassan. The rest of the team had gone to dinner. Duller had barely sat down, when unwilling to let the record attempt go to waste, Hassan jumped into the car and set off down the track. Just as he roared round the first corner, Barnato and the rest of the team returned from dinner in time to hear a loud screeching sound followed by a metallic crash and then silence. When they reached the scene of the crash they found the 3 liter Bentley straddling a ditch and Hassan lying unconscious under the wreckage. The record attempt was done for, especially since Hassan was not a driver of record and therefore nothing would have been recorded anyway. W.O Bentley asserts in his biography that it was a miracle that Hassan managed to get as far as he did. He was also very pleased that the American Hospital in Paris treated the fearless mechanic free of charge for three weeks.

Despite of the debacle at Brooklands, Hassan soon became one of Bentley’s most distinguished racing mechanics. Above all he was integral in preparing both the 4.5 liter “Old Mother Gun” and the new Speed Six “Old Number 1” for their successive wins at Le Mans in 1928, 1929, 1930. (Photo below left: Wally Hassan, Jack Dunfee, Woolf Barnato, Stan Ivernee and "Old Number One" at Brooklands in 1929.

But the Wall Street Crash and the depression that followed dealt a serious blow to the finances of all the “Bentley Boys” as well as the company itself. By 1931, Barnato’s advisors discouraged him from more largesse and the company went into receivership, eventually to be acquired by Rolls Royce. But in the midst of the sale, Barnato acquired two of the company’s most prized assets - “Old Number One” and Wally Hassan - for himself.

(Photos Below Right: Old Number One Winning at Le Mans in 1929 and 30)

Hassan was now in charge of all things fast at Barnato’s country house Arden Run in Surrey. First thing on his to do list was to get Old No. 1 ready for the 1931 500-mile race at Brooklands. With the same streamlined body it had worn there in 1929 and in the hands of the talented Cyril Paul and Jack Dunfee it came second.

Barnato however wanted it to be competitive for years to come. The 6.5 liter chassis side members had begun to crack and so they were replaced with new ones from a 4 litre model. A new two seater Gurney Nutting body was fitted as well as an 8 liter engine, and it was in that configuration that the old track warrior was demonstrated at Brooklands ready to compete in the 1932 500 Mile Race.

Jack and Clive Dunfee were to drive the car. Clive had recently married the actress Jane Baxter having promised her he would stop racing. He had been released from his promise for the 1932 Brooklands race only, but one race was enough for disaster to strike. In the 99th lap, after coming in for another tire change the big car disappeared behind a hill as both team and spectators waited for it to reappear on the other side, but nothing came. Clive Dunfee had been in the middle of passing Lord Howe’s Bugatti when he went over the top of the banking and off into the trees. He was thrown from the car and died instantly while his trusty steed landed on the private road below, heavily damaged. (Photo: Clive Dunfee in Old Number One at Brooklands.)

Hassan and Barnato would never race Old Number again. It was rebuilt as an enclosed coupe and taken to California for Barnato’s honeymoon after his wedding to Jacqueline Claridge Quealy of San Francisco in 1933. (Photo below: Woolf Barnato and his Wife Jacqueline Claridge Quealy)

Shocked by the death of his friend Clive Dunfee, Barnato turned his attention momentarily away from the outer circuit speed record races to the Brooklands Mountain Circuit. As the discipline required short bursts of acceleration followed by hard braking, Barnato asked that a new racecar be built with double tires (duallys) in front and in the rear. The German Auto Union had begun to use double tires on the rear of its notoriously powerful and twitchy mid-engine racers for hill climbs around the same time, which might have been where Barnato got the idea from.

Hassan believed Bentley components would be used and therefore feared it would make the car too heavy but Barnato wouldn’t budge and so his engineer resigned himself to beginning the project. Luckily Barnato soon tired of the idea and instead, Old Number One’s original 6.5 liter Le Mans winning engine was mated to a new custom narrow frame with a single-seater configuration.

As Barnato’s country house, Ardenrun has recently burnt down; the Barnato-Hassan Special was built in Barnato’s private garage in Belgrave Mews, which also housed his road-going Bentley’s. During the long winter as Hassan labored away on his masterpiece the chauffeurs suffered sleepless nights knowing that the road cars in their care were in constant danger of being wounded by errant tools or swinging chassis rails. Finally in spring, the car was driven to Brooklands much to the chauffeurs’ relief. The car achieved the second fastest lap, behind Tim Birkin’s “Blower No.1” that year. In 1935 the car would finally set the overall lap record at 142.60 m.p.h. (Photo: The Barnato- Hassan Special)

Wally Hassan would infuse his magic into one more Bentley Special. Working with his old Bentley compadre Wally Saunders, Hassan concocted his most extreme build yet. Based on a standard 4 ½ liter car, the engine was bored out to close to 4.8 liters and the compression ratio hiked to 9 to 1. The beast was run on alcohol fuel with a small portion of benzole and the engine oil was specially heated up and poured into the engine before the start of each race. Tuned to within an inch of its life the Pacey-Hassan made podiums in all the races it entered in 1936 and won the Gold Trophy race that year at Brooklands, and with that triumph Hassan’s Bentley chapter came to an end. (Photos below: Pacey-Hassan Special.)

He had received an offer from Rolls Royce to develop independent front suspension for them but Woolf Barnato advised him instead to join the recently founded E.R.A. (English Racing Automobiles). Ex-Bentley man, Humphrey Cook had moved there as well as many of Hassan’s co-workers from Thompson & Taylor where Hassan had done some of the work on the Barnato-Hassan.

But Hassan’s time at ERA was short-lived. After only six months it was Reid Railton, who asked him to return to Thompson & Taylor to work on the Napier-Railton for John Cobb. The new car set the all-time speed record at Brooklands in 1937. This time however there were no spanners involved as he was in charge of managing the contracts and making the project happen while Railton did the design work. (Photo: Napier - Railton All Time Record Holder at Brookline.)

It was while standing in the paddock at Brooklands during the 1937 season, that Hassan was approached by SS Cars engineer William Heynes. Heynes was aware of Hassan’s reputation at Brooklands and asked him to help out as a consultant on a temporary basis to get still more power out of the already highly developed SS 100 “Jaguar”. The car had taken the sports car world by storm and was the first of the SS cars to be called “Jaguar” and to bear the leaper as a hood ornament. By 1938 with the SS 100 making 125 hp and reaching a top speed of 101mph, Hassan - hot rodder extraordinaire - joined SS Cars on a permanent basis. (Photo below: SS100 Jaguar)

At the outbreak of WW 2, at the personal request of Minister of Aircraft Production Lord Brabazon of Tara, he was put personally in charge of carburetor development for the Bristol Aircraft Company. Then in 1943 Hassan was back in Coventry developing the Daimler Dingo and Scout Car vehicles for the war effort. (Photo: Daimler Dingo (right) and Scout Car.(left)

After victory over the Reich, as Britain attempted to recover from the Blitz and the havoc of the war, while holding together its threadbare empire, it became clear to the British motor industry that the American export market would be instrumental to recovery. Sir William Lyons, Bill Haynes and Wally Hassan had hatched an idea for new engine while fire watching on the roof of the SS Cars factory in Coventry during the Blitz. As early as 1943 some prototypes were produced and by 1947 the double-overhead-cam XK inline 6 was ready. It appeared at first in the 1948 Jaguar XK120 at the Earls Court British Motor Show. Capable of reaching the promised 120mph, the car was a sensation in the US, providing much of the profits needed to keep the company afloat in those difficult postwar years. The “Jaguar” name first seen on the SS100 had been adopted by the company since “SS Cars” had become politically incorrect after the war. Photos: The XK120 Prototype and the XK Engine.)

Wally Hassan had once again moved on, this time to Coventry Climax, producer of stationary engines for pumps and fork lifts. The “Dream Team” of Wally Hassan and his lifelong friend from the ERA days, Harry Mundy developed the FW (Featherweight) engine line for fire pumps. But the engine was easily modified for racing and first saw use with Kiefts Cars at Le Mans in 1954. But real racing glory only came when Colin Chapman purchased 1000 units for the Lotus Élan sports racer. The engine would take Jack Brabham to the F1 World Championship in 1959. By the early 60’s the engine had evolved into a V8 and brought further glory when Jim Clark won another F1 Championship for Lotus in 1963. But Hassan believed still more cylinders were needed. Inspired by Mundy’s experience with the BRM V16 in the early 1950’s, he and his team developed a 1.5-Litre flat 16 cylinder engine designated the FWMW. Despite years of development it never ran a race, as torsional vibration problems causing the engine to shear itself apart on the test bench could not be solved. (Mundy and Hassan and their creations at Coventry Climax.)

The debacle put the company in jeopardy but in the midst of the embarrassment Coventry Climax was asked by Jaguar to develop a V12 engine for a potential return to Le Mans. The result was first seen in 1966 in the beautiful XJ 13. By then Jaguar had bought the struggling company but Sir William Lyons had come to the conclusion that a new racing adventure was too expensive and so the XJ13 project was shelved. (Photos: XJ 13)

Nevertheless, Hassan and Harry Mundy would not let the issue rest and convinced Sir William that a single overhead cam version of the engine could be made to fit the E-Type. But it was only when it was shoehorned into the 1971 Jaguar XJ and Daimler Double Six sedan that Walter Hassan’s last creation really came into its own. (Photos: Jaguar and Daimler V12 Twins)

Twelve cylinders of silk turned the Jaguar/ Daimler twins into the fastest sedan in the world. This was partly a stroke of luck as the car came to market just as the Mercedes 300 SEL 6.3 was taking a bow and was soon eclipsed by the mighty Mercedes 450 SEL 6.9 in 1975. But it was not the minutiae of absolute performance that distinguished the big twelve cylinder saloons, but the fashion in which they performed. Whereas the “Mercedes Monsters” reached their top speed with an only slightly tempered hot-rod rumble, the Coventry Twins did so in silky smooth silence. While the Autobahn Storm Troopers were trans-continental high-speed weapons, the Cool Coventry Cats achieved similar performance with feline elegance and class.

Wally Hassan had achieved the ultimate expression of “Grace, Space and Pace.” He retired in 1972 but it was in Le Mans on June 12th 1988 that Jaguar and TVR broke Porsche’s long-time dominance of Le Circuit de La Sarthe with a 7.0 liter version of Hassan’s V12 masterpiece. The story had come full circle but it was not quite over yet. (Photo Below: Jaguar and TVR winning at Le Mans in 1988.)

In 1990, one of his greatest creations, all but vanished for decades, reappeared. The Le Mans Winner “Old Number One” had carried Woolf Barnato to his final resting place, when the “Bentley Boy” died in 1948. He had sold the car in 1936 and it had resurfaced at Bentley events in the mid-fifties with a less than flattering two-seater body. The resulting mutt of a car appeared in the March 1957 issue of the Bentley Drivers Review, followed in June by a full write up by Darell Berthon.

According to Michael Hay the primary authority on the subject, Berthon proceeded to thoroughly trash the car’s provenance propagating the idea that since it had been so thoroughly and often modified it was not really Old Number One at all but something entirely different and of little historical value. Then on December 5th 1988 at Sotheby’s auction in London bids reached £500,000 but the car failed to sell.

In May of the next year legendary Bentley dealer, Stanley Mann arranged a private sale for £750,000 to Finnegan’s Wax Oil millionaire, Ed Hubbard. As the car lay in pieces in his shop awaiting restoration to its former Brooklands glory, Hubbard made a deal with the directors of Middlebridge Scimitar Ltd, the makers of the Scimitar (former Reliant Scimitar) sports car and the latest proud owners of the Brabham Formula 1 team. They agreed to buy Old Number One for £10 million.

After viewing the car at Hubbard’s restoration shop and despite ample time to research its heritage before the sale, Dennis Nursey, Chairman of Middlebridge and William McCormack its General Director reneged on the deal claiming the car they had seen was not really the Le Mans winning car at all. They claimed the modifications and rebuilds carried out since the 1930 Le Mans win nullified the cars racing heritage, turning it into a totally new car of very little historical value.

The case went to trial on July 27 1990 and the witness list was a “who’s who” of Old Number One’s and Bentley’s glorious history. Even at the ripe old age of eighty-five, Walter Hassan was the star of the show, reciting mechanical details of the 61-year-old racecar as if they had just returned from Le Mans together the day before. Woolf Barnato’s daughter Diana Barnato Walker recalled riding in the car with her father. More importantly, she claimed he regarded it rather like a pet dog, greeting it by name and patting it on the radiator when he walked by.

The plaintiff’s case began to fall apart when Hubbard’s lawyer Murray Rosen questioned Nursey about the workings of the Brabham F1 team.

Rosen: “How many cars are you running this season?”

Nursey: “Two”

Rosen: “How many engines do you have?”

Nursey: “Six”

Rosen: “How many sets of suspension parts”

Nursey: “Ten.”

Nursey had virtually made the defense’s case for them.

Old Number One has since been fully restored to its Brooklands 1932 glory. In 1997 and 1998 the old racer returned to Le Mans, appearing in the Retrospective along with its fellow Bentley team cars. Since then it regularly makes the rounds at the world’s most elegant car shows as a standard-bearer of what many consider the glory days of motoring. (Photo Below: Old Number One back on the banking at Brooklands and on the lawn at Pebble Beach)

The legendary but incredibly humble and soft-spoken Wally Hassan spent his last years in the company of many of his fellow “car guys” at Motor Industries Benevolent Home and died at Ease Hall Warwickshire 12 July 1996 aged 91 years.

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