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The 30-98 of 1913 established its competition credentials by winning the toughest hill climbs of the day. (Vauxhall)
The 30-98 of 1913 established its competition credentials by winning the toughest hill climbs of the day. (Vauxhall)

1913 Vauxhall 30-98

Classic Car: Vauxhall built the first 100-mph British sports car Add to ...

Most Canadians who recall the Vauxhall name will associate it with the cars that General Motors imported in the 1960s – Viva, Victor, Epic and Envoy – or the fast-to-flame-out Firenza of the early 1970s, rather than as the builder of Great Britain’s first sports car and its first 100-mph production car.

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The Vauxhall Iron Works was perhaps an unlikely automotive pioneer, a company that switched gears from building marine engines to motorcars in 1903, but soon developed an enthusiasm for competition as a way to develop, prove and promote its products – the next two decades would see it create worthy rivals for makes that are now motorsport legends.

It might have continued to do so, if it hadn’t been taken over by General Motors in 1925, which soon lowered its sporting compression ratio to concentrate on building sound, but not very exciting, cars and trucks for many decades to come.

By the mid-1960s, even World Champion racer Black Jack Brabham – lending his name to tuning-kit-equipped versions of the 69-hp, 1.2-engined Viva – could provide only an ethereal link back through time to cars such as the Edwardian-era Prince Henry model of 1910. A car whose racy lines, and competition success, led to its being acknowledged by many as the proto-British sports car.

The 30-98 of 1913 followed and immediately established its competition credentials by winning the toughest hill climbs of the day. A decade later, after the First World War – suited up in polished aluminum, two-seater bodywork and full street kit – it broke the 100-mph barrier on the concrete Brooklands speed bowl.

This year, Vauxhall, now Britain’s oldest surviving automotive brand, is marking its 110th anniversary, and celebrating the centenary of the 30-98. Festivities kicked off in May with a restaging of the Waddington Fell hill climb, with 33 of the 180 surviving 30-98s – their driver’s flat caps firmly clamped in place – making runs up the same bleak hill road (Click here to watch it on YouTube).

This was followed by a reprise of its record-setting assault on the Shelsley Walsh hill early last month, and a gathering at Brooklands. Always-keen Aussie 30-98 owners are staging a three-week tour of Tasmania this fall in theirs.

Its first decade as a car-maker was an exciting one for Vauxhall, whose marine engine designer F. W. Hodges rejigged one of his slow-turning, single-cylinder boat engines to power a tiller-steered car in 1903. The ninth built competed in a time trial, and other events followed in ever-faster versions, setting the tone for the following two decades.

The arrival of one of the great early automotive engineers, Lawrence Pomeroy in 1906, immediately spun development up to a higher speed, his high-revving (a heady for the time 2,370 rpm) four-cylinder engine, powering an A-Type to win the Royal Automobile Club Trial, a 15-day, 2,000-mile, London-to-Glasgow-and-back run. It suffered no mechanical problems, and amazingly didn’t even need to be topped up with oil or water. A racing version then lapped the high-speed Brooklands bowl at 101 mph.

Pomeroy’s next effort was the C-10, and it was three of these that were prepared for the 1,200-mile-long European reliability trial of 1910 named after Prince Henry of Prussia. Success in the event led to “torpedo”-bodied replicas being built, which became known as Prince Henry Vauxhalls.

It was the Prince Henry model that provided the inspiration for the 30-98, at the urging of car dealer and competitor Joseph Higginson, who wanted a car that could win in the popular hill climb events of the day. And promised Pomeroy he’d write him a cheque for £2,000 if he came up with something that would break the outright record at the Shelsley Walsh event.

It took Pomeroy and his crew 71 days to develop the car, which was built on a ladder-type frame, with its solid front and rear axles (fitted with wire wheels) supported on semi-elliptic leaf springs, and (reputedly virtually ineffective) braking provided by a drum mounted behind the transmission (said to do little other than produce a bad smell), and a pair of diminutive rear drums.

The four-cylinder, side-valve engine was enlarged to 4.5 litres, and produced 90 hp at 3,000 rpm, feeding this to the rear wheels through a four-speed transmission. Created as a fast tourer rather than out-and-out racer, it was fitted with a narrow, open four-seater aluminum body (period photos show hill climb runs being made with three passengers aboard), but still weighed in at 3,360 lbs.

Its sporting success, like that of the Prince Henry, convinced Vauxhall to put it into production, but only dozen or so of these early E-models cars were built before the First World War intervened. Production proper began in 1919, and the E model was followed by the OE in 1923, with a 4.2-litre, overhead-valve engine producing 115 hp. About 600 30-98s had been built when production ended in 1927.

The claim to be Britain’s first 100 mile-per-hour production car resulted from a letter from a Major E. Ropner to the editor of The Autocar magazine bemoaning the fact he couldn’t buy a British road car that could top 100 mph.

Vauxhall, with its competitive fires still stoked, responded by creating a 30-98 for him with polished alloy two-seater bodywork and full road equipment. It was taken to Brooklands in March, 1923, and factory test driver Matt Park put in a flying lap at 100.7 mph before it was turned over to Ropner, who used it for competition, continental touring and the commute into London from his Yorkshire home.

Vauxhall’s 30-98 obviously deserved its description as “the car with grace that sets the pace.”

Back in 1913
The Quebec Bulldogs win their second Stanley Cup in a row from the Sydney Minors, and Peugeot racers win the French Grand Prix and the third running of the Indy 500.
Aircraft designer Igor Sikorsky builds, then flies, the world’s first four-engined aircraft (and later goes on to design its first practical helicopter).
Born in 1913 are future U.S. president Richard Nixon, fashion designer Oleg Cassini and actors Lloyd Bridges and Danny Kaye.


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