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A Historical Perspective On Performance by Stirling Watts


A Historical Perspective on Performance:  The 80s Versus Today

By Stirling Watts

At left:  Old school fuel delivery – Two 40mm Weber DCOE dual throat carburetors fitted to our 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce

What is History to One, is Fond Memories to Another!

Only recently has it come to my attention that my own recent personal experiences are, in the eyes of the younger adult generation in fact, history!   That which I remember about all the fun I ever had racing motorcycles and carts and automobiles is to me as clear as is any other memory.  To those who were not yet born in the early 80s, that which is to me the mundane might be to them quite interesting.   Without that realization I never would have considered assembling this article. I certainly feel amazed when I read all the material that Bob Watts has contributed about racing in the early 50s, just a few years before my own birth.  The memory of a world in which cars from the 1930s were an everyday experience is to me like fantasy, while to Bob it is just a memorable reality.

Though I am no detailed technical authority on the subject of internal combustion efficiency, I lived through the era of the 80s paying at least some attention to it, while the average citizen did not.  Not everything I write will reflect the truth as my world of experience is quite narrow, and I only state things as I remember them and with respect to that which I was privileged to witness.  When I started fooling around with increasing the performance of standard engines was during this period, the early 1980s.  It was a good period for the motoring hobbyist, for it was a period during which off- the- shelf engine  efficiency was still in its infancy.  Under my Dad’s tutelage, I gained the majority of my guidance from a classic book which is still in circulation in reprint, entitled “Tuning for Speed” by Phil Irving.  Irving was a renowned Australian motorcycle engine designer and tuner who knew and understood, through vast amounts of practical experience in racing as well as professional work as an engine designer, how to make standard engines perform to their maximum potential.  His experience was well documented  in this classic book, which I think was first published in the late 1940s.  “Tuning for Speed” by Phil Irving was my Dad’s Bible.

The Era of Federally Mandated Dismal Performance

Looking back on it, motorcycles and automobiles have advanced to a highly reliable and advanced state in the past 30 years.   In my childhood and teen years, performance cars were all leftovers from the 1960s. Late in the 70s and in the early 80s in the automotive world, government mandated pollution controls were initially a great hindrance to performance.  There was a brief period of low performance “high performance” vehicles.  In that era, the requirements imposed upon automotive manufacturers for cleaner air were in excess of the capabilities of existing technologies.  Such standards could only initially be met with adverse effects upon performance.  Rather than focusing on finding methods to increase combustion efficiency, automotive engineers were, at least  in the short term, compelled to use “band-aid” fixes which focused on a less efficient approach to cleaner exhaust air, namely, burning off the leftover gases after the fact,  as opposed to finding more advanced methods to improve combustion in the power cycle itself.  Evidence of that state of being behind the curve could be seen under the hood of virtually any common period car.  The plumbing under the hood of just about any car of the late 70s or early 80s  was almost mind boggling.  It was also a major confusion factor for even the best mechanics.   Fuel injection technology was still less than perfect.  Many manufacturers chose to continue to rely upon carburetor technology simply on the basis of cost control.  But meeting the clean air standards required more control of fuel mixture and delivery than could be delivered by traditional carburetion systems.   Hence, fuel and exhaust systems became extremely complex.  On top of all of that complexity was relatively poor performance with respect to what we see today.  Look, for example at the output specifications of a 1979 Chevrolet Corvette, or that of a 1979 Pontiac Trans Am.   I clearly remember renting a California model 1979 AMC sedan of some sort while on a business trip to San Diego.  I could not believe that people were willing to buy new cars with such dismal performance.  I felt similarly about a Ford Pinto I once rented for a couple of weeks in 1979.

The Advancement of motorcycle performance was less restricted by government interference.

Motorcycles did not suffer exactly the same fate of directly strangled performance, due to the fact that the EPA chose to attack motorcycles on a more relaxed and delayed schedule. But the motorcycle industry did in fact have its own set of government interference problems with which to deal in the 80s, including some market interference laws which compelled the big four Japanese firms to market 700cc machines in place of the already established 750cc standard.  Later in the decade of the 80s came also an “anti-horsepower “ movement, during which propositions were under consideration which threatened to limit the maximum performance by federal mandate.  “Horsepower kills” was the motto of the day.  Intelligent lobbying efforts eventually killed the proposed horsepower limitations.

As time went on and technology began to catch up with government mandated standards, engine efficiency improved.  This state of affairs led to the almost incredible state of reliability and performance which we witness today, and which the younger generation has no capacity to appreciate.   Before them e development of advanced engine and mixture control by computerized mapping, every single change or flow improvement made to an intake or exhaust system  resulted in an unknown and difficult to predict change in mixture requirements.  “Plug reading tests” in the field, combined with a developed understanding of and a good feel for understanding the various stages of a carburetor (main jet choice, needle choice, needle position choice, pilot jet choices, were necessary in order to be able to tweak maximum performance from a motor.  Few with the exception of those with excellent mentors and/or a wealth of experience really could properly tune a race motor.  Myself included, I witnessed this many times testing new motors at club racing events, at which I had wished my Dad had been present!  Only those with unlimited budgets had or have access to dynomometer facilities with which one can at least find an approximately correct setup before going to the track in a relatively casual manner.

Today’s Amazing State of Tuning and Efficiency

Today, with the exception of those who continue to enjoy vintage competition, those days are gone.  On the down side, there are probably few real tuners in this world anymore.  With computerized mapping controlling everything from fuel mixture under every possible load and engine speed condition, to real time changes in camshaft and ignition timing, also calculated as functions of load and engine speed, no real tuning ability is needed.  Today we can swap out and ECU with a different pre-assigned set of mapping functions, and completely change the output characteristics of a given engine.

Most impressive is for example the new Fiat engine used in the car currently known as the 500.  My son, Eric recently purchased an Abarth version.  We were surprised to learn that off-the-shelf performance improvements can be implemented by virtually anyone, by simply pulling out and replacing an ECU chip.  All of the tuning has already been done flawlessly and perfectly by someone else!  One can purchase a chip directly from Fiat engineering people which will change the mapping from the standard 160 bhp in Sport mode) to 200 bhp!  No intelligence required!  All for around $600!

Perhaps it is difficult to grasp just how amazing this is unless you have yourself attempted to adapt a new set of carburetors to an engine to which you have made other mechanical and airflow modifications.  Our 1959 Alfa Romeo Giulietta Sprint Veloce is a good example.  A few years back we discovered that the original dual double throat DCO3 Weber carburetors were completely worn out, such that with them it was no longer possible to balance the airflow between the cylinders.  We purchased a set of more modern DCOE Webers as a replacement.  Thanks to the skill of our friend Peter Smith, an experienced old school tuner (who by the way also was  the 1970 SCCA Can Am 2 Liter National Champion in a BMW powered Lola chassis), the newer DCOEs were finally brought into a state of tune which allows tolerable drivabilty.    But that was no small task!  It required repeated removal, modification, retesting, and rebalancing until the effort was perfected. More on the Alfa Sprint Veloce in a future post!


Complexities of a Weber 40 DCOE System

What Promises Does the Future Hold?

If you are much younger in years than the author, you might not have had the opportunity to grasp just how amazing is today’s technology.  Just imagine what another 30 years might do!  Some younger reader will, it is hoped, in the now seemingly far off year of  2043,be found writing fondly about the good old days in 2013, about how crude and undeveloped was technology in that era, perhaps back in the days when cars had wheels and internal combustion engines.   Happy Motoring!



Common MG TC Modifications and Mechanical Issues in the early Racing Era – Part 3, by Bob Watts

Harley Watts in a 1953 SCCA hillclimb event in his MG TC

Part 3:  Common MG TC Modifications and Mechanical Issues in the early Racing Era

It’s difficult to separate Bob’s article into distinct segments, but this one tends to focus on the major mechanical issues with which TC racers had to deal in the mid 1950s.  I can recollect going along for the ride as a small boy on a few rescue missions similar to those recalled here by Bob in this article.  At left is Harley’s original TC, which was rolled (by another driver borrowing the car) and significantly damaged, in the very event at which this photo was taken.

I only reached the age of being able to recall specific memories near the tail end of Dad’s active automobile racing support activities.  I only vaguely remember Jaguars and Ferraris and Porsches and other exotica  in our driveway, and hanging around with my Dad in the shop, listening to grown-up talk about the automobiles they were working on, and getting to take fast test rides in exotic cars with my Dad at the wheel.  Only later in life did I learn to appreciate that what seemed like commonplace activity in my childhood was not common with other children of my generation.  Consequently it might be easier for me to appreciate these anecdotes, having been blessed with the opportunity to witness the tail end of an era which is now gone forever.  – editor.

About 1955 Bob Fergus was trading for various cars he wanted.  He traded for a chain drive Frazer-Nash and felt his side of the trade was worth much more, so a 1931 “C” type MH Montlhery Midget was thrown in to make up the difference!

Efforts to improve TC performance were made by Don Marsh, who installed a Marshall blower, and by Phil Miller who got Harley Watts to install his Italmechanics blower.  Ray Fisher also added a blower, and others raised the compression ratio, polished intake ports, installed larger valves, heavier valve springs, installed high compression pistons, larger SUs, changed SU jets and needles, installed a competition clutch, removed the air cleaner, installed a competition coil, changed spark plugs, reduced back pressure with a straight pipe, replaced rear wheels with 16” wire wheels, etc.  Also it should be noted the much quoted 54 hp if the XPAG engine  was on 72 octane gasoline, which was all that was available in England in late 1945.  “High test” pump gasoline here, was 87 octane.  The heavy, air scoop front fenders were sometimes replaced with shortened ’35 – ’36 Ford spare tire covers from the junk yard.  These were shortened to make skinny cycle fenders.  Weight reduction also included temporary removal of the windshield and bonnet side panels.  These later modifications were only for more serious competition.

Phil Miller’s supercharger made a noticeable difference ion the car’s performance.  I followed Phil in his TC to visit the Greiner Brothers on the east edge of Springfield the summer of 1950.  Following a noisy ride in a Mercedes 540K, we headed back to Columbus on Route 40.  Phil put his foot in it and I tried to  keep up in my Pontiac.  The speedometer hand in the Pontiac went out of sight behind a shield at an indicated 100 mph.  During much of the return ride the speedometer hand was out of sight.  I’m sure the speedometer was optimistic, however the TC would pull away seemingly at will.  I don’t know whether stronger valve springs had been installed on the TC engine, but Phil had to be running at or near 6000 rpm much of the time.  15.64 mph per 1000 rpm at 6000 rpm is about 95 mph.  The TC had to be running at or near this speed much of the 40 miles to Columbus.

TCs were driven hard and mechanical problems were accepted as normal.  Harley Watts with one or two others, probably Don Marsh, Bob Fergus, and/or Chuck Dietrich, late on a Sunday afternoon, called from Wapakoneta with a broken rear axle.  A spare axle, without the normally pressed on bearing carrier, was taken to him.  The broken stub had been removed by removing the opposite wheel and axle and pushing it out from the opposite side, possibly with a jack handle rod.  The replacement axle was installed after dark in an unlit gas station lot in a very short time.  The TC was promptly driven back to Columbus.  The bearing carrier was originally pressed onto the axle with some seven tons of pressure.  However the constant shock of up and down shifts, hard braking, over revs when airborne over bumps, such as railroads, etc., loosened this spline connection, and it became normal to accept the bearing carrier-axle spline connection to a finger tight sliding fit.  As a result, spare axles were usually were usually carried without the pressed on bearing carrier. A related problem was wet rear brakes from differential grease finding its way through the splined axle bearing carrier connection and past the grease seal  onto the inside of the brake drums, and also onto the rear wheel spokes.  Normal hard cornering threw the differential grease to the outside of the case with enough pressure to force it through the ineffective bronze return thrower also.  With these “leaks” onto the rear brake linings, rear brakes were often almost non- existent.  Frequent hard braking was known to burn the paint on the brake drums on all four wheels.

Occasional fuel pump failures caused spares to be carried.  Windshields were replaced often from rock damage, frequently from driving on gravel roads,  Aluminum rear plate engine supports cracked or broke from the shock of landing after aviating over a railroad crossing or other bumps as well as the general rough pavement.

At a Put-in-Bay race, a TC coming into town from the Cemetary on a rough, bumpy section of road, developed violent front axle tramp, so violent that one front tire hit and broke one cycle fender off.  Tire marks on the underside of the clamshell front fenders of hard driven TCs were not uncommon from similar front axle tramp.

Bishop cam steering was often not kept full of 140 weight “grease” or temporarily filled with chassis grease, and deteriorated rapidly.  Tompkins kits, when they became available, were enthusiastically adopted.  Hard driving required at least weekly, if not daily attention, to all lube points.

Tire wear was rapid.  Less than ten thousand miles of driving exuberantly was all it took to run Dunlops from new to bald.  Pirelli tires were discovered early on.  They were “stickier” and wore for many more miles.  There are still TCs around being driven with 40 year old Pirellis.  These tires were made in England.

Front wheel bearing replacement at frequent intervals was routine.  Chuck Dietrich replaced his after every race.  King pin replacement was done fairly often.

Stay tuned for the final segment – “Where are they all today?”

Part 2

MG TCs in Central Ohio, Part 2 – Sports Car Racing in the Early 50s

Newspaper.article.Harley@McDill.AFB. in'51

Part 2 – MG TCs in Columbus by Bob Watts

I have the original newspaper article shown at left, framed on my living room wall.  It touches on some of what Bob writes about in the continuation of the article below.  Harley (Dad) being the lead mechanic, Bob and Harley also shared driving duties to win their class at McDill  AFB in 1951 in the Fergus MG TC.  The local Columbus Dispatch published this article about the event in the Sports section.  At that time I was still a twinkle in my Mom and Dad’s eye (born in ’56), our brother Grayum was going on 2 years old, and Larry was born shortly thereafter in January of ’52   -editor.

Some ten or so TC owners in the Columbus area, as well as Chuck Dietrich from Sandusky, often toured rural Ohio on Sunday, avoiding the roads patrolled by the law.  Most of these roads were gravel with oiled strips in front of some farm homes as dust control.  These roads were not smooth or straight.  It was common to meet occasional oncoming traffic on such a road, and wonder why many would pull over to the side and stop.  Occasionally one would even seek out the ditch.  Having gotten some distance in front of the group on one occasion, and waiting at the end of a straight section of bumpy gravel road, the reason for the local driver to “make room” was revealed.  The front wheels of the oncoming TC were violently bouncing up and down and flopping about while the car came straight ahead.  It was obviously an accident about to happen and the prudent thing to do was to get out of the way.  The MG driver felt he was in complete control and could see no reason for the other driver’s reaction.

Cooperation between MG drivers was normal when problems arose.  In the summer of ’52, a group of mostly TCs was heading south on Rt. 104 from Columbus for a hillclimb near Bainbridge.  In my ’49 TC I was at the rear of the group.  Everyone else had passed a Buick,  but when I started around, he decided he was not going to allow me to pass him.  At close to 6000 rpm, I could not outrun him.  Bob Fergus saw what was happening from ahead.  He dropped back in his XK 120 (Jaguar), pointed to hi rear bumper for me to wind tail him.  I did, and he sucked the TC past the Buick with ease.  I don’t recall what rpm the TC was running but I soon backed off for fear I was about to blow the engine up.  It did not happen.

Summer driving meant bugs on the windshield, lots of them, frequently so thick there was a temptation to use a putty knife.  Windshield down with driver slid down in the seat allowed most of them to go overhead.  Upright seating meant bugs in the face and a toothpick to dislofge the bug shells from between the teeth.  Brooklands “deflectors” allowed better visibility without most of the bug problems.  Today’s insecticides have drastically reduced this as a problem.

Locally a “Grand Prix” road course was set up southeast of Columbus on country roads.  Traffic was light.  The course had a number of bends, several of which were fairly tight, several long straights and some rolling bends.  Good MG roads.  The Sheriff soon became aware of the “fun” .  Frequent efforts to catch the “speeders” took place but the rolling bends were not “Ford” roads. Police radio was not very good, and attempts at road blocks were always after the fact.  Sitting at Harley’s house and listening to the sirens was like listening to hounds chasing the fox.  The “hounds” never found which hole (garage) the fox had slipped into.  This sort of activity enhanced the reputation of the MG as being very fast, which it really wasn’t.  However the local speed limits were regularly badly fractured.  It was youthful fun, viewed by all participants as quite innocent.

Bob Fergus had quit selling Cadillacs and obtained the MG, Jaguar, Austin, etc. dealerships.  Initially he had no cars to sell, just literature to show what was available.  When you bought a car, you had the choice of going to New York to pick it up, or pay for delivery.  Shortly there was a TD and then an XK 120 demonstrator.  Bob Fergus and Harley Watts and others made numerous trips to New York to drive new cars back.   This quickly included Porsches.  “The Columbus Sports Car Co.” moved from several apartment garages on Auburn Ave. to a garage with a one car show room on Livingston Ave. to a new showroom on Northwest Blvd.  When new cars for display were not in hand, Bob’s TC and 35B Bugatti were there to see.

Meanwhile weekends were very active with hill climbs, regularity runs, rallies, and just finding MG roads and driving them. Harley Watts went to Watkins Glen in 1949 .  Bob Fergus began racing his TC at every opportunity.  Watkins Glen, through the town road course, for three years, Bryfan Tyddn, Giant’s Despair hill climb, Elkhart Lake (before Road America existed), McDill AFB in Tampa, Lockbourne AFB, Chanute Field in Illinois, and others.  The TC was driven to, and back from , every race, regardless of distance from home.  Almost everyone else did the same.  Harley Watts kept Bob’s TC running at its best.  Many thought he had a secret.  He did, he meticulously followed the English instructions for getting maximum performance.  Both Blower and Smith’s instructions for the several tuning stages of the XPAG engine were not published till 1952 and even then were not widely circulated.  The factory tuning stages for the XPAG engines were almost unknown locally at the time.  Harley had a copy and he just followed the instructions for getting maximum performance.  It worked!  Bob’s outstanding ability as a driver did the rest.

Bob also shared driving a 1500cc Fiat engine Siata with Dick irish, of Cleveland, at Vero beach, Florida in March 1952, the weekend before Sebring.  The Siata blew a head gasket and DNFd.  Cranking the engine with plugs removed squirted several columns of water some distance.  This was an airport race with much fine grime on the pavement.  Dust was blowing during the entire race and everything and everyone was covered with grit.  The head gasket was replaced in time for Sebring the following weekend.

The ’52 race was the second Sebring race, and the first twelve hour race.  The Fergus-Irish team were outstanding, finishing 3rd overall, behind a LeMans 2 liter Frazer-Nash, and XK 120M, 1st in theor class and 2nd or 3rd in the index of performance.  Cars behind them included a Ferrari 166, an XK 120, thre MGs, a Morgan, and the index winner a DB (Aston Martin).  R.G. Watts kept the lap chart, and where the top several cars were on the index of performance.  This was the slide rule era, before good stop watches, calculators or computers.  The Siata was raced both weekends with a substantial dent on one side from an accident in Tennessee while being driven from Cleveland to Florida.  After Sebring it was driven back to Cleveland.  Between the two races I purchased my first TC, an Ivory -49 EXU from Taylor Motors in Palm Beach.

Photographs and newspaper articles from this peiod are scattered through this section, with labels and a few explanations.

During this time period, Tom Miller purchased the former Malcolm Campbell Type 39A Bugatti from an English owner for about $1500.  His brother, Phil, bought a Type 37 from Tony Hogg, then in England.  Tony later came to the US and worked briefly for Bob Fergus.  He then moved on to California, where in time, he became editor of Road & Track magazine.  These two Bugattis together with the Fergus 35B were all owned by TC owners and were in Columbus at the same time.  Phil sold his Type 37 to a TC owner from New England who towed it back home behind the TC.  Unfortunately, no photos of the car are known to exist.

About 1955 Bob Fergus was trading…………..STAY TUNED for Part 3!

Part 1

A Testimony of Mechanical Ingenuity

Phil Miller Caricature Cartoon

Mechanical Ingenuity at the 1951 Watkins Glen Queen Catherine Cup

By Larry Watts

(The cartoon featured here was drawn by family friend and racing enthusiast Phil Miller, and depicts the event in satire. Phil was a talented artist)

In an earlier story, I wrote about competitors in the early post war years driving their cars to the track, taping over, taping over headlights and racing all weekend.  If something mechanical broke during the weekend, you had to fix it in order to drive your race car home on Sunday night.  Some creative repairs were made in order to get home after the weekend.

In the late 1940s and early 1950s, MG TCs were a popular race car.  Teggie Ogilvie, Postmaster General of Ottowa, Canada was an MG TC owner/racer.  In the 1951 QUEEN CATHERINE CUP at Watkins Glen, Ogilvie dropped a valve during the race in his TC.  The damage was limited to the one cylinder but the piston and valve were destroyed and no replacements were available that weekend.

With no means of towing the car back to Ottowa from the Finger Lakes, the engine had to be repaired somehow.   The solution?  The boys from the “Wire Wheel Team” in Columbus (principally Harley Watts, MG  specialist)  helped Ogelvie remove the piston, rod, valves, and pushrods from the damaged cylinder.  Next the rod was wrapped in heavy gasket paper held in place by hose clamps.  The engine was then buttoned back up and fired up on the remaining three cylinders .  Even though the engine vibrated badly, the car was driven back to Ottowa, Ontario without further incident.


The Fast Ones – Embracing the Entire Vintage Motorsports Community

Harley Watts in a 1953 SCCA hillclimb event in his MG TC

Embracing the Entire Vintage Motorsports Community

Initially, “The Fast Ones” was envisioned as a venue under which owners of vintage competition motorcycles might get together for track days and/or competition days a few times a year, and have some fun on the pavement.  That’s a great idea!  We do plan to do that!  There are a lot of potential vintage motorcycle  racers, and most motorsports enthusiasts do not restrict their interest purely to motorcycles.  So we asked ourselves, “From whence might we draw some new enthusiasts? How might we draw new and fresh interest into the world of vintage motorcycle racing?”

The author, having a broad range of experience in numerous motorsports venues, can vouch for the fact that there is a lot of crossover interest among racing enthusiasts.   We will be talking about all aspects of motorsports competition, from race car preparation or motorcycle racing preparation to driving and riding.  So, why not include everyone and invite all those who are interested in all types of vintage motorsports  to join us?

On that note, upcoming posts will feature a variety of subjects in the world of vintage and classic racing, including two, three, and four wheels.  Having enjoyed a lifetime of exposure to motor racing in various forms, the editor is getting the ball rolling with some posts on motorsport experiences from our own family, beginning with some anecdotal and fun stories about what we experienced of sports car racing in the 1950s and 1960s.

Want to see a feature on a particular automobile or motorcycle manufacturer?  Do you have vintage racing history or information that you would like to share with the public? What tickles your fancy?  Sidecars?  Historic sports cars?  Rally?  Enduros?  Flat track racing?  Speedway?  Sprint cars?    What would you like to explore or discuss?  Contact us!

But for now we are going to add content relative to our own experience.  Stay tuned!