Our next race was at the Sonoma Historic Motorsports Festival put on by SVRA. Held each spring, it is a great event with lots of great cars, and big crowds of spectators. SVRA does a great job with this event. One of the highlights each year is the R&R party they put on on Saturday night.
At this event I raced the Willis Special and the Luigi CSL. Both cars ran well all weekend, and I was able to finish 7th with the Willis and 6th in the CSL with a best lap of 1:53.4.
I ran pretty much all alone in the Willis. The car slots in between the much faster F1 cars and the much slower cars in the group. One of the great things about this group is the sites and sounds and smells of all the old cars that run in this group.
The Willis is a very difficult car to drive. It is extremely loose in the rear end. This trait is particularly noticeable in the Carousel where the road drops constantly as you make the 180 degree turn.
In the CSL I had a great race long battle with Bill Lyon in his 914/6 Porsche. We have raced together many times and we always have fun, close racing. At some tracks he is quicker, and at some I am quicker.
Sonoma seems to favor my CSL because of the torque the car has. I am able to really pull Bill coming out of the slower corners.
Here’s the video from the weekend. Hope you enjoy it:
I ran the mighty Willis Wonder and the Koepchen 2002 at the David Love Memorial race at Sonoma with CSRG.
The Willis ran in Group 1 with about 28 other production and sports racers from the 50’s and 60’s. The Willis had about 2 decades on the next oldest car in the group!
She ran well, and it was the first time I have tried the Dunlop vintage tires. I loved them. The car really settled down, especially the rear end, which had been very squirrely with the Blockley tires.
In the Sunday feature race I started 20th out of a field of 28 cars, and finished 13th. I had a race long battle with Marc Hugo in a 1954 Porsche 356A.
He was quicker than me through the Carousel and up to turn 7. I was quicker out of the slow corners and down the straights. We traded positions sometimes twice a lap. It was great fun.
The Koepchen 2002 ran in Group 8, a mixed collection of small and large bore sedans prepared to early 1970’s specifications.
The challenge I faced this weekend was back to back races all weekend. I had to jump out of the Willis and into the 2002. The race stewards promised to hold Group 8 long enough for me to get safely buckled into the car.
That word did not get down to the pit lane stewards, and I ended up having to start at the back of the group on Saturday afternoon’s race after qualifying 6th.
I was frustrated, mad, and began racing like an idiot. Needless to say, that sort of situation cannot end well; and it didn’t.
Fortunately I was not hurt, and the car can be repaired.
The sad part was that I had warnings that I was driving over my head, and I even said to myself that something bad is going to happen if I don’t take a deep breath, slow down, and just enjoy the race.
I learned a lot from this mistake, about myself, and about what circumstances can get me to act this way.
The car is being repaired, and it will be on track again later this summer.
I became the current custodian of 51203 after I saw it offered at auction through Coys Auction House in January 2013. I have never purchased a car this way before. I have always approached a purchase in the traditional manner, looking carefully, researching, talking with experts, etc., before making any offers.
When I saw the car something deep inside me just clicked. I had only 2 days from the time I saw it on the ‘Bring a Trailer’ web site until the day of the auction, so I couldn’t dilly-dally. I did as much Google work on the car as I could in that time, and called a couple of people I thought might know something about the car. The more I learned about it the more intrigued I became.
I decided to take the plunge and submit a bid I could live with.
I contacted Coys and worked with Nick Wiles, who explained the various ways I could bid on the car. He was extremely helpful. I decided to make a commission bid, which means I sent them the highest price I was willing to pay, and they kept bidding in steps up to that amount. I filled out the paper work, scanned my passport, gave them a CC number as a performance deposit, and then waited until the following Saturday for the auction.
The UK is 8 hours ahead of us here on the left coast, so by about 2:00 PM, when I had heard nothing, I figured I had not made the winning bid. I was a little disappointed, but figured it had all worked out for the best after all. The idea that I would bid that amount on a car I had never seen in the flesh sank in, and I was almost relieved that providence had seemingly protected me from some horrible mistake.
But providence had something completely different in mind, and low and behold, when I got up Sunday morning and checked my email I found this from Nick:
Congratulations you successfully purchased the BMW. Your high bid of -xxxx successfully bought the Willis. My colleague Valerie will shortly be sending a full invoice to you via email.”
Needless to say, I was stunned! I guess I never really thought I would win at the figure I offered, but I got it for something less than my top bid. I was ecstatic, and my wife was even more excited about it than I was. Now what do we do? Oh yes, get it home!
Coys works with a transport company called Cars UK. They contacted me and began the process of transporting the car to the Northwest. I decided to go ahead and have the car air-shipped, as I was concerned about having it locked in a container for 6 weeks in the salt air. Cars UK was wonderful to work with, and I would highly recommend them. The folks in their Atlanta office were absolutely tenacious when it came to dealing with the folks at US Customs.
There were a few hitches, but just 2 and ½ weeks after the auction my wife and I drove up to SeaTac Airport and collected the car. We then took the car to Racecraft in Woodinville, WA where Terry Forland and Jim Froula operate a restoration, fabrication, and race support business.
We unloaded the car in their shop and all stood speechless for fully 5 minutes just looking at the car and soaking in its charm and character. It is truly a special car. My guts had been right. It was worth all the uncertainty.
We checked everything over on the car, filled it with race fuel, turned on the ignition, pulled the choke, and pressed the starter button. A few seconds cranking and it rumbled to life! I can barely describe the feeling to be sitting in a car with all this history and having it running happily, and best of all, knowing it was now mine.
After letting it warm up, I slipped it into gear and drove out of the shop and south down the Woodinville-Redmond Highway. It burbled a little below 2,000 rpm, but once it got to 3,500 it just came alive. Torque, amazing amounts of torque. How that little 6 makes all that torque I can’t understand. It just jumps up to 6,000 in a heart-beat. Of course the fact that it weighs only 820 Kg certainly helps.
After a couple of laps up and down the highway I drove it back into the shop and sat there in the car for some time just enjoying the moment and letting it all sink in.
Then Terry and Jim got all practical and we began to lay out a game plan for getting the car race prepped for the coming season. The only thing my wife insisted on is that we add back the roll bar that was on the car when it last raced in 2004-2005. So Jim stuck a brain bucket on my head and measured me and the car for a new roll bar. Fortunately we discovered all the openings for the previous bar were still present, and were covered with temporary covers.
Spares? What do we need for spares, and where do we find them? Campaigning a car this old presents certain challenges, not the least of which is spare parts to keep it running. We made a list, and Terry volunteered to start searching.
Finally, after several more hours of planning and talking my wife and I needed to head back to Oregon. Reluctantly we got back in our car and headed south down I-5.
But wait, there’s more!
When we got home from Seattle late that night the box of historical photos, trophies, letters, invoices, and articles that came with the car was waiting on our doorstep. My wife began to rip into it before I had my coat hung up.
Every item that came out of the box was just amazing, and a real tribute to the engineering and creative genius of R. C. Willis. The old pictures were particularly fascinating, as well as a couple of old race programs, and letters from R. C. Willis and Charles Bulmer about the car and its history, along with a collection of 22 cups won by the car back in the day. Many happy hours later we fell into bed emotionally exhausted.
To look now at the little car and think about all the history that has passed under its wheels is inspiring and a bit humbling. To try and accomplish what Willis did in this day would be incredibly difficult and expensive. It would be the equivalent of taking a BMW Z3, modifying it, and competing successfully in one of the current feeder pro series. My hat is off to you, Mr. Willis!
My plan is to continue to add to the storied history of the car by campaigning it in vintage race events and BMW events here on the West Coast. Come on out to a race and cheer this wonderful old car along.
Competing against some of the fastest cars of the day, Willis had a great day.
The race was won by Reg Parnell’s Cooper Bristol. Then followed 2 Connaught A-types, and a Ferrari 125/66. Willis finished a credible 5th, and in the process set a two litre lap record of 85.5 MPH.
As the 1952 season wound down Willis and Bulmer recognized that there were changes coming in the various Formulae. They also realized that they could no longer compete effectively with a car that was also being driven daily on the open roads. So they began to plan for the 1953 season. These plans developed into a special built and extremely light weight 1500 cc car with a steel space frame designed by Bulmer. Bulmer even designed a special short throw crankshaft that they planned to use in the new car.
Unfortunately reality caught up with the team as business set-backs caused Willis to have to sell his garage, and the partially finished race car they were building for 1953. 51203 also had to be sold and was offered in this ad in the Fall of 1952. This set-back also proved to be the end of Willis’ racing career.
The car was purchased by Berwyn Baxter who raced it throughout the 1953 season. The car appeared on entry lists as the “LMC Bristol,” so named for Willis’ now defunct garage, the Loughton Motor Company. 3rd place finishes at AMOC’s Silverstone race in August, and BARC’s Goodwood race in September comprised the highlights of that season.
Baxter bought a C-type Jaguar for the 1954 season so 51203 was idled, and finally it was offered for sale through the Scarth Hill Motor Co Ltd in Ormskirk. Cedric Brierly purchased the car in December 1954 for 365 Pounds. He intended to transplant the engine from the car into his own BS Special. Fortunately his plans changed and he sold the car to Peter Sims of Sheffield before it could be cannabalized.
The car ran two more races at Silverstone. The first was in July 1955, and finally in October 1956. It is thought to have then been converted back to street car, and it thus disappeared until 1967 when its newest owner, Paul Spencer, wrote to both Bulmer and Willis seeking additional information about the car in preparation for restoration. It was now in several hundred pieces, with its magnesium body long since rotted away and sold for scrap.
It then went through a series owners, John Baker (1968-1983), Fuad Mazjub (1984-1989), and Brian May (1989-2001), each of whom had the best intentions of putting the car back together.
But it was not until it came to Proby Cautly in 2001 that 51203 was finally and properly restored to its former glory. The car was completely refurbished by Neil Davies Historic Racing in Hertfordshire during 2002-2003. The car still retained its Frazer-Nash Type 40 chassis (#51203) and the 2 litre BMW engine (#361672) with the Bristol head. The biggest challenge was that a new body, faithful to the original had to be fabricated. However, due to safety concerns this one was made out of aluminum. The original cast magnesium wheels were also duplicated by Crosthwaite & Gardner using modern materials and techniques which resulted in much safer wheels.
Mr. Cautley ran the car in several vintage events until he sold it back to John Baker who wanted to satisfy his curiosity as to how the car actually performed.
From Baker it went to Paul Evans in 2008. Mr. Evans converted it back to street use, removing the roll bar and adding the gauges and lights necessary to obtain an MOT Certificate.
At this point the car was putting out somewhere near 60 bhp, so the next step was obvious. During the winter of 1949 a 2 liter motor was fitted. Willis used the vertical valve, M319/4 Type 55 with triple horizontal Solex carburetors. Though not as effective as the hemi-headed 328 power plant, Willis and Bulmer modified it for more power along the lines they had used with the smaller engine. The car was also fitted with an ENV 75 pre-selector transmission from a Riley via a custom magnesium bellhousing.
To mark this new phase in its life the car was also re-registered as PVW 893.
The 1950 season showed that the car was now quite quick, and was, in fact, a match for the factory Frazer-Nashs and HMWs. But as Willis was now participating in more circuit races, it also showed itself to be unreliable. But given the team’s limited resources, this should hardly seem surprising.
That summer the team ventured to the Continent and raced in the Formula 2 events at both Luxemburg and Chimay, Belgium in May, and the 4e Coupe des Petites Cylindrees at Rheims in July. All these runs ended with DNF’s. These disappointments discouraged further forays to Europe, and resulted in the team focusing on races close to home.
By mid-summer the car was running more reliably. A second place finish to Gil Tyrer’s ex-Mille Miglia 328 streamliner at Silverstone in July, and a victory over Oscar Moore’s OBM at the SUNBAC Silverstone race in August were very promising. In September Willis returned to Prescott and climbed the hill in 50.48 seconds to win the 1500-3000 cc class. This time set a new record for the class, and was even good enough to beat Sydney Allard’s new Cadillac-Allard for the best time of the meet for sports cars.
1951 was pretty much like 1950, fast but fragile. 3rd behind an XK 120 Jaguar and a Frazer-Nash Le Mans Replica in June at Silverstone. Another 3rd behind two Frazer-Nash Bristols at Boreham in August, and a well deserved 2nd behind a Frazer-Nash High Speed at Gamston Airfield in July. The year ended with a disappointing DNF at the International Wakefield Trophy Race at Curragh in September.
For 1952 the team realized that they would need more power if they were to remain at all competitive in the 2 litre classes. So Willis set about modifying the Type 55 engine to accept a 328/Bristol type alloy cylinder head fitted with 3 down-draft SU carburetors. This change was immediate and dramatic.
Bulmer drove the car in the first event of the season, the Gosport ¼ Mile Sprint where his best time of the day was 14.97 seconds, sufficient to beat 2 Frazer-Nash Le Mans Replicas and garner the 5th fastest time of the day.
Sharing the car for the May AMOC Race at Snetterton, Willis easily took his heat race ahead of a Frazer-Nash Mille Miglia and a potent MG-Cooper, but had to retire from the final. Bulmer was leading the Formula 2 race until he blew a head gasket in the late stages of the race. Still he was able to set the fastest lap of the day at 77.92 MPH.
Two weeks later Willis posted a record time of 48.84 seconds at the Prescott Hillclimb. This was down from his initial time of over 62 seconds from just a few years earlier. Bulmer won the up to 2,500 cc sports car class and finished 2nd in the Formula 2 race at Silverstone at the end of May, followed by a 2nd in the Formula 2 race at Snetterton.
Three weeks later Willis faced a tough field of Formula 2s at the West Essex Car Club’s Boreham race. Led by Reg Parnell’s Cooper Bristol, 2 Connaught A-types, and a Ferrari 125/66, Willis finished a credible 5th, and in the process set a two litre lap record of 85.5 MPH.
It was about this time that Willis engaged the help of his son-in-law, Charles Bulmer to help with his next series of modifications. Bulmer was working in scientific research at Royal Aircraft Establishment (RAE), in Farnborough. He had met, and become engaged to Heather Logsdon, who was the daughter of Hazel Willis. While Willis provided the practical and creative spark, Bulmer provided the formal engineering and research support necessary to develop the car.
We can measure the effects these improvements were having on the performance of the car by comparing Willis’ times at the BOC Prescott Hillclimb over these years. In his first try in June of 1946, with the car completely stock, his time was 62.5 seconds. By the June event in 1947, with the new fenders, windscreen, and the headlights tucked into the radiator, he improved his time to 54.36 seconds.
Later that summer Willis and Bulmer took the car to its first circuit race, the Ulster Trophy Handicap race in Dunrod, Ireland. The car only lasted 2 laps succumbing to a failed bearing in the engine. This necessitated an engine rebuild, and Willis took advantage of the opportunity to extensively modifying the stock engine. The compression ratio was raised to more that 9:1, and the inlet breathing was improved by replacing the long head bolts that went through the middle of the inlet ports with Allen screws that were relieved flush with the bottom of the intake ports.
With Bulmer’s help Willis also developed a cast magnesium wheels for the car that saved about 12-15 lbs. of unsprung weight at each corner. These wheels became so successful that he was able to sell sets to many of his competitors running 328s and other BMW based specials during that era, including Oscar Moore’s OBM Special.
1948 was not a good year for motorsports in England. The meager gas ration alowed in 1947 was ended completely. This made competing difficult. The one highlight for that year was Bulmer’s first opportunity to drive the car. He wrote of that experience some 57 years later, “I drove the BMW for the first time, and I was captivated by it. The car had unfamiliar, to me, features, like a stiff chassis, springs which moved, and a smooth, high revving, rubber mounted six-cylinder engine. I began to think that my Meadows Nash might have to be replaced by a Type 55 BMW, which it was the following year.”
Willis took the lull in competition to rework the car completely, and when it reappeared in 1949, it looked entirely different. The engine and chassis remained unchanged but the steel BMW body had been replaced with a lightweight body of magnesium tubing and magnesium sheet. The cycle wings and headlights were made to be quickly removable so the car could run in both sports car and formula classes at the same race weekend.
The car now weighed just over 1100 lbs, and Willis found it necessary to remove every other leaf spring in the rear suspension to improve handling. The brakes were also given attention. They were converted to hydraulic operation, and fitted with finned light alloy drums. The lighter weight, coupled with better handling made the brakes very effective for that day.
These changes were a major effort and expense for Willis, but once the car was sorted the gains that he made were noticeable. At the Prescott Hillclimb in June of that year Willis finished second in class to a full race HRG with his time now down to 52.12 seconds, fully 10 seconds quicker than his first effort. At the Gosport Sprint event in October Willis turned a time of 17.95 seconds in the quarter mile.
Names such as Jim Hall, Max Balchowsky, Colin Chapman, and Bruce McLaren bring to mind men who made their reputations beating the “Big Boys” at the racing game with only their wits, determination, and fabrication skills. I would suggest that we consider adding the name of Ron C. Willis to that list.
In the spring of 1934 BMW introduced their new roadster, the 315/1. The car, designed by Peter Szymanowski, was a sleek 2 seater with a long hood housing a 1,490 cc straight 6 putting out 40 bhp, mated to a 4 speed transmission. The car was light and nimble, with a stiff tubular chassis, rack and pinion steering, hydraulic shocks, and large drum brakes, and was capable of a top speed of 120 kph (75 mph). BMW realized they had a serious contender in the 1’500 cc classes of competition, and so the car was immediately entered into several international competitions.
The Alpine Trial was one of the most arduous and difficult competitions of the year. It covered 1900 miles through five countries over some of the most challenging mountain roads in Europe. To finish at all was a victory, and to finish without any penalty points was almost unheard of.
For the 1934 edition of this event BMW entered a team of three of their newly designed 315/1 roadsters to compete in the under 1,500 cc class against the perennial winners from Frazer-Nash. By the end of the event the BMW team won the Alpine Cup having scored no penalty points.
Denis Jenkinson, in his book From Chain Drive to Turbocharger wrote of their performance, “The BMWs were not only faster up the mountains, but were faster down the other side as well.” The performance of these cars in the Alpine Trial so impressed J.H. Aldington of Frazer-Nash that he decided to seek a contract with BMW to begin importing the cars into Britain, offering them and later BMW models in slightly Anglicized form under the name Frazer-Nash BMW.
A 315/1 with chassis number 51203 was in the last group of 14 cars imported to Britain before the war in 1936. Registered as ANP 904, it was sold originally to Mr. B. L. Bonner of Reigate. It languished until after the war, when it was purchased in 1946 by a garage owner and budding race car builder named Ron C. Willis.
Willis recognized the superior performance capabilities of the car and began to race it in trials, sprints and hill climbs in its stock form. However, he was not satisfied with the car’s stock performance and so he began a program of modifying the car to make it more competative. Thus began the evolution of 51203 into one of the quickest post-war Formula Twos in England.
The initial set of modifications were aimed at lightening the car and improving its aerodynamics. He began by moving the headlights from the wings to an inset position in the bottom of the radiator. This was followed by replacing the stock steel fenders with alloy cycle fenders. Another change he made was to replace the full width windscreen with a more aerodynamic double screen.