Skirrows Revilles and Gnats
A collection of pictures and information about various midget racing cars that made use of BSA FWD components
By Club Historian Graham Skillen and others

Graham Skillen

 

 


Reville. (J. Reville, 1934)

The first speedway racing meeting with cars was likely to have been at Greenford, London, in June 1928, but was reportedly not very successful, largely because of the lack of suitable machines.
Midget dirt-track racing in America started at Sacremento in 1933 and by March 1935 Jean Reville, the originator of the sport in England, announced his Midget speedway racer. In November that year a

full description was published in Autocar.

Mr. Jean Reville has in hand the construction of several interesting little machines.
The difficulty about dirt-track racing with ordinary-sized cars is that there is safe space for only very few cars on the small ¼-mile tracks at present available, but with miniature cars of less than 6ft. wheelbase more cars could safely run on the track together.
The car illustrated is one which has been used
The Reville Dirt-track Special Note the full-sized BSA wheel
successfully during the past season, and has a modified BSA engine driving the front wheels. A new car which is not yet ready is even smaller and has a lower and shorter frame of BSA origin and a JAP twin-cylinder engine developing about 65 bhp, driving the front wheels.

The drive is direct; the only control used is the throttle, since there is no brake or gear-box. The wheelbase is only 4ft 5in long and the crab track is 3ft 5in for the front wheels and 3ft 1 in at the rear. The wire wheels are of 12in diameter, built up on BSA hubs. Tracks at present used are at Crystal Palace, Lea Bridge, Greenford and Dagenham.
In January 1935 Jean Reville announced plans for a production car called the Gnat, with either front or rear-wheel drive with an 8/50 JAP and a price of £165, although there is no record to hand of how many were built.
Reville and Gnat, Sydney Showgrounds, 1935
The rear exhaust pipe on the Gnat exited between the driver's legs, which must have increased the excitement in an already adrenalin-filled pastime! I can't find

Click here for Jean Reville in the USA This was sent in by Edward T. Batchelor from US Hwy 41N USA

reference to what BSA content the Gnat might have had. By 1936 Reville was British Open Champion and Captain of the English team which toured Australia.
He stayed in Australia, where he was a car importer in Brisbane, living until around 1980.

Skirrow. (H. Skirrow, 1937)

Following on from the Reville Midget racers, next was Harry Skirrow, the one-armed and fearless Harry Skirrow, who drove with a hook in place of one hand, who produced the four-wheel-drive 80hp JAP engined car, announced in Autocar for 1st January 1937.
Skirrows today seem very thin on the ground, although Bill Reynolds, a noted exponent of the day and British Champion with a late-model Skirrow in 1938, put production at 50 to 100.
When he raced against the Americans in Australia
The Skirrow-----naked!
and New Zealand in the 'off-season' the four-wheel-drive made such an impression on the Americans that they modified one of their own Offenhauser- powered cars, which became so unbeatable
The Skirrow back in the States that they were banned from midget racing, but did become prototypes for the jeep after testing by the US Army.

So what about evolutionary genealogy and the Daimler Scout car? Like Jean Reville, Bill Reynolds stayed in Australia and was still around in 1981.
Skirrows have featured in our pages before. Roy Gillett found an old sprint racing car in 1971, which had BSA bits at both ends, no differential, no brakes and a methanol-fuelled JAP It was a Skirrow and although it looked as if it had BSA leaf springs, the wheel mountings were, in fact, solid. Steering was BSA including a full-sized driving wheel, which looked very disproportionate. In 1989 Tony Meade photographed two, one owned by David Hughes of Cogenhoe, Norhants, who had owned many of the cars before the war, touring with his racing team. The other was owned by John Abraham of Kingswell,
The Abraham machine photo Tony Meade
Cambridgeshire, who was working on a Skirrow history at the time.
As a well-known owner of a few BSA spare parts Tony also supplied some hubs to get another
car running in 1984 and reported that a further Skirrow was in Buckland's yard in Towcester, but not for sale. The production suggestion of 50-100 cars seems optimistic and around 30 has also been suggested.
The Beaulieu machine front "suspension"H
photo Tony Meade
A Skirrow was auctioned in December 2004 with Cheffins.

As a postscript to this I'm now in touch with the Skirrow expert, so will see where we get to. There was a Skirrow at Beaulieu - the one sold recently. It's with Ivan Dutton who said it was a near thing as the underbidders wanted to buy it for the KTOR JAP alone and break the rest. He's going to restore it, so I've asked him to record the BSA chassis numbers when he gets to them (I had a look and the body covers them up at present).

 

Graham Skillen

 

Well!!, theres not much more I can say after that well informed offering, but there are a few more pictures to come, and I will set these out below, they include some pre-war pictures of Skirrows and Revilles in action and at rest obtained from various sources.

 

Peter Bowler

 

Click here for more information and pictures
on Revilles and Skirrows
Click here for yet more information and pictures
of Revilles and Skirrows
This Is the rear suspension of the Beaulieu Skirrow, and a spare wheel and chair!!H

photo Tony Meade

This is the great Bill Reynolds himself, unusualy for him not throwing up huge clouds of cinder!.
This is a pair of Skirrows in their natural environment
This is a recent shot of a Skirrow, owner and whereabouts unknown
And here we have a pair of Gnats, year and venue unknown

The British Skirrow special By John Joiner

reprinted from the Dec 2006 edition of "Front Wheels"

Whilst walking around the top end of yellow field at Beaulieu last year we ran into Graham Skillen. Comparing notes on what we had seen, he asked if we had spotted the Skirrow on Ivan Dutton's stand in red field. As we said that we had not, it was suggested that with a few photos of it could make an interesting article for the Club magazine.
'photo Join Joiner

Ivan's stand was found quite easily, No. 615, and there in all its glory was a red Skirrow.

I first met Ivan when I visited his workshops situated north of Oxford some years back when he was a prime renovator of Bugattis. He could have half a dozen Bugatti cars being worked upon in his workshop at any time.
Well, you might ask, what is a Skirrow? Most people will not have heard of the name unless you were around in the mid-1930s or until possibly 1952. As a boy I had tin plate toy racing cars given to me, these were all very similar and mimicked the typical racing cars of the period; they were not true scale but caricatured versions of ERAs or Maseratis.
The Skirrow was a lot like these toy cars, being truncated and narrow tracked for racing on speedway ovals. I used to go to watch the 'Leicester Hunters' speedway team at Blackbird Road at Leicester in the late 1940s and early 50s. After the interval they would put on a speciality event, sometimes it would be sidecar racing or novice riders and occasionally midget racing cars, so I possibly saw a Skirrow car racing without realising it. I also had a friend over Cambridge way, John Abrahams, who had a Skirrow and was keen to put together the history of the marque, but alas he is no longer with us having died of cancer a few years back.
Skirrows crossed the Atlantic to race in America and proved to be very successful to such an extent they influenced Offenhauser into producing a four-wheel drive car which in turn led to the design and production of the Jeep for the army.
The Skirrow was the brainchild of one Harry Skirrow from Ambleside and to much acclaim from the motoring press, made its debut on 4th August 1936.
These specials were to prove the effectiveness of the unique four-wheel drive design by putting up high speeds on the Belle Vue speedway track at Man- chester. Harry Skirrow had been a dirt track rider, until a hunting accident resulting in the loss of his left hand brought his riding days to an end. After recovery from the accident and now fitted with a hook in place of his hand, he turned his endeavours to producing a midget or pygmy speedway racing car.
Having looked at those available he quickly decided that he could produce better. The resulting design is shown to good advantage in the picture that appeared in the 'Autocar' for January 1st 1937 along with a brief outline. They described it as attractive looking and gave a brief specifica- tion.
Ivan Dutton, as previously mentioned, of Heartbeat Classics from Ickford near Aylesbury owns this particular Skirrow shown in the photos. Ivan bought it to save it from being cannibalised by folks who only wanted the OHV V- twin JAP engine, possibly for a Brough motorcycle or a Morgan three-wheeler.
It is possibly one of the last midget racers used competitively in the country. It was originally owned and raced by Dave Hughes from Cogenhoe, Northampton.
He was an unlikely racer because of his size and weight, being 6 feet tall and weighing in at 17 stone, he did however get the midget around the oval track very quickly! One has to ask if his size had anything to with the fact he was a master baker, they must have had to shoe horn him into the cockpit! So taken was he with midget speedway racing that he invested £10,000 of his own money to build a new speedway track just outside North- ampton on the Bedford Road at Brafield-on-the-Green. Not content with building a racetrack, he got together 12 Skirrows to form a team in his effort to promote midget racing.
So lets have a look at the car itself.

Chassis

The Skirrow's key feature was its four-wheel drive, derived from the use of two modified BSA trike front ends mounted back to back. It would be inter- esting to know if second-hand scrap chassis were used or did BSA provide new components? BSA gearboxes and differentials were not used, but in- stead solid axles with sprockets and driven by chains through two clutches mounted on countershafts were employed.
Back wheels were locked straight ahead but the front wheels were steered in the normal way through BSA steering gear. The drop arm was longer than the standard BSA part and the steering column was offset in the manner of other larger single seat racing cars such as the ERA. It is interesting to note that the steering wheel is full size as a trike, which looks odd in a smaller car.
Track of a normal BSA trike is 4 feet 2 inches, but the Skirrow is only 3 feet 8 inches, which is 6 inches narrower, necessary for racing on a narrow tight track. This means that the 'box of springs is approx. 3 inches shorter either side and whilst the suspension is still independent, it is stiffer but makes it ideal for racing.

Wheels and tyres

Because of high sideways forces being exerted due to 'broad-siding', solid steel disc flanged wheels were used. Size was reduced to 17 inches with a tyre section at 4 inches. The wheels were bolted to the BSA hubs with four nuts in the normal way, deep grip tyres of a motorcycle trials type being employed.

Engine and transmission

A V-twin engine type JTOR suppled by J. A. Prestwich (JAP) was used, mounted before the bulkhead, driving two short chains forward through a countershaft and clutch to the front axle.
Four longer chains to the rear did a similar thing through yet another countershaft and clutch before arriving at the rear axle. Using a bore size of 80mm and a stroke of 99mm, a capacity of 998cc was achieved to give around 80 BHP Two Amal type 27 track carburettors fed the engine with an alcohol-based fuel (M 100) through twin float chambers on each carburettor.
You may well ask how did it all end? After the Second World War, midget speedway racing never really caught the public's imagination as it had pre- war.
Reliability and the availability of spare parts for what was ageing machinery was certainly a factor, it never again reached the heights that it had enjoyed previously. Australia and New Zealand both suffered in a similar way to Britain. What makes speedway racing attractive depends upon riders and drivers using similar powered machinery and using their individual skills to gain advantage. If breakdowns continue to happen the racing spec- tators lose interest, above all machinery had to be reliable. What counts between the tapes going up and the chequered flag going down is that racing actually takes place.
Harry Skirrow eventually sold out to a well-known and successful speedway bike maker Victor Martin, but even he did not survive in business beyond 1957. Yet another type of midget racing came to the fore after the war, which may have had a distinct part in the Skirrow's demise, and that was 500cc racing cars on proper road circuits. The Cooper Norton and JAP powered cars proved to be popular both with drivers and the public; in fact that's how Stirling Moss got started, the rest is history.

John Joiner

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