John Granville Grenfell

Granville Grenfell

John Granville Grenfell was born in Sydney, Australia in 1893, came to England in 1906 and in 1907 he was taken by his father to the opening race meeting at Brooklands, Weybridge, Surrey, an event which was to have a great influence on his future life. He began racing in 1907 on bikes and in cars and, in 1913 built a Norton engine special which pre dates the 500 movement by a considerable margin and proves that nothing is ever really new! During the 1920's, he worked for Vincenzo Lancia, one of the most innovative manufacturers of that period as well as Rolls-Royce, Michelin, Firestone and Hispano-Suiza. Granville Grenfell's workshops were based at Brooklands in Weybridge. His 500 featured a most unusual front suspension and steering arrangement. He used a Triumph engine, later replaced with a JAP and Albion gearbox, it appeared briefly towards the end of 1951 then disappeared as he attempted to patent the front "Swing axle". John Granville Grenfell died in 1975. The car reappeared some years later now owned by Michael Lovell who used though the late 1950's and early 60's

Mike at Goodwood in 1957. Photo courtesy Peter Lovell

Peter Lovell at Great Auclum in August 1955. Photo courtesy Peter Lovell

 How it was was reviewed in Iota.

Michael Lovell's Grenfell at Goodwood for the Formula Libre race in October 1962. Photo courtesy Ben Cowdrey.


This is being written from a distance of almost 60 years, so any errors or omissions must be forgiven.

My brother was M.R. (Mike) Lovell. A pilot for BOAC and a former bomber pilot, his burning ambition was to be a racing driver. His first step in that direction had been to buy a Frazer Nash in the late 1940`s which we both used to drive in VSCC events. One day in 1953 he was at the premises of a car dealer in Bromley, Kent. Why, I do not know. It was there that he came across the Grenfell Special. Why that was there I do not know either. Anyway, the end result was that he bought the car and we towed it home to Woking on the end of a rope. An unfortunate side effect of the decision to buy the Grenfell was that he had to sell the `Nash in order to do so, so that was the end of our VSCC activity.

The Grenfell Special was built by John Granville Grenfell at his workshop in Weybridge, not far from Brooklands where he operated in pre-war days. Having got it home we were able to have a good look at it. The rear end of the car was fairly conventional. There was a JAP engine with chain drive to a solid rear axle which was mounted on semi trailing quarter elliptic springs. It was at the front end that things were different, especially with regard to the IFS. In order to ensure the minimum change in camber angle each front wheel had, in effect, its own axle, pivoted about a mounting on the opposite side of the chassis. This gave the maximum swing arm length and pivot radius but at the expense of quite a lot of unsprung weight. The front suspension struts were aircraft undercarriage oleo legs which had to be inflated to a certain air pressure. The fuel supply was maintained by a pressurised tank with the traditional hand pump in the cockpit. In order to learn more about the car and as a matter of courtesy we went to see Granville Grenfell a couple of times in his workshop in Weybridge. A fascinating and charming gentleman.

As the car had not been run for some time it seemed prudent to dismantle as much as was practical for a thorough check. This included the JAP engine which was stripped down and thoroughly checked and cleaned. Having got it up and running the next challenge was to learn to drive the thing. This was accomplished in a remote corner of Fairoaks aerodrome, to which Mike had access as a flying member of the RAF Reserve. The car was run on alcohol fuel kindly supplied free of charge by Shell in red two gallon cans. I cannot recall how we got the initial supply but it was always on offer at Brands Hatch. Shell also supplied the engine oil. I think it was Shell Super.

Having learned the basics of driving the car on an aerodrome we felt ready to try our luck at the real thing so we joined the BRSCC and entered the car to race at Castle Combe with Mike driving. My memory of that event seems to have been erased. It was fairly simple to go racing in those days. No medical exam. No fire proof overalls or gloves. All you needed was a car, a competition licence, a crash helmet, some white overalls, a pair of plimsolls, and you were away. The next event was at Brands Hatch in which I was entered to drive in two races. Again memories are scant but I would probably remember if there had been any sort of success. I will not try to recount our complete racing history. That would be very boring and in any case I cannot remember enough. although one or two incidents at Brands stick in my mind, none very conducive to success. On one occasion as I was lowering my goggles just before the flag fell when one of the lenses fell out. There was no time to do anything about so I had my right eye completely exposed to the elements. I managed to do one lap and then gave it up. On another occasion the flag fell before the grid was clear and just as I let in the clutch and put on the power somebody ran in front of me. I instinctively braked and stalled, and had to be push started, by which time it was hopeless. You feel such a twerp plodding around on your own after everybody else has left and disappeared out of sight. We were consistent entrants at Brands Hatch in 1954 and 1955 with the two of us taking it in turns to drive, the other acting as mechanic. We not only shared the car but the crash helmet, goggles and white overalls as well, such was motor racing on a shoe string in the 1950s. We used to take our tents and camp overnight in the paddock. (Wives were included). We both drove the car at the Great Auclum hill climb, near Reading. Now defunct, it attracted many well known cars and drivers in its day. Mike also entered events at Castle Combe and Crystal Palace. The end of my modest racing career came on Boxing Day 1955 when Mike was practising in the rain at Brands. I watched him go straight on at Paddock Bend, up the bank, up in the air and down upside down, breaking quite a few things on both himself and the Grenfell Special, both of which took some time to mend. My guess is that he leaned over the side to begin to set the car up for the corner and got a face full of spray and didn’t’t see that he had arrived at the corner. He had no recollection of what happened. I seem to recall that he was loaded into the ambulance alongside Jim Russell who must also have crashed that day, although he still won the championship.. As I was by that time an expectant father, I considered it prudent to stick to dinghy racing in the future. After I withdrew from the project Mike continued to persevere with the car at various venues until he eventually gave up in 1962, forever without success.

We made quite a few changes to the car along the way and I don’t think we ever raced it “as received“. I cannot remember the exact sequence of events, but I think the first to go were the oleo leg front suspension struts. At the time I was working as an experimental engineer with AEC and so had contacts with a lot of component suppliers, including Armstrong Patents, the shock absorber people. They were kind enough to let us have a pair of the spring/damper struts of the type being used by Cooper at that time. I remember going to the Cooper works in Surbiton to collect them, armed with a letter of authority from Armstrong. Also to go at about the same time was the pressurised fuel tank, which made driving a bit safer if you didn’t’t have to remember to keep an eye on the pressure gauge and keep pumping it up. This was replaced by an SU electric pump which of course needed a battery. This was provided by a miniature 12 volt battery as used in parking meters. Having got electricity I think we also experimented with coil ignition. I think an SU carburettor also came into the picture at some time. I remember fabricating a carrier plate for two flexibly mounted SU float chambers. Mike was the sort of person who had a little technical knowledge and always thought he could improve on what somebody else had done before. The JAP engine eventually gave way to a Norton and I seem to remember trying a Triumph engine which very quickly seized. Mike apparently used a Triumph engine again long after my involvement ceased.

We eventually got the car going quite fast but it was never reliable. Also the handling left something to be desired. When cornered hard on a sharp bend the inner front wheel lifted off the ground leaving you with one wheel steering. This involved lots of crossing of arms in alternate directions.

The Grenfell Special was never a successful car. Maybe we should have left it as Granville Grenfell built it? Or bought a Cooper? Or stuck with the Frazer Nash? Who knows. Never mind. We had a lot of fun, did no harm and hopefully provided some entertainment.

Our sincere thanks Peter Lovell for his help with this page.