Spagthorpe Whippet: Miracle or Myth ?
Each year the Cotswold Section V.M.C.C. run a signpost rally for which the premier award is the Bovinzer Trophy. This consists of an old side-valve blind cylinder barrel mounted on a polished wooden plinth.
The barrel is said to be one of the few remaining parts of the Spagthorpe Whippet, a machine said to have first graced the Kings highway in the early twenties. Two unusual features that immediately stand out are that the valves incline inwards towards the cylinder bore and that the bore/stroke ratio is quite wide making it necessary to flare the lower portion of the barrel to provide conrod clearance.
Despite the bike's name cropping up in the results of various trials and speed events in that period little is known of the machine or its fate so it has become a tradition that the winner of the Bovinzer Trophy spends the year he or she holds it attempting to discover more about the history of this mysterious motorcycle.
As this Section has always exhibited a healthy interest in the older and odder specimens of our hobby (religion) I thought members might be interested in the results of my research. Below is a copy of the letter I sent to Reg Eyre, organiser of the Cotswold Signpost Run and Spagthorpe connoisseur :-
Dear Reg,27th May 1997
Re: Spagthorne Whippet
Having the honour of being the custodian of the Bovinzer Trophy for twelve months and noting your comments on its fragmented history, I decided to look more closely at the old cylinder barrel said to have at one time been part of the elusive Spagthorpe Whippet.
By sheer coincidence an old friend of mine, at one time a prominent member of the Automotive Section of the Institute of Mechanical Engineers, happened to spot the thing on the shelf and immediately showed a keen interest. For some time he was archivist for the Section and The unusual angle of the valves, the long stroke and small bore rang a bell in his mind.
Some weeks later he 'phoned to say that he had traced a couple of papers which were presented to the Institution by a certain Dr H.Robinson, graduate and fellow of an obscure seat of learning in the U.S.A. The subject being the development of alternative fuels for internal combustion engines. It seems that many of Dr H. R's experiments were carried out on a single cylinder motor cycle, make unstated, during the latter days of W.W.I.
Through another friend and via the back door of a government research laboratory ( which must remain nameless ) micro-examination of minute deposits from the inlet and exhaust tracts revealed traces of organic particles not associated with the internal combustion engine.
According to the I. Mech. Eng. records, the said Dr H. Robinson had carried out research into the development of viable fuels from the fermented excreta of Horse dung. It appears that such research was of considerable importance at that time, oil based fuels being in short supply, and there were still many horses on the roads providing an ample supply of basic material. His early efforts seem to have employed a large gas generator carried on a sidecar chassis. This would be partly filled with dung, a chemical compound (composition not disclosed due to patents pending ) and mixed with water which brought about a rapid fermentation and a quick build up of gas pressure. This was fed to the engine via a regulator-cum-carburettor and was, apparently, quite successful. One of the off-shoot developments, with sporting potential, was a mechanical scoop which could be lowered as the outfit sped along thus picking up supplies of fresh basic fuel without having to stop. This would sometimes be warm thus speeding up fermentation.
Soon after war ended, it is thought that financial backing for Robinson's research dried up. Also he lost two dedicated assistants due to asphyxia when cleaning out the generator, although at the time he strongly disputed this, claiming that their demise was due to influenza.
From all this it could be that what you have in this handsome relic is an artifact which played a vital part in what might have been an important development in alternative fuels. I apologise for the rather lengthy notes but feel that the details may be of interest to the historians among us who are keen on the early evolution of motor cycling.
Having read the foregoing, if anyone can throw further light on the history of the Spagthorpe Whippet or better still know of its whereabouts (some believe it still exists ) I can be contacted via the editor and would be delighted to hear from you
It has always been my understanding that the Spagthorpe Whippet perished one evening in late September 1944. It was being ridden at speed over the Hogs Back, Surrey ( not far from the birthplace of the V.M.C.C. by coincidence ) when, probably due to the unusual exhaust note ( a sort of continuous raspberry ) it was mistaken for a low flying Doodlebug by an Army patrol on manoeuvres in the area. Their Bren gunner loosed off a short burst at the passing projectile before the error was realised. Although the shooting was wild one round penetrated the effluent tank causing it to explode vulcanising the unfortunate rider in the pungent propellant. Temporarily blinded he careered off the road, down an embankment and into the midden of a nearby farm. On happier occasions the discovery of such a plentiful supply of fuel would have been most welcome but alas the Whippet was damaged beyond repair ( the irreplaceable outside flywheel with patent scoop had sheared off and shattered ). The luckless rider escaped with only minor injuries and lived, so I understand, to a ripe old age. But for the rest of his life he was burdened with the nickname "Downwind".
Spagthorpe Whippet . The saga continues :
In response to the article on the Spagthorpe Whippet and in particular its possible demise I have received a letter from a Mrs F.Stanay ( nee Spagthorpe ):-
When I read the story of the Spagthorpe Whippet I was struck by the similarity to a tale I often heard my father tell about a wartime escapade of his. My father was Able Seaman "Downwind" Spagthorpe. His shipmates had bestowed on him the nickname "Downwind" because of the unfortunate effect Navy catering hadon his digestive system and at the time of this story, late September 1944 he had just returned from serving with the Mediterranean Fleet.
To get home as quickly as possible Albert, to use Dad's Christian name, had borrowed a 250cc Leggit which still had acetylene lighting. As my father was riding across the Hogs Back he was stricken with a terrible attack of "Malta Dog". The resultant cloud of "gas" carried onto the rear light where the acetylene flame ignited it. The explosion that followed engulfed his lower half and, in a desperate attempt to douse the flames, he swerved off the road down an embankment and into a duck pond, extinguishing the flames and the life of a large mallard that had been sleeping by the waters edge.
The Leggit was bent beyond repair so, after salvaging his kit bag, the Mallard and some vegetables from the next field (there was rationing on then, remember) which later made a very nice welcome home dinner, my father hitched his way home in the car of a WRVS worker. He explained away his charred and mud encrusted clothing by saying he'd been caught in an air raid. He made such an impression on the girl that inside three months she became Mrs Spagthorpe.
Given the similarity of these stories it does not seem beyond the realms of possibility that the report of the Whippets demise is no more than Able Seaman Spagthorpe's escapade distorted by the passage of time. If so it means there is still a chance the Spagthorpe Whippet is still out there somewhere. Keep searching.