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We’re driving along a winding country road in Germany.
The Rhine runs along the valley below, and Riesling vineyards stretch across the hills to the horizon.
Our two mounts could hardly be more different: an all-enveloping historic racer with a barking twin-cam ‘four’, and a luxurious Jaguar-powered GT coupé.
But they are the very first and the very last cars made by a tiny manufacturer that, in the grey austere days after the Second World War, was the first to fly the British flag on the circuits of Europe.
As a marque HWM is now almost forgotten, although the name lives on across the façade of the world’s oldest Aston Martin dealer.
Before the war, John Heath ran two small garages in the neighbouring Surrey towns of Hersham and Walton-on-Thames.
He was a tall, restless workaholic who refused to use his aristocratic title of Baron: he reckoned it did not sit well with his oily hands and the grubby sweater he wore in the workshop.
In 1945 he joined forces with George Abecassis, an elegant, relaxed individual who smoked expensive brands through a long cigarette holder and certainly didn’t get his hands dirty – but also happened to be a first-class racing driver.
They opened for business in a garage just by the river bridge at Walton, and called themselves Hersham & Walton Motors.
Heath was as keen to get into racing as Abecassis was to get back to it, and they were both active in the first post-war events – sprints, hillclimbs, and the odd race on the Continent.
HW Motors dealt in racing cars as well as the sad grey porridge that was on the forecourt of most 1940s garages, allowing Abecassis to compete with Bugatti Type 59, ERA and Maserati 6CM. He also raced the Alta single-seater in which he’d made his name pre-war.
Meanwhile Heath gathered experience in a pair of Alta sports cars. Altas were made in penny numbers in nearby Tolworth by a clever engineer called Geoffrey Taylor, and the HW partners knew him well.
The cart-sprung Alta chassis was simple and effective, and its 1.5- and 2-litre engines, both supercharged and unsupercharged, were strong and reliable.
So when Heath decided to build his own car, it was inevitably very much Alta-based.
But the body was all new. Eye-catchingly futuristic for 1948, the streamlined aluminium shell was designed both for straight-line speed and also to attract the attention of race organisers in Europe, who would pay more for cars that didn’t look like warmed-over pre-war kit.
And to help get entries, because the Alta name was well-known and HWM wasn’t, Heath called his new machine an HW-Alta.
As an unsupercharged 2-litre it qualified as a Formula Two car, but the wide body and offset driving position made it easy to convert to a two-seater for sports-car events, and it was road-registered MPB 77.
As it turned out the HW-Alta – known within the Walton workshop and elsewhere as The Streamliner – only did four races as a works car, and two of them were F1 events.
In its maiden outing in the Jersey Road Race it ran reliably until the timing chain broke, but in the Stockholm Grand Prix Heath came fourth, admittedly out of only four finishers. Yet it got to the end without problems.
As a sports car, with headlights neatly faired into the wings, it was driven by Heath and Abecassis in the Spa 24 Hours.
With the old full-length Spa circuit blanketed by rain, they were running third overall and leading their class when, just after midnight, Abecassis went off the road lapping a slower car.
Then in the Paris 12 Hours at Montlhéry, Heath and Tony Rolt were again leading their class when the studs on a front wheel sheared and the wheel departed into the French undergrowth.
So the unimpressive total for the HW-Alta’s season was four races, one fourth and three retirements.
But the promise was there, and Heath was sufficiently encouraged to build another car for 1949, an open-wheeler this time.
The Streamliner was updated with independent front suspension and sold on. After some good results with its first private owner, Tom Meyer, it sank – as so many old racing cars did in those days – into sorry obscurity.
It cropped up occasionally in classified ads at ever-decreasing prices, and by 1962 it was on the pavement outside a south London dealer for just £165.
The Alta engine, long gone, had been replaced by an old, heavy and most unsuitable Studebaker V8, but the ad optimistically offered ‘stupendous performance and roadholding’.
Eventually it was rescued by Bill Mackie, who began its long climb back to health and dignity.
The body was in a bad state so he had an identical copy made, adding a neat headrest.
Thereafter it went through a string of owners in England, France and Germany until in 2008 it joined the Bad Homburg stable of enthusiastic collector and racer Charly Willems.
Willems had The Streamliner superbly restored by Robert Schramm and, although he raced it in its Jaguar-engined form for several years, his aim had always been to return it to its original Alta-powered spec.
Alta bits are extremely rare, but in the end a correct engine was found in Australia. Over long months it was subjected to a minutely detailed rebuild by Joos Tollenaar, retaining the original crank and rods but with new pistons and manifolds, and now the car is racing again as the HW-Alta.
Through the early 1950s, always on a very tight budget, the tiny HWM team campaigned its Alta-engined Formula Two cars valiantly across six countries, fitting as many as 26 meetings into a seven-month season.
But other teams were able to spend money on development that Heath couldn’t, and gradually the HWMs became outclassed.
Then a rebirth began in 1953 when Abecassis decided to go sports-car racing, and fitted a redundant F2 chassis with a wide body and a Jaguar engine.
This proved to be a healthy device, and three more single-seaters were converted into sports cars, two with Jaguar power and one with a Cadillac V8.
For 1955 a lighter, more compact sports car chassis was laid out by HWM’s draughtsman Eug Dunn. It lacked the now almost universal disc brakes: the parsimonious Heath still had some Alfin drums to use up.
Nevertheless Abecassis was very quick in the first Series Two car and frequently beat the Ecurie Ecosse Jaguar D-types and DB3S Aston Martins.
Then in May 1956 John Heath’s tragic death in the Mille Miglia, driving the second Series Two HWM-Jaguar, knocked the stuffing out of HWM.
Abecassis hung up his helmet at once to concentrate on the garage business, and at the end of 1957 the racing team was wound up.
There was one Series Two chassis frame left over, and Abecassis decided to use it as the basis of a personal one-off road car.
He kept the sports-racer’s suspension unchanged, and used a race-prepared Jaguar C-type engine with D-type head and Weslake cams.
He sketched out an aggressively dramatic coupé body with vee-windscreen and long drooping tail, and showed his drawings to his friend Frank Feeley, the Aston Martin stylist. Feeley persuaded George to let him work on it and refine its flamboyance somewhat.
The result was a dramatic yet elegant gran turismo that in 1958 looked sensational. Jaguar’s XK150 was rather dated by then and the E-type was still three years away, but the HWM Coupé bore comparison with the best from the Italian styling houses.
Inside there was leather upholstery, thick carpeting, a fully-equipped dash, electric windows – a real novelty then – and a radio with twin speakers.
The front body hinged forward for engine access, like the Aston DB2/4’s. Under the big hatchback rear window, also copied from Aston, there was reasonable luggage space over a huge fuel tank.
Abecassis called it George’s Folly, because it took so long to build and cost so much, and the idea of making a few more for sale to customers was soon forgotten.
It had been fun putting it all together and getting it built, but once it was completed Abecassis quickly lost interest and the car was sold on.
It disappeared into two French collections before being brought to Germany in 1996 by Dr Wolfgang Schnedler of Friedrichsdorf.
It had 15,000 miles on the clock, and in the ensuing 22 years he has added 14,000 more, enjoying with his son Philip European rallies such as the Ennstal Classic.
It’s a bizarre coincidence that the first and last HWMs live four miles from each other, but they had never run together until we lined them up in the courtyard of a beautiful weinberghaus in Hallgarten, about 50 miles west of Frankfurt.
After much hunting around during The Streamliner’s rebuild the closest shade turned out to be in the Honda catalogue: Hampstead Green.
Its horizontal lines, with its oval grille and inset spotlights, its serried rows of louvres on sides and bonnet, and its rounded tail, make it seem quite a big car, but on the twisting vineyard roads it shrinks around me, helped by a four-spoke wood-rim wheel that is much smaller than the Bluemel’s original of 70 years ago.
The car still has its Jaguar gearbox, but Willems hopes to replace it with an original preselector transmission, as used by the Alta-powered HWMs through to 1952.
The engine makes a beautiful noise, the music of the chain-driven cams mixing with the raucous note of the exhaust under the driver’s right ear.
It’s able to use Webers now instead of the original quartet of Amal carburettors and, although it needs plenty of revs from the start to drop the sudden clutch, from about 3000rpm it pulls like a train.
The real pleasure of the first HWM comes when pushing hard through the undulating curves of the country roads Willems has chosen for us.
The independent front suspension fitted in 1949 is by Triumph-derived transverse leaf and wishbones, and the steering comes from the front-drive Citroën, one of the most sure-footed cars of its day.
In this application it’s light and accurate, if low-geared by modern standards. The brakes, under road conditions at least, do their job well, with a good hard pedal.
The car feels balanced and responsive, which is why Willems is delighted with the transformation back to Alta-engined form.
Not only is it lighter than with the Jaguar unit, but the weight distribution has also moved back towards the centre of the car, and on the track this has become a far more effective machine.
Despite the loss of 100bhp or so, it is now 4 secs a lap faster around the new Nürburgring. Not just for history have Willems and Tollenaar done the right thing by recreating the HW-Alta.
So to the Coupé. I had long been intrigued by photos of it, but in the metal it looks much better, and different elements that seemed to quarrel come together into a very effective whole.
From its thrust-forward grille to its tunnelled rear lights (don’t tell anyone, but they’re from a Series IIIB Hillman Minx) it looks long, low and crouching, ready to spring.
Dr Schnedler has returned it to the mid-blue that George Abecassis chose, set off by gleaming Borrani wheels and the drilled Alfin drums behind.
Inside, the trim in blue and white leather is mostly original, and the seats are soft and comfortable. The wheel is an easy stretch away and headroom is sufficient for me, although 6ft-plus Abecassis said it was too cramped.
The fully-stocked instrument panel boasts a huge 8000rpm tacho and matching 180mph speedo, and the plush carpeting and electric windows are intact, although I didn’t try the radio.
Driving off, the Coupé feels every bit as quick as a well-sorted E-type. Based as it is on a sports-racing car I expected it to be noisy inside, but the road exhaust and sound insulation work very well.
The water temperature has risen during the repeated stop-start of the photo session, and some of this heat finds its way into the cockpit, and the brakes are a bit soft at the moment.
But the steering and handling are all that I expected. If this car had been the product of a larger specialist maker and gone into limited production, it could have been a sensation.
As it is, this is a very fast and practical road car, which boasts the additional attraction that you will never, ever see another one.
That goes for The Streamliner, too, and for pretty much all of the remaining 17 of the 19 HWMs built, for none was quite the same.
Today few remember the marque, but the cars of Hersham & Walton Motors put this country on the motor-racing map in those difficult early post-war years.
In doing so, they sowed the seed of an industry in which Britain has led the world for more than half a century.
Images: Luc Lacey
Simon Taylor’s two-volume, 528-page book John, George and the HWMs is published by Evro and priced at £130 (ISBN 978 1 910505 32 8)
19 cars were made in total; the number of new chassis built each year is given in brackets
- 1948 The Streamliner (1)
- 1949 The first open-wheeler, with offset cockpit and detachable cycle wings for sports car racing. Heath wins Manx Cup (1)
- 1950 Three-car team of offset single-seaters is raced in six countries by Moss, Macklin, Abecassis and others. Claes wins the Grand Prix des Frontières; Moss finishes third in Formula One Bari Grand Prix (4)
- 1951 Pure F2 single-seaters, up to four cars run in 26 meetings across Europe (5)
- 1952 Improved single-seaters. Moss leaves, Collins joins. Macklin wins the Silverstone International Trophy (4)
- 1953 1952 cars are radically rebuilt. First HWM-Jaguar sports car is built on a 1951 F2 chassis raced successfully by Abecassis
- 1954 Adapted 1952/’53 chassis is briefly used in F1, then converted to Jaguar power and written off at Goodwood. Three more sports cars are built on 1951 single-seater chassis, two Jaguar-engined and one with a Cadillac V8
- 1955 First Series Two HWM-Jaguar, smaller and lighter, is built for Abecassis (1)
- 1956 Second Series Two HWM-Jaguar, crashed fatally by Heath in the Mille Miglia (1)
- 1957 HWM-Jaguar hillclimb car built for Phil Scragg, and Coupé build commences (2)