Victoria Morris’ swoopy Kieft De Soto at rest in Piper Street, Kyneton, Victoria on a very balmy Anzac Day 25 April 2016…
Everything was going nicely until Victoria shattered the peace and quiet of our long, languid ‘Mr Carsisi’ middle-eastern lunch. Thoroughly recommended by the way.
We were out to atone for minor, alleged misdemeanors on my part. Me ‘an the little sabre-toothed tigress were just knocking back the second pinot and tucking into tasty mains as a big, loudish V8 ‘snap, crackle ‘n popped’ its way down quiet Piper Street in the beautiful Macedon Ranges village, 90 Km north of Melbourne.
I couldn’t help myself of course, I just had to see what it was there and then!
Too slow to see the driver exit the slinky light green beast, I was quick enough to beat the swarm of ‘rubber-necks’ soon checking out this ‘one of a kind’ car. Patrizia was not a ‘happy camper’, the photo and drool session took a good 40 minutes.
This article is long on photos, all of the ‘touristy shots’ are of Piper Street, Kyneton and its immediate surrounds unless otherwise stated.
The delicacy of the Kieft’s styling is deceptive I reckon…
It looks lithe and ‘Coventry Climax FWA’ light but totes a big, heavy cast iron De Soto 4.5 litre V8 and has the performance to match. I have spotted the car once or twice at race meetings before, what was great was to see it being used on the road, no doubt driven with considerable brio too!
The Kieft is an intensely interesting project. It was the realisation of the dream of its late owner, historic racer Bill Morris and two talented Australian artisans who brought it to life, body builder Terry Cornelius and mechanic/engineer Greg Snape, who did the rest inclusive of project management. Cornelius’ business is in Corowa on the mighty Murray River and Snape’s in Yass, in New South Wales Southern Tablelands.
Greg Snape picks up the Kieft story and Morris’ passion for two rather special cars…
‘The Erwin Goldschmidt De Soto engined sportscar was built alongside the Grand Prix car in early 1954’. Goldschmidt was a wealthy insurance broker and champion owner/driver in early/mid-fifties American racing’.
The Grand Prix car is the Kieft ‘GP1’, the chassis’ of which was completed in 1954 but was never completed and raced due to the ‘stillborn’ nature of the Coventry Climax 2.5 litre FPE V8 engine intended to power it.
Nearly 50 years later the car was completed with its correct engine by the Morris/Snape team in the UK in 2002.
Greg; ‘I had a business in Deniliquin, NSW which I was getting bored with and decided to sell it to move to the UK to get a job in F1 for a change of scene and pace. I rang John Diamond (the late owner of Penrite Oil in Melbourne) to get a reference, told him what I planned to do, he told me historic racer/engineer Bill Morris was in his office and handed the phone over! He had lots of contacts, offered to help me and after I sent him my CV said you will always have job with me if all else fails in the UK’
‘So, I packed up the wife and kids and off we went, from Deniliquin to Oxfordshire in late 1996. I worked for Bill for a few months, then did a season with Alan Docking Racing’s F3 team as Mark Webber’s #2 mechanic in 1997. I returned to Bill for a couple of years in 1998, then went to the JSM Alfa 147 BTCC Team in 2001 as #1 mechanic on Tim Harvey’s car and finally the Castrol Hyundai WRC team in 2002 as #1 transmission tech’
‘Bill ended up with the Kieft F1 car and bits via a friendship he had with Gordon Chapman who he had known for years via their mutual ERA ownership. Unfortunately Gordon died. Bill tried to sell all the bits on behalf of Guy’s widow Jeanie but eventually decided to take it on himself. He asked me to work on the project, the deal was that I spent half my time rebuilding pre-selector gearboxes for Bill’s clients and half the time building up the Kieft F1 car, it’s a whole fabulous story for another time’.
‘Throughout the process of building the Kieft GP car we were in regular touch with Cyril (Kieft) who was both helpful and really keen to see the finished car. During this process he told Bill about the sportscar. Essentially the car was built in the UK, sent to the US where it was hillclimbed and damaged. It was rebuilt but then stolen in the 1980’s and an insurance payout made. It was all said to be a bit ‘suss’ but over the years even though some people claimed to know where components were Bill couldn’t track anything down nor has anyone ever claimed to have the remnants of the car’.
‘So Bill decided to build a ‘reconstruction’ of the Kieft De Soto using components from the spare original chassis he bought with the F1 project’.
‘Kieft built three sets of parts for the GP cars in period and two chassis. The first car is the one we know and love (‘GP1′) the second incomplete chassis comprising the main structural tubes with magnesium front bulkhead attached was hanging on rafters in Bills workshop and ultimately sold together with GP1 when Bill auctioned it.’
‘We used the components that came with the second GP car chassis to recreate the sporty. Really the sports car chassis was completely different to the F1 car but the suspension bits; hubs and uprights, magnesium diff housing were the same. The F1 car has Dunlop disc brakes, the same components which went on the Jag C Type, it stops incredibly well, the brakes on the sportscar are drums, a 13 inch standard Girling size on the front and 12inch Jag components on the back’.
The original bodies of both GP1 and sportscar were built by EW Humphries Ltd in Wolverhampton, the sportscar then fitted out at Kieft’s Derry Street, Wolverhampton works, painted white and exported to the US. Here Terry Cornelius (above) checks his reference material in his Corowa workshop during the cars build.
‘The sportscar was installed with a De Soto ‘Fiedome’ 4.5 litre V8, a Jaguar ‘Moss’ gearbox with close ratios, and same as the GP car, an ENV rear axle in a Kieft housing’.
‘The chassis wasn’t straight forward other than the two main frame longerons but Duncan Rabagliati of the GP Library had some original photos which were invaluable. Whilst the F1 car was in Australia in 2006/7 I stripped it down and made a jig which, with the photos, allowed us to get the chassis and suspension pick-up points and therefore the geometry spot-on. We knew that it would be great as the F1 car handled so sweetly and progressively’.
‘Terry Cornelius did a sensational job with the body which was all done by looking at photos and building accordingly. Its easy to say but much harder to do! Bills health at this stage was holding up pretty well, he eventually died from a degenerative disease which gradually destroyed his central nervous system’.
‘Bill and his wife had a place at Lancefield in country Victoria as well as in the UK, they lived 6 months in each, so he was able to help with direction of the project. Funnily enough, in a tragic kind of a way, when he saw the body for the last time before going back to the UK where he died, he ‘looked at’ the body largely by feel. He said to Terry,‘I think the body will crack here’, near an intersection of curves at the front of the rear wing, sure enough that’s exactly what happened 12 months later! Terry has chosen not to repair the crack as a tribute to Bill’s great knowledge of all things automotive.’
The heart of a car is its engine of course. Goldschmidt specified and provided a new 276 cid/4.5 litre, cast iron OHV V8 from De Soto’s new for 1952 ‘Firedome’ family sedan for Kieft to fit his new car. It was De Soto’s first such engine since 1931. The oversquare 3.5/3.344 inch bore/stroke engine, fitted with hemispherical combustion chamber cylinder heads was ‘state of the art’, an ‘engine with high performance characteristics’ as Motor Trend magazine put it.
Modern though it was, in production form developing circa 160bhp, it was heavy ‘the engine weighs a ton, I don’t know how much but I reckon the heads alone weigh as much as an A-Series BMC engine!’ quips Greg.
The relatively lightweight ‘Small Block’ Chev and Ford V8’s with their thin-wall casting techniques changed the world of motor racing but they were still a few years away in 1954. But there were plenty of sportscars in the burgeoning US scene using a range of heavy but powerful V8’s that pushed Ferrari and Maserati to build cars with progressively bigger engines throughout the 1950’s.
‘The engine fitted is a 276cid De Soto Firedome exactly the same as the original car before it left the UK. Its been only lightly modified as was the case with the original, we needed to go that way to be eligible for FIA papers and Bill and Victoria wanted a car they could use on both road and track’.
‘It has a set of fabricated extractors, been bored out 40 thou, has 11:1 compression ratio and a mild high lift cam. High comp pistons, light rods, oil pump and oversize valves are from ‘Hemi Hot Heads’ in the US.’
‘Fed by a 2 barrell Rochester carb it develops around 350bhp at only 4800rpm, not high but its under-carbed, the thing has heaps of torque, its got a big, fat torque curve from 2000-4500rpm, bags of grunt and it doesn’t weigh much’.
‘I phoned Bill one night not long before he passed away, started it up and gave it a few revs over the phone. Victoria said he looked as happy as a kid in a sweet shop! Unfortunately whilst Cyril saw and sat in the F1 car he didn’t get to see the De Soto Kieft either’.
‘Bill passed away just before Terry and I finished the car about a week before its race debut at Historic Winton in 2009. Victoria was keen to fulfil Bill’s dream to reunite the two Kiefts at the Goodwood Revival in the UK, she shipped the car to the UK and I raced it at Donington Park and at the Goodwood Revival Meeting in September 2009′.
‘Its really quick in a straight line, capable of 150mph and clocked at 132mph at Goodwood but the suspension needed more sorting. No big deal just spring/shock settings, the sort of stuff which would have been got right if the car was to be a racer rather than a roadie which occasionally does a meeting. It holds the road well. The brakes aren’t as good as the discs on the F1 car and also needed sorting in terms of balance and pad material, I think we were probably off its potential by around 5 seconds a lap.’
‘When the car came back to Australia we ran it at an HSRCA meeting at Eastern Creek, out to Sydney’s west. It was a stinking hot weekend and the car started overheating after a few laps, it was a case of keeping an eye on the gauges and driving it accordingly’.
When I looked at the Kieft in Kyneton I was struck by the high standard of finish for a one-off, the leather seats were made by Greg’s wife Glenda. It has a full set of matching Smiths instruments for example. ‘Bill was apprenticed to Smiths originally so knew exactly what instruments were needed for the period inclusive of the lovely chronometric tach.’
‘For most of the project he was well enough to have lots of input into all of this detail stuff. The overall result is sensational to look at and even better to drive!, something which Victoria does often’, including regular drives from Lancefield to Kyneton as she did on the day I was lucky enough to see and hear the car…
Click on this link for a great summary of the creativity of Cyril Kieft;
Mark Bisset, Terry Cornelius, ‘The Border Mail’ newspaper, Bruce Moxon, Peter Delaney
Special thanks to Greg Snape for the generosity of his time