Harold William Clisby was one of those guys who did it all, above hurtling along in his 1952 Clisby Douglas Special…
Born in Norwood, Adelaide on 3 August 1912 he was a talented intuitive engineer/inventor from his childhood Meccano set fiddlings. He worked initially for his father in the family clothing business, for GM in an engineering capacity during the war, then post conflict made his fortune building Clisby Air Compressors and the Clisby/Sherline Lathe amongst many other products- Clisby Engineering Pty. Ltd. continues to this day. Click on the link at the end of this article for a comprehensive account of some of Clisby’s life.
In addition to the above he built his own stone castle, complete with miniature railway line in the Adelaide Hills, various cars and motorcycles and a 120 degree, DOHC, 2 valve, 1.5 litre V6 GP race engine! This motor was fitted into an Elfin T100 Mono chassis- in so doing creating the first, the only, all-Australian, make that South Australian Grand Prix car.
This article started as a quickie on Harold’s ’52 hillclimber but a ‘teaser’ on the V6 at the articles end turned out longer than planned- that is a marvellous feature story for another time, but a précis of the Elfin Clisby V6 forms the second part of this piece.
Harold was one of the instigators of the Sporting Car Club’s Collingrove Hillclimb built on land owned by the Angas family.
He spent a lot of time driving all around the large property with Robert Angas looking for a suitable hillclimb location in Angas’ Land Rover. Eventually the duo settled on a marvellous, challenging bit of geography- the land was surveyed and the Sporting Car Club of South Australia soon accepted a proposal to run the venue- which they do to this day, its one of the longest continuing motorsport venues in Australia.
Of course, as a co-instigator of the project Clisby needed a car to compete in the first meeting, the ‘South Australian Hillclimb Championship’ in March 1952, having cut his racing teeth in a modified MG TC he raced at Lobethal, Woodside and other local venues.
‘Having only three weeks to go before the maiden run, Harold decided that he would like to build a vehicle to compete…A rough layout was was drawn on a blackboard using the engine and gearbox of a Douglas motorcycle, time was short so all of the details had to be carefully planned’ clisby.com state.
‘The springs came first, as they would take the longest time to manufacture. A single tube of 3 inches in diameter was used for the chassis: the engine located on the front end of the tube, using a brake drum, the rear end to be attached to the gearbox, used the rear cover of a differential.
The wheels were from scrapped motorcycles, a chain drive drove a large sprocket on the rear axle and incorporated the single rear drum brake.
Universal joints were used to produce independent rear suspension; a six foot long tailshaft of 7/8-inch diameter was supported on one end of the engine and one of the gearboxes.
The steering box was rack and pinion coming from a previously built incomplete automobile. The front wheels included their own drum brakes. A tapered fuel tank came from a pedal assisted motorcycle, the steering wheel from an MG and the seat supplied by Colin Angas from a farm implement.(!)
The engine was stripped, the ports were polished to accommodate slightly larger carburettors and the pistons were shortened and lightened by removing the bottom piston ring. A motorcycle speedometer was re-calibrated to show engine revolutions per minute. A racing magneto was used to replace the magdyno.’
‘All these elements were collected and assembled within 2 weeks allowing a week to test the box of tricks prior to the hillclimb.
Harold had trouble registering the vehicle for the road, as they did not believe the car weighed just 350 pounds!
With one week to go, he then decided to drive the car to the town of Angaston some 60 miles away (from Adelaide) on a Saturday morning wearing a flying suit, arriving about 1 1/2 hours later.
He then drove the car up the hill (Collingrove Hillclimb) using maximum acceleration. Returning to Robert Angas home (on the property where Collingrove was built), he then discovered the tailshaft had twisted like a long letter ‘S’! He then proceeded to straighten the shaft using an anvil and carefully drove the car home.
With only a matter of a few days remaining, a new 2 inch diameter shaft was provided, still only supported at each end. At high engine revolutions, the shaft also distorted. A third shaft was made of 1 inch diameter, 16 gauge tubing cut into three sections, the centre section was supported by ball races within the 3 inch diameter main tube.
This easily withstood the engine revs of 8000 rpm. The following Saturday morning, the car was now ready to attack the hillclimb and was driven again to Angaston.
After a number of other vehicles had successfully climbed the hill, Harold’s turn finally came in the under 500cc class. He pressed the accelerator pedal until the rev indicator showed 8000rpm, then took his foot straight off the clutch, the rear wheels spun on the tarmac and the car shot off up the hill in a satisfactory manner.
There was little trouble in changing gear into the various bends until reaching the top, where the descent back to the paddock was made on a rough rock track. One rock knocked a hole in the crankcase, allowing all the oil to drain out.
Returning to the pit area, the car was rolled on its side and the hole was welded up with acetylene and oxy torch supplied by an oil company. The vehicle was now ready for a second run. Using the same procedures used from his first experience, the time was improved setting a record that wasn’t broken in its class for seven years’.
‘After the success of his hillclimb vehicle, he was then approached by several of his friends to design and build small competition cars with 125cc engines as the driving force. These were constructed out of steel tubing with rack and pinion steering and front and rear transverse independent suspension all round. The wheels were cast aluminium and fitted with 8 X 4 wheelbarrow tyres. Looking back he felt the cars led the way into the go-kart era in Australia’ clisby.com records.
Backbone frame of single 3 inch by 16 gauge steel tube. Engine mounted on clutch housing welded to front, gearbox mounted on steel pressing welded to rear. Independent front suspension by twin transverse leaf springs. The transverse leaf springs mounted above and below clutch housing. Independent rear suspension by splayed quarter elliptic springs and halfshafts located by radius rods trailing at 30 degrees. Rack and pinion steering. Motor cycle wheels- front 19 X 2 1/4 inches, rear 19 X 2 3/4 inches, 3 inch motorcycle ribbed tyres at front, grip tread at rear. Mechanical brakes- non-compensated 6 inch BSA cable operated at front, single central rod operated 8 inch Douglas at rear.
7 inch single dry plate clutch mounted direct on engine. Three piece tubular steel drive shaft running on ball races mounted within tubular backbone chassis. 4 speed positive stop Douglas gearbox with hand operation- overhung at rear of the chassis with final drive by chain to differential-less swinging halfshaft back axle
Douglas air-cooled, horizontally opposed, pushrod OHV two cylinder engine. Bore/stroke 60.8 X 60mm, 348cc. Wet sump lubrication, BTH magneto ignition. Bottom piston ring removed and piston skirts shortened by 1/2 inch, ports bored out and polished, two Amal carbs, compression ratio 8:1, 30bhp, maximum rpm 9000
Monoposto body to be fitted, weight when registered 325 pounds.
Construction quoted as commenced on 19 February 1952, inaugural Collingrove meeting 15 March 1952 during which a time of 50.1 seconds was achieved. The class record was set at the second Collingrove meeting at 47.2 seconds for the up to 750cc class- the report says the car used the standard engine in the first meeting, with presumably the modified engine at the second. ‘Since then it has had further runs, but Mr Clisby is now faced with excessive wheelspin and so is tackling the problem of weight distribution’.
(Courtesy Australian Motor Racing Annual No 3)
That ‘F1 Car’- Elfin T100 ‘Mono’ Clisby V6, chassis ‘M6548’…
Elfin boss Garrie Cooper and legendary ace welder, Fulvio Mattiolo ponder the next step in the build of Andy Brown’s Clisby V6 engined Mono at Edwardstown, Adelaide during 1965.
Those with strong knowledge of the GP formulae will appreciate that 1965 was the final year of the 1.5 litre F1 and that therefore the little Clisby V6 was a tad late to the party!
The Elfin Clisby only raced on four occasions- at Mallala on 19 April 1965 when a rear tyre blew destroying the cars rear suspension, at Calder on 23 May when Brown retired with water porosity problems, back home in South Australia at Mallala on 14 June when the car popped an oil line in practice, non-starting the race. The cars last appearance was a championship one, Brown started the 11 October 1965 Mallala Gold Star round but retired from the race won by Bib Stillwell’s Brabham BT11A Climax after 8 laps when the engine locked up beneath him in the straight gyrating from high speed for 300 metres until coming to rest gently in the infield.
With that the project, one engine, was put to one side forever, there is a Repco epilogue however.
The chassis, engine and gearbox (using a VW case) were all made in South Australia, hopefully one day this extraordinary piece of Australian history- our only ‘all Australian’ GP car will run again.
An engine and the Elfin chassis are extant, sufficient of the engine patterns and moulds exist, with the will of all involved- chassis owner, the very keen James Calder, the Clisby family, and, critically Kevin Drage, the senior engineer on this project all those years ago this stunning machine will run. It must run- the combination is a national engineering treasure. Some very recent chatter online is promising too…
Ferrari had been racing Vittorio Jano designed 1.5 litre F2 and 2.5 litre F1 DOHC, 65 degree V6 engines in the late fifties, Mike Hawthorn won the 1958 drivers title so equipped. Their 1961 championship winning car, the mid-engined 156, was powered by a 1.5 litre V6, initially with a Vee angle of 65 degrees and later 120 degrees. By the way, the first track test of Ferrari’s 156 120 degree V6 engine was at Modena, the car driven by Phil Hill, in April 1961.
During a long fact-finding trip to Europe in 1960 Clisby chose a 120 degree, DOHC, 2 valve V6 design for his proposed GP and sportscar engine. He set about the design process on a portable drafting machine in the cabin of the ship which brought him back to Australia.
In order to construct the engine he also needed to upgrade his Prospect, Adelaide, Clisby Industries factory facilities to ‘manufacture our own con-rods, pistons, distributors and oil pumps…plus build our own manufacturing equipment such as sand foundry, electric melting furnace, sand mixer, crankshaft grinder, camshaft grinder, nitriding furnace etc’ Clisby Development Engineer at the time Kevin Drage recalled.
The essential elements of the all aluminium engine (the extent of local content extended to the Comalco aluminium used, the bauxite and alumina was mined and processed in Australia) was a four main bearing, billet steel crank, twin overhead gear driven camshafts, two 14mm plugs per cylinder fired by conventional coil and ‘…dual ignition circuits- there were four distributors, one master and one slave for each of the two ignition circuits fired from each camshaft. This allowed the spark requirements to spread across 4 coils’ said Kevin. The distributors were Clisby modified Bosch components. A generator was in the front of the engines Vee, a starter motor at its rear.
The engine capacity was 1476cc, its bore and stroke 73 X 58.8mm with the engines ultimate potential size circa 2 litres. Clisby saw a gap in the market in Europe for engines of 1.5 to 2 litres for both GP and sportscar use. With a very modest initial compression ratio of 8.5:1 and cam timing derived from the BSA Gold Star motorcycle, around 170-180 bhp was expected from the early engines.
Carburetion caused a big problem, conventional twin-choke Webers would not feed the wide angle engine. Drage wrote to Weber to enquire about purchase of some of its triple choke carbs, only to be advised of their exclusive supply agreement of said units with Ferrari. The Scuderia’s lawyers followed this up with a salvo several months later advising ‘that they (Ferrari) owned the copyright to the 120 degree, V6 layout and that we should cease building our engine forthwith and certainly not attempt to market it!’ KD recalled.
Clisbys therefore decided to build their own carburettor bodies to which were fitted standard Weber chokes, auxiliary venturis, jets etc sourced from twin choke carbs Weber were happy to supply. ‘Harold drew up the triple carburettor body and had a set of patterns made. We joked that we should have left and right hand carburettors to make the fitting symmetrical. A few days later, Alec Bailey, who was working on the engine with me, came in to work with a set of left hand carburettor patterns which he had made up at home in the evenings! So we did finish up with a pair of left and right hand triple choke carburettors after all!’
The 260 pound, incredibly low, compact engine broke cover from about March 1961 with articles in Sports Car World, Road and Track, Sports Car Graphic and other publications following in 1962.
By then the BRM P56 and Coventry Climax FWMV 1.5 litre V8’s were dominating GP racing- Ferrari was developing its own V8, its ultimate 1.5 litre F1 weapon was the Ferrari 1512- a Flat-12 engine which formed a structural member of the cars semi-monocoque ‘Aero’ chassis in 1965. The point here is that by the time the Clisby engine was announced, let alone run, the game had well and truly moved on, but it does not matter in terms of the engines Australian historical significance.
Denis Jenkinson in his March 1963 MotorSport ‘Continental Notes’ wrote of Jack Brabham’s prospects for that GP season ‘…it looks as though the Australian is getting the design sorted out nicely…He will be dependent upon Coventry Climax and Colotti for the major components of the car…but the cars should be well in the running and he may even be patriotically inspired to try a Clisby V6 engine in a Brabham…’ if only it were true and had come to pass?!
As the engine came nearer to the stage of being installed in a car Kevin Drage initiated discussions with multiple AGP winner and Gold Star Champion, the wealthy Lex Davison. Kevin Drage recalled ‘…Lex was interested in seeing the Clisby engine run in a car…Initially he was prepared to fund an Elfin Mallala but later with the advent of the forthcoming Australian 1.5 litre Series he proposed building and campaigning an Elfin Mono. However by this time Harold had lost interest in the V6 project and was devoting his time to building model steam railway engines.’
‘I didn’t want to see four years of my involvement sidelined so I had discussions with Lex and Garrie Cooper regarding getting the Elfin Clisby Mono project off the ground. However, Andy Brown stepped in and offered to fund the Elfin Mono and Harold agreed for Andy to proceed- and the rest, as they say, is history’.
In fact Lex did order and pay a deposit on a Mono to be fitted with a Ford 1.5 twin-cam- this car was to be raced by young up-and-comers, but with Lex’ death at Sandown in early 1965 the project did not proceed.
Once on the dyno and in the car the V6 design’s problems surrounded engine balance and porosity of some of the castings- nothing which could not have been sorted with time and development.
I’ve already gone further with this teaser than I had planned, lets come back to this marvellous project with a feature later and finish on the thought below.
The sad thing is that Clisby should have persisted with the motor’s development in Australia at a capacity of 2 litres. Both BRM and Lotus (Coventry Climax) with 2 litre variants of their F1 V8’s engines proved to be Tasman Series winners despite a category limit of 2.5 litres and therefore those motors giving away capacity to fellow competitors. Mind you it’s easy for me to say ‘push on’, Clisby’s was a family business, I hate to think how much in cold hard cash, diverted resources and opportunity cost this amazingly ambitious project cost.
And that Repco epilogue, you ask?
When Repco Brabham Engines in Maidstone were looking for an Australian concern to cast their cylinder heads for the race program from 1966 to 1969 they chose Clisby given the problems they encountered in making the complex aluminium castings of their V6, and the learnings they had made as a consequence!
There is something rather neat about Australia’s first but largely unraced GP engine contributing to the World Championships of its Repco successors!
I had a chuckle at this Kevin Drage photo of Harold Clisby (left) and Phil Irving in the Sandown paddock during the circuits opening international meeting on 12 March 1962…
‘No Phil, I’ve already got a copy of “Tuning for Speed”, I don’t need another’ is perhaps the conversation between these two great engineers. For sure the weather is not their interest.
At that stage Clisby is well into the build of his V6 whereas Phil is a couple of years away from starting the design of the aluminium GM Oldsmobile F85 block based 1966 World Championship winning ‘RB620’ V8.
The interesting bit in that context is that the Lance Reventlow owned, Chuck Daigh driven, mid-engined Scarab RE Buick V8 was competing at Sandown that weekend. If Jack, winner of the Sandown Park International in a Cooper T55 had not seen that GM motor before- its the brother of the F85, he most certainly did that weekend as i’ve posted a photo before of Jack looking lustfully at the engine and perhaps pondering its possibilities!
With Repco’s resources, Phil’s first 2.5 V8 ‘RBE620’ ‘E1’ burst into life about twelve months after he first put ink on paper, in Repco’s Richmond test-cells in March 1965- at about the same time as Harold’s V6 was being installed into Andy Brown’s Elfin Mono after a journey which started in 1960- whilst noting that Clisby Engineering and Repco Ltd were enterprises of vastly different sizes! Harold and his two offsiders also built an engine from scratch, most of it in-house too, whereas the first Repco jobbie did use plenty of components off the shelf, albeit to rather good effect!
Kevin Drage on The Nostalgia Forum, ‘Harold Clisby: The Life of a Restless Engineer’ on clisby.com, Australian Motor Sports April 1952, Andrena Clisby via Kevin Drage, Kevin Drage, Ron Lambert, Stephen Dalton Collection, Bob King Collection
Harold Clisby’s Biography, in part…
Tailpiece: Forty year old Harold Clisby with his Clisby Douglas Special in 1952…
Its a photograph of crystal clear clarity in terms of mechanical layout- from the flat-twin Douglas engine and mount, simple tubular chassis, independent front and rear suspension and seat which appears to be from a tractor!
‘Hang on Harold’! is the message as he departs the startline!
Ones legs getting dislodged from the pedals and touching terra-firma at speed does not bare thinking about!