The karting experiences of Ralph Tennant

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Standing there surrounded by many younger and more glamorous models, she was clearly the centre of attention despite being just a few months away from her 50th birthday. This year’s Autosport show had attracted huge numbers and many visitors to the Karting Area were focusing their attention on the world’s first kart built by Art Ingels and Lou Borelli in August 1956. One such visitor was a successful manufacturer of slot and radio controlled cars called Trevor Tennant. He engaged Mark Burgess in a conversation about the early days of British karting when his father Ralph had built a Villiers powered machine. “We debated over who could be attributed with actually introducing the sport over here,” says Trevor. “I know that it wasn’t my dad, although he was certainly amongst the first handful of pioneers, possibly as high as number two on the list. I’ve always understood that Aubrey Leighton can claim that particular honour. The name might not be familiar in karting circles but Aubrey was a greatly revered stock car world champion. He had already gained a reputation as a master car builder when he embarked upon this project at his Earls Barton Garage in Wellingborough, Northants.” Partly due to Aubrey’s reputation in stock cars and possibly because karts were such a novel concept, his efforts attracted attention from the Sunday Pictorial (better known today as the Sunday Mirror). This popular newspaper published photographs and a story of Aubrey’s kart early in 1959. “My father had already considered building a kart after reading about Art Ingels in an American hot rod magazine,” recalls Trevor. “The piece about Aubrey Leighton was all the inspiration he needed. The Coventry Evening Telegraph also ran an announcement that a demonstration of the Leighton kart would take place at Brandon Speedway track during a stock car meeting that was being held there.

Ralph Tennant demonstrates his Mk1 on shale at Long Eaton Speedway

Dad was determined that he would have his car at this event also. We had just six days to build it. We didn’t have any drawings, just a rough idea of the overall dimensions gleaned from several hot rod magazine articles. An outline was chalked out on the garage floor and we used wooden blocks as jigs. Dad had some Reynolds T45 chrome-molybdenum tubing left over from an old racing sidecar outfit he’d made. At 7 shillings (35p) per foot this tubing was mega expensive and it wasn’t until many years afterwards that other kart builders actually started using it.” Four industrial sized wheels and tyres were put to use and a 125cc Villiers 10D motor provided the power. Ralph couldn’t bring himself to accept that direct steering would be effective and so a cut-down Burman steering box was adapted. “Dad procured my own services together with those of his great friend Don McPherson and we all worked like idiots to get the thing ready on time” says Trevor. “I was actually still painting the kart an hour before we left for Brandon. His idea was that this one and Aubrey’s kart would run together. However, he hadn’t reckoned on politics coming in the way. The Leighton camp claimed that our kart didn’t have the correct sized wheels and tyres. Apparently, Aubrey had anticipated other people wanting to produce karts and so had produced a set of ‘rules’. We managed to get our hands on a copy and also ordered a set of proper wheels and tyres. They were such a unique size that Aubrey was the only known supplier.” Harold Bosworth, the promoter at Long Eaton, invited Ralph to demonstrate his kart at their next stock car event. By then, several other people had built karts along the same lines as Leighton’s model. One of them turned up at Long Eaton that evening. “I can’t remember much about it except that it was powered by the larger and faster Villiers 8E engine,” recalls Trevor. “It was also badly put together and looked a death trap.

The Mk3 at Shenington

After the meeting had ended, this other kart took to the track. By then, the lighting had been turned off. A stock car had also come out for a couple of laps running anti-clockwise and therefore in the opposite direction. He didn’t see the kart with fatal consequences. This was the first known fatality in karting. My father had to attend the coroner’s inquest as an expert witness.” After the hullabaloo from this incident had died down, father and son set off in a BSA Bantam sidecar combination to buy their wheels and tyres at Aubrey Leighton’s Earls Barton garage. “This was a real hotbed of racing activity because of its proximity to the giant Chelveston USAF base,” insists Trevor. “Many interesting projects emanated from there, including moonshine liquor, but that’s another story. By then we’d studied the rules which allowed for 250cc motors and dad realised that his 125cc Villiers would never be competitive. He looked around and found another 10D engine available locally. His idea was to produce a twin engined kart that could match the 250cc machines for power. All the early karts were only one wheel drive so this was quite an ambitious plan. He decided to couple these motors directly using just one gearbox and made an adapter so that a short steel shaft could be fitted. Another quite revolutionary idea was to dispense with the two Villiers carburettors and use a single SU car type unit feeding both engines via rubber tubing and special manifolds.” After changing the gearing ratio to accommodate smaller wheels, Ralph’s kart proved to be a real flyer. Unfortunately its success was relatively short lived. In November 1959 the RAC stepped in to take control and introduced a new set of regulations. “I don’t believe that very much consultation took place in drawing up these rules,” Trevor alleges. “In any case, they stipulated a maximum capacity of 200cc which immediately rendered my dad’s kart obsolete.

Line up of most of Coventry Kart Club circa 1962 at Stoke Green. Ralph’s son Trevor is the small person at the front

However he was fortunate to find a very cheap Villiers 8E to replace the twin engines. He’d always wanted to run with twowheel drive but couldn’t quite find an effective solution until someone suggested using an Austin 7 differential. With its spur gearing and a bit of creative engineering it could be lightened and fitted with a suitable drive sprocket. We attacked the rear end of our old kart and installed a centrally mounted Villiers. Next we adapted some self-aligning bearings from an old Benford concrete mixer by cutting the mounting lugs off. I carried out my first job on a lathe by machining off the excess material from these. Next to be machined were the wheel hubs to suit Fenner Taperlocs and also the drive sprocket. After consulting the 2-stroke engine tuning books, dad fabricated a straight through large bore silencer that improved performance significantly.” By now, Ralph had realised the benefits of running with a direct steering system and suitable modifications were made along these lines. He also designed and built his own hydraulic disc brake using components that Don McPherson acquired from Lockheed’s development shop. Suddenly Ralph had a race winner on his hands once again, as results at Shenington were soon to prove. However, Ralph was never one to rest on his laurels. He’d seen photos of a very neat chassis in the Hot Rod magazine and decided to build a lightweight 100cc chassis along similar lines. He constructed this kart from 25mm electrical conduit tube and used a Villiers 11F reed valve engine driving an old Burman two speed gearbox and clutch unit. However, when trying to order spare parts for this motor, the Villiers factory denied all knowledge of its existence. It turned out to be an engine manufactured by Brown in America that had been fitted with a Villiers plate. Unfortunately the motor itself was a disappointment despite great claims by the manufacturer. Ralph was greatly impressed by the Keele kart as campaigned by Stirling Moss and various other top names. By seating the driver much closer to the front axle a locked rear end could be used. This encouraged Ralph to build a Mk 3 version of his chassis with the seat moved well forward. An SU electric pump replaced gravity feed on the fuel tank that was now mounted under the driver’s legs.

Grass track racing at Barras Heath, Coventry in 1962

In this guise the kart handled very well and brought instant results. However, Shenington was starting to hold less appeal for Ralph. The old runway there was particularly abrasive resulting in alarming tyre wear. He joined the newly formed Coventry Kart Club that held race meetings on all manner of surfaces throughout the area. Tarmac wasn’t necessary in those days and even a scrambles track close to Brandon Speedway hosted kart events. The club also utilised a playing field near Binley Colliery that had been bulldozed to form a dirt track. Other race meetings were held on Hearsall Common and Church Lawford Airfield. The club’s profile was lifted when it organised a series of race meetings on speedway tracks such as Brandon, Oxford and Stoke-on-Trent. One club member owned a motorcycle shop and began tuning engines. Ralph decided to stick with a standard 8E however and this decision was vindicated by the number of race wins he recorded. The modification was to install a straight downdraught inlet manifold. He never could see the point of using the Amal carburettor like most of the others in the club. All this time Trevor had been nagging at his father to build him a kart. Eventually one was constructed from lightweight steel angle and fitted with the original 125cc Villiers 10D motor. Although never raced, this kart had a lot of use from Trevor and his two sisters who all learned their driving techniques in it. In 1963, having competed for five years, Ralph decided that the sport was becoming too expensive and returned to stock car racing with a Standard 10 powered by an old Ford side-valve motor. “We’d thoroughly enjoyed our days in karting but my dad had always made his hobbies pay and he couldn’t quite get used to competing in a sport that was actually costing him money,” says Trevor. “I went on to race model cars using some of the lessons learned in karting. My dad is still active and now retains a close interest in steam and stationary engines. He was one of karting’s early pioneers but Aubrey Leighton deserves the credit for first introducing the sport over here.” As we approach karting’s 50th anniversary, it’s nice to acknowledge the part played by some of those early pioneers. Ralph Tennant was obviously one of the very first.

Ralph Tennant’s son Trevor was talking to Dave Bewley