Recent talk of 5 cylinders causes our Editor to conflate two of his pieces from DTW’s very early days
Many thanks to Eoin for his kind mention below of my recent little volume on Sir Basil Milford-Vestibule. I’ve been putting away the research material of late and was leafing through the long out-of-print autobiography of Len Brik, who will be remembered by many of us longer serving types as the charismatic Chief Engineer at Victory Cars. Following the merger of Victory Cars with Empire, he came into close rivalry with Sir Basil. Len was entirely self taught and there was mutual loathing between the two men. Sir Basil is usually reported as referring to Brik as ‘The Blacksmith’, though more exactly he used the phrase ‘The Blacksmith’s Dull Apprentice’, whilst Brik returned the compliment with ‘Sir Beryl’.
Brik took designing on the back of an envelope to new levels, never doing drawing board work himself which he considered ‘poofy’. On one occasion he handed a sketch to an underling to draw up ‘just as is Sonny Jim’. Maliciously, the underling incorporated the envelope folds as exposed seams and, as there was no time to correct it before a board presentation, Brik had to leave it as was, intending to drop all the blame on the hapless draughtsman’s shoulders. When the design was enthusiastically received, going on to become the classic Victory Diva, he naturally accepted all credit himself. On another occasion, when doodling a design on a flip top packet of Peter Stuyvesant, he unintentionally put Victory at the vanguard of the hatchback revolution.
Needless to say, such stories do not feature in his autobiography. I got my copy of ‘Brik Built’ on eBay. It is in first class condition and apparently unread. In the forward Brik makes much of the fact that he dispensed with the services of a co-author after ‘artistical differences’ and had not only ‘written it exclusively all by myself’, but had refused to have any sub-editing done ‘by some limp wristed university graduate’. Actually, although my tertiary education was in the old UOL, that dismissed ghost writer was, in fact, this very scribe. Thus, having met Brik on a few occasions, I can testify that the prose captures perfectly the true creative spirit of the man. As a taster, this is his take on the 1957 Motor Show.
“It is a point of fact that 1957 was a very important year in that I presented my Victory Diva to an anticipating world which until that very moment had been unaware of its existence though hardly I imagine blissfully so. Like a bolt from above a sea change was coming to the world of motoring courtesy of yours truly and it would never be the same again as it was
I remember the Motor Show at Olympia vividly as if it was back then. First as always was the unerring necessity for me to partake myself to the South of England which it must be said was never a prospect that did anything but lay a heavy hand on my proud Tyneside heart. However the other hand was not so heavy as the one I have just previously mentioned and I am not one to dwell on things and if my glass is not always half full then it is completely full. So I decided to put a brave face on things and I arranged for two great South Shields lads from my welding team to accompany me down there to ensure we had a bit of fun as well as business.
As I bidded fairwell to my wife Cassandra and my secretary Jasmine I felt like a knight of olde riding forth with my trusty squires to do battle clad in heavy armour as was their wont in olden times. I would be their bold warrior and like the other great leaders of history such as Caesar and Ivan The Terrible and Joe Harvey of Newcastle United I would be sailing forth to trounce the Southern hoards with their foppish ways although I was not looking forward to all the chit chat at all.
At the show my worst fears were realised with two encounters. First was a well known person who you might not have heard of and whose name I should keep discreet anyway but as a clue as it were I would say he has a knight hood as well a funny sounding name in fact. Such folks as these have blightered my life many times with fancy ideas which shallow people have thought were clever but they were not.
Sometimes it is difficult for me who is a happily married man with a doting secretary who is also female by the way and who has always been very popular with the girls to be seen mixing with some folk but there it is. There are women and there are hot meals and which one is on top when you tally all the numbers I can’t honestly count but for some others they don’t need to count because one plus one equals less than either if you know what I’m aiming at but anyway enough said on that score which I will bring to a hasty conclusion in due course.
I saw him eying up the exposed seams which had been my brain wave on my Diva and which featured it’s fine welding to great advantage and which were solely all my own idea. Little was I to know that two years later a certain small car that shall remain nameless would come out onto the market with the self same seams as these were. Even then I was sure he was up to something but all he did was make clever comments rather than face up and ask me man to man. Anyway I have always counted myself a man of actions as opposed to words and I have never been one to lead you up the garden path by beating around the bush. Some might think that fine words are just the right things to butter parsnips with but I think margarine is just as tasty as butter and doesn’t melt as quickly and as I looked at him I knew that time would tell in due course who would have the last laugh on the other side of whose face.
The other fellow I had dealing with was a funny little cockney who I will just call Colin because that was his name who said he had started making sports cars out of plastic which I could see straight away was wrong. I have never trusted that race and I do not think frankly that they are very intelligent which might be to do with their diet which does not have enough smoked fish in it if at all. It is obviously blatant to all concerned that if you put a rock on the road it will stay put but a leaf will blow away. However some misguided souls are under the erroneous misapprehension that you should make cars as light as you can. This man was one of them and still is and although I tried to help with his design and told him to add heaviness he just looked like he’d thought of something awfully clever like they do down South and laughed to himself.
I just had time to pop by the Victory stand to pick up the Car Of The Year award for the Diva which was awarded by Mask & Gauntlet magazine it being the official organ of the North Of England Gas Welders Association. This award was known for short as the NOEGWACOTYA . The judges had been effusive in their great praise awarding it 98 points with particular singling out of the aforementioned exposed seams which I made reference to above as well as the revolutionary triple welded shackles on the front transverse leaf spring.
This cheered me up but by now because of the previous meetings before that one I had just about had enough and I went and found my Tyneside mates who were already in the bar. Just then Archie Vicar who is the only motoring journalist with any sense in his head turned up and I knew we were in for a top class evening. Many people do not realise how much the weight of responsibility weighs on someone in my position so I must be forgiven the odd lapse. I have heard that Henry Kissinger another great man has written words as to the effect of the Aphrodisiac of Power. No wonder then that the next thing I remember was waking up on the train travelling North with a cracking headache an address in Paddington written on my shirt cuff in lipstick and an empty wallet. Those were happy times indeed.”
The cover of the book has an image of him looking the picture of lairy arrogance, with sideburns and kipper tie, standing next to his personal 1972 Series Five Victory Magistratum, ‘LBR 1 K’. When specifying an engine for Victory’s flagship saloon, his desire was to trump all the 6 cylinder competition and his brief to a group of gifted young engineers at Victory was “let’s go one up on all those six cylinder jobbies lads!”. They went to work and, in record time, they had created a compact, light alloy, single OHC, fuel injected 4 litre V8 which demonstrated a world beating bhp/litre as well as a fantastically flexible torque curve. This was in the early 60s remember. Brik took the Magistratum prototype equipped with this engine for a two minute drive round the Victory works car park, pronounced that ”it sounds too Yankified” Then he looked under the bonnet. Furious, he towered over the group and screamed “I said go bloody one up, not two”. It transpired that his desire was for a world first, a straight 7 engine.
He ordered all the prototype engines to be scrapped and the drawings destroyed. It was now too late to develop his engine from scratch so he instructed his welders to go to work on a pair of four cylinder 1500 cc Diva blocks, cutting each fourth cylinder in half and joining them to make a straight 7 pushrod engine. For the whole of its production , each engine had to be made in this way and, at 2.6 litres, the power output was well below its class. Some years later, when news reached Brik of Rover’s V8, he ordered work to be started on a V9 but, by then, Victory Cars had merged with Empire Motors, and Lord Rimms put a firm stop to it.
The Magistratum was not a great sales success and neither was it well received by the press. However, Brik ensured that it continued to be produced year after year and the final Series Five, still with a proud chrome ‘7′ on the grille, was greeted by Car’s Doug Blain with “Oh Lord, not another Brik ****house!”. The only dissenting voice was the Daily Express’s Maurice Spigot (“Weld Done Lenny!”) but I happen to know that this was a pseudonym Archie Vicar wrote under. However, Brik loved it and, indeed, owned the whole production of Series 5 models …. One.
He took this car into his sudden ‘retirement’ shortly after the photo was taken (I shan’t go into the murky details at this point). He then wrote the book and, tragically, 6 months after it was published, he met his end in Spain when his beloved Magistratum inexplicably (‘and totally without explanation’ as he might have said) left the road. His loyal secretary Jasmine was at his side – well, actually, not quite at his side, which probably saved her life. ‘He died as he had lived’ as Archie Vicar wrote enigmatically in the obituary published in Mask & Gauntlet. Those were indeed different times, if not actually always happy.