The Eccentric British Genius
Gordon Bedson was a remarkable yet eccentric British genius. A great creative engineer, he was chief of the experimental engineering division that produced the Vickers Valiant, first of the great trio of English V-bombers; he designed several rear-engined Kieft race cars, the remarkable Frisky Sprint, an Egyptian sports car to carry Egypt's colors at Le Mans (it never made it) and a joint Australian-Swedish sports car that was to be built in Australia around Saab components and marketed by Saab throughout the world.
He was the first to use a Coventry-Climax engine in a race car, the first to build a centre-seater sports car, predating Cooper's bobtail by three years; and designed and built a stupendous car in 1954
that used the 2.5-litre Climax V8 and disc brakes
long before Climax V8s started running in racing and before Jaguar used the same Dunlop discs to win the 1954 Le Mans
The Airscrew Company
Bedson was born on the Channel Islands in 1918 - and his engineering career started in 1935 with a company called The Airscrew Company, at Weybridge, making wooden propellors for Tiger Moths. After a year he went to work for a German-Austrian Jew named Robert Kronfeldt who had developed a light training aircraft. The Kronfeldt plane, using a one-litre side-valve Ford 10 motor, was used to train hundreds of civil and RAF pilots. It cut the amount of air time by one-third or more, because it was designed to give the pilot his initial training on the ground and give him all the sensations of flaps and elevators and so on by having the aircraft pivot through a centre of gravity on a V-shaped undercarriage.
Then the instructor would drive alongside the plane as it started moving and (by releasing rubber struts that controlled wing elevation) so teach the pilot aileron control. "In five hours we could give a pilot the whole feel of flying an aircraft without him being in the air", claimed Bedson in a later interview. "Then we'd take the no-lift wings off, the ones that just about touched the ground, put lift wings on and send him solo. Really, it's remarkable how this modern Hummer design resembles it."
The Bristol Aircraft Company
Bedson then found himself working for the Bristol Aircraft Company, and early in the war went out to the Middle East doing crew instructing with Schneider Trophy pilot George Stainforth, then into the Fleet Air Arm for combat flying. After the war he joined BOAC as aircrew, flying modified Halifax bombers called Haltons, with 14 passengers on the London-Cairo-West Africa-Colombo routes. In 1950
he joined Vickers as the chief experimental engineer on the Valiant project, eventually building 50 of them. It was at Vickers that he started designing race cars. Vickers just happened to have a very fine wind tunnel, excellent machine shops, all those strange magnesium and titanium alloys and metals lying about, and there were all these people just itching to have someone build a new race car for them.
Bedson's first car, the Mackson, was built in 1951
. He drew it with the front end of the Mark V Cooper and the rear of the Stirling Moss Kieft 500. The car was test-driven by Alan Brown, Eric Bandon, John Cooper and Peter Collins
. It was unusual in that it used back-to-back universal joints and rubber bungee as a springing medium at the rear, but it certainly got around corners faster than the existing crop of 500 cm3 racers.
Then Bedson linked up with Cyril Kieft to build Formula Three cars. He built three of them in the experimental section of Vickers, machining the major bearings, axles and shafts out of the solid metal at night. He designed for John Cooper in 1951
a streamlined (courtesy the Vickers wind tunnel) 1100 Cooper-JAP that took out all 1100 records at Montlhery up to 225 km/h.
Bedson then built a centre-seat Kieft 1100 sports car that was banned by the RAC for two years until someone saw the light, and by that time John Cooper had his bobtail ready. In 1953
Bedson did what he would later describe as "the best bit of design work I've done in my life."
Thinking way ahead of the field, he produced a stupendous Kieft Formula One GP car that in testing at Silverstone Ken Wharton described as being "streets in front" of anything else. The car had fully-independent suspension
at a time when GP cars were all De Dion. "I said De Dion would never be the ultimate, but it took years for BRM
and the others to realise that", Bedson said in a late 1970s interview.
This car was full of bold, revolutionary ideas - it used a 2.5-litre V8 Climax engine that nobody knew about at the time. Harry Munday had agreed to loan Cyril Kieft and Bedson the engine, and this meant that Bedson was the first designer to use a Climax in a GP car. It had Dunlop aircraft discs all round, two years before Jaguar used them to win the 1954 Le Mans
. Rear suspension
was transverse leaf mounted on magnesium-zircon axles mounted on split bearings machined from a solid billet, with inboard telescopic shockers.
The gearbox was Armstrong-Siddeley pre-selector mounted between the driver's legs with a short torque shaft angled to give a low seating position. The car had lots of magnesium-zircon castings in wishbones and uprights, all products of aircraft technology; even the wheels were magnesium knock-ons. The whole car weighed perhaps 550 kilograms and had a power-weight ratio of 250 bhp/ton.
At Silverstone, the car went like a thoroughbred, and it looked like Britain finally had its first front-rank GP car since the ERA
. But Climax, who had made only one engine, took back the V8, explaining that they could not justify the development costs for the experimental engine and would concentrate on their 1.5 and two-litre F2 engines. What amounted to the second phase of Bedson's life then began. He joined Henry Meadows as export sales director, a move that gives one the feeling that he was "fed-up-to-here" with people who couldn't understand engineers and designers. He did fairly well at it too, selling 10 million pounds' worth of generator sets to Egypt's president Nasser.
Meadows sent him to India to establish a new factory to build diesel engines
. Rattling around in Bedson's head was a comment from British industrialist Sir Bernard Docker (whose wife was a great fan of the Rolls-Royce
- with genuine leopard skin upholstery) that Britain needed to compete with the European micro cars. This was at a time when British small cars were overly large, slab-sided designs such as the Ford Anglia
, Ford and Standard Tens
, and the like. In Europe they were developing micro bubble cars in fibreglass and powered by two-stroke engines, all of which was completely beyond the British manufacturing concepts of the era.
The Frisky Sprint
In India Bedson started fooling around with ideas. He drew up and built a primitive three-wheeled car, based on Lambretta bits, that for a time attracted Meadows to the idea - but it didn't get off the ground. Bedson's doodling turned out to be an exciting mini-car concept that appealed to Meadows, who set aside a quarter of the Indian factory to start building it. It was a two-seater glass-fibre body over a steel tube chassis; the body was styled by Michelotti and the prototype built in Turin by Vignale featured gullwing doors. Called the Frisky Sprint, the little car claimed 75 mpg and 50 mph cruising. It made its debut at the 1958
Meadows went on to build 3000 Friskies at the Wolverhampton factory. The Ford Ten was 1200 Pounds. The Sprint sold for 399 Pounds. Bedson drove one in the 1958
Monte-Carlo Rally fitted with twin rear wheels and it set a class record of 23 hours 12 minutes 40 seconds for the 1340 kilometre route. Bedson was then contacted by one Harold Lightburn
, from South Australia, a manufacturer of washing machines that held most of the government contracts in Australia. Lightburn
said he wanted to build a car like the Meadows Frisky in Australia and export technology and component packs to the Asian markets. He approached Bedson through tractor magnate Bob Chamberlain.
The Lightburn Affair
Despite having such a brilliant talent at his disposal, it was disappointing that Harold Lightburn
did not use one line of Bedson's designs on the Zeta
. But all was not lost, and Bedson was able to convince Lightburn of the possibilities of creating a cheap Australian sports car. The concept was to buy running gear from Saab
for a chassis designed and built by Lightburn, with a Vignale body. Saab
was to market the car from Australia world-wide. Bedson built three left-hand-drive prototypes, one of which was registered. Unfortunately, however, the idea was dropped by Saab
at the last moment when Lightburn insisted that the car be called a Lightburn
and not a Saab.
The Lightburn-Saab Sports had a steel tube chassis, front wheel drive with the three-carburettor Saab 750 "Monte Carlo" engine, independent rear end, and fibreglass body. It was to sell for about 1200 Pounds in Australia, when MGAs
were around 1400 Pounds, and shows some of the ideas that Bedson included in the Phoenix, a prototype Le Mans car he designed for the Egyptian Government. The Phoenix never made Le Mans because of lack of government funding. The Lightburn affair was to haunt Bedson for decades to come, and many years later at his farewell party in England, Jack Brabham
lamented that joining Lightburn was the biggest mistake he had made in an otherwise stellar career.
The Australian-British Trade Association
From Lightburn, Bedson went to the Australian-British Trade Association as a promotions executive. He wasn't always happy there, although he put together one major exposition. He bought and opened The High Bonnet restaurant at Surfers Paradise, mainly on the basis that his mother had spent most of her life in catering and his wife was interested in it. It quickly became the motor racing restaurant of the Gold Coast. Then in 1974
he sold out and opened up a restaurant in the rural New England town of Armidale.
When the owner of the building where he had his restaurant sold out, Bedson decided that, rather than re-locate the business, he would move to a station property near Bundarra, on the road between Walcha and Inverell, on the premise that he could make aircraft propellors and develop what he saw as the new pastime - lightweight sports flying. His worked from a small shed on another nearby property. His initial plane design, the Resurgam, was based on a US design called the Evans VP-1. It was built of Australian coachwood ply and imported Canadian spruce, with wings covered with Dacron stuck on with clear "dope" and then ironed with a hot domestic iron.
The Resurgam could fly at 90 knots and take off and land in 200 metres. In the US the design was certified aerobatic - but not in Australia. The plane had a lot of original, unusual Bedson thinking. For instance, it used little wheels and discs from a Cessna 150 with dual tractor braking for ground steer - the propellor was hot-shrunk onto the end of the crank where the crankshaft pulley was fitted - the tachometer
drive was by pulses from an electro-magnetic sender activated by the ends of the bolts on the propellor boss, an idea never before used on aircraft in Australia.
By 1984 he had completed the design of a training twin seater version of the Resurgam "The Magra". Tragically, during its test flight in May, it suffered a wing strut failure whilst banking at 200ft and plummeted to the ground. Bedson was killed instantly. Gordon Bedson was a man many talents, who in different circles, will be remembered for his racing cars, his micro cars and his ultra-light planes which continue to give great pleasure today, 26 years after his death. Quoting John Meadows ... "We were lucky to have had a man of his calibre associated with the Frisky."
Also see: Honour Roll - Founding Fathers Of The Automotive Industry