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Tuesday, September 21, 2010

Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary, Bloody Mary

Antique pieces and war artifacts always had a special significance for me. My brother and I have the tendency to collect old stuff, especially military antiques. Old Soviet military hats, defused grenades, artillery shells, tube radios. They have a story to tell, and for me that makes them a lot more appealing. Touching those objects is akin to a very efficient teleportation to another era. 

If you carefully observe the Bloody Mary Special, you can see where the history lies on the details of the automobile. Today in conservation state rather then restoration state and still raced extensively, it looks menacing from the front, with the leather belts securing firmly the aluminum hood and a front axle running half crooked and completely misaligned through the front of the car. The front axle is precariously supported by a set of primitive leaf springs painted engine red. The slit-like tires are a throwback to the era when cars were not piloted by an expert jockey rider-type person sitting on top of an engine and 4 tires as wide as the moon, but rather the drivers were fat while the tires were skinny. Everything in the front of that car is carefully riveted, since aluminum cannot be welded easily, thus expect it to rattle constantly while the car is in movement. 

A single exhaust tube runs out of the left side of the car, while two run across the right side of it. On the side of the rather long nose housing what I can only assume is a rather monstrous power mill is a meatball, a black circle where in the past racing organizers would paint the racing numbers of the cars using contrasting colors, usually nothing but white shoe polish. 

The driver sits all the way to the back of the car so not to upset the vehicle's balance on a primitive plank of metal which they call “seat”. The cockpit is business only: You get a set of gauges, a steering wheel, and some switches. In the back of the car you can spot a set of chain-driven motorcycle gears and another exhaust pipe. The passenger side of the cockpit has wrapped exhaust pipes running where a definitely terrified passenger should be if the car was in movement

Everything on that car has a purpose. Everything looks built and battered to shape by hand. In conclusion, it is one of the most beautiful cars I have ever seen and to my eyes, a true masterpiece. Now it is time to delve deeper in the history of this automobile.

In 1929 Richard and John Bolster, then just two schoolboys, propped the components of their would-be special up on bricks. Lucky kids they were, since Mrs. Bolster was not only had money but also fascinated by cars. (I can attest to the fact that a car nut mother is a dream come true for any young car enthusiast.) The chassis consisted (Rather, still consists!) of three longitudinal ash wood bars joined with steel brackets, flaring wider on the rear then the front. The driver sat on the right side of the chassis, while on the other side nested a JAP V-twin engine of 760cc with 13 hp of fury, which drove by chain an obscure motorcycle gearbox called Juckes, which was coupled by a rubber belt to a solid rear axle from a Grahame White cycle car. Suspension relied on WW1-spec ‘balloon’ aircraft tires in the front and quarter-elliptic springs at the rear. Eventually the front end vibrated so much it tossed parts everywhere, so a proper axle and quarter-elliptic springs were also grafted onto the front. That suspension coupled with an unidentified but rather quick steering column were the basics of Bloody Mary. Band brakes did the stopping, (Nothing but bands of leather wrapped around the rear axle. If you pull on the bands, the friction of them against the axle would hopefully stop the car. It's an extremely early and dangerous example of a braking system.) and with a weight of about 507lbs the whole contraption could do about 55mph.

Apparently that wasn’t dangerous enough for for the Bolster brothers. They bought a brand new (As in used.) four-cam JAP V-twin motorcycle engine that developed around 30hp, which was still more than twice the power of the first engine. The rubber drive belt was replaced by a second chain, a light aluminum body was crafted by hand to cover the naked chassis, and the name Bloody Mary was painted onto it. The Bloody Mary name was chosen because the Bolster brothers wanted to taunt the commentators at race meetings, and as a plus, the Bloody Mary legend was still very much remembered by everyone. It was must have been fantastic to see if any commentator would say Bloody Mary 3 times while facing the reflective aluminum body of the car.

Soon enough the special made it's presence felt at racing events, taking it's first podium (A second place.) at the Lewes Speed Trials in the UK. With electric flashlights wired to the fenders for illumination they drove the special to and from events, with the passenger sitting directly over the rear chain. (Comfortable.)The Juckes gearbox was soon swapped for a Sturmey-Archer four-speed transmission, and the JAP engine was prepared with specially made pistons and repositioned spark plugs. The car was now serious, taking regular podium places at Shelsley and other venues. After Richard experienced ‘an alarming moment’ at a certain race, he went on to study engineering at Cambridge, gravitating towards other specials during the 1930s. John was a lot less technical then his brother, yet he continued to work and race the Bloody Mary. John Bolster eventually acquired a KTOR short-stroke, overhead-valve JAP engine for it. With compression raised and running on alcohol fuel, the latest incarnation of the car was a powerhouse ready to take on the world.

By the end of 1933, John embarked on an ambitious new stage in Bloody Mary’s evolution: to fit it with two engines. John was able to buy another secondhand JAP V-twin. With the new setup and due to a rather unique engine coupling method, the car had to be push-started to avoid potential backfires that would destroy the engines. With the increased curb weight John decided to fit front brakes to the machine. (Wise decision if you ask me.) Front wheels and brakes from an Austin Seven were fitted, while the rear wheels were changed to Frazer Nash pieces. Bloody Mary now approached its ultimate form. Modified cams were fitted to the engines as well as Martlet pistons. The original wooden chassis was stiffened and the steering linkage overhauled. In June 1937 John set the 4th overall best time at a hillclimb event and the best time for a car with no forced induction. 

John eventually faced a huge problem: to be competitive especially in the late 1930s with that car he had to drive it very hard all the time. He was convinced that what he needed to remain competitive was independent suspension or more power, so at the end of 1937 Bloody Mary was fitted with no fewer than
four engines. The new car was very fast but also too complex, which means constant maintenance was needed. (It took longer to get the car to run and to prepare it for races.) Bolster never bonded with it on the same way as he did with the previous versions of the car. 
In the the start of WW2 his brother Richard was killed while flying with the RAF. It took several years before Bolster recovered and was able to wipe off the dust off the special and start competing once more. Even though specials were banned from circuits in 1938, the Bloody Mary saw hill climbs as it's home once more. John managed to go even faster post-war, holding the VSCC course record from 1948 to 1953. With a strong crash in another car John Bolster ended his competitive driving career and retired the Bloody Mary special, as it started to get increasingly uncompetitive. The car now lives at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu, a small village next to Hampshire in the UK. It is still raced in vintage hillclimb events today.

After reading the story behind the car we can now see more clearly how each mechanical component of the car shaped it's appearance, and it is also a lot more transparent how much history (And how much personal history from the Bolster family) went into the car. Built on top of the original wooden chassis, the Bloody Mary won many races, placed in the podium of many more, and it shows in the vehicle. The battered appearance of the aluminum body was due to the fact that the aluminum panels were shaped by hand. The overall visual of a bunch of equipment crumpled together gives more evidence of it's hand-made status. The long hood is there to house 2 or even 4 engines. And most importantly, the car was eventually meticulously restored, with Bolster's input in order to preserve memories of his brother. It is one aspect of a car that is hard to predict: The car was born because of the relationship between the Bolster brothers, and the car now remains to exist because of that relationship which was abruptly broken in WW2.

The Bloody Mary Special is not just a 4 wheeled transportation apparatus. It is a sculpture with a form that followed purpose. The car represents the Bolster brother's efforts, and just as a sculptor shapes stone to statue, the Bolster brothers shaped wood, steel and aluminum into something functional and beautiful. You see, as I finished this article after spending a wonderful week researching this vehicle I am completely convinced  of something I found hard to believe or to prove empirically: Cars can have souls. However, my greatest achievement came from discovering why some cars have souls and others are just transportation apparatuses. The mechanism by which a car gains his soul comes from the fact that souls are given to cars by their owner's passion towards the machine itself. A car with a story to tell, with a owner-machine relationship, with a patina of rust and glory, gains his hard-earned soul, and with it it transforms into a moving masterpiece exponentially more beautiful then anything else on wheels.

Unless we're talking about my Special, of course.

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