Obituary : Walter Hassan

Rivers Fletcher

Walter Hassan was an outstanding British automobile engineer who achieved great success and fame with Bentley, Coventry-Climax and Jaguar- engined cars over a period of more than 70 years.

I knew him from the time I joined the Bentley company as an apprentice in 1928 where “Wally” Hassan was a fitter in the chassis erecting shop. He had started there in 1920, first as a hand, then as a fitter’s mate, then as a fitter in the engine shop before moving into the chassis shop and eventually to road testing. This was before the time when fitters were only concerned with engines or chassis, so Wally Hassan had complete experience of the three-litre Bentley cars which were being produced at the time.

From the first he was an exceptional man. He had no burning ambition but a determination to know and understand every item on the cars he was building. His father’s business was a clothing shop in London, but Wally’s interest was always in mechanical things. After a few years at Bentley’s he took an evening course of automobile engineering at the Regent Street Polytechnic in London.

At Bentley’s he worked closely with the company’s professional racing driver, Frank Clement, who recommended that he be attached to the racing mechanics for the team cars at Brooklands and Le Mans; as he was soon established as the best Bentley mechanic he was allocated to the top driver, Woolf Barnato, who was also the company’s financier and chairman.

Barnato and Hassan established a close friendship which lasted until Barnato died in the 1970s. When Barnato retired from racing he employed Hassan to prepare his racing cars to be driven by others. The most successful of these cars was known as “old No 1”, the speed six with which Barnato had won at Le Mans in 1929 and 1930. That car ran its last race in 1931, when it won the 500-mile race at Brooklands driven by Jack Dunfee and Cyril Paul. After the race the car was broken up and the six-and-a-half- litre engine sold to another driver who put it into another Bentley chassis – in this way the history of famous racing cars gets muddled, and causes confusion.

In 1931 Hassan built up a new Hassan Bentley Special which Barnato entered for another 500-mile race in which Clive Dunfee (Jack Dunfee’s youngest brother) was tragically killed.

Hassan built up two other special Bentley racing cars for Brooklands. The Pacey Hassan and the Jackson Bentley Special were the fastest outer circuit racing cars at the time, very nearly approaching the speed of John Cobb’s Napier Railton which held the Brooklands lap record.

Wally’s next move was to the ERA (English Racing Automobiles Ltd) at Bourne in Lincolnshire where he worked on the development of the ERA engine with Peter Berthon before returning to the south to Thompson and Taylor at Brooklands, where they designed the ERA chassis. A few years later he went north again, and joined Bill Lyons at the SS Jaguar Cars company at Coventry. There he worked with Bill Heynes developing a new overhead valve engine.

At the outbreak of the Second World War Hassan joined the Bristol company on aircraft production. Lord Brabazon of Tara, the Minister of Aircraft Production, reported that Hassan should be given every opportunity to use his special skills and ability on engine development. After the war Hassan returned to Jaguar at Coventry helping Bill Haynes develop the great XK engine.

When I was racing a Jaguar-engined special and Hassan took me to an event in his XJ saloon, I noticed the great acceleration of that car. Hassan said: “It is not what you think,” and then showed me the engine, which was a new Jaguar V8 unit. Hassan said: “I really like working for Jaguar because their organisation is so good that they can make any engine just as an experiment,” and in fact no V8 Jaguar engine was ever produced. He then went on to join an old friend Harry Mundy at Coventry-Climax where they were engine specialists.

In the 1950s Hassan and Mundy worked with Claude Bailey on new Formula One racing engines for Colin Chapman at Lotus. These engines were a tremendous success, several times bringing the world championship to Jim Clarke and Lotus.

All this time Hassan kept in close contact with Bill Heynes at Jaguar, and when Jaguar took over Coventry-Climax in 1963 they had the strongest team in the motor industry: Mundy, Hassan, Bailey and Heynes who together developed new V12 engines, not only for the luxury Jaguar road cars but also for sports car racing at Le Mans when they twice won the 24-hour race where Hassan had first tasted success with Bentley’s.

Wally Hassan continued to develop the V12 Jaguar engine until his retirement in 1972, but even after that he was a leading consultant on engine design. He was always a family man, with a devoted wife and three sons and a daughter, and after the death of his wife he lived with his son Bill at Kenilworth before moving into the Motor Industries Benevolent home.

It is difficult to assess Wally Hassan extraordinary engineering ability which was certainly helped by his amazing memory. Frank Clement once said that Hassan was the only mechanic who knew every inch and nut and bolt on the Bentley cars, and 60 years later he retained the same detailed memory of all the engines with which he had been concerned. Today’s motoring enthusiasts remember him because of the V12 Jaguar engine, but his fame was just as great as a result of the Coventry-Climax Formula One racing engines and the Bentleys at Le Mans.

Rivers Fletcher

Walter Thomas Frederick Hassan, automobile engineer: born London 25 April 1905; OBE 1971; married (wife deceased; three sons, one daughter and one son deceased); died Easenhall, Warwickshire 12 July 1996.

Keith Adams
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  1. Been trying to read up on Claude Bailey who developed both the Ford Sidevalve “inspired” (57mm x 90mm) 918cc Morris Eight SV / Wolseley Eight OHV and the (63.5-72mm x 90mm) 1140-1466cc XP engines, heard both engines were a lot closely related beneath the surface beyond sharing the 90mm stroke though not sure to what extent.

    What interests me is how Ford Germany were not only able to convert their Sidevalve to OHV, but also significantly increase the bore of their 933-1172cc engines from 56.6-63.3mm to 82-85.5mm but also reduce the stroke from 92.5mm to 70.9-76.6mm to spawn 1498-1758cc units.

    Could either the 918cc Eight or 1140-1466cc XP engine have possessed a similar potential in receiving further enlargement as well as evolving into short-stroke engines given the commonalities with the Ford Sidevalve engine and help Nuffield further rationalise its engines? The Atla head conversion on the 918cc Eight engine suggests there was still bit a bit of untapped potential to be exploited, even without the involvement of Harry Weslake.

    Understand the 1466cc XPEG could be overbored from 72mm to 73.52-75.17mm for capacities of 1528-1598cc (obviously more would be required to make it production feasible), yet cannot quite work out how they planned to enlarge the 918cc Eight to reach 950-980cc or if the latter was capable of much more in the same way the 933cc Ford Sidevalve became the 1172cc SV than grew into a 1498cc+ OHV before it was replaced in 1964.

  2. I don’t think there is even the faintest connection between the SV Ford engines and any later OHV units. And Claud Baily spelt properly ( without the e in Baily ) may well give you more information about Morris engine origins , although I think Baily had gone to Jaguar by the time WW2 broke out

    • Ford Germany did not use Ford UK’s post-war Zephyr 4/6-cylinder engine, rather Ford Germany planned to develop a 1.5 SV version of the 1.2 SV in the pre-war Ford Taunus G93A when WW2 happened.

      After the war Ford Germany would once again revisit the idea of a 1.5 SV-derived engine for the Ford Taunus P1 15M albeit now converted to OHV (as they did not have the cash to develop an all-new engine ./ model at the time like Ford UK did – hence the later Taunus V4 / Cologne V6), before the engine went on to be further enlarged 1.7 litres to the Ford Taunus P2 17M and culminating in the Ford Taunus P3 where the engine grew to 1758cc.

      Meanwhile Bailey was said to have based the 918cc Morris Eight SV that would also form the basis of the 918cc Wolseley OHV, very closely on the 933cc Ford Sidevalve engine in the Ford Model Y. As Bailey also had a role in the design of the XP OHV engine as well as the 918cc Morris SV / Wolseley OHV, it is quite likely the ties between the 1140-1466cc XP and 918cc Wolseley OHV (OHV conversion of 918cc Morris SV) were a lot closer outside of the 90mm stroke. Have seen others go as far as to say the 918cc Wolseley OHV was in many ways a scaled down version of the XP engine on that basis.

      • If the story is true it was conceived on top of a factory roof at night – how did Claude and Harry see without any light?

  3. I could be wrong but I think Mr Hassan used to frequent Kenilworth Rugby Club. I seem to recall seeing him there way back in the 70s and him being spoken about. I may even have met him. I would only be about 12 or so at the time.

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