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Your Classics: Rob Armstrong and his 1929 Empy Special

by Alisdair Suttie
25 November 2021 3 min read
Your Classics: Rob Armstrong and his 1929 Empy Special
Photos: Rob Armstrong

Few owners of classic cars look forward to winter and snow on the road, but Rob Armstrong is not your average vintage car driver. For starters, he runs a unique race car called the Empy Special and it’s road legal, which is why Rob is intrigued to see how his fast and capable machine will fare in less inclement conditions.

Rob was after an interesting car for road and competition use, he tells us: “After looking for a vehicle to race within the Vintage Sports-Car Club and hillclimb circle, I placed an advert in the VSCC Bulletin to which I received a call from the then current owner. Sadly, the car had not been on the road for 20 years and needed considerable fettling to make her track safe. With a bit of haggling, I purchased the car in 2020 and spent the next six months sorting out the geometry, handling, and running. The Empy also required some detailing and various period upgrades have been installed.”

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You may wonder what the Empy Special is. It’s an American-made model that uses a four-cylinder engine from a US-built Ford, positioned as far back in the chassis as possible. Rob explains: “The Empy Special was built in 1929 by the Empy Machine Company, based in Philadelphia. It’s a Ford Model A-based single-seater racer built for oval racing and speed trials. The car was successfully campaigned by the American racing driver Stanley Slusser and had various wins until the late 1930s when the car was acquired by Slusser’s mechanic. It was then raced at county fairs until the late 1940s.

“Word is the Empy then spent 40 years as a wreck in a barn in Hazleton, Pennsylvania covered in straw and wood until it was discovered by a local car fanatic.”

While the engine of the Empy Special may have humble origins, it’s far from a standard motor, which suits Rob’s purpose of mixing competitive driving with spirited use on the roads around his home in the Scottish Borders. He says: “The Empy Special was no ordinary vintage Ford-based single seater. Under the bonnet, instead of a hotted-up side-valve head, she sports a rare Rutherford racing head manufactured in the early 1930s.

“Racing driver Slim Rutherford was a legend on the oval and held many records at the time. In order to improve the performance of his own car, he took on the challenge to produce a modified cylinder head replacement for his single seater. Due to such demand for this upgrade, he manufactured to his own design more than 300 Rutherford racing heads in either rocker arm or overhead valve form, which he sold between 1929 and 1940. The head on the Empy Special has been dated and confirmed as from Slim’s own car and consequently tuned to a high standard.”

The Empy Special with original bodywork
The Empy Special wearing its original bodywork

After languishing for decades unused and unloved, the car was shipped to the UK at some stage in the 1980s by a member of the Vintage Sports-Car Club, who took on the task of restoring the car for hillclimbs and sprints. It underwent a comprehensive restoration, but the body was too far gone to save so a new aluminium one was constructed in the style of the original. Every aspect of the car was refurbished and gently modified to improve handling and power.

Since acquiring the car just in time for the first lockdown to come into force in the UK in March 2020, Rob affectionately refers to the Empy Special as his social distancing car thanks to it being a single-seater. That doesn’t stop him from using the car at every opportunity on the road or track, and he was not long back from a weekend’s racing at Prescott when we spoke.

Hillclimbing in a 1929 Empy Special

As for how the car drives, we’ll leave that to Rob to explain, based on his on-track experience of flat-out driving…

“Well, to say you need nerves of steel is an understatement. After hitting 90mph in second and chickening out at 120mph before I ran out of road, I realised this was no ordinary Ford Model A special. The car is now 3500cc, making 180bhp, and I’d estimate the top speed to be 140mph.”

With several hillclimbs now completed in its first full year of competition in Rob’s hands, the Empy Special is now back where it belongs. And because it’s road registered, which is unusual for a vintage racing car of this type, Rob is getting plenty of practice behind the wheel. He says: “It’s a strange sight for other drivers as it comes towards them, though it doesn’t hold much shopping on occasional trips to the supermarket. Never mind, I just need to wait for the snow to come, now.”

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