Information sought on rare race car lost since 1976

Tina Bridenstine
The Shawnee News-Star
This Alta 1100cc Sports 2-seater competition model, one of only 14 ever made, has been missing since 1976, when it disappeared from a Shawnee barn where it was being stored.

From his home in London, England, auto enthusiast Alastair Gillespie has been trying to find a “lost and very rare British racing car,” with the trail ending in Shawnee in the 1970s.

The Alta 1100cc Sports 2-seater competition model is one of only 14 ever made, Gillespie said.

“Alta cars were hand built by Geoffrey Taylor in Surbiton, Surrey, England – who built the prototype in 1927 as a young man in his father's stables,” he said. “They are an example of a light racing car with an innovative advanced design for the time – alloy engine, dual overhead camshafts, supercharged.”

The specific Alta in question, chassis 20, was delivered to Pat Oxenden on Jan. 5, 1934.

Race driver Pat Oxenden bought the Alta in 1934 and won a Brooklands Ladies Mountain Handicap race with it in 1935.

Gillespie said Oxenden was “an early lady racing driver,” and with the Alta, she won a Brooklands Ladies Mountain Handicap in 1935 at 64.02 miles per hour, doing two laps at 66.86 mph. Brooklands, he explained, was the earliest banked racing circuit in the world, located near Weybridge, Surrey, England.

Alta race car pictured at Brooklands.

Sometime in the late 1950s or early 1960, Gillespie believes the Alta was imported to the United States by a “speed shop in Chicago.”

It was there that two students at Lake Forest College, friends Toby Collins and Robert Venn, bought the car in 1960 or 1961. After Collins and Venn graduated, around 1963 or 1964, they sold the car to Rick Kelly, who was also a student at the time.

Gillespie's research led him to Kelly, and he was able to use newspaper archives to eventually find him to inquire about the car.

“We spoke at some length. He's a wonderful guy, and his enthusiasm for the car still shines through, having owned it when he was a college student,” Gillespie said.

Kelly explained to Gillespie that he had stored the Alta in a rented garage and worked on it “quite a bit,” until the rent to the garage was increased and he sold the car.

Alastair Gillespie, an auto enthusiast from England, is hoping to find this missing Alta, which was last seen in Shawnee in 1976.

He was able to connect Gillespie not just with previous owners Collins and Venn, but also with Pat Thoma, who bought the Alta from Kelly and who lived in Shawnee in the mid 1970s.

Thoma was contacted via email, but that's where the trail went cold, as Thoma himself doesn't know what happened to the car.

“I had moved back to Chicago in 1976 and left the Alta (which was pretty much disassembled) in Shawnee while I was selling the property,” Thoma said. “When I returned to close the sale of the property, the car, as well as my 1947 Indian Chief motorcycle, was gone.”

Distinctive markings

Kelly was able to provide Gillespie with photos of the car, and Gillespie said though it might have been disassembled, there are still distinctive features that can be recognized.

“Its pointed tail and wire wheels are very distinctive,” Gillespie said. “It may also have an 'A' label on the gas and radiator caps, and perhaps on the winged spinners which attach the wire wheels. There may be a winged badge, with an 'A' in the centre. The engine is also distinctive, with heart-shaped valve covers.”

The Alta’s engine has distinctive heart-shaped valve covers.

Gillespie still has hope that someone might have seen the car or might know more about what happened to it, and that the rare car can be unearthed several decades later.

“Its fate remains uncertain, but I am hoping someone local might recognise the car or could help find out what happened to it,” Gillespie said, adding, “My motivation is just as an enthusiast to help find an unusual car that has been lost for many years.”

Anyone with information about the lost Alta can contact Gillespie at alastair.gillespie@aya.yale.edu or leave a message at 949-266-7523.

The missing Alta is pictured in an old photo.

Tina Bridenstine is a reporter for The Shawnee News-Star. She can be reached at tina.bridenstine@news-star.com or 405-214-3934. Follow her on Twitter @tbridenstine1