“Baladeur” hides the identity of one of our most notable motoring historians and veteran car enthusiasts. So we are very pleased that he is now able to resume those “Sideslips” which so many people found absorbing before the war. — Ed.
I remember walking one winter’s day about 30 years ago along a rather gloomy London street in the neighbourhood, unless I am mistaken, of Paddington Station. Not that there was anything very remarkable in that: the world was indulging then in one of those “sideslips” like the one it is trying to pull out of now, and if one had occasion to travel to the West of England one was under the regrettable necessity, as a rule, of going to Paddington Station. There is not the slightest reason, therefore, why I should remember that particular walk on that particular gloomy winter’s morning, if it were not for the fact that my eye happened to light upon a closely shut and bolted garage door on which was written, as large as life, “Automobiles Th. Schneider.”
My acquaintance at that time with automobiles, whether of the marque Th. Schneider or not, was strictly limited, and the notice on the door came as about as much of a shock to me as if, I suppose, I had been a pedestrian in Berlin suddenly confronted with the legend “Thos. Taylor Motor Cars.” Admittedly the garage door was firmly shut and the offending notice badly needed repainting; but here, suddenly, was evidence, or so I thought, that, within a stone’s throw of Paddington, Germans before the war had had the effrontery to keep their motor cars. Presumably if the notice had said “Mercédès” instead of Th. Schneider I should long ago have forgotten all about the incident!
Actually, of course, the firm of Th. Schneider had got rather less to do with Germans than had, say, Daimler. But even when I learnt this I still remembered that locked garage door, not because of its supposed connection with Germans, but as a symbol of an era that ended in 1914. Motoring got going again, of course, after the Kaiser war, but the continuity of its history had been broken and, although for a time we did not realise it, even the history of motor racing no longer centred as it had before around the history of the Grand Prix and the Coupe de l’Auto. Motor sport will get going again, no doubt, after the Hitler war, when they give us a little more petrol — unless, of course, what we really need is paraffin, and Baladeur, at his time of life, has got to set about understanding gas turbines. But it will be different, somehow.
At which point, although it involves a deadly sideslip from the theme of Th. Schneider which I was intending to pursue, a personal note can hardly be avoided. Baladeur, after wasting I don’t know how many inches of good Motor Sport paper, made positively his last appearance as a motor journalist more years ago than he cares to remember. He was, so to speak, well and truly laid up at the back of the garage, under a large metaphorical dust sheet. The last thing his owner had in mind was ever to put him on the road again, ever, that is, until he received so kind and unwarrantedly flattering a letter about his past performance from the Editor of this paper, that he really could not but make the effort. Removal of the dust sheet revealed that poor old Baladeur is not what he was: the steering gear had never been of the best, but what was worse, the metaphorical dust sheet had not prevented the accumulation of an astonishing covering of metaphorical cob-webs. He had in fact almost forgotten how to work. Well-tuned readers of Motor Sport will doubtless catch him out at every other corner; but in case there are any other veterans who share the Editor’s unaccountable predilection for the “Sideslips” of the past, I must make it clear that it is the same Baladeurwho takes the road again.
All of which is completely off the Th. Schneider road which, it may be remembered, we were supposed to be following. It was, of course, absurdly ignorant of me, 30 years ago, not to know that the home of Th. Schneider was no nearer Germany than Besançon (or, incidentally, that with France at war, the company was doubtless pretty busy making other things than motor cars. In any case, I prefer to remember that Besançon is the centre of the clockwork industry, which is perhaps what attracted the first Schneider).
If I had been following motor racing in the pre-war years, too, I should have known quite a lot about the Schneider cars, which played a reasonably prominent part just before the fall of the curtain. Admittedly the beginning of the story, if it did begin with the Coupe des Voiturettes of 1909, was rather obscure. “Nothing could be ascertained,” said the Autocar reporter who attended the race at Boulogne, “concerning the Renault-Schneider, of which only one turned up at the last moment, and it had to be adjusted on the road just previous to the race.”It seems, however, to have had a 4-cylinder engine with a bore and stroke of 65 x 140 mm., the same dimensions as those of the Hispano-Suizas which were afterwards so successful and became the prototype of the famous “Alfonso” model.
But in 1909 the 4-cylinder voiturette could not live with the racing “single” and the winner was a Peugeot with a bore of 100 mm. and a stroke of 250 mm., which was nothing if not impressive. The impression it made on the Autocar reporter was not, however, a favourable one. “These abnormal engines,” he remarked, “have to be driven by highly specialised professionals. While going they propel the car like a shot from a gun, but if they should stop it takes minutes to start them again.” Also a job, one imagines, for a highly specialised (and courageous) professional; but for all that I have a sneaking desire for that Lion-Peugeot with which Guippone came home first at Boulogne.
As for Koechlin’s Renault-Schneider, “adjustments” seem to have been required after, as well as before, the start of the race and nothing much more was heard of it. Schneider, too — if this was Th. Schneider — was apparently discouraged and there was no sign of the marque in the races of 1910 or 1911. Instead the Besançon factory started turning out a 12-h.p. 4-cylinder car of 70 x 110 mm. bore and stroke, which by 1911 had grown into a 14-h.p. of 80 x 130 mm, and by 1912 into a 14-h.p. of 80 x 140 mm. Thoughts were turning again now towards the voiture de course — again, that is, if the Renault-Schneider of 1909 had anything to do with the Besançon firm.
In 1912 the race for the Coupe de l’Auto, with a 3-litre capacity limit, was to be run in conjunction with the Grand Prix race at Dieppe, and at the Schneider works they got going on the design of a special racer, with a bore and stroke of 80 x 149 ram. I have always thought, incidentally, that it is one of the perversities of mathematics that the nice “tidy” dimensions of 80 x 150 mm. should bring the capacity of a 4-cylinder engine just over the 3,000 c,c. limit. But that, of course, is by the way; very much by the way, as it happens, because when the two-day race started on June 20th, 1912, the Th. Schneider racers had not been completed. All the same it seemed a pity to be entirely left out of it, and so a couple of standard 14-h.p. cars set out on the long journey. This, hardly surprisingly, had little effect on the Sunbeam success in scoring a 1, 2, 3 British victory, but one of the Schneiders followed them in, finishing fourth out of eight in the Coupe de l’Auto, which was not bad going for a standard model.
And by September the racers were ready; ready, that is, in time for the 3-litre race run at Le Mans by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest and called the Grand Prix de France in order that things should be made as confusing as possible between this race and the Grand Prix de l’Automobile Club de France which had been run at Dieppe. Moreover, all the famous marques were there to compete. There was Peugeot, the winner of the big car race at Dieppe; there was one of the old long-stroke Hispanos of the limited bore regulation days, with the cylinders bored out from 65 to 68 mm., and a stroke of 200 mm.; there was Koechlin, the driver of the 1909 Renault-Schneider, with a 2-stroke car called after himself, and a couple of Côtes, apparently with similar engines; there were two of the Aleyons whose steering had been criticised at Dieppe; a couple of Vinots, a Picker-Janvier with five speeds, and, for old time’s sake, a single.cylinder Crespelle, 104 x 213 mm., driven by M. Crespelle himself.
The Schneiders, or at least one of them, apparently had sleeve-valves, but they went remarkably well and in the end Champoiseau’s finished second to Zucarelli’s Peugeot at 62 m.p.h., with Croquet’s sister car fourth and Nicodemi’s sixth. Jaubert’s, the only one that seems definitely to have been of the sleeve-valve variety, broke its magneto chain and thus disappeared pretty soon from among the leaders.
The next year, 1913, Th. Schneider decided to try for the Grand Prix itself. The race, which was run over a course near Amiens, was on a limited fuel basis, the standard set being about 14 miles to the gallon. This, if it did nothing else, set the manufacturers a pretty problem. The Italians, whose 14-litre Fiat had only been beaten by the Peugeot the year before – and which might have won if it had had detachable wheels — were still inclined towards something big. A fuel consumption limit did, of course, make a difference, but the utmost concession that the builders of the Italas for the 1913 race would make was to reduce engine capacity to 7,853 c.c. M. Mathis, on the other hand, whose 1,848 c.c. car of 1912 had been so light that it had had to compete in the unlimited instead of the 3-litre. class at Dieppe, would make no greater concession in the other direction than to increase, the capacity of the 1913 racer to 2,154 c.c. (He may, incidentally, have congratulated himself in the end on his insistence on lightness. “Weight’s the enemy,” he used to blazon forth in his advertisements, a sentiment which must have so completely won the sympathy of Henry Ford that I have always thought the Matford must have owed to it its origin.) Sunbeam, thoroughly satisfied with the performance of its 1912 3-litres, decided to add a couple more cylinders, tidy up that odd millimeter in the stroke, and produce an 80 x 150 mm., 4,523 c.c. engine. In general, however, a 4-cylinder of five or six litres capacity was favoured, and the 96 x 190 mm. (5,500 c.c.) Schneider approached pretty closely to the 100 x 180 mm. (5,654 c.c.) Peugeots.
The appearance of the former cars, however, was rather remarkable. The radiator, as I think on previous models, was behind the engine (was this the Renault contribution to the Renault-Schneider?); but the bonnet was more or less streamlined into it and two oval apertures, protected by strong wire gauze, were cut in its front. Four cars started, driven by Champoiseau and Croquet, whom we have met before, Gabriel, on the subject of whom I am sorely tempted to sideslip again, and Thomas. (Was this, I wonder, Réné Thomas, the inventor of the flexible steering wheel which brought so much joy to so many?) They were said, these Th. Schneiders, to be easily the best at negotiating the corners by the tribunes, and three out of the four of them finished, which was no mean performance in a race where twenty cars started and nine fell by the roadside.
The next year it was Lyons, and the curtain was just about to fall. The fuel limit had been abandoned now and, instead, engines were restricted to a capacity of 4 1/2-litres. It was necessary, as far as Th. Schneider was concerned, to reduce engine size by a litre, and it was done by clipping 2 mm. off the bore and 30 mm. off the stroke, giving dimensions of 94 x 160 mm. and a capacity of 4,441 c.c. There were four valves per cylinder, overhead, I fancy, but I have never seen so much as a picture of the engine, and a 5-speed gearbox, with a direct drive of 3 to 1 on fourth. Externally the cars looked much the same as the 1913 racers, but actually the radiator, sloping backwards in most modern style, was now at the front instead of the back of the engine.
Three cars started with Champoiseau and Gabriel as before and Juvanon as the new member of the team. But even now I can hardly write without emotion of the Grand Prix race that was run on July 4th, 1914. Think of it! Mercédès first, Mercédès second and Mercédès third; and one month later German armies sweeping through Belgium into France, ringing down the curtain on the Augustan age of automobilisrn. Champoiseau’s was the only Schneider to finish in that most dramatic of all motor races; but even so that locked and faded garage door ought to have meant something more to me than it did mean thirty years ago.
All of which, however, is a complete sideslip from the route I proposed to follow when I began this article, because I intended to reach Paddington Station, as I have had to do all too often these last six years, to derive what cheer I could there from inspecting the locomotives and to reflect on the Serpollet steam carriages of the real pioneer days of motoring. But space, the Editor tells me, is not unlimited and all that must stay over for another time.