Some time ago, I remarked, in an unguarded moment, that one day I should have to write an article on “Racing Cars Which Never Appeared.” It was a rash move, since, as I might almost have expected, a reader has taken me up, with the suggestion that “one day” should be now; in fact, that I had better get on with it. It is a large subject, and I can hardly hope to do justice to it in a short article; but I propose to make the attempt, and at least sweet king of interest may emerge.
Although I am not going to be led astray on to the subject of “Races Which Never Took Place,” I may begin by remarking that this was the fate of the Nice-Abbazia Race, which was projected for 1902. As a result, perhaps, the world, as far as I know, never saw what appears on paper to have been one of the most remarkable racing cars ever designed. “On the other side of the Channel,” remarked the Autocar in February, 1902, “a speed vehicle to be driven by an eight-cylindered motor, fired by two sparking plugs only, and having explosions at each half-stroke, is in course of construction for the Nice Abbazia race. This vehicle will weigh a little over 7¾ cwts., and will travel at 49.6 miles per hour up grades, 83 miles per hour on the level, and 100 miles per hour downhill. The name of the maker is Marmandais Bertin.”
You can make of this, I suppose, what you will. Perhaps the ingenious can explain to me how M. Marmandais Bertin proposed to fire eight cylinders “at each half-stroke” by means of only two sparking plugs, and also why he wanted “explosions” so often. How steep, too, were the hills, up and down which he proposed to clamber and rush at 49.6 and 100 miles per hoar respectively? I suppose really that these speed figures, being interpreted, mean that he had a one-to-one gearbox ratio from which he hoped for 83 m.p.h., a lower gear which would give 49.6 m.p.h. at the same engine speed, and a geared-up top equivalent to 100 m.p.h. But I somehow suspect that even if the race had been held, M. Marmandais Bertin might have been a non-starter.
This same year, 1902, had seen the introduction of the 1,000 kgs. weight limit for the big class racing cars, and this innovation had been causing a good deal of concern to the builders of fast cars ever since it had been announced the year before. “A point must certainly be reached,” declared the Autocar in May, 1901, “when there is not sufficient adherence for a high-powered motor, especially when running on wet roads, and if makers cannot increase the weight they propose to distribute the motive power equally over the four wheels. The Auto-Vélo states that the Société Mors and the Daimler Company, of Germany, are both designing vehicles within the limit of weight prescribed by the Automobile Club, and are making all four wheels drivers. It seems as if it is to be a combination of the petrol motor and the electric motor, and as the Mors people are, to a certain extent, interested in the petrol-electric car of Jenatzy, we presume that they are working upon this system. It is, therefore, very probable that the autocar will soon be entering upon another interesting stage of development.”
This particular stage, however, was one that was destined to misfire. The Mors company may have displayed a mild interest in the Jenatzy petrol-electric monster, but when it appeared it was found to weigh 2,500 kgs., and there was not much sign of the 100 h.p. which it was supposed to develop when both the petrol and electric motors were set about it at once. In any case, Brasier, the Mors engineer, solved his adherence problem, even at this date, by thus early pioneering the use of shock-absorbers, and the Mors four-wheel-drive racer was, as far as I know, still-born.
In the case of the German Daimler company, Auto-Vélo seems to have been slightly misinformed; there was not even a project, I suspect, to build four-wheel-drive racers at Cannstatt. (There was not even much inclination to use shock-absorbers, either, an omission which, before long, was to have rather an unfortunate effect on Mercédès racing fortunes.) What Auto-Vélo had got wind of, however, was doubtless events at Vienna, where Messrs. Lohner and Porsche were busy converting 28-h.p. Mercédès chassis to electric drive. Two of these machines were entered as rivals to M. Bertin’s flyer in the Nice-Abbazia race, but it would not be strictly true to say that they never appeared, as they were to be seen running about the streets of Nice during the days immediately, preceding the cancellation of the race. They thus definitely existed, but although they were entered for Paris-Vienna later in the year, they failed to start even in the race to their home town. Moreover, in fact, they did not use four-wheel drive but front-wheel drive, the petrol engine being employed to run a dynamo, which, in turn, supplied current, by way of resistances which gave fifteen different speeds, to an electric motor on each front wheel. The difficulty, I should imagine, was that all this weighed a good deal, and a Mercedes of 28 h.p., even with fifteen speeds, proved scarcely as fast as the contemporary 70-h.p. Panhard.
Thirty years later, however, the same problem was to produce the same suggested solution. The formule libre for Grand Prix racing had by 1932 produced cars with large engines and more power than their designers really knew what to do with. The Type 54, 4,900-c.c. Bugatti, in particular, was developing some 300 h.p., which was clearly more than could conveniently be delivered to a back axle of classical type. In these circumstances, Bugatti designed a new chassis (I do not know whether it was given one of the missing type numbers), in which the drive from the gearbox was both to the back axle in a more or less conventional manner (although the differential assembly was sharply offset) and also to the independently-sprung front wheels. “As an engineering production,” opined the Autocar in March, 1932, “this car stands out as one of the most notable achievements of the past few years. Having been on the road, secretly, for the last six months, it is fully tuned up, and its public appearance will be watched with exceptional interest.”
But as far as I know, I am still watching. Bugatti seems to have abandoned that project, and once again the problem of adherence was solved not by four-wheel drive but by attention to suspension. What shock-absorbers did for the cars of 1902, independent wheel suspension was to do for those of thirty years later.
Driving the front wheels of racing cars, as opposed to all four, has become something of a commonplace since the days of Messrs. Lohner and Porsche’s experiments, particularly in America and in France, where M. Grégoire, of Tracta and Dyna Panhard fame, has made something of a speciality of it; but I have for long been acutely disappointed that so little more was ever heard of the 12-cylinder Itala racers of 1926. Count ConeIli was, I believe, interested in this project, and he may have exercised a sort of hoodoo over it, as perhaps he did over the Aquila-ltaliana racers, with which he had previously been connected. One of these had been entered for the Grand Prix in 1907, but had been too badly damaged on the way to Dieppe to be able to start; and of the team that had been entered in 1914, only one car, driven by Costantini and notable, as in 1907, for having a six-cylinder engine, came to .the start—and fell out again almost immediately.
The 12-cylinder Italas of 1926 seem never even to have got as far as that, but according to all accounts they bristled with features of mechanical interest. The engine was to be built in two sizes, a 1,500-c.c. edition with dimensions of 50 by 55 mm., and an 1,100-c.c. of 46 by 55 mm. The bore of the latter, it may be remarked, was smaller even than that of the 1,500-c.c., 16-cylinder B.R.M., and engine speeds of up to 8,000 r.p.m. were looked for. The twelve cylinders were arranged in a V, at 60 degrees, and the two valves per cylinder were mounted at right-angles to its axis, both on the same side, and in the angle between the blocks, their diameter being 21 mm. The piston crowns were shaped rather like those of a two-stroke engine, in order to give clearance for the valves and a compression ratio or 5.5 to 1. There was only one camshaft, mounted in the angle of the V and driven from the crankshaft with only one intermediate pinion. At the back of the engine was a Roots blower, which, however, neither sucked nor blew through the carburetter, but delivered compressed air to a port near the bottom of each cylinder, thus adding to the charge at the end of the induction stroke, and scavenging the cylinder at the end of the firing stroke. The gearbox was mounted in front of the engine, and drove the front wheels, independently sprung on leaf springs, by means of universally-jointed half-shafts.
I do not know whether these Italas failed to work, or whether their development proved too expensive a business for their sponsors. In any case, it was not very long before Itala disappeared altogether from among the ranks of constructors of automobiles. One way and another the later twenties were a bitterly disappointing period as far as new racing cars were concerned, which is curious, because until 1928 or 1929 times were reasonably prosperous and it is usually depressions such as that of 1907 which bring racing programmes to an untimely conclusion. It would hardly be true to say that the 1,100-c.c. supercharged straight-eight Bugatti racer never appeared, because one of them, driven by André Dubonnet, won the Alsatian Grand Prix in 1926; but mighty little more seems to have been heard of this model. However, it would be unjust to blame Bugatti, who did more at this period to keep racing going than almost; any other manufacturer, and in the years after 1924 it was around F.I.A.T. that disappointment usually centred.
I do not on this occasion propose to do more than mention the 3-litre super-charged Hispano-Suiza which failed to start in the 1912 Coupe de l’Auto, although its non-appearance must have been one of the greatest disappointments in racing history. After the 1914-18 war, Mercédès took up the tale with occasional supercharging, but it was left to F.I.A.T., in 1923, to apply continuous supercharging to Grand Prix-type racing cars. Teething troubles on that occasion lost them the race, but why they did not win at Lyons in 1924, when these teething troubles had been overcome, is just one of those imponderables which at least encourage new aspirants to racing honours. In any case, supercharging, as was only natural, led the F.I.A.T. engineers on to think of two-strokes, and for some years after 1924 enthusiasts were eagerly awaiting something revolutionary from Turin.
Expectations reached a climax in 1927, when it became known that the 1,500-c.c. two-stroke had actually been built; but when Bordino appeared in a short race at Monza in September (which he won most convincingly), his car had, apparently, a four-stroke, 12-cylinder engine, the cylinders arranged in two vertical banks of six, with the crankshafts geared together. This engine, it, was stated, developed 160 h.p. at 7,500 r.p.m.
Apparently, however, it had started life as a two-stroke, with a common combustion chamber for each pair of cylinders, one piston uncovering the inlet port, and its opposite number the exhaust port. According to Mr. Pomeroy, who has disclosed a considerable amount of information about this engine in his book The Grand Prix Car, it developed no less than 174 h.p. at only 6,509 r.p.m., figures which it is interesting to compare with those for virtually the same engine in four-stroke form, and with those of the contemporary straight-eight, 1,500-c.c. Delage and Talbot engines, which developed 140-150 h.p., also at about 6,500 r.p.m. Unfortunately, however, it seems that the two-stroke F.I.A.T. engine tended to burn the pistons which operated the exhaust ports, and in consequence it was never exposed to the public gaze. Why the appearance of the four-stroke engine should have been limited to a 50-kilometre race at Monza is, however, more of a mystery.
In 1934, seven years after the apparent abandonment of the two-stroke engine, it was announced that an almost exactly similar unit, also of 1,500 c.c. capacity, was being developed in Germany for use in a racing car by the Swiss engineer Arnold Zoller, who had been designing supercharged engines since before 1914. The Zoller engine had a curiously long stroke, the dimensions being 43 by 84 mm., compared with 52 by 58 mm. in the case of the F.I.A.T. engine, and perhaps for this reason it was apparently only designed to run at 5,500 r.p.m., at which speed it, was stated to develop 200 h.p. The advance in output in seven years from the F.I.A.T.’s figure of 174 h.p. appears moderate, but the development of the two-stroke engine would obviously be an interesting contribution which racing might make to the sum of general knowledge. In 1913 the rules for the Coupe de l’Auto specified that superchargers might only be used in conjunction with two-stroke engines, and the revival of this limitation, it seems to me, might well be considered when the next modification is made to the Grand Prix formula.
The enactment of 1918 appears to have so greatly discouraged M. Birkigt that no genuine Hispano-Suiza racing cars have since appeared in open competition, although it is interesting to remark that in 1923, when the appearance of the supercharged F.I.A.T.s caused a certain consternation in the racing world, M. Birkigt expressed himself as strongly opposed to the use of such a device. However, in 1934 there appeared for a moment to be a prospect of a Grand Prix racer from another firm of Franco-Spanish domicile. During the 1920’s, the Pescara had won a certain fame among the curious as the only known car with a 10-cylinder in-line engine, and a team of these cars had even been entered for the Le Mans race in 1930. In 1931 came the news of the alliance of Pescara with Voisin, which perhaps was what caused Gabriel Voisin to adumbrate a model with a 12-cylinder in-line engine in 1936. In the meantime, however, had come the announcement of the Grand Prix Pescara, which was to have 16 cylinders, arranged, one is rather sorry to recall, in a V. The angle between the blocks, and how it compared with that of the B.R.M. engine, is, unfortunately, unknown to me, but in spite of a capacity of 4 litres, the power output claimed of 500 h.p. was not so very much greater, the corresponding engine speed, however, being only 5,500 r.p.m. Apparently the idea was to hike the drive to all four wheels, but once again this project seems to have been stillborn.
The war which broke out in 1939 prevented or at least deferred the appearance of a number of racing cars which we were awaiting, but its effect in this respect was as nothing, apparently, to that of the 1914 war. “For many reasons,” wrote Mr. H. Massac Hoist immediately after the 1914 Grand Prix, “as the industry will well know, but which I do not consider it advisable to make public, the French Grand Prix race of 1915—which will in all likelihood be for 3-litre cars, possibly on the circuit near Aix-les-Bains, possibly on one near Marseilles—will be even a bigger international competition than that of last week. Some of the oldest firms in the industry will re-enter the racing arena . . .”
What, I have often wondered, did Mr. Buist know when he wrote these rather cryptic words? Which of the “oldest firms in the industry” were going to re-enter the racing arena? Were any of them British? Had, say, Napier or Wolseley caught the racing fever? If so, the secret has been exceedingly well kept, even to this day. French firms?
I believe that Panhard et Levassor were seriously considering the project, and Mosr had entered three 2½-litre cars for the 1914 Coupe de l’Auto. Both were somewhat wedded to sleeve-valves at the time, but, with the excellent performance of the Minervas in the Tourist Trophy in mind, this would hardly have deterred them. Perhaps Minerva themselves had similar projects in mind. Lorraine-Dietrich and Darracq are two other French possibles, Renault and de Dion much less likely. Perhaps Benz would have come to reinforce the German team, Itala and Isotta-Fraschini the Italian. All this, however, is surmise; one thing is certain, and that is that in 1921, when a 3-litre G.P. was held, few of the oldest firms in the industry took part in it.