Sideslips by "Baladeur"

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Motoring historians have been relatively silent with, regard to the Grand Prix of 1909–for the fairly good reason that no Grand Prix was run in 1909. For all that, the 1909 Grand Prix, like many other things which never happened, does possess a history ; and not the least intriguing chapter of it concerns the meeting of delegates from the various national automobile clubs which took place on October 19th, 1908, at the Automobile Club de France in Paris, to discuss the formula which should govern it.

As a matter of fact the French delegates had quite made up their minds what the formula was to be before ever the meeting was convened, and as it was their race that was under discussion, they did not intend to brook much interference from outsiders.

The 1908 Grand Prix had been run under a bore limit of 155 mm, and soon after it was over the Sporting Coinmission of the ACF had come to the conclusion that the rules for the 1909 race should stipulate a maximum bore of 140 mm for four-cylinder engines and a minimum weight of 900 kgms. Their delegates, it had been reported at the beginning of October, had received an “imperative mandate” to defend this decision at the Congress of the Automobile Clubs. Nobody expected a very easy passage for the resolution, as there was at least a strong suspicion that the Germans were going to suggest something silly like a maximum bore of only 120 mm. However, the French delegates seemed to be in a pretty strong position, even apart from the fact that it was the French race that was going to be discussed. They were all decidedly impressive people, fully equipped with titles—the Baron de Zuylen de Nyevelt, the Marquis de Dion, the Chevalier Rene de Knyff, and Comte Robert de Vogue ; and the Baron de Zuylen was not only President of the ACF and President of the Federation of International Automobile Clubs, but also President of the meeting. On top of all, which for some reason that is, I must admit, obscure to me, he represented not only France but also another most interested party—Egypt. The other countries represented were England, Belgium, Germany, Italy, Switzerland, Spain, the United States, Austria, Hungary and Portugal. The attitude of all these countries was more or less doubtful, but what was really worrying the French delegates, and perhaps some of the others, was what had come to be known as “the Gobron question.”

When the formula makers had first decided to limit cylinder bores, they had thought that they were in fact expressing, in more homely terms, a decision to limit piston area. Since the relation between the diameter of a circle and its area, while not exactly known, can be found approximately by the use of a factor that has been worked out, I believe, to some eight hundred places of decimals, this proposition seemed to be broadly true, in the case of any cylinder whose piston fitted. But what about those engines, such as the ones built by MM Gobron et Brillie, in which each cylinder was provided with two pistons; one driven upwards and the other downwards by the combustion of the same charge in a common chamber between them, and both serving, directly or indirectly, to turn the same crankshaft ? Calculating from a single bore, you arrived, more or less accurately, in this case not at the area of one piston, but of two ; and in 1908, much to the indignation of M Gobron, the pundits had come to the conclusion that a four-cylinder Gobron-Brillie engine should be regarded not as a four-cylinder engine but as an eight.

On the face of it, of course, there was everything to be said for this proposition. The pundits of 1908, like their successors of today, were inclined to declare that the power of an engine depended on the area of the pistons, the piston stroke, crankshaft speed and bmep (though they tended to express this last factor somewhat differently). Obviously, therefore, if a regulation were designed to limit one of these factors, namely piston area, and the designer doubled his piston area, he could hardly hope that nobody would notice. The Gobron-Brillie engine had as much piston area as an eight-cylinder engine of the same bore, and so must be regarded for this purpose as an eight-cylinder engine.

The Gobron-Brillie, in consequence, was absent from the 1908 Grand Prix, but very soon after the race was over, the pundits, or at least some of them, began to wonder whether they were right. M Charles Faroux, in particular, wrote a very long article in l’Auto, adorned with some very terrifying-looking formulae, which I do not reproduce because I am not at all sure whether I could translate, for example, the line N/2 x n/60 x integrale de 0 a C die p d v .

However this does not greatly matter, because what he said, in effect, to his adversaries, was, “Do you mind if for the words ‘piston area’ in this discussion I substitute the words ‘cylinder section ?” I cannot imagine that they could mind, and having established this point, he went on to declare that “the power of an engine . . . depends solely on the number of explosions per revolution, the number of revolutions per minute, the capacity and the mean pressure. The number of pistons is conspicuous by its absence . . .” The number of cylinders in a Gobron-Brillie engine, in fact, depended solely on the number of its cylinders.

While matters were in this state, the Reunion of the Automobile Clubs opened peaceably enough. The President extended a welcome to the delegates. M d’Aoust, representing Belgium, proposed the creation of an International Juridical Council. This proposition was unanimously adopted. Then they began to discuss the Gobron question . . .

At this point, Mr Mervyn O’Gormon, who, in spite of his name, is invariably described in French accounts as representing “England,” struck a note of protest. To discuss the Gobron question at this stage, he said, was to commit oneself to using cylinder bores to measure horsepower, which was quite contrary to the theory which England was going to put forward. He did not apparently mention the fact that the club he represented had fathered a formula using cylinder bores to measure horsepower, and of course he could not know that the taxation authorities were going to continue to use it for the purpose for nearly forty years. In so doing, incidentally, they decided, or so I believe, at some date of which I am ignorant, to adopt M Faroux’s view of how a Gobron-Brillie engine should be regarded in this connection.

M Rene de Knyff thereupon declared, perhaps a trifle disingenuously, that it was quite possible to discuss the Gobron question without embarking on the subject of cylinder bores, but M Hammersfarht (Germany) sagely suggested that it would be best first to decide what formula they were going to adopt for racing, and then see how the Gobron situation would fit in with the formula.

Mr O’Gormon, seizing the opportunity thus presented to him, thereupon gave vent to “a very peculiar proposition.” In the minds, of the Frenchmen, the object of the formula was to present designers with some kind of a limit on their activities, and then to see how far they could overcome this limit in order to extract more power from an engine than could their competitors. To the French race organisers the limitations of the formula were all-important, their effect on actual power output of no importance at all. On the contrary, said Mr O’Gormon, the formula is of no importance at all, its effect on actual power output is what matters. “We must limit the output to 90-hp” he said, “for even 100-hp is too much. In England, manufacturers refuse to build engines of more than 90-hp.”

To contemporary French observers this extraordinary effort to put the cart before the horse could only be described as an “English ‘proposition.” To an Englishman brought up in the French school of thought it could doubtless only be described as an Irish one.

“But have you got a formula or some means of checking the output ?” asked the astonished de Knyff, “otherwise everyone will be forced to cheat. Ninety horsepower,” he added, obviously scandalised, “that will hardly take more than four cylinders of 90-mm bore !” The exclamation mark is not mine but the contemporary reporter’s.

“For 90-hp,” opined M Hammersfarht, “you need an engine with 125-mm bore and 125-mm stroke.”

It would be interesting to know which, if either of them, was right. The 1908 Targa Florio Fiat engine, for example, with dimensions of 130 by 140 mm, was rated at only 50 hp, and it his been generally assumed that the rating of contemporary Grand Prix engines coincided fairly accurately with the actual output. If even Herr. Hammersfahrt’s estimate was correct, however this Fiat engine must have developed about twice its rated horsepower, while if M de Knyff really knew how to get 90-hp. from a 90-mm engine, MM Panhard et Levassor must have had some pretty sensational design up their sleeve. All they were known to have up it at this time was sleeve-valves.

But Mr O’Gormon was not interested in bores. The English representative wanted to know what output the Congress wished to adopt as a maximum.

“One can’t know,” replied M de Knyff, one suspects a trifle testily by now, “we have got to define something and let people bestir themselves to get as much power as possible.”

“We have got to choose between three formulae,” added the Marquis de Dion, obviously trying to keep the discussion on the plane of common sense, cylinder capacity, a bore limit or fuel consumption.”

“We are opposed to the bore limit” replied Mr O’Gormon rather surprisingly, “because the bore limit is what has just been used. We do not want to limit any outward indication of power, but to power itself. Let us limit it by testing engines on the bench.”

M Reiss, representing Germany, and rather rudely cutting across all this, proposed, in the name of Germany, a bore limit of 180 mm. “It is impossible,” he said, “to allow a bigger bore. Opinion is adamant against excessive power output.”

At this point the President, very reasonably, put to the meeting the question of the use of the bore limit in principle. It was unanimously adopted except for one dissentient—in the shape of perfidious Albion.

Having reached this point, the haggling really began. Everyone knew that the French wanted a limit of 140 mm, and everyone else wanted a smaller one. “M Reiss (Germany) went to war again against big bores.” His colleague Herr Hammersfahrt declared that with a bore of 180 mm you could build cars as fast as the 1908 ones with a bore of 155 mm. M de Knyff replied that France preferred 140 mm in order to avoid excessively specialised engines. “With engines of 120-mm bore,” he is reported as saying, “we have seen cars in the Isle of Man doing 120 an hour [say 75 mph] thanks to engines turning at 2,500 rpm.” I think that he was misreported, fairly obviously he was referring to the recent “Four Inch Race” in the Isle of Man, called after its bore limit of 4 in, which is equivalent, as near as may be, to 101.6 mm, which the Chevalier doubtless regarded as 102 mm. “For his part,” he added, “increases in speed should be obtained without requiring engines to depart too far from types which are of practical interest.” There was obviously none, in his view, in buzz-boxes doing 2,500 rpm.

M le Marquis Ferrero di Vintimiglia, for Italy, proposed a bore limit of 180 mm. In the Targa Bologna, he shrewdly remarked, a French car with a bore of only 120 mm, and weighing 1,200 kgms, had averaged 106 kph, or say 66 mph. This was Porporato’s Berliet, which had actually averaged 65.8 mph for 262.4 miles. “With a bore of 130 mm,” added theMarquis, “it will be possible to exceed 115 kph. [say 70 mph], which is quite sufficient for the public.” This craving for speed among spectators at motor races evidently grows with what it feeds on.

At this point the matter was put to the vote, and the representatives of France, Portugal, Spain, Sweden, America and Hungary all dutifully voted for 140 mm. Germany, Italy, Belgium and Holland, however, all plumped for 180 mm, and England, just to be difficult, or perhaps because the RAC would really have liked 4 inches, put in a bid for 120 mm. Egypt, in the person of the Baron de Zuylen, for some reason, abstained.

Matters were obviously approaching a deadlock, but no one had as yet mentioned the minimum weight limit, which it was known that France wanted to set at 900 kgms, and the other countries at a higher figure. The Baron Pierre de Crawhez, representing Belgium, therefore, cunningly proposed at this point that each side should make some concession, that France should accept the 130 mm bore limit and that the other countries should accept the 900-kgms weight limit. The French must have been really keen on the latter, for they fell for this at once. M de Knyff, in fact, promptly declared that France would propose a joint resolution, for 180 mm and 900 kgms.

Some of the Barons 180 mm party, however, were still inclined to be difficult. Herr Reiss declared that you could not make a touring car weighing 900 kgms, “Do you think they are going to be touring cars whatever they weigh ?” retorted M de Knyff. “We have,” he added darkly, “even thought about 800 kgms.” Undaunted, the Marquis Ferrero de Vintimiglia proposed 1,000 kgms. In exchange, he offered to go up to 135 mm for the bore limit, “which would conciliate all the propositions.” Herr Hammersfahrt, more intransigent, proposed 1,000 kgms, with no concession on the 130-mm bore limit. Mr O’Gormon, rather curiously, ranged himself with the Belgian party, provided that they could have a maximum weight limit of 1,100 kgms, as well as a minimum limit of 900 kgms.

At this point, Herr Hammersfahrt, apparently overlooking the fact that he had voted for the bore limit in principle, threw a complete spanner into the works by asking whether a bore limit of 180 mm, which he himself had just proposed, would not result in “extraordinary engines with excessively long strokes, and whether they ought not to limit the capacity as well as the bore.” Presumably he was ruled out of order, and, the matter being put to the vote, the formula of a bore limit of 130 mm and a minimum weight limit of 900 kgms was adopted, although Germany and Italy still voted for 1,000 kgms. Unfortunately the result of their deliberations was never put to a satisfactory practical test, as, owing to the defection of manufacturers who were tired of racing under any formula, the 1909 Grand Prix, as already mentioned, never took place. There is little doubt, however, that the engine of the Type S 61 Fiat, an example of which is still owned in this country by Mr. Anthony Heal, was designed to this formula, and it would seem that if the object of the Congress was to product cars comparable in performance with the that had run in 1908, it had arrived at just about the right answer. With a stroke of 190 mm, the Fiat engine had a capacity of only 10 litres, compared with 12 litres in the case of the 155 by 160-mm 1908 Grand Prix Itala, in spite of which the Fiat engine developed 120 hp compared with the Itala’s 100 hp. Nor was this improvement due, as M de Knyff seems to have feared might be the case, to excessive crankshaft speed : indeed, as a result of its longer stroke, the Fiat engine was actually restricted to 1,650 rpm, compared with the Itala’s 1,800 rpm. The increase in output, in fact, was due to a genuine advance in engine design in the shape of an overhead camshaft, as a result of which bmep went up from 60 lb per square inch to 78. The Fiat, in fact, in spite of what is hardly a racing chassis, appears to be slightly faster than the Itala, and there seems no reason to suppose that the 1909 Grand Prix would not have been run at a speed at least as high as its predeeessor–if it had ever started.

Having disposed of the Grand Prix formula, the Congress went on to discuss voiturette racing, which it seems to have found a good deal easier. In 1908 the organisers of the Coupe des Voiturettes had decided on bore limits of 100 mm for single-cylinder engines, 80 mm for two cylinders and 65 mm for four ; whereupon the ACF, as if just to be difficult, decided that for its Grand Prix des Voiturettes, the limits for two and four-cylinder engines should be 78 mm and 62 mm, respectively. Now, however, M de Knyff announced that the ACF proposed to increase these limits for 1909 to 80 mm and 65 mm, respectively, “so as to avoid two-and four-cylinder engines being as much handicapped as they were last year compared with single-cylinder engines.” It seems a pity that the Club had not thought of that for 1908 ! However, nobody raised any objections now, and, the proposal having been unanimously adopted, the Congress went on to discuss—the Gobron question.

Herr Hammersfahrt opened the ball by declaring that there was no technical objection to the admission of the Gobron engine, he simply took exception to its profiting from the possession of a longer stroke. At this point M Gobron himself suddenly appears on the scene, presumably in the capacity of a technical witness, to declare that “the power of an engine is in no sense dependent on the quantity of its pistons.” “If my engine represents progress,” he said, “is it not the duty of the societies for encouragement to encourage it ?” The Baron de Crawhez considered that all this further discussion was quite unnecessary anyhow. The previous vote on the bore limit, he observed, makes no mention of the number of pistons per cylinder, and engines of the Gobron or similar type are authorised to compete with the same bore as ordinary engines. The matter was nevertheless put to the vote, but the Baron’s view prevailed, and the way was wide open for cars with Gobron-type engines to compete under the limited bore formula.

It seemed on the face of it that in these circumstances the Gobron design should possess most marked advantages. With the bore of his engine limited the designer had three variables left to play with : the stroke, crankshaft speed and bmep. If he increased either of the others, bmep would tend to suffer, and, of course, whatever else he did, it was his business to see that it did not. But as far as the first two variables were concerned, the limiting factor in both cases seemed to be piston speed : it did not matter whether he increased the stroke or the crankshaft speed, sooner or later he would arrive at a piston speed that proved intolerable. But suppose instead of one piston in each eylinder, you had two, then as each piston only had to travel half the distance of their combined stroke, the piston speed, would only be half that obtaining in an ordinary engine with the same stroke and at the same crankshaft speed. If the Type S 61 Fiat engine had been built on the Gobron principle, and had continued to indulge in a piston speed of approximately 2,000 feet per minute, it would either have had its cranksleift speed up from 1,650 rpm to 3,300 rpm (which would have doubtless shocked M de Knyif rather severely) or else it could have had a combined stroke of 380 mm, instead of 190 mm (which would certainly have made the car on the high side !) and a capacity of twenty litres instead of ten. Finally, as a compromise between the two, it could, without exceeding a piston speed of 2,000 feet per minute, have used a crankshaft speed of 2,500 rpm like the “Four-Inch” racers in the Isle of Man, and a combined stroke of 240 mm, which would at least have been less than the 250-mm stroke of the Sizaire-Naudin which won the 1908 Coupe des Voiturettes.

But although there was no Grand Prix in 1909 there were some entries for it and these did not include the name of Gobron-Brillie. Not so far as I know, is there any evidence that Guillemin le Gui, Cottin et Desgouttes, Mors or Holland-Pilain, who did enter, had any intention of using Gobron-type engines. Moreover, although there was a race for the Coupe des Voiturettes in 1909, this was not run under the simple bore limit adopted by the ACF for the Grand Prix des Voiturettes, which, like the Grand Prix proper did not take place in 1909. Instead, l’Auto allowed competitors for the race to use the same dimensions for a single-cylinder engine, 100 by 250 mm, as had been used by the winning Sizaire-Naudin in 1908 ; and also permitted them to increase the bore, up to 120 mm. if at the same time they decreased the stroke down to 124 mm. No one seems to have been very interested in this latter proposition, and the Lion-Peugeot which won in 1909 had an engine of the same dimensions, and apparently much the same performance, as the Sizaire-Naudin which won in 1908. This Sizaire-Naudin engine, in spite of a stroke of 250 mm, attained a crankshaft speed of 2.400 rpm and, in consequence, a piston speed of nearly 4,000 feet per minute. How much more comfortable would have been a Gobron-Brillie engine at half the piston speed !

But although Gobron-Brillie had wanted to enter both for the Grand Prix and for the Coupe des Voiturettes in 1908, and had been debarred by the heretics who counted pistons instead of cylinders, now that it was presumably, permitted to the firm showed no inclination whatever to enter for the Coupes Voiturettes in 1909 and, indeed, the historian hears very little more either of the Gobron system or of the Gobron question. The answer, I suppose, is that even under a bore limit the system was more valuable in theory than in practice. In 1908 bearings would probably not stand up to more than about 2,500 rpm, and there was correspondingly little scope for increasing crankshaft speed compared with that of the Sizaire engine. The latter, of course, ought not to have been reliable at a speed of 4,000 feet per minute, but it was, and I expect that the factor which was beginning to tell against the Gobron-Brillie design was bmep. With only one piston in its cylinder, the whole head of the Lion-Peugeot engine and those of its successors bristled with valves, reflecting their designers’ frenzy to get the gas in and out quickly enough. Gobron-Brillie, with only the gap between two pistons to work on, must have been set a far more difficult problem in this respect, although one would have thought horizontal valves, in the manner of the 1911 Coupe de l’Auto Delage, might have met the situation fairly adequately. Be this as it may, however, very little more seems to have been heard of the opposed-piston engine, at least for racing, until 1927, when Fiat produced an experimental 1,500-cc unit which developed over 170 hp, a figure that was rather sensational for an engine of this size at this time. It could moreover, attain a crankshaft speed of over 6,000 rpm, but then it was a supercharged two-stroke and relied on the pistons themselves to uncover the inlet and exhaust ports, with the result that it Itad plenty of troubles of its own, one gathers. By now, however, a capacity limit was in force for racing, and at least nobody quarrelled with Fiat for using twelve pistons in its six horizontal cylinders,

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