A Natter About Napiers

The Editor Visits D. R. Grossmark’s Collection of Acton-built Cars

This isn’t a history of the Napier—the person qualified to write one is D. R. Grossmark himself—and I apologise for the title. But it aptly describes the pleasant time I spent last month with this enthusiast, talking about his trio of Napiers, which I visited in their specially-built motor house at Shoreham.

In its era the Noiseless Napier was regarded by many authorities as Britain’s best and most elegant car. D. R. Grossmark, who collects them, thinks this was undoubtedly true until the influence of S. F. Edge, who sold them, diminished after 1910/11, whereupon the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost took precedence.

Grossmark commenced veteran car ownership with a Sunbeam Mabley and had a Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost for a short period. But when he bought the Mabley from Major Browell he spotted a 1909 30-h.p. Napier in an out-house, and wasn’t content until this became his, in 1953. Originally supplied to Leo Strachey of The Spectator, it came into the hands of Ronald Barker, in sorry condition, after World War Two, and he restored it to such effect that this Napier became his everyday means of transport. I have had many pleasant voyages in it and it formed the subject of “Veteran Types No. XXXVI,” by Kent Karslake, in Motor Sport for September 1950.

Browell did more restoration of the coachwork and, needless to say, the car is now in exceptionally fine condition. It is also almost completely original. The engine has six cylinders in pairs of three, Bosch dual ignition to a single plug per cylinder, enclosed valve gear, and bears the proud legend “D. Napier & Son, Ltd., Acton Vale, London, W.” on its shapely radiator, below the traditional “water-tower” filler, designed to provide for expansion of the coolant. There is nothing unconventional about the specification, apart from a multi-plate clutch within the gearbox casing. The wooden wheels carry detachable rims, and the May & Jacobs genuine cabriolet body is as handsome as it is “period.” I was intrigued to find Napier-Lodge plugs in the engine; Grossmark possesses only these six, and the engine refuses to run sweetly if they are replaced by modern plugs!

Grossmark uses this splendid 1909 Napier motor carriage for family outings to rallies and concours d’elegance—his children never feel sick in this one! It cruises all day at 40 m.p.h., returning 19/20 m.p.g. of the cheapest petrol from its as-original 1910 S.U. leather-bellows carburetter. The tyres last for 6,000-8,000 miles.

No gentleman’s collection is complete without a veteran in which to go to Brighton each winter—in this case from Shoreham via London! This Grossmark acquired in 1957/8—a Napier, naturally.

It is the 1900 8-h.p. Napier double-phaeton, formerly owned by Torn Allard and Buster Bartlett. This is an extremely rare and historic possession, probably the sixth Napier to be made (the engine number is 16) and the only 8-h.p. Napier still in existence anywhere in the World. Fortunately, it is in extremely good hands.

The same type of Napier as that driven in the 1,000-Mile Trial by S. F. Edge, but on solid tyres, the engine is a vertical-twin with a single-throw crank, so that the pistons rise and fall together, a 360° 2-cylinder! A 56 lb. balance weight hangs precariously between the big-ends, with virtually no clearance between itself, the big-ends and the crankcase.

This historic machine turned up during the Second World War at Tenterden, in Kent, and was saved six weeks before a flying-bomb demolished the shed in which it had languished after being used as a lorry in the dim and distant past. The V.C.C. bought it “blind,” for £10, it went to F. M. Wilcock, and finally to, Grossmark.

It is a difficult car to keep on both cylinders, as Allard discovered. Its twin trembler-coil ignition is temperamental, and on one “pot” only speed falls to 8 m.p.h. on the level and hills become impossible. The automatic inlet valves, on the contrary, are notably trouble-free on Napiers. The gearbox pinions were badly worn, partly due to Napier’s casual case-hardening at this early period, and it took Grossmark a year to rebuild them. Worn countershaft bearings had contributed to the decay and these were line-bored in situ on the chassis.

A Napier surface carburetter feeds upwards via a long copper inlet pipe, there is wheel steering, and final drive by side chains. New contact-breakers cured the ignition trouble, and this 1900 Napier has completed every Brighton Run since Grossmark rebuilt it. It always carries its full complement of four occupants and cruises at 12 m.p.h. Lubrication is on the total-loss drip-feed system, and a water pump circulates coolant contained in a tank at the rear. This pump should be friction-driven off the flywheel but oil caused it to slip, the engine overheated, and the cylinder head cracked. Anxious that this shouldn’t happen again, Grossmark now has a belt-drive to the pump and a temporary 15-gallon water tank high up on the chassis (in contrast to the 4-gallon petrol tank), soon to be replaced by smaller tank correctly positioned. The gearbox, of coffin-like proportions, holds 2½ gallons of oil, and the leather cone clutch is the epitome of good behaviour—the best of the Napier clutches. There are four forward and four reverse speeds, with a Panhard change, but as the self-wrapping brakes will not hold when going backwards, progress uphill is safer in reverse, as Edge discovered during the 1,000-Mile Trial. The chassis frame is metal.

This primitive-looking “horseless carriage” is quiet and well mannered; it is taken to meetings on a trailer, and Grossmark finds there is only one car that will pull this effectively, a big Wolseley, so he has owned in succession a 6/90, a 6/99 and now has a 6/110.

The most exciting car in this Napier collection is the big 1907 “Sixty,” with its careful replica of the Edge 24-hour-record bodywork. This great Napier was bought in 1911/12 by a Director of Maples Ltd., whose idiosyncrasy it was to disguise his cars by having a different radiator fitted. He ran the Napier, with a 4-seater open body and a Bentley-like radiator, until 1926, after which it languished with other cast-off cars in the vaults in Euston Road, until rescued, as a chassis, by Leslie Green. Its origin is of even greater interest. Edge had succeeded in selling half-a-dozen assorted Napiers over lunch to the Nizam of Hyderabad. His Highness apparently forgot that he had bought six, for he ordered coachwork for five only, so one chassis remained in this country.

Grossmark drove it home in the snows of 1960 and set about turning it into a faithful replica of the Brooklands “24-hour” car. His chassis is longer, and has platform rear springing, but otherwise matches up well. The 42-gallon fuel tank, seats, tool-boxes, screens, etc., were accurately copied after scaling-up from scores of photographs of Edge’s car, taking the 895 x 135 tyres as datum. The result is extremely pleasing—a sporting “Sixty” with a flavour of Brooklands about it. The headlamps are Rushmores, wired for electric light, but will be replaced by the type used by Edge when another has been unearthed to make a pair.

This is the 60-h.p. model, with exposed tappets, a brutal engine, whereas the later 65-h.p. Napier not only ran more quietly as it had enclosed tappets, but it had a 4-speed gearbox. The earlier Sixties had only three forward speeds, with a very slow and difficult dog-change from 2nd to top, the lever not only having to be pushed forcibly home but lifted to unlock, pushed down to re-lock, the dogs, suggesting that this was intended to be a top-gear car. Certainly Napier claimed “4-70 m.p.h. in top.”

Napier bearings are long-wearing and the original pistons, mains and big-ends are still in use, as they show no signs of wear. The side-valve 7¾-litre power unit is impressive. The massive cylinders are in three pairs and, at the front, water pump and magneto are driven by exposed chain, a belt drives the fan, and on the n/s another belt drives a tachometer, all running in opposite directions! Maximum speed is kept to 2,000 r.p.m., and on the road Grossmark never exceeds 1,500 r.p.m., which, with the 3.1-to-1 axle, equals 58½ m.p.h. A cruising speed of 45 m.p.h. can be held all day with no effort at all, and the engine will pull away in top from 400 r.p.m. and, if extended, the all-out speed is in the region of 82/83 m.p.h. With sensible driving, Grossmark hopes to get about 8,000 miles from the Dunlop “herringbone”-tread tyres.

In 1962 this Napier did the V.C.C. Birmingham Rally, out and home, 342 miles, in the day, averaging 8 m.p.g., and was timed over the s.s. ¼-mile, without attempting a racing start, in under 26 sec., although hampered by that slow 2nd/top change-up.

Climbing up beside the owner, I was taken for an exhilarating drive. The seats are lofty, providing splendid forward-and-over-the-hedges visibility. Below one is the typical Napier bonnet, long and broad, and the vertical dashboard carries polished brass rev.-counter and speedometer, matching brass gauges for oil and fuel-tank pressure, the latter energised by a Napier hand-pump, also of shining brass, afterwards being maintained by exhaust pressure. A brass clock, ammeter-box and switchgear are before the passenger’s feet, but the most imposing exhibit is the mahogany ignition box in which reposes the trembler coil and wipe-contacts of the l.t. and h.t. circuits, which can be seen rotating behind their glass panel. A highly ingenious synchronised ignition control is driven by vertical shaft from the back of the camshaft. This was missing, so Green searched for a replacement—when found it was the original, from this very car!

It was most enjoyable to be propelled effortlessly by the big engine, which works quietly but in a purposeful, Napier sort of manner, the multi-plate clutch taking up a trifle jerkily, corners producing no noticeable roll in spite of the height of the car and its platform rear suspension. The ride, indeed, is excellent, the bucket seats extremely comfortable, and a huge 2-pane screen, similar to the one rigged up for Edge’s Brooklands marathon, effectively keeps out the wind of passage. It was most satisfactory to emerge from the Chequers Inn in Steyning and see the owner start up “on the switch.” Altogether the Napier Sixty is the personification of all that is best in Edwardian motoring. . . .

Today only about 21 pre-1916 Napiers are known to exist in this country, and perhaps twice that number the World over, with a large proportion of these in Australia. Grossmark has taken them to his heart and has very comprehensive documentation and photographic files. He can answer almost any query about Napiers—ask him why Napier taxis cranked-up anti-clockwise and he will tell you that to save space within the reduced wheel base Napier just turned the 2-cylinder engine round in the frame, thus bringing the flywheel out at the front, and bolted the gearbox to the timing case, so “backwards winding up” was necessary, until they thought to alter the camshaft.

Fortunately, with this keen owner’s three cars—they are all painted green but not quite the darker “Napier green,” and cover some 3,000 miles a year on V.C.C. and similar rallies— and Ronald Barker’s 1908 Ninety coming along, this famous make is still well represented by active and appreciative users.—W. B.