Darracq on the way back

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I have seen some big racing cars, but when Gerald Firkins let me look at the legendary 1905 200hp Darracq, I was rendered almost speechless, the more so when I realised the incredible, and commendable, attention to original detail which has gone into its rebuild.

To see a very famous racing car of this power with no bodywork, just two bucket seats, no bulkhead to isolate the occupants from the huge flywheel and enormous engine, the comparatively flimsy chassis, the wicked exhaust stubs, and the polished copper water tank which tops everything, really takes one’s breath away. If Mr Firkins — a VCC and VS CC member and a pre-war Darracq enthusiast— hadn’t undertaken this immense task of engineering, every part to mirror the original, we would never again have had the chance to contemplate — and eventually, I hope, to hear — one of the most exciting of such cars.

Alexandre Darracq, having been notably successful with his racing cars, decided that the LSR was the ultimate goal. His 100hp car raised this to 104mph, and in order not to lose the title, the fearsome 200hp car was built In December 1905, it was taken to the Arles-Salon, where Victor Hemery, with a brave riding mechanic alongside, achieved an official 109.65mph. In America, it clocked over 122mph at Ormond Beach, driven by Demogeot.

Sir Algernon Lee Guinness was then apparently persuaded by Lord Armesley to buy the ‘200’. Sir Algernon and his brother Kenelm Lee Guinness (later to race for Sunbeam and STD) used to test their new possession on the Hartford Bridge Flats, watched by enthralled policemen. In 1906, Sir Algernon covered a kilometre at the Ostend speed trials at 117.7mph, gave a demo at Skegness, beat a 90hp Napier at Blackpool, and set FTD at the Gaillon hill climb. In 1907, an American, Dugal Ross, tried to buy it; he was given a timed 115.4mph demo at Brooklands, but was said to be too frightened to close the £2000 deal.

With its 8ft 6in wheelbase, two speeds, total-loss lubrication, etc, and weighing a mere 19.25cwt, the ‘200’ was a sprint rather than a track car, and that October, at Saltburn, ‘Algy’ set the ‘Yorkshire sand-racing record’ to 111.84mph. In 1908, again at Saltburn, he raised the 1 km record to 121.57mph — far quicker than Newton’s 90hp Napier— Kenelm, the intrepid passenger, operating petrol feed and oil pressure pumps without proper handholds.

The Guinnesses had a stable of racing cars, other Darracqs included, and around about this time the chassis of the ‘200’ was cut off behind the seats and ahead of the engine (possibly intended for a boat).

When Algemon died in 1954, the engine was in Cookharn Dean. Anthony Heal, knowing Mr Firkins’ interest in Darracqs, told him, and Lady Guinness gave him this great one-off power unit.

I was privileged to be shown it and to see the quite remarkable manner in which Mr Firkins has made replacement parts exactly to original specifications. The engine has four hi-blocks at 90deg, with overhead valves, the push-rods and rockers exposed, the exhaust rockers some eight inches long! The oil tank is triangular to fit between the seat backs. Two carburettors nestle between the cylinder blocks, the heads being cross flow semi-hemis. From photographs, the secrets of the ‘200’ were exposed: the spokes of its wire wheels, for instance, were seen to be a millimeter larger than usual, so ones of this size were made. Forked con-rod bolts, flat headed for clearance, had unusual threads, and although modem bolts could have been substituted, instead the originals have been properly copied. On the workshop bench were the massive-crown-and-pinion for the two-speed back axle (no differential) and the vee-shaped radiator (9600 correct size washers space the tubes).

The axle ratio is 1.2:1 and the engine power is estimated to be 265bhp at 1500rpm. It was usual for drivers to change up at about 30mph to spare the gearbox and cone clutch. Aluminium pistons have replaced the cracked castiron originals. The engine size is now 25,432cc. It has been a costly and long undertaking by this dedicated enthusiast.

Shame on me. I had been wondering in what chassis the engine was to be installed — a vintage Vauxhall or Bentley, perhaps? But of course, Mr Firkins has replicated correctly a new frame, springs and transmission, etc. The car is almost unbelievably impressive, and it will be absolutely wonderful when the engine is once again fired up.

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