I was reading some time ago a review by Mr. Charles Morgan in the Sunday Times of a book by Lewis Einstein called “Historical Change,” and in it I suddenly came upon the following passage: “When I read of Napoleon’s habit of taking his carriage (and the Empress in it) at a gallop across France into Belgium, my response is not: ‘How primitive and slow!’ but ‘How civilized, and how much more civilized it would have been if it had been slower!’ Having made the same journey in battledress and a jeep, I am not tempted by any pride in the mechanical changes which Mr. Einstein instinctively associates with progress to pity Marie Louise . . .”
Well, personally, I thought to myself, not having made the journey in question in a jeep, I am not in a position to judge; but then I very much doubt whether Mr. Morgan has ever done it in a carriage; and, in any case, the comparison is obviously a grossly unfair one. If I were Emperor of the French (which thank Heaven I am not!) I should not at any epoch have gone for a ride with the Empress in a jeep, but rather in, say, a Golden Bugatti; or, a little earlier, in an Hispano-Suiza, or, earlier again, in a Mors, a De Dietrich, a Panhard et Levassor. And then I began to see how entangled I was becoming in my own argument. For in the epoch of an automatic inlet-valve Panhard, to which in imagination I had reverted, I should very cheerfully have embarked upon the journey in a good single-cylinder De Dion Bouton, which was, I suppose, the contemporary equivalent of a jeep; and, in concert with Mr. Morgan, I would stoutly declare: “How much nicer!”
I really incline to doubt whether anyone who has not experienced it can fully appreciate the joys of a good “single.” I had one which, for eight years, from 1930 to 1937 inclusive, triumphantly carried me and some luckless passenger in the annual run to Brighton. Its average speed on that road was, as near as may be, 16 m.p.h. ; but when it was banging along merrily on the level, or suddenly finding fresh life as it breasted a rise, I would not have exchanged it for any straight-eight in the world. I had another one, a big one, this, a monster of mechanical ingenuity which, when it suddenly inhaled a full charge to its liking, gave one a thrill which left a supercharger cold. I have, in fact, a decided weakness for a “single.”
Unfortunately, however, the single-cylinder motor-car has long been regarded as unsmart. As early as 1902, the Autocar sounded the first note of warning. “Our reason for referring to the subject,” said the Editor, “is . . . the objection which some people have to single-cylinder engines, whether large or small”; but from the rest of the article it is clear that the majority of objectors wanted to get their power from something larger in the way of a motor than from what was then the high-speed engine. It was as such that the single had been developed, notably by De Dion Bouton; and yet, states the Autocar, “if there is one thing more than another which surprises the average engineer . . . it is the fact that small single-cylinder engines running at tremendously high speeds stand the work so well and with so few signs of wear.” The word “tremendously” was certainly fully justified; the standard 8-h.p. De Dion engine of 1908, for example, developed its full power at 1,600 r.p.m.; and, for anything but a racing car of that period, half this speed was considered a suitable one at which to govern a multi-cylinder engine. Indeed in spite of the theoretical advantages of the latter where high piston-speed was the criterion on which it was to be judged, it was not until 1910 that a 4-cylinder car managed to win the Coupe de l’Auto race run under limited bore regulations.
And yet by this date the single was becoming something of a rarity among standard models. Of the cars on the British market in 1909, there was, of course, the De Dion, with three different models, all with a bore of 100 mm., and with strokes of 120 mm., 180 mm. or 160 mm. This, basically (and with an increasingly long stroke), was the engine used by several Coupe des Voiturettes competitors, and, before it was abandoned, a Corre had run in the race with an engine of 100 x 300 mm. bore and stroke! The 100 x 120-mm. engine was installed in a car built in France and marketed in this country under the name of the Jackson, and an engine of the same dimensions, if not, indeed, the same engine, graced the 8-9-h.p. Chenard et Walcker and the 9-11-h.p. Motobloc. The other Coupe des Voiturettes exponents were represented by the Sizaire et Naudin, with an 8-h.p. of 120 x 110 mm. and a 12-h.p. of 120 x 130 mm.; and by Peugeot with a 9-h.p. of 105 x 120 mm.
The most successful British representatives were, I suppose, the 6 and 8-h.p. Rovers, ingenious machines with no normal chassis, a transverse sprung front axle pivoting in the centre and mounted on the crankcase, and tubular shaft transmission wholly unsprung. The American contingent was headed by the Cadillac, which had a large horizontal motor, 5 in. x 5 in. bore and stroke and single-chain drive, a general layout which was, I think, also adopted by the Reo and also by the British-built Adams-Hewitt, which had engine dimensions of 4 3/4 in. x 6 in. The Mass, the Starling, Torpedo and Werner complete the list; but already, outside the world of cyclecars, such machines were joining the dinosaur contingent.
By 1925 you would certainly have said that the “single” was as dead as the dodo. I should have, anyway; not so, however, Monsieur J. Salomon, who, in December of that year, was introduced to the readers of the French motor paper Omnia as “the eminent engineer, the creator in France of the voiturette and then of the light car which is the basis of the modern automobile. The name of M. J. Salomon is intimately bound up with the history of the le Zèbre voiturette, which he created in 1909, and with that of the brilliant house of Citroen.” Clearly his article was worth reading; and it was entitled “Is the Single-Cylinder Dead?” (In its original French the title sounds even more dramatic: “Le Monocylindrique est-il Mort?”)
Well, to be frank, I find some of the article a trifle technical, and it contains some pretty frightening-looking formulae and symbols. But on the historical side M. Salomon goes back to the De Dion engine of 100 by 120 mm. bore and stroke (940 c.c.) which, he says, developed 11 h.p. at 1,800 r.p.m. (my figure of 1,600 r.p.m. was from a contemporary source). This output, he continues, is sufficient to take a small car along at 50 k.p.h. without “excessive trepidations.”
So far, so good; but, he admits, some 30 m.p.h. is not very fast, and the real question is, could you put the speed up to 80 k.p.h. with equally satisfactory results? And the answer is no. To do this you need 23 1/2 h.p. which, if engine speed were still 1,800 r.p.m., would mean a capacity of 1,900 c.c. And, he says, “you can guess without difficulty the intensity of the vibrations which such a motor would inflict on our chassis!” (For Collomb, the driver of that 1910 Corre La Licorne, with its stroke of 300 mm. and capacity of 2,256 c.c., such inflictions on the chassis were, one presumes, not even a matter of guesswork !)
Of course, M. Salomon admits, with modern design and modern metallurgy, there is no need to limit yourself to 1,800 r.p.m.; but here all these formulae come in, and the net conclusion is that from the point of view of vibration, putting up the engine speed doesn’t help an awful lot. By and large, therefore, if you want a “mono,” you must be content with 30 m.p.h.; but if you will be content with it, you will have a car which, for cheapness, economy and reliability, will be unbeatable. I doubt whether any journalist, certainly any writer on motoring subjects, has been better pleased with the result of his literary efforts than was M. Salomon on this occasion — unless, of course, it was Baladeur himself when his return to the columns of Motor Sport was so graciously welcomed as it was in the May issue by no less a fellow-scribe than Cecil Clutton. At any rate among its readers, so it proved, Omnia numbered M. Charles Guyon, veterinary surgeon, of Janville (Eure et Loire). Now Janville is not such a place that you cannot be excused if you have never heard of it; it lies just off Route Nationale No. 20, about mid-way between Etampes and Orléans and, according to the Michelin guide for 1924, there was at that time only one inn there worth mentioning, called the “Sabot d’Or,” where they gave you lunch or dinner for seven francs (wine included), but where Bibendum did not suggest that you should sleep — except in emergencies. And by 1939 Janville had disappeared from the guide altogether.
But for all that the letter which the local vet, addressed to Omnia after reading M. Salomon’s article was of such import that the Editor saw fit to mark the occasion by recalling that the Société Ie Zèbre was formed in 1910 with the Editor himself, M. Baudry de Saunier, as chairman, M. Salomon as technical director, and, as commercial director, M. Lamy, “nowadays cognomen in the Société Amilcar.” Now I do not mind betting that there are a good many readers of Motot Sport who would otherwise have remained as ignorant as to how the Amilcar got its name as I still am as to why M. Lamy and his collaborators called their 1910 motor car a “zebra,” or as to whether it was this animal “cognomen” which first attracted the interest of the vet. In any case “the success of the affair,” adds M. Baudry de Saunier, “was extremely lively. But the war completely upset its authors’ original projects.”
As a matter of fact, production of the 5-h.p. single-cylinder le Zèbre, 90 by 100 mm. bore and stroke, which was introduced in 1910, did cease in 1917; but as early as 1913 its “authors” had embarked upon a 4-cylinder model, and it looks as if it was really the trend of the times which induced them to continue with this, rather than with the “single” after the end of the Kaiser war. But it is time that we returned to the vet. “I was extremely interested,” he wrote, “in M. J. Salornon’s article Le Monocylindrique eat-il Mort?’ . . . the more so because since 1912 I have owned a 5-h.p. single-cylinder Zèbre car and I am happy to offer here to the creator of the Zèbre (until to-day I did not know his name) all my congratulations.
“To date my Zèbre has done 160,000 kilometres on the roads of Beauce (and what roads!) . . .”
Well, as to that, the roads in the neighbourhood of Janville had had none too good a reputation as long ago as 1909, the very year, that is, of the “zebra’s” conception. “Bad caniveau leaving the village,” says Major R. des Cott Stevens in his “Motor Routes of France,” published that year, the village referred to being Toury; and it is on leaving it that you cross the road to Janville, which lies four kilometres away to the west. But we must return to M. Guyon.
. . . and nothing has been changed,” he continues, “either in the engine, or in the back axle, or in the gearbox. These two last have never been taken down.
“The only maintenance I give my Zèbre for a yearly run of 15,000 kilometres is to take the cylinder head down once a year to remove the carbon from the piston and, once every 15 or 18 months, to clean the contacts of the magneto.
“The plug which is on my car at this moment was put there in 1919 on my return to Janville after the war; its predecessor was delivered to me with the car. I have thus used two plugs (and not ones of any special make either) for 160,000 kilometres.
“Of course I have worn out some ball bearings in the wheels.” (I wonder whether Demeulenaere, of the Garage Colardeau,. the Michelin stockiste in Janville, fitted the new ones, or whether it was L. Jeannot, the Citroen agent ?) “I have broken lots of springs.” (“Look out for the caniveau,” warns Major Stevens again, a dozen miles beyond Toury on the road to Orléans.) “I have replaced the track-rod; but, I repeat, not a bolt on the engine, the back axle or the gearbox has been changed.
“I have never had the carburetter taken down, and the valves have never been taken down either.
“Oil consumption is infinitesimal (two litres for 500 kilometres), and petrol consumption has never been as high as six litres, even in winter. As for tyres, 700 by 80, they do 12 to 13,000 kilometres.
“In Short, the total upkeep of this car, after 12 years’ service, has never cost me more than 4,500 francs a year.”
I am sure that M. Guyon was strictly accurate; indeed his accounts for 1925 showed that his trusty Zèbre had cost him exactly 4,179 franes 55 centimes, which in those days was (less exactly) £32. People like doctors and vets., he added, had no need of cars doing 50 and 60 k.p.h.; “the old Zèbre doing an average of 30 to 35 k.p.h. with its engine turning, I believe, at 1,200 r.p.m., is quite enough,” and all he really wanted was a modern cabriolet, with perhaps electric lighting!
Well, without necessarily subscribing to M. Guyon’s views about speed, I do strongly support his defence of the “single.” (I wonder, by the way, whether he is still waiting for his cabriolet!) And, after seeing all M. Salomon’s formulae, just because I believe that the main object of racing, from the technical point of view, is to set designers the task of achieving the seemingly impossible, I now solemnly demand that this famous 500-c.c. class should include a special category for “singles” only. And if anybody pays any attention (which is highly unlikely), M. Charles Guyon may go haring along at 40 miles an hour yet — provided, of course, that he does not find that the consequent trepidations are excessive.