Celebrating a Gordon Bennett – Part 2

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It is not surprising that the 60s had been forgotten by then, for 27 long years and a devastating World War had passed since their inception. But Kent Karslake remembered, and his article in Motor Sport of September 1930 was responsible not only for the subsequent interest in the big Edwardians and historic racing cars but perhaps for the entire vintage and veteran movement as we now know it. For his third “Veteran Types” article in this magazine he wrote of a 1903 Mercedes 60 which had been found recently in Ireland (shades of Jenatzy indeed!) in sorry state and put into running trim. It was owned by E. Martin, who I think ran Friary Motors at Old Windsor. When the BARC persuaded the VCC to allow its members to race their veterans round the Brooklands Mountain circuit Martin was on scratch in both the 1931 and 1932 races. The Mercedes tied for fastest lap, at 37.34 m.p.h., with Fedden’s, I think smaller, Mercedes in the first year but was much slower in 1932. I believe it took part in the Brighton Run and it was at the time credited with having won the 1906 Ballinuslaughter hill-climb, vanquishing Lee Guinness’ big Darracq. Many years later, after it had fallen into a disreputable state, this 60 was, I suspect, the one acquired by Peter Hampton from Lord Selsdon and restored by him in 1953 to his exceedingly high standards (there are none higher), and given a replica racing body to replace the old touring tonneau carriagework. The new owner took it to Stuttgart for a Mercedes Rally, impeded, we are told, by modern travellers on the autobahnen but the traditional high tyre consumption punctuated the return journey. Today this Sixty rests at Bolney.

Hampton tells me that before Lord Selsdon let it get into a sorry condition it was taken on Brooklands and would lap at around 70-75 m.p.h. It has the proper Mercedes Simplex carburetter, l.t. ignition and hand-throttle, the last two items now supplemented by an h.t. magneto, for which Mercedes made provision on the original engines, and a foot accelerator, and Hampton was able to get the correct size back tyres for it. He regards it as a perfectly practical road car, able to repeat its Brooklands speed under the right circumstances.

The Harmsworth Sixty, after its successful foray in Ireland soon after its birth, was used by Lord Northcliffe until 1910, after which this Rothschild-bodied specimen languished in a shed in the New Forest. It passed into the possession of a kinsman, Mr. A. J. Harmsworth, who in 1956 lent it to Lord Montagu, who still has it in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu. I had driven this car on the occasion of accompanying His Lordship in it on the 1957 Brighton Run.

Finally, that great enthusiast Roger Collings had not long since acquired the Sixty formerly owned by Mr. Vaux of Ilchester, and I had ridden in it briefly after its new owner had successfully completed last year’s Brighton Run. So here were our three privately-owned 60s, all ready for the Mercedes-Benz Concessionaires to borrow! Peter Hampton very generously invited us all to lunch, but wasn’t anxious to motor very afield in his Mercedes. Nor was the Harmsworth car available for more than a brief run within the Beaulieu precincts. However, Collings was game for anything—the Gordon Bennett had involved more than 300 miles’ racing, so let’s get on with it, was his response to my suggestion. In the end Hampton had a business appointment and so we had to re-arrange matters. It was agreed that Collings would meet Erik Johnson at Chepstow in his 60 and motor it to Beaulieu, where we could compare it to and photograph it with Harmsworth Mercedes.

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Thus it came about that, seventy years to the day, we were able to commemorate Mercedes GB victory. Had conditions in Ireland been happier I suppose we might have gone over to the Athy circuit, and driven past the memorial to Jenatzy. As it was, we had a formidable day’s motoring ahead of us, even if Col. Lindsay Lloyd wasn’t present to dispatch us with his pistol, nor did we start, as Jenatzy had, at 7.28 a.m.

Before 8.30 a.m., however, we had left Peterson-Super-Ely, and, after taking Collings’ two daughters to school, for this remarkable Mercedes is a practical everyday car, were on our way, with something like five Brighton Runs to complete!

The only preparation had been routine oiling-up of the exposed push-rod ends, ignition-camshaft bearings, the mangle-like exposed timing gears and pinions of the famous 60 h.p. power unit, and of the driving chains. Then the l.t. ignition was switched on, augmented for starting by the h.t. circuit, the half-compression handle by the radiator pulled out, Collings wound the starting handle, and very soon the great car broke into life, the motor-house filling with the sound of its mighty cylinders separately firing, its front mudguards and steering column trembling in response.

The Sixty Mercedes has a 140 x 150 mm. (9,236 c.c.) engine with its cylinders cast in pairs, the special annular valves overhead, actuated by exposed push-rods and rockers, exhaust valves at the side, operated from a n/s camshaft. On the opposite side another camshaft looks after the four slender pushrods actuating the I.t. breakers. The car buretter on this side, originally a Mercedes Simplex, feeds into a Y-type manifold. Water circulation is by pump and lubrication is via a series of drip-feeds from a pressurised system feeding various parts of the mechanism. Fuel feed is by exhaust pressure, authentically retained on Collings’ car.

The drive goes through the famous Mercedes scroll clutch. The four-speed gearbox is combined with the differential, final drive being by side chains. The transmission brake is pedal applied, the rear-wheel brakes by the lever. The engine develops 60 b.h.p. at 1,200 r.p.m.

The individual histories of the remaining Sixties are obscure. As I have explained, the new 9.2-litre Mercedes made a great impression at the 1903 Nice Week, when The Autocar says a dozen were present, all red except for Zborowski’s pale blue car, and all stored at the Villa Mercedes. Collings’ car could well be one of these; rumour suggests Higginbotham’s. It was certainly owned by Bertie Birtwhistle, then by John Bradshaw. Frank Smith, the well-known veteran car enthusiast, then did a splendid rebuild of it for Bill Vaux, from whom Collings purchased it. It has a Mercedes tonneau body, with no windscreen, equipment being confined to a wicker umbrella basket, foot-operated Klaxon, snake-like bulb-horn and Ducellier oil side lamps. It is shod with 875 x 105 front, 880 x 120 rear Dunlops.

It was soon apparent (after we had taken on Mr. Smith, who had driven down from Manchester in his Datsun 240Z in order not to miss the occasion) as our “mechanician” and started our journey in earnest, that although a veteran in dating and specification, this 1903 Mercedes performs better than most Edwardian cars. Unlike Jenatzy, we had no problems of dust or controls to pass through. But the traffic was heavy and in Salisbury we paused to refuel, and oil-up. Yet, having left the Aust Service Area of the M4 after 10.30, we were at lunch at the “Master Builders” at Buckler’s Hard, at 13.35 hours. The weather, apart from a spattering of rain, was kind; the traffic was not. Filson-Young wrote of riding on a fast car in 1904: “The ineffable thrill and exhilaration of such a flight none but they who have experienced it in their own bodies can even conceive. It is beyond everything else in our physical existence. It is the exaltation of the dreamer, the drunkard, a thousand times purified and magnified”. I don’t know about that! But it was exceedingly satisfactory, commemorating Gordon Bennett Day in this fashion, the Mercedes not merely keeping up with modern traffic but accelerating like a good vintage sports car, to the deep beat from its great cylinders, when opportunity presented itself, those at the wayside oft waving their appreciation, the wind playing about us, for there is no protection above the ankles in the front seats, the speed rising to 60 and more m.p.h. whenever possible, confirmed by Erik Johnson’s Mercedes-Benz 350 SL which was following us. In the tonneau it was more sheltered, and the rustle of the side chains mingled with the engine beat.

In sober fact, that day we completed only 42-1/2 miles fewer than had Jenatzy in winning the GB, at an overall average running time of 41 m.p.h. The Mercedes drank 2-3/4 gallons of Castrol oil, averaged 17-1/2 m.p.g. of petrol and gave no anxiety, apart from temporary loss of power on the homeward journey when a l.t. push-rod unslotted. It is verily a magnificent machine! Of the 60 h.p. the aforesaid Filson-Young said: “If you are a millionaire the matter (selection of a car) is very much simplified; you simply get the best and most expensive car in the market. I think it would be generally admitted that in such a class the Mercedes still holds the field . . . if you can afford to buy and keep a Mercedes, do so”.

When I took my spell at driving, I was more than ever convinced of this veteran’s superiority. In 1903 it must have seemed almost unbelievable.

Cont’d in Part 3

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