White Elephantitis

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One Of The Last True Giants — E.D. Woolley’s Renault 45

Those Motor Sport readers of longstanding who remember my articles on white elephant cars, i.e. the scarce pre-war specimens, of over 5-litres engine capacity, have been asking why the series has dwindled. The fact is that with the high cost of fodder and the inflationary value of rare breeds, these great animals are less frequently-encountered nowadays. It even seems as if Mr. Healey (politician, not the engineer) intends to bring about their extermination.

Consequently, it was all the more exciting when I remembered a very big bull-elephant of this kind that seemed a possible subject. Its bearded trapper being willing for us to investigate, I set off in scorching heat to stalk it, having bid the photographer meet me at the remote rendezvous, in the hope of capturing this rare beast on celluloid or whatever modern film is made of. It was a lengthy safari. I drove over a newly-bridged river (could it have been the Limpopo ?), up a steep hill, and descended to the plains beyond. After circling an apparently deserted village, the trapper and camera-man were suddenly seen waving to me from the undergrowth. A moment later I was confronted by one of the most awe-inspiring monsters you could hope to come upon.

Although a vintage car, the Renault 45 was Edwardian in conception, and a true giant, both in engine-size and wheelbase. This one is a 1923 short-chassis car, probably first registered in London around Easter 1924. Short-chassis, yes, but this means a wheelbase of no less than 12 ft. 5-1/2 in. The rest of this great tourer is in keeping. For instance, the bonnet, not counting the scuttle, is 6 ft. 8 in. long and the distance from the driver’s eyes to its coal-scuttle prow is a matter of 10 ft. 4 in. Not a car for the short-sighted!

All Renault 45s had a 110 x 160 mm. six-cylinder side-valve fixed-head engine of 9.1-litres. It is a triple-block unit, with a third of its length buried beneath the scuttle, which is flanked by the radiator tubes. This renders the rearmost sparking plugs somewhat inaccessible!

This great power unit has a dual-choke Renault carburetter feeding into a square section six-branch inlet manifold, and ignition by a transverse SEV magneto, so mounted that it can be rocked to alter its timing. The drive goes via a leather-lined cone clutch to a 4-speed gearbox mounted separately on the front of the torque-tube. Only the very last of the breed had a disc clutch and 3-speed gearbox. Suspension is by i-elliptic front, splayed-out cantilever rear springs. The brakes are of the classic gearbox-driven servo type (so coveted by Rolls-Royce for their new Phantom), the big drums being amply ribbed but the operating linkage incorporating crude Hooke’s-pattern universal joints which are all too prone to bind after a sharp corner has been negotiated. The short front dumb-irons protrude from that typical Renault chassis fairing which enables the alligator-bonnet to make an air-tight joint as it is shut onto the frame.

Ted Woolley, the noted Gloucestershire veteran-car enthusiast, found this great 45 in Essex, about eleven years ago. It had been owned by a lady who had put it in a shed when war broke out, taxing it as a taxi for the sake of its petrol ration-book. It was keeping static company with a Zedel and a Le Zebre when an enemy aeroplane, flying low, shot some bullets into its war-time cage. One penetrated the o/s of the bonnet and shattered the front of the cylinder block. Another went through the spare wheel on that side, but mercifully missed the radiator. When Woolley found it, the beast was in a sorry plight. But a price was agreed, whereupon the owner said the Renault could not be moved for six weeks. The reason ?— A goose was sitting on its eggs inside the body. Eventually all was resolved, the long trek was made, and Woolley was in possession of one of the biggest and most imposing of post- I918 production cars. He set about renovation, solving the problem of the shot-up bonnet by lining it with fibreglass.

He now has a very fine specimen of this great vintage car. The body is a nice boat-decked tourer, presumably of Renault manufacture. The styling is sleek, no external door handles marring the body lines. The SEV lamps and electrics are original. In the spacious open rear sun-parlour one finds two wood-slatted roller-blinds. Lift them, and the occasional seats are revealed. They pull out very easily and could hardly be more neatly concealed when not in use. Above this stowage-well there are small lockable companions of polished wood. Luggage is carried in a large rear trunk but curiously no provision is made for stowing the side-curtains. This imposing tourer runs on wood-spoked wheels with Renault wide-splined hubs. The front tyres have the Dunlop herring-bone tread, worn the reverse way to that usually adopted, which Woolley is convinced is correct. The rear tyres and the spares, one on each running-board, are India Super Non-Skids; the size is 895 x 135, as on a R-R Ghost, and they are run at 55/65 lb./sq. in. A BP Motor Spirit can rides on the o/s running-board and each valance contains two tool-boxes. A sensible thing Renault did was to provide an Autovac which holds some three gallons of petrol, which can be replenished by opening a manhole cover on the scuttle. (The hinged flap ahead of it is for water.) Thus if the fuel-feed fails, instead of being stranded, as you are in all such cases with a Royce downwards, the Renault 45 owner merely re-fills the Autovac and can then go some 25 miles on gravity-feed. Fuel thirst, you note, is around 8 to 9 m.p.g., cruising at 60 m.p.h. The huge engine takes its doses of thick agricultural lubricant at the rate of about 200 m.p.p. There is a rapier-like dip-stick and the sump can be emptied from an adjacent under-bonnet tap but there is absolutely nothing to show whether or not the oil is circulating. Presumably if Billancourt built the engine it goes without saying (or indicating) that there is oil-pressure! The fluid capacities are approx. 25 gallons of petrol, 12 gallons of water and 15-litres of oil.

Climbing into the lofty driving seat, I was confronted by a metal dash carrying those expensive, Parisian-made Jaeger instruments, in the form of a speedometer (120 m.p.h. and with a window labelled TRIP) and a tachometer (reading to 3,000 r.p.m.). There is also a clock, a Le Nivex fuel-gauge, a four-prong petrol-tap, and a big lever which, turned across the facia, drops the door of the exhaust cut-out. This particular white-elephant then emits a deep bark, so penetrating that a chap ran out of a nearby pub and remarked “They don’t make ’em like that any more, do they ?”— really ! The centre of this facia is occupied by the clever Renault switch-panel, which has a dial functioning as both ammeter and voltmeter, the tiny magneto kill-button, and which opens to reveal the electrical mysteries. What is so ingenious is that as it opens the ignition is cut, so that nothing can be tampered with while the engine is running.

The 5-spoke, 17 in.-diameter steering wheel carries an enormous horn-ring which turns to select town or country notes from the Amplor VR horn that lives ahead of the engine. Here, too, is the dynastarter, of SEV (which means Renault) make. On various occasions Cecil Clutton has remarked on this being the weak feature of the 45. It may be so in cold or damp conditions. I can only say that Woolley’s car commenced quietly every time merely by depression of the floor starter-button, although it had not previously been out this year. I know Renault provide a half-compression camshaft-sliding lever (and I believe an adjacent second starter-button) at the front of the chassis but we had no recourse to use these on this occasion.

The steering wheel is so big that you tend to peer round it. Besides that horn-ring, it has the usual minor controls, labelled Ouvert/ Depart, Ferme/Marche, and GAZ/AIR. The gear lever and hand-brake lever are on the right, the gear positions the reverse of normal, i.e., second and top forward, reverse, bottom and third towards the bench seat. Both fall readily to hand, as they say, especially as the hand-brake, close to the gear-lever but beyond it, has the Renault horizontal grip. The screen is a two-pane, with mounted spot-lamp.

Enormous as this Renault 45 seems from without, once you are in it all impression of being out in a juggernaut vanishes. Moreover, driving it is relatively easy. The gearbox has no tricks and anyway, almost all the running can be done in top gear, in spite of this giving rather more than 30 m.p.h. per 1,000 r.p.m. The steering is light, without too much kick, and the accelerator is to the right of the other pedals. At its best on Routes Nationales, Ted Woolley has taken his great beast for long Continental runs, when it is ideal for towing his 1897 Daimler on a trailer, when that worthy veteran is not performing ably under its own power. Nevertheless, climbing out and down from this unforgettable Renault 45 I was in full agreement with the gentleman who had left his drinking to see what was exhausting into the open outside the window of the bar.

—W.B.