Vintage Postbag, January 1968
What Is It? — A Solution Sir, With reference to the letter and photograph from…
Long before I was old enough to drive, let alone own a car, I used to derive enormous pleasure from keeping my eyes open for the more unusual or exciting machines that roamed the roads. I am sure young enthusiasts do exactly that today, but with less reward, perhaps, because cars have lost much of their one-time individuality and fewer enthralling ones are likely to be seen. When I was a boy the multiplicity of different makes alone rendered carspotting worthwhile.
It was the practice to take a census of those that passed by, or which were encountered on a journey. I indulged in this, clutching the proverbial penny-notebook, when on holiday at an aunt’s in Buckinghamshire, on the country road stretching away from the village of Waddesdon towards Kingswood, now the busy A41 but then grass-verged and with cars frustratingly infrequent when one was avid to produce a comprehensive list. Later I used to compare notes with a friend, who had the advantage of living near country roads, I now with London streets and showrooms to investigate. I would tell him of things like a Cunard-bodied open 40/50 Napier that lived locally, and of seeing the angular Parry Thomas/Rapson Lanchester Forty parked outside Sprosen’s in Great Street, in the showroom windows of which “street of cars” one might see a 1922 straight-eight TT Sunbeam or the racing Buick which Miller raced at Brooklands.
The friend who was as keen as I was at spotting rare cars was, in fact, the late Max Williamson, who later had a fine side-valve Riley tourer (a car I approved of, after a school-master had given me a fast ride in his aluminium and red Riley “Redwing” two-seater), Max went to live near Stroud and became, in consequence, knowledgeable about Hamptons. It was some years before this, though, that I used to see a gentleman cranking-up his Piccard-Pictet tourer in Atkins Road, Clapham Park, when that part of London still abounded in quiet grass-lined roads and large Victorian houses with private drives. Maybe the owner was easing the sleeve valves, before pressing the starter-button of this unusual motor-car, but I would not have known about that. What I do know is that it was about the only example of this Swiss make that I ever met up with.
In England, indeed, the Piccard-Pictet (“Pic-Pic” in colloquial language) was never a very popular car. It had started with the construction, in Geneva, of a racing car ordered by the Dufaux brothers, for the 1904 Gordon Bennett race in Germany. This car, to represent Switzerland, in that country’s National colours of red-andyellow, was designed by Frederic Dufaux. It was an advanced racing car, with a straighteight engine of 125 x 130 mm (14,763 cc) possessing mechanically-operated overhead inlet valves. It is sad to have to record that this exciting car, said to be capable of 84 mph, was a non-starter. The Dufaux brothers tried again in 1905, when the GB race was run in France, and this time had a truly immense car built for them, the fourcylinder 225 x 166 mm engine having a capacity of 26,400 cc. Alas, again it was withdrawn, as were two of the 1904 straighteight Dufaux entries, after a dispute as to who should pay the race entry-fees, Dufaux or the Swiss AC.
As an aside, it is significant that had this not occurred there might have been a future for the Dufaux, because the Hon C S Rolls became interested in the make and had the aforesaid monster shipped to England. Said to poke out 150 bhp, it had to be completed on the boat, and when Rolls ran it in the Brighton Speed Trials it was a disaster. So perhaps, after all, no future there! Soon afterwards Rolls met Royce and the RollsRoyce was born. . .
To be fair to the persistent Dufaux, the straight-eights did run in a few speed trials, and in 1907 one of these 1904 cars, entered as a Dufaux-Marchand, was driven by Frederic in the French Grand Prix at Dieppe, but, running near the end of the field, it retired after seven of the ten laps. Incidentally, two of the other entrants, Porthos and Weigel, also had straight-eight engines, as had the Winton in the 1903 Gordon Bennett race. One of the eight-cylinder Pic-Pics ended up in the Swiss Transport Museum at Lucerne.
After that baptism in car-making, the Ste des Automobiles a Geneve was formed in 1905 to make cars for sale to the public. It started with the right approach, having engaged Marc Birkigt to design for it, the great engineer who was to achieve prominence as the creator of the Hispano Suiza, which by 1919 was a rival of the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost. Known at first as SAGs, indeed the Pic-Pics were called the “Rolls-Royce of Switzerland”.
The first to appear were large fourcylinder models, the 20/24 and 35/40 hp Piccard-Pictets. It seems likely that after a year or two Pic-Pic had enlisted their own designer, draughtsmen and engineers, as Birkigt was by then involved with Hispano Suiza. Quite soon the Piccard-Pictet was represented in Great Britain, handled here by Donne & Williams, who has premises in London’s Belgravia. There were other cars made in Switzerland, including, for instance, the Martini and the Zedel, but with some 150 different makes competing for sales on the home market, not many Swiss cars appeared on our roads. This applies to the Pic-Pic, excellent as was its reputation as a well-made high-grade motor-car. It was the same at Brooklands, where the make was seldom seen. But Col Sir Stewart Gore-Brown, RFA, DSO, an Army Officer, (the nephew of H F Locke King who had built the Track) had seen this happening, afterwards having the run of the place, driving any cars that came his way. He ran Piccard-Pictets there in 1909, but with no great success. His 25.6 hp 1908 TT car lapped at 62.06 mph. (When I met Sir Stewart at a race meeting in the 1950s he had an open vintage 4Y2-litre Bentley).
By this time the Pic-Pics were made in 3.8-litre four-cylinder 100 x 120 mm 18/24 hp and 120 x 130 mm 5.9-litre 50 hp versions, of which the respective chassis prices were £540 and £680. They were conventional cars of good specification, having pressure lubrication, h t magneto ignition, disc clutches, propshaft drive and ample seating space, complete cars being offered at prices starting at £620, which undercut most of the cars in the £600 to £700 price range in 1908, including the Martini, Spyker, Sunbeam, Talbot, Napier and Zust. However, for the same price as the 18/24 hp Pic-Pic customers could have a well-established 14/20 hp Renault or a 30 hp Daimler. . . The four-cylinder 18/24 hp car had engine dimensions like those of the smaller of the 1906 Hispano Suizas, so, although Birkigt had presumably moved to Spain, could this Pic-Pic have had the Hispano engine? Be that as it may, the pattern followed that of many other manufacturers of the time, in that from 1907 a six-cylinder 28/32 hp car was added to the mediumsized fours, and then, as motoring became more popular (in the rest of Europe if not in Switzerland) a smaller model was made, to appeal to less affluent motorists, in this case a 2.4-litre 14/18 hp chassis.
The next development was similar to that adopted by several other makers of luxury cars at this period, namely to use a sleevevalve engine to court quiet running, although in that year, 1912, poppet-valved four-cylinder cars with engines of 16 hp and 20 hp were in the range, the latter in two forms, of which the larger had a bore and stroke of 90 x 170 mm. Whereas Daimler in this country and Minerva in Belgium led the Knight double-sleeve-valve drive, which Mercedes in Germany flirted with and other makes also went over to, Piccard-Pictet used the Burt McCollum single-sleeve valve, taken on also by Argyll, and after the war by Arrol-Aster and by Vauxhall for their 1925 25/70 S-type, as well as by a few designers of racing-car engines. With its semi-rotary sleeve movement this engine was thought by some to be superior to the Knight.
Apart from which, in 1912 when poppet valves were not 100% dependable, required fairly frequent tappet adjustment, and used less reliable springs than are now available, a valveless power-unit was seen to have definite points in its favour, one of which was more accurate opening of the inlet ports. To drive the Burt McCollum sleeves Argyll used a hinge-pin in conjunction with a sliding plunger in the crankshaft arm to induce the required oscillatory and semirotary motion to the sleeve. However, this made for a heavy sleeve assembly. An alternative was to employ a ball-and-socket joint instead of the hinge-pin, which was lighter, more compact, and less expensive to make. However, Piccard-Pictet scorned both methods of drive. Instead, they used two half-speed cranks, one at either side of each cylinder, operating the sleeve from the centre of a bar coupling these cranks, a sliding block at the coupling bar looking after synchronisation of the two cranks and their throws. It was an expensive solution but one which endorses the high quality of these cars. (Argyll had purchased the Burt McCullom patents from the British and Canadian inventors and presumably Pic-Pic paid royalties to the Scottish company).
The change to sleeve-valve engines did not deter competition work, which the Swiss company had indulged in to a small extent before that, in hillclimbs and speed trials, in France and in minor Spanish races, and with an entry for Andre Debuissey in the 1908 TT. Thus encouraged, it ventured, more ambitiously, to enter two cars in that dramatic 1914 French Grand Prix at Lyons, which Mercedes dominated with a 1,2,3 finish, on the eve of war. The Piccard-Pictets were exciting-looking cars. The formerly ordinary radiator styling had given way to a handsome vee-radiator of aggressive appearance and these shortwheelbase racers had open-sided cockpits, composed of little more than the seats, and bolster fuel tanks (although William Court writes of pointed tails). The engines were reduced slightly in size from the production version, to comply with the 41/2-litre racelimit, and front brakes were an innovative feature, shared with Peugeot, Delage and Fiat. The cars were entrusted to Tournier (not to be confused with the great Henri Fournier), who had been the Pic-Pic works driver for some time, and a young Englishman, Thomas Clarke. Alas, exciting these GP cars may have looked, but they had no success. Clarke was out by halfdistance; Tournier kept going until two laps from the finish but was then only in 14th place.
None of this could have helped sales in Britain. Not for want of trying, however. The concessionaires, who were also agents for the Rochet-Schneider, exhibited Pic-Pics at Olympia, where the big 28 hp six with landaulette body “seating five inside and with full set of lamps”, was modestly priced in 1910 at £975. One staunch user of the car from Switzerland was W Donaldson, KC. The eminent barrister had had three up to 1913, the last a 30/40 hp with Million-Guiet limousine-landaulette body, complete with roof-rack and a running board stowagebox. The radiator was not yet vee-shaped, but had scallops rather like an exaggeration of those on a Leon-Bollee or a Mors.
During the war the Company, which since 1910 had been named Piccard-Pictet et Cie, received large orders from the Swiss Army for their cars. So durable were these that some were still in service in that country after a dozen years or more. Yet after the Armistice Swiss vehicles remained a rarity here, where much more frequently seen in the 1920s and ’30s were the Saurer and, to a lesser extent, Bema lorries, both with a fine reputation, rather as the ERF had, in later times. It is remarkable how many pre-war racing cars found their way to Britain after the war. I think this was because, while Continental drivers looked for improved machinery, the handicapping system at Brooklands gave any kind and age of car some sort of a chance, so old GP and other racers found a market here, if not always finding their way to the Track. Among them was a 1914 GP Piccard-Pictet, which had been discovered by Capt C A Wallace, who was on the advertising staff of The Autocar. He ran it at the 1919 Southend speed-trials, its scuttle being damaged by a cow on the way there. He then had a 4-seater touring body (with concealed hood and retaining the vast exhaust-pipe curving from the near-side of the bonnet to beneath the running-board) made for it by the London Improved Motor Coachbuilders. The fascia carried eight dials. The Reg No was LU 7305.
To recall the car’s racing days, but road-equipped, as found, the new owner had a model of it made for him to a scale of 3/4 in : ft by G Weguelin of Chertsey, a distant relative of the author of the “History of the ERA”. At the 1919 Pads Salon an 85 x 130 mm 2.9-litre four cylinder Pic-Pic was shown but the sensation was the vee-eight chassis with two of these cylinder blocks set at 60-deg. Eight-cylinder automobiles were then being made by Apperson, Cadillac, Darracq, De Dion, Guy, Oldsmobile and Peerless, and lsotta Fraschini had a straight-eight, Leyland’s pioneer British chassis of this kind having yet to surface. But such engines were still regarded as daringly innovative. The Pic-Pic retained sleeve valves and a single carburettor and magneto were within the vee. Unusually for those days, oil could be replenished through fillers on the top of each cylinder block. The handsome vee radiator was very tall, which some thought ugly, others impressive, but which did allow for a good coolant capacity and long water pipes to serve the 5881 cc engine.
The wheelbase was 13’2″, the tyres 880 x 120, and with Swiss Alps in mind 400 x 40 mm ribbed brake drums were provided on all wheels and there was a 350 mm diameter transmission brake. At 2000 rpm the top-gear pace was 73 mph but it was suggested that 1000 rpm gave an ample touring speed; which shows how sedate even large cars were then. The Piccard-Pictet was now made in France and there was talk of English manufacture. But such plans failed. The new vee-eight, with typical curved scuttle and recessed fascia, made the Paris Salon but was absent from Olympia in 1919, its bodywork styles having to be shown on the 16 hp chassis, which cost £1050, when it was hoped to sell the new 3-litre Bentley chassis for £850 — but that was but a mock-up. Pic-Pic showed a model of the vee-engine. Both Pic-Pics had dry-sump lubrication, most unusual for a production car (no, I have not forgotten the first Bertelli Aston Martins), maybe to humour the sleeves. Oil was taken to the piston’s gudgeon pins, and was carried in a dashboard tank.
A 16 hp tourer (XC 5591) weighing 32 1/2 cwt tested here did 54.86 mph over the Brooklands mile and 14.86 mph up the Test Hill but two of its Bosch plugs disintegrated. The engine was at its best on the open road, emitting “a gobbling sleevevalve sound and a hardness and sense of effort” in traffic. The demo driver was a Mr De Peyrecave of Ware & de Freville, who appeared disappointed the car wasn’t quicker, although it had an illegally “free” exhaust — and a kph speedo. But good finish and the convenience of items like a gearbox-driven tyre inflator were commended. There was also a rod which scraped on the flywheel to warn the driver not to start-up unless oil was circulating! For the 1920 London Show bodies by J Wright of Hendon graced the Pic-Pic. But high quality and good build failed to save it. Exports had been poor, home-sales hampered by imports of cheaper cars, no doubt Fords and Chevrolets (a warning here!). Little more was heard of this worthy make. But could the one I used to see as a boy have been one of the impressive vee-eights, or even that re-bodied 1914 GP car? W B
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