Veteran to Classic

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Forgotten Makes No 95: The DFP

If the DFP is remembered at all it is usually because WO Bentley and his brother HM sold these cars here before the First World War, from the London mews in which the first 3-litre Bentley engine was assembled and run, as a BDC plaque on the building commemorates. Otherwise, this rather good car from Courbevoie on the Seine has been largely forgotten.

The DFP was the concept of Doriot and Flandrin, who had gained experience at Clement-Bayard and Peugeot before commencing to make little single-cylinder, shaft-drive cars of their own brand, in 1906. After Parant joined them the cars became DFPs, and from 1908 four-cylinder Chapuis-Dornier-engined models were produced, as well as the voiturettes. There was a venture into the six-cylinder market in 1911, with a 25/30hp DFP. But the model which earned the company the respect of the growing number of French autocarists was the 10/12hp small car, introduced the year previously, with a four-cylinder engine of just 1.6 litres. The company had begun to make its own engines and an even bigger success was its 12/15hp car, of fractionally over 2 litres capacity.

In England the make was handled by Lecoq & Fernie, who also held the agencies for Buchet and La Licorne. It was this rundown concern which WO Bentley and his brother HM Bentley took over in 1912, after ‘WO’ had become tired of administrating to 500 two-cylinder Unic taxis for the National Motor Cab Co. The brothers paid £4000 for the moribund agency, a lot of money in present-day values. The other makes were dropped and from the showrooms in Hanover Street ‘HM’ and a secretary, with GP de Freville of later Alvis associations as Manager, sought to improve the DFP’s reputation with British motorists. Meanwhile, ‘WO’ had rented the coachhouse in New Street Mews off London’s Upper Baker Street (which was to become famous, as already noted) from JH Easter, who did DFP bodywork trimming.

A great believer in the publicity won by participation in competition events, ‘WO’ got a hardworking mechanic, Leroux, to come over from France, to help him. This worthy chap not only looked after the servicing and tuning-up of customer’s DFPs but prepared the racing cars and went at times as ‘WO’s’ riding mechanic. Chassis were imported from the parent company and bodywork made for them by Harrison’s of Stanhope Street. AH Ward joined ‘WO’ and ‘HM’ as the third Director of Bentley & Bentley and all three used DFP saloons. Three models were available, the aforesaid 10/12 and 12/15, and a heavy, sluggish bi-block 15/25, the 3-litre four-cylinder engine which would not respond to tuning. At least one customer was pleased with his 10hp DFP, which did 45mph and, a 1911 model, had run more than 10,000 miles, decarbonised at intervals of 4000 miles, the bearings taken up at 8000 miles, and the tyres replaced every 4000 to 5000 miles — the car owner’s chores of those times.. . . The DFP’s engine ran sweetly at 37 mph but the ride became too lively at over 35 mph, unless the four-seater body was fully laden. Be that as it may, it was the 12/15hp DFP on which WO Bentley concentrated. It was a conventional chassis, with a longstroke 70 x 130mm engine, leather-lined cone clutch, four speed and reverse gearbox, a wheelbase of 9ft 7in, running on 760 x 90 tyres on fixed wooden wheels. The three-bearing crankshaft was pressure-lubricated but the Claudel carburettor fed into a two-branch manifold on the offside from where, no doubt to ‘WOs’ disgust, cast-in passages led through the block to the side-by-side valves. An unusual feature was the gear lever which, instead of sliding across the gate, was pivoted, and dynamo lighting did not become a standard fitting until after the war. In 1913 this chassis sold for £275, compared to £200 for the 10hp chassis, £350 for the 15.8hp DFP chassis. The engine of the 12/25 DFP would run up to 2500 rpm and it was a lively car, capable of 55 mph.

In 1912 ‘WO’ took a standard-looking DFP two-seater to the Aston speed hillclimb meeting, near Tring, with his fiancée Leonie as passenger, and won his class, and the event outright on Formula. His tuning was paying off and he gained other successes at such meetings. When his own car proved capable of 70 mph, notably quick for a 2-litre at that time, he decided it was opportune to go to Brooklands and attack Class B (up to 2048cc) records, which were the preserve of Humber, Calthorpe and Arrol-Johnston cars. The story of how ‘WO’ went to France to persuade Doriot to incorporate his better induction arrangements on the standard engine, saw an aluminium paperweight on that gentleman’s desk, decided this was the future piston material, had DFP’s foundry people cast some, and installed them in a 12/15 engine, has become legend. I would not go so far as to say this was the absolute first time aluminium-alloy pistons were used in a production car engine, but it is the best known.

This development enabled ‘WO’ to offer the Speed Model DFP, with these pistons, a special camshaft, lightened con rods, and the improved inlet manifolding. It was distinguishable by a slightly vee radiator and wire wheels, and was able to do 65 mph. It also enabled him to put up some notable performances at Brooklands, such as the Class hour record at 82.15 mph and being timed over the half-mile at 89.70 mph. Sales improved, ‘WO’ drove around in his DFP saloon, enlisting subagents, and he was able to obtain another mechanic to assist Leroux, while M. Doriot’s young son also came to England to help. ‘WO’ even ran a DFP in the 1914 loM TT race and although it came home last, at 48.38 mph, for the smallest car entered to have finished this two-day 600 mile contest, from which 23 cars had retired, was further good DFP publicity.

Then came the devastating war. ‘HM’ went off to the front, Leroux was very soon dead in Flanders, and ‘WO’ went off to design his celebrated BR1 and BR2 rotary aero-engines at Humber’s in Coventry. When the Armistice came ‘WO’ was fully occupied with his own car but the demand for wheels was brisk, so as the 3-litre Bentley was not yet ready, Bentley & Bentley continued to sell DFPs. The 12hp model was now justifiably known as the 12/40. It retained its pre-war specification except for cantilever back springs, and Michelin disc wheels which were said to rather magnify transmission noises. An electric starter was now fitted, as well as a dynamo but the toll of war was reflected in the increased chassis price, up to £675.

Undaunted, Bentley & Bentley, still in Hanover Court, took a stand at the 1919 Olympia Show, where a mock-up 3-litre Bentley chassis was to be seen on Stand No 126. The DFP had an improved radiator and rumour had it that within an hour of the Show opening the four-seater, exhibited with a 12/40 chassis and a two-seater on Stand No 107, had been sold. AFC Hillsead joined Ward and to combat the congestion on French railways he, his Service Manager, and Walter Bentley drove DFP chassis, equipped with crude test-bodies, from the factory back to Dieppe. A Stand was taken at the 1920 London Show but by now the 12/40 chassis cost £760 and a four-seater £1050. Critics noticed that you had to lift the back seat cushion to lubricate the differential and that the Westinghouse starter was inaccessible. The 12/40 was little changed for 1921 but was still at the Show, with four-wheel brakes, and the 10/15 with a roomy body had joined it. The bigger four-seater now cost £865.

After 1922 HM Bentley was occupied with establishing the Bentley, so Ward joined with JK Driskell (whom some may remember as the blue-clad driver of DFP, and later Rally, cars in trials and speed events) in the DFP agency. The French Company was reverting to proprietary engines but in 1923 it managed to make its own overhead-valve 13/50hp sports model. At Olympia in 1923 Ward & Driskell of N Audley Street, showed 10/12 and 13/50 DFPs and also the 9.5hp 1095cc DFPetite, for which 60 mph was claimed from a sports 3-seater with polished boat-type body decking. But they were absent from the Show in 1924, and had by then moved to Albermarle Mansions, W1 . It was all finished, when the parent factory was taken over by Lafitte in 1926.

However, this did not spell the end of DFP racing activities. In 1921 `Mr HRS Birkin’, (who, of course, became Sir Henry Birkin, Bt, the famous ‘Bentley Boy’, who later raced the blower 4½ cars of this make) appeared at the Easter Brooklands Meeting with a 2-litre DFP. It seems that Lt Col Clive Gallop, knowing of Birkin’s desire to race, had fitted him up with the narrow peaked radiator and perhaps other components from WO’s pre-war fast DFP, which were lying discarded in the New Street Mews where Gallop was a prominent personality in the building of the 3-litre Bentley. The old DFP body was presumably unusable, because the Birkin DFP had a single-seater body made for it by Vickers, on the mahogany-planked, copper-sewn ‘Consuta’ principle patented by Saunders-Roe. Making his motor racing debut with this car, ‘HRS’ was on the limit mark in the Easter 100 mph Short Handicap, starting 4 seconds ahead of Woolf Barnato’s 8-litre Locomobile and McVicar’s 2.3-litre Waverley. A lap at 74.55 mph was unavailing; the DFP was slower in its next race, from which it retired. This driver of such future fame then entered, but kept away from, the Whitsun races. But by the Summer Meeting his aluminium bonnetted brown DFP lapped at 76.27 mph, to take second place in the ‘100 Short’ race, behind Lou King’s tiny A7, over which Birkin had had a start of no less than 38 seconds. He then opened at 77.21 mph in his next race but a re-handicap of 12 seconds left him to run home third, beaten by Capt Shipwright’s Armstrong Siddeley 30 and Swain’s Vauxhall, although it was a close-run thing, for that third place. Then, the DFP’s lap speed up to 80.33 mph, it netted another third place at the August Bank Holiday races, driven by Gallop. Gallop pulled out a lap at 81.51 mph later that afternoon, to come in second to a flat-twin Douglas car, which had been released 27 seconds earlier.

Gallop took the wheel again at the BARC Autumn Meeting, his lap speed up to 81.64 mph, but neither in this nor in his next race was he placed. Although the DFP’s speed was about up to that of WO Bentley’s pre-war car, at 90 mph or more, Birkin apparently thought Bentleys were better, for his DFP was seen no more. . . . However, in the 1923 JCC 200 Mile Race at Brooklands which the Brooklands ‘bookies’ quoted at 12 to 1, against 4 to 1 on the fastest Salmson. GL Hawkins drove an ohv DFPetite in the 1100cc class. It had a neat two-seater racing body with cowled radiator but lasted for only 23 of the 72 laps, when a rocker pedestal bolt sheared and the mechanic broke a file in the hole; after a half-hour delay trying to drill it out, the retirement was posted; with a hot drill, and a hot mechanic’s face, no doubt! WB

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