"Brighton" Napier

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If a tricycle was first home in this year’s Veteran Car Run (see Brighton Breezes) Johnny Thomas also arrived early in his Napier. This was no mean feat, especially as it was his first competitive outing in a car he has been working on for the past four years and which had its first test-run just over a week before being loaded into his Ford Transit and taken from Wales to London, together with son Christopher’s 1903 Phoenix forecar, which was also competing.

If this 1902 30hp Napier is what it is thought to be it is of immense historical significance. It has yet to be dated by the VCC, so I must be careful not to write anything to prejudice these experts’ conclusions. Let it be said that Johnny is quite open about his latest exciting possession: in fact, the Napier carries a plaque stating that it has been reconstructed round the correct engine, using as many original parts as possible. What makes this early racing car so special is that it is apparently the very car that S F Edge drove to victory in the 1902 Gordon Bennett race from Paris to Innsbruck, averaging 31.8mph for the 351½ miles. Edge, who was Napier’s great publicist, was at the wheel for over eleven hours. Never mind that the rest of the competitors, a Panhard, CGV and Mors, failed to finish. The Napier won, the first “to wear the green” for England, and the first British car to win an International race.

The matter is of rather droll consequence, remembering that in 1987 Lord Montagu was able to import from America a 1903 GB Napier, as being the oldest surviving British racing car, and therefore a priceless heirloom. (Cost: over £250,000, met by a £150,000 grant from the National Heritage Memorial Trust, public donations, and free air-freighting from the USA.) Be that as it may, Johnny Thomas heard that the engine from the winning 1902 GB Napier was in the possession of a British motor-trader and acquired it, together with other parts, in February 1989. The story of this deservedly famous car before that is interesting. It appears that the Napier Company retained the I 902 GB winner for a time, using it in speed-trials, etc, after which it was, as confirmed by Lord Montagu in his excellent book on the Gordon Bennett races (Cassell, 1963), sold by Edge (who had spent £1,418 on it and racing it to victory) to a Mr Arthur Brown of Luton, for £1,200. In due course the Marquess of Anglesey acquired it but eventually a former employee of Edge’s, H M Bater, who was going to work at the Napier depot at Buffalo Plains in the USA, shipped it out there, in 1911.

This proved a profitable move, because the racing car was seen in 1912 by Mr Wentworth Erickson who had run an early chain-drive Napier which he had traded-in for a 1906 model, when he was at the Boston depot and he decided to buy it as a fun-car, using it between his town house in Massachusetts and his summer residence at Maine. The car was suitable for this purpose, because Bater had somewhat modified it, equipping it with massive touring mudguards and converting the quadrant gear-change to a gate change, etc. Either then, or later, its ugly Clarkson radiator was replaced by a Napier honeycomb one with the customary Napier “water tower” filler neck. Lord Montagu, for whom research was done by that renowned motoring historian the late Michael Sedgwick, says in his aforesaid book that the 1902 GB Napier “survived until the late 1920s”, and later that it was “broken up between the two World Wars”.

I have no reason or right to dispute such authorities. Lord Montagu was, at the time of writing, quite correct in saying that the great racing Napier Samson “must also be presumed lost”, but we know that after its engine had been located by Bob Chamberlain in Australia, he reconstructed Samson. And that while Parry Thomas’s biographer Hugh Tours was perfectly justified in saying at the time he wrote his book that “Babs” had been buried at Pendine and “will never be disturbed”, yet it was disinterred by Owen Wyn Owen and made to run again.

Having offered you those thoughts, let us proceed. The 1902 GB Napier was thought later to have then been dismantled and the chunks of it left derelict until they were obtained by the American enthusiast George Waterman, who already had the 1904 GB Napier, and the 100hp GB car. Both were restored for him by Frank Johnson. The bits of the 1902 racer apparently went to another American who, if I have the sequence correctly, obtained them when the Harrah collection was disbanded and then they came to England. When Johnny Thomas took them over the camshaft and carburettor were missing, but both axles and steering-column (with a hole where the ignition cut-out went, that was part of racing-car driving in those days) were with the impressive power unit. Then commenced an enormous amount of research involving a visit to the USA. Here someone found the proper carburettor and later sent it over to Johnny. The rest of the car had to be carefully reconstructed, from photographs and drawings, and various magazines, the Science Museum, and the National Motor Museum being very helpful. Thomas had a 1912 gearbox and was able to recreate the 1902 box, casting a new lid, his son Christopher made lots of chassis brackets, and in the home workshop the many components took form, starting with the chassis of 2in x 2in ash. Oliver Green made the fixed wheels, using some of the original spokes as patterns, and for the mechanical parts patterns and gearbox internals were made in Swansea, castings in Stoke-on-Trent, machining was done in Kidderminster and drawings sorted out in Alcester. Some parts Johnny was able to exchange for others, and the final hectic weeks of work were aided by help from Keith Hill Restorations. It was estimated that the car ran again 90 years and four months since it had first done so in the Napier factory.

Intrigued, after I had got back to the peace of Wales after the Brighton Run (described elsewhere) I drove in the Ford to see this ancient racing motor car. It is impressive indeed! The four-cylinder 5in x 5in 6½-litre engine has four overhead automatic inlet valves and a side exhaust valve per cylinder, the latter of 2½in dia with a stem some eight inches long. A cone clutch, now Ferodo-lined, takes the drive to a shaft-driven back axle. The 3-speed gearbox functions nicely. Reverse is engaged with a toggle-handle on the floor, some thought having to be devoted to not letting it engage while another gear is in mesh. A single trembler coil looks after ignition, via the famous Napier Patent Synchroniser in a large wooden box, with glass inspection window, on the dash, the drive to which is by chain, with exposed pinions working the advance and retard. Ronald Barker and other friends have plied Johnny Thomas with Napier and S F Edge sparking plugs. The radiator is a copy of the 1902 Clarkson one, and the fan is driven by a long length of bicycle chain. It has a clutch which the driver can engage for extra cooling, as when the car was stationary in a GB control station. This radiator was made with great skill by John Underhill. Under the racing seats the 35-gallon petrol tank feeds to the low-set Napier carburettor by gravity.

An imposing aspect of this early racing engine is the very large copper inlet manifold on the near-side with curving pipes to the ports, those for cylinders 3 and 4 curved back more than those for nos 1 and 2 cylinders. On the off-side are the four big exhaust pipes, feeding at present into one silencer. Another fine copper pipe curves over the cylinder block to take warm air to the carburettor, from an exhaust muff. Cooling is on the Panhard system, involving a big copper water-tank where most cars have a fuel tank, with the pump flywheel-driven. The dash carries an oiler-box with three drip-feeds, for engine bearings and cylinder walls, only two being in use (I believe, this, although labelled Napier Oiler, and the speedometer, may not be original) and a very big advance/retard ignition control. Curiously the only means of filling the sump appears to be through the crankcase breathers. The spoon accelerator pedal is between the other pedals, and has a heel-rest. The body, not yet painted (what colour, in 1902?) consists only of the high-mounted seats and a tail box. The lift-off bonnet has the raised top-panel, typical of the period. The tyres are 875 x 105 herringbone Dunlops.

Johnny Thomas was naturally overjoyed that his Napier, on which so much money and energy had been expended, got so successfully to Brighton; he was able to get into high speed only when on the motorways and in second gear some 45mph was attained. No doubt we shall hear much more of it. Intriguing?

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