The chance find of three Napier engines in the caribbean has brought hope of making a famous record-holder run again. Bill Boddy relates how Segrave’s car differed from the machines it beat to take the LSRs
As announced last month the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu plans to raise funding to restore to running order the Irving Napier LSR car ‘Golden Arrow’. The LSR is very much in the news now, after the magnificent through-the-sound-barrier world speed record by Richard Noble’s Thrust SSC, so ably driven by Squadron Leader Andy Green.
It seems a long time ago since the beautifully costumed ‘Golden Arrow’ took Major Henry De Hane Segrave, soon to be knighted, to a new LSR of 231.446mph at Daytona Beach in America, in 1929. It is an important historical event, nevertheless.
One reason is that previously the record Segrave would have set his sights on would have been his own great landmark of over 203mph in 1927. But this had been broken by that experienced LSR contender Sir Malcolm Campbell in 1928 (with the Napier-Bluebird at 206.456mph) and then by the Americans (with the unwieldy 81-litre triple-Liberty-engined White Triplex Special) to 207.552mph later that year. Segrave’s speed had not been bettered by very much but he saw the need to retaliate, especially with the determined Malcolm Campbell ever after this top accolade, and a worthy rival.
Segrave’s new project took a fresh direction. Both his 200mph Sunbeam and the two very different cars with which, some time before, Campbell had first exceeded 150mph and Segrave had just managed to raise this record had been built in the Sunbeam Company’s experimental department in Wolverhampton, with a wealth of motor racing experience and Louis Coatalen to guide them. But the ‘Golden Arrow’, the new car with which Segrave faced the performance of the Triplex, was to be built as a private venture, in the much more modest engineering works of the KLG sparking-plug company on Kingston Hill in Surrey. It was a bold venture, and rather more optimistic, lacking the facilities and know-how that had backed LSR attempts from 1925.
This is not to suggest that the ‘Golden Arrow’ was to be designed and built by a bunch of amateurs. Indeed, it was to be the work of Capt J S Irving, who had left Sunbeam’s where he had played a large part in the success of the 200mph Sunbeam. And whereas the renowned Campbell Bluebirds were really one basic car developed along the years, the Golden Arrow was to be a brand-new contender. Although the cost of the new car in terms then-current has been estimated as only just over £10,000, it was to be paid for by finance raised by the respected and determined Segrave, whereas Campbell was reputed to have spent £9700 on having his first Napier-powered Bluebird built and another £16,000 on its development up to 1935. And the record attacks themselves were an ever-increasing expense.
Yet when the wily Coatalen decided that it would be a worthwhile aim to put the LSR to a really impressive figure at a time when the share-holders were questioning the cost of his racing exploits with Sunbeam and Talbot-Darracq cars, he did this for an absurdly low outlay. And the object of bringing in the so-called ‘1000hp’ 200mph Sunbeam here is that, in spite of this economical approach, it and Segrave secured the intended 200mph target with remarkably little trouble, which was likewise a feature of the Golden Arrow’s LSR two years later.
Briefly, what Coatalen did, after finding two discarded ex-racing boat 22.5-litre V12 four-camshaft 48-valve Matabele engines in the works, and deciding that their combined 870bhp (at 2000rpm) would suffice, was to get Capt Jack Irvine to install them in a suitable car. They were put one in front, one in the tail of a massive chassis frame, driving through a three-speed and reverse gearbox to final drive by sprockets and chains. An aluminium body covered all this mechanism and hid the primitive chain final drive. The front Matabele engine was cooled by a frontal water radiator, with two more behind the cockpit for the rear engine. Dunlop had to make special thin-tread 35x6in tyres for the anticipated 200-plus mph pace, and Coatalen decided to have four-wheel-brakes for the short Daytona course, with only four miles of pull-up distance. Segrave was in charge of the organisation and this monster twin-engined Sunbeam, which had cost only about £5400 to build, had the promise of sponsorship and bonuses from Castrol, KLG, Dunlop, BP, TB Andre and David Moseley (for the upholstery).
If starting up two enormous engines with a total of 45 litres, 96 valves, 48 sparking plugs and eight magnetos posed a problem, it was solved by getting the rear one going on compressed air and then hand-clutching it in to start up the front engine, after which a dogclutch engaged with the aforesaid hand lever connected the twin power units, which were thereafter controlled by a single accelerator, and the main clutch. Reduction gearing was used ahead of the main clutch and the estimated top speeds in the gears were 73, 138 and 212mph at maximum engine speed. The 3¼-ton weight of this 23½ t long Sunbeam did not seem to matter, the nose being of armour plating, and as fuel would be consumed at around 3mpg, a 28-gallon tank occupied the tail.
This was about the crudest of the professionally built LSR cars, yet entirely fascinating. The engines were run-up on the test-rig at Wolverhampton. Watching, Segrave said “I stood and stared at the car. Was one continuous roar. Racing cars I had driven by the dozen but this was something more gigantic than any yet dreamed of. That I was to drive it, unleash all its potential, was unnerving. It was the only time I have stood in front of a car and doubted human ability to control it’.
But it all went off very easily. Segrave, the Sunbeam, 21 crates of spares and tyres and crew sailed on the Berengaria with a 3-litre twin-cam Sunbeam (the Olympia show car) as a runabout. After three trial runs along the nine-mile course and some modifications to the car the record attack was on. The great car was difficult to control — with half of a 22.5-litre engine overhanging the back axle oversteer must have been prevalent — so that Segrave had to cope with swerves which put him into the sea’s edge and cut down marker posts beyond the timed section on his first run, but the old record was bettered by over 28mph, the biggest margin yet, to 203.792mph.
It was even smoother for the ‘Golden Arrow’. This was a much more conventional car, with an ex-Schneider Trophy Supermarine S5 seaplane 24-litre Napier Lion engine developing 925bhp at 3300rpm (as Campbell had used in his latest Bluebird) in a normal chassis. The aluminium Thrupp and Maberly body cloaked the three cylinder banks very closely, as on those racing seaplanes. To further reduce drag, two splayed prop-shafts were used to turn bevel-gear final drives in the differential-less back axle, so that Segrave could sit low between them.
Large ribbed brake drums were used on all four wheels, the special Dunlop tyres ran at 125Ib/sq in, and built-in jacks assisted at the required twoway turnaround. It was thought that the low drag would compensate for the power output, which was not much higher than the Sunbeam had had. The golden paint finish gave the car its name. Streamlining was enhanced by inter-wheel surface radiators outside the body, fairing-in half the diameters; ice was as an emergency substitute. A tail fin aided directional stability.
Whereas Segrave had tried the Sunbeam for some 300 yards round the Wolverhampton factory before the car was crated for its journey to Florida, and his test runs at Daytona had covered some 54 miles, (during which the gear ratios were inadvisedly lowered, at a cost of 15mph to the final record) he had never driven the ‘Golden Arrow’ before it, too, left for Daytona. There, after one test run at some 180mph and a 14 day wait for the weather, Segrave went for the record and set it to 231.446mph. The turnaround occupied just over six minutes, including changing all four wheels and repairing a leaking air cock in the cooling system that had been spraying the windscreen. Noble’s crew this year failed to do the far more complex work on Thrust SSC on its first attempt, and later met the hour limit by just 49 seconds, so perhaps the time needs extending for today’s more technical LSR bidders.
It had gone wonderfully smoothly for Segrave in 1929, who received news that he was to be given a knighthood on his return home on the Olympic. Before his departure he had been given a send-off party in London at which the Prince of Wales, the Prime Minister, the Home Secretary, and the American Ambassador were present — if Noble wasn’t such a nice chap this might make him a trifle envious! Gilbert Frankau was also there and he said to Segrave, as he looked at the Golden Arrow, “I wouldn’t drive that car for all the in the world”. De Hane replied, “It’s the boat that puts the breeze up me,” the 3300hp Miss England II being on show as well. How sadly prophetic! Segrave was killed at Lake Windermere in 1930 after raising the Water Speed Record to 98.76mph…
Back to the Golden Arrow. After the record it had run a total of only about 36 miles. “As new — one careful owner!” This compares to a maximum of approximately 74 miles by the 200mph Sunbeam, including a Brooklands demonstration of about a mile. Segrave travelled on his return in a special train, carrying the banner “Welcome Home Segrave”, to Waterloo, where big crowds awaited him and he was met by the Lord Mayor of London, the Mayor of Westminster, and Sir Charles Cheers Wakefield, before a cavalcade of cars accompanied him in a Rolls-Royce to Westminster for a Government reception. TV has toned down such happenings, but I trust something similar was arranged for Richard Noble and his team on their home-coming?
After an exhibition-tour of Australia, the ‘Golden Arrow’ was sent back to England, the property of the Wakefield Company, whose Castrol Oil Segrave had used. They eventually gave it to the National Motor Museum, where it has a proud place alongside the 150mph Sunbeam, 200mph Sunbeam, and Donald Campbell’s 400mph £900,000 Bluebird. Lord Montagu gave a party after Castrol had delivered the car to Beaulieu, and in view of the minimal mileage it had covered I suggested to him that it, would be splendid if he, whom I knew to be a very capable driver, could try to break the existing British LSR with it, standing to Sir Malcolm Campbell at 2176mph with his Napier Arrol-Aster in 1929 on his disappointing world record bid at Verneuk Pan in South Africa, then British territory. But it was explained to me that the Arrow’s engine had not been properly inhibited against corrosion during its tour and that it was, sadly, a non-runner. One hopes that, with three Napier Lion engines now available, the Museum will receive enough sponsorship to get the ‘Golden Arrow’ going again, if only for demonstration outings.