“Is racing played out? I think it is. Certainly it is of very little value today to the motor-car builder, and there are very few private owners indeed who will go to the big expense of running racing vehicles. . . .”
This somewhat gloomy assessment of the prospects for the Sport was enunciated rather over 40 years ago by Mr. Henry Sturmey, writing in the Autocar for July 8th, 1905; and whenever I have found myself tending to become depressed by the apparently discouraging outlook, I have taken comfort from the consideration of how often since that date similar views have been expressed by the most convincing authorities — and of how convincingly subsequent events have proved them to be wrong.
“No one is more ready than myself,” continued Mr. Sturmey on this occasion, “to admit that racing ten years ago did a very great deal for the development of the touring vehicle . . . but today the racing car has got beyond practicability. It is to all intents and purposes a freak .. .” One wonders what he would have thought of, say, the Continental racing cars of 1947, or whether he could have credited the number of enthusiasts who, forty years later, would have given at least one of their eyes to possess the 100-h.p. “freaks” which a few days before had been competing in the last of the GordonBennett races.
In 1905, however, his was by no means a lone voice crying in the wilderness. Thus, as he himself remarks, the Motor Review, published in Paris, had reported the previous month that, “French manufacturers . . . no longer look upon races as a means of providing data for enabling them to improve their cars. Having learned all they can from races, long-distance speed events can teach them nothing that they do not know [!] . . . It is now recognised that racing led makers to a point which threatened to do them a great deal of harm in the building of excessively light vehicles, and. .. it is now seen that very little more can be done in this direction.” It was not seen, evidently, that at this very moment the development of the automobile stood upon the very threshhold of the Coupe de l’Auto era for “excessively light vehicles,” which were to become the ancestors of the modern car; that long-distance speed events were still to teach these French manufacturers, so arrogant in their ignorance, the desirability of putting brakes on their front, as well as their back, wheels; that even the supercharger, so bitterly criticised, even in our own day, as purely the adjunct of the highly specialised racing car, should finally find its place, in the hands of an enterprising maker, as an essential part of a light delivery van, designed primarily for economy.
At about the same period as that when Mr. Sturmey was uttering his strictures, Mr. R. J. Mecredy, in his Dictionary of Motoring, was also indulging in an ex cathedra pronouncement in the same vein. “Racing,” he says, “is only of real value in the early stages where the cars are undeniably imperfect. Once a standard of high efficiency is reached [such as that attained circa 1905] these events become merely tests of horse-power and daring, and they encourage the production of monstrosities which arc utterly unsuitable for any purpose but racing.”
The next year, 1906, it was the turn of the Mercédès agent in France, of all people, a gentleman who rejoiced in the surname of Charley (having changed it from Lehmann to celebrate his French nationalisation!), to join in the chorus. “Mr. C. L. Charley,” reported the Autocar, “has been trying to create a little mild sensation by declaring that henceforth the Mercédès cars will have nothing to do with racing.” Our contemporary’s reporter, however, had no sympathy for Mr. Charley’s expressed reason for the decision. “It is not without interest to learn,” he remarks, “that the man who has always been such a staunch supporter of racing should have declared that he can no longer see any utility in it, but . . . we hardly suppose that the Cannstatt (sic) engineers will deprive themselves of the valuable experience obtained from racing because Mr. Charley would prefer having nothing more to do with it. It is easy to imagine that Mr. Charley must feel very sore over the failure of the Mercédès cars to figure prominently in the big races during the past two years. . . .” The last part of which was, perhaps, a fair comment on a matter of public Interest. In any case, the “Cannstatt” engineers were to prove, as our contemporary suggested might be the case, less easily discouraged than was their French representative, and one wonders whether the said Mr. Charley was still prepared to express the same contempt for the utility of racing after the Mercédès victory in the 1908 Grand Prix.
In any case by that year an even more ironical situation due to the same, or very nearly the same cause, had arisen in England. In September, on the very eve of the “Four-Inch Race,” Mr. S. F. Edge, it was reported, “has announced his intention of withdrawing Napier cars from all dangerous competitions in deference to the public feeling against dangerous racing.” “We presume he would call the ‘Four-Inch Race’ dangerous,” commented our contemporary; but for all that, Mr. Edge himself entered one of the Hutton cars built in the Napier works for it, and it was this car, which had already won fame for itself as “Little Dorrit” in more or less dangerous competitions at Brooklands, which proved the winner of the Isle of Man race!
Alas! however, there is seldom smoke without fire. The racing car, as Gerald Rose, writing in 1909, explains, had been becoming more and more a burden to the manufacturer, and when a movement was started for a self-denying ordinance to which all should subscribe, it met with a large measure of support. The A.C.F. did its best, it selected a circuit for the 1909 Grand Prix in Anjou, it produced a new set of rules, but it decided that the race would not be run unless a minimum of 40 entries were received. When the lists closed the actual number which had been sent in was nine. Gratefully, the leading manufacturers, learning that there would be no Grand Prix in 1909, decided that they could rest on their laurels. Undeterred, the A.C.F. started canvassing opinion about new regulations — or even no regulations at all — for 1910. Once more the manufacturers refused to co-operate; it really did look as if racing was dead.
Unfortunately for the complacency of those manufacturers whose names had become household words during the early years of the century, however, they had overlooked or been merely contemptuous of the little Coupe de l’Auto machines. The years rolled by and the voiturettes increased in power and speed, the fame of their victories eclipsed the ancient history of what the monsters had done, and, more or less suddenly, it must have come to be realised that Sunbeam or Vauxhall was more a name to conjure with than Napier or Wolseley, that Peugeot had again outshone Panhard et Levassor, its rival of the very early days of motor-racing; that Delage now meant more than De Dietrich, Hispano-Suiza more than Richard-Brasier or Renault. Even Mathis and Bugatti, that unconventional pair of Alsatians, were beginning to represent modernity, and the name Mercédès to sound antique.
But to the pundits, the progress which had been made by the most enterprising manufacturers, the methods by which so much power had been wrung from small light engines by the exponents of the new school of racing-car design, were not altogether to be commended. Thus Mr. H. Massac Buist, commenting in the Autocar on the 3-litre Peugeot which won the 1913 Coupe de l’Auto race, after doing full justice to its efficiency as a racing machine, poses the question: “What good is all this as to the improvement of the actual touring car? “Not, he thinks, very much; and the reason for his doubts resided in the fact that the Peugeot used “this special overhead noisy type of valve gear,” instead of the “standard car valve principle,” as used by the Sunbeams. Rightly he prophesied that, if this sort of thing were to go unchecked, you would soon find respectable English manufacturers like Sunbeams themselves following these risque French practices, and then the projected Tourist Trophy race in the Isle of Man the next year would be rendered utterly useless.
In other words racing-car design, instead of blazing the trail for that of touring cars, was to be confined within the limits of existing standard practice. Alas! for the Canutes — among whose number, where motor-cars are concerned, I almost always unhesitatingly range myself! Go forward a decade from September, 1913, when Mr. Buist’s strictures on the Peugeot were penned, and you will find that of the 1924 models offered to the British public, no less than 37 per cent. had succumbed to “this special overhead noisy type of valve gear,” and only 54 per cent. remained faithful to “standard” practice. Three years more, and overhead valves, with 47 per cent., had exceeded the side-valve percentage of 41; by 1939 no less than 63 per cent. of current models had overhead valves and only 86 per cent. had side valves. So much for the uselessness of racing!
But in these years when the racing car was breaking fresh ground by the development of overhead valve engines, so little significance was generally attached to the process that as a rule contemporary specifications completely fail to refer to the matter, and one is left in ignorance of the date of the adoption of this feature of design by the various makers. The abandonment of automatic inlet valves during the early years of the century had had one obvious disadvantage in that, if the valves were placed side by side, instead of one above the other, their area had almost inevitably to be reduced. The T-head solution of the problem (for which, I must admit, I still retain a sentimental attachment) was generally considered an extravagant one, in that it involved the use of two camshafts. For all that, while some makers such as Mercédès favoured the alternative “inlet over exhaust” arrangement, others such as the manufacturers of the Belgian Pipe car were prepared, when they adopted mechanically-operated inlet valves, to accept the logic of the situation, place both valves in the head at an angle of 90 degrees to each other, and operate them by push-rods from two camshafts in the crankcase. In general, however, designers were worried by the problem; and while they were still worried by it, there appeared, some forty years ago, a revolutionary, and apparently completely satisfactory, solution to it.
The invention of the sleeve-valve by Charles Y. Knight was hailed in the most knowledgeable quarters as the first really major contribution which the United States had made to the development of the automobile. Its adoption, shortly afterwards, by the English Daimler Company was one of the boldest departures from established commercial practice that had ever been made. In vain might a correspondent in the technical Press censure the “cylindrical valves” of the new Daimler engine for 1909 as “obviously unmechanical and contrary to the true principles of engineering,” comparing their operation to “lifting a house to open a window.” The example of the senior British manufacturer had been copied within a year or two by the doyen of Continental makers, the house of Panhard et Levassor itself, while in Belgium, Minerva was using the Knight engine as early, I believe, as 1907. And on the Continent generally the idea spread like wildfire; the days of the poppet valve were numbered, the age of the moteur sans soupapes was come.
An analysis — although admittedly a far from perfect one — of 1913 models on the British market reveals only two (the 1910 chain-driven o.h.c. Germain being no longer represented) which sported the “special overhead noisy type of valve gear” of which Mr. Buist complained in the case of the racing Peugeot. These, the “Prince Henry” Austro-Daimler and the Isotta-Fraschini, both had single overhead camshafts, while the former, certainly, and the latter to the best of my knowledge and belief, had inclined valves operated by rockers. Both were described as 27-80 h.p., the bore and stroke of their 4-cylinder engines being 105 by 165 mm. (5,709 c.c.) in the case of the Austro-Daimler, and 105 by 180 mm. (6,236 c.c.) in that of the Isotta; and if anyone likes to make me a present of an example of either of them, I shall not turn up my nose at it! Away in Molshelm, of course, a gentleman of the name of Bugatti was also building an o.h.c.engined car, but he does not seem to have considered the great British public as worthy of being presented with it to any noticeable extent, with the result that “Black Bess” is something of a special rarity among Edwardian survivals. Corre in Licorne still had the inlet-over-exhaust arrangement, redolent of earlier days, and the Belgian Sava. by way of variation, had plumped for exhaust-over-inlet but for the rest, the side valve reigned supreme, except where sans soupapes enthusiasm held sway.
And its popularity was widespread. As well as Daimler, Minerva and Siddeley-Deasy, who had gone in for it wholeheartedly, Panhard et Levassor, Clément-Bayard and Grégoire in France, Mercédès in Germany, and Martini in Switzerland, each presented at least one model with a Knight engine. Argyll’s single-sleeve valve design, which deserved more commercial success than it actually achieved until its adoption for aero engines, was used both by the Scottish firm which originated it and by the Swiss Piccard-Pictet. Itala and Darracq had both adopted the rotary valve, at least for some models, the Darracq engine being built to the designs of M. Henriod, who had been at this sort of thing, I believe, since the days of Paris-Madrid or even earlier. The Schneider had run a car in the Grand Prix with what I take to have been a cuff-valve engine, and, finally, Peugeot, while reserving the “special noisy overhead type of valve gear ” for the racing cars, had just introduced a 40-50-h.p. “valveless” standard model with “a combination of sleeve and piston valve.”
The analysis, even if it is imperfect, at least serves to show that, on the eve of the Kaiser war, there was considerable enthusiasm for the moteur sans soupapes. Unlike almost every other major development in automobile design, however, the abandonment of the poppet valve had been decided upon first for standard models and then triedout in racing-cars afterwards. Its subsequent history is, therefore, of especial interest.
Early in 1913 the Knight-engined Mercédès had been run in the Indianapolis “500” and shrewd observers had noted that the car, which finished fifth, had used no water, only 25 gallons of petrol, but no less than eight gallons of engine oil. The next year came the Tourist Trophy, and as Mr. Massac Buist had correctly surmised would be the case, Louis Coatalen, assisted by Kenelm Lee Guinness, duly appeared and walked off with it by fitting one of these offensive overhead valve engines to the Sunbeam. But after giving due praise to the victor, the Autocar characterised the race as “a triumph for the sleeve valve.” In many ways this comment was justified, for the starters included a team of three Knight-enginrd Minervas; all three were among the six finishers; and their places were second, third and fifth. Indeed, the only adverse criticism which could be levelled at them was that each engine used about a gallon of oil each circuit and the resultant smoke was so bad that some observers thought that they ought not to have been allowed to start.
The advent of Gabriel Voisin to the ranks of automobile manufacturers was an important event to the generation of 1919, which was so familiar with his aeroplanes. He was, moreover, not only inclined towards the sporting side of automobilism, but also a devotee of the sleeve-valve. Admittedly his curious aero-dynamic 2-litre racers were not among the fastest of the competitors in the 1923 Grand Prix, and they “emitted dense clouds of smoke when travelling at speed”; but he had vindicated the value of the Knight engine by a resounding victory in the Touring Grand Prix the year before, and the tradition of the sleeve-valve’s success in this race was carried on until the middle ‘twenties by the team of Peugeots, which scored victory after victory. Where fuel consumption is of importance, indeed — and where consumption of lubricating oil can be, by comparison, ignored — the sleeve-valve may be said to have proved itself in racing. But for better or worse, oil costs money as well as petrol; and after achieving a maximum popularity of about 10 Per cent. of all models offered to the public around 1930, the vogue of the sleeve-valve began steadily to decline. Its final abandonment by Daimler in 1935 was one of the most serious blows suffered by its supporters; the Minerva, ever faithful, was, I think, the last Knight-engined car on the British market; and by 1939 it could not boast a single representative. Of course if they go on rationing petrol for ever, as they seem inclined to do, someone may think the design is worth reviving; in which case the authorities, I have no doubt. will decide to ration oil.