Sideslips by "Baladeur"

In an earlier article in this series, I made some attempt to sketch the course of the nineteenth-century controversy with regard to the relative merits of the vertical and horizontal engine, and I had just reached the point, in the early years of this century at which Levassor and his successors, the exponents of the vertical engine, were receiving the unconditional surrender of the originally far more numerous horizontal party, when I most improvidently ran out of space. Panhard et Levassor, in fact, had by then succeeded in standing practically everyone else’s engine upright; but we are far from having readied the climax of the story, where we find their “Dyna” model in the forefront of a movement to knock everyone else’s engine flat again. “Baladeur,” is Racine nearly said, “let’s get on to the Flood.”

England made a somewhat belated appearance in the world of motoring, at least as far as racing was concerned, but when, in 1900, the 16-h.p. Napier was entered for the Paris-Toulouse-Paris race, the design of the car was seen to follow the Panhard et Levassor system as closely as did that of the victorious Mors. Indeed, French commentators, in their rather patronising way, declared that Messrs. Napier and Edge had “very wisely” taken a good look at what went on in the Panhard works in order to see how a car should be built, before they tried to build one themselves.

At about the same time, however, the old-established Wolseley Sheep Shearing Co. was also thinking of building motor cars, to the design of a Mr. Herbert. Austin; and Austin, apparently, was very little inclined, when considering how a car should be laid out, to take anybody else’s word for it. At any rate, he started with a 5-h.p. single-cylinder and a 10-h.p. double-horizontal engine, placed at the front of the car, with the heads, or “breeches” as they were usually called at that time, facing forwards, somewhat in the Amédée Bollée style. But, decently abhoring belts, he drove from one end of the crankshaft to the countershaft and gearbox amidships by a Renolds silent chain, and then from the differential shaft by side chains. In these moderate powers, at any rate, his design was voted a great success.

Austin, however,  was ambitious; having added, during 1901, a 7½-h.p. to his range, which he might have had the foresight to call a “Seven,” he proceeded to the design of a much more powerful car. The 5-h.p. and the 10-h.p. used the same cylinder dimensions, 4½ by 5 in., and he now decided on a four-cylinder edition, called the 20-h.p. This still had cylinders of the same size, but now there were four of them; in spite of which the engine remained horizontal. Presumably, however, Austin encountered the usual breadth difficulty when designing a multi-cylinder engine with the axis of its crankshaft across the chassis, and two of the cylinder were therefore arranged with their cylinders heads facing forwards, two with their heads facing the rear. Thus, in England at any rate, the flat-four was born. Moreover, in order conveniently to accommodate the increased power, a clutch was placed at either end of the crankshaft, and from each clutch a silent chain drove to the countershaft, while the gear-change seems to have incorporated an early synchromesh device, which, however, was perhaps only a clutch-stop, and the working of which is in any case obscure to me.

So pleased was Austin with the success of his powerful car that he persuaded the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland to enter a team of three cars on his behalf for the third Gordon Bennett race to be run in 1902. For this event, however, he realised that something even more powerful would be required, and two of the cars therefore consisted of enlarged editions of the 20-h.p., called the 30-h.p., and having engine dimensions of 5 by 5 in. It was the third car, however, that was the most interesting of the three. Austin, apparently, was not particularly enamoured of the flat four arrangement, and yet four cylinders seemed to be rather too many to be placed comfortably side by side across the car. The 45-h.p. racer, therefore, had three cylinders, arranged as in the 10-h.p. two-cylinder, the dimensions in this cast being 6 by 6 in. Its designer, too, was impressed by the possibilities of a low centre of gravity offered him by the horizontal engine, and in order to make the most of it, he underslung the frame below the axles, so that hardly any part of the car was above the top of the wheels. The reduction in frontal area, however, was rather spoilt by the fact of the driver sitting well up, in true 1902 style, behind an almost vertical steering column.

But alas! Fortune did not smile on the Wolseley racing debut. The 45-h.p. could not be got ready in time, which was it fortunate circumstance for Napier, as the vacated place in the British team was taken oven by S. F. Edge, who, as is well known, made use of the opportunity to win the Gordon Bennett Trophy. This left only the two 30-h.p. cars, one of which, driven by Callan, “heated its crank bearings” on the road from Boulogne to Paris, with the result that its driver decided to abandon the contest. “This decision,” says Austin, “was unfortunate . . . as, had he persevered, he would no doubt have got through all right. The car was run back by road to England the next day, and gave no trouble whatever.”

The second car, driven by Montagu Graham White, with Austin acting as mechanic, went out to the start at Champigny of the Paris-Vienna race, with which the Gordon Bennett contest over the section Paris-Innsbrück was that year combined. But just as it was taking its place in the line of competitors the engine stopped, and its designer was “much disappointed” to find that the crankshaft was broken. The trouble, it appeared, was with the coil, which, like every other part of the car, had, under the Gordon Bennett rules, to be of British manufacture; and apparently at that time, as Edge also found during the course of the race, we were incapable of making a coil that was reliable at high speeds. With his, Austin had caught “three of the tremblers working at once,” and the crankshaft had finally become utterly disaffected in consequence.

Nothing daunted, Austin sent back to Paris for the spare, which he then proceeded to fit; but instead of starting at half past three in the morning of June 26th, they did not get off until four o’clock in the afternoon. By that time all the controls were closed—de Knyff on the leading Panhard had arrived at Belfort, the end of the first day’s stage, by about 8 a.m.—but Graham White and Austin kept going until they reached Chaumont. They were still over a hundred miles from Belfort, but it was now getting dark, and as the crew had had nothing to eat since the previous evening, they decided to stop and have dinner. After that, feeling rather better, they drove on in the dark to Belfort, up to which point their “net racing time” was declared to be 17 hours 53 minutes, compared with de Knyff’s 4 hours 18 minutes 30.4 seconds.

They arrived at Belfort, which Austin describes as an “evil-smelling town,” at twenty past three on the morning of June 27th, just as the other cars were getting ready to start on the stage across Switzerland, where no racing was allowed. After spending a couple of hours searching for their lubricating oil, the Wolseley crew, therefore, went straight on, and successfully accomplished the day’s run by Bregenz, where, not unnaturally after all their labours, they “unfortunately overslept themselves.” They were two hours late in starting on the third day in consequence, but they climbed the Arlberg in fine style, and then, “just after leaving Landeck . . . the motor commenced to pound terribly,” with the result that the confounded coil broke the crankshaft again. The first Wolseley racing effort had come to an end.

The breakdown of all the other competitors allowed S. F. Edge, as already mentioned, to win the Gordon Bennett Trophy, and prosterity has not been allowed to forget the fact. As either Mr. A. S. Heal or Mr. Kent Karslake, the joint authors of an article on the 1908 Grand Prix Austin, remarked in the number of Motor Sport for December, 1948: “Austin’s Wolseley racing cars seldom receive the credit that is due to them. Their performance in the Gordon Bennett races has, unfortunately, been largely overshadowed by the glamour built up around the achievements of S. F. Edge’s Napiers. Edge was a publicist, who could not resist the limelight, whereas Austin was an engineer who was too much absorbed in his motor cars to bother much about publicity.” As a matter of fact, after 1902 none of the English entries ever looked like winning a Gordon Bennett race, except for one moment in 1904, and it is clear that during the next few years we were incapable of building racing cars of the calibre attained by Continental factories. But it is interesting, from the point if view of the horizontal engine, to compare the performances of the English Napiers, built on Panhard lines, with the English Wolseleys, built on Austin lines.

As a matter of fact the next year, 1903, is something of a blank as far as this is concerned. Two of the 45-h.p. Wolseleys started in Paris-Madrid, together with two 50-h.p. cars, which were enlarged editions of the 30-h.p. machines of 1902, having flat-four engines, with the bore and stroke increased to 6 by 6 in.; but none of them got as far as Bordeaux, and the single Napier that started was equally unsuccessful. For some reason the Wolseleys were not even entered for the Eliminating Trials for the English Gordon Bennett team, and none, therefore, appeared in the race. Instead, the horizontal engine school was represented by Mr. Winton, of Cleveland, Ohio, with two cars said to be “constructed upon purely American lines.” In these the cylinders were arranged horizontally and side by side across the car, with their heads on the right-hand side of it and the longitudinal crankshaft on the left. One car had four cylinders and two speeds, the other eight cylinders and one speed, and the engine dimensions in both cases were believed to be 5 by 6 in., but even Owen, Winton’s second driver, was apparently not allowed to know. At any rate the cars were last and last but one, respectively, all the time that they were running, and neither finished the race, so that they may be considered more as curiosities than as serious contestants for racing honours.

In 1904, however, Wolseley presented three cars for the English Eliminating Trials in the Isle of Man, of which one, the 72-h.p. driven by Sidney Girling, was an enlarged edition of the 50-h.p. of 1903, with the bore still 6 in., and the stroke increased to 6½ in., so that the capacity was 735 cubic inches. The other two cars, driven by Charles Jarrott and Campbell Muir, however, were of an entirely new type, called the 96-h.p., in which, for the first time, Austin had succeeded in arranging four horizontal cylinders side by side, with their heads facing forwards, as in the earlier one-, two-, and three-cylinder cars. These were, moreover, pretty big cylinders, as the dimensions were the same as in the 72-h.p. engine, while crankshaft speed had been pushed up to 1,300 r.p.m. The 72-h.p. still had a flat exposed radiator, but in the 96-h.p. this was covered by a sort of shield, somewhat resembling the toecap of a very pointed shoe, and this model was destined to become famous as the Wolseley “Beetle.”

No fewer than five Napiers, all built on familiar “Panhard” lines, but having engines of various sizes, were entered for the trials, but the only one that was successful was that driven by S. F. Edge. This car, although only admitting to 80 h.p., actually had a rather larger engine than the Wolseleys, the dimensions being 6½ by 6 in., and the capacity, therefore, 796 cubic inches.

The trials, for some reason best known to the club, did not include a race but consisted of a sort of high-speed trial, followed by a hill-climb and a speed trial over a flying kilometre marked out on a most unsuitable stretch of the promenade at Douglas. In the course of this exercise, the Napier appeared to be rather faster than any of the Wolseleys, while, rather remarkably, among the latter, the 72-h.p. seemed to be faster than the 96-h.p. cars, with the result that the places in the English team were allotted to Edge, Girling and Jarrott, in that order. Moreover, this impression was confirmed in the race itself, over the Taunus course in Germany. There were altogether 17 starters, and at the end of the first 80-mile lap, Edge appeared in third place, behind Théry, the eventual winner, on the Richard-Brasier, and Jenatzy, the last year’s winner, on the Mercédès; and Edge was followed by Girling and Jarrott on the Wolseleys, which had beaten all the rest of the French, German, Austrian, Belgian and Italian cars. The English team, in fact was at this point in an extremely strong position, and, moreover, the horizontal engine was giving a better account of itself than it had since the disappearance of the Amédée Bollée in the Nineteenth Century.

On the second lap, Edge had tyre trouble and fell right back, so that Girling went up into third place; but Jarrott started a series of troubles, which included a broken driving chain, a stuck governor, as a result of which he smashed his third speed, a leaky radiator and a defective coil. In spite of all this he finished the race, even if he was last by a small margin. On the third lap Girling also had trouble with dirt in his petrol system, and eventually finished ninth; but as the Napier had major trouble on the last lap and did not finish at all, the Wolseley performance was obviously the better among the English entries.

The nest year the two 96-h.p. Wolseleys were again entered for the English Eliminating Trials, which were again held in the Isle of Man, but which this time did take the form of a race. What, however, must have looked significant to the observant was the fact that they were accompanied by a 100-h.p. car, built by the Wolseley company for the Siddeley company, and having a four-cylinder vertical engine. This, it must be remembered, was the era of the large bore, and the Wolseley-Siddeley engine had a bore of no less than 7 1/8 in., which, with a stroke of 6 in., gave a capacity of 957 cubic inches. Perhaps even Austin despaired of arranging four 7 1/8-in. cylinders side by side across the chassis.

Three 80-h.p. Napiers were entered for the trials, as well as a fourth car which thus early boasted a Napier speciality—a six-cylinder engine, and a large one at that, the bore and stroke being 6¼ by 5 in. and the capacity 921 cubic inches. In the race this car proved itself the fastest of the lot, while the best of the 80-h.p. Napiers and the Wolseley-Siddeley were faster than the Wolseleys. They were not, however, so reliable, and the only three finishers proved to be Earp on an 80-h.p. Napier, Bianchi, until recently Jarrott’s mechanic, and Rolls on the Wolseleys. Nevertheless, in the Gordon Bennett event itself, Earp drove the six-cylinder Napier and while this time none of the English cars figured at all prominently in the competition, they all three finished, Rolls being eighth, Harp ninth and Bianchi eleventh.

Once again, therefore, the horizontal engine, as presented by Wolseley, had done at least as well as the vertical engine as presented by Napier; but the Continental cars were now streets ahead of both of them. Perhaps the Wolseley-Siddeley was a portent that showed which way Austin’s mind was working. At any rate, when in 1908 he returned to racing with his own cars for the Grand Prix, they had vertical engines; unfortunately by this time he had taken a leaf out of the Napier book and given them six cylinders as well, with the result that they were about as unsuitable for their purpose as, for some reason, six-cylinder racing cars usually are.

The horizontal engine lingered on in touring cars for some time, particularly in England, but in racing it appeared to be as dead as the dodo. The Wolseley “Beetle” had had a most satisfactory low centre of gravity, but I believe that the flywheel rotating in the same sense as the road wheels produced the most extraordinary gyroscopic effects and a marked tendency towards under-steer. Perhaps it was for this reason that even the Coupe de l’Auto produced nothing, so far as I can recall, in the way of a horizontal engine. It might well have been expected to, as horizontality suits a single-cylinder engine better than most, and when that cylinder has a stroke of anything up to a foot, there is an obvious inducement to lie it on its side. On the other hand, the war of 1914-18 gave a fillip to the flat-twin engine, of which the outstanding example was the A.B.C.; and quite a crop of horizontal engines have appeared since the end of the last war, a fact which set going, for better or worse, my whole train of thought on the subject. Indeed, the more speculative French motor papers are currently apt to titillate their readers’ curiosity with reports of racing engines constructed, as they are pleased to put it, “en flat-twelwe,” and conservative English ones hint darkly at flat-sixteens. I shall believe in these, I suppose, when I see them; which reminds me that one of these days I must really try an article on Racing Cars Which Never Appeared.

P.S. For the benefit of those of my readers who have nice minds, I should perhaps explain that 1 inch equals 25.39954113 millimetres, approx.