The Career of the Isotta-Maybach
So much interest has been created by last month's account of the aero-engined Wolseley Viper that I feel it permissible to write about another of these monster racing cars of the nineteen-twenties. The problem of which one to deal with is solved by what has gone before. Already, in writing of the racing cars in the Montagu Motor Museum and in other articles for Lord Montagu's magazine I have covered such Brooklands giants as the 350 h.p. V12 single-seater Sunbeam, the 300 h.p. F.I.A.T. "Mephistopheles," an even bigger Fiat intended to attack the Land Speed Record, and other cars which, although not aero-engined, were giants in their own right, such as the 1910 10-litre Fiat, the Big Benz racers and the 1912 Lorraine-Dietrich "Vieux Charles Trois." I described the legendary "Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bangs" in Profile No. 68. There were other Brooklands cars with aeroplane power plants but most of these had brief and not always particularly outstanding careers, and are, in any case, referred to in my "History of Brooklands Motor Course" (Grenville, 1957). The Isotta-Maybach driven by Ernest Eldridge and L. C. G. M. Le Champion had a longer and more successful career. So, craving the indulgence of those readers who are interested only in modern racing cars, it is with this remarkable car that I deal hereafter.—Ed.
The aero-engined giant racing car established itself and its potentialities at Brooklands during the 1921 and 1922 seasons. In the latter year the big Sunbeam, Count Zborowski's "Chitty-Bang-Bang" and Miller's Wolseley Viper were joined by another such car, which was destined to be just about as successful and formidable, namely, the Isotta-Maybach.
This car started life as an Isotta-Fraschini. In 1907 Nazzaro won the Grand Prix on a Fiat and Italian cars generally were doing extremely well in motor racing. Minoia's Isotta-Fraschini won the Coppa Florio at 64.7 m.p.h. from a couple of Benz cars and the following year Trucco won the Targa Florio, averaging 37.24 m.p.h. for 277 miles of the notoriously difficult mountain course, while these overhead camshaft cars took important honours in America, including second place in the Vanderbilt Cup race. Different rules governed these races but for the 1907 Kaiserpreis race Isotta-Fraschini built three chain-drive 8-litre cars with a bore and stroke of 145.4 x 120 mm. which, however, were not particularly successful, although, as stated, they made up for this in the Italian races.
As so often happened, some of these road-racing cars found their way to Brooklands. In 1913 an Isotta-Fraschini which had a rather bigger engine than the Kaiserpreis cars was singularly unsuccessful there, but in 1914 Humphrey Cook, who much later financed Raymond Mays' E.R.A, project, had a good season with a standard 100 h.p. chain-driven model endowed with racing bodywork. Then, after the Armistice, the late Ernest Eldridge, who was an avid big-car enthusiast until he brought a 2-litre Miller back from America and built the 1½-litre Anzani-engined Eldridge Specials, got hold of one of the Kaiserpreis cars and entered it for the 1921 Brooklands Summer Meeting. Painted in grey, it lapped at 89.9 m.p.h. on its first public outing. This was not fast enough to secure it a place and although Eldridge lapped almost as fast in his next race, a 75-mph. Short Handicap, in which he found himself on scratch, giving a minute's start to George Duller's Silver Hawk, doing 77.52 and 89.41 m.p.h., he was again unplaced. He non-started in the "100 Long," as reserve entries were not called, but was out again, still on scratch, for the "75 Long" and, getting the 14-year-old Isotta-Fraschini round at 77.39, 90.72, and 88.15 m.p.h., finished second behind T. B. Andre's Marlborough.
This was an excellent come-back for the car, the engine size of which was now declared at 146 x 120 mm. (8,036 c.c.), so it may have been rebored; water cooling had been contrived round the valve ports. No doubt pleased by this debut, Eldridge was out again at the 1921 August Bank Holiday Brooklands Meeting. He started with a good handicap in the 100-m.p.h. Short Handicap, the only car to leave before him being a 40/50 Rolls-Royce. The Isotta lapped at 77.9 and 87.38 m.p.h., travelling so high on the bankings that it baulked faster cars, but could not retain its lead. These comparatively low speeds preserved its chances on handicap but in the "90 Short" it dropped out after a standing-lap at a mere 69.31 m.p.h. It was revived in time to contest the "100 Long," in which it lapped at 89.74 and 90.88 m.p.h. without getting a place. However, at this meeting, at which Eldridge had entered for four events, he got his reward in the 90 m.p.h. Long Handicap, in which the Isotta-Fraschini started from the 48 sec. mark, lapped at 76.01, 88.94 and 91.38 m.p.h., and finished third behind Bedlford's famous Hillman and Cook's, 30/98 Vauxhall.
Thus encouraged, Eldridge ran the car in the autumn Brooklands races, its speed higher than ever before, for in the "90 Short" he got round at 77.65 and 91.72 m.p.h. This was not quick enough to get it an award, however, and although Eldridge lapped at 70.02, 93.44 and 95.78 m.p.h. in the "90 Long" he was still unplaced.
It was probably this comparatively unsuccessful season that prompted Eldridge to re-form his old Isotta-Fraschini. He was intrigued by really big cars, and is thought to have had a hand in the building of the 21-litre Maybach-engined Metallurgique owned today by Douglas Fitzpatrick. So perhaps it was no surprise to Eldridge's friends when he got to work in the Vauxhall Bridge Road, lengthening the chassis of his 1907 Isotta so that he could install therein a 20½-litre six-cylinder Maybach airship engine. The work was carried out by Aeromotors Ltd., a firm formed, circa 1921, for the purpose of supplying engines for marine, stationary, lorry and automotive purposes, which offered to undertake marine installations if engines were supplied, and which had for sale war-surplus aero-engines of from 20 to 200 h.p., such as Djinn, Wolseley, Viper, Hispano, B.M.W., Buick, Green, Maybach, Sunbeam and Amazon, costing upwards of £75 each. Motor Sport readers of some standing will know that confusion exists as to how greatly the Maybach engine installed in the Isotta was modified and quite what type it was, and whether, in fact, Eldridge owned Aeromotors or had separate premises elsewhere in the Vauxhall Bridge Road (see issue dated September. 1965).
What is indisputable is that a big Maybach engine, No. M73, was installed in the Isotta and, subject to any evidence to the contrary, I would describe it as a normal 1910/11 Type AZ of 160 x 170 mm. (20,500 c.c.) with four valves per cylinder in T-head formation, to which two Claudel Hobson carburetters replaced the carburetters fitted at each end of the inlet manifold on the original engine, the pistons of which were re-balanced and fitted with floating gudgeon-pins and tie-plates inserted between the separate cylinders in an endeavour to obviate leaking water joints; possibly the water inlet and outlet feed to the cylinders were re-arranged. These engines developed 180 b.h.p. at 1,200 r.p.m. in standard form. There is no doubt about Eldridge having taken the right decision. Apart from the fact that we do not know how much more useful life remained in the 15-year-old racing engine which had been removed from the car by 1922, it was essential to lap at well in excess of 100 m.p.h. to obtain the maximum of excitement and a decent chance of success in the "Lightning" races at Brooklands. This the pre-war aviation motor in its pre-war chassis, of which the chain-final drive, with bigger sprockets, was well suited to the new power plant, enabled Eldridge to do—indeed, eventually the Isotta lapped faster than Count Zborowski's "Chitty-Bang-Bang 1" with its overhead valve Maybach engine of some 2½-litre greater capacity.
Aided by his mechanic Jim Ames, Eldridge completed the conversion, after which the car was taken to Jarvis of Wimbledon to be fitted with a new black two-seater short-tailed racing body. Shields protruding from the o/s of the bonnet enabled the carburetter intakes to remain in still air, as in modern theory, the dumbirons were exposed, brake and gear levers were well raked backwards, outside the cockpit, but the occupants were permitted the luxury of aero-screens. The car was entered for the Brooklands Easter Meeting of 1922 as an Isotta-Fraschini.
Its first appearance was in the Lightning Long Handicap, Eldridge perhaps finding that he needed some distance to work up to full speed—was it not Kent Karslake who observed that old engines were not much good until they were warm but lost power if they got too hot, so were at their best when they were just nicely warm?—for he had not entered for the "Lightning Short." Of the five cars billed to contest this race the 350 h.p. V12 Sunbeam and the 1912 Lorraine-Dietrich shed tyre treads and Zborowski's 5-litre Ballot, of which much was expected, non-started. So in its first race the Isotta-Maybach, lapping at 82.53, 101.43, 101.02 and 100.82 m.p.h., won, at 95.25 m.p.h., from Cook's fast Vauxhall, which it caught on the final lap. An hour and a half after this satisfactory debut the car was out again, for the "100 Long." But it had already earned a stiff handicap, so Eldridge contented himself with lapping at 87.94, 92.94 and 92.59 m.p.h. and was out of the picture. Incidentally, the Isotta's "new" engine was started by turning it over with a crow-bar inserted into a kind of box-spanner or sleeve which engaged a pin on the nose of the crankshaft and was supported at the front by the dumbirons crossbar, which, even in 1922, was described as "quite reminiscent of the old days." On its first appearance The Motor had called the revised car an "Isotta-Benz-Maybach, or whatever its full title may be" but for the Brooklands May Meeting Eldridge still continued to register it as an Isotta-Fraschini. This time it was entered for the Lightning Short Handicap and although it was going faster than before, lapping at 90.63 and 104.19 m.p.h., it was unplaced. It then failed to get to the start of the "100 Long" but made up for this by winning the Lightning Long Handicap at 102.67 m.p.h., from Zborowski's Ballot, which entailed lapping at 90.63, 109.7, 108.03 and 105.29 m.p.h. Incidentally, crash hats were not much in evidence in those days and both occupants of the Isotta were bareheaded.
At the Essex M.C. Royal Meeting at the Track—at which, incidentally, some £3,500 was raised for charity, rather like the Godalming Round Table Reunion last year—the Isotta faded out, due to gear trouble or an obstruction in a fuel pipe, according to which report you favoured. But at the Brooklands Whitson Meeting of 1922 the old car was well on form, lapping at 95.21 and 107.1 m.p.h. in the "Lightning Short." This failed to get it into the results but in the "Lightning Long" Eldridge came home first to an easy victory over Parry Thomas' Leyland Eight, averaging 98.75 m.p.h., the lop speeds being 92.06, 105.97 and 100.61 m.p.h.
After this success Eldridge drove the 10-litre Fiat in club races, perhaps while the big Isotta was being improved with a full-length undershield, a longer airship-shape tail and air outlets at the top front of the bonnet. The radiator, however, was still uncowled. Up to this time the Isotta had been easy on tyres but at the August Bank Holiday Brooklands Meeting it threw a tread, so missed the "Lightning Short" and then, in the "Long," had some difficulty in maintaining second place behind Brocklebank's pre-war Peugeot, having been on fire for much of the race, despite which it lapped at 94.82, 108.27 and 103.54 m.p.h. The car's next competition appearance was at the Southsea Speed Trials at the end of August 1922, an event under the patronage of H.R.H. The Duke of York. Eldridge fitted headlamps for the drive down, which remained on the car during its runs. It was second to Zborowski's 300 h.p. "Chitty-Bang-Bang" in the unlimited class, covering the kilometre in 32.2 sec. (69.47 m.p.h.) to "Chitty's" 30.6 sec.
Next, at a minor A.C.U. meeting at the Track the Isotta retired from its first race but reappeared to win its heat in a one-lap Sprint and, in the final, just failed to catch the winning Morgan 3-wheeler, in spite of flinging a n/s tyre tread, which did not seem to make any difference to the car's stability. This business of the car having tyre trouble is rather interesting, because after the B.A.R.C. August Meeting Eldridge had told Continental that he was very satisfied with their tyres, on which he had covered four laps at 110 m.p.h., finding the covers hardly worn, while they seemed to have cured any tendency for the car to roll. The speeds seem to be considerably exaggerated unless practice laps were done at higher speeds than were used in races, while before these remarks were written tread-throwing was being experienced. The tyres used were 880 x 135 Continentals, changed later for 35 x 5 straight-side Continentals.
The car definitely had its revised bodywork in time for the Brooklands Championship Meeting at the end of 1922. In the class-heat it was narrowly beaten by Thomas' Leyland; in the handicap races which followed Eldridge was second to Park's T.T. Vauxhall in the Essex "Lightning Short" but faded out when in second place in the "Long."
There remained only the Autumn and Armistice Brooklands races before the 1922 racing season came to an end. The Isotta-Fraschini got from pond to Fork at 92.76 m.p.h. in the 17th Lightning Short Handicap but lost a tyre tread and retired. It had started from the same mark as Zborowski's Ballot and the Leyland and had given only 3 sec. to Barlow's 21½-litre Benz which went over the banking later in the day. It was scratched from its other Autumn races. At the Remembrance Day Meeting it started slowly and was no match for its former rival, Thomas' Leyland. However, in September, at a demonstration run at the Eastbourne Speed Trials, Eldridge had covered the ½-mile in 20.4 sec. (88.22 m.p.h.), beating the Leyland by 3.4 sec.
After this Eldridge gave up driving the Isotta-Maybach and passed it on to L. C. G. M. Le Champion, who had been driving an ancient 4½-litre Schneider during the 1922 season. Le Champion, whose real name was Le Masurier, was a great enthusiast, frequently passengering in "Chitty"; he later became interested in spiritualism, writing a book of short stories based on his beliefs. His mother had a place at Crick, near Rugby, and the appearance of her son driving his vast racing cars (in due course he took over "Mephistopheles" from Eldridge) on the roads near there became a local legend. Eldridge only abandoned the Isotta because he had discovered an even more formidable car. John Duff had unearthed the famous F.I.A.T. "Mephistopheles," of 1908 Brooklands match-race fame, after the Armistice (see Motor Sport for April 1925 and "The History of Brooklands Motor Course," Chapter XIII) and had been racing it at the Track in 1922 when it blew off one of its cylinder blocks. Eldridge acquired the remains, lengthened the chassis, installed therein a 21.7-litre six-cylinder Fiat aviation engine and in 1924 was able to break the Land Speed Record at a speed of 146 m.p.h., with the added notoriety of doing this for the last time on an ordinary road and while carrying a passenger.
So the Isotta-Maybach came into Le Champion's possession. He painted it red and the bonnet was brought to a blunt point behind the radiator to isolate the latter from the engine compartment, with a duct on the o/s taking warm air to the intakes of the carburetters, which were now within the bonnet, an extreme form of fairing used by Thomas on the Leyland Eight and for some of the racing light cars, a modification which may have been made the previous season. Rubber grips were fitted to gear lever and brake lever and a motometer thermometer to the radiator cap. Electric sidelamps were retained on the scuttle, so that the car could be driven on the road after darkness had fallen.
The new owner's first appearance with the car, following some trials at Brooklands early in March 1923, when he nearly came to grief because the steering connections had not been pinned, but continued to lap at 80 to 90 m.p.h. and make many ascents of the Test Hill, was at the Essex M.C. Kop Hill-Climb later that month. Kop was an almost straight road, so it was possible to run these dubiously-braked monsters there. Le Champion made second-fastest time of the day in 30.0 sec., being beaten by Cook's T.T. Vauxhall, which was one-fifth of a second faster. The big car looked deceptively steady but in fact the front wheels were skidding slightly.
Next it was back to Brooklands for the Easter races. Starting from scratch in the 100-m.p.h. Short Handicap the car, which continued to race as an Isotta-Fraschini, lapped at 86.32 and 111.17 m.p.h., to no avail. Then, again on scratch in the equivalent long handicap, in company with Howey's Leyland Eight, the Isotta, lapping at 90.99, 104.19 and 109.22 m.p.h., caught Joyce's very fast 1½-litre A.C. and Major Ropner's 30/98 Vauxhall "Silver Arrow," to win at 100.93 m.p.h. Le Champion was getting good value from his new toy!
The car was driven in a race at the Ealing & Dist. M.C.C. Brooklands Meeting, but was unsuccessful, Le Champion then driving a Rolls-Royce all-weather in the impromptu handicap by way of a change. The following week-end he was in the car-v-motorcyclists' cricket match at the Track, a sign of his versatility and also that there is nothing new under the sun!
After its excellent showing at Easter the Isotta was expected to be at Brooklands for Whitsun and it duly turned up, its black radiator and wheels contrasting with the bright red body. After taking third place behind Thomas and Cook in the Gold Vase Handicap, which necessitated lapping at 88.44 and 110.19 m.p.h., Le Champion proceeded to win the "Lightning Long" from Cook's T.T. Vauxhall, at 102.5 m.p.h., the car going round really quickly, at lap-speeds of 90.99, 111.42 and 107.57 m.p.h. In June 1923 Le Champion drove all the way up to Saltburn for the speed trials. He was matched against Cook's Vauxhall, the Isotta's old rival. Cook made three runs, his best at 107.5 m.p.h. Le Champion did only two, clocking 100.76 and then 110.74 m.p.h., a very high speed for a sand course. He made f.t.d. in 20.2 sec., the Vauxhall being 0.6 sec. slower, a flying start being given, and his handling of the great chain-driven monster was described as masterly. Arriving back at the Track for the Summer Meeting, the Isotta was not on form, retiring from the "Lightning Short" after a s.s. lap at 81.68 m.p.h. and being unplaced in its other two races, although lapping, respectively, at 77.26, 109.61 and 88.15 m.p.h., and at 84.46, 101.23 and 93.44 m.p.h. It was on this occasion that Eldridge was trying out his new giant Fiat.
After riding with Howey in his Leyland at a small Brooklands meeting, perhaps to see what the opposition was like, Le Champion brought out the Isotta-Maybach for the August Meeting. It was in fine fettle, lapping at 71.84 and 99.41 m.p.h. in the "100 Short," but to no purpose except maybe to preserve a reasonable handicap, for it came home an impressive winner of the "Lightning Short," from the 16 sec. mark, keeping both Leylands at bay, its speed 100.5 m.p.h. and its laps being done at 92.94 and 109.7 m.p.h. This earned a 5 sec. re-handicap in the "100 Long," so lap speeds were kept down to 92.41, 105.97 and 103.76 m.p.h., for a fifth place. Le Champion still had the "Lightning Long" to run. From a limit start he was put back to 15 sec. He got off more slowly than usual, at 91.35 m.p.h. for the opening lap, but thereafter "poured on the coals," doing 106.5 and 109.94 m.p.h., by what time Howey's Leyland was coming up fast. As they turned into the straight and made for the Lightning finishing-line, Howey was right on the Isotta's tail, having done his flying lap some 5 m.p.h. faster, and it looked like a dead-heat. In fact, the bigger car was fractionally ahead in this exciting finish, winning at 101.5 m.p.h. That ended 1923 on a high note for Le Champion, for he had no further victories, non-starting at the postponed (due to rain) Autumn Brooklands Meeting.
The old car was out again in 1924, now entered for the first time as the Isotta-Maybach. At the Preston & Dist. M.C. and L.C.C. Brooklands Meeting it was the only car taking part. It was matched against the World's fastest motorcycle, Temple's 996 c.c. Mongomery-Anzani. What was intended to be a 3-lap handicap fizzled out when, the car having given the motorcycle 16 sec. start, it burst a tyre on the second lap. This was followed by a 2-lap scratch race in which Temple was able to hold a lower line on the banking than Le Champion, who was troubled by a cross-wind and couldn't open his huge engine right out, so that the two-wheeler won easily. Incidentally, the new silencer arrangements caused the Isotta to appear at first with a receiver described as "looking like an old oil drum keeping its tail up" but later it acquired proper Brooklands "cans," as can be seen in an accompanying photograph. The motometer on the radiator cap had been replaced by a long steamvent-pipe. It was, however, successful at the Brooklands Easter Meeting winning the Lightning Short Handicap for the Founders' Gold Cup in convincing fashion. Indeed, Le Champion made the fastest race-lap of the car's career, at 114.75 m.p.h., to keep ahead of his friend Eldridge in the giant Fiat, which had given the Isotta a start of 20 sec.. He averaged 104.25 m.p.h., and the 27-litre Higham Special was third—a veritable race of giants! Not surprisingly, the Isotta was put back to scratch for the "100 Long," in which it went round at 106.42 and 110.68 m.p.h. without being placed. But its 114.75 m.p.h. lap was 1.3 m.p.h. faster than the best race-lap speed of "Chitty I."
Kaye Don drove the Isotta at the 1924 B.A.R.C. Whitsun Meeting but got off badly in the Gold Vase race, doing his opening lap at only 69.66 m.p.h., so that a subsequent lap at 110.92 m.p.h. was of no avail. In the "Lightning Short" Don got the hang of it, lapping at 90.06 and 104.85 m.p.h., but was unplaced. But he continued to drive the car, because its owner was seriously ill in a Surbiton nursing home. In the summer "Lightning Short" Don lapped at 81.64 and 105.52 m.p.h. but the car was not going properly. Le Champion's illness precluded entry for the August racing but D. W. R. Gedge was to have driven it at the Autumn Meeting, but scratched from the "Lightning Short" and retired after a s.s. lap at only 77.81 m.p.h. in the "Lightning Long."
Le Champion was back on the scene for 1925, and had painted the Isotta-Maybach yellow, but it was in trouble long before the Easter racing at Brooklands was abandoned because of rain. However, this driver entered his recently-acquired G.N. and the Isotta-Maybach for a Surbiton M.C. day at the Track and in the latter, after finishing in third place in a "Lightning Short" race, won the Surrey Lightning Long Handicap at 99.41 m.p.h. from Thomas in the Leyland-Thomas and Howey in the Lanchester. At Whitsun Le Champion entered for the Private Competitors' Handicap at Brooklands, to show he had no trade connections. The previous year he had written an article showing that it was possible to have a season's racing at Brooklands for an outlay of about £200, which is presumably roughly what the Isotta-Maybach had been costing him. The big yellow car gave Howey's Leyland 4 sec. start on this occasion and when the situation was seen to be hopeless, Le Champion sportingly cut-out early in the race and waved Howey through; lap speeds of 90.39 and 102.48 m.p.h. proved inadequate. He then did 88.94 and 107.1 m.p.h. in the Gold Vase Handicap, but was not in the first three, while in the Gold Cup Handicap laps at 89.14 and 111.17 m.p.h. merely earned him a good fourth place.
That seems to have been the car's last competition appearance, for although it was entered for the West Essex M.C. Meeting at which Thomas won his famous duel with Eldridge's F.I.A.T., it either non-started or was unplaced. Le Champion had taken over the F.I.A.T. "Mephistopheles" from Eldridge and by the summer of 1925 the Isotta had been sold to Dudley Watt, who, wearing a fine black and yellow helmet, raced an aged S.E.5A aeroplane, which he afterwards converted at Brooklands into the D.W.1. It is understandable that Le Champion should graduate to the big F.I.A.T., although it never matched-up to his Isotta and of which Eldridge may have considered that it had served its purpose after gaining him the title of the fastest-driver-in-the-World, and fame at the newly-opened Montlhéry Track. But it is remarkable that the Isotta never raced again, for the old cars had another six seasons in which to appear before they were banned by the safety-conscious Brooklands officials.
However, Watt apparently never raced the car and the next I heard was that it had been acquired by two American couriers, who "thought it might come in useful." When they started to build a house near Farnham they wanted to get the old car out of the way and offered it to a Mr. Sargent, who, as the local Council surveyor, had been of some assistance to them. This gentleman, who had been a Douglas dispatch-rider during the war, accepted this offer of the Isotta-Maybach, but its enormous bursts of acceleration were startling after the staid progression of his Triumph motorcycle and Morris-Cowley car, and he decided that this was no vehicle for a respectable civil servant! He drove it, still in dirty yellow paintwork, as far as a yard at Wrecclesham where his Morris was serviced. There it languished, some years before war again engulfed the motoring scene, and was, it seems, gradually picked apart by vandals. If anyone can tell me more about the car I shall be extremely interested.—W. B.