Brief flash of hope

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Star by name but not in the event; this powerful machine didn’t live up to its maker’s expectations

It’s a while since I squeezed between the gleaming pillars that mark the mouth of Queens Gate Place Mews – a shame as this quiet corner of Kensington regularly sees some glorious road and racing cars trundling over the cobblestones in and out of various dealers. This area has been the home of many famous names over the years – Dan Margulies, Coys, Frank Dale – ever since the days when a mews was just a cheap place to rent a garage.

And even now, as property rockets and petrol engines become machinae non grata in town, a few firms are sticking it out: Hall & Bradfield and Hexagon are nearby, but I’ve come to Fiskens to admire an ancient warrior it has on its books. Once the very modest garage doors are folded back we squeeze past a 959, Chevron B8 and a DB3S to our goal – a 1905 Wolverhampton-built Star, devised for the prestigious Gordon Bennett Trophy. Long, low and well proportioned, this thumping 10.2-litre four-cylinder looks a generation ahead of a veteran car – amazing to think it’s virtually eligible for the London-Brighton. But a glance beneath the bonnet at the twin paired cylinders, exposed push-rods and rockers, and brass and copper plumbing whips you right back to those experimental days. It’s a thing of visual contrast – massive flywheel, slender chassis rails, delicate dumb irons, axle forgings as thick as a man’s ankle.

Star built two cars for the 1905 GB races in France, entering them for the British elimination runs on the Isle of Man, where despite the sophistication of overhead inlet valves and twin ignition they proved underpowered and neither made the cut. So this impressive chain-driver, car 2, is a racer that didn’t.

It looks like one of the big Mercedes of the time, the 60 or 90hp, which may account for the tale that this monster was rescued from dereliction in the collection of an Indian Maharaja in 1971 by someone who believed it was a 60hp Mercedes – and to be fair the 70hp racer is a pretty fair parallel of the big German. Star also boasted a star badge – its six-pointed emblem predates the German firm’s three-spiker and in 1902 the Wolverhampton outfit successfully sued for infringement – so it’s easy to imagine hasty descriptions being faxed back from Rajasthan. I saw photos of the recovered chassis, sad but broadly complete, and that would have been my first guess too.

Still, this maroon Midlands leviathan is even rarer than a Stuttgart 60, and after a costly rebuild by Paul Grist it’s in thumpingly good shape. “I was staggered at the performance,” Paul tells me. “It was doing about 70 at tickover!” That was after he’d made new 5½in-bore pistons for it – the ones it arrived with were too shallow and had an inch slab of aluminium on top to reach compression.

Built once the système Panhard had crystallised car layouts, it’s also, barring chain drive, surprisingly conventional: semi-elliptics all round, right-foot throttle, four-speed gearbox with gate change (a Daimler patent, incidentally). But make sure you look well ahead – the drums and transmission brake slow only the rear wheels.

I didn’t hear it run – it takes 10 minutes to fire up and Kensington isn’t the ideal milieu – but I’m told it’s surprisingly easy to pilot.

Star was another of those British marques that made perfectly decent cars at too little profit, fading away by the Thirties, but this one, unsuccessful as it may have been, is one impressive relic to have left behind.

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