A happy coming-together

John Rowley’s 1913 TH. Schneider

It seems very unlikely that any more genuine Grand Prix racing cars of the pre-1914 period will come to light, the last such significant discovery having been Philip Mann’s Lyons Mercedes. The next best thing is to fabricate such a car, the most exciting, surely; of the historic era, froni as authentic components as possible. That is exactly what John Rowley, great vintage/Edwardian-car enthusiast and a Past President of the VSCC, did in the case of his delectable ‘l’héophile Schneider.

This became possible under rather romantic circumstances, when Ted Woolley happened upon the engine and radiator of a Th. Schneider motor car mounted on the front half of the chassis, the whole bolted to a massive iron Frame. It had been used to drive a water-pump at a firm near Kettering. This was exciting enough in itself, especially as the engine and radiator appeared to be from a racing rather than a production car. Woolley, who is a notably tenacious researcher, managed to locate the daughter Of the Schneider’s original owner. This lady remembered the car having been broken up many years earlier and reckoned that her father had owned it soon after the Kaiser war. A search was immediately put in hand for the remainder of the Schneider, which had apparently been sold either to a scrap dealer or to the gipsies, but to no avail.

Woolley’s next step was to write to the Mayor of Besancon, where these ears were made, asking that worthy to put him in touch with anyone who had worked at the Schneider factory before the First World War. With typical French courtesy, a reply came back within a couple of weeks from iust such an employee, the person, indeed, who had been Schneider’s Competition Manager at that time. That was enough for Ted, who drove to Besancon to see his correspondent. From this contact he discovered that the Company had built about 20 of these engines, and a team of cars for a French race, and after the war had used-up the surplus units by putting them into their sports chassis. Not only that but the old gentleman had told Woolley of a Schneider chassis of about 1919 vintage and when he asked to see it, on his visit to Besancon, he was bade follow the 80year-old’s Citroen 2cv, which was driven flat-out down narrow lanes and through villages, with Ted doing his best to keep it in sight, in his Ford Zodiac with a soft front tyre and a trailer on behind. The chassis was as described and after much haggling and innumerable glasses of vino, it passed into Woolley’s possession.

With this collection of Schneider components back in England, Woolley sold the lot, subsequently to his lasting regret, to Humphrey Milling, who later passed them on to John Rowley. From a letter in his possession from another Schneider contact, Rowley realised that the engine was, in fact, very probably one of the 1913 Grand Prix power-units, as its bore and stroke and specification tallied. The task of making a replica seemed a formidable one, as he looked at the heap of rusty parts, but this he fortunately decided to do. To appreciate the sort of motor car he was engaged in re-creating, let us remember that for this Grand Prix at Amiens Th. Schneider had entered four cars, driven by Croquet, Gabriel, Champoiseau and Rene Thomas and that after Gabriel had retired with carburetter trouble, the others came home 7th, 9th and 10th behind the all-conquering Peugeots, two Sunbeams and a couple of Delages. They were described as “cornering beautifully”. Some idea of their potential can be obtained from mentioning that one of these cars ran at the fateful August Bank Holiday Brooklands Meeting in 1914 and lapped at 84.4 m.p.h. What happened to the team afterwards isn’t known but Baxter has told in the VSCC Bulletin of owning a Schneider after the war which was thought to have been one of these GP cars that John Duff, the Fiat and Bentley exponent, had acquired. As this apparently ended its days not all that far from where Rowley”s engine was pressed into industrial usage, it could be that he has an actual Grand Prix power-unit. Certainly he has a very convincing and accurate replica of one of these charming and individualistic racing cars.

To produce it was a labour lasting a hard 15 months. The four-cylinder side-valve engine was entrusted to John Bland. Rubery Owen were very co-operative about altering the chassis that Woolley had brought back from France. This was closely relited to the racing chassis, but needed strengthening, and shortening a few inches, to accommodate the correct positioning of the half-hoop cross-members. The wheels were also virtually the right size, and were re-built by Springfield Wheels Ltd. The behind-engine radiator, typical of a Th. Schneider until their 1914 GP design, was found to leak in 28 places. It was rebuilt by Northampton Auto Radiators, who found the 1,100 specially-shaped tubes required and formed them into a new unit. Rowley himself was responsible for almost everything else, and naturally he retained as much of the original Schneider parts as possible.

The curious thing is that all the time he was toiling at his self-appointed task he felt he wouldn’t like the car. But when the chassis was on its wheels he took it to the nearby Enot’s factory, where Brian Morgan permitted testing on the private roads. fuel pressure was pumped up, the carburetter flooded and, such is the mechanical artistry of John Bland, the engine started within a length, to the relief and pleasure of those who had been detailed to push-start the car. Whereupon, after a run in it, John changed his opinion of the Th. Schneider, as well he might! But before describing the appeal and fascination of this car, let us look at its specification. The engine has a bore of 96 mm. and the surprisingly long stroke of 190 mm., giving a swept volume of fractionally over 5.5-litres. As I have said, it is a side Valve (L-head) unit, but of an advanced conception, for the valves are slightly inclined along the n/s of the one-piece cylinder block and the combustion chambers are of semi-hemispherical, or domed, form. Above the valves are the eight valve caps, but instead of screwing into the head, these are a push-fit, and are held in place by massive bus-bars which in turn are retained by heavy studs and nuts. Thus, if a valve had to be changed during a race, the caps would be easy to remove and replace.

On this side of the engine the updraught Carburetter feeds through a fine Y-pattern cast brass manifold of imposing size, and the exhaust gases leave via a very generous-diameter four-branch external manifold and a big outside pipe. Rowley found a skilled metal-smith to fabricate this manifold to his drawing, basing it on photographs of the 1913 GP cars. He has fitted a 48 mm. Zenith carburetter, with the triple air intakes, using a 34-choke.

At the front of the camshaft there is a tiny lever which shifts it onto a half-compression setting, for starting from cold when the alligator bonnet will be raised. On the o/s of the engine a water pump is driven from the timing gears at the front of the crankshaft and there is a Simms magneto in line with it. Oil is circulated by a plunger pump, driven from the centre of the plain-bearing crankshaft by an exposed spur gear.

The drive goes through a cone clutch to a four-speed gearbox with ratios of 8.3, 5.3, 3.61 and 2.48 to 1, so that at 1,000 r.p.m. the speeds in the gears are in the order of 12.1, 19.2, 29.0 and rather over 40 m.p.h. The suspension is by 1/2-elliptic springs and it is remarkable that although those at the rear axle are shackled at both ends, the drive is by an open prop-shaft that alone locates the back axle, for there are no torque-arms or tubes. The front wheels are shod with 820 x 120 Dunlop tyres, the back wheels with 880 x 120 Dunlops, as for that 569-mile race of 63 years ago. Two 880 x 120 spares are strapped behind the petrol tank.

An excellent replica of the GP body was made by Stan Waine and Rowley’s Schneider is resplendent in light French blue, with much brass beading. The big bolster fuel tank is divided into two compartments, one for a modicum of luggage, the other holding 25 gallons of essence. Incidentally, the gear and brake levers and the steering-wheel quadrant are original, and are made of bronze.

Having assimilated these technical details, it was time to climb up beside Rowley and take the road, on a November morning that had fortunatel!, turned out fine, after an early threat of rain and snow. The unheated inlet manifold is apt to ice-up. even on summer days, so John had previously run the engine, allowing the heat to seep from the cooling system to the induction tracts before we set out. It responded to the handle and the exhaust boomed defiance from the outsize exhaust. The clutch was eased in. and we were away.

What a run this proved to be! No sluggish Edwardian this. The Schneider accelerates better than most large-engined vintage cars and will cruise contentedly at 1,500 r.p.m., or at a genuine 60 m.p.h. Having no data to work on. John had to determine a safe maximum r.p.m. by common sense. He likes to keep to this cruising speed but at Prescott and similar competition venues he will go momentarily to 2,400 r.p.m. in the gears. This was determined by increasing the choke size that the engine would pull, but it seems very likely that higher engine speeds would be possible if caution in respect of mechanical calamity were disregarded. Occasionally Rowley takes his delectable motor car to just over the 2,000 r.p.m. that it will reach in top gear, equal to better than 80 m.p.h., to check that all is well with it….

Such performance from a 1913 5 1/2-1itre car is highly enjoyable, and reflects a racing ancestry. This compact Th. Schneider, which has a wheelbase of 9 ft. 2 in. and a track of 4 ft. 7 in., is able to accelerate past many modern cars and the inevitable commercial vehicles with ease, barking its deep and impressive war-cry as it picks them off. Such overtaking is aided by an unexpectedly quick gear-change, while if pace has to he subdued the brakes are entirely adequate, those in the ribbed rear-wheel drums applied by the outside hand-lever, to which a bulb horn is attached, steadying the car, while the foot transmission-brake does the real retardation, at the expense of shrill squeals, its once cast-iron linings since replaced by Ferodo.

From my seat beside the driver on this exhilarating run out to a one-time speed hillclimb course at Cannock Chase, crouching behind the aeroscreen, I took stock of the cockpit. There is no dashboard as such. Instead, the instruments live on the fire-wall, beneath the scuttle. On the extreme left, one above the other, are the air-pressure and oilpressure gauges, the latter reading around 20 lb. sq. in. These were once on a Talbot. Inboard of these there is a Smiths speedometer and a Jaeger rev.-counter, the latter of the expensive chronometric type, which goes round once to indicate up to 1,200 r.p.m., then a second time round to read to 2,400 r.p.m. The air-pump for the petrol tank is set almost on the centre of the scuttle edge, its handle locking in neatly when not in use. The ignition is switched on and off from a big brass domestic tumbler-switch. The r.h. gear lever is inside the body and moves in a normal H-gate, with a lift-up catch on the gate guarding the reverse position. There is a tiny central accelerator pedal, flanked by the clutch and brake pedals which carry the “TS” initals of the car’s maker. The big wood-rimmed steering wheel carries the aforesaid bronze quadrant for the long ignition lever (top) and the hand-throttle. Their movements are indicated by rather elegant arrows, supplemented by F and O markings (“Ferme”, “Ouvert”) for the throttle lever, A and R for the ignition. An undershield was fitted to the GP cars but Rowley has found this-unnecessary.

I did not feel that I could do justice to this not-easy car on the slippery roads of Cannock and Lichfield, towns through which its owner had driven it in nonchalant fashion. But on the quieter roads of the Chase I took the wheel for long enough to discover that the clutch pedal has a long travel, that the clutch engages somewhat aggressively, and that the substantial gear lever has to be moved rapidly from one slot to another. You pull it backwards out of 1st, into 2nd, enjoying the most effective acceleration as you open up, then take it swiftly across the gate and forward into 3rd and, when the revs have risen and the occasional coughs from the ice-like inlet manifold have died away and only the bellow of the exhaust and the rush of wind intrude, the lever is pulled smartly back into top. It has, I noted, a fairly long travel. The hand-brake has an excellent ratchet and the steering is positive, and is neither too highly geared nor too heavy. You sit high and the view forward, of the never-ending road slipping under the wheels, is unbroken over the short coal-scuttle nose. The ride is extremely good but the outstanding impression is of what an eager, taut car this Th. Schneider is, the 5 1/2-litre engine responding as soon as the throttle is opened, its manner of cornering also fully endorses the praise bestowed by those who observed these cars on the Amiens circuit back in 1913.

The Theophile Schneider Company began in 1910 and lasted to around 1931. It took part in quite a lot of pre-war racing, with its 80 x 149 mm. cars for the 1912 GP de France, in which Champoiseau finished Second, the model we are here concerned with for the 1913 French Grand Prix, and by entering 4.4-litre cars for the 1914 GP. Malcolm Campbell and others raced cars of this make at Brooklands before the war and two of them lingered on there after the Armistice, Le Champion cutting his racing teeth on a fast one in 1922, but none of their engine dimensions quite tie-in with those of the Coupe de L’Auto and the GP Schneiders. After the war there were those handsome 13/35 and 13/55 sports Theo-Schneiders, of which Motor Sport seems to have had more than its fair share for road-test purposes during the vintage years.

Altogether I was glad that I had invited myself to go for a run in such an outstanding Edwardian motor car. It has done well in VSCC events, of course, taking the Edwardian record at Curborough on its second time out, winning its class at Prescott that year, but breaking its prop-shaft there last year. As there is nothing to stop this from digging into the road and upending the car when this happens, it was fortunate that Rowley had fitted catch-wires for just such a contingency! The magneto also seized from shellac trouble on one occasion and sheared the first of the two metal universals that drives it.

Otherwise, the Schneider has gone extraordinarily well, coping with road rallies as well as speed contests and clocking 53.0 sec. in practice at last year’s Shelsley-Walsh climb, 53.1 sec. on each of its runs in the event proper, after the other Edwardians had retired, as well as making fastest Edwardian time at VSCC Prescott last summer. It runs on 2-star fuel, at the rate of approx. 18 m.p.g. when touring, which is about halved if the driver is in a hurry, the cooling system holds perhaps 8 to 10 gallons of water, and Rowley uses a straight SAE-50 lubricant, usually Mobiloil.

The owner and builder of this delectable Th. Schneider began to ride Sunbeam, Scott and Douglas motorcycles while he was a student at Birmingham University, attempting trials, but without much aptitude. In this he was following his Mother, who was a keen motorcyclist, preferring to ride to a picnic while the rest of the family went by car. In 1925 she bought a Swift two-seater but after driving it for six months remarked how dull cars were after motorcycles. She never drove again. Rowley’s Father had things like Edwardian Rovers but his son went in for more exciting machinery. After bull-nose Morrises and a series of Austin 7s, including a Gordon England Cup Model which, like most of its kind, soon shed the fabric boot, over its spare wheel, he had three 3-litre Bentleys and two 4 1/2-litres. The war found him economising on fuel with 12/50 Alvis cars. In 1946 he raced a Type 35C Bugatti and ran an ex-Team 2-litre Speed Model Aston Martin in small Club races. His fondness for the 30/98 Vauxhall then came to the surface. In 1950 he bought the black late-type OE model in which the Rowley family has since covered at least 100,000 miles. It will never be modified, or sold, while John has any say in the matter. His wife Margaret, who has gone along so willingly with him in all his motoring endeavours and adventures, seriously preferred to do 400 miles in a day in this 30/98 than in the Bentley Continental which John had used for the last 20 years.

Later there was his first E-type 30/98, sold to John Milner, and the ex-Tubbs Vauxhall Wensum with the famous Munday Brooklands engine. Rowley also rebuilt the well-known 25/50 Talbot from a half-truck used by a garage into a beautiful skiff-bodied Edwardian fast-tourer and this joined his present side-valve 30/98 of this motoring family. His VSCC racing exploits with the ex-Chula straight-8 GP Delage and the V12 GP Delage of 1924, with LMB ifs, will also be remembered, the latter taking three seasons before magneto problems were sorted out, after which it became delightfully a fierce car, well-suited to John’s driving preferences. There was also an ex-Brian Lewis 500 Mile Race Talbot, crowded into an existence which, since John Rowley’s retirement, has revolved closely and almost full-time around maintaining this stable and competing in VSCC events.—W.B.