Vintage postbag, January 1978

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Those 1914 GP Opels; Mavrogordato replies to Corner

Sir,

I was most interested in Neil Corner’s long letter re: our two 1914 G.P. Opels. I will deal first of all with his remarks about my car. It must be remembered that I bought it, in 1931, to use on the road, and to tow my racing motor cycles, on a trailer, to various meetings such as Syston, Donington, and Brooklands; not to show it off at VSCC meetings – did the Club even exist then? So, as beaded-edge tyres were almost impossible to buy at that period, I had perforce to change the rims to take 20 in. x 5 in. tyres, which were approximately the same diameter as the BE ones. The steering was instantly, and vastly, improved – (but I must confess that, at the same time, I did add quite a few degrees of castor angle to the front axle by means of ash wedges under the front springs). I can well imagine that beaded-edge tyres improved Neil’s steering after those ghastly dough-nuts he had on previously! As for the dual ignition on my car, the coil was added to assist the starting, which I still do on the handle. It also had the effect of improving the acceleration and the flexibility of the engine. It is a strange fact that Opels did not use dual ignition in the French Grand Prix, although they could so easily have done so, with a double-distributor magneto, just as they did with the big 191312-litre racer. They did, however, carry a spare magneto, bolted to the near-side crank-case web; hence the curved copper water pipe on this side. (The 1914 G.P. Mercedes could have used four plugs per cylinder, but did in fact use three.) The Ki-gas, fitted only last year, was, of course, to assist the starting, and to obviate opening the bonnet and flooding the carburettor. As regards the steering wheel, when I acquired the car the steering wheel, which would only have been 17 years old, was made of ash, enamelled black. The joins had become un-stuck recently, and it was easier to make a new ash wheel, exactly to pattern; but this time I put on four coats of Bourneseal instead of enamelling black; purely to please my eye, just as that beautiful brass radiator does! It could be that Corner’s steering wheel is more authentic than mine, although it looks horribly modern. As, in 1932/9, I used the car at night, I had to fit a dynamo, and this meant replacing the flat fan belt and pulleys with V-belt and pulleys. Of course, I regret this now. I also had the cylinder block re-bored + .010 in. to clear some slight scores made by the gudgeon pin end pads, and Specialloid pistons made to the exact pattern of the old ones. The dashboard is now of wood, to replace the corroded aluminium one, but is to the original size and shape. Other detail modifications include modern grease-nipples to replace Opel’s ridiculous 1914 ones, lino on the floor-boards instead of the corroded corrugated aluminium, and new upholstery in leather. I agree with Neil that the air pump should be inside the cockpit, and I had already decided to do this during next winter. I still have the original under-shields; and four steel tool-trays, which were awkwardly situated, under the seats; but I have not as yet fitted them. I did, however, make and fit a non-authentic wooden tool and battery box, below and behind the bolster tank. This above is a list of all the non-original and replica parts on my Opel; mostly, if note entirely, unimportant respects, the car is exactly as it ran in the 1914 French Grand Prix, has not been “mucked about” or altered in any material way, and is complete, even down to the original six bonnet fasteners and all the copper oil pipes, etc., etc. It is complete, because it has done very little racing, has only had four owners since 1914 (the last one having cared for it for 45 years!), and has quite obviously done a very small total mileage. Dealing finally with Coroner’s most serious “dig” at my Opel, he tells us that there is some doubt that it is Karl Joern’s Opel I, which was the only Opel to finish the Grand Prix, in 10th place, I was dismayed to learn this, having been told about it, and read about it, and having believed it unreservedly, for so long. But I admit that, if we ignore such respected authors as Kent Karslake, Cyril Posthumous and others, the only written evidence which I can think of is the letter which S. C. Cull wrote to you, in which he states that two Opels came to Cheval Place in London, in 1020, where he looked after both of them. One was a single-seater (Corner’s); the other was in its original GP form, complete with bolster tank (mine). He writes that Karl Joerns brought both these cars to Brooklands for the August 1914 meeting, the bolster tank car being the actual one he, Joerns, had driven into 10th place in the 1914 Grand Prix. As is well known, both cars were “interned”, on the outbreak of the War, and only six years later came to Cheval Place. I cannot believe that, in this short space of time, their history can have been forgotten or lost. Cull’s letter to you was authoritative, and well-written by an obviously intelligent man (see Brooklands, Chap. XXIV). One wonders why he should have written in a different vein to Sears? Of the two Opels which came to reside in this country, there is one small but interesting piece of evidence, which would point to the fact that it was mine which finished the course in the French Grand Prix; Corner’s car, at some time in the past, before Brian Morgan acquired it, suffered from a broken con-rod. It could have happened at Brooklands, in 1920, in Segrave’s hands; but I rather doubt this, because the latter wrote to Westwood, who owned the car after 1928, that “the engine was extremely good, and reliable”; and it is therefore more likely that it happened during the Grand Prix race, and was the cause of this particular car’s retirement. This, of course, is more in the nature of a theory than real evidence. It is conceivable that the present Opel factory might have records of their 1914 racing cars; in which case they would know whether Joerns drove the car whose engine no. is 30097. This no. is also stamped on the brass hinge of the bonnet; but I have never discovered any vestige of a chassis number. It would be interesting to know who drove Corner’s car in the Grand Prix; but as his crankcase is a British made replica, I doubt whether it will carry the engine no.

As for that lap speed of 108 m.p.h. – as Corner would say, “anything less than the Official Brooklands Lap Speeds should be viewed with suspicion”. Even Segrave never claimed more than 104 m.p.h. which he put up on my car. But a lap of that rough track at 108 m.p.h. in such a flimsy device as a 1914 G.P. Opel makes one’s hair stand on end just to think of it!

I note that Neil takes exception to your calling his car “more or less a replica”; but, taking “replica” in its dictionary sense to mean “copy”, surely most of his car is just that? Does not the following list of replica parts confirm this? Bolster petrol tank, including wood tank bearers and bands; body (with ash frame, and somewhat the wrong shape); bonnet (with modern fasteners, strap, and then vertical louvres); bulkhead complete; wheel hubs and caps (ex: 3-litre Bentley); cross-shaft, brake and clutch pedals; radiator filler cap, and overflow pipe (I have always wondered why the radiator is a different shape from mine – squarer, less Bugatti-like. Optical illusion?); crank-case, crank-shaft, camshaft; cylinder block, re-built flywheel; carburettor; copper oil pipes and modern Enots fittings; exhaust manifold and exhaust pipe (in copper); dual ignition – ? (the 2nd magneto may have been removed by now).

It is obvious, of course, that the replica body parts are not exact copies of the original 1914 ones; because, although Brian Morgan made his usual meticulous job of the re-build, it was not possible for him to make exact copies without my car, partially stripped down, in his own workshop, quite apart from the extra labour involved. To take a few examples at random, there is the bolster tank, with its fuel gauge and rather complicated wood bearers; the body, with its light steel frame; the bonnet, with its thirteen inclined louvres; the complicated steel frame-work of the bulkhead; etc. as far as I now, there are still certain important parts completely missing, such as the brass oil tank, with the full width instrument panel bolted to its aft surface, the stone-guard, the undershield, and the double universal joint between engine and gear-box. Sears completed the re-build regardless of cost, and the finished car certainly looks like a 1914 GP Opel.

I cannot quite understand Corner’s remark that “the rest of the car is certainly 1914 GP Opel”; because, after deducting all the replica, pattern, missing and modified parts, “the rest” does not include very many of the original German unmodified parts, which circulated round the Grand Prix  course in 1914. It is unfortunate that Neil’s Opel has, since 1914, had to suffer so many people working on it, modifying it, repairing it, and “improving” it. The poor thing has had no fewer than four bodies fitted; the steering column has been moved to the middle – (when the drop arm was bent to clear the chassis) – and back again; the chassis and rear springs lengthened; various bits and pieces discarded or lost; even a ridiculous cowl fixed to the front of the radiator at one stage.

I have recently received from France an excellent photograph of the complete Opel team, taken in 1914; and all three cars appear to be identical. They all have stone-guards, oil tanks, undershields, and bonnets with thirteen inclined louvres, and no bonnet straps.

I sincerely hope that, in coming to your defence, I have not given away anything which was not already well known, and have not annoyed Neil. It has always seemed to me that Brian Morgan made a mistake in not leaving his car in its famous Hornsted/Segrave form, in which it had such a phenomenal history of successes at Brooklands in that one year of 1920, and started Segrave on his remarkable racing career. Incidentally, Brian is the only person alive to-day who has driven both Opels; and he commented on the superior acceleration of my car compared to his – due, to doubt, to the carburettor.

Before I annoy anybody else, I had better bring this long, and probably boring letter to a close.

Lymington                                                                                                                           M. N. MAVROGORDATO

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