A 3-LITRE STRAIGHT EIGHT BALLOT
Time was when the discovery of Veteran Types to be included in this series in MOTOR SPORT involved laborious search by ,” Baladeur ” for the whereabouts of these :survivals from an earlier age. Other duties were pressing, and the time involved became more and more difficult to spare. What greater treasure-trove for the harassed journalist could be imagined therefore when he came upon his bonanza in the form of the Vintage Sports-Car Club, which nowadays does the work for him. It has already collected for his delectation several pre-war cars which have figured in these pages ; and now Mr. Clutton, its energetic Press Secretary, in partnership with Mr. Watkins-Pitchford, who is shortly _taking over that office from him, has become possessed of a later but none the less epoch-making machine. I speak of nothing less than one of those just postwar Ballots, which set the vogue of the straight-eight, and around which is woven a whole chapter in the history of the racing-car. In the years just prior to the War the house of Peugeot was carrying all before it in the great races. The man who was chiefly responsible for the design of these pre-eminent racing-cars was a Swiss engineer by the name of Henry. During the same period an Italian who bad settled in Germany, by the name Of Ettore Bugatti, was working on a straighteight automobile engine. The idea was not new—it had been put into practice by MM. Charron, Girardot and Voigt as long before as 1902, and in 1907 had appeared the English Weigel straight eight racing-car. But M. Bugatti was more successful than his predecessors, and in 1914 he showed his sympathies by a rapid move into France, complete with all his designs. These included a Straighteight aeroplane engine of 120 x 190 inms. (14,476 cc), which years later was used in slightly modified form in the Golden Bug. This design was adopted by the
French Government, which ordered its .construction in the Bara works at Levallois, in charge of which was M. Henry. A further notable fact, which is more relevant to the story than appears at first sight, is that the engine was later also adopted by the American Government and put into production by Duesenberg.
At the end of the War M. Henry joined the Ballot company, which was already well known as engine manufacturers, but which had now decided to launch out on the construction of racing cars. After his experience with the Bugatti engine during the War, it was not surprising that M. Henry set about designing a straight-eight for the first post-war race, the 1919 Indianapolis ” 500 ” for 300 cubic inch (4,900 c.c.) cars. Work on the cars was Only begmi in January and the race took place on 30th May, with the result that M. Henry had to witness their defeat at the hands of one of his own 1914 Grand Prix Peugeots. The new Ballots, however, had shown themselves tremendously fast, and their designer was more than ever wedded to the straight-eight principle. The next year, 1920, the Indianapolis race was for 3-litre cars, and in spite of this reduction in engine size, the new Ballots built for it were again straighteights. The bore and stroke of the new engine were 65 x 112 nuns., giving a capacity of 2,978 c.c. The crankshaft, as on the 1919 300 cubic inch engine, was arranged on the four-four principle, and with two carburetters the induction system was just as in a four-cylinder engine. The cylinders were in two blocks, but two overhead camshafts were used
as in the pre-war racing Peugeot. Unlike the 1914 Grand Prix Peugeot, the cars were not fitted with four-wheel brakes. Perhaps this was because they were to run in a track race ; possibly it was because M. Henry was more interested in engines than in chassis. I have always understood that it was Georges Boillot, No. 1 driver of the Peugeot team, who insisted on front brakes for the 1914 racers because he had seen them on the Argyll at the motor show in. London ; and I have always thought that Mercedes chassis superiority beat the Peugeot in the 1914 Grand Prix, although the French car had the better engine. But all this is little more than idle speculation.
In the 1920 Indianapolis race the three Ballots were driven by Ralph de Palma, J can Chassagne and Rene Thomas. They were undoubtedly the fastest cars in the race, but they were not particularly lucky. Fifty miles from the finish they were running first, third and fourth. Then one of the magnetos on de Palma’s car died on him (a racing mishap which overtook Chit:tort while driving his 3-litre Ballot at Lewes some seventeen years later) and de Palma finished on four cylinders, fifth instead of first. Chassagne hit the retaining wall and was seventh, and Rene Thomas finished second, going much faster than the winner, but with insufficient time to catch him.
I suppose that Ralph de Palma kept his car in America while the rest of the team came home. At any rate he started alone in 1921 and led. for over half the race, after which be went out with a connecting rod through the crankcase. In that year, 1921, the French Grand Prix was revived. It is difficult nowadays to remember how great was the prestige of the race in those days. Although it had not been run for seven years it still had the glamour of the epic pre-War struggles, lineal descendants of the Gordon Bennet Cup and the town-totown races. How much some of us wanted
the Ballots to win this 1921 race, feeling that they represented the Peugeots and might avenge 1914.
The race was the epitome of the straighteight. Dueseuberg, who had had as we have seen War-time experience of M. Bugatti’s design, sent a team of them ; so did Talbot from England and TalbotDarracq from France. The straighteight Sunbeams, third representatives of the new amalgamation. were nonstarters. First a Ballot led, then a Duesenberg, then a Ballot. Ralph de Palma and Jean Chassagne were again driving the French cars, but Louis Wagner was now in charge Of the third. For this road race they had four-wheel brakes, but So did the Duesenbergs. At half distance Chassagne had the lead and looked a likely winner. Somehow, however, the Ballots seemed to be dogged with ill-luck. The car’s petrol tank fell down on to its cardan shaft, and was too badly damaged for it to continue. Ralph de Palma finished second to Murphy’s Diresenberg aud Wagner was seventh. We were disappointed again.
Still there was a crumb of comfort. Later in the year the Italian Grand Prix was run at Brescia and there the Ballots met the new Fiats which were also straighteights. Ralph de Palma’s Ballot fell out during the race, but at last Jules Gonx, who was now driving one of the cars in place of Louis Wagner, scored a Ballot victory at the terrific speed for a road-race in those days of 89.9 m.p.h. with Jean Chassagne secOnd. As a member of the old Peugeot team, second only to Georges Boillot, who had been killed in the War, it was fitting that Goux should achieve the Ballot win, even if it was not on French soil.
This was the last race in which the Ballot team took part. Some little time later one of the cars was acquired by Malcolm Campbell, who in his time has been responsible for bringing many famous racing-cars to Brooklands. I am rather intrigued in trying to deduce which one of the team it was. I do not think that there were ever more than three cars. I was tempted to invent a fourth owing to the fact that a 3-litre Ballot ran third in the 1922 Indianapolis race, driven by Eddie Hearne, and felt inclined to guess therefore that Ralph de Palma left his car in America after the 1921 race, and drove a, different car— and therefore a fourth of the type—in the 1921 French and Italian Grands Prix. This theory, however, seems to be knocked on the head by the statement in a contemporary account of the 1921 Indianapolis race that de Palma was driving the identical car which he would run in the French Grand Prix. I think therefore that it may be assumed that there were only three of these cars. On its front brake drum the car now under review has stamped ” Voiture No, 2.” Ralph de Palma always appears as No. 1 of the team, and it is most probable that it was his car that went back to America and ran in the 1922 Indianapolis race. From the team tactics adopted in the 1920 race it appears most likely that Jean Chassagne’s car was No. 2, and as he was the second remaining member of the team his car was
likely to remain No. 2 when the front brakes were fitted for the 1921 Grand Prix. Rightly or wrongly therefore I have come to the conclusion that this Voiture No. 2 is the one which was driven by Chassagne throughout the time when the Ballot team was in existence, and which hit the retaining wall at Indianapolis in 1920, burst its petrol tank at Le Maus in 1921 and ran second at Brescia later in the year.
In the hands of Malcolm Campbell it proved itself a highly successful Brooklands car. He ran it for several years and then in about 1927 it passed into the hands of Jack Dunfee, with whom it continued its successful career. Joan Richmond, the next owner, was not quite so fortunate, for by this stage the car had acquired expensive habits over its bearings. Eventually it threw a rod which appeared incontinentally through the crank-case, and its owner decided to part with the wreck.
It was acquired by Captain Shipwright, -who neatly patched up the hole in the sump and set about improving the lubrication system in order to prevent similar disasters in future. Pressure now drives oil from a tank under the seat to a Lagonda pump, driven from the front of the near-side camshaft, which distributes it around the engine while a scavenger pump collects it from the sump and returns it to the tank. This system seems to work well, and the car apparently prospered until it was acquired from Pembridge Motors by its present joint owners.
It was at Littlestone, on the occasion of the speed-trials held there in May by the Vintage Sports-Car Club, that I was re-introduced to this delectable vehicle. I awaited eagerly its descent from the lorry which had brought it to the scene of action. The car, after a phase in somewhat violent yellow, is painted black now, and looks truly thoroughbred in this sombre garb, though personally I rather regret its original French racing blue. Its general appearance vividly recalls the immediate post-war racingcar. The radiator and bonnet are low, and the scuttle sharply upswept. Rather curiously, the top of the tail rises from behind the seats, and then falls somewhat sharply to what is almost a blunt point. The tail in consequence has something of a humped appearance—as had that of the 1914 Peugeot. I had almost forgotten that it was not until 1922 that the Fiats introduced to the Grand Prix the type of tail, nearly flat-topped in silhouette and ending in a well marked vertical knife-edge—which was afterwards to become de rigUeur for a decade or more. There is another curious point about the Ballot’s tail. It originally contained a giant petrol tank, which Clutton still has, although at present a small fourgallon sprint tank is in use instead. In the Grand Prix at least, however, it also carried a spare wheel, placed in it vertically along the axis of the car, and projecting through the top. I looked in vain for the hole, and can only suppose that the tail was ” re-roofed ” in Brooklands days. By modern standards the front axle and its attachments to the springs look somewhat flimsy. According to the present owners this is no optical illusion and they are at present engaged on im proving the anchorages and fitting air Aston-Martin type torque arm. Inciden tally the front brakes are now operated by the hand-lever and the back ones by the pedal. According to a 1921 descrip tion of the car, all brakes were operated by the pedal ; and Clutton suggests that experience proved that use of the front brakes caused so great a tendency for the springs to wrap themselves round the
axle that someone subsequently unhitched! them from the pedal and attached them to the handle—reserving them, since he considered discretion the better part of valour, for use in parking. This ex planation is ingenious, and I hate dis trusting contemporary accounts. At the same time separate operation of front and rear brakes was a common feature of early four-wheel braking systems, and would be an obvious expedient in this case if the front brakes were added after
the cars had run at Indianapolis. The engine is a delightful looking piece
of work with that business-like air which two overhead camshafts always give. They are driven from the front, and at the back drive the two magnetos. Internally the engine is I believe a replica of the 300 cubic inch motor of the 1919 Indianapolis type, which was described in MOTOR SPORT’S Rumblings” last February, with its four valves per cylinder, five roller main bearings and the others plain. The two carburetters are now by Zenith, but I believe that in the Indianapolis Grand Prix days Claude’ Hobson.s were used. The compression ratio, also, was originally about 7 to 1, but has apparently been increased to about 12 to 1 in later days. In spite of this Clutton declares that the engine starts quite easily on the handle and is quite happy with soft plugs which never get oiled. From the engine the drive is through
a rather small cone clutch to the fourspeed gearbox. It is believed that this box and the back axle are identical with that used on the 390 cubic inch car, the lower final ratio needed for the smaller engine being obtained by fitting 32 inch wheels. If this supposition is correct the ratios are 3, 4.2, 5.4 and 7.8 to 1. The safe limit for the engine is supposed to be 3,1500 r.p.m. which would give about 116 m.p.h. in top. This fits in fairly accurately with what the car appeared to be capable of when new, and the performance according to the owners is still there to this day. Having inspected the Ballot I grate fully accepted the offer of a ride. With the small clutch and high bottom gear moving off is not easy, but once the wheels were biting well and truly things began to happen. Being mentally attuned to the 1908 single cylinder, with which I was about to double the next slowest time of the day, the acceleration appeared to me to be terrific. Having towed the ” racer ” down behind a 1937 saloon with soft springs I watched the first
corner approach with dismay. Providentially my right hand slipped quite automatically into the mechanic’s griphole. “The steering is perfect,” said Clutton afterwards, ‘only 11 turns from one very generous lock to the other.”
To my feverish imagination the wheel seemed to swing back and forth far more than that on that corner. Actually with the driver’s skilful handling the Ballot went round as on rails. ” A real thoroughbred” I reflected when finally I extricated myself from the cockpit and began the search for my cap, with which I had parted company a few seconds after the start of our run. A few minutes later I was watching the Ballot away from the line in the speed trial. From the Olympian viewpoint of the spectator I could see that the getaway was difficult and after some of the modern supercharged cars the accelera tion betrayed the high gear-ratios. In spite of this the car’s time for the halfmile from a standing start came through
as 27.7 seconds, and I heard afterwards that it had crossed the finishing line at over 100 m.p.h. For sprint work at least the smaller wheels which I believe are now being fitted should be of consi lmtble assistance. A modern clutch would doubtless give additional aid, but such things do not grow on the hedgerows.