Veteran Edwardian Vintage, July 1982

The Six-cylinder Napiers

THE 60 h.p. Mercedes, with whichI dealt in the January issue of MOTOR SPORT, was perhaps the most remarkable veteran car of all the pre-1905 makes and models, stall events in terms of performance available to ordinary, if wealthy, motorists. It did not possess the technical ingenuity of a Lanchester but it went very fast indeed along roads that were otherwise the preserve of horses and occasional “turf-turfs” and above which no flying machines yet flew, so that the begoggled Mercedes driver was to the peasants and non-motor folk as someone almost from another world.

So what did those who had experienced the delight of owning a Sixty Mercedes turn to, after even this great Mercedes model finally became outdated? Many no doubt bought Mercedes Nineties, those formidable 37/90 h.p. and 80/90 h.p. cars from Unterturkheim. But as I hope to have a run in one of these shortly, let as for the moment consider another illustrious make in the field of exciting Edwardian cars, namely the Napier, the six-cylinder versions of which were as fast and imposing as any of the bigger motor-cars of that period.

It was the energetic, forthright and forward looking S. F. Edge who turned the thoughts and activities of engineer Montague Napier towards the horseless-carriage. Indeed, there is such a similarity in the way Edge influenced Napier and took cars from him to sell, at first along with other makes, that no follower of Rolls-Royce history should fail to take note of this earlier alliance. By 1900 Napier cars were being supplied to Edge, after Montague Napier, the celebrated miming-engineer, bad converted a primitive Panhard-Levassor for Edge from tiller to wheel steering and from solid to pneumatic tyres. Napier then designed and built an engine for the car, using his own idea of reliable ignition, by electricity instead of a hot platinum-rube, and from this he moved on to making Napier motor-carriages, at first with two cylinders but soon with three and then four-cylinder engines.

Such was the affinity with Napier, or Edge, with the customers that a wealthy fox-hunting gentleman living at Market Harborough, Mr. Edward Kennard, allowed a Napier ordered by him (no doubt with the connivance of his wife, the novelist, who enjoyed putting on overalls and working on cars) first to be driven through the Thousand Miles Trial of 1900, run by the AC GBI to show the capabilities of the new auto-cars. It was driven by Edge, with the youthful Sr. John Nixon riding on the step as mechanicien.

This led to the introduction of a four-cylinder Napier of 16 h.p., of which 16 were being built in Napier’s Lambeth works by the summer of 1900, orders against eight having been secured. Edge used one to win a bet laid by a hunting stockbroker (his name was Otter, but he actually hunted the fox) that no car could climb Porlock hill, the American Charles Glidden embarked on his monumental touring marathon in another, and Edge drove one in the Paris-Toulouse-Paris race that year, with the Hon. C. S. Rolls as his mechanic. When Edge won the 1902 Gordon Bennett race for Britain, by rather a fluke, with a monster Napier, the fame of the make was established.

However, it is the six-cylinder Napiers about which I am supposed to be discoursing. The first one was exposed to public gaze early in 1904. The story is that Edge, who had experienced severe tyre failures in the GB race, thought the smoother torque of a six would ease matters in that department, but Napier was at first adverse to the idea on the grounds of loss of thermal efficiency. However, being a true engineer, he got down to it, and within eight or nine months had a prototype six-cylinder on the road. Edge, that writer of continual letters to the Press, often acrimonious and not always technically watertight, was a pugnacious and egocentric advocate of six cylinder cars from then on and tried to convince people that the Napier was the first and best six-cylinder car. In fact, there had been others before it, and at about the same time. Space does not permit a full insight into the matter but it can be said that Spyker used a six-cylinder in-line engine for a four-wheel-drive racing car in 1903 and Sunbeam also had a six-cylinder model by 1904. But it is generally accepted that Napier of Acton was the first Company successfully to market cars with this type of power unit, which it did from early in 1904.

Edge gave a dinner at the “Trocadero” in October 1903 to prepare the motoring press for the arrival of this new car with six cylinders. It is amusing in retrospect that although the six-cylinder engine gave very good low-speed torque the long crankshaft necessary, especially as the early sixes were contrived, produced problems, in the form of torsional vibration and shaft wind-up that could break an unsuitable crankshaft all too easily, in spite of primary and secondary forces of the reciprocating parts of a “six” being completely balanced. Montague Napier was not alone in this respect. Henry Royce suffered in the same way with his 30 h.p. six-cylinder cars. But he did not haves publicist like S. F. Edge to lean on. When they were faced with this rough running Edge simply told Napier drivers that they were enjoying a “power rattle” indicative of the superiority and performance of their powerful motors. Meanwhile, it might be added, Dr. Lanchester got on with perfecting his harmonic balancer.

This gives me the opportunity to diverge to say that Sunbeam’s, too, had these difficulties after they had brought out their pioneer six-cylinder model, which was not serviceable until a redesign had taken place. It also allows me to use a photograph of one of these 1904 six-cylinder Sunbeams which I have wanted to publish ever since Mr. Reid, who used it to drive between Wolverhampton and Glasgow in connection with the building of the three “British” Darracq racing cars for the Gordon Bennett Cup Race sent it to me.

The six-cylinder Napiers that followed the first model of early 1904 came in a conglomeration of models spanning the period up to the outbreak of WWI and after. Of these, the more sporting ones, amply quick when not overburdened with heavy coachwork but also smooth-running, were the 60 h.p. cars, sometimes designated the 65 h.p., and the 90 h.p. The Napier Sixty, as I shall shortly hope to show, was one of Britain’s outstanding cars in the years leading up to the First World War. The 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce, one of a great many six-cylinder cars copied from Napier’s lead (as S. F. Edge was never loath to point out), although ultimately regarded as “the best”, did not arrive until 1906 and was not fully established until after the 15,000-mile Observed Trial the following year, one did it appear in less-pedestrian form until the advent of the “London-Edinburgh” chassis in 1911.

A distinguishing feature of these Napiers was the tall radiator filler-cap, known as the “water tower”, and another was the steering track-rod ahead of the front axle, necessitated by the engine being well forward in the chassis, neither of which was used for the Napier commercial vehicles. It has been said of later Napiers that sales were sometimes lost because the Acton company also manufactured commercial vehicles (or “business vehicles” as Napier called them) and taxicabs. If this were true Daimler should have suffered likewise, and Leyland particularly (they probably did, in fact) when their heavy-looking private Leyland Eight was announced in 1920, because both companies made well-established commercials and the Lancashire firm was renowned for them. Be that as it may, the meticulously-made Napiers had a great success prior to WWI, and although they were reverts refined as a 40/50 Rolls, they would start “on the switch”, a trick the Silver Ghost was to emulate, and they ran smoothly and were or flexible.

The car models available covered 30 h.p., 40 h.p., 45 h.p., 50 h.p., 60 or 65 h.p., 80 h.p. and 90 h.p., although the last-named was described in 1904 as unsuitable for use in the UK and may have been simply a ploy to supply road-equipped editions of the biggest racing Napiers, should there have been such a request from Europe. The Napier Sixty had the longest production-run, from 1906 to 1913.

S. F. Edge net about publicising these great cars in his own inimitable manner — one day a book must be written about him. At first Napiers were more expensive than Rolls-Royces but their superiority was there to he demonstrated. In 1910 Edge set his cousin Cecil to drive a 60 h.p. Napier from London to Edinburgh and back, using only its direct-drive top speed. This was successfully accomplished, at 19.35 m.p.g. of petrol, after which the car was timed to do 76.42 m.p.h. on Brooklands Track. The following year Rolls-Royce replied, by doing the same top-gear run, but at 24.32 m.p.g., and doing 78.26 m.p.h. on Brooklands. To this Edge made a notable response. Although the engine of the 60 h.p. Napier was considerably larger than was that of a 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royce, in 1912 one was officially observed to go from London to Land’s End up to John O’Groats, and then down to London via Edinburgh at 23.9 m.p.g., and then do a top-gear London-Edinburgh-London journey at 18.7 m.p.h. and a staggering 27.65 m.p.g. — which must surely have raised many eyebrows, if not worse, in Derby. . . .

These were only the more ambitious and less-freakish ways in which Edge proclaimed the Napier’s worth and before this these cars had made a grand impression in terms of sheer speed. It began with some excellent performances in the speed trials and hilIclimbs of 1905 to 1907, such as Clifford beep’s class-win at Brighton at 97 ¼, m.p.h., a British kilo. record, Macdonald’s 104.65 m.p.h. at Daytona Beach with L48 and a clean sweep of almost every class at the Bexhill Speed Trials, etc. Then came the opening of Brooklands Track in 1907, a gift to Edge, who not only made his 24-hour run there on a Napier Sixty at over 65 m.p.h. for 1,582 miles, accompanied by no other Napiers, as has been so well documented, but he prepared a team of Napiers for the subsequent racing at the Track. Brooklands was brand-new and all that happened thereon at that time received much publicity. In that first short season these Napiers won for Edge £1,760 in prize money, second only to Mercedes, which won £1,040 more than the Edge-Napier team.

These appearances at the new Brooklands Motor Course put the Napier even further to the forefront. At the very first Meeting in July 1907 H. C. Tryon’s stripped six-cylinder 40 h.p. Napier won the first heat of the very first Brooklands race, and went on to win the Final of this Marcel Renault Memorial Plate. On the same day Frank Nevvton dead-heated with Jarrott’s 60 h.p. De Dietrich on a 45 h.p. Napier in the Bytleet Plate, and Cecil Edge drove the monster 90 h.p. car in the first Montagu Cup Race, leading for a time, to finish 4th. That season Napiers won twelve firsts, four seconds and four third places, including the aforesaid dead-heat. This put them very definitely in the picture especially as exciting incidents received much attention during the empirical days at the Track and Napiers were to be part of some of these during 1908. Before the 1907 season had ended, Newton made f.t.d. at the Gaillon hillclimb in France with the Ninety and Napier had also started successful attacks on records.

The next season began with one of those well-publicised incidents, when Tryon, after taking the 50-mile record at nearly 80 m.p.h. with a60 h.p. Napier, hails tyre burst while trying for the “hour” and left the Track on the inside new the entrance tunnel, flying over the road before landing! Later, using Palmer Cords that proved more reliable, Newton took record of up to two hours at nearly 85 m.p.h. with this 127 mm. x 127 mm. Sixty. The great 90 h.p. L48, with its radiator tubes running round the pointed bonnet, appeared for the Easter races with its engine enlarged to 155 mm. x 152 mm. and named “Samson”. It was entrusted to Newton, who did a splendid piece of driving on the damp concrete when the Napier’s spokes tangled with the hub cap of Dario Resta’s 76 h.p. Mercedes as the British car was overtaking on the banking. He was able to control the Napier and win at 89, m.p.h. Another piece of drama for the publicity-conscious Edge!

This gentleman issued a number of challenges, most of which it was almost impossible to meet, so that he was able to announce that Napiers were invincible against other makes of similar size. However, this mis-fired at the 1908 Brooklands Whitson Meeting, for although the challenge-accepting Metallurgiques fell foul of 26 h.p, and 40 h.p. Napiers, in the 90 h.p. race the celebrated Felice Nazzaro won with the 21-litre Fiat “Mephistophiles”, after Newton’s Napier “Samson” had broken its crankshaft, “the power-rattle” had been provoked too far on this occasion! However, “Samson” retained its class records against the best the Fiat could do. (Its engine had been given a 26 mm. longer stroke for the Match Race, raising the capacity to over 20-litres., Newton had another 90 h.p. Napier at his disposal, consisting of a Type 120 standard chassis with a 155 mm. x 102 mm. six-cylinder engine. At the same Meeting this Napier “Meteor” won the “90 h.p. Stakes” from the Rents Mercedes, at 91 m.p.h., covering the Railway straight kilo. at 115 m.p.h. It was then taken to the Saltburn Speed Trials and clocked 102.6 m.p.h. over the flying kilo. For the 1908 August Brooklands meeting Newton drove the 1907 60 h.p. “803” record-breaker in the 100-mile O’Gorman Trophy Race, winning at 83.88 m.p.h. A 1908 Grand Prix Napier burst a tyre and overturned on the Railway straight but this incident was overshadowed by the fatal accident to Lane’s mechanic after his 76 h.p. Mercedes had crashed by the entrance road. Before this calamitous happening Newton had vanquished this and another Mercedes with “Samson”, to win the Montagu Cup Race at a record 101 ½ m.p.h. Those are just some of the Brooklands successes of these splendid British cars. Before the 1908 season ended they broke more records, culminating in Newton driving “Samson”, one November day, at a tizned 119.34 m.p.h. over the half-mile, after it had plunged at some 130 m.p.h. off the Byfleet banking and hesitated as the carburation faltered, causing mis-firing. “Twice the speed of an express train” was how it was then described, and it was 74 years ago, remember. . . . Napiers also did very well in British and other speed events, including f.t.d. at Shelsley Walsh in 1908 by Tryon’s Sixty, in 65.4 sec., a new record. Another great feat was E. A. Paul’s London-Monte Carlo record of 33 hr. 34 min., in 1909.

After this Edge used the fatal accidents in racing as an excuse for withdrawing his Napier team. But by then it was a make supreme. All manner of important personages were among Napier’s customers. They numbered the Queen of Siam, a Viceroy of India, the Duke of Connaught, the Duke of Sutherland, the Duke of Bedford, the Marquess of Lansdowne, Earl Roberts, Lord Northcliffe, the Rt. Hon. H. H. Asquith, the Rt. Hon. A. J. Balfour, the Rt. Hon. Winston S. Churchill, J. Pierpoint Morgan, the American millionaire, HEH the Nizam of India and many Indian princes, etc. As the official Napier historians wrote in 1958, the pre-1914 list of custorners, “like the passenger list of the Titanic, recalls all the thundery afternoon sunlight of Edwardian England. Here is ancient landed wealth: here is the recent profit of industry and finance: here are the rich Radical politicians. Here is a memory of the days when there were forty servants below stairs at Longleat, when Sir William Lever, vastly rich on soap, could say he was ‘in love with petrol’, and when the Liberal Party, profiting by the social discontent which is the other side of the medal, could promise something recognisably like the Welfare State and sweep Conservatives from office. And all behind a Royal Navy that could send sixty-four battleships to sea at once, and in the reign of a German Emperor who both patronised motor racing and made indiscreet, threatening speeches about `shining armour’.” “The Noiseless Napier” embraced all this and more. Special “Extra Strong Colonial” models were offered and although the ingenious 1908 126 x 154 mm. Grand Prix Napiers were banned from the Dieppe race on account of their detachable Rudge-Whitworth wheels (thought to give an unfair advantage — the “Politics” of motor racing and the restrictions on GP racing are not new!), sports versions costing £1,500 as a chassis in 1910 were made available (which may be how R. T. T. Spencer won with one at Brooklands in 1925 — if anyone can tell me more about this driver, who normally raced an aged Sunbeam and later an Austin 7, it will be appreciated).

Of all these Edwardian Napier variants, it was the Sixty that is best-remembered. In comparatively recent times Ronald Barker has shown us how well such a car performs in sporting guise and I have personal experience of its ability to reach over 80 m.p.h. or more in road-trim, start “on the switch”, and out-accelerate touring-bodied 40/50 h.p. Rolls-Royces up hills — see MOTOR SPORT for July 1976, pp. 800-804.

Although Napier’s had used mechanically operated overhead inlet valves and side exhaust valves on some of their models, this 1908 11 ½-litre Sixty has all its valves in an L-head, and although Edge became a great advocate of the three-speed gearbox, this R-type Napier has four forward speeds. Its engine runs up to 1.800 r.p.m. and that “power-rattle” is there, at around 1,000 r.p.m.

By 1912 Napier’s lost the unique drive of S. F. Edge, who was bought out for nine years from taking any part in the Motor Trade, after a difference of opinion with Montague Napier. Edge had suggested that Napier quality had deteriorated, nor was he taking the £120,000-worth of Napier vehicles a year that his agreement expected him to sell. So this remarkable man turned to a new-style of pig-farming in Sussex, until he re-entered the Motor Trade to look after AC Cars, later with associations also with the Cubitt. He found himself again advocating, among other things, the six-cylinder engine (of the light-alloy AC Six) and the three-speed gearboxes which both the four-cylinder and the six-cylinder ACs had in their back axles, while in 1922 Edge bettered his 1907 24-hour distance by taking the British “Double-Twelve”-hour record at Brooklands (where night running was no longer allowed) — with a six-cylinder Spyker. . . .

Whether or not Edge was right about Napier quality in 1912, certainly the Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost by then had caught them up in performance, at all events taking engine-size differences into account, and it was the more dignified and quieter concept. However, Napier continued with four-cylinder models, as they had previously, these and the early two-cylinder jobs being used also as taxis and commercials, and they came up with a very nice 30/35 h.p. 5-litre six-cylinder model in 1913/14. Continuing the old tradition, this model was submitted to a rigorous 1,200-mile RAC-observed trial in the Austrian Alps.

During the 1914/18 war Napier supplied satisfactory lorries to the Front, notably the one that took part in the retreat from Mons and received special sanction from the War Office to be named “Charley’s Aunt”. It did not need any attention from the outbreak of hostilities in August 1914 until it went into a workshop in January 1917 for its magneto to be overhauled. Napier’s, who referred to their private cars as “Napier Motor Carriages”, liked to call these their “Business Vehicles”, to customers who called at the showrooms at 14, New Burlington Street, London, W1.

After the Armistice D. Napier & Sons Ltd. brought out a far more advanced car than before, in the form of A. J. Rowledge’s T75 40/50 h.p. light-alloy overhead-camshaft motor-carriage, its engine obviously based on his war-time 450 h.p. Napier Lion aero-engine, before he went to Rolls-Royce Ltd. Although intended as a luxury car, it could look quite sporting in Cunard-bodied aluminium open-touring guise, and as a small boy I admired the one parked sometimes in Emmanual Road, Balham, of all places — the fascination of motors and roads in those times!

A great deal of publicity was given to the new 40/50 h.p. Napier and it is interesting that it was announced so soon after it had been planned that illustrations in the first catalogues were artist’s impressions of it, supplemented by photographs of what arc clearly pre-war 30/35 h.p. models. The slogan was still “The Proved Best” but there were problems with rough running at low revs., due to a flexing crankcase failing to locate the rear main bearing, cured by using a lower compression in No. 6 cylinder than in the other five(!) and perhaps the 40/50 Napier was ahead of its time, or too noisy, or no sluggish, or too expensive at £1,750 for a chassis, for it never sold properly. In all, only 187 of the T75 to T80 40/50s were made, 38, less than scheduled. However, this model, too, was submitted to an RAC-observed 2,118-mile trial in the Alps, and it is interesting to compare progress, by looking at the figures relating to these two Alpine marathons and an earlier test of a 1910 45 h.p.

After 1924 it was virtually all over, so far as Napier motor-carriages were concerned. A total of only 4,258 private cars had been made, some 1,800 of these in the halcyon years, 1909 to 1911. This compares badly with Rolls-Royce’s output of 6,173 of their 40/50 h.p. chassis alone, between 1907 and 1925. It was in those earlier years that the big Napiers had their heyday — fine care, with in many cases decidedly sporting connotations. They are remembered as great British cars.