"Baladeur" reviews..., June 1948

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Baladeur

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The Story of Brooklands — The World’s First Motor Course, Vol. 1, by W. Boddy, Editor of Motor Sport  (Grenville Publishing Co., Ltd., price 12s. 6d.)

When a journalist is asked to review a book by his own editor he may well be tempted either to indulge in sycophantic praise, or to take the opportunity of returning some of the criticism normally bestowed on his own literary efforts. But if Mr. Boddy had been in search of flattery for his latest book he would hardly have chosen the present reviewer for the task, because, as I think he knows, our views about the story of Brooklands, particularly during the period from 1907 to 1924 covered by this first volume, could hardly be more diametrically opposed. To Mr. Boddy, Brooklands, from its opening in 1907 until its recent untimely demise, was throughout the very Mecca of motor-racing. To my mind, on the other hand, during the whole of the period until it was surpassed as the world’s finest track by Monza and Montlhéry, Brooklands was practically wasted. Until the coming of the 200-Mile Race, which, having been covered in an earlier work, Mr. Boddy does no more than touch on in the present volume, scarcely any long-distance race was run at Brooklands. And yet there seems no valid reason why, in the early days, the track should not have staged epic events which would have rivalled or even outshone the Grand Prix. In those days, it may be remembered, when the town-to-town races were still fresh in everyone’s memory, length was the great criterion of an event’s importance: the first Grand Prix, in 1906, was made a two-day event in order that the cars might cover the formidable distance of 770 miles. In 1907, as Mr. Boddy most graphically records, S. F. Edge set up the first 24-hour record by covering more than twice this distance, over 1,581 miles to be precise, in a Napier. In those days the superiority of road over track racing was far from being generally recognised. The A.C.F., having merely improved a triangle of roads near Le Mans for the first Grand Prix, proudly boasted that they had created a “veritable autodrome.”  A 24-hour race for Grand Prix cars in 1908 would have been, or so it seems, an outstanding success, and might well have been the occasion of a victory for those very interesting Napier racers which were not allowed to start in the French event, on account of their use of Rudge-Whitworth wheels.

Instead of this, the B.A.R.C. insisted on concentrating on short-distance handicap races, which, considered as a spectacle, were marred by the vast size of the track, with the consequent dwarfing of the cars, and the results of which, it has always seemed to me, could not possibly be of the slightest interest to anyone but the competitors. Be that as it may, I have said enough to show that if any book on motor-racing could bore me, that book would be one about Brooklands. And yet I can honestly say that Mr. Boddy’s latest work held me enthralled from first to last. He even contrived to interest me when writing, in its Brooklands’ context, about flying, a subject which, as a rule, I find about as absorbing as contemporary politics or contract bridge. When it comes to motor-racing, he has succeeded in packing his pages with information as to the results of races and the successive holders of records, and at the same time has also succeeded in interlarding this chronicle with so many anecdotes and so much of technical interest, that his pages are relieved of any suspicion of boredom. Looking at the problem from a writer’s point of view, it would not, it seems to me, have been very difficult to write a racy book about Brooklands which was of no value as a record, nor to compile an unreadable catalogue of facts; but to combine the two objectives as well as Mr. Boddy has done unquestionably demands real artistry.

The story, of course, has many enthralling chapters, and not the least of them, to anyone of an enquiring turn of mind, are the Brooklands’ mysteries, of which the first and foremost is the mystery of the F.I.A.T.- Napier challenge race of 1908. Mr. Boddy sets out the facts as far as they are known about this famous contest with exemplary clarity, and further quotes from Mr. D. B. Tubbs’ masterly analysis of the problem which appeared in Motor Sport  in 1941. Briefly, the race, which was over a distance of six laps, was between Nazzaro on the F.I.A.T. “Mephistopheles” and Newton on the six-cylinder Napier “Samson,” either or which could lay claim at the time to being the fastest car in the world. The runs were electrically timed, but, perhaps because electrical timing was still almost in its infancy, they were also timed by hand by Mr. Ebblewhite. There is no question about which car won the race, because the Napier broke down on the third lap. But whereas the electrical timing, which was finally officially confirmed, credited the winning car with a lap at 121.64 m.p.h., Mr. Ebblewhite conceded it a speed of no more than 107.98 m.p.h., and whereas both the electrical timing and Mr. Ebblewhite agreed that on each of the first two laps when both cars were running the F.I.A.T. was faster than the Napier, all eye-witnesses agreed that the Napier was leading by a quarter of a mile or so at the end of the first lap, and was still ahead when it broke its crankshaft after the end of the second.

In reality, therefore, there are two mysteries here:  first, how could the Napier have kept ahead of the F.I.A.T. while the F.I.A.T. went faster than the Napier; and, secondly, did the F.I.A.T. lap at more than 121 m.p.h. or at less than 108 m.p.h.?  And, curiously enough, the first, although on the face of it the more baffling, is, I think, in fact the easier of solution. According to a letter, which is quoted by Mr. Boddy, from the B.A.R.C. to Mr. D’Arcy Baker, who issued the challenge on behalf of the F.I.A.T., the cars were timed on their first lap from a point 490 yards from the starting line. This fact does not appear to have been apparent to Mr. Tubbs, and Mr. Boddy fails to draw from it what seems to me to be the obvious inference. If Nazzaro made such a bad start on the F.I.A.T. that Newton gained say the whole of the untimed 490 yards on him, then Nazzaro could have travelled slightly faster over the first timed lap, and yet have still been about a quarter of a mile behind at the end of it. Of course this supposes a very bad start indeed an Nazzaro’s part, and the question naturally arises as to whether there is any evidence to support the supposition. I think that, in fact, there is.

“Mephistopheles” was fitted with a 190 by 160 mm. engine, but I suspect that the chassis was nearly, if not quite, identical with the 180 by 160-mm. engine cars which ran in the 1906 and 1907 Grands Prix. And in an account of the former race, I find it recorded that “the F.I.A.T.s were either very highly geared or else their clutches were awkward, for both Nazzaro and Weilschott stopped their engines on the starting line.”  If history repeated itself at Brooklands two years later, one of the mysteries of the Napier challenge race would be solved. What remains obscure is whether, if both had stayed the distance, the winner would have been the car which finished first or that which made the best time.

With regard to the speed of the F.I.A.T., the question is a more open one. If it really lapped at over 121 m.p.h., the record, as Mr. Boddy points out, stood until 1922, when K. Lee Guinness improved on it with the V12 Sunbeam, and then by only just over 1 m.p.h. Because of this, and because I do not think it at all likely that “Mephistopheles” was fast enough to lap at this speed, I personally incline to the view that the hand-timed speed of 107.98 m.p.h. was nearer the mark. Mr. Tubbs is impressed by the fact that, according to Ebblewhite’s timing, Nazzaro averaged 107.76 m.p.h. on his first lap and 107.98 m.p.h. on his second, and asks, is it at all likely that he could not return a flying lap appreciably better than his time from a standing start ? This inclines him to favour the electric-timing figures, which gave 105.24 m.p.h. for the first lap, and 121.64 m.p.h. for the second. But this argument overlooks the fact that the first lap was not timed from a standing start, but from a point where the car had had over a quarter of a mile in which to get up speed; and it may be significant that, in the Grand Prix at Dieppe that year, Salzer on the Mercedes established the lap record, at 78.5 m.p.h., on the first lap from a standing start. Admittedly the Dieppe circuit was nearly 48 miles round, which is rather different from Brooklands’ less-than-three, but it does suggest that the racing car of 1908, once it was warm, was at its best before it got hot.

If, then, the electrical timing apparatus was unreliable in the case or the Nazzaro-Newton match, what went wrong with it ?  I, for one, do not like to venture an opinion, but I would just remark that while the F.I.A.T. was going faster than the Napier, the Napier throughout was ahead of the F.I.A.T. Is it possible that this caused confusion, and that Nazzaro’s suspicious lap time was recorded from when he started on his second circuit until when Newton finished his ? With the aid of the table of lap times and speeds published in Mr. Boddy’s book, his readers can try to work this one out for themselves.

The remainder of the Brooklands’ mysteries chiefly concern the origin of the cars, both famous and obscure, which raced there, and their ultimate fate, although Mr. Boddy’s book will enable countless arguments, particularly those centring around Zborowski’s series of “Chitty-Bang-Bangs,” on which he has clearly obtained first-class information, to be satisfactorily settled. But there was, for instance, the 140-mm. bore six cylinder Mercedes entered by Lacon in 1911, which, says Mr. Boddy, was rumoured to have been built for the 1907 Grand Prix. Actually this looks to me more like the 135-h.p. “square” six-cylinder of 140 by 140-mm. bore and stroke built in 1905, and included in the table in Mr. Gerald Rose’s book under the title of  “Experimental Car.”  Of the Mercedes mentioned on page 145 as running in 1921, J. H. Cooper’s 12,831-c.c. car was, I agree, almost certainly a 1908 Grand Prix model; R. F. Cooper’s 130 by 170-mm., and Phillips’ 130 by 180-mm. cars seem to have been long-stroke editions of the 130-mm. bore 55-h.p. model, which started life about 1908 with a stroke of 150 mm.  G. W. Robinson’s 140 by 150-mm. car was a standard model known as the 65-h.p., and Pilette’s 175 by 155-mm. was doubtless a 120-h.p. 1907 Grand Prix type, although the stroke is usually given as 150 mm.

Mr. Boddy is himself a little uncertain, so he tells me, of the accuracy of his description of the Itala with which Malcolm Campbell appeared at the Whitsun meeting in 1923, as the Targa Florio car  “much later to provide Kent Karslake with personal transport.”  This may have been a Targa Florio car, but a photograph taken of it at the Autumn meeting shows that it had a standard “V” radiator. The car which Karslake afterwards owned, and which he described in Motor Sport  in January, 1931, was built for the Coppa Florio in 1924, had a special flat radiator, and does not seem to have appeared at Brooklands until the Easter meeting in 1925. Any confusion between the Targa and Coppa Florio at this epoch is trivial, as the two races were run concurrently, but Mr. Boddy is, I think, in error when he says that in 1907 Nazzaro had won for F.I.A.T.  “the French G.P., the Coppa Florio and the Kaiserpreis.”  The Italian race which he did win that year was the Targa  Florio in Sicily; the Coppa Florio at Brescia was an entirely different affair, won by Minoia on an Isotta-Fraschini, of the type, I suppose, which, in 1922, provided the  “1907 chain-drive Isotta-Fraschini chassis” for Eldridge’s Isotta-Maybach.

In the case of another, and very different, Itala, I must also join issue with the author, for he describes the 8-1/2-litre car with which Robertson Shersby-Harvie appeared at the Easter meeting of 1914 as “the 150-h.p. 1912 Grand Prix car which Moriondo drove in that race, and overturned near the grandstand, only to right the car and continue.”  Actually, there were no Italas in the 1912 race, and Moriondo’s adventures befel him at Amiens in 1913, while I think that the dimensions of these rotary-valve engines were 125 by 160 mm., which gives a capacity of under 8 litres. Mr. Boddy himself mentions that these cars were brought to Brooklands for testing purposes in May, 1913 (when he describes the engine as an 8-1/4-litre); and it is one of the minor mysteries of Brooklands why, after all this care had been lavished on preparation there, the cars were found to be overweight when they weighed in for the Grand Prix, and had to be stripped of everything removable before they could be allowed to start. (Possibly because Signor Bigio, who was responsible for the cars, was killed during further tests, after leaving Brooklands.—Ed)

To continue my carping, the 3-litre Anasagasti which appeared at the August meeting in 1914 can hardly have been a “1912 G.P.” car, as none ran in that race, but was doubtless the machine which d’Avaray drove in the 1913 Coupe de l’Auto  race at Boulogne. The 4,817-c.c. Ballot, with which Chassagne made the fastest race-lap of the year at 112.17 m.p.h. at the Autumn meeting in 1920, cannot be correctly described as a car, as it was built for the 1919 Indianapolis race run under the 300-cubic inch limit, and was too big to take part in any subsequent Grand Prix.

Mr. Boddy opines that the “5-1/2-litre Sunbeam” entered by Mrs. Duller for the 1922 Autumn meeting was “one of the 1913 bolster-tank G.P. cars “;  if so it must have had a different engine, for the cars in question had six cylinders of 80 by 150 mm. (4-1/2-litres). The caption to the illustration of the Sunbeam with which Segrave won the Scratch Race at the 1921 Easter meeting, also, describes it as “the prototype of the 1922 3-litre straight-eight G.P.” car. Actually, of course, the 1922 race was for 2-litre cars, Sunbeam used a four-cylinder engine on this occasion, and the car illustrated was prepared for the 1921 Grand Prix.

I suspect a misprint, too, in connection with Naudin’s voiturette records established in October, 1908, when, says Mr. Boddy, his Sizaire et Naudin “covered the half-mile at nearly 66.5 m.p.h., and practically 66 miles in the hour.” It can surely hardly have gone almost as fast for an hour as it did for half-a-mile. A year later, as Mr. Boddy duly records, Boillot’s Lion-Peugeot did over 68 miles in an hour, but for half-a-mile it did over 77 m.p.h. To be accurate, it did not do it “in A.C.F. Voiturette  G.P. trim,” because in 1909 there was no A.C.F. Voiturette  G.P. to be in trim for, and the race which the Lion-Peugeot won was that for the Coupe de l’Auto. And at this date, Georges Boillot can hardly be described as “the great Boillot “: he was still the junior member of the Peugeot team, with as yet scarcely a notable win to his credit.

However, with the worst will in the world, I can discover no more mistakes than these in the course of over 100,000 words, each one of which I have read with pleasure and attention. Homer sometimes nods, but on this occasion he has done so very infrequently and only where trivialities are concerned. At last what Mr. Boddy calls the “Outer Circuit Age of Brooklands ” has found the chronicler who was its due, and who has been able to provide his chronicle with a wealth of fascinating illustrations. Everyone who is interested in motor racing, and a good many who are not, will read this book with pleasure; anyone who sets himself up as an authority on motoring history will ignore it as a text-book at his peril.

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