A Review of Napier Racing Cars, 1900-1908
AS the result of Edge’s victory, the honour of organising the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup race fell to the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland (now known as the R.A.C.). Then, as now, the idea of closing roads to enable an International motor race to take place was quite unthinkable for our legislators. Claude Johnson, the energetic seeretary of the A.C.G.B.I., went to Ireland with Julian Orde, Edge and Count Zborowski, and they aroused so much enthusiasm for the race that a special Bill was passed through the House of Commons to enable the roads of the 92-mile figure-of-eight-shaped circuit near Athy to be closed. France was keen to regain the Cup and the Mercedes works were preparing some 90-h.p. cars, so the race promised to be fiercely contested. The A.C.G.B.I. nominated Edge and Charles Jarrett (both driving Napier cars), and Eliminating Trials were held to decide who should be the third member of the team. Three Napiers and a Star were timed over a standing mile and a flying kilometre at Welbeck on the Duke of Portland’s estate where the Hon. C. S. Rolls and J. W. Stocks, both driving new 45-h.p. Napiers, tied for the best speed over the kilometre (72.1 m.p.h.), but Stocks was 1.6 seconds quicker than Rolls for the standing start mile. Two days later at 4 o’clock in the morning the four cars made three timed climbs of Dashwood Hill (on the main London-Oxford road) and again Rolls and Stocks recorded the best times. The whole affair was so illegal that the Club could not publish the times but instead announced the difference in seconds between the fastest run and the others. Just imagine Col. Barnes arranging for B.R.M. drivers to be timed on the same hill to decide who should become members of the team for the next. Grand Prix de l’Europe!
Three 45-h.p. Napiers were built and although they followed the general specification of the 1902 car they were considerably improved in detail. The cylinders were increased in bore to 139.7 mm., giving a capacity of 7,708 c.c., and the whole engine was set further back in the frame which was of wood reinforced with metal plates as in previous years. Napier still clang to his quadruple automatic inlet valves although mechanical operation was used by most of his competitors. He maintained that his four small Valves gave as good cylinder filling as one large cam-operated valve, furthermore, his were a great deal more reliable. Three-speed gearboxes and shaft drive were again used, although the rear axles were rather more robust. Thc wheelbase was increased to 7 ft. 10 ins. and the weight to 17 1/2 cwt. Tyres were still the limiting factor in racing car design. Edge and Napier agreed that, as they had to use English tyres to comply with the regulations for the race, they could only use engines of medium power and the saving of unnecessary weight was still vital. Jarrott wrote of the Napier he drove that it “was nothing like as fast or as powerful as the Panhard which I had driven to victory in the Ardennes race a few months previously or the de Dietrich which had carried me through to Bordeaux.”
A fourth Napier, larger and more powerful than the 45-h.p. models that had appeared at the Eliminating Trials and during the early days of practice on the circuit, had been prepared in secret, and after Edge had driven several times round the course on one of the 45-h.p. cars he came to the conclusion that despite the risk that the tyres would not stand up to the strain it would be worth taking the chance, and the new 80-h.p. car was sent over from the Napier works. Known as K5, it represented a considerable advance on any racing car previously turned out from Lambeth. The four-cylinder (165 by 152 mm.) engine was built on traditional lines but its 13 litres gave a great deal more power. It was claimed at 1,200 r.p.m. it would propel the car at 85 m.p.h. The chassis frame was of “hydraulically pressed” steel. The three-speed gearbox carried a separate lever to engage reverse (the 1908 T.T. Hutton had the same feature). The rear axle was stiffened by tie-rods and located by means of radius arms. The driver’s seat was mounted low on the chassis frame and the steering column was raked at an acute angle. A honeycomb radiator took the place of the Clarkson tube affair that had been used hitherto and the header tank was pierced by six openended tubes which gave the car a rather unusual appearance. Despite an engine 75 per cent. greater in capacity the complete car only weighed 1 1/2 cwt. more than the 45-h.p. machines; 34 in. by 3 1/2 in. tyres were fitted although Edge would have preferred 36 in. by 5 in. for the rear wheels, but the tyre experts persuaded him to use the smaller section to save rolling friction. This ultimately proved his undoing as the treads tore away from the beaded edges.
Despite the disastrous fire which had destroyed a large part of the factory as well as the three 90-h.p. racing cars, the Mercedes company managed to bring three. 60-h.p. models to the starting line. These were ordinary stripped touring cars loaned by private owners for the occasion and driven by Jenatzy, Foxhall Keene and the Baron de Caters. By the end of the second lap Jenatzy had established a lead which he maintained until the finish. The Napier team encountered trouble from the first lap when J. W. Stocks, taking to the escape road at Ballymoon, became entangled with a wire barrier that damaged his front wheels to such an extent that he had to retire. Charles Jarrott, before the end of his first circuit, had caught Jenatzy, who had started seven minutes in front of him, and the 45-h.p. Napier lay in fourth place. At Kildare the engine started to misfire due to a plug lead coming off but this was soon replaced and the car was off again, going as well as ever. On a piece of straight road between Maryborough and Stradbally, the steering gear suddenly gave way when Jarrott was travelling at about 60 miles an hour and the car charged into a grassy bank and turned over several times. Jarrott was thrown out on to the road but his mechanic„ Bianchi, who was strapped into his seat, was under the wreck with the hot exhaust pipe pressing on to his chest. By a superhuman effort Jarrott lifted the car until spectators came to his aid and Bianchi was released. Both of them then evidently “passed out” for Jarrott next found himself laid out as though dead, completely covered in a shroud. Incidentally this was the second time that a Napier had been eliminated from a race because of a steering defect. In the Paris—Madrid race earlier in the year, Mark Mayhew’s 35-h.p. Napier broke its steering gear near Libourne, only 25 kilometres short of Bordeaux, and ran off the road into a tree. The driver and his mechanic both escaped without serious injury.
S. F. Edge, with his cousin Cecil as mechanic, started off well in the big 80-h.p. Napier, K5. He was second at the end of the first lap, only 20 seconds behind Foxhall Keene’s 60-h.p. Mercedes, which he overtook on the second lap, but the Napier was itself passed by C. Jenatzy (Mercedes) and the Chevalier de Knyff (80-h.p. Panhard). The German car and its red-bearded driver held the lead until the finish but Edge, with the only remaining Napier left in the race; ran into trouble both with the engine, which overheated, and with tyres that “came off the rims or burst or otherwise went to pieces.” He struggled on doggedly, finishing last, two and a half hours after the winner, only to be disqualified for haying received assistance at a Control from spectators who helped push his car to start the engine.
As others, upon whom in later years fell the mantle of these pioneers in upholding English colours in international racing, so Edge, when feeling the bitter disappointment of his cars’ failure, began to wonder whether the risk and the-expense were really worth the candle. He records that “Napier and I had several anxious talks about our racing programme,” but it is greatly to their credit that the thing that decided them to continue was that “it would seem rather deplorable thing if most other countries entered and England stood out.” Perhaps their resolution in the face of setbacks may contain a moral for us today.
The four cars that had been prepared for the race in Ireland were again made ready for the 1904 Eliminating Trials which, thanks to the co-operation of the House of Keys, the A.C.G.B.I. were able to hold in the Isle of Man. Edge himself again handled the 80-h.p. car, K5, and the other three were driven by Clifford Earp, “a very good tester of cars at the Napier works,” John Hargreaves, “a well-known M.F.H. in the west country,” and J. W. Stocks, who had been a member of the team the year before. An entirely new “100-h.p.” racing car was built for Mark Mayhew which, unlike the majority of racing cars, was completed some four months before the race took place. He was able to drive it down to Nice to compete in the Rothschild Cup speed trials at the end of March. The new car acquitted itself well, for it covered a flying kilometre at 82.20 m.p.h., finishing third to the huge 110-h.p. Gobron Brillie driven by Rigolly and a 100-h.p. car of the same make handled by Duray. After this successful trial of strength Mayhew drove the Napier back again to London, with his wife as passenger.
Unlike the other cars of the Napier team, Mayhew’s had mechanically operated inlet valves which represented a noteworthy change from the traditional triple and quadruple automatic valves so beloved by Montague Napier. Although actuated by push-rods and rockers, they were placed in the head above the exhaust valves in the same way as in the earlier designs. The aluminium cylinder block had cast iron liners inserted by “hydraulic pressure,” and the 2-in, diameter crankshaft had hollow crank-pins and journals. Lubrication was by drip feed supplemented by a hand pump. A chain-driven water pump and a belt-driven fan attended to the cooling. The drive was transmitted through a “metal to metal” cone clutch and three-speed gearbox to a bevel rear axle, ball and roller bearings being used in both the latter components in place of plain bearings that had been used on earlier models. The chassis frame was of pressed steel as on Edge’s 80-h.p. K5, and the complete car weighed 19 1/2 cwt. It was said to be capable of 90 m.p.h. and the engine ran up to 2,000 r.p.m. Although the bore and stroke were not declared, there is reason to believe that they were the same as on the 1903 80-h.p, racer, viz. 165 by 152 mm.
The Eliminating Trials consisted of a series of tests carefully designed to assess the speed, acceleration, reliability and hill-climbing capabilities of the cars entered. In addition to covering five laps of the 52-mile circuit within the scheduled time (65 minutes per lap), the competitors were timed over a half mile near Ballaugh, a three-mile stretch of the course, and two miles uphill from Ramsey. In addition, acceleration from a standing start (from a control) was measured and the time taken for repairs and refuelling was also noted. On the following day a hillclimb was held and finally a speed trial, over a flying kilometre, took place on the promenade at Douglas. With such a mass of information the A.C.G.B.I. felt that they should be able to pick out the best team to represent Great Britain in the Gordon Bennett race without running the risk of racing the cars on the winding, narrow, highly cambered roads of the Isle of Man. (To be continued as space permits.)