Veteran to classic -- cars of Brooklands

No Substitute for Litres

I am sometimes asked which of the hundreds of cars which raced at Brooklands had the biggest engine. The 24-litre Napier Railton that holds the ultimate lap record is often quoted but, in fact, its literage was exceeded by the Liberty-powered Higham Special which Parry Thomas converted into the Thomas Special "Babs", the capacity of which was 27 litres, or to be more precise, 27,059cc. However, both these giant racing cars used aeroplane-type power units.

Of the Brooklands' competitors which had normal engines, the Fiat "Mephistopheles" and the Napier "Samson" which contested that 1908 Match Race that I described in the April Motor Sport, or Chitty-Bang-Bang are sometimes cited as possibly the largest-engined cars to use the Weybridge Track. In fact, the Fiat Felice Nazzaro drove when he beat the stricken Napier had a four-cylinder engine of 190 x 160mm, which gives a swept-volume of 20,981cc, and the Napier had a six-cylinder engine just over 20 litres, for the Match Race. The Maybach engine in Chitty had a capacity of 23,092cc but this, again, was an aero-type engine.

The matter of which of the non-aero-engined cars (and I believe you will be able to read about the aero-engined ones in a forthcoming Foulis/Haynes book) at Brooklands had the largest engine is a close-run thing. Apart from the formidable Napier "Samson" in its final guise, those Blitzen Benz confessed to engines of 21,504cc. But there was an even earlier racing car which could boast of an engine both more advanced and somewhat larger. It was the 1905 vee-eight Darracq. Having managed to break the LSR at a speed of 104.52 mph, which Barras had achieved at Ostend in 1904, Alexandre Darracq wanted to remain ahead in this absolute field of automobile speed, and to this end he got his engineer, Louis Ribeyrolles, to put two of the existing cylinder blocks of the four-cylinder racing engine onto a common crankcase at 90 degrees using forked conrods, thereby creating a vee-eight engine of more than 22-1/2-litres. The exhaust valves were converted to an overhead location, all the valves operated via long push-rods and enormous rockers from a camshaft in the centre of the crankcase. The big engine was fed from two carburettors. On test, 200 bhp was reported, developed at 1200 rpm.

This advanced power-unit, with eight stub exhaust-pipes, was installed in a flimsy chassis with a wheelbase of only 8 ft 6in. There was a two-speed gearbox driving by shaft to the back wheels and nothing much else, except for a gilled-tube vee-radiator, a cylindrical copper water tank with pointed prow mounted above the engine, and two bucket seats for the intrepid driver and his luckless passenger, with a small cylindrical fuel-tank up behind.

Weighing only 19-1/4 cwt, this must have been one of the most exciting of earlier racing cars! Victor Hemery was given the task of extending the fearsome Darracq, and on the Arles-Salon road, to which the Darracq had been rushed straight from Paris, he raised the LSR, held by a Napier, to 109.65 mph, with a brave mechanic crouching beside him, neither having any protection from the flywheel or engine, as no bulkhead was fitted. It was just too late in 1905 for this to have represented a Christmas present for M Darracq.

Perhaps Alexandre Darracq need not have been too apprehensive about the LSR being taken from him, because the Napier had run at Daytona and its speed was suspect in Europe. In 1906 external combustion entered into it, however, when Marriott's Stanley steam-car put the record to 121.57 mph, but again at Daytona, although this time Europe accepted the performance. The 200 hp vee-eight Darracq had used two cylinder blocks of 160 x 140mm from Darracq's 1904 Vanderbilt Cup racing cars, giving an engine size of 22,518cc. Had Darracq used the 170mm bore blocks adopted for their 1906 racing cars I think that the capacity could have been increased to 25,430cc, (but I also make the existing engine's size 22,526cc aided by my Vatman Mini 111 calculator) but perhaps by then it seemed to Darracq that steam had applied too much pressure. <.p>

At this point Sir Algernon Lee-Guinness, of the Guinness brewery family, bought the big Darracq. In this he was no doubt aided because he had driven for Darracq in the important races of the time. First, however, he drove the car in the Ostend speed-trials in July 1906, where he covered the kilometre at 117.7 mph; quite how Guinness found this extra eight mph I do not cornprehend, except that maybe the works had been a little too hasty over the LSR run, with the car untried and Hemery making only a few practice runs beforehand.

At Skegness that September Algernon Guinness gave a demonstration run on the sands at the Notts AC races. During the month following the Darracq was put on a train hired by the more wealthy drivers, who dined in style in the restaurant coach as their cars were taken to Blackpool, where A Lee Guinness at first tied with Cecil Edge's 90hp Napier but then topped his speed, against a strong headwind, by 2-1/2 mph, thereby establishing a Worlds standing start kilometre record of 32.4 seconds.

In 1907 Sir Algernon was still running the vee-eight Darracq to great effect. At the Yorkshire AC's Saltburn speed-trials he devoured the flying start kilometre at 111.84 mph, recognised as the "Yorkshire Record" for sand racing, and in June 1908 he took the car to the same venue and was timed over the flying start kilometre at 121.57 mph. Newton's 90hp Napier had been 18.96 mph below this speed. On this epoch-making run the riding mechanic was his brother, K Lee Guinness, who after the war was to become famous as the driver of Louis Coatalen's big V12 Sunbeam and his "Invincible" 1-1/2-litre Darracqs. (Curiously, the 200hp Darracq's Speed was the exact equal of Stanley's, over the same distance, but presumably no tie had to be declared, because the steam-car had run more than two years earlier, and no doubt because the Yorkshire AC's timing was not officially recognised).

Presumably the car was considered too difficult or frail to race at Brooklands but when an American, Mr Dugald Ross, said he would buy the Darracq for £2000 if it proved sufficiently fast to satisfy him, Sir Algernon took him to Brooklands where, tuned by the American and a friend, a distance of 20 chains was done at 112.2 mph, and then at 115.4 mph. The BARC must also have timed the Darracq officially, because the first two BARC Certificates ever issued were given for these performances. However, the deal fell through; Mr Ross seems to have ridden on the car and perhaps the experience was more than he had bargained for! But this establishes the 22.5-litre Darracq as the car with the largest non-aero engine to use the Brooklands Motor Course — and now, I suppose, someone is going to remind me that Darracq also made aeroplane engines!

The ageing Darracq was still serving Sir Algernon well in 1909, when it did 120.25 mph over Saltburn's flying start kilometre (the fastest of the 1908 GP Mercedes cars was over 27 mph slower). Soon after this it was deemed wise to stop, for the flimsy chassis had no doubt done enough. However, the big Darracq had made a great impression when Guinness first acquired it, not least according to HW Bunbury, who described how Lord Annesley had told Algy that the Darracq was for sale in Oxford Street, to which they proceeded in His Lordship's unsilenced Mercedes Sixty. They found the 200hp car in a basement, where it was started up, 'tis said, creating an inferno of noise, smoke, flames and fumes. It was towed to Datchet behind the Mercedes and the Guinness brothers used to test it on the Hartford Bridge Flats near Camberley, at dawn, with friends guarding side-roads and the police sometimes interested onlookers. From rides in the mechanic's seat Bunbury, who was used to early racing cars, says that nothing else matched a full throttle run on the "200" for a real thrill and for pure joy, with the car in Algy's capable hands.

Sir Algernon Guinness kept the engine from the big Darracq until his death in October 1954, after which it passed into the hands of VSCC-member GD Firkins who I believe still has it. -- WB

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Brooklands Developments

The Brooklands Society reports that Trafalgar Brooklands Ltd are cutting a new road through the Byfleet Banking in exchange for closing an existing entry and reinstating that section of the old Track, an appeal against this further mutilation of Brooklands by the Society and some local Councillors having failed, on the casting vote of the Chairman of Elmbridge Council's Planning Committee. The Society's film shows have closed down until the autumn but the first 1991 issue of the Brooklands Society Gazette was due out in May and the Brooklands Society Trophy Race is due to take place at the VSCC Donington Park Meeting on September 21.

The Brooklands Museum Trust Ltd has announced a new members' club which will enable those who belong to enjoy concessionary hire rates to use various facilities at the Museum for entertaining business guests, holding conferences and exhibitions, filming, etc, within the site. To this end it is announced that the Chequered Flag Conference Suite and a number of Corporate Meeting Rooms of different sizes and period styles and indoor and outdoor display and demonstration areas will be available for hire, apart from the re-sited Bluebird restaurant, Courage bar and Barbara Cartland sitting-room. This seems to suggest rather a change of purpose from the pre-war BARC, which members joined mainly to enjoy the motor racing and the use of the Track free-of-charge on non-race days, as well as the facilities within the Clubhouse.

It appears that anyone can join the new Brooklands Club with being proposed and seconded, for a fee of £500 plus VAT, which includes free admission to the Museum for member and two guests, or £5000 plus VAT for life membership. This compares with the pre-war BARC subscription of 5gns a year, or, say, about £150 in present day values, which included access to the Track. It may be significant that, in the Press pack we have received about this new Club, although the old BARC badge figures, the only place where the Brooklands Society is referred to is in a list of 30 other organisations and persons listed as having helped the Museum Trust. Yet it was the Brooklands Society which organised the Reunions within the historic Motor Course after WW2 and whose members did a very great deal of hard work restoring the overgrown Track and running the annual Reunion, when cars used part of the Byfleet banking and the Test Hill, etc. In the nine-page story of Brooklands from 1907 to 1987 which David Burgess-Wise has written for the Museum Trust's Press announcement, there is not a single mention of this pioneering restoration by the Brooklands Society nor of the Reunions run by the Brooklands Society. . . .

It rather looks as if the two organisations may need to part; perhaps the Society should "twin" with Montlhéry, where cars still use the banked track, as British and French towns now do? -- WB