A firing-up

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The other Sunday nearly 100 people assembled at Roger Collings’ Mill House for the firing-up of his aero-engined Mercedes-Maybach, successor to his legendary 1903 Mercedes, a move from the veteran class into Edwardianism (no more Brighton Runs?). Roger had assembled the great car in three months and one week but it had not been startedup until this exciting occasion.

Before attempting to do this Roger stood up in the cockpit and thanked everyone who had helped him — a long list! The white beast, in the Count Zborowski tradition, has a 1916 six-cylinder 150 x 180mm (19,085cc) Maybach airship engine in a 1907 70hp Mercedes chassis, with 18in removed from the side members to give a 10-foot wheelbase, with trials in mind! The drive from the gearbox goes forward to a countershaft driven by dual chains and sprockets on each side, to step up the final-drive ratio (again, to meet trials conditions). From the countershaft external chains convey the drive to the back axle. The engine has push-rod operated ohvalves, two inlet and three exhaust per cylinder, and develops 280bhp and 950lb ft torque, at 1400rpm. The present 1.1 to 1 final-drive represents 120mph at this engine speed, or 140mph if different ratios and revs are used.

It all began when Kier Hellberg rang Collings in November 1992, to ask if he had an old Mercedes chassis. He wanted to install his Maybach engine in one. Instead Roger bought the engine, which was delivered in a Renault van in January 1993. It is thought that originally it went from England to the USA for investigation purposes. Not only is it magnificently engineered but it was in almost new condition, its push-rods removed so that all the valves were closed, the plug holes sealed, and the whole vast power-unit carefully mothballed. In researching it, Collings went to the Mercedes-Benz and Maybach factories in Germany, where great interest and assistance were immediately forthcoming.

The Mercedes tourer whose chassis has been used was owned from about 1920, until 1936, by Major Lionel Beaumont-Thomas, MC, JP, of Madley, Herefordshire, who was drowned when sailing to Crete on Active Service. Mervyn Davies then drove the car to his scrapyard at Callow and when the war came Percy Pritchard (who was at the firing-up party, aged 97) acquired it and, thinking that German bombers might get to Hereford, used the chassis to form an air-raid shelter. Five years ago Andrew Wilson, who has a Brescia Bugatti, discovered the chassis frame and Roger acquired it from him.

So the project advanced and on April 25 the monster was ready to fire-up. Not surprisingly it was a bit shy of responding, after all the years the engine and chassis had been hibernating. An array of large batteries plugged into the starter circuit failed to wake it. Brian Morgan’s Range Rover provided a tow. No go! Then Ben Collings was told to get out the family 4-1/2-litre Bentley and with Roger in the Mercedes-Maybach’s driving seat, urging him to greater speed, rather like a Centurian lashing his chariot horses, they vanished up the drive and out of sight. Soon a muffled roar was heard — 19 litres of Maybach had awoken. We all applauded . .

The reluctance to start was due partially to a sheared magneto-drive key, but by 1.30 am the following morning the indefatigable crew had a proper run-up. It may sound easy. But Roger had worked nights and days on the car, and VSCC members had toiled all night to complete it. Mark Walker had driven over after Colerne (third in class in 36.25 sec, :86mph) in his own aero-engined Curtiss-Monarch, and Patrick Blakeney-Edwards had been extremely helpful. It is impossible to mention all those whom Roger Collings thanked in his pre-fire-up citation. Indeed, he had a word for everyone present. They included Gynne Humphrey of Llanharan who put a workshop and fitters at Roger’s disposal, Ken Grayham who made many parts to plans made from drawings done by Roger himself, Peter Stephenson who made the radiator core, John Underwood who cased it, Dave Tyler who fabricated the handsome exhaust piping, John Guppy who sorted out the gear-change, Neil Murray of the VSCC who advised about the lubrication system, Norman Lloyd, and many others.

Most of the VSCC seemed to be there to see this exciting car which had been on wheels for the first time only that morning. Roger thanked them all, not least his charming wife Judy, for putting up with so much domestic disruption while the Mercedes-Maybach project’s conception and birth was achieved.

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