The superlative Spyker

The "Dustless Spyker" — so called, not because it excelled in those RAC dust-trials aimed at keeping down road grit but because it was designed to avoid dust penetrating to the engine and other areas — was a fine Dutch motorcar, perhaps less well-known here than its merit justified.

In 1899 De lndustrieele Mastschappij Trompenburg started to make motor vehicles at its factory in Amsterdam. With its great coach-building reputation this was perhaps natural, for the flat roads of Holland must have seemed well-suited to carriages propelled by mechanical means, however primitive. As was by no means unusual, the first Spykers, built by the brothers Hendrick and Jacobus Spijker, were really improved versions of the Benz. And why not, for the Benz Ideal, crude as it may now seem, was a good proposition then, the first practical horseless-carriage of automobile concept.

To the credit of the Spyker organisation, however, it was soon supplementing these modified Benzes with its own very different model, which had a flat-twin engine with well conceived cooling fins on its cylinders, mounted at the front, driving to the back wheels, not by belt, but by shaft and gears. Moreover, there was a two-speed-and-reverse gearbox and it ran on Michelin pneumatic tyres, instead of on the "solids" of a Benz. This advanced autocar formed one of the Spyker exhibits at the 1900 Amsterdam Show. The following year Jacobus had sufficient confidence in the flat-twin model to compete with it in the Dutch Automobile Trials, averaging, it is said, 15 mph for the 340 miles, with a weight equivalent to three occupants. No mean feat, over 90 years ago...

This convincing showing made the company very optimistic of adding to Holland's ship-building industry that of motor-car manufacture. Their new factory was intended to turn out 500 cars a year. Optimism is to be applauded, but does not necessarily bring the hoped-for results. Holland had no raw materials, so Spyker had to import castings from Brussels and make its own parts and bodywork. Whereas Rolls-Royce made many of its own components for excellence, Spyker had no choice but to adopt the same method. So the motor-car venture was by no means easy. Sensibly, two French engineers and Valentin Laviolette from Belgium were taken on, the latter having a good influence on the pre-WWI Spyker products. These were at first conventional 1-head 12 hp twin-cylinder and 20 hp four-cylinder cars, with shaft drive, Spyker never using chain final drive. Very early on, the Elsworth Automobile Company in Bradford secured the English agency and there was a move to prevent dust from the then largely-unsurfaced roads getting to the engine. The 20 hp car had a 5-bearing crankshaft and the 1.9-litre Spyker could be brought here for £380 in 1903.

Fame came to the Dutch Company when it built a revolutionary six-cylinder racing car, the design of which was rumoured to have been commenced in 1901. Revolutionary it was, because it has always been accepted as the very first six-cylinder car. Napier, of course, pioneered the original production six-cylinder chassis and Sunbeam was not far behind, but this Spyker, which was a complete entity by 1903, got there a year before them. However it was a racing car, intended it was implied, for the Gordon Bennett race that year, although it never appeared therein. It had a 60 hp 120 x 128mm (8.7-litre) T-head engine in a short-wheelbase chassis. It also pioneered 4WD, because having constructed this monster, it seemed expedient to take the drive to the front as well as to the back wheels, in view of the small-section tyres of those times and the anticipated power output. What more logical than to have a cardan-shaft from the gearbox extend forward, to drive the steered wheels? Nor was that all, in the "firsts" department. For the 60 hp Spyker had 4WB, achieved by putting a brake drum on that front cardan-shaft.

It seems that more than one of this remarkable design was made, that it was even listed by those English agents, priced at £1600, and that a few may have found customers on the Dutch market, until it fizzled out by 1907. Except, that is, as an exhibition attraction. I think it was railed to the Crystal Palace Show, and I seem to remember that it was damaged in transit and also caught fire. It reappeared at the London depot in 1910 and was restored in the early 1920s, when its original circular radiator was changed for one of vee-formation.

Until the outbreak of war the ingenious Jacobus Spijker kept the company busy not only with a range of sound conventional cars but with many less successful ventures, such as his "circular" engine with very elaborate water cooling of valve chests and heads, which merely overheated, carburator novelties and Allen-Liversidge front wheel brakes which were available only on the 20 hp Spyker and only during 1911, either because they did not work well or due to the suspicion about such brakes which Persisted into the early 1920s. Another not-exactly-popular innovation was a footboard split into moveable sections in place of the conventional pedals, to give a level floor before the driver. Then there were Valentine Laviolette's transverse camshafts, involving complicated geardrivers.

But these things apart, Spyker made some good and varied cars in this period, from a small twin-cylinder chassis intended for taxi work to a 7.9-litre 25/38 hp and an exciting 155 x 140mm giant based on a 9.9-litre racing car Spyker is alleged to have built for the 1907 Kaiserpreis race, but them found to be too large for the 8-litre race-limit. Otherwise Spyker avoided racing, apart from finishing in the 1907 Pekin-Paris marathon, but concentrated on its production models, using T-head engines with ball-bearing crank-shafts and dual 8-plug ignition. Every so often they would try to depart from convention — compressed-air transmission, full elliptic front springs, and a short-lived short-stroke 4.2-litre six-cylinder model with one transverse camshaft-per-three-cylinders, the crankshaft whip of which destroyed its timing gears...

But on the whole the Dutch manufacturer made very dependable cars, which found diverse markets abroad and of which HM Queen Wilhelmina had four between 1910 and 1914. The four-cylinder cars could compete with sixes of other makes for quietness and smooth-running.

In 1905 the characteristic round radiator was adopted, a sort of Spyker trade mark, if one discounts the fact that round "coolers" were found also on Delaunay-Belleville, Maudslay, Britannia, Badminton. Enfield, Remo, NAG, Germain, Speedwell, Hotchkiss, Sheffield-Simplex etc. From 1914, though, the Spyker's new slightly vee-fronted radiators introduced a hint of ovality... The "Dustless" aspect of this make had been fully developed by 1906, scoring bonus points in the then-popular "dust-trials".

Before the First War the 10/15 hp (£380), 15/20 hp (£490), 20/30 hp (£590) and 30/40 hp (£690) were available here from the British Automobile Commercial Syndicate in Long Acre, London. Transport managers usually do a sensible deal, and brewers Bass-Charrington bought a fleet of 20/30 hp Spykers in 1907 and put bottle-shaped bodies on them; a good move, as when one was serviced after 200,000 miles the back-axle crown-and-pinion were found to be unworn. At this time another user, who drove 20,000 miles a year for 9 years, a big mileage in pre-war days, reported that his Spyker had required only two new ball races, in gearbox and back axle, and five new piston rings, in that mileage; so the Dutch Spykers were making long-wearing cars...

Although Holland remained neutral during the 1914/18 war and Spyker was able to make cars until raw materials dried up in 1917, their new London agents then being Simpson Taylor Ltd, they later made Clerget rotary aero-engines (or were these Bentley BR rotaries?). This required a new toolroom, and in consequence Spyker was well advanced with its post-war model. This was the L-head monobloc four-cylinder 90-bore 3½-litre 13/30 hp chassis. It used many American components, had central gear and brake levers, dual magneto and 6-volt coil ignition, a multi-plate clutch, 3-speed gearbox, 1/2-elliptic suspension and came with two spare wire wheels shod with 820 x 129 tyres. The chain-driven fan incorporated a lever-engaged tyre inflator, and the fuel tank slung at the back of the 10ft 11in wheelbase chassis (vacuum-feed) held 18½ gallons. Maybe the whole chassis had been imported from the USA. The car lacked power and cost £900 as a chassis, in London. Some aerocoque sports bodies with tail fins were sarcastically named the "Flying Hens". Only 330 13/30s were made, Queen Wilhelmina among the owners.

Prior to that, the 20 hp model had been given light steel pistons, a stiffer crankshaft and enlarged valves. This 1915 sporting Spyker, which had dynamo lighting but no starter, could do 68 mph on a 3.2-to-1 top gear. This led on to the far better Type C-4 30/40 hp Spyker, the work of Frederick Koolhoven, who had been in England with Armstrong-Whitworth as one of their aeroplane designers during the war, before joining the British Aerial Transport Company. He used a six-cylinder side-valve dual-ignition 5.7-litre Type W-3 95 x 135 mm Maybach engine developing 72 bhp at 2200 rpm. This was a true luxury car, and in 1921 the faithful Queen ordered two 30/40 landaulettes. By this time the British Spyker Company had been formed, at Duke Street, London, managed by Col S Janson. The Colonel must have found it hard to sell this aluminium-bodied 43¼-cwt tourer at £1950.

However, in its own country it fared well. An RDAC-observed trial of 30,000km (shades of the R-R Silver Ghost 15,000-mile trials of 1906) was delayed only by a defective magneto and 13 duff valve springs, replaced at a cost of £2, and showed afterwards only slight wear on one spring shackle and a valve guide that needed replacing. Also in 1921 Koolhoven drove fast in a sports 30/40 from Paris to Amsterdam, while here Col Janson set off on a tour to demonstrate the new car. It had the good features of former models, such as dual-ignition, etc, an alloy bulkhead and a variable-speed fan, unexpected in a car from the flat-lands. Less acceptable was the M-shaped gear gate. Front brakes were fitted by 1923. By 1920 the new Spyker had made the London Show, exhibited by the revised Netherlands Auto & Aeroplane Mfg Company, but it had gone after 1923, during which time the chassis price had fluctuated between £1500 and £1100. Another piece of publicity came in 1922, when The Motor agreed a wager with S F Edge of a copper medal against £100 to charity if he could beat his own 24-hour record made at Brooklands on a 60 hp Napier in 1907.

Edge chose a 30/40 hp Spyker with a lightweight 2-seater racing body, to meet the challenge. I suspect he was thinking of future commercial projects, should AC fail (I believe he had already negotiated a Spyker agency) apart from a large car being more comfortable for such a long stint. The venue was again Brooklands. All went well for Edge, no trouble occurring with the Spyker-Maybach at lap-speeds of 80 mph, and the Dunlop tyres would have lasted the entire distance had not one been punctured by a nail, another by a screw. Edge, 54 years old, averaged 74.27 mph for the 1782 miles 1000 yards (the Napier record was 65.90 mph). The Spyker used Shell petrol, Castrol oil, KLG plugs, and Rudge wire wheels. The Motor gave Edge a gold medal... A car which perhaps received less attention than it deserved? It seems that only 150 were made...

The marque was in the public eye again when a 1905 Spyker was used as a foil for the 1904 Darracq Genevieve in the celebrated film of that name; but by then it was too late. The firm had ceased production in 1925, momentum having no doubt been lost after Hendrik left for the East Indies in 1905 to work his rubber plantations, for in 1907, when he was returning from seeing Mr Elsworth in England after the French agent, M Subardie, had defaulted over a big order, the steamship Berlin went down, and he was drowned.