Not so very long ago, my identity having been carelessly divulged by someone to one of the readers of these articles, in full view of my rapidly greying locks, he remarked in astonishment, “But you’re quite young !” Because I am apt to discourse on the earlier days of motoring, he was convinced that I had taken part in the activities of that halcyon era, whereas in fact I did not begin to drive a car until the ‘twenties, not very long, that is to say, before current motor cars ceased to have very much interest for me. Apart from what one might call antiquarian activities, in fact, I almost completely missed the heroic age of motoring.
Distance, no doubt, adds a certain measure of enchantment to the view, particularly when one reflects that in the early days one apparently had to go racing in a stiff collar and do one’s practising in a bowler hat; but since day-dreaming is one of the few amusements left to us in this later age, I like sometimes to imagine that I had been born in, say, 1870, and of course, while we are about it, that I had a cool million on attaining my majority in 1891. Assuming these circumstances, what motor cars should I look back upon, as an octogenarian, as having owned in my time ?
Of course, a millionaire coming of age in the Nauughty Nineties would probably in fact have been so busy with huntin’, shootin’ and & fishin’, not to mention wine, women and song, that he would hardly have noticed the existence of motor cars in their pioneering days, except perhaps as an object of feeble witticisms; but let us suppose that, in spite of all temptations, I had turned out a nice, steady young man, with a serious interest in the new means of locomotion and that in consequence I had heard of the competition being organised for horseless carriages by Le Petit Journal between Paris and Rouen on July 22nd, 1894, I should have been there at the start, no doubt, with my bicycle (I forbear to describe the sort of clothes I should probably have worn on a hot July day) and as the fastest of automobiles only averaged about 11-1/2 miles an hour for the 79 miles to Rouen, I ought, at 24, to have been able to keep up with them fairly comfortably.
Nevertheless, I should, no doubt, have been vastly impressed by their performance. I should have greatly admired the de Dion steam tractor, which, in the words of the official report, “develops speed absolutely beyond comparison, especially uphill.” But like the judges, I should have been rather put off by the fact that it required a stoker as well as a driver, and like them I would, I think, have preferred the Panhard and Peugeot petrol cars. The judges divided the first prize equally between these two makers, because, although the Peugeots driven by Lemaitre and Doriot had made fastest time, after the de Dion, it was pointed out that they used a Daimler engine built by Panhard et Levassor. But I think that of the two I should have preferred the Peugeot. The 1894 Panhard was a rather clumsy looking machine, whereas the Peugeot was a much lower-built and more elegant affair, and as a cyclist I should doubtless have admired its wire wheels; besides, the Peugeots had proved themselves slightly the faster.
My first car, then, of which I might have got delivery in 1895, would have been a 3-1/2-h.p. Peugeot, fitted with a V-twin Daimler engine at the back, driving forward through a cone clutch to a sliding-pinion gearbox (or, more accurately, I think, a sliding-pinion change-speed gear, not enclosed in a box) and thence back again by side chains. It would have had a tubular frame in which the cooling water circulated, and a double-grip steering tiller, operating the improved Ackermann steering mechanism by means of a chain on horizontally-mounted sprockets, instead of a push-and-pull rod.
I should doubtless have been very pleased with my Peugeot, if I had had the gumption to know how to drive it, and although Levassor in his Panhard won the first real motor race, Paris-Bordeaux-Paris, in 1895, I do not think I should have been unduly shaken by this result, as Peugeots occupied the next three places and the first prize was awarded to one of them — it had four seats, as it was supposed to have under the rules, and Levassor’s Number Five was only a two-seater. But I think that the events of 1896 would have been a bit of an eye-opener. The great race that year was Paris-Marseilles-Paris, and for the first time Peugeot used an engine of their own, instead of one built by Panhard. The experiment was not a great success and, among the cars, Panhards occupied the first three places. It was a striking victory for Levassor’s vertical-engine-in-front policy (the new Peugeot engine was horizontal and still at the rear) and I think that for my new car, to be delivered in 1897, I should have switched my allegiance to Panhard.
It is rather hard after this period of time to determine what actual model one could have bought in the ordinary way at any given moment during a period when cars were hardly built in series at all. The 6-h.p. two-cylinder, 90 by 130 mm. model Panhard was in existence at the beginning of 1897, but I do not know whether even a millionaire could have bought one, or whether he would have had to be content with the 4-h.p. two-cylinder, 80 by 120 mm. type. In either case the car would have had a vertical engine at the front, probably no radiator (in which case I might well have missed the Peugeot’s hollow frame) or possibly a gilled tube hung at the back, tiller steering and, of course, the familiar Panhard feature of a gear-change (perhaps in a gearbox by now) and final drive by side chains.
For the next year or two I should have sought to grow up with Panhard. In 1898 there appeared, for racing, the 8-h.p. four-cylinder model, 80 by 120 mm. with wheel steering, of the type which won Paris-Amsterdam-Paris; I might have got one by the end of the season. In 1899 this was replaced first by the 12-h.p., 90 by 130 mm, with the radiator in front, on which Charron won Paris-Bordeaux, then by the 16-hp., 100 by 140 mm. (the same dimensions, you may note, as those of the 4-1/2-litre Bentley) with which de Knyff won the Tour de France. Perhaps I might at least have replaced my Eight with a Twelve by the end of the year. A year later, in the autumn of 1900 I might have succeeded in getting a 24-h.p., 110 by 140 mm. car, with electric instead of tube ignition of the type with which Charron had won the first Gordon-Bennett race in June.
I would hardly, however, have failed to be shaken by the events of 1900. Hitherto, Panhard et Levassor had won practically every motor race that had ever been held, but in Paris-Toulouse-Paris, the great event of 1900, the hitherto invincible marque had to be content with second place behind Levegh on a 24-h.p. Mors. In general layout there was very little difference between the Mors and the Panhard, and at the end of 1900 one might well still have thought that Levegh’s victory represented only a. temporary setback for Panhard. But when in 1901, Fournier on a 60-h.p. Mors proceeded to win both Paris-Bordeaux in May and Paris-Berlin in June, any spoilt millionaire must have begun to think that he no longer-owned the best make of car. At the Paris Salon at the end of the year, Mors showed “a fine 60-h.p car built for the Hon. C. S. Rolls” and no doubt, if my money had talked loud enough, the Hon. C. S. Rolls would have induced the company to build almost as fine a one for me. Rolls started with his car in the Paris-Vienna race of 1902, but for all that I do not know whether it was of the type with which Fournier had been so successful in 1901 or of the new type which replaced it in 1902 — both were called 60-h.p. I hope the former which had dimensions of 130 by 190 mm., rather than the 140 by 150 mm. 1902 type, because the long-stroke model was much the more successful and the Mors’ performance in 1902 was relatively disappointing.
Both types still had automatic inlet valves, and generally followed Panhard lines, and I should no doubt by now have been taking an increasing interest in this revolutionary Mercedes car. Emerging chrysalis-like from the Cannstatt Daimler racing car of 1900 — a short, high, heavy, unwieldy vehicle, which was a menace to anyone who drove it, and of which about the only commendable feature was its honeycomb radiator — the new Mercedes appeared at Pau in February, 1901, and quickly promised to flatter its vicious ancestry. “At the start,” says Gerald Rose, “the clutch refused to hold, and the speed lever jammed, so that, a few yards from the start, the car abandoned the race.” Nevertheless, in March Werner won Nice-Salon-Nice with one, and as I should have doubtless been in the South of France at the time, with my 24-h.p. Panhard, I should have admired, with others, the honeycomb radiator and the mechanically-operated inlet valves which, with magneto ignition and a throttle valve, gave a completely flexible engine, and perhaps have been initiated into the mysteries of the gate-change.
Even so, I do not think that the events of 1901 would have put me off ordering my 60-h.p. Mors, for in the great races of that year the Mercedes were far from impressive. In 1902, however, I might well have begun to think differently. It was, as already suggested, a poor year for Mors, and while undoubtedly the fastest car which it produced was the 70-h.p. Panhard, there must already have been apparent about this this a certain untidy archaism. One of them, driven by Henry Farman, won the heavy-car class of Paris-Vienna, but had it not been for some stupid wrangle with the customs, the winner of the whole race would, it seems, have been Zborowski on his 40-hip. Mercedes. This, I think, must have convinced me, and as at the beginning of 1903 several private owners succeeded in getting possession of the new 60-h.p. model, I do not see why I should not have been among them. If so, I should have had very little to complain about, beeause this model, with its four-cylinder engine of 140 by 150 mm, bore and stroke, and push-rod operated overhead inlet valves, as well as all the rest of the usual Mercedes features, was, I suppose, the best that the famous German firm, or its Mercedes-Benz successor, had produced so far.
I should, no doubt, have been duly gratified by Jenatzy’s victory in the 1903 Gordon-Bennett race, driving a 60-h.p. Mercedes just like mine, instead of the 90-h.p. racing car, which had been destroyed in the famous fire at Cannstatt, and I do not think that I should have been unduly shaken in 1904, although this time in the Gordon-Bennett race Jenatzy had to be content with second place behind Théry on a Richard-Braisier. The latter was, in conception, a glorified light car, and I cannot find that at this time Richard-Brasier were offering to the public anything that I should have considered a match for my Sixty. In 1905, however, things were rather different. The Mercedes were really disappointing in the Gordon-Bennett race this time, and while Théry was again the winner on a Richard-Brasier, it was the performance of the Fiat cars which really impressed the spectators. Two of them finished second and third, while Lancia’s car, which did not finish, established a big lead and set up the lap-record before it went out just after half-distance. My thoughts, no doubt, would have turned to Italy as a possible source of my next motor car, and when Raggio’s Itala won the Florio Cup at Brescia in September, that would doubtless have clinched the matter.
Would I have chosen a Fiat or an Itala ? Of course, assuming that I was still a millionaire, I might, presumably, easily have had both, as well as about half a dozen other cars, but for the purposes of this day-dream that makes things too complicated, and I will suppose that I should have limited myself to one car at a time. I should have found, I think, that both cars bore a striking resemblance externally to my Mercedes, although there was added to it a certain Latin elegance lacking in the German car, and my choice between them would have been determined, I should imagine, by what I thought of the live-axle drive featured by Itala compared with the familiar side chains fitted to the Fiat. In this decision, I think I should have come down in favour of Itala. If I had been studying racing attentively all these years, I should no doubt have noted the extraordinary results achieved with live-axle drive by light-car exponents such as Renault and Darracq — on several occasions their products had succeeded in beating the bigger cars, as, for instance, in 1902, when Marcel Renault won Paris-Vienna on his 16-h.p. voiture légère –and I should have further noticed that in this year 1905 so conservative a firm as Panhard et Levassor had abandoned chains in favour of a cardan shaft even on their heavy racers. In the autumn of 1905 or the spring of 1906, therefore, I think I should have exchanged my 60-h.p. Mercedes, now nearly three years old, for a 60-h.p. Itala, with the-same engine dimensions.
At this stage I think I should pause to consider whether at about this time I should have been attracted by a six-cylinder car, in which case I should no doubt have made a bee-line for a Napier. If I had allowed myself two cars at a time I should undoubtedly, I think, have done so, but I doubt very much whether I should have had any six-cylinder as my sole car. They were regarded hy the cognoscenti of the time as primarily suited to city traffic and limousine bodies, whereas I imagine my car in use chiefly for dashing to Nice and Biarritz, when it was not being caught in police traps in England. (All my cars, by the way, would have been painted white, with scarlet upholstery.)
I should have been pleased by the ltala victory in the 1906 Targa Florio, but disappointed by the results of the first Grand Prix, in which the Itala made a very poor showing. However, the race was won by Renault, and Renault, like Richard-Brasier had the previous year, seems to have been offering very little at the time to tempt a choosy millionaire. But in 1907 I probably should have thought that I had made the wrong choice when I plumped for an Itala in 1905. Fiat started the season by winning the Targa Florio in April, went on to win the Kaiserpreis in Germany in June, and then won the Grand Prix in July, each race demanding a different type of car. After this, and however much I liked the Itala’s live-axle, I think I should have had to exchange this car for a Fiat. The type used in the Kaiserpreis, with dimensions of 140 by 130 mm. seems to have become a standard model, known as the 90-h.p. and I think I should have had one, in the autumn of 1907.
The 1908 Grand Prix proved to be an overwhelming triumph for the German cars, but I doubt whether in consequence I should have been greatly tempted to revert to a Mercedes or a Benz. Italian cars were at this time the rage, and I think that if I had wanted to make a change from my Fiat, I should have been inclined towards another Italian. Apart from the Italian cars, the great excitement in the engineering world of motoring was the overhead camshaft and I might well have noted that this feature had used on their racing cars in 1905 by the Milanese firm of Isotta-Fraschini.
A Kaiserpreis-type lsotta-Fraschini had won the Florio Cup in 1907, and a different type designed for the purpose had won the Targa Florio in 1908. The latter, at least, became-a standard model, and as for the purposes of the race the bore was limited to 130 mm., its engine dimensions were 139 by 200 mm. With a capacity of 10,618 c.c. it was known as the 100-h.p. model, although it is said to have developed 125-h.p., and I think that at the beginning of 1909 this might well have succeeded my 90-h.p. Fiat.
For some years after 1908 there were no big races, except for voiturettes, which I should doubtless have regarded with a pretty condescending eye, and I should have been hard put to it, on my established principles, to know how to base my choice of a car. By 1910, however, I might have begun to pay serious attention to the results of the Prince. Henry Trials, and I could hardly have failed to be attracted by that year’s winner, the 22/80-h.p. Austro-Daimler. This would actually have been a bit of it come-down for me, as the engine dimensions were 105 by 165 mm. and the capacity only 5,709 c.c., but like the Istotta, the engine had an overhead camshaft, and contemporaries regarded it as next best thing to a racing car, while with a V- radiator and Prince Henry style coachwork it would have been a most rakish turn-out, I think I should have bought one of the original type with chain drive at the Motor Show of 1910 and replaced it with a live-axle model when it became available a year later.
The revival of the Grand Prix in 1912 would not I think have been much help to me in suggesting a replacement. It provided a win two years running for Peugeot, but at this time Peugeot, like Richard Brasier in 1905, and Renault in 1906, were offering little in the way of touring cars to match their successful. racer. The Prince Henry Trials, too, had come to an end in 1911, and thereafter I think I should have paid most attention to the Austrian Alpine Trials. Had I done so I could hardly have failed to be impressed in 1913 with the performance of the Rolls-Royce team; at last my contention that English cars were not suitable for Continental conditions would have beem knocked on the head. And I should have celebrated its demise that autumn, by buying an Alpine Eagle Silver Ghost. As a result, I should have been left with this car through the war of 1914-18, which, as it doubtless held its value much better than anything else, would have been financially lucky. But then that is the sort of luck millionaires have.
And there, I think, we had better leave this day-dream for the present, reserving the experience between the wars for another occasion.