A 17-foot 2-1/2-ton 9-litre of the Billancourt species
Automotive white elephant hunters have almost despaired of encountering a Bugatti Royale on English or European roads, and it is nearly as rare to come upon a Renault 45 penetrating the traffic jungle in search of a decently empty route nationale. Consequently, when I heard that one of these great French white elephants was being given shelter in the Measham Motor Museum, I thought it worth driving 270 miles in the Morris 1100 to take stock of it.
Georges Roesch once told me that he worked on the design of these cars when he was with Renault Frères before the First World War. At the time I thought this a slip of his memory, because the “45” did not go into production until 1921. But a little research shows that before the Kaiser conflict Renault was making a 6-cylinder version of the famous 100 x 166-mm. 4-cylinder engine, with its cylinders in three pairs, and it seems likely that Roesch was given the task of modernising and enlarging this engine for installation in a new chassis, which the outbreak of hostilities postponed.
Most reference works quote the Renault 45 as having monobloc cylinders but, in fact, although not outwardly apparent, the blocks were a pair, which explains the presence of separate alloy water off-take pipes, needless to say of generous dimensions, united by a piece of hose on the o/s. of the massive power unit.
Massive is the appropriate term, for the 6 ft. 6 in-long alligator bonnet rises high, to reveal the 110 x 160-min (9,123 c.c.) side-valve power unit with its rearmost cylinders buried beneath the great scuttle radiator.
The radiator had been filled before I arrived at Measham. We discussed how many gallons the cooling system holds: popular opinion was 12-gallons. A friend of mine, on his first day as an engineering apprentice, was given the task of filling the radiator of one of these enormous 45s. It is no easy task, as the filler is on the high scuttle, and, knowing the car’s capacity for water, he went on and on—the lunch break came and still the level didn’t show—but no-one had told my young friend that the car was standing over a drain with the taps open. . . .!
In my case, no such delays ensued. The giant had already been enticed out of its lair and soon petrol had found its way to the Renault carburetter (it feeds, on the n/s., into a circular-section alloy inlet manifold clamped in close company with the exhaust manifold above it) and we were hitched to the Museum’s Land-Rover, ready to wake 9-litres of internal combustion from its long hibernation. The clutch juddered home, the Rover decided it needed 4-wheel-drive, a lorry-like exhaust beat broke out—we were off. Not for long, however! Fortunately, there was an Auction Sale in progress that day and plenty of people standing about, who, with a series of hefty pushes, cheerfully set us in motion again.
The Renault’s initial reluctance was due to two things. It likes to be started in the bottom gear but as the gate is back-to-front, a driver new to the car inadvertently selects second. Then, with so much cold water surrounding the bores, the big engine takes a considerable time before it is ready to pull.
While all this was going on, I looked around this great vintage car. It is a tourer with an excellent hood and set of sidescreens, obviously recently made for it, and the original rear-screen for the back-seat passengers. The history of this very rare specimen is a closed book, but the Museum lists it as probably a 1922 model, and my tape showed it to have the long-wheelbase chassis – 13 ft. 1 in., which is longer than that of a Phantom Rolls-Royce.
The detachable rims have been rebuilt to take 7.00 X 20 Michelin 8-ply tyres, which, I see, mustn’t be inflated above 54 lb./sq. in. The car is truly enormous – 17 ft. overall, and just over 6 ft. wide. Yet the long bonnet blends nicely with the touring body and the Renault is by no means ungainly, either to contemplate or to drive—circulating the Measham car-park preparatory to taking the road, the turning-circle proved unexpectedly small. This particular “45” may well be the sole survivor of the breed in this country, although rumour hints of a couple more. Its Reg. No. suggests that it came to Bradford, perhaps the pride and joy of some rich wool merchant, some time between 1922 and 1926. The body is by Mulliner of Northampton.
The engine has a big S.E.V. geared-down dynamotor on its nose, and a small magneto of the same make mounted transversely at the o/s. front. On this side of the crankcase you find little else except two oil cocks, labelled respectively Vidange and Jauge. There is a big valve-cap over each valve, along the n/s. of the head. Firestone sparking plugs occupying the inlet ones, and there are priming taps to facilitate the cold start.
Climbing in, one feels loftily apart from the petty troubles which beset folk in modern cars, and aloof from any very close association with other traffic. The bonnet, although it measures, with the scuttle (which possesses handsome metal cooling louvres), no less than 8 ft. 10 in. from 2-pane screen to prow, tapers neatly and doesn’t impede the view. What does is the 4-spoke sprung steering-wheel; 21 in. in diameter, the rim of which is on a level with the eyes of a driver of average height. It is, moreover, encumbered by a horn-ring almost as large, a little lever in the wheel-centre selecting the note appropriate to Ville or Route; or would, if there had been a battery on board. Levers protruding from the control cluster look after air and gaz, set, as required, towards Depart or Marche, Ouvert or Fermé.
The facia contains a speedometer and tachometer of the expensive Jaeger kind, reading to 90 m.p.h. and 3,000 r.p.m., a clock, and a Le Nivex fuel gauge recording to 29-gallons. In the centre the electrical panel, with Renault ammeter, hinges outwards to display five fuses and kindred mysteries. There is a machine-tool sort of lever which is apparently a petrol-tap, with what I took to be a Ki-gass above it, but which is probably a fuel feed pump, perhaps for priming the Autovac. Someone has put a Klaxon horn-push on the o/s. door; the total mileage reading, incidentally, was 4,599, which suggests minimal usage of this thirsty monster.
The gear-lever works in a visible gate on the right, inside the brake-lever. There is nothing unusual about it, except that the knob is very large and the gears, if one is so clumsy as to grate them, feel indestructible. The lever is spring-loaded to the high-gears side of the gate. The brake-lever has that typically Renault horizontal hand-grip, which is so much easier to reach for than the top of the lever itself. The roller accelerator is on the right. On the o/s. front dumb-iron a lever operates the starter and selects half-compression, by way ot encouragement to the luckless operator of the starting handle.
There is as much confusion about how many speeds the 45 had as how its cylinders were arranged. This one has four forward speeds, which I think applies to all models until the gearbox was remounted on the front of the torque-tube, when a 3-speed box as used on other Renault models was probably adopted in anticipation of the 45 being superseded by the 7-litre straight-eight Reinastella in 1929. The Sports model also had the 3-speed box. Otherwise, not many mods. were introduced, apart from a more accessible carburetter, a plate clutch, and an oil-radiator and oil purifier on the later models.
When my turn came to drive I found that this white elephant, given understanding handling, was quite tame. Bottom gear “refused,” the clutch sending harsh judders through the chassis, unless one stopped the car before re-engaging it, but from rest the drive took up smoothly and the other gears were easy to get, by double-declutching, the lever working with precision. It was rather far forward, which made the driver’s door usable however. The steering, mighty heavy at a crawl, became light and positive once on the move, with no kick-back. I was interested to find the servo four-wheel-brakes effective—but with the hood up rearward visibility was limited, so I didn’t try them in reverse. . . .
Perhaps due to a retarded magneto, performance was more Big Seven than “45,” and we didn’t exceed 45-50 m.p.h., but the ride was excellent and at these speeds that cantilever-roll, which rumour has it could turn the big Renault into a killer, was noticeable but not alarming. Incidentally, so neat are the side valances, incorporating tool chests, that these cantilever back springs are completely concealed. In top, 1,000 r.p.m. was equal to 32 m.p.h., the same r.p.m. in 3rd giving 18 m.p.h. Noise there was, possibly accounted for by decay in the exhaust system, or had the cut-out stuck open? I do not think the flywheel fan was to blame.
Certainly, in their day, these were very fast cars. In vintage times most small cars were very pedestrian, and there was no substitute for litres. The Renault 45’s 9,123 c.c. enabled a stripped touring-bodied version to average 87.63 m.p.h. for 24 hours round Montlhéry in 1925, which was later improved to 107.9 m.p.h. by a slim saloon version in 1926, its last lap covered at 119 m.p.h. When Sir Henry Segrave had a Renault 45, he averaged 57 m.p.h. from San Sebastian to Paris in it. The President of France, Indian Princes and racing drivers ordered them. It was in some demand, in spite of its archaic conception. And when Motor Sport road-tested a Sports Model in the summer of 1925, taking it up to Skegness for the sand racing, it lapped Brooklands at nearly 87 m.p.h. and climbed Alms Hill with no trouble at all.
I chose for this particular elephant safari a day when white frost lay over the land, turning to mist, and then grey English skies, under which we cautiously exercised this inmate of the Measham zoo, to the consternation of the assembled motor-copers and the public, the latter’s little cars scarcely as long as the Renault’s bonnet. How much nicer it would have been had the sun been burning down outside the Hotel de Paris in Monte Carlo and we had set off along the corniche road towards Nice, with the hood stowed and, 40 years ago, only occasional 5 c.v. Citroëns and Peugeot Quads to impede us—or if the plugs had been cleaned, the magneto correctly timed, beforehand. . . .
Nevertheless, it was an interesting encounter, for this is very definitely a splendid white elephant, all 9-litres of it, a curious blend of Edwardian and late-vintage specifications, entirely characteristic of Renault Frères of Billancourt. —W.B.
Other articles in this series have been:—
Siddeley Special Safari—June 1959.
Two Fine Specimens (8-litre Hispano-Suiza and 7.3-litre lsotta-Fraschini)—September 1959.
The Only Model-J (6.2-litre) Duesenberg in English captivity—April 1960.
Encounter With a Silent Knight (5.7-litre 35/120 Daimler)—February 1961.
Rendezvous With a Goddess (5.9-litre 32/34 Minerva)—May 1962.
Sixteen Cylinders and Eight Miles a Gallon (7.4-litre V16 Cadillac—November 1962.
Rare Encounter (5.6-litre Roamer-Duesenberg)–September 1961.
None of these copies are now available but photostats can be supplied.