Veteran to classic

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Delage did it better!

Some time back l analysed the luxury cars which manufacturers, expectant of postwar sales to the wealthy, put on the market just after the 1918 Armistice in an attempt to undermine the supremacy of the ageing 40/50hp Rolls-Royce. We looked at cars such as the Lanchester Forty, 40/50hp Napier, Parry Thomas-designed Leyland Eight, sleeve-valve Daimler 45 (forerunner of the great Daimler “Double-Sixes”), Isotta-Fraschini and 37.2hp Hispano-Suiza.

Two other important car-makers, Lancia and Fiat, had similar ideas, but both made a hash of the new top-class designs they prepared for post-war consumption.

Lancia caused a short-lived furore with a big new twelve-cylinder luxury chassis, which appeared at the 1919 Paris Salon and Olympia Show. It had a six-litre engine, with the twelve 80mm x 100mm cylinders set as a vee in a single block at an angle of 22°, a foretaste of the Lambda and subsequent four-and eight-cylinder Lancia power-units. This unusual construction gave the big engine a very neat appearance, and there appeared to be no exhaust pipe— the manifolding being in the centre of the block, it emerged from the back. To enhance the clean appearance there were no external oil-pipes, just a carburettor on the offside and six sparking-plugs along each side, inclined at 45°.

The cylinder bores were offset, as were the conrods (forked rods being common on other multi-cylinder vee engines), and the Lancia engineers had contrived to make this huge engine just under 3ft long. Overhead valves were vertical in the detachable head, operated by an overhead-camshaft and rockers. Aluminium plates covered the valve-gear and both sides of the cylinder block (where the base of the cylinder-barrels would be seen on most engines at this time), thus further tidying up the appearance.

The camshaft was driven by a vertical shaft and bevels at the front of the engine, the bottom of this shaft turning the oil-pump. It also drove a cross-shaft which actuated the dynamo and magneto and from which a helical gear drove the water pump. The crankshaft ran in four bearings and the very thorough system of lubrication retained the method used on the 35hp four-cylinder Lancia (the chassis which had served the Allied Forces so well in the recent conflict) in which at full throttle all the pressurised oil was fed to the bearings. The carburettor was a Zenith, the magneto a Dixie, the clutch a multi-plate.

Unit construction of engine and gearbox had gained much ground since the war and was used for this new 12-cylinder Lancia; there were three forward speeds, the speedometer being positively driven from the gearbox. Gear and brake levers were mounted centrally. Torque was taken by the T-shaped propshaft casing, obviating a separate torque member.

Special care had been taken over the springing of the big 12ft-wheelbase, 26-cwt chassis, the springs being devoid of rolled eyes to ensure retention of lubricant fed from an under-bonnet reservoir. Side movement of the shackles, normally needing adjustment by washers, was taken up automatically by helical springs, and the rear springing consisted of divided half-elliptics linked to cantilevers. This ingenious suspension had been tested for two years on a Lancia seating nine people three-abreast, and it was said that the ride was as comfortable two-up as when fully-loaded, because under load the cantilever rear springs supplemented the half-elliptical.

It sounded very promising, especially as the V12 chassis was supplied complete with dashboard, aluminium instrument panel with tool-lockers, and a spare-wheel carrier (to take disc wheels shod with Michelin 875 x 135 tyres) to alleviate the coachbuilders’ task. The engine size had been increased to 61/2-litres by the time this interesting Lancia got to Olympia, where WL Stewart & Co exhibited a chassis which certainly attracted the crowds.

Yet nothing more was heard of this big V12 Lancia after 1920. Perhaps that central exhaust-pipe just beneath the dashboard warmed the feet of the front compartment occupants too effectively (“It is carried away to the chassis exhaust-box with a minimum of curves,” was the claim) or maybe that exhaust porting on the inside of the vee caused engine overheating problems. It is possible, too, that the big many-cylindered engine took some starting, judging by the use of 12 volts for this purpose as opposed to six-volt electrics otherwise (a precursor of dual-voltage systerns on other cars, such as the Roesch Talbot which required 24 volts for starting). Whatever, a failure the V12 was, and Lancia’s reputation was built upon later models such as the Lambda and Dilambda.

Fiat, an even greater motor concern which had also supplied vehicles to the Armed Forces (one of whose drivers was Ernest Hemingway), got little further with its post-Armistice luxury car. This, too, was a V12— the legendary SuperFIAT. Turin did not release this until 1921, but even so one authority has suggested that only three were built.

The Fiat was a bigger car than the Lancia, having a wheelbase of 12ft 8in and an engine size of 6.8-litres. The chassis weighed 331/2 cwt, and when shown at Olympia in 1921 was priced at £1800. The cylinders were of 85mm x 100mm, set at 60°, claimed output being 80 bhp at 2200 rpm.

A neat appearance was achieved for this power-unit by hiding components beneath covers. Overhead valves were used, push-rod operated. There was dual ignition, a multiplate clutch, a three-speed unit gearbox, hydro-mechanical servo 4WB with two pumps in the gearbox, equipment including an engine-driven tyre pump, telescopic steering-column and altimeter,.and suspension by half-elliptic front and cantilever rear springs.

Again, it sounded promising, but mass-production was more Fiat’s forte. The SuperFIAT was prone to catch fire and had what we would today term over-servoed brakes; the Rolls-Royce-style radiator clashed with the use of artillery-type wheels. Although a boat-tailed torpedo sports model graced the 1922 Paris Salon, the thing soon faded away. Fiat found a similar 4.8-litre Six, the Tipo 519, a more saleable commodity, and undoubtedly the prevailing post-war economic deprivation was against Agnelli’s V12.

Delage did it much better! This company had embarked on post-war planning long before the war was over, and Louis Delage came up with his offering in 1919, keeping to comparatively conventional design.

It was a side-valve 80mm x 150nun (4524cc) six-cylinder with two horizontal Zenith carburettors, which was ready for display at the 1919 Paris Salon. Again unit construction and a multi-plate clutch were employed, but the gearbox gave four forward speeds and, in accordance with previous high-class practice, right-hand control levers were used, with the gear-lever in an open gate. A cross-shaft at the front of the engine drove the water-pump and magneto, and the SEV generator was driven by a chain from the crankshaft.

This fine, straightforward 41/2-litre engine proudly bore the inscription “Delage-Courbevoie” on its tappet cover, and although it was said that much of the chassis detail had been derived from the company’s racing cars, Louis Delage had not succumbed to the temptation of following the engine design of his 1914 French GP cars, which had desmodromically controlled multiple inclined overhead valves operated by twin camshafts. The 4WB was, however, a consequence of this racing programme, being all pedal-applied with the handbrake on the transmission intended simply for parking.

By the time this 24hp Delage came to the 1919 Olympia Show the 11ft 3in wheelbase chassis on 895 x 135 tyres cost £1800, and a Million-Guiet tourer attracted the connoisseurs. Motoring journalist WF Bradley had been driven by Louis Delage himself from Paris to Nice in 15 hours 55 minutes (the train home took 21 hours 12 minutes), at an average speed of 41.53 mph for the 621 miles, nearly 50 mph being averaged from Valence to Orange. It was believed that no other car had done this journey in a day.

The Delage carried the equivalent of four occupants in weight, used 11/2 pints of oil and gave no trouble, the brakes were adjusted once. One cannot imagine Giovanni Agnelli or Vincenzo Lancia doing such a run in their new cars, which is perhaps just as well!

Not content, Louis Delage was off again in 1920, on a fast run round France under a torrid sun, once more taking Bradley and a mechanic with him. A distance of 3120 miles was covered in just over six days, an average of almost 520 miles a day, the longest day’s run was 626 miles. Delage again did all the driving himself, regretting the slaughter of four hens and a goose en route!

The 24hp Delage tourer broke a road spring on the shocking war-scarred roads (this car had three-quarter-elliptic back springs and a gulley had broken the quarter-section of one) but otherwise gave no mechanical trouble. The engine was given oil, the radiator was topped up only once, and the brakes adjusted four times, and as hotels had not been booked in advance, time was lost looking for accommodation. Delage had two specially calibrated Tel odometers in the car, constantly checked against kilometre-posts and one another.

A useful yardstick for this run is Motor Sport’s run around Europe in 1972, when we drove through ten capital cities in four days. The BMW 3.0 CSL was fully extended for 3789 miles in all, with 1145 miles covered on the “best” day. The time included two Channel crossings, but when you consider the enormous difference in cars and road surfaces more than a half a century earlier, all praise is surely due to the indomitable Louis Delage?

Early in 1921 the 24hp Delage acquired vertical, push-rod-operated overhead valves. Although it was said that power output had been deliberately restricted to improve flexibility, 88bhp was developed at 2380 rpm, almost the same bhp/litre as that of another celebrated new French car, the overhead-camshaft 37.2hp Hispano Suiza. This gave the sports 24hp Delage an impressive performance, the fully-equipped prototype doing a mean (two-way) 83 mph when tested over four miles of French highway.

Whereas the valves of the side-valve engine had a lift of 9mm, those of the ohv engine had a lift of 11mm and were 42mm in diameter. The side-valve power-unit had one sparking plug placed centrally in each head, but in the ohv engine there were two plugs per cylinder (one on each side, fired by an SEV doable magneto) and a double-choke Zenith carburettor was used. Oil was fed under pressure to the valve rockers, with wick-feed to the push-rod ends. The neat Delage aluminium instrument panel was now mounted on a cast-aluminium dash, and the tyre size was now 880 x 120.

Hoping to emulate Louis Deluge’s fast run round France, Pierre Delage set off to drive round Spain in the summer of 1921, a journey thought to be impossible in less than three weeks. Fallen bridges caused long detours, rivers had to be forded and the car fell into ditches beside the atrocious roads and had to be dug out, petrol was not easily obtained and so bad were the conditions that the Delage’s mud-caked brake-gear had to be freed, water drained from the carburettor, and the plugs changed, away from the towns only three other cars were encountered.

On the worst day only 34 wiles were possible, yet the circuit of 2548 miles was covered in eight days, the best day’s distance being 511 miles, and the average more than 318. This time there were no breakages, and the car returned triumphant. All of which just goes to show that in this difficult post Armistice period, Delage was certainly doing a great deal better than Lancia and Fiat! WB

V to C miscellany

A recent issue of The Driving Member, the Daimler & Lanchester OC’s magazine, contained much Daimler Conquest and Consort material, including a report on a year’s running by Mr Boyd-Carpenter’s Conquest Century (which has done 325,625 miles in 31 years) and recollections of the 1954 International Touring Car Race at Silverstone, in which Ken Wharton’s Conquest saloon led the team of four Jaguars until an MG spun into it and burst its radiator (the other Daimlers finishing first and second in class and fifth and sixth overall behind the Jaguars). It seems these Conquests had Century engines tuned to give 116bhp at 5800rpm, mainly from raised compression ratio and improved breathing, but no apparent alteration to flywheel weight or gear ratios.

Five starting places are being used by the RAC for its third Classic Car Run on May 29 — Bath, Chester, Cheltenham, Windsor and Norwich (the last named being the headquarters of the sponsoring Norwich Union Insurance Group). All routes converge on Silverstone, and 700 cars are expected, spanning the years 1905-1968. Regulations are issued by the RAC MSA, 31 Belgrave Square, London SW IX 8QH.

The model Napier-Railton chassis which appeared at the Brooklands Society annual dinner (Motor Sport, January 1988) was made by a Mr Debby of Oatlands Park, not by Derek Dent as stated—although the latter acquired it later. Dent was himself a keen model maker, starting with the GN “Kim” in 1924 and progressing through many fine models of Frazer Nash racing cars to a child-size FN towed behind his full-size “Chain-Gang” Frazer Nash. WB

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