Veteran to classic; Nacional Pescara

Spanish invader

The erudite article by David Hebb about V10 and W12 engines (Motor Sport, December 1988) reminded me of Nacional Pescara, because that company toyed with a 3.9-litre in-line power-unit with ten cylinders — although I concede that it may have gone no further than the drawing board.

Between the wars a number of Continental cars and drivers came to compete at the Shelsley Walsh speed hill-climb, and among them were two identical 3-litre Nacional Pescaras, in 1931.

Coming, like Manuel of Fawlry Towers, from Barcelona, this Spanish make had appeared in 1929. Finance came from the wealthy Marquis Raoul de Poteras Pescara, and the car was so notably advanced in design that King Alfonso XIII, that considerable motoring enthusiast, saw it as a successor to the great Hispano Suiza which had done much for Spanish automobile prestige but whose best days were over and whose manufacture had anyway been transferred to France.

The production Nacional Pescaras had 2.8-litre straight-eight engines, at a time when this multiplication of cylinders was fashionable. There were two inclined valves in each cylinder, actuated by twin overhead-camshafts driven by shaft and gears from the front of the crankshaft. It was all very promising, a neat compilation of American and European engineering, but unfortunately it was ended by the advent of a Republican Government which sent Alfonso into exile.

Racing cars had been laid down just before this, with finance coming from the Garriga Bank. They had 3-litre straight-eight engines designed by Enrique Pescara (brother of the Marquis) and Italian engineer Edmond Moglia, and their specification followed quite closely that of the production cars.

The crankshaft ran in nine bearings and the cylinder-block was of aluminium, as was the cylinder-head. Steel liners were shrunk into the cylinder-block, and the pistons were of die-cast, aluminium, with four narrow rings. The combustion-chambers were hemispherical, the domed crowns of the pistons conforming to them, and valve-seats, guides and sparking-plug bosses were bronze inserts. The chrome-nickel steel crankshaft not only had that generous number of bearings but was balanced statically and dynamically. Water jacketing was also generous, the coolant circulated by pump and fan, the pump being driven from the crankshaft by a transverse shaft.

The base-chamber of the engine was of Elektron, lubrication being by a gear-type pump, with an oil filter; ignition was by Delco-Remy coil and distributor, the latter accessibly mounted at the front of the engine. The power-unit was not supercharged, and it was a surprise to find that a single down-draught Zenith carburettor was deemed sufficient, feeding into a four-outlet manifold which branched into the paired cylinders. The crossflow head was aided by a large-diameter nearside exhaust-pipe.

This racing power-unit developed 110 bhp at 4800 rpm and had a bore and stroke of 72.2mm x 90mm. This was some 30 bhp more than the production 2.8-litre engine, and there was rumour of a supercharged racing engine that gave 180 bhp.

The chassis into which this effective engine was installed was notably American in concept, yet of advanced design. While the gearbox gave only three forward speeds, the casing, in unit with the engine, was of Elektron and the gear-shafts were short and rigid, running on roller bearings. Ratios were close-spaced, and the central gear-lever worked in a ball-gate. A light flywheel incorporated the single-plate clutch, and final drive was by an open propeller-shaft with Hardy Spicer universal joints, to a semi-floating, hypoid back-axle.

Springing was half-elliptic front and back, and cam-steering was used with an adjustable-rake steering-column. Hydraulic four-wheel brakes were fitted. The petrol tank was of Elektron and the chassis had deep, channel-section side-members swept up steeply over both axles. Even the disc wheels were Elektron stampings, with detachable rims secured with five studs.

In 1930 the racing Nacional Pescaras had some successes in Spanish races, and their fame became international the following year when two of them, driven by Juan Zanelli and Esteban Tort, led the European Mountain (or hill-climbing) Championship. It was the quest for continued success in this series which brought them to Britain in 1931 — for much the same reason that the celebrated Hans von Stuck had come to Shelsley the year before with a 3-litre Austro-Daimler which set the course record to 42.8 seconds, but with no intention of taking the car on to Brooklands or elsewhere, and much as this same driver would arrive with a V16 Auto-Union in 1936.

Zanelli was by 1931 quite well-known in this country. After racing a Fiat in 1926, he had acquired a T35 Bugatti with which he won the Ettore Bugatti Grands Prix at Le Mans in 1929 and in 1930. Not only that, but this Chilean driver had come home second to Etancelin in the 1929 Marne GP, and in the same position in the 1930 Bordino GP which Varzi had won; and in that year’s French Grand Prix at Pau he had taken third place behind Etancelin’s Bugatti and Sir Henry Birkin’s blower-41/2 Bentley, again in a Bugatti. In contrast, Tort was hardly known here.

When the two Nacional Pescaras arrived at the Worcestershire hill in their vans, with plenty of spares, on the morning of the event, they caused considerable interest. There was time for a practice run, after which the back-axle ratios of both cars were changed, not once but twice, before Zanelli and Tort felt the cars were suitable for Shelsley Walsh. FTD at that meeting was made by RGJ Nash in his twin-rear-wheeled Frazer Nash Special “The Terror”, in 43.4 seconds. Zanelli clocked an impressive 44.4 sec, Tort being 1.2 sec slower, and both cars seemed very steady, skidding hardly at all.

It looked as if they had dominated the 2-3-litre racing car class, but Raymond Mays, who was not ready when his time to start came (“he seldom is”, observed Motor Sport) then got the formidable Villiers Supercharge running and clocked 43.6 sec. So the supercharged car beat Zanelli’s unblown car by 0.8 sec. Still, satisfactory points were scored in the European Mountain Championship, in which Zanelli and Tort were placed first and second.

Zanelli was to be seen again by British racegoers, because he came to Brooklands in 1934, winning the 2-3-litre class of the BRDC 500-Mile Race in an Alfa Romeo, the year after he had won the Penya Rhin GP in Barcelona in a 2.3-litre Alfa.

Nacional Pescara continued to achieve hill-climb successes up to 1935, but then the make faded away. WB