Veteran to classic

The Djelmo affair

As I remarked in The Roads of the1920s in November, Parry Thomas and “Babs” were not the only casualties of record attempts at Pendine Sands in South Wales in 1927. Another car, the Djelmo, overturned in much the same way.

To understand the Djelmo saga it is necessary to appreciate the amount of interest which attacks on the World’s Land Speed Record were creating in the mid 1920s. American claims were not then recognised by the sport’s ruling body in Paris, so all records had to be established in Europe to be verified. Apart from the sheer prestige of driving the fastest car in the world, there was plenty of incentive: Sir Charles Wakefield was giving £1000 a year to the holder of the record, and many other bonus awards from petrol, oil, component and accessory suppliers also accrued.

By 1924 Ernest Eldridge had done 146.01 mph with the 300hp aero-engined Fiat on the road at Arpajon, near Montlhery, but Malcolm Campbell (later to be knighted for these activities) later that year put the LSR to 146.16 mph on Pendine Sands in the ageing 18.3-litre V12 Sunbeam, and the following year he achieved the 150 mph target at the same venue.

However, the wily Louis Coatalen of Sunbeam, who had sold Campbell the giant car when it was becoming long-in-the-tooth, was preparing a quite different sort of record-breaker, in the form of a Grand Prix-like V12 car of only four litres, but supercharged. Henry Segrave (also later to be knighted) was sent to Southport Sands with this compact Sunbeam, raising the record to 152.33 mph.

A month later, in April 1926, Brooklands ace Parry Thomas replied with a brave, brute-force 169.30 mph at Pendine using his crude, chain-driven V12 Liberty aeropowered Thomas Special, “Babe”, improving this to a meritorious 171.02 mph the next day. It was with an eye to these records that Djelmo was built.

Djelmo was constructed for an Egyptian sportsman, Prince Djelallelin, a racing car enthusiast who lived in an elegant apartment off the Champs Elysees in Paris. It was the work of Monsieur Edmond Moglia, which explains the origin of its title, a combination of both names.

Moglia had previously worked for the Ballot and STD organisations, and was later to assist in the design of the Nacional Pescara racing cars. Being between jobs, he was no doubt pleased to be hired for this task by the wealthy and enthusiastic prince. His was far more of a conventional racing car than the aeroplane-engined monsters which were vying for the LSR at the time; Campbell had had to get Jarvis of Wimbledon to re-streamline the old before it would clock 150.78 mph, while Eldridge’s fearsome 21.7-litre Fiat’s chassis dated from 1907.

Djelmo had a straight-eight engine, the cylinders in two blocks of four, with a bore and stroke of 107mm x 140mm giving a capacity of ten litres. There were twin overhead camshafts driven by a train of spur gears at the front of the engine actuating four valves per cylinder in hemispherical heads, with central sparking plugs. The massive crankshaft ran in nine bearings, with pressure lubrication from gear-type pumps, and there were I-section con-rods and aluminium pistons. Ignition was by dual Delco-Remy distributors driven from the front of the camshafts and fed from a Delco generator. Four updraught Claudel-Hobson carburettors on the nearside fed into four separate circular external inlet pipes, which had off-takes to each of the sixteen inlet valves.

There is a story, which Land Speed Record authority Cyril Posthumus endorses, that the engine and perhaps the entire car had been laid down by Coatalen and Bertarioni to compete against the V12 101/2-liter Delage hill-climb job which had appeared in 1923 and had briefly wrested the LSR from Eldridge in 1924 on a protest by Rene Thomas. The prince was said to have paid £6000 for the drawings, but this he laughingly denied. I leave it to STD historians as to how likely this seems, comparing the design to those of contemporary Sunbeam racing engines. Incidentally, another authority states that the STD company had no hand in the car’s design, it being “all Moglia”.

Anyway, this big engine was taken to the French Government’s aeronautical test centre at Chalais-Meudon, where it produced 355 bhp at 3000 rpm. It was thought that, with extra tuning and perhaps one carburettor per cylinder, 400 bhp should be attainable. I do not know whether this testing was at Coatalen’s behest (which seems probable, especially as two engines had been built) or at the prince’s.

The engine was mounted at six points in a slim chassis, the massive bearers part of the alloy base-chamber. To save weight the water-jackets had been cut back and a lightweight aluminium plate used to seal them. Since the engine components were all at the front, it was possible to mount the steering box centrally above the gearbox, which gave two forward speeds, direct drive and a 2.0:1 low gear with the compulsory reverse (the absence of which on the Fiat had resulted in Eldridge’s LSR disqualification until he had devised one). The multi-plate clutch was Ferodo-lined.

Springing was by half-elliptics front and back (those at the front passing through the axle, those at the rear taking the torque), the propshaft being open, with two universal joints. Wheelbase was 9ft 10in, front track 4ft 8in, and the rear axle had a crab-track no less than 181/2in so it could be enclosed by the tail fairing.

The car was low, narrow and well streamlined, exhaust gases being expelled from eight pipes through a port halfway along the nearside of the chassis to avoid the necessity for an external exhaust pipe. Budge wheels, Hartford triple shock-absorbers and SRO ballbearings were used. Djelmo was painted blue, with the extremities of the faired-in front axle red and the radiator fairing white.

Prince Djelallelin tested Djelmo on the road and at Miramas, in company with Giulio Foresti, who was to drive it on record bids, and pronounced it to be very docile at up to 125 mph. He spoke of taking the car to Daytona or Murac for its LSR attempt.

Alas for these plans! Djelmo was still at Miramas in December 1925. By this time two Zenith carburettors were being tested, and an over-optimistic supercharging system had been tried and abandoned. It seems that Djelmo may have proved inflammable, because a bulkhead had by now been fitted to isolate the cockpit from the small under-bonnet fuel tank which sufficed for the short record runs planned.

Foresti had helped Malcolm Campbell with the big V12 Sunbeam but had left to race Schmidt and Bugatti cars without much success, so he too was probably glad to find himself on the princely payroll. He was entrusted with the task of tuning the car up for its record bid, but not until the summer of 1926 did his employer declare Djelmo to be ready.

He had by now given up the idea of taking the car to the United States and decided instead on Britain — Southport or Pendine, with the latter favoured because it was likely to be less populated by spectators. Parry Thomas and “Babs” had recently set the target at over 171 mph, which the prince thought a splendid achievement; he thought Djelmo could go faster, however.

But by the time Foresti finally arrived in Britain with Djelmo in August 1927, Segrave had raised the LSR to 203.79 mph in America with the twin-engined “1000hp” Sunbeam, another crude monster with aerotype engines and chain-drive, which was said to have cost only £5400. So all Djelmo could aim for was the British record, for which only the terrain counted, not the nationality of driver or car. This honour stood to Campbell, whose special 500hp Napier-Campbell (which had cost him some £9700) had done a two-way 174.883 mph, also at Pendine. Just within the capabilities of the prince’s now ageing car?

Alas, Djelmo’s engine was giving trouble as VSCC member Ronald Barker remembers. While on holiday in Wales he visited the grave of “Babs” at Pendine, where it had been left after Thomas had been killed trying to defend his record, and then, through a hole in the wall of the Beach Hotel garage, he saw Foresti working on Djelmo.

Perhaps the Egyptian-sponsored car had been driven too far, for its pistons had too much clearance, causing plug-oiling. It was November 1927 before Djelmo finally tried for the Class A kilometre record.

It ended in disaster, the car rolling at about 150 mph in a cloud of sand and smoke. The poor state of the beach, Djelmo’s narrow rear track and its lack of a differential were blamed. Foresti, a very strong man who had thought nothing of swinging the giant Italas of his younger days, walked away from the wreck only slightly injured; the story that he stopped on the way to pick up a photographer who had fainted from shock and take him to the first-aid post may or may not be true.

The curious thing is how similar this accident was to that which had killed poor Parry Thomas eight months earlier: both cars slewed round in a wide circle and overturned before regaining their wheels. I hesitate to discuss again how Thomas was killed; the popular theory is that a broken offside driving-chain decapitated him, but many other views have been aired and it could be that he was killed when the car rolled over. Foresti’s car was lighter; he did not wear a helmet, but only suffered scalp abrasions. In both cases the front stub-axles were bent, and the front wheels were left askew. One wonders whether a dip in the beach caused “Babs” to roll, with no prior mechanical failure.

Moglia tried to persuade the prince to let him build a four-wheel-drive car with two of the Djelmo engines, the driver sitting between them as did Segrave on the 200 mph Sunbeam. Perhaps this would have worked, had the combined output really been 800 bhp, as the 44.8-litre Sunbeam had only given about 70 bhp more, and probably with greater drag. But even the British Empire record went to 217.52 mph in April 1929, when the Napier-Campbell went to South Africa, so Prince Djelallelin wisely saved his money.

At least a modicum of good resulted from the two Pendine accidents, in as much as the “Babs” cot was endowed at Great Ormond Street Hospital in Thomas’ memory, and while Foresti was recovering he said he owed his life to the British steel in Djelmo and to its sprung steering wheel!

What became of Djelmo? It is rumoured to have returned to Paris and been given to gypsies in exchange for bed linen… WB