Britain's First Grand Prix Car

Grand Prix Racing began in 1906 in France, but it was 1907 before the first British entry. Bill Boddy describes the earliest UK Contenders

In 1906 the Automobile Cub De France turned its back on the Gordon Bennett races which required competing cars to use entirely national products, and instead instituted its first French Grand Prix, a notable motor-racing landmark if ever there were one. It was contested by a dozen different makes of cars, with 23 French entrants, six from Italy, three from Germany but none from Britain. The 770-mile twoday race was won, happily for the organisers, by Francois Szisz, in a Renault. The venue of this historic event, the first of a continuing series, was in the region of Le Mans in the Sarthe.

For 1907 the Grand Prix was run at Dieppe over a 477-mile course, covered in a day. It was thought that as this venue was nearer the British mainland, entries from Perfidious Albion might be attracted. And so they were, although if you were going to contemplate a 770-mile race, as in '06, and practice lappery as well over Le Mans' 65-mile triangle, why anyone should be put off by having to submit their racing car to the journey from Calais to Le Mans is beyond comprehension... But in 1907, when the Grand Prix had an entry of 37, only two British cars crossed the Channel to take part. They were, to say the least, something of a surprise.

A surprise because they came not from one of the great companies which had already made a name in racing, like Wolseley, Star or Napier, but from the Weigel firm. Based in Goswell Road in the City of London, the concern was run by GM Weigel who had been Clement-Talbot's first Managing Director. It lasted only from 1906 to 1909, when it was taken over by the Crowdy company, after moving its business to Latimer Road in North Kensington.

It was understandable that Napier of Acton had to miss the Grand Prix, because SF Edge was busy campaigning his race team at Brooldands. Star of Wolverhampton were busy with the Isle of Man TT, while at Wolseley of Birmingham, JD Siddeley had put an end to the costly racing programme. But that the Weigel concern, a small assembler rather than a proper manufacturing car business, should go to Dieppe for the great race was extraordinary.

Weigel cars were apparently based on the its current Itala and Pipe designs, their chassis finished by the people who now make razor blades, one of which I shaved with this morning, although some of the bodywork had the prestige of being attributed to the English branch ofJR Rothschild et fils.

Be that as it may, Weigel found the wherewithal to construct two cars for the second French Grand Prix. Moreover, they were of startling design, having straight-eight engines at a time when such was a bold innovation (the six-cylinder powerplant having only come into being some five years previously, via Spyker, Napier and Sunbeam). The largest Weigel touring car was a four-cylinder 40hp model with paired cylinders of tub dimensions, and the GP Weigels had four of these cylinder blocks to form its long 130x140mm (14,866cc) power-unit. It drove via a leather-faced cone clutch to a gearbox with only two forward ratios. Ignition was hightension, and any mental tension Weigel felt about pitting such new cars against the mighty 15.2-litre Fiats and proven Renaults, Lorraines and Mercedes were have been eased because the GP was to be run on a fuel-consumption basis, and small cylinders (if those of 1.8 litres each can be so called) were thought to conserve fuel

Curiouser and curiouser, there were two other eight-cylinder cars in the race, the 14.7-litre Defaux-Marchand, a 1904 GP car from Switzerland, and the 10.8-litre Porthos from France. The Weigels weighed in at 1000kg, just lighter than the Defaux but heavier than the Porthos. In spite of a long bonnet, the Weigels had a tank at the back and tyres behind that.

Weigel appointed Laxen and Pryce Harrison as drivers but it was rather a wasted effort, because Laxen was in tyre trouble and lasted for just three of the 10 laps and Harrison retired after five, while in 24th place. But these were the first British Grand Prix cars. That was my brief, and it has to be Weigel.

The 1908 Grand Prix was again held at Dieppe. Three Weigels entered. They were less sophisticated this time, having four-cylinders of 154.7x170mm (12,781cc) and, although the race was run to a minimum weight-limit, they were some 400kg lighter than the 1907 stiaight-eights. Alas, the 1908 cars (which had three-speed gearboxes) were no more successful in the Grand Prix than their predecessors. All retired, Shannon on lap two with defective steering, Laxen after an accident on lap four, and Harrison on lap six when he overturned, landing him and his mechanic in hospital.

Fortunately there was another in that memorable 1908 Grand Prix upholding British honour, which did rather better than the Weigels. Namely, Austin. Herbert Austin was no stranger to motor-racing. He built his first racing car in 1901 and in 1902 raced a 6.4-litre VVolseley, for whose company he was the General Manager. What is more, Austin had cars in the important Paris-Madrid and Circuit des Ardennes contests, and before that had driven the 1902 ParisVienna race. He was an advocate for horizontal engines, resulting in those Wolseley 'Beetles', so called because the horizontally-opposed transverse crankshaft engine layout meant low, beetle-like bonnets could be used. They were driven by such pioneer drivers as Charles Jarrott, the Hon Charles Rolls, and Cecil Bianchi, but crankshaft weaknesses hampered Gordon Bennett appearances. They were however a match for some of the Napiers and did well in speed-trials. After Austin had left the Wolseley Tool and Motor Car Co in Birmingham and set up his concern at Longbridge he reverted to normal vertical engines, and in 1908 set his sights high by building four cars for the Grand Prix.

The GP was on July 7th, a Tuesday, to add further surprise for those unacquainted with motorracing's idiosyncrasies, and, towards the end of May, Austin had his cars ready. He now had to find drivers and was fortunate to get the services of experienced Dario Resta and of JTC Moore-Brabazon, who had raced a Minerva at the first Brooklands Meeting, and Warwick Wright, who was used to fast Darracqs. The fourth Austin was a spare. The newly-formed Austin Motor Company's largest production car was then the six-cylinder 60hp model of 121x127 mm. For the race Austin had the bore increased by 6mm, bringing it up to 9655cc. More confusion: these GP cars were RAC-rated at 54.7hp, called the 100hp Austins, but actually developed 117bhp at 1500rpm. They had side-by-side-valve power-units, of the T-head variety, with the inlet valves on the ofThide of the row of separate cylinders, the exhaust valves along the near-side. Austin must have known that such cars had little chance against the might of the established Fiat, Mercedes and Renault teams, but no doubt hoped that his enterprise would have its own rewards.

Two exhaust manifolds and twin horizontal carburettors feeding into two water-heated straight-tube inlet manifolds and dual magneto and coil ignition with two sparking-plugs for each cylinder enhanced efficiency. The drive was by a plate clutch to a four-speed gearbox, and Austin hedged his bets by making two cars with chain final-chive, two with shaft drive. At the time some makers, like Fiat, Benz, Lorraine and Mercedes, thought live back axles too frail for really high power-outputs, whereas Renault, Napier, Itala and others relied on shaft-drive. On a wheelbase of 9ft 9in a well raked steering column was devised. Top gear was an overdrive, and Dunlop tyres were fitted to the detachable wheel-rims. Austin took over the entire Hotel de Cygne at Eu to accommodate his 60 personnel but practice was rather a comedy of errors.

First, Resta nearly collided with a cart, swerving up a bank and smashing up his car. He then did the same thing with the spare car, ending up in some trees and wrecking this car, and rendering himself and his mechanic unconscious for a while. The gendarmes took a poor view of this and Resta went to prison. Herbert Austin must have seen his venture evaporating; if so he would have had to be content with an odd display which had been put on at the May BARC Meeting, when his new GP Austins took part in a two-lap 'training race' in which Resta. Brabazon and Warwick Wright had each to change two tyres. Resta won.

However, back to Dieppe. Austin was able to bail Resta out in time to start in the Grand Prix, having recovered from his crashes. The two crashed cars had been built into one sound one, with parts rushed from Longbridge. At 6am Resta led off, followed by Brabazon (who was to gain more fame for obtaining British Pilots' Licence No 1 than for his motorracing). His and Resta's Austins ran well but were not fast enough to be competitive. They stopped for fresh tyres, Resta requiring 10. Brabazon finished 18th at 54.8mph, Resta 19th at 54.3mph, out of just 23 finishers. The winning Mercedes averaged 69.0mph for the 477 miles. Wright's engine seized after five laps, which he blamed on his mechanic not feeding it any oil.

After the Grand Prix these Austins were put up for sale. Later in 1908 Brabazon's car went to Sir Francis Hickman Bacon, Bt, who lived near Gainsborough. He had a four-seater phaeton body made to supplement the racing body, and kept it taxed until his death at the end of 1929, when it went back to the factory. The spare car went to Mr HG Evans of Worcester, also in 1908. In 1910 Austin's issued a photograph of the champion black boxer Jack Johnson in a shaft-drive car, purported to be one of the GP team, which he drove as fast about the public roads as if in another race! However, this may have been a standard 60hp Austin with bolster-tank racing body and road-equipment. (I had to enlist the help of Sherlock Holmes to identify these cars.)

After WW2 the Brabazon Austin was paraded on a lorry in the 1947 SMM&T Cavalcades and appeared at a London Racing Car Show. In 1948 Alan Hess, then BMC's PRO, drove it at a VCC rally at the Longbridge works. In 1957 Lord Brabazon was reunited with his old race-car at Vickers-Armstrong's Brooklands 50th Anniversary party, after which it was in the Beaulieu Motor Museum (now the National Motor Museum) for some time. It later starred in the film Greystoke - The Legend of Tarzan, and can now be seen in the Heritage Motor Centre at Gaydon, Warwickshire.