Opel's hidden gems

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There is, and always has been, drama in all sporting events, and especially in motor-racing, both in the old days and since commercialism began to challenge the purely sporting aspect. But this is about a drama not involving a driver, or car, before, during, or after a race — but of a driver and cars that did not race. The make of racing car concerned is Opel, built by Adam Opel of Russelsheim, one of Germany’s leading car producers.

The company had been among the pioneers of the horseless carriage movement, basing its early vehicles on the primitive Lutzmann and then on Darracq designs. However, by 1902, after making these cars under a manufacturing agreement for four years, Opel began to make cars of its own conception. By 1903 a four-cylinder model was in production and by Darracq influence had disappeared. The 20/40 hp Opel was a popular car, one of a wide range, from a small twin to the 9.2-litre 30/60. Opel thus became one of Germany’s top motor manufacturers. But in 1911 a disastrous fire severely damaged the firm’s position, until the factory had been re-established with improved tooling, lorries now being made as well as cars, of which the 10.3-litre 40/100 Opel was a car appealing to wealthy sportsmen. Opel and his sons had seen the value of competition participation to publicise their products and improve them. They had been early in this field with the Lutzmarm-like cars, and not long afterwards had entries in international races. Opel had a Darracq-like racer for the 1904 French Gordon Bennett race, though it did not start, but Fritz Opel was fourth in the important Herkomer Trials in 1905, behind a trio of Mercedes, and Opels were fourth in 1906 and second in 190’Z

Then in the prestigious 1907 Kaiserpreis, Carl Jtims and Michel, in sidevalve 8-litre Opels, were third and fourth behind a Fiat and a Pipe. Thus encouraged, 12-litre cars were prepared for the ’08 French GP at Dieppedoms finishing sixth in the 4771/2-mile race. Michel’s radiator gave out after nine of the 10 laps; Fritz was 21st, but not last. Brother Wilhelm Opel then won the 1909 Prince Henry Trials outright, Opel now making such sporting models as the 7.3-litre 100bhp 28/70 —with which Rims scored further successes — and a sports 2-litre, by 1913. So it was opportune to enter the 1913 fuel-consumption French GP. Each car was allowed 20 litres of fuel per 100kg dry weight. But the cars were not freaks. They had to race over 580 miles of the Amiens circuit, and a 5am starting-time, delayed by fog, did not prevent a huge spectator attendance. Opel entered two cars, but only Jams’ started. His car had a single-overhead-camshaft 16-valve 3970cc four-cylinder engine, and it weighed only 7kg less than the 1460cc Mathis, at 842kg. But the engine refused on the first lap.

Georges Boillot, bare-headed and with sleeves pulled up, achieved a dramatic victory driving one of the 5655cc twin-cam Peugeots, at 72.12mph. Four brief stops apart, he had driven for nearly eight hours. Also in 1913 Jams raced a GP and a 2-litre Opel at Brooklands at Easter, taking two firsts. Opel’s poor showing in 1913 did not prevent them putting in a team of three cars for the 1914 467-mile French GP at Lyons, which has been described as probably the greatest of its kind up to that time, with Mercedes, Peugeot, Sunbeam, Nagant, Delage, Schneider, Opel, Fiat, Vauxhall, Acquila-Italiana, Nazzaro, Alda and Piccard-Pictet fighting it out. But war was imminent, so this was likely to be the last great road race for an inestimable period. Peugeot made a great effort to beat the Teutonic rivalry of Germany with its well-practised and organised team of five 41/2-litre Mercedes. Georges Boillot’s hardpressed Peugeot finally fell apart, its driver disconsolate at the roadside, while the remaining three Mercedes swept to a 1-2-3 finish. The luckless Boillot would go on to be shot down in combat with a German fighter.

Jtims was 10th, last finisher except for Fiat, but Breckheimer and Emdtmann retired in the other two Opels, after 12 of the 20 laps. Jtims had hit Ferenc Szisz, who was changing a wheel on the Alda, and broken his arm, a foretaste of present-day pitlane accidents. The cars were similar to the 1913 racers, but had 4441cc engines and four-speed gearboxes. Opel had 1 built other racing cars of varying sizes, including a four-cylinder 12,272cc 16-valve monster which developed 260bhp at 2900rpm.

Although the GP cars had not been impressive, an Opel competed at the 1914 Easter Brooldands Meeting. Adam Opel entered _Rims for the short and long 100mph Handicaps; he was put on scratch in both, giving 8sec to an 81/2-litre rotary-valve Itala. He was outpaced in the first, but lapping at 99.41mph was third in the longer race, behind the Itala and the limit Crespelle.

Rims then returned to Germany to prepare for the GP, after which Adam Opel nominated two cars for the t August Bank Holiday Brooklands Meeting. The Opel team reassembled in Surrey, but war was but a day away. Newsboys in the Paddock were billing the likely outbreak of hostilities, and already troop trains were passing by on the embankment above the track, military personnel were absent or hastily leaving, and petrol was in short supply. Jorns and his team had beaten• a hasty retreat to their Fatherland. If the spectators had looked forward to seeing the famous Carl Jtims in action, they soon had other things to think about. The Opels stayed in England, and were discovered by Phip Paddon, dealer in top-quality makes, who got an Irish registration for Jtims’ car to confuse the police. Capt Miller (later Sir Alastair Miller, Bt) then heard of them.

He had raced big Matchless and Martin-JAP motorcycles at the Track from 1912 and flown aeroplanes when in the RFC. He was by 1920 reconditioning war-surplus Crossley tenders and trading in used cars, and had taken the Opels to his premises at Cheval Place off the Brompton Road in London. He commenced car racing at the Track with one Opel while S C Cull was preparing the other for the famous L G ‘Cupid’ Homsted of Big Benz fame. Miller got W&B Radiators of Hammersmith, who later made the body for his 11-litre Wolsley-Viper, to put a new body on the Opel intended for Homstecl, where it would meet the equally famous Harry Hawker’s Sunbeam in a match race.

But ‘Cupid’ defaulted, Lee substituted his Vauxhall and beat the smartened-up Opel. Miller so and Capt Woodhouse had no great success with the Opels, but Miller now had a slice of luck. Ex-Etonian Major Henry de Hane Segrave, having survived the war flying DH25s and FE8s with the RFC, decided he wanted a professional motor-racing career. He approached Louis Coatalen, chief engineer of the Sii) combine, who told Segrave to get a suitable car and show what he was capable of. Knowing that Capt Miller, whom he had met while in the RFC, had these Opels, he was persuaded to invest in the Miller business. He then worked on one of the cars with Alastair’s mechanics, to get the old car ready for Brooklands.

The luck now turned Segrave’s way. In an early race a back tyre came off as the car was going fast on the Members banking. De Hane held the resultant skid skilfully, which Coatalen noted. Not only that, but in his first season (1920), using one or the other of the Opels, Segrave won three Brooklands races, the fastest at 89.5mph, with a lap ofjust over 100mph, was second twice, third once and first in class at the Westcliffe speed-trials.

Coatalen was satisfied with what he saw, and before Segrave went to Molsheim to buy a 16-valve Brescia Bugatti and drive it to England, he had been allocated a 3-litre straight-eight Sunbeam. With this car he won the 3-litre Brooklands scratch race at 84.84mph, was first in class at Holme Moss hillclimb in a 1914 TT Sunbeam, third at Le Mans as part of the 11/2-litre Talbot-Darracq onslaught, and won the 200-mile race in one of these T-Ds. De Hane was now on his way to becoming Britain’s greatest GP driver, and would in time take three LSRs and gain a knighthood. The Bugatti had been best in class at Kop; The Autocar gave it a long description, even quoting its valve timing, unusual away from maintenance manuals, which no doubt helped to sell it. Back to the Opels. Drama again, because they vanished once more, for over 10 years. The Opel established as the Nol GP car — presumably Jorns’ finisher in 1914, as top drivers tend to keep their personal cars — was said to have gone to a Miss G E Curie living in Yorkshire, and then to Fleet in Hampshire, standing outside the Datsheaf pub, driven occasionally by the publican’s daughter.

But when we lived in Fleet some 25 years later, there was no sign of it. It was Kent Karslake, whose wonderful articles in MOTOR SPORT induced the VSCC to encourage Edwardians to compete at its events, who located the winningloms Opel in 1931. It was for sale at BMC Motors in Brick Street, London, and Noel Mavrogordato, a lover of fast racing motorcycles like his Brough-Superior and the BritishMontgomery-Anzani vee-twin (the world’s fastest in 1924), bought it for 1,40. It had the bolster-tank body and full road equipment, including a claustrophobic hood, lamps, mudguards and a Klaxon horn. Karslake had a short run in

The `Hornsted’ Opel was found by AC Westwood of Fiat Ballila associations. Here intrudes one of those complications that trouble historians, because, of the two cars salted away during the war, this one was a single seater, based on a GP Opel. In spite of much research, I cannot establish if it was the car raced by Joms at Brooklands at the Easter 1914 meeting, but it was seemingly one of the two that defaulted in August 1914, and was rebodied as a two-seater by Miller for Hornsted. But why didn’t Homsted want it as a single-seater?

Mr Cull who worked on the car after the war was convinced that it had been turned into a single-seater by Opel’s, perhaps with a view to attacking the world hour record set by Percy Lambert in the Talbot in 1913. When this became out of reach it would most likely have been the one sent to Brooklands at Easter in 1914, where it lapped at 99.41mph, although it was queried why it was not in the Lightning races. It may have then returned to Germany or it may have been stored here with Jiims’ GP Opel for the August races, as two entries were made for the 100mph handicaps, and two for the Lightning ones.

If war closed Opel’s London depot this could have facilitated Paddon’s acquisition of both cars. The single-seater had a pointed tail, a blister to accommodate the new steering box position, and a curved drop-arm and lengthened back springs. However, none of these were apparent after the post-war rebuild; it was back in two-seater form with a new bolster tank when found.

It passed to Bill Short, then to Brian Morgan who rebuilt it, after which Stanley Sears had it, having new blocks cast when they burst, and this Opel was acquired by Mavrogordato and again became a respected VSCC competitor. I drove down to Hampshire in 1977 to find the Mavrogordatos’ white exJoms Opel immaculate and almost as original as 63 years earlier. A few modifications had been made for road driving, but otherwise it was asyms knew it. We drove it past swans and ducks on the lake by Mavro’s private road, the cone clutch slipping so that prudence reduced full speed. Nonetheless, it was impressive, and so nice to meet again this super-enthusiast who used to fly his own Bristol fighter and who became Lord Nuffield’s pilot of Morris Motors’ Leopard Moth. At the 1977 Brooklands Society Reunion, his son took the Opel up the Test Hill and his daughter drove it home. It is still owned by the Mavrogordato family. The second Opel went to Neil Corner, then to the Hon Patrick Lindsay, and has finally returned to Germany to a private collection, after an exile of some 80 years.

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