TWENTY-TWO YEARS AGO
THE FIRST RACING CARS IN THE ISLE OF MAN. GORDON BENNETT TRIALS AND A T.T. WON AT 33.9 M.P.H.
In .a few weeks’ time twenty odd racing cars, fitted with engines not exceeding 1,500 c.c. in capacity yet capable of speeds approaching 140 m.p.h., will be seen screaming their way round a four-mile course on the outskirts of Douglas, Isle of Man. What a contrast to the days of the first Gordon Bennett Trials in 1904, the first occasion on which racing cars were seen on tile roads of the Island, when ” hundredhorse ” racers clattered round a 50-mile circuit amid clouds of impenetrable dust.
The Gordon Bennett race was an international event, the reward for which was a cup presented by an American newspaper proprietor. Each country competing was to be represented by a team of three cars, which had to be the products of their respective countries. France won the first two events, in 1900 and 1901, but in 1902, when the race was run at the same time as the ParisVienna race, utilising the course as far as Innsbruck, it was carried off by Edge, on a Napier.
According to the rules, the 1903 race had to be run on the winner’s territory. There was no hope of getting permission to hold a face on English roads, but it appealed to the sporting instincts of the Irish, and a private bill was cajoled through Parliament allowing certain reads to be closed for a day. The race ended in a victory for Jenatzy, on a Mercedes, which implied that the 1904 race would take place in Germany.
There was great rivalry at the time between Edge, who was the manager of the Napier firm, and Herbert Austin, as he was then, the manager of Wolseleys. Both firms put forward a team of three cars, while a team of three Darracqs was entered by Rawlinson. There was nothing for it but to arrange some sort of eliminating trial, though the Automobile Club was at a loss to know where such an event could be held. At this juncture the Government of the Isle of Man came forward and expressed its readiness to close roads and to render whatever other help was necessary for running the trials, and needless to say its offer was accepted without delay.
The course chosen started from the Quarter Bridge, just outside Douglas, ran down to Castletown and then came north over the mountains to Ballacraine. The present T.T. course was followed as far as Ballaugh, when a round-about route led to Ramsey. The famous Mountain road, narrow, rutted and dusty, was included even at this early period, and the 1,300-feet climb proved a severe test. Down on the lower roads the dust was terrific, only rendered bearable by the fact that there were only eleven cars on a 524-mile circuit, which had to be covered five times. The five Napiers were of assorted types, those driven by Edge and Mayhew being of nominally 80 h.p. with 4-cylinder engines of 13 litres capacity. The Wolseleys were three of the famous ” Beetles,” Girling’s being a 1903 ” 72,”
while l oir and Jarrott drove the la test ” ninety-sixes. ” The engine was a flat four with the cylinders set fore and aft in the frame. A fly-wheel and a plate clutch was carried at each end of the crankshaft, and two Chains conveyed the power to a counter-shaft. The Darracq team deserved special mention. Being normally made in France, they would not have been eligible to represent England in the Gordon Bennett. The enthusiasm of Arthur Rawlinson, later a famous polo player, overcame this, and the cars were assembled in Glasgow from spare parts
sent over from France and collected together from the various depots in England.
The Automobile Club were determined that the Trial should not develop into a race; the latter form of sport, they considered, was much too dangerous. With this intention, narrow sections were ” neutralised,” and a schedule time allotted for the unrestricted parts of the route. Points were given for speed over a three-mile straight, over a flying halfmile, up the first section of the mountain road out of Ramsey, and for time lost in repairs and replenishments on the way. The Tests were, in fact, a sort of highspeed reliability trial, a point which the Automobile CM) emphasised by saying that the cars which would be chosen were not necessarily those which made the fastest time. At nine in the morning began the first ” race ” held on Manx soil. Stocks, on the Napier, was the first to be sent off, while the Darracqs, and Mayhew ‘s Napier gave trouble right up to the last minute, and were late on the
line. The Darracqs, when they did arrive, monopolised all attention by the terrifying noise from their exhausts ; at the weighing-in the night before, they had been found overweight, and had been stripped of all detachable parts including bonnets and silencers.
The second Darracq was in the hands of Hemery, a French driver, and when his name was called he appeared on the line with his car simply enveloped with smoke and misfiring like a machine gun. He was sent back to drain his crankcase and sat in the driving seat toying impatient ly with his engine switch.
The minute his mechanic had . got his car going again he shot off the line and down the course like a rocket, taking not the slightest notice of the astonished officials who danced about waving flags. A foreigner, and understanding no English, he had imagined that his late start entailed a loss of points, and shot off the minute the car was ready.
Edmond, on the second Darracq, got away safely, but the unfortunate Rawlinson had only gone a few yards when the universal joint on his propeller shaft broke. Campbell Muir’s Wolseley seized at Ramsey on the first lap, while Hemery and Edmond had come down the Mountain at phenomenal speed with their cars almost devoid of brakes, the lightening process having been extended to them as well. Hargreaves, on a 55 h.p. Napier, was the first to come round, in spite of a stop to tighten a clutch spring, after which the engine refused to start for six minutes. Mayhew ‘s Napier was the fastest car in the trial, but he was much hampered by his
front axle having been inadvertently fitted back to front after a crash. The rest of the Napier drivers, Earp, Stocks and Edge, all made good time, as also did Girling and Jarrott on their Wolseley ” Beetles,” and all completed their five lapsi without incident. Over the halfmile, Edge’s Napier averaged 73 m.p.h., while Girling’s Wolseley managed 65.6.
Next day there was a half-mile hillclimb on a hill near Ramsey, and here again Edge made the fastest time. To conclude the trial a flying kilometre speed trial was held on Douglas Promenade, which was not a particularly good place for such an event owing to tramlines and a bend in the road. The most dangerous part of the proceedings was not the actual run itself, but the return journey where several cars returned to the start together. Coming back with several other cars, Earp suddenly decided be was going too fast, and jammed on his hand-brake. The ratchet stuck and the wheels locked, and the car charged a wall at considerable speed, injuring the driver and his brothers and smashing the car.
Wading through the mass of statistics, the judges selected Edge, on the Napier, and Girling and Jarrott, on Wolseleys, as the team to represent England in the Gordon Bennett Trophy, though the honour would have fallen to Earp, on the second Napier, had it not been for the accident. Edge made one of his famous protests, declaring that the driver should not be excluded as the result of a trivial accident, but the judges stood firm. So ended Manxland’s first introduction to racing cars. In the Gordon Bennett Race itself, incidentally, Girling finished ninth and Jarrott twelfth, after breaking a chain, smashing third gear, bursting his radiator and with no governor on the engine. Again in 1905 the Gordon Bennett race was held, in spite of much opposition from France, which contended that
the restriction of each country’s entry to three cars irrespective of the size of its industry was unjust. Once again the Isle of Man was the scene of the English Trials, which were run on this occasion as a race pure and simple. The cars consisted of four Napiers, driven by Cecil Edge, Earp, Hargreaves and Macdonald, a brace of Wolseleys driven by Bianchi and the Hon. C.. S. Rolls, two Stars driven by H. and F. Goodwin, Girling on a Siddeley, and last but not least, Algy Lee Guinness on one of the
‘• hundred-horse ” Darracqs from the previous contest. The fastest car running in the Trial was Macdonald’s 90 Napier, which had shortly before returned from Daytona Beach after securing six world’s records. It was the first English racing car to have six cylinders and the first English car since the advent of pneumatic tyres to be fitted with wire wheels. With its wedge-shaped bonnet and row upon row of cooling pipes, it was a most impressive-looking machine.
Early morning practising was allowed for the first time, and the enthusiastic Manxmen crowded the hedges from four in the morning. On the day of the trial the spectators were stirred at the thought of a real race at last and excitement ran high as the cars were sent off at two-minute intervals from Quarter Bridge. Guinness was the first man round, having overtaken the two Stars, which were hastily prepared and rather slow, but once again ” Darracq Luck ” prevailed and he retired on the next round with a broken piston. Macdonald came up to’ expectations by putting up the fastest timed speeds, but was delayed by a broken oil pump chain, finally dropping cut with a buckled wheel. The fastest lap was made by Cecil Edge, the cousin of ” S.. F.,” . who got round at an average of 56 m.p.h. Girling, who lay second on the first round, crashed into a
cottage when the steering of his big Siddeley failed near Ramsey, but he and his mechanic escaped unhurt.
Only two cars, Earp on the 80 h.p. Napier and Rolls on the 96 h.p. Wolseley,. completed the course, with the Hon. C. S. Rolls a lap behind. The average speed of the winner was 51.5 m.p.h. while the fastest car over the flying half-mile, M acdon al d ‘s Napier, put up a speed of 88.2 m.p.h. Rolls, on the Wolseley, reached 75 m.p.h. on his best passage over the timed section. The eliminating trials of 1905 were one stage nearer to a real race ; this was reached later in the year when the first of the famous Tourist Trophy races was held. As the name implies, this event was promoted to encourage the touring car and as such had some curious regulations. The limits of chassis weight, irrespective of the size of the car were fixed at between 1,300 and
,600 lb., and to get down to the weight, chassis were drilled till they looked like fretwork, bonnets were made of cardboard, and even the hub-caps were discarded in an effort to get down to the limit. An additional complication was a petrol allowance of 22+ m.p.g. This was increased to 25 m.p.g. on the eve of the race, causing an outburst of fury from drivers who had got down to the lower figure, and actually at the end of the race all the leading cars had a good supply in hand.
The Tourist Trophy was run over four laps of the Long Course, making 208 miles, and there were no controls or other hindrances with the exception of the level-crossing gate which, by some miracle, never actually held up anyone. No spectacular speeds were expected, the maximum speed of the fastest car being given as 47 m.p.h., pulling a gear of 2.1 at an engine speed of 1,000 r.p.m. 3+ to 4 litres was the usual engine size on these touring cars and the power was rated at from 14 to 20 h.p.
Every drop of petrol was precious so the forty-seven cars were towed to the starting point behind horses and then despatched from the start, which was selected on the outskirts of Douglas, by letting them roll down a steep hill on the course.
The first incident of note, which occurred soon after the start, was when an Argyle collided with the wall of a house in Ballasalla village, fortunately without great damage to house or car. Thornycroft’s car was said to be suffering from a bent wheel, but it was something more exciting than that. The back-axle casing had cracked, and eventually one wheel and one half-axle came away, leaving the car skating along on three wheels.
At the end og the first lap J. S. Napier was leading with his unorthodox 4-piston, 2-cylinder Arrol-Johnson, with Northey, on the 20 h.p. Rolls-Royce, and Littlejohn, on the Vinot, close behind. While these three were fighting it out news came through that Bennett, driving a Cadillac, at that time one of the cheapest cars made, had crashed at a corner below Creg ny Bea, largely due to the shifting of the sandbags which were carried as ballast. Lee Guinness, on one of his usual Darracqs, was also in trouble at that point, but the sober pace at which these high-built touringcars travelled prevented any very exciting incidents. There was a good story however of Hadley, on a Wolseley, who stopped after a crash at a forge en route and had his front axle straightened.
The order of the leading cars remained the same for the first three laps, and when Napier started out for the last round he had over a minute in hand. His success seemed a foregone conclusion when suddenly, with twenty miles to go, his silencer blew off. Over a minute was spent in replacing it and those last miles saw Napier and his car travelling as they never had before. Then came the wait until Northey’s arrival—would he realise that victory fiS within his grasp and put on extra speed during the final round ? Unfortunately for Rolls-Royce hopes, it was before the days of signalling depots
round the course, and the driver of the ” R.R.,” unaware of his position, continuo’ steadily on his course to finish two minutes behind Napier. A win at 33.9 m.p.h. does not sound spectacular, but the race was voted a great success at the time as the highest form of test to which a car could be subjected. The 1936 Mannin race, which follows the old T.T. course for two miles out of four will provide a spectacle more in keeping with our ideas of speed to-day.