A reader of Motor Sport who has been so misguided as to peruse my recent effusion about the correspondence in the Autocar in 1923 and 1924 on the subject of front-wheel brakes, has pointed out to me that at about the same time there appeared a series of letters, in his view even more interesting, about racing and the development of design. As a matter of fact, I remember this correspondence — in which the leading protagonists were W. O. Bentley and Louis Coatalen — very well indeed; and the only reason why I have refrained from commenting on it all these years is that at the time it engendered a good deal of heat. In these latter days, however, when instead of Bentleys we have Rolls-Royces called Bentleys, and instead of Sunbeams we have Humbers and Hillmans called both Sunbeams and Talbots, the affair can perhaps be properly discussed as history — as a certain maiden aunt of mine once said, apologetically, when she had occasion to mention Nell Gwynne.
Indeed, those were the days for correspondence in the motor journals. There was, I suppose, plenty of paper, and instead of filling up a column of it with the names of all the different sorts of editors, who nowadays, presumably, scramble for what little space there is, the Autocar, for one, remained editorially anonymous, and if it had an editor, he was doubtless only too pleased to let other people write the paper for him. In any case, the battle was opened in March by W. O. Bentley with a broadside of one and three-quarter columns; in April Coatalen retorted, in two arid a quarter columns, less one quarter devoted to a picture of a Humber, entitled “Surrey in Springtime”; and guerilla warfare continued on into October, when a truce, presumably, was called for the Motor Show. During these seven months a good time had been had by all.
“Racing improves the breed of motor cars”; “the racing car of to-day is the touring car of to-morrow”; these two clichés, declared Mr. Bentley, are “surrounded by a good deal of misunderstanding and nonsense.” And after claiming that in fact the designers of, touring cars did not adopt the lessons of racing, he wound up by declaring that “the only racing from which a designer can learn anything of real use is the racing of a standard ‘production’ car.”
Now the extraordinary thing is that the first part of this argument would have been perfectly sound, or at least very cogently arguable, if it had been put forward by anyone else but Mr. W. O. Bentley. By Mr. Coatalen, for example. For the remarkable fact, especially at that date, was that the manufacturers of racing cars were pre-eminent in refusing to apply the lessons they learnt to their touring productions. In order to demonstrate this, let us list the makers who by then had won either the Grand Prix or its predecessors, the town-to-town races and the Gordon Bennett contests: Panhard et Levassor, Mors, Renault, Napier, Mercédès, Richard-Brasier, F.I.A.T., Peugeot, Duesenberg and Sunbeam. With the exception of Mercédès, not one of them was producing a standard model which bore as much resemblance to their racing cars as did the products of a number of firms which had never raced special cars. Bentley for example. The Bentley, declared Mr. Coatalen, with a good deal of cogency, “is practically a standardised form of special racing car as used in the Tourist Trophy race of 1914.” Did not Mr. Bentley use a high-speed engine, he asked; and four overhead valves per cylinder; and dry-sump lubrication; and a nickel-chrome crankshaft; and quick-detachable wire wheels; and did he not take the thrust and the torque of his back axle through the springs? And did he not do all these things because Mr. Coatalen and others had learnt how to do them on racing cars? Why, he had admitted it himself, suggested Mr. W. L. McCandlish, who had dug up an early description of the Bentley prepared by the firm, in which it was stated that: “the development of the medium-sized and economical petrol engine was immensely helped by the great motor races held, chiefly with that object, on the Continent. . .the Bentley car . . . forms, in fact, a further link in the chain of evolution for which the pre-war racing car and the war-time aeroplane were primarily responsible.”
Moreover, by now Mr. H. R. Pope had entered the fray, and in typical manner. “A Bentley owner called on me the other day,” he recorded, “in great trouble because his engine was pinking badly, as all engines do if not decarbonised. When I asked him why he did not clean it he told me the ‘book of the words’ asked owners to send their cars back to headquarters for that work. As my visitor said he wanted to spend the whole summer in France I naturally offered to lend him my mechanic to do the job, which, after all, is a very simple one.”
One can almost detect the writer’s indulgent smile as he considered the parochialism of a “book of the words” for a car designed “pour le grand tourisrne ” which could not imagine a journey so far from Hendon that the car could not conveniently be taken back there for the engine to be “cleaned.” However, “being curious to read such an unusual instruction book,” he continued, “I made myself comfortable in the really beautiful Bentley body and started it. On the first page I came across these words: ‘The Bentley chassis contains many features which have hitherto been associated with racing cars in the minds of the average motorist’.”
It was really rather difficult to get away from that one. Moreover, “as a keen motorist,” said Mr. Pope, “I naturally took the opportunity of examining the Bentley chassis”; and while Mr. Coatalen had declared that essentially it was the lineal descendant of the 1914 Tourist Trophy Sunbeam, Mr. Pope saw in it “a striking likeness to a chassis designed in 1918 by Engineer Cattaneo, of the Isotta-Fraschini Co., and whose cars have raced since the international race at Brescia in 1905.”
This was, perhaps, stretching something of a point, because even if Isotta-Fraschinis had raced from time to time in the decade which preceded Engineer Cattaneo’s design of 1918, they had not produced much in the way of a special racing car since the delightful little overhead-camshaft four-cylinder Grand Prix voiturettes of 1908. But on the other hand it did not greatly affect the argument if the Bentley was a 1908 rather than a 1914 racing car in disguise. The great point was to prove, not only that Bentley had reaped where others had sown, but also that Coatalen need not take all the credit for the sowing, just on account of what he had done immediately before the war. “As regards taking the drive through the back spring,” went on Mr. Pope — that “spring,” in the singular, creating, I suppose just the atmosphere he desired” if Mr. Bentley or Mr. Coatalen had been at Brescia in 1905 they would have seen a team of three live-axle cars of 100 h.p. which were so designed. They might have heard more than one designer of the other chain-driven cars scoffing at the absurdity of 100-h.p. live-axle cars. But the race was won by one of these cars, also a special cup for the fastest circuit, and the team prize, as all three finished, beating F.I.A.T., Mercédès, de Dietrich, Darracq, Clement and Isotta-Fraschini.”
The hero of this exploit, of course, was Itala, although, according to Gerald Rose, Ceirano on the third car of the team did not finish, in spite of which, they did win the Salemi Cup for team performance and the Italy Cup for the fastest time over the first 300 kilometres. So there was no need for Mr. Coatalen to think that he had invented the “Hotchkiss drive” “through the back spring,” — nor Hotchkiss to think so either, for that matter, as the French firm, it seems, did not adopt it until 1906. It ought, it appears, to be called “Itala drive”; but then Otto, at least according to the French, did not invent his cycle, so perhaps Hotchkiss’ gain is just one of time’s revenges for Beau de Rochas’ loss.
However, to return to our original protagonists, while Mr. Bentley might protest that he did not use dry-sump lubrication or a nickel-chrome crankshaft, as alleged by Mr. Coatalen, he could produce no very effective disproof of the thesis that his car was practically a 1914 racer with mudguards, as also alleged by Mr. Coatalen, or perhaps a 1905 racer, with a beautiful body, as suggested by Mr. Pope. As to the rest of the contributors to this correspondence, they most of them concentrated on declaring that a Bentley was a better car than a Sunbeam, or vice versa, or that a Rolls-Royce was better than either, or something equally irrelevant. But what the Bentley adherents failed apparently to see was that the more they praised the object of their admiration, without clearing it of the accusation of being a pre-war racing car in disguise, the more they destroyed the argument that the people who designed pre-war racing cars had been just wasting their time.
The real argument with which the Bentley contingent should have confronted Mr. Coatalen, or so it seems to me, and the one on which they should have concentrated, was that if, as you allege, there are many lessons from racing to be applied to touring cars, then why do you not apply more of them to Sunbeams? If the Bentley engine is a 1914 racing engine with one overhead camshaft instead of two, why, Mr. Coatalen, do you content yourself with pushrods on touring Sunbeam engines, an arrangement which is rather reminiscent of the 1908 Grand Prix? A few people, of course, did argue somewhat on those lines, and perhaps Mr. Coatalen took their arguments to heart. At all events, a 3-litre Sunbeam of new type was entered for the 24-hour race at Le Mans, and there was very general disappointment when it did not start. However, it did duly appear the next year, and it was undoubtedly a very close derivative of the Sunbeam racer which had won the Grand Prix in 1923. Like the Bentley it was a 3-litre, but instead of four cylinders it had six, and instead of one overhead camshaft, it had two. For some reason, however, it was given an extraordinarily long wheelbase-10 ft. 9 3/4 ins., and cantilever rear springs. I do not know from what racing experience Louis Coatalen had learnt that bit. At any rate two of the cars appeared at Le Mans to show the two Bentleys what they could do, and one of them succeeded in finishing, which neither of the Bentleys did. But the Sunbeam was beaten by a 3 1/2-litre Lorraine-Dietrich with push-rod-operated overhead valves, at the beginning of the race the Sunbeams and the Bentleys seem to have been very closely matched for speed, and as a practical answer to the Bentley-Coatalen controversy on the value of special racing cars, the contest proved less than it might.
Good car as it was, the 3-litre Sunbeam never achieved the réclame of the 3-litre Bentley; its performance, probably, was not sufficiently superior, considering that its design was six years younger, and in those six years Bentleys had built up a solid body of devotees. Nor did W. O. Bentley oblige by also building a replica of the 1923 Grand Prix Sunbeam to take the place of the replica of the 1914 Tourist Trophy Sunbeam, if that is what the 3-litre was. Instead he took to building larger engines of the same general design, the 4 1/2-litre, the 6 1/2-litre, and the 8-litre. Before very long the 3-litre Sunbeam disappeared, the end of the ‘twenties came, followed by the great depression, and British sports cars went into a sad decline.
As to the argument, it remains, as far as I can see, as unsettled, after all this lapse of time, as ever. There are just as many people to-day as there were in 1924 who think, as W. O. Bentley thought then, that the racing of special ears contributes just nothing to the design of touring cars. There are others who tell me that the 1949 Wolseley valve gear looks just like the 1919 Hispano-Suiza valve gear, which in turn was derived from that of the 3-litre Hispano-Suiza which failed to start in the 1912 Grand Prix. If this alleged resemblance is anything more than fanciful, it looks as if the special Hispano-Suiza engine of 1912 may after all have been of some value — but of more value to Wolseley than to Hispano-Suiza, who abandoned this overhead camshaft design in about 1931 in favour of push-rods. In fact, if one thing is certain it is apparently that the smallest beneficiaries from racing are usually those manufacturers who indulge in it; and the only qualm which I suffer as a result of reaching this conclusion, is that if the whole of the British motor industry combines, most laudably, to build the B.R.M., then the only entity which will learn none of the resultant lessons will be the British motor industry.