Veteran to classic -- Forgotten Makes

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100

No 100 : The Bignan

Just as I was debating what car I should make the subject of the 100th article in this series, this interesting letter was received:

Sir,

I was interested in the report by WPK on the Essen Show in your January issue. I believe the car on the left of the picture of the French Le Mans contenders is a Bignan. I do not claim to have seen every issue of Motor Sport during the last 40 odd years but I have read nearly all of them and I cannot recall seing any detailed reference to this make. If so this is a pity because the car had a good performance, excellent brakes (front and transmission only — no rear drums) and was generally regarded well over here.

When Anthony Fox and my uncle, Bob Nicholl, formed Fox and Nicholl in 1926, they were agents for Wolseley and had some form of agency for Bignan. Fox had held a senior position at Wolseley before he left the company when Vickers sold it to Morris.

Bob Nicholl ran a Bignan between 1926 and 1928 which he swapped for a 2-litre Lagonda on F&N being appointed agents. I have happy memories of many trips in the Bignan, which could outpace most of its contemporaries.

May I suggest that Bignan would form an excellent report under “Forgotten Makes”.

Malcolm Campbell, Hitchin, Herts.

So Bignan it shall be! Jacques Bignan was obviously a man who liked motor racing and who was not afraid of engineering innovations. He operated very much in what we now call the vintage period, after having supplied engines to other manufacturers, and although his cars will hardly be forgotten by those who study all aspects of motor racing history, they were never all that well known in this country.

The Bignan factory was situated at Courbervoie, on the Seine, where many other French automobile ventures flourished and faded, and commenced operations immediately the First World War ended. Bignan seems to have been shrewd enough to make cars many people could afford, to finance the more costly and sophisticated Bignans used for competition work. In this latter sphere he employed some of the less well-known drivers, about whom someone will one day inevitably give us a book. He was himself a competition motorist, remembering that in 1928 he won the prestigious Monte Carlo Rally, not in one of his own handsome cars, but driving a Fiat from Bucharest, as by then his manufacturing affairs were in decline.

So far as this country was concerned, the Bignan arrived here not as a Bignan at all but as a Gregoire-Campbell. The person behind this was none other than Capt (later Sir) Malcolm Campbell, the famous racing driver and record-breaker. During the last pre-war season at Brooklands he had divided his activities beween Charron, Darracq, Sunbeam, Schneider and Gregoire cars, winning the first heat of the Whitsun Private Competitors’ Handicap with the last-named. Having become “Trade” after his war service, Campbell, who had set up premises at 27, Abelmarle Street, Piccadilly, presumably had to take on whatever agencies he could collar. He must have used his earlier association with Gregoire to persuade this company, operating here as the British Gregoire Agency at Halkin Place, Belgrave Square, to allow him to sell as the sporting Gregoire-Campbell, a Gregoire chassis in which was installed a Bignan engine. Another of Campbell’s agencies at this time was for the Dawson ohc light-car (covered earlier in this series).

The Bignan engine was apparently installed in the Gregoire works in France and a Show chassis of this super-sporting car was on its way to England by August 1919 ready for display in in Campbell’s showroom from September, it having been fitted on arrival with a complete set of Smith’s instruments. Moreover, at the first post-Armistice Olympia Show that November, Campbell had persuaded the Gregoire people to display on their stand, beside their own exhibits of 2-litre 12/30hp Gregoires, a polished chassis and a sports-bodied example of this 85 x 130mm 17/50hp Gregoire-Campbell. Its four-cylinder engine had inclined side valves covered by valve caps enclosed by water-jacketing, an extreme method of cooling adopted later for the prototype 12/20hp Calthorpe by Hugh Rose, although he later abandoned it for a conventional detachable head. Accessibility (and avoidance of water leaks ?) was hardly a feature of the Gregoire-Campbell engine, the two-bearing crankshaft being held in the upper part of the crankcase. Steps had been taken, however, to obviate oiling-up of the sparking plugs, set in a deep well on the o/s, by use of thrower-rings on the crankpins, placed to catch any oil leaking from the big-ends. The timing gears were helical and the camshaft pinion weighed 4 to 5 kg, thus acting as a flywheel to damp out camshaft fluctuations. A leather-lined cone clutch drove a separate 4-speed gearbox, the wheelbase was 9ft 5in, and the wire wheels were shod with 820 x 120 tyres.

Campbell’s name may have added allure, but the chassis price of £990 must have deflected buyers to the Vauxhall stand, where a complete 30/98 was listed at £1475, the chassis at £1125. The 80mph 3-litre Bentley was not yet available and, when it was, its chassis cost £1150. One item of the Gregoire-Campbell which has a modern ring to it was the provision of a Haslam thief-proof lock on the steering wheel, to prevent the car being driven or towed away. There was also an exhaust cut-out, illegal on British roads.

By now, however, Bignan was into racing, with some success. At Le Mans in 1920 he entered three Bignan Sports. Three Bugatti voiurettes were faster and Friedrich won, at 57.6 mph for the 256-1/2-mile race, but after another Bugatti had failed to re-start after pit-stop and Ettore Bugatti had caused the one whose radiator cap he had unscrewed to be disqualified, Nogue and Delauney finished 2nd and 3rd, nearly 20 mins later, the other Bignan retiring with magneto failure, after which de Courcelles was said to have sat in the woods reading the morning paper….

These 1920 racing cars had a T-head valve-configuration, but with the valves inclined. The 61 x 119mm (1388cc) power unit gave a claimed 35 bhp at 3000 rpm, and was installed in a 4-speed, front-braked chassis with cantilever rear springs which caused poor road-holding.

After the race Delauney bought the car he had driven but in the 1921 Corsican race, on Targa Floria lines, the difficult handling was probably the cause of him crashing fatally at a hump-back bridge, assuming nothing broke. This first race in Corsica was won by a special Bignan-Sport designed by Monsieur Némorin Causan. (Monsieur Causan was born in Oppèdie and educated at the Arts et Métiers at Aix-en-Provence, and had designed the winning 1908 Coupe des GP Voiturettes Delage and the 1914 Coupe des Voiurettes Corre La Licorne racing cars.) It was of striking appearance, very low, with a flat-topped bonnet, from which protruded large exhaust pipes. The 3-litre 87 x 123mm 16-valve single-ohc engine gave 95 bhp at 3400 rpm. There was a geared-up top speed and the weight was 1750 lb. Driven by the veteran Albert Guyot, it averaged 45 mph for the hard, mountainous 274-1/2 miles.

On the production front Bignan had 3-litre and 3-1/2-litre four-cylinder cars which do not seem to have been very different from those to which Campbell had attached his name. It is said that these were Fournaise chassis with the engines installed in them at the Gregoire works at Poissy. They had half-elliptic springing, a gate-less right-hand gear lever and mechanical tyre-inflators, and Hallot servo-brakes on the front wheels and transmission only, sans rear brakes, as on Chenard Walckers. As the other Malcolm Campbell remembers, the Bignan was well received here, a smart sports model belonging to a spectator having attracted favourable attention at a 1920 JCC Brooklands Meeting. To this end the 3-litre was exhibited at the 1921 London Motor Show at a price of £640. A 10hp four-cylinder model with four-pushrod overhead valve gear , à la Salmson was also available.

By 1922 the mainstay of future production, the fine 75 x 112mm 2-litre four-cylinder 1979cc model, which in standard form developed 50bhp, was in production, and Automobiles Bignan (England) Ltd had, with the best makes, taken premises in London’s West End, in Jermyn Street. It was now that Bignan’s innovative streak came to the surface. At the 1922 Paris Salon and London Show this chassis was available with desmodromic valve-gear, and hydraulic suspension in which the axles were linked by dual arms to oil-filled pistons. In one of his inimitable “Sideslips” in Motor Sport on the positive opening and closing of valves, EKH Karslake wrote: ” … this apparently mysterious term is derived from two quite simple Greek words meaning “a halter” and “running”, so that the whole thing means “running on the end of a halter or tether.” He went on to quote estimates from Omnia as to the racing engines which would compete in the 1914 GP, which by its 4-1/2-litre capacity limit would encourage long piston strokes. The paper calculated that crankshaft speed would be limited to about 3000 rpm to obviate piston speeds rising above a safe 3000 ft per minute. Apart from that, there were in those times doubts about a magneto sparking effectively at such speeds, hence the use of coil ignition on some immediately post-war racing cars, or of the valve gear being able to cope with rapid operation.

It was this latter, more pertinent, worry which led Delage and Th. Schneider to employ desmodromic valve-gear for that historic 1914 GP. Karslake quotes Omnia as pointing out that at 3000 rpm a valve has to open and shut 25 times a second, the duration both of opening and closing, including starting, full speed and stopping, being 1/200th of a second, and with a lift of 12mm, the valve’s maximum speed is not less than 17kph. Thus in 1/400th of a second the valve must pass from 0 to 17kph (say 10mph) and in the next such time-scale go from 17 to 0 kph.

Karslake said that whether these figures showed Omnia’s readers what difficulties they were likely to come up against if they insisted on driving their valves at more than 10mph he didn’t know. (As a layman, I try not to think about the alarmingly high velocities and accelerations and decelerations that go on inside internal combustion engines, especially as everyday cars now run at much above 3000 rpm, anymore than I care to dwell on the origin of the Universe or life after death….)

Anyway, it was desmodromic valve actuation which Bignan’s customers were offered by 1922. Karslake says the engine had eight vertical overhead valves arranged in two squares, each square comprising the inlet and exhaust valves of two cylinders. In the centre of each square, and driven through bevel pinions by a horizontal overhead shaft, were two plates revolving in a horizontal plane in opposite directions.

On an extension of each valve-stem were two conical rollers, which fitted one above and one below the aforesaid plates, which were in fact curiously-contoured swash-plates. As they revolved they imparted an up-and-down motion to the valves. No springs were used in the system which was, indeed, more like having a bull on a pole than a halter, and no provision was made for expansion and contraction due to changes of temperature. In fact, light springs for putting the valves firmly on their seats were shown in the patent drawings but were found to be unnecessary, as Mercedes-Benz found with their desmodromic valve-gear on the 300SLR racing cars.

How many customers bought Bignans so endowed I do not know. Very few, if any, presumably, because this unconventional model was withdrawn a year later. The chassis was priced at £825 but £200 could be saved by ordering normal valve-gear and springing. Perhaps the desmodromics were aimed at racing, because this engine ran up to 5000 rpm, whereas the other was restricted to 4500 rpm. These were high crankshaft speeds 62 years ago.

In any case, the the normal 2-litre Bignan was an exceptional car. With single overhead camshaft driven by spiral gears and a vertical shaft, and two plugs per cylinder, an 8-spark Marelli magneto being driven transversely from the timing gear, it had reverted to normal braking (five drums, ten shoes).

In 16-valve 75 bhp form it was a formidable proposition, costing £625 as a chassis, and capable of 80 mph, and it must have challenged the Speed Model 3-litre Bentley at £925. The owner of an early 2-litre model used in France and England for 10,000 miles reported it as very good on hills, fast and reliable, giving 22 mpg and 4000 from its rear Michelin tyres, 6000 from the front set, the Bignan people in France being delightful people to deal with. There was also a similar 8-valve 1.6-litre costing £495 as a chassis, £625 with an English 4-seater body.

The 2-litre Bignan did well in racing. At the 1922 November Meeting at Brooklands CV Gros (perhaps over to demonstrate cars at the Show) won the 90 mph Handicap with a sports 4-seater at 79.9 mph and he also went to Brooklands that month, taking three short-distance Class-B records, the standing-start mile at 63.26 mph.

The first Le Mans 24-hour race in 1923 saw Bignans driven by de Tornaco/Gros and de Marne/Martin finish 3rd and 4th behind the victorious Chenard-Walckers. Martin won the 1923 San Sebastian Touring GP at 56-1/2 mph, Matthy repeating this success in 1924 at 53.83 mph. At Spa, Springuel/Becquet won the first 24-hour race in 1924 at 84.7 mph. That year a Bignan had been the first car to take records at the new Montlhéry track, when Gros and J Martin set the World’s 24-hour record at 75.86 mph for 1864 miles, best lap at 85.6 mph, using a 16-valve car. Also in 1924 Ledure had started from Glasgow in the Monte Carlo Rally, winning outright.

A 124 bhp six-cylinder development was not a success, but by 1925 the four-cylinder 2-litre was giving 80 bhp and it won at Marne (Clause), and Comminges (Goury) where Clause was second to Chiron’s Bugatti in 1926.

By now a lower chassis using twin Cozette carburettors was available, and Gauthier was 3rd in the Marne GP, at 81 mph, and 4th in the Avus GP, and a Bignan was in the lead for 19 hours in the Monza 24-hour race before retiring. After this blowers and Chenard-like “tank” bodies were of little avail.

It was a fine record, enhancing the presige of the production Bignans. At Olympia in 1923 a 2-litre was shown with a Kelsch leather-covered three-ply body weighing only 60 lb and a 12/30hp model with a Forten & Bettens coupé body. A year later the Show exhibits included an impressive 16-valve 2-litre chassis with an oil cooler between the front dumb-irons and a reversion to Hallot three-drum braking. The 2-litre chassis now cost £560, a handsome tourer £710. A Viel carburettor was now used.

After this, the magic began to wane, with Bignans using Ballot, SCAP, EHP and Salmson engines, and finally they became thinly-disguised Salmson cars.

I have a final memory of this renowned make. We used to have a dear old odd-jobs man, who one day ventured to say to me that he believed I was interested in motors. “Certainly,” I replied. He then told me as a lad in the Navy, he and a mate on leave found themselves in London, home being in Wales. They pooled their pay, found a used-car dealer, and bought his cheapest car. It was — a Bignan: he spelled out the name. They set off, but a big-end gave out and it was abandoned near Welshpool. — WB