Forgotten Makes: The Farman

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The Farman was built by the brothers Farman and is thus another car which was the product of racing drivers, because Henri and Maurice Farman took part in those now legendary town-to-town and early circuit races, at the turn of the century. Their father was an Englishman, living in Paris, correspondent for the London newspaper The Standard. The young Farrnans drove for Panhard-Levassor.

Maurice was, perhaps, the more dashing of the two. He won the 1901 GP de Pau, averaging 46.1mph for the 206 3/4 miles on a 24hp Panhard and the gruelling Circuit de Nord the following year, a two-day contest covering more than 540 miles, driving one of the 40hp Panhards, at 45mph, after being behind the wheel for over 12 hours. He was second behind Fournier’s Mors in the 1901 Paris-Bordeaux race. If anything, the more cautious Henri was even more successful. He won Paris-Vienna in 1902 on a technicality from Eliot Zborowski’s Mercedes, with Maurice Farman third, both of course on the latest Panhards, and took to a Darracq to win the 400kg class of Nice-Salon-Nice. He also won the Pau-Bayonne-Pau race that year, fastest of the Darracq drivers in both races.

Returning to the Panhard fold in 1902. Henri was second to Marcel Renault in the race from Paris to Vienna. Then the death of his close friend Marcel in the tragic Paris-Madrid race in 1903, which was stopped by Government decree at Bordeaux, set Maurice Farman against motor-racing and the brothers turned to aeroplanes as their next excitement. . .

This paid off, and their name was soon established worldwide in this new field. They opened a huge factory at Billancourt, that French motor-centre beside the Seine, and there from 1915 they made Farman aero-engines and aeroplanes that became a household name in aviation. When the war came, Farman military machines were turned out as well as a very complex variety of Farman aero-engines, of which the 500hp 12WE with three banks of cylinders rather like a push-rod Napier Lion, was made in some quantities. The Company, Avions Henri, Maurice and Dick Farman, also built racing aero-engines which broke distance and height records, and two 18-cylinder engines, one with its cylinders in T-formation. They were noted for their reduction gearbox and two-speed clutch-controlled supercharger. Farman engines powered the Super Goliath bombers in the war and I remember seeing as a schoolboy, in the early 1920s, those ungainly Farman airliners arrive at Croydon, with their big 28-seater round-nosed fuselages and deeply-skirted undercarriages.

Like others who had concentrated on aeroplanes, the Farmans found themselves with a vast factory space and little to produce, immediately after the 1918 Armistice. So rather naturally, they decided to make a car, and by their standards it had to be a luxury chassis, to try to better the “Best Car in the World” reputation of Rolls-Royce. It is said that everyone likes a Lord (I do not know if Mr Kinnock does) and these lordly new motor-cars were of much interest to those with money to spend, in the developing post-war motoring era. I have covered in some detail in these pages the pros and cons of the 1920s super-cars, so there is no need to reiterate the facts. But to see in what market the Farman was competing, the table at the bottom of the previous page offers some comparisons. In 1919 it had been suggested that perhaps there were too many £1500 to £1800 chassis and not enough £300 to £500 cars, and that it was difficult to see where the super-luxury car stopped and the high-class car began (a problem I know well). Soon the post-Armistice slump was to cause prices to rise, so the table looks at the cars of late 1921-1922, costing £1500 or over as a chassis, offered to buyers looking for new cars three years after the upheaval caused by the war.

The Farman family had no use for little cars and the chassis which they had ready for the first post-war Paris Salon was in the magnificent category. In some ways it emulated the design-thinking of others, both in specification and components, as study of the aforesaid articles would reveal (should anyone be interested, photocopies are available). Farman used an overhead camshaft engine, like other manufacturers who had built war-time aero-engines, see table above. It was a six-cylinder of 100 x I 40mm bore and stroke (6597cc), the camshaft driven from the front by a vertical shaft and bevel gears. The expected cross-shaft drove an SEV magneto on the o/s, the water pump on the n/s.

In making this fine engine, castings were ignored, steel stampings replacing them, and aluminium being used extensively. The steel cylinders with screwed-in, non-detachable heads were separate, with sheet-steel water jacketing welded to them. The crankshaft ran in three bearings and had a vibration damper at the front. The camshaft operated two valves per cylinder, via rockers. A four bladed aluminium cooling fan was positively driven and could be put out of commission by the driver as it had a friction clutch.

On the o/s of the engine a double Zenith carburettor fed through two water-warmed risers to a six-branch manifold, drawing air from passages within the aluminium crankcase linked by the exhaust-outlet pipe. The exhaust manifold was a straight external pipe leading to this air heater. The h t leads from the magneto were led neatly through a tube to the plugs on the o/s of the engine and there was a further set of sparking-plugs on the n/s, supplied by coil, with the distributor driven from the front of the camshaft. An aluminium cone clutch took the drive to a separate four-forward-speed gearbox, which had a constant-mesh third gear. The ball-gate lever was centrally placed but for the British market r h control was available. The gearbox incorporated a tyre pump, and a pump within the box fed oil to the front of the propeller shaft. Suspension was by half-elliptic front springs, cantilever springs at the back, with Houdaille dampers. The petrol supply held a useful 35 1/4 gallons, divided between the rear tank and the dashboard vacuum tank.

On the 1919 chassis rear wheel brakes with steel drums having machined fins and Ferodolined aluminium shoes were applied by the hand brake, the foot-brake contracting onto a transmission drum; but soon front brakes were added. Wood or wire-spoke wheels were available, shod with 880 x 120 Michelin tyres. The fascia reflected the car’s aircraft ancestry, being equipped with tachometer, speedometer. clock, barometer, inclinometer, water-thermometer, oil-gauge, petrol-gauge, cut-out control, petrol-tap lock, an anti-theft steering-column device, a control for the cooling-fan clutch, an ammeter, and the cilectrical switches.

That was the well-engineered chassis which confronted Parisians at the 15th and first post-war Paris Salon, and which was to be seen at the 13th Olympia Show later in 1919, the chassis priced at £1900. It must have been remarked that the renowned Hispano Suiza of the same 37.2hp tax-rating had only three forward speeds, but that it already had servo 4WB. For this debut the Farman was handled here by Chester Engineering Ltd, of Chester. Visitors might have thought the wooden wheels gave the Farman a rather heavy appearance but they must have appreciated the fine detail work, twin horns part of the comprehensive equipment, webs obviating the need for an undershield, the carefully-shackled rear spring anchorages, etc.

By the time the 1920 London Show came round Wilson Hill & Co of Great Portland Street, W1 (“the street of cars”) had been appointed Farman agents. The stand contained not just a chassis but that and an all-weather tourer. A year later, on a White City stand, two chassis were shown, the second with a unit gearbox and disc clutch. An alloy single-piece cylinder block replaced the separate cylinders. The chassis price had been dropped to £1600. but with the new servo 4WB it rose to £1720. These brakes were pedal-applied and smaller drums were used for the hand brake, intended for use when the car was being reversed, to overcome problems that Rolls-Royce were to encounter three years later.

Although the Farman brothers had eschewed racing from 1903, they did build two special cars for the Nice Speed Week of 1923, an event which still had some prestige, washing off from the illustrious Nice Festival of Speed at the turn of the century, when the latest Mercedes turned out to dominate the scene and Eliot Zborowski was killed at the first corner of the La Turbie speed hill-climb in his new 60hp Mercedes. Farman, as befitted an aeroplane maker, used advanced streamlining for a saloon and a two-seater with which to go to Nice. To permit access to the very low-roofed saloon body a roof section lifted as a door was opened, and part of the straight-run mudguards, reminescent of those of a Tamplin cyclecar, could be folded out of the way. Two spare wheels were set in line with the chassis, in the faired tail. The occupants of the two-seater Farman had to endure a body which was as high as their heads, rather more extreme than the drivers of Capt Miller’s Brooklands Wolseley Moths had experienced.

At that 1923 La Turbie hill-climb the Farman saloon was absent but the two-seater (alleged to give 200hp!) made its first appearance. It was said “not to be tuned up to concert pitch”. It was fifth, beaten by Rene Thomas (Delage), G Boillet (Peugeot), Grau and De Moraes, the last two drivers with aero-engined cars, one with Fiat power; but what did Grau use? He made FTD in the ss kilo contest. Incidentally, a 3-litre Bentley and a Rolls-Royce also competed at Nice.

A spin-off from Farman’s brief return to racing was the Grand Sports model, shown at Olympia in 1924. a stone coloured four-seater with hinged boat-deck rear, a rear windscreen, red wheels and red underbelly. It was priced at £2225. A Barker all-weather was alongside it (perhaps the 1923 exhibit unsold?), costing £2600. There were now showrooms in fashionable Albemarle Street, W1 and Lt Nungesser, who destroyed 45 German machines in the war, the thirdhighest “score” by a French pilot, was seen in one of these streamlined sports Farmans, for which 92mph was achieved.

In England, however, demand does not seem to have been very brisk, although an Arthur Mulliner saloon, equipped with a boot containing four big suitcases and provision for smaller ones under both seats, was supplied to a Dr Langer, in Berkshire. Although the Farman was exhibited at the London Show until 1926, as time went by enquiries were directed to the factory in France. Maybe the somewhat ponderous look of those cars turned Brits against them. Not that the brothers didn’t try. A chassis was joined by a big Windovers saloon-limousine and a Weymann saloon at the 1925 Show, chassis price down to £1450 and servicing available from Regent Street, W1.

Design was not much changed, although by 1926 the stroke had been increased to 150mm, giving a capacity of 7069cc. A chassis was now available for only £1200, when that of the “New Phantom” Rolls-Royce cost £1850. Farman was now using Ducellier magnetos and the horn button was on a substantial stalk protruding from the fascia. Self-locking vernier adjustment on the valve stems ensured quickly adjustable tappets. A rather odd innovation was that of dispensing with normal Ackermann steering and instead turning each front wheel separately, the actual gear being by the steering heads themselves, actuated by a transverse shaft behind the radiator, coupled to the steering-column by bevel gearing.

Although at this period there was bother with wheel-shimmy when front brakes caused the axle to gyroscope, and balloon tyres aggravated matters, this elaborate solution apparently led to heavy steering and lost motion developed at the many joints, although it obviated damage to low-hung steering links, and Farman claimed more accurate paths for the wheels when on lock, which Ackermann had tried to achieve. A conventional track-rod was retained, as an insurance, slackly connected. It is probably significant that this ingenious system was offered “as an alternative”. The cylinder block was now a linered Alpax casting, cast Alpax wheels with aluminium discs with 895 x 135 balloon tyres were used, and compound springing was introduced, extra springs taking supplementary loads.

It all sounds rather splendid. Yet these great cars did not catch on here. Few advertisements for used Farmans appeared and so far as we were concerned, that was the Farman that was. . .

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