By Cecil Clutton
Three dates stand out in the history of automobile design.
In 1885 Benz and Daimler made the first cars which worked, and led on to commercially successful designs.
In 1894 or a little earlier Panhard and Levassor embodied in their Daimler-engined car all the vital features of modern design — that is to say, the engine in front under a bonnet and the change-speed mechanism effected by sliding gears. But the machine itself was crude and brutal; its value lay in what it prophesied rather than in what it was.
In 1901 Wilhelm Maybach gave us the first truly modern car in the Mercédès, and since that date there has been no advance so great that one can pick it out as marking the advent of a new era. The 1901 Mercédès, inspired by Emile Jellinek, and designed and produced in about two years by Daimler’s collaborator; Maybach, was in all important particulars a modern car. It comprised a pressed-steel frame, a honeycomb radiator in front of the bonnet, low-tension magneto ignition, gate change and, above all, a mechanically silent and flexible engine, controlled by an accelerator, as opposed to the earlier, constant-speed engines controlled by ignition and governor and having automatic inlet valves.
With a design so far outstripping its competitors the Mercédès continued with little alteration in design for several years, but with an increasing number of models to meet varying requirements. Among these was the 18-28-h.p. model of 1904, of which an example has recently been acquired and restored by Mr. C. R. Abbott.
Many veteran cars have been snatched from decay and restored to working order in recent years, but none has been dealt with in better taste or with more scrupulous historical accuracy (yet without extravagance) than Mr. Abbott’s Mercédès.
At some early date it was acquired by the late T. F. Faulkner, an all-round sportsman of considerable means, and as a tribute to his achievements on the car Mr. Abbott has had engraved and fitted to the footplate of the car a metal plaque with the following inscription:
“The late Tom Faulkner Esq., the first owner of this 1904 24.8-h.p. Mercédès, raced the car on Brooklands track in the years 1908-9, competing in some ten races with two wins, two seconds and two thirds to his credit.” . .
The most noteworthy of these was the July trophy of 1908, won at a speed of 54.58 m.p.h.
Faulkner’s subsequent treatment of the car was not, perhaps, quite so laudable, as he let a gusset into the chassis, lengthening it by 18 inches, and raked the steering and gear levers to an alarming extent. He finally gave it to a Mr. Brown, who farmed in a big way near Newbury, but he, finding the car too fast for narrow and winding country lanes, laid it up for seven years. After this, Mr. Brown’s son, Stephen, got the car running again, and taught himself to drive on it — and the engine had restarted onthefirstturn. From him it passed, in turn, to Rivers Oldmeadow, Somerville Sykes and Anthony Heal, by which time it was in a very sorry state and Heal, looking round for a worthy recipient who would devote the necessary energy to its restoration, was fortunate in finding Mr. Abbott, who has so superlatively carried out this very considerable task.
Apart from normal cleaning up, the greatest work lay in reducing the wheelbase to its original length of 8 ft. 0 in., and in restoring the steering column and other controls to their proper rake. Then a body had to be made, consisting of two bucket sea’s and a small boot, minutely copied from the 1903 Gordon-Bennett machine. This also involved making a new petrol tank. The body, when finished, was painted in Mercédès white and the seats correctly upholstered in crimson enamelled hide of superb appearance, which add the finishing touch to a car which is monstrously handsome, judged from any viewpoint. There is nothing grotesque or archaic about it; its proportions and fitness-for-purpose are so immediately apparent that it at once captivates the beholder. This, indeed, is just part and parcel of the uncanny modernity of the whole design.
The type, known as the “18-28” has a 4-cylinder, T-head engine of 4,084-c.c. capacity, of which the dimensions are 100 by 130 mm. It succeeded the 90-bore “18-22” model of the previous year, of which Mr. G. J. Allday, president of the Veteran Car Club of Great Britain, has an excellent example. But whereas the 1903 car has a straight front axle, the 1904 model is of substantially lower build, having the dropped axle, which became standard for nearly all cars in the later Edwardian years. From 1903 onwards the axles were of “H” section, but the 1902 axle was tubular. The front springs for 1904 were 3/4 elliptic, but this was dropped in 1905, when a return was made to semi-elliptic. All shackles are underslung.
Friction shock absorbers were added to the back axle by Mr. Faulkner, but the front axle is undamped save for the original rubber “snubbers,” which are, in point of fact, remarkably effective.
Final drive is by chain, with all its advantages of low-unsprung weight and equal torque to both wheels. The foot brake operates on the countershaft and the overall ratios, with the touring sprockets now fitted, are approximately 2 5/8, 3 1/4, 5 1/4 and 10 1/2 to 1. These, with 815 by 105 tyres, give speeds, at 1,000 r.p.m., of 36, 30, 18 and 9 m.p.h. The racing sprockets, used by Faulkner at Brooklands, have 22 teeth, as against 20, thus raising all speed and ratios by 10 per cent.
The gate change, pioneered by Mercédès, has bottom and top in the forward slots, with second and third at the back of the gate. Although this makes for a slightly awkward, but easily mastered, “U” shaped movement between second and third, it provides a delightful change from top direct to second, which is quite often needed with close ratios. The 1914 T.T. Humber has the same arrangement.
The clutch is of the traditional Mercédès” scroll ” pattern, in which the drive is taken through a spiral spring, which, when properly adjusted, affords a beautifully smooth take-off, though it does not re-act at all favourably to violent treatment. The spring-tension on the clutch-pedal is so light as to be reminiscent of a Bugatti when ticking over.
A certain amount of mystery at attaches to the engine of Mr. Abbott’s car, since, although the bore and stroke are correct, the cylinder blocks (cast in pairs), are not original and are believed to have come off a contemporary Mercédès lorry. The original blocks and cast-iron pistons exist and, although they are badly rusted, they are more highly finished than those now on the car. Ignition was originally by low-tension magneto, driven from the water-pump on the off side of the engine, but the present blocks are arranged for high-tension ignition only, and the magneto drive is now taken on the near side.
The cylinders are of “T”-head pattern and the two camshafts are driven (somewhat unexpectedly in so modern a design) by vast exposed mangle-wheels at the back of the engine. The driving wheel, on the tail of the crankshaft, is steel, meshing with fibre wheels on the camshafts. The water is pushed into the engine through two branches, one for each block, continued by pipes inside the castings directing the flow on to the exhaust valves. The cams for the low-tension interruptors are placed, somewhat incorrectly, on the inlet side of the engine.
Lubrication is effected by exhaust pressure forcing oil from the tank to a battery of eight drip-feeds supplying the three main-bearings, cylinder walls and clutch-withdrawal fork. Big-end lubrication is by splash. Most surprisingly, considering the date, the bearings are all white-metal instead of bronze, which was then almost universal, and the rods are of “H” section.
Mr. Faulkner replaced the original Mercédès carburetter by an early, two-jet Zenith instrument and he also exchanged the monumentally heavy cast-iron pistons for very early steel pistons, then just being developed for aircraft engines. This had the effect of putting the maximum engine speed up from the 1,200 r.p.m. standard for these engines to about 1,500 r.p.m., giving a piston speed of 1,300 feet per minute. Steel pistons in cast-iron boxes naturally provoked very rapid wear, and to overcome this, until over-size pistons can be obtained, Mr. Abbott has fitted “Clupit” rings with very good effect. I made the impious suggestion that, as the pistons were not standard anyway, aluminium replacements would be a reasonable solution to the problem. Mr. Abbott (who has a much purer soul than mine) was suitably shocked.
When it came to driving the car I quite feared an element of disillusionment, but, in fact, it far exceeded my best expectations. These early Mercédès engines were very reluctant to rev., but, perhaps on account of the Zenith carburetter and steel pistons, this particular example is surprisingly lively. There is acceleration enough to deal with ordinary modern family saloons as normally driven, and a comfortable cruising speed, which I estimated at around 45 m.p.h., and 1,200 r.p.m., is rapidly attained. At the same time, the negative valve overlap and restricted breathing arrangements put the peak of the power curve certainly no higher than 1,200 r.p.m., and perhaps even lower, so that it really does not pay to use the tantalisingly close ratios. These are more suited to hill-climbing. The engine is superbly smooth, and while there is a little clatter from the mangle department while it is idling, it approaches later Rolls-Royce standards of mechanical silence under load, and far exceeds the average “Silver Ghost” as to flexibility on Pool petrol. The car will accelerate smoothly and powerfully from about 7 m.p.h. in top, equivalent to only 200 r.p.m. The gears, too, are commendably silent and the silencer is also most effective, so that the “swish” of the driving chains is by far the noisiest part of the outfit. When all else about their cars was so refined it seems remarkable that Mercédès so long continued to tolerate the crudity and clatter of chain drive, for even by 1904 Renaults were putting quite a lot of power through live axles. Incidentally, if the engine did deliver its advertised 28 b.h.p. (and it probably gives more with its steel pistons) at about 1,000 r.p.m. it was remarkably efficient for its date, since this works out at 91 b.m.e.p., which was then quite a high figure for touring cars.
As is to be expected with such a short wheelbase, the car gives quite a lively ride, yet, thanks to the low unsprung weight, it is by no means uncomfortable, and personal comfort is looked after most effectively by the splendid bucket seats. Sideways location of the passenger is a most important factor in his comfort, which has been largely forgotten in these days of bench-seats — only recently I rode in one of Britain’s most modern and expensive luxury cars, absolutely maddened by the discomfort of bouncing from side to side of a vast chair which would have done credit to the fireside of any west-end club but it was quite out of place in a motor car. The Mercédès is commendably free from fore-and-aft pitching, and this is no doubt due to Mr. Abbott having installed a hundredweight or so of concrete in the tail, which brings the total unladen weight of the car up to 20 1/4 cwt.
The original wooden-rimmed steering wheel was consumed in a fire very early in the car’s life and Mr. Faulkner replaced it by a beautiful little brass-spoked Dover wheel, which is a joy to handle; the steering is, of course, very high geared. Both foot and hand brake are remarkably powerful. The car has been timed at 55 m.p.h., equivalent to 1,500 r.p.m., and this speed is attained on quite a small throttle opening. Like so many early cars, which were usually overchoked, the last half of the throttle opening is quite ineffective and merely promotes rather rough running in the engine. With the racing sprockets I quite expect that the maximum speed would be considerably increased with little loss of acceleration. The speed at 1,500 r.p.m. would then be 60 m.p.h.
Making almost its first public appearance in Mr. Abbott’s hands at Gransden, nearly 40 years after its first advent into racing, the Mercédès made a splendid impression, both by its impeccable condition and its useful turn of speed, and, averaging 42 76 m.p.h. in the Veterans’ Handicap, just staved off Peter Clark, the scratch man, on the equally splendid 1914 Grand Prix Mercédès.
In his 1904 Mercédès Mr. Abbott has certainly succeeded in snatching the best of all worlds, for by its date it is eligible for Veteran Car Club events; by its performance it is quite suitable for Edwardian events, and by virtue of its moderate size it is an eminently practicable vehicle for fine-weather touring. It is indeed fortunate in possessing such a kind and proud owner as Mr. Abbott.
[Since this article was written, Mr. Abbott’s Mercédès has won the Edwardian Class at the V.S.C.C. Prescott Meeting, averaged 39.10 m.p.h. over the Brighton kilometre and made fastest Veteran time at. Southport. — Ed.]