According to a report in the daily press, those responsible for the 16-cylinder B.R.M. are now contemplating building a 4-cylinder car “to comply with the 1954 formula.” I am glad that they know what the 1954 formula is going to be. I must confess that I do not. But then in 1950 I did not know that Grand Prix races in 1952 would be for 2-litre unsupercharged cars.
Apart from this it is interesting that they should have decided at this stage that the engine should have four cylinders. When the 16-cylinder engine was announced, one felt that Ferrari, who had limited himself to a mere dozen, had been handsomely outbid. In view of the success this year of the new Ferrari with only four cylinders, one would hardly have expected the successor to the 16-cylinder B.R.M. to have more than three. However, perhaps it is just as well that such expectations have been falsified.
Moreover, I should not be altogether surprised if, by the time that 1954 comes along, a 4-cylinder engine appeared as extreme for paucity of cylinders as did the 16-cylinder design for multiplicity thereof when it was first announced. It was a very bold step on the part of Ferrari and Lampredi when they decided to restrict themselves to this number, and thus return to something of a 1914 con ception of a racing engine. It is a step that has paid very handsome dividends this year; but one may perhaps be permitted to remark that fortune has undoubtedly favoured the bold. In the first place Ferrari has had a monopoly in 1952 of the top-ranking Italian drivers; but apart from this one must reach the conclusion that the success of his 4-cylinder engine has been due in large measure to the concentration of organisers on short, slow circuits. In acceleration, which is all-important on such courses, the 4-cylinder engine seems at present to be decidedly superior to any other unsupercharged 2-litre design. But on what are, by present-day standards, fast circuits, this superiority in acceleration seems to be more than counter-balanced by inferiority in maximum speed: at Rheims the 4-cylinder Ferraris were outpaced by the 6-cylinder Gordini, and Monza provided a moral victory for the 6-cylinder Maserati. It remains to be seen whether the current agitation against slow circuits has any success. In the meantime, if I was Ferrari, I should be getting just a little bit anxious about it. While no one knows whether the 2-litre limit has more than another year to run, he may well decide to stick to his successful 1952 engine. But it would be hardly surprising if, as soon as he knew how big to make it, he decided on six-cylinders as the ideal number for a new engine for 1954.
If this happens it will be rather intriguing, because, while there have been plenty of 6-cylinder racing engines in the past, this number of cylinders has been adopted, more often than not, as a result of circumstances rather than choice; and in the smaller number of cases where choice has been the determining factor, the enterprise has not as a rule been attended with a striking measure of success, I have already spread myself in rather a large way in these columns on the subject of the early history of the 6-cylinder engine as applied to motor cars, and I do not propose to inflict all this again on my readers, except to say that in the course of these investigations we found that the Spyker Company of Amsterdam apparently started work in 1901 on a 6-cylinder Gordon Bennett racer, which, however, never took part in the Gordon Bennett race; and that, on his own evidence, M. Charles Faroux designed a monster 6-cylinder racing car for the Paris-Madrid race which took place on May 15th, 1903, but unfortunately did not finish it until June 4th. In both these cases choice presumably dictated the number of cylinders, and in neither case was the enterprise very successful.
In fact so little impression did these Dutch and French efforts make on Mr. S. F. Edge that for years he remained of the opinion that the 6-cylinder Napier which was completed in February, 1904 was the first 6-cylinder car in the world. (He continued, apparently, to think so even when M. Charles Faroux pointed out his error to him.) Mr. Napier, incited thereto by Mr. Edge, had been making racing cars, albeit 4-cylinder ones, ever since 1900; and as his 1904 6-cylinder car was a great deal more successful than Spyker’s and Faroux’ efforts, it was almost inevitable that sooner or later he would make a 6-cylinder racing car. He had, in fact, done so0 by the end of the year, and at the Ormond-Daytona beach meeting in January. 1905, a vast machine appeared in the hands of Arthur Macdonald and proceeded to collect half a dozen world’s records.
Although rated at a fairly modest 90 h.p., this engine had a bore and stroke of 6¼ by 5 ins., and the car was probably as fast on the straight as any of its contemporaries. As a road-racing car, however, it was not so successful. In the English Eliminating Trials for the Gordon Bennett team held in the Isle of Man in May, 1905, it failed to finish the course, in spite of which, as a result of a curious piece of official policy, it was admitted as one of the English team for the Gordon Bennett race itself in July. This race, however, so far from being run on the straight, took place over the mountainous Auvergne Circuit; and although, considerably to its credit, the Napier finished, it never figured very prominently in the competition. The first 6-cylinder racing car which really appeared was thus a somewhat qualified success.
On the Continent no manufacturer seemed inclined to indulge in such flights of fancy, and the substitution in 1906 of the Grand Prix for the Gordon Bennett so greatly incensed all concerned in this country that English manufacturers refused to have anything to do with the race. Their disapproval of the French and all their works did not, of course, extend to the Germans, and when the Kaiserpreis was organised in 1907 for 8-litre cars, a 6-cylinder Napier duly took part in it. Neither this car nor the French 6-cylinder Porthos was, however, a very serious racing car, and in any event neither of them got through the eliminating races.
By 1908, however, Napiers had so far recovered from their spleen that they projected something far more serious for the French Grand Prix at Dieppe. In this race the bore of 4-cylinder engines was limited to 155 mm, and that of 6-cylinder engines to 127 mm. (giving in each case a piston-area figure of approximately 755). In these circumstances, Napier chose, as would most later designers, to use six cylinders, which should have permitted him a higher crankshaft speed for a given piston speed and stroke-bore ratio. Unfortunately, however, he also chose, as have most later designers, to use Rudge-Whitworth detachable wheels; and as detachable wheels were most unreasonably banned by the French authorities, the 1908 6-cylinder Grand Prix Napiers failed to start in the race. Apart from the Porthos, the only remaining exponents of the 6-cylinder principle were the Austins; but their case was clearly one of circumstances rather than choice, as the racing cars were really only glorified standard models, and although two of them succeeded in finishing, they were by no means so fast as the 4-cylinder Continental racing cars.
After 1908 the Grand Prix was abandoned for lack of support, and for the next three years virtually the only races run were for voiturettes and light cars, for which to begin with one cylinder was found to be more effective than any greater number, and for which even at the end of the period four cylinders were considered quite enough. When the Grand Prix was revived in 1912, there were plenty of British entries for the light-car race run in conjunction with it, but none for the Grand Prix proper. French manufacturers still stuck unswervingly to four cylinders, however large the engine concerned, and the only 6-cylinder representative in the race was thus the Belgian Excelsior. It acquitted itself quite creditably by finishing sixth, but although it had a capacity of over 9 litres, it was beaten by three of the 3-litre light cars.
These three light cars, it is hardly necessary to remark, were three Sunbeams, with side-valve 4-cylinder engines of 80 by 149 mm. directly developed from the standard 12-16 h.p. engine of 80 by 150 mm. In 1913 Sunbeams formulated designs on the Grand Prix itself, on this occasion run on a fuel consumption basis which seemed to permit an output of about 100 h.p. For this purpose Peugeot used a 5½-litre engine, with two overhead camshafts as in 1912, and Delage a 6¼-litre engine, with horizontal valves as in 1911. Sunbeam on the contrary decided to use a 4½-litre engine with side valves and six-cylinders—a 6-cylinder version, in fact, of the successful 1912 3-litre engine. Whether this was the result of choice or convenience it is rather hard to say. but although the Sunbeams were well up with the leaders throughout the race they were slightly slower than the Delages and Peugeots, and undoubtedly a fuel consumption race was not the ideal occasion on which to demonstrate the multi-cylinder principle.
In 1914 this formula was abandoned in favour of a capacity limit of 4½ litres, which should, on the contrary, have favoured a multiplicity of cylinders. Coatalen, the Sunbeam designer, had decided at this stage to abandon side valves in favour of the Peugeot double overhead-camshaft arrangement, and if this design had been applied to the 4½-litre 6-cylinder engine the results might have been very interesting. Unfortunately, however, he decided to adopt four cylinders along with the Peugeot valve mechanism, and the use of six cylinders in the race was left to Aquila Italiana—if, indeed, “use” is the right word in this connection, as only one of these Italian racers started, and that failed to complete the first lap. In view of the present-day concentration on four cylinders for acceleration and on six cylinders for speed, however, it is of interest to note that in 1914 the makers of the Aquila stated that the use of six cylinders was designed not to increase the car’s speed but its “accelerative qualities.” Therein, perhaps, lies the difference between four-and-a-half litres and two.
Apart from such theorists, however, all serious designers of racing engines were perfectly satisfied in 1914 with four cylinders, and it was experience of aero engines in the 1914-18 war which really directed attention to a multiplicity of cylinders for high efficiency purposes. This trend of thought, however, resulted in enthusiasm not for six cylinders, but for eight, arranged in line, largely owing to the success of Bugatti’s straight-eight design as applied to aero engines. Ballot, who had largely inherited the mantle of Peugeot, built a 300 cubic inch straight-eight racer for the 1919 Indianapolis race, and a 3-litre version of the same engine for the same race in 1920. The next year, 1921, saw the revival of Grand Prix racing in Europe, with a 3-litre capacity limit, and also saw the apotheosis of the straight-eight cult, which now numbered not only Ballot but Duesenberg, Sunbeam, Talbot, Darracq and Fiat among its devotees.
In 1922, however, the capacity limit for the Grand Prix was lowered to two litres, and although two new protagonists of the straight-eight engine came forward in the shape of Bugatti and Rolland-Pilain—if, indeed, Bugatti can be properly described as a newcomer in this field in which he was really the pioneer—none of the earlier exponents of the cult remained true to it. The 3-litre Fiat engine, in common with most of its contemporaries, had a bore and stroke of 65 by 112 mm, and it seemed to the Turin engineers that the simplest way to make a 2-litre of it was to leave the bore where it was, reduce the stroke to 100 mm., and discard two cylinders.
The 1922 Grand Prix Fiat was thus a six-cylinder, and it proved at least as successful as did the 2-litre Ferrari thirty years later; but this was an outstanding case of six cylinders being used more from convenience than choice. The design, moreover, proved much more successful than Fiat intended, for the next year Bertarione, who was responsible for it, took it with him to Sunbeams; and with very small modifications, including a slight adjustment to the bore and stroke, making them 67 by 94 mm., the design was again successful in 1923, although this time the winner was a green car from Wolverhampton.
The Grand Prix had thus been won with a six-cylinder engine two years in succession, but in 1923 Fiat, having by then had time to get around to it, had discarded their “six” in favour of a straight-eight; and although this new car was beaten at Tours, an Alfa-Romeo with a very similar engine beat the Sunbeam the next year at Lyons.
Thereafter, and even after the capacity limit had been further reduced in 1926 to 1½ litres, it became very unsmart to build a serious racing car with less than eight cylinders. In the case of racing cars which were the predecessors of the present Formula II machines, and which, therefore, were hardly considered serious in the days of Teutonic supremacy, the case was rather different. But in this field the successful E.R.A. had a six-cylinder engine because there was a six-cylinder Riley engine at hand for development, in just the same way as several present-day 2-litre British racing cars have six cylinders because the Bristol engine is at hand for development. Once again the use of six cylinders had been dictated by convenience rather than choice. On the other hand Gordini, Maserati and O.S.C.A. are presumably using this number of cylinders because they like it. As I have remarked before, present-day Grand Prix racing with unblown 2-litre cars is taking up the tale where it was interrupted in 1923 by Fiat with their supercharger. It will be curious if in 1953 the six-cylinder engine proves itself as superior to any of the alternatives as it did thirty years ago.