A Daimler at Shelsley Walsh

The Editor Investigates a Big Edwardian in an Appropriate Setting

The Daimler Motor Company, founded in January 1896, with premises in a disused mill in Coventry, was one of the very first motor manufacturers in this country. It commenced making primitive horseless-carriages to the better of the several patterns prevailing at the time, using two-cylinder, 4 h.p. tube-ignition engines of German Daimler conception. However, the power of these pioneer British Daimlers was soon increased, and by 1898 a four-cylinder 8 h.p. model was available, followed by a 12 h.p. four-cylinder Daimler the following year. After the Company had been reconstituted it forged ahead, to hold a high place among British motor-car constructors, aided immeasurably by the patronage of the British Royal Family, headed by King Edward VII.

All this history has been told before, in two admirable books and in these columns. The crux of it was that the Daimler was a premier-make even after the challenge from Rolls-Royce and it remained the Royal Car until quite recent times. From the sporting point of view the ever-bigger-engined, poppet-valve Daimlers proved very nearly invincible in the pre-1914 hill-climbs and speed-trials, even if less successful in the few races for which they were entered. This ended when a new Board decided that more refinement was essential, if the make was to continue as the Royal motor-carriage, and in 1909 was persuaded to abandon poppet valves for the American Knight double-sleeve-valve engine. These very quiet, worm-drive “valveless” Daimlers are the kind best remembered when enthusiasts look back to the earlier days of this renowned make and the big poppet-valve Daimlers tend, I think, to be forgotten, and are in any case, comparatively rare.

I had known for a long time that the City of Coventry Art Gallery and Museum had in its keeping a ferocious specimen of the poppet-valve type of Daimler just referred to, of considerable literage. Andrew Whyte had taken me to see it, and Peter Mitchell, then Senior Keeper of Industry and Technology at the Museum, had promised me that one day, when its mechanicals had been resuscitated, I could not only have a drive in this exciting Edwardian monster but that we should take it to the Shelsley Walsh hill-climb venue, where Daimlers of this kind made such a good showing when the first meetings took place there.

I waited patiently, enquiring from time to time as to the health of the brute, and this year it all came about, as Peter had promised. He has gone on to the responsible task of looking after BL Heritage Ltd., that new organisation which so praiseworthily cares for the preservation of all the historic vehicles owned by British Leyland, and the documents and photographs, etc. appertaining to them, but he kept an official eye on this Motor Sport project of uniting the Yellow Daimler with Shelsley Walsh, after Mike Bullivant had paved the way, and Mark Joseland, Secretary of the Midland Automobile Club, and his Press Secretary, had obtained permission for us to use the famous hill. Not only that, but Rupert Instone, son of the late Mr. E. M. C. Instone, General Manager of the Daimler Company at the appropriate time, and a Vice-President of the MAC, came along to see the old Daimler in action again, after having himself driven it there in 1955, and, of course, having been a prominent Shelsley Walsh competitor in more modern machinery such as his GN “Martyr” and the “Frazer Nash Terror”, etc.

Before we look in detail at the old motor-car, it will be advisable to put it, and the pre-1914 competition achievements of the Daimler Motor Company, into perspective. As I have said, the engines of these poppet-valve Daimlers tended to get larger and larger. Unfortunately, the loss of the Company’s records in the German “blitz” on Coventry during World War Two has made it very difficult for historians to be sure of their facts. But it seems that by 1903 a 22 h.p. 4 1/2-litre model was in the Daimler catalogue. By 1905 the 7.2-litre 30/40 h.p. Daimler was in production, for those turning to that new pursuit of the Edwardian wealthy, Continental long-distance touring at express-train speeds — or thereabouts. This powerful Daintier model was followed in about 1906 by cars engined with 9 1/2-litre and 10.6-litre power units. Such cars were consistently fine performers in the sprint contests of the time. For instance, the 134 x 150 mm. so-called 35-h.p. cars made best time at Middle House Hill, Welbeck, Blackpool, where they beat much larger Darracq, Itala and Mercedes cars, Longleat, Rivington Pike, Frome, Star Hill, Aston Clinton and many other venues, not forgetting their very impressive showing at Shelsley Walsh. Often these big Daimlers would win on Formula as well as on speed alone and other of the larger models from the Company’s complicated horse-power range were almost equally successful. Moreover, the cars were quite frequently entered, and even driven, by high-ranking officials of the Daimler Company, like Mr. Instone and Mr. Percy Martin. This was the case particularly at Shelsley Walsh.

When the Midland Automobile Club held its first meeting at this private hill in 1905 — thus making it the oldest continuous motoring competition in the World, run at a course very little altered today from what it was like nearly 75 years ago — the Formula mattered more than sheer speed, this being calculated on a complex system in which load-carrying played a vital part. The Daimler Company entered works 35 h.p. chain drive cars for Instone and Martin, and other Daimlers, a 28 h.p. and a 30 h.p. were driven by Grigg and (entrant Percy Martin) by Street. The results would have been overwhelmingly in favour of the Daimlers, had this been a pure speed hill-climb. Instone made best time, in 77.6 seconds, Birtwistle was second on his 35 h.p. Daimler, in 78.2 seconds, Martin was third, in 89.0 seconds, and Street was fourth, in 89.4 seconds. On Formula the winner was a 6 h.p. De Dion, which ascended in 289.6 seconds (!) but the Daimlers of Martin and Birtwistle were placed second and third, Instone fifth, on Formula. There were the usual discrepancies in the declared engine sizes which plague historians, Birtwistle having apparently bored out his 35 h.p. engine by one millimetre, to 135 mm. Instone’s Daimler weighed out at 30 3/4 cwt., whereas the other three were heavier by some 1 3/4 cwt. each. In 1906 this Shelsley Walsh success was repeated, for although a White steamer, entered for the speed contest only, made best time, with a climb in 80.6 seconds, the 35 h.p. Daimlers of Instone, Bolton, Street (entered by Instone) and Holder being second, third, fourth and fifth on time (although competing more seriously in the Formula class) in 86.2, 88.6, 88.8 and 91.4 seconds, respectively. Incidentally, this time all the Daimler 35 h.p. engines were declared as of 134 x 150 mm. bore and stroke, and of 40.21 rated horse-power.

By 1907 the 45 h.p. 150 x 150 mm. Daimler had arrived, and for 1908 there was the even more exciting 58 h.p. 154 x 140 mm. car, all with four cylinders. In 1907, at Shelsley Walsh, the Daimlers had to give best to an 80 h.p. Berliet and to a 60 h.p. Napier on speed alone, in the Open event, but Barwick’s 58 h.p. Daimler was second to a 60 h.p. Napier in 1908. Sufficient has now been said for you to see why it was so appropriate, and such a happy occasion (to which the weather in Worcestershire responded magnificently) to take the Coventry Museum/BL Heritage Ltd. Daimler to Shelsley Walsh for our sampling of it.

In racing, such as Kaiserpreis (for which special cars with pointed radiators were built, driven by Bush, Hodierne and Ison), the Herkomer Trophy and Vanderbilt Cup events, Daimlers were not so successful, but at the opening Meeting of the then-new Brooklands Motor Course in July 1907 Ernest Instone, driving a stripped 45 h.p. 150 x 150 mm. car with just two-seats, the mechanics occupied by young Tommy Robinson from the Daimler running-sheds, won the 650-sov. Gottlieb Daimler Memorial Plate race very easily indeed, from a Darracq.

It is apparent that the Daimler we took to Shelsley Walsh last month is not the car on which Mr. Instone made the first course-record there in 1905, because the Reg. No. of it was DU 578, whereas the Museum car carries the Coventry-registration DU 541. Just before that I made acquaintance with it some photographs came to light, showing a Mrs. Manville driving the car at Brighton, long before the First World War. Now Mr. Edward Manville became a Daimler Director in 1902, when Mr. Instone was General Manager, and as Sir Edward Manville, JP, he was to be the Daimler Chairman for 27 years. It seems likely, therefore, that of the two works cars, his was delivered to him just before Mr. Instone’s. Whether it ever went to Shelsley Walsh, or ran there in competitions, I do not know, although it seems very probable. Indeed, there is confusion as to exactly which type of Daimler this is. It used to be referred to as a 35 h.p. of about 1905/6, I believe, but in the Museum catalogue and in a recent BL Heritage brochure (the latter has “Show-Biz” associations not necessarily to our liking but permissible because the entirely laudable care of all these old British motor vehicles requires money, which has to be earned by them from promotional and advertising engagements), the car is described as “a 1904/5 10-litre”. I think it more likely to be one of the 35 h.p. cars of circa 1906, with the 134 x 150 mm. (8,462 c.c.) 45 h.p, engine. 150 x 150 mm. cars came in mid-1906 and if Brian Smith, the Daimler historian, is correct, this model had the four cylinders in one block, whereas the Museum car has paired cylinders. Although I do not think the VCC accepts the Daimler as a 1904 car, which might enliven a Brighton Run, I feel it is likely that it was made in 1906 as the wood and flitch plate chassis frames were retained by Daimler until about 1905, and of 35 h.p.; it is a great pity the engine was not measured when it was being rebuilt. . . . If I am right in these assumptions, we took to Shelsley Walsh a Daimler of the very type that Mr. Instone drove to victory there 74 years ago.

That this was very probably a works car is suggested because for years it languished, admittedly uncared for, at the Daimler factory. It was awoken in 1955, when it was suggested to Rupert Instone, son of Ernest Instone who left The Daimler in 1921 to form the famous concern of Stratton Instone Ltd., with its Daimler Air-Line and Daimler Hire connections, his son living with him in Pall Mall, London in the 1930s, that he should run the old Daimler at the Shelsley Walsh Jubilee Meeting that August. He was competing with the GN “Martyr” but agreed to add the old warrior to the Edwardian contingent. He found it in this poor condition, and its engine very difficult to hand-start. Taking with him someone who could crank-up the big engine, Instone bravely drove it from Coventry to the hill. Alas, on the practice ascent the fan shed a blade (you can still see the repair-weld) which went through the radiator.

After that the car was cleaned up and went the round of the motor museums, being for a time at Beaulieu (the 1963 Guide to which gave it as a 1907 35 h.p. but quoted the engine size as 140 x 150 mm. and 9,237 c.c.). It was then taken to the Coventry Art Gallery and Museum in 1967 and has recently been rebuilt, under the supervision of Mike Bullivant. This was a long and difficult task. Those who did the work were Barry Mapperson, Robert Riley, and two chaps, Leslie Sayers and Geoffrey Hall, from the Government Job Creation Scheme (other museums may care to note), who tackled the re-paint, using Tekaloid paint which the Museum favours.

After the great yellow car had arrived in the Paddock on a trailer behind the Museum’s Land-Rover I was able to inspect closely this very impressive example of an Edwardian fast-tourer. It follows the conventional pattern of the time, with a steel channel-section chassis frame. There are half-elliptic springs all round, those at the front shackled to the rear, those for the back-axle shackled at each end, as was customary with chain final-drive. Incidentally, the yellow paint scheme is carried to the springs, brake drums, etc., complete with the black lining on the springs. The wooden wheels are non-detachable, shod with Dunlop 880 x 120 tyres, with a spare tyre on the o/s running board. The steering track-rod is ahead of the I-section front axle.

The engine is an L-head side-valve unit with, as I have pointed out, the enormous cylinder blocks paired. The valves on the n/s, operated by an exposed camshaft, driven by exposed “mangle-wheel” timing gears at the back of the crankcase. Jaguar’s supplied a replacement nylon pinion for the rebuild. There are plain, rather small brass valve caps, and the valves appear to be slightly inclined in the heads. On this side, too, is the impressively large Daimler carburetter. Originally it was fed by exhaust pressure, but these days an electric pump, discreetly hidden down by the battery, has taken over, in place of the original messy and dangerous fuel feed — but all praise to Roger Collings for retaining this form of petrol supply (and l.t. ignition) on his 1903 Sixty Mercedes, and who finds this original equipment satisfactory for racing, hillclimbs, trials, driving-tests, the Brighton Run or just for touring. . . .

The Daimler’s exhaust pipes, again not over-large, merge from each exhaust-port into two separate pipes, that from the front cylinder block running forward, that from the rear block backwards, to join the main horizontal exhaust pipe just before the silencer; the tail-pipe crosses over the o/s side of the car and there is a cut-out just before the main pipe enters the silencer.

On the o/s a long shaft, extending forward from the timing gears, drives the big Simms-Bosch Type D4 magneto and continues forward to drive the water-pump. The water pipes are of surprisingly small bore. Ignition is by trembler-coil and magneto, with two plugs per cylinder, a large contact-breaker for the former being driven by a vertical shaft at the n/s front of the engine. The magneto step-down gears, like the timing-gears, are fully exposed. A whittle-belt-driven six-bladed fan runs behind the imposing Daimler radiator, with its ribbed top tank and 20 vertical gilled tubes.

The drive goes through a leather-lined cone clutch — treated from time to time with neatsfoot oil, as it can get exceedingly fierce, this oil, by the way, being still obtainable from a shop in Coventry — which is enclosed in a circular casing. The chassis-mounted combined four-speed gearbox and differential is enclosed in a huge aluminium casing, from which the side chains drive the back wheels. These chains are neatly kept out of sight under small curved metal covers ahead of the back mudguards.

This Daimler must have been built by hand in the works beside Coventry canal when old Wormald, whom I mentioned last month, was the Shop Foreman, a Frenchman called Charles looked after the building of the coachwork, and the finished chassis were fitted with slave two-seater bodies and tested from a running-shed which was in the charge of Bush Snr., the route taking in the Coventry-Kenilworth road. The tool-room Foreman would no doubt have been Needle, and if repair jobs came in they were looked after by Mortiboy. The Daimler Buying Department was then under W. H. Proctor, with Molly Swain as his secretary, and Henson looked after the Drawing Office. Working hours were from 6 a.m. to 6 p.m. . . . It was under those people, and these conditions, that these great Daimlers were built.

They have been described as crude, John Bolster calling the big four-cylinder chain-driven model cars of “considerable performance but little refinement”. Be that as it may, and the design was somewhat out-dated within a few years of the appearance of the car we are concerned with here, I do not remember noticing the usual vibration of steering wheel and mudguards when the Museum car’s engine was running, although in noise level it may have been lagging behind by 1907, and it must, I suppose by then, have been regarded as rather a heavy, ungainly-looking monster.

The body is a four-seater with comfortable bucket-shape front seats, the n/s one of which lifts and swivels to give access to the back compartment. By the “Daimler” inscriptions on the scuttle and body plates, it was made by Daimler’s themselves, I would think.

Climbing aboard, through the n/s front door to avoid squeezing past the spare tyre and the r.h. levers, the small five-spoke wheel is found to be at the end of a long unsupported brass column, and now an advanced feature becomes apparent — there are only two pedals. This is explained because the single control-lever above the centre of the steering wheel originally acted not only as a hand-throttle, in lieu of a foot-accelerator, but simultaneously advanced both coil and magneto ignition as the throttle was opened. Control is thus very simple, especially as there is no instrument panel. Under the typical curved Daimler dash you find three big-bore glass drip-feeds for the oil supply to the main bearings and cylinder bores, a little “lavatory-chain” having to be pulled to refill them. Beside these drip-feeds, to the right, is a sight-feed for oil and petrol pressure, now provided below it with a tiny gauge. In the centre a hinged brass hand-pump looks after such pressure, and to its left is a blunt lever that looks after carburetter mixture strength. On the extreme left there is a square-cased speedometer, made by S. Smith & Son of 9 Strand, London, to patent 280-6985, driven by a protruding enclosed-cable drive from the o/s front wheel. Apart from some modern switches on the o/s of the body sill, that is all you have to worry about, so far as minor controls are concerned.

The gear lever is the expected long “signal-box” affair inside the body on the right. It has a normal H-gate but is spring-loaded into neutral, and possesses tiny toothed pawls that move with it, and thus lock each gear in place. A much smaller inside lever selects reverse and the outside brake lever moves forward to apply metal-to-metal back-wheel brakes, in wide but not over-large unribbed drums. The pedals have “Daimler-Coventry” readable on their treads, the brake pedal applying a Ferodo-lined transmission brake. Equipment embraces a single-pane windscreen, a luggage grid over the rear-slung petrol tank (this had to be replaced with a new tank, holding perhaps 20 gallons of fuel, and a new water pump had to be made at the same time), big screw-down greasers for the transmission countershaft, and enormous — some of the biggest I have seen — CAV Model-G Electric Headlamps for night motoring. There used to be oil side-lamps but these have been replaced with vintage electric lamps. For access to the chassis the entire back of the body can be hinged upwards.

Having inspected this very interesting motor-car it was time to drive it. The engine is cranked up from a handle supported by the cross-bar between the front dumb-irons. It commences with a fine rumble of gears and exhaust and when it was warm I tried a climb of the famous hill. Bottom gear was used all the way and there was never any doubt that we would reach the top, at a good pace. Indeed, the engine could be throttled back for the corners and would respond splendidly to the throttle lever, unless this were opened too quickly, too far, when mis-firing resulted. The clutch engaged quite smoothly and showed no sign of slipping.

Returning down the gradient, the back brakes got hot enough to scorch the paint on their drums, so on the next descent we used the Land-Rover, tied on behind as an anchor. Mike Bullivant then tried an ascent. We were four up, as they would have been in 1905 and while no special attempt at speed was intended, on what was the Daimler’s first serious outing since its rebuild, we were at the Esses in 62 seconds, and crossed the finishing line in approximately 104 seconds, although several seconds were lost when the driver missed his change trying to get from first into second gear near the top of the hill. The old car has plenty of impressive power and I look forward to seeing more of it, and am glad to learn that it will continue to be an inmate of the Coventry Museum, where ambitious extensions are expected to be finished before the end of next year. My thanks to all concerned for making this experience possible. — W.B.