Re-Acquaintance with Agatha

The Editor Meets Again That Well-Known 1907 42 hp Renault

I first met "Agatha — That Scarlet Woman" 50 years ago. That is what she was called when the Mills brothers owned her, before the war. Before that, Marcus Chambers, who was then involved with vintage Bentleys, was offered this big Renault by a passing scrap-merchant who knew of his establishment in SW London.

He paid £15 for her, and at the time we thought she might be the 1906 GP-winning car, for although clothed in a crude body, with heavy mudguards and running-boards, the two bucket seats and semi-streamlined cowl over the rear petrol tank suggested sporting origins.

In fact, the four-cylinder side-valve engine has a bore and stroke of 130 x 140 nun (7,433 cc), and is of the same type as that in the Type Al, Series B and D cars, according to Karslake, whereas that of the Renault with which liaise won the Grand Prix was of 166 x 150 mm (12,970 cc). The engine of Marcus's Renault had not then been measured but the 42-rated hp gave it away, the GP engine's rating being 90 hp. It transpired that what Chambers had was a smaller 1907 replica of the GP car, of which a number were made by Renault Freres for sale in America, ostensibly at the urging of W. K. Vanderbilt, who had sponsored the Vanderbilt Cup races of 1906-16. They were advertised quite extensively in the American Press in the winter and spring of 1907 and that autumn Renault was able to list 11 prominent people who had bought these smaller GP duplicates, including Mr. Vanderbilt himself. They appeared in American races, winning at Morris Park and Brighton Beach, but today only three remain, one in the Harrah Collection in Reno, said to have belonged to the notorious New York stock broker Harry Payne-Whitney, another also in the USA, and in England the car under discussion, paistakingly restored in recent years by that great enthusiast David Harrison.

Of the winning GP Renault, the story is that it was bought by an Englishman for 55,000 francs who afterwards discovered that he had got, not the Szisz car, but another of the team, because Renault had considered that practice and the race had worn out the winning car, so they put its number on the car they had sold him. He complained, got what he wanted, and took the actual 1906 winner to Dieppe to see if Renault could again win the GP (Szisz in fact was 2nd.).

It is said that, sans differential, cornering was difficult and one evening the English owner, returning from dinner in Fecamp, hit a tree and was killed. After two years the Renault was auctioned, was used by famous French air-aces during the war, was sold afterwards for 5,500 francs, and was seen around Paris for some years, before it vanished, never to reappear…

The history of the David Harrison car is also rather obscure. It is thought to have been owned by Sir Harold Gilles after the 1914/18 war and there is a rumour that Lord Kimberley had it at one time – perhaps it was found by the scrapman in 1935 in a London mews? Anyway, Chambers bought it and I persuaded him to go to Shelsley Walsh in it. We had a more or less uneventful run but the cost in oil was startling! Marcus then opened the Aston Clinton speed-trials with it, such monsters being then almost forgotten, so that it caused quite a lot of interest. The VSCC promoted its Edwardian class in 1936 and having replaced the Renault carburetter with a downdraught SU and fitted a Speed Six Bentley throttle pedal, Chambers ran it in the Bugatti OC Chalfont hill-climb, being 2nd with a time of 30. 7 sec to Pole in the 12-litre 1908 GP ltala that had been found in a shed in Norfolk and bought for £25, which did 23.6 sec. Marcus then sold the Renault to the Mills Brothers, who had a small two­cylinder Renault and other aged cars. They raced it at Crystal Palace and Doningron, opened the course with it at the latter venue before the 1938 British Empire Trophy Race, ran it at VSCC Prescott (75.29 sec) with Clutton as the intrepid passenger, and got it up Shelsley Walsh in 81. 7 sec. in that year. In 1939 Chambers borrowed it for VSCC Prescott clocking 75.51 sec, and Heal drove it in the first Presteigne Rally, making STD in the hill climb.

After WW2 a Mr Dunn, who used to supply leather to Motor Sport’s printers, acquired the old Renault for £100 but did nothing with it, and when Mr Harrison heard that at last he would part with it, he hastily sold an 1899 De Dion Quad and his 3-litre Bentley and paid the price asked. The Renault, in very sorry condition, moved into his workshop beside his 1913 6½-litre Mitchell tourer for an extensive resuscitation. Here I would remark on what good hands the Renault is in, for David, who gained early experience of old cars as a boy, riding on his Uncle's 1900 Phebus-Aster, has had such cars as Marcos, Lotus, BMW, Ferrari, Jaguar, etc and is at present building up a racing 1½- litre straight-eight Type 26 Maserati.

So, 50 years after I had first encountered it, I drove to Leicestershire to remake acquaintance with this interesting Renault, finding it awaiting me outside Mr Harrison's house for all the world as if we had gone back nearly 80 years in time .... It is a high, lean car and differs in some respects from the 1906/7 GP cars, which, for instance, had lift-off instead of hinged bonnets, a thicker radiator block, and were lower, etc. Nevertheless, the resemblance is very valid. You have literally to climb up into the button-leather bucket seats, and the forward view is of the big radiator, the drop bonnet with its wire-mesh panels being completely out of sight. The openwork scuttle, the little tail, and the exhaust cut­out portray the Renault's sporting purpose.

The tail steering-column is unsupported, up to the five-spoke steering wheel, and originally its brass tube lifted and rotated, to operate a hand-throttle. There are absolutely no instruments, apart from a period Smiths rev-counter which David fitted, reading around 800 rpm at fast cruising pace, the engine going to 1,200 rpm if pressed. One is confronted by the huge Renault Freres lubricator (No 29055) with a central glass sight-tube and five drip-feeds, of which the two on the left, for axle and gearbox, are unused, the other three feeding the main engine-bearings, from which ingenious rings on each crank-web feed the big-ends under centrifugal force. The small filler is on the right, a flow-control adjuster on the left. David at first used gallons of oil on a long run, but has now reduced this to mere pints...

The chassis is sprung on rear-shackled ½-elliptic springs, damped with enormous piston-type Ernst Flentjner's "shockpreventers", patented, it says, in September 1909. Those at the front are attached at the top to elegant brackets but the inboard back ones are rather crudely clamped round the axle. It was amusing to see the piston-rods moving as the front wheels rode the bumps. The original wood spokes of the wheels were restorable but the chassis .was in a sorry state, with a broken cross-member. The front wheels carry 875 x 105 herringbone Dunlops, the back wheels 880x 120s, with three spare tyres strapped on behind. The radiator holds some nine gallons and has a large o/s drain tap, as on the GP cars. The copper fuel-tank beneath the lidded tail holds about 12 gallons and its tiny filler-cap is inscribed with No 7009. Below it is a recess containing a lead pellet, relic perhaps of some scrutineer's seal?

Harrison replaced the SU carburetter, at first with one from a Benz, but now a Renault carburetter is again fitted, low down on the o/s, feeding to the two-branch bronze inlet manifold on the n/s over the top of the Paired cylinder blocks, the piping joints of copper. On the n/s also is the four-branch exhaust manifold, the tail pipe incorporating a very large silencer, so that the car is almost too quiet with the cut-out shut! Incidentally, it is interesting that No 224 is stamped on many of the components, such as on the gear wheels in the vast gearbox, corresponding to the engine number, which is 224/472. A cross-shaft at the front of the engine drives a Bosch D2R magneto on the o/s and a large separate distributor on the n/s, a typically Renault arrangement, the plug leads being led through a copper conduit.

The narrow cockpit has the accelerator pedal hung outboard of the floor, but this is quite comfortable to operate. The gear change, of quadrant type, is, however, extremely difficult until mastered, but the clutch grips firmly. The brake-pedal works on the transmission, the large drum finned, and the car is steadied with this, serious retardation (and the brakes are quite surprisingly good) being done with the hand-applied rear wheel brakes. Even when it was in a rough state, this fine 7.4-litre Renault was good for quite 65 mph and it is now a fast car indeed, but tiring to drive for distances of over 100 miles. After some fine motoring over the Leicestershire by roads, we spared a thought for Szisz and his mechanic, who had averaged 63 mph for the 770 miles of the 1906 GP, aided by detachable rims as the tyres burst, but finishing with a broken back spring. David Harrison's smaller car, with those same detachable rims on the varnished wheel spokes, is redolent of the might of racing in the old days, being well balanced through fast bends but lively on bumpy roads, its handling of a quality only to be expected of a car built so long ago. The car is now reliable for long road runs, wears bicycle lamps on its rear lamp-brackets for local outings, weighs 23 cwt, and gives about 12 mpg. It was said to have had an automatic advance-and-retard at one time, but now a little floor lever covers this function, swinging the engine being possible by using the half-compression lever that partially lifts the exhaust valves with wedges driven under their cam-followers. The Reg No is CL (Norwich) 1493, and a little medallion says the Renault was registered under New York Motor Vehicle Law as No 48535. It wears red livery (with black upholstery), as did Szisz's GP winning Renault...

I greatly enjoyed meeting this unique car again and could say (as I apparently once did at the age of ten after a trip on the pillion of a fast Indian motorcycle) that a quick blast in the full force of the unbroken air along the country roads of Leicestershire, made me "feel years younger..."! Certainly it has been good to see this Renault in action again in VSCC events. It made its reappearance, in racing trim, at VSCC Prescott in 1983 (113.64 sec) and David clocked 73.21s there in 1984 and 73.97s there this year in the wet, driving the car some 200 miles to and from the course.

It seems to go very well to me, although its owner says it is not a particularly good hill-climber. But as a way of recapturing the great days of motoring on what uncongested roads are left, it has few equals and it can chalk up surprisingly high average speeds, under favourable conditions. — W.B.