Elusive Talbot

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The recent Brooks Auction Sale of aeronautica and automobilia included papers and pictures from the collection of the late Georges Roesch. Among the interesting items in this sale of the great Talbot designer’s effects was a picture of a little Talbot racing car, which has always been something of a mystery to me. The picture concerned has, so far as I know, only appeared in print once, when The Autocar published it, in September 1924, accompanied by the caption: “As has been announced already, Mr F W Shortland has returned lately to Clement-Talbot Ltd, with which he was so long associated, as sales manager. He is seen in a special 10/23 hp Talbot, which has been prepared for competition in various hillclimbs.” The photograph shows the gentleman sitting in a nice-looking little car with cowled radiator, short-tailed single-seater body, outside handbrake, wire wheels with knock-off hub-caps, and streamlined fairings, rather like those used by Capt A G Miller for his Wolseley Moth racing cars, for the mountings of its ¼ elliptic rear springs. The picture in the sale catalogue is slightly different from that published in 1924, but was almost certainly taken at the same time.

Nothing very mysterious here, you may say. Except that I have never been able to discover that Mr Shortland, or anyone else for that matter, ran this little Talbot in speed trials or in any other kinds of competition. Now when in doubt about matters associated with the Roesch Talbots, one consults the ‘bible’ of the late Anthony Blight (Grenville, 1970) or the learned outpourings of James Fack. If you read the former you will see that Blight was quite convinced that no car, not even a Rolls-Royce or a Bentley, was so well engineered as those London-built Talbots…

Well, Blight does refer to how Georges Roesch, having improved Louis Coatalen’s lively little 8/18 hp Talbot into the four-seater 10/23 hp chassis and after good sales following its debut at the 1922 Motor Show, set about developing a more powerful 1100 cc power-unit which was the test-bed, as it were, for his subsequently famous 14/45 hp and larger Talbot motor cars. This engine, Blight tells us, developed an astonishing 56 bhp at an equally astonishing 6000 rpm, with the help of George Day, head of the Ladbroke Grove experimental department (from which, in later times, those very successful sports-racing Talbots were to emerge), and would stand up to 7500 rpm for brief periods. Truly remarkable, when racing engines, even those built for Grand Prix racing, hardly attained such crankshaft speeds.

James Fack tells me that the high output of this experimental Q 10 engine was obtained by using enormous ports and valves, a compression ratio as high as 8.5 to 1, a counter-balanced crankshaft with massive webs and superb tubular con-rods. It is also thought that a centrifugal blower was employed, driven directly off the front of the crankshaft, running at engine speed, perhaps more to increase gas velocity through the big ports rather than to provide true forced induction. But if this was so it was surely against the principles of Roesch, who never used supercharging to improve engine efficiency in his competition cars?

To prove that this wonderful little push-rod ohv engine was no freak, Roesch put it into an 8/18 chassis with a single-seater body “which Segrave put round Brooklands at over 90mph”. This must be the car in which the newly reappointed Clement-Talbot sales manager had elected to be photographed. What is mysterious is why that was, so far as I can ascertain, the only publicity it ever received. By 1924 Major H D Segrave was our most famous racing driver, having driven the first British car, the two-litre Sunbeam, ever to win the French GP, at Tours in 1923. Moreover, 90mph was an excellent lap speed for an 1100 cc car at Brooklands, even in single-seater form, although it has to be said that before the close of the 1922 season J A Joyce had recorded a lap at 103.54 mph in the single-seater AC; but that was a 1.5-litre car.

The power output of this Roesch 1100 was astonishing. It can be compared to that of the racing AC in its ultimate 1922 form (55 bhp) and the 12/50 Alvis which won the 1923 JCC 200 Mile Race (just under 70 bhp at 4400 rpm). Both were, of course, 1.5-litre cars. Nearer home, the special twin overhead-camshaft 1.5-litre Talbot engine, designed by Bertarione for Segrave to use at Brooklands in 1925 and built in Talbot’s London works, which took class records at up to 114.71 mph, gave only 17 more bhp at 5000 rpm, before it was supercharged, than Roesch’s 1100 at the same crankshaft speed.

It was all so promising! So why was nothing more heard of this brave little car? The 8/18 Talbot was seen in many trials, speed trials and hillclimbs. Indeed, E R Hall, who was to become so successful with Bentley, MG and other cars, cut his racing teeth on a very standard-looking 970cc 8/18, C J Randall raced another at Brooklands which eventually, with a streamlined body, lapped at 70.74mph, and the Talbot Simmins was campaigned in sprints. Indeed, they were excellent small cars, as I well know from owning one for many years (just running again, after a rebore), although I would not quibble about the following Blight observation: “There’s was no doubt that the 8/18 Talbot was extremely fast, reaching 45 mph in the second of its three gears and encouraging the proud owner to sail past all his friends on the straight at a speed in the upper ’50s; but humiliation followed swiftly, the moment a corner loomed ahead, for a real battle with the steering wheel was then bound to develop. The trouble was that the drag of the solid back-axle was too much for the little car to shrug off, inducing chronic ‘understeer’ which was as wearing to the tyres as to the driver’s wrists, and which could under extreme provocation cause breakages of the bolts securing the springs to the chassis.”

Anyone who has failed to read Blight has missed a wonderful account, not only of the Roesch Talbot saga, but about car design of the I 920s and 1930s, together with splendid accounts of the important races and international trials of those days; there is even a graphic description of the early morning scenes at a JCC Double 12-Hour race; although Anthony once confessed to me that he had never been to Brooklands…

Alas, this great one-make history does not tell us why this promising 8/18 single-seater Talbot never appeared in public. Even if Roesch was not then ready to indulge in competition forays, as he was to do so very convincingly (especially in Blight’s estimation!) later on, one would have thought that, after Segrave, someone, even Mr Shortland, who was proud to be photographed in it, might have given this promising racing car some further exercise. But apparently not. A strange case of the Talbot that vanished.

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