The mystery of the Wolseley Viper

Ever since the Roger Collings built his Mercedes-Maybach in the tradition of Count Zborowski’s Chitty-Bang-Bangs, aero-engined cars have been in the news, and those inspired to study their history will have come across Alastair Miller’s Wolseley Viper.

There was a story that the Prince of Wales had asked Miller how his racing was progressing. Miller told him what he needed was a big chassis into which he could put an aero-engine, for the fast Lightning Handicaps at the Track. To which the Prince is supposed to have said that there was a big Napier shooting-brake at Sandringham which he would arrange for Miller to collect. This was supposed to be the basis of the Wolseley Viper, the identity of its chassis disguised because Miller was Wolseley’s Competition Manager! The ‘Viper’ corresponded to the Hispano-Suiza V8 aero-engine of the type produced by Wolseley. (At first an Hispano engine was used but after it was damaged an actual 11.7-litre Wolseley Viper V8 was substituted).

This delightful story’s sequel was that the Prince of Wales again met Miller and said “For Goodness sake don’t let my Father (King George V) hear of this; he has been complaining the Napier was more comfortable than his present shooting-brake and is asking what became of it!” Not sure whether this was an apocryphal tale, asked the Duke of Windsor’s secretary to enquire whether the Duke could recall any of this? I was surprised to receive a reply saying the Duke did not remember Miller or the Napier, and that his father always had Daimlers.

That seemed to wrap it up, though I had a lingering doubt; after all, it was a long time ago and the Duke had had the unhappy Abdication years to dull his memory. Or suppose it was a guest’s Napier that had broken down and been left at Sandringham; it is conceivable that, after the war, it could have been abandoned there.

There was another possible origin of the Viper which, if less romantic, could have had important connotations.

Miller told me that, before the old Napier chassis was used for racing, new gears were made for its ‘box and a new crown-wheel and pinion put into the back axle. The significance is that this was a two-speed gearbox. This may not have been the most suitable for short races but Miller would not have relished the cost of designing a new box; no doubt he felt an aero-engine’s power and the fact that handicaps were assessed on individual capability would offset any disadvantage in initial acceleration.

An interesting idea is that the Viper’s chassis might not have been a royal shooting-brake, but that of the famous Napier L48 itself because no other Napier had only two speeds. Napier L48 was designed for the 1904 Gordon Bennett race, with a 15.1-litre six-cylinder engine, at a time when engines with this amount of cylinders were entirely innovative. The length of this unit left little room in a chassis appropriate to racing over the Taunus road circuit and its weight had to comply with GB regulations. So designer Rowledge decided a compact two-speed gearbox must suffice. ‘Samson’ L48 became a very famous racing car indeed. It made FTD in the 1904 Portmarnock speed-trials and was timed at 104.65 (an unofficial LSR) at the 1905 Florida Speed Week. At the Brighton speed-trials it set a British kilometre record of 97.25mph, and at Blackpool L48 equalled the kilometre record of 104.53mph. In ’06 it won the American Minneapolis Cup, and was used by Miss Dorothy Levitt to make a ‘British Ladies’ Record’ at Skegness. Brooklands was well suited to the very fast L48. In 1908, now rebuilt with a 20-litre engine and named ‘Samson’ L48 opened up at the new Motor Course by winning the 90hp race from Resta’s Mercedes. Whit Monday saw the famed race between Nazzaro’s FIAT ‘Mephistopheles’ and Newton on ‘Samson’ but the latter’s crankshaft broke. In August, Newton won the Second Montagu Cup race and took the O’Gorman trophy race. ‘Samson’ also set several records at Brooklands, during which it was said to have attained 130mph and a timed ½-mile at 119.34mph.

S F Edge’s racing team was then disbanded and L48 put up for sale. With no takers, it languished at Napier’s Acton works for a long time. One report says it was broken up, another that it was bought by Warwick Wright, its engines going to Australia for use in racing boats.

If the latter is correct, could not Miller have found but not recognised L48’s chassis, which became the basis for the Wolseley Viper? The Viper’s Brooklands’ score was four firsts, six seconds, FM at the Westcliffe speedtrials, two class records and a best lap of 112.68mph. Reverting to the possible restriction of a two-speed gearbox, it is notable that the L48 in 1908 and the Viper in 1922 were used only for long standing-start record-bids…

Alas, I have had to abandon this theory as David Venables has told me there is clear visual evidence that the chassis frames used for L48 in 1905 and 1908 differ from that of the Viper. How then to explain Viper’s two-speed gearbox?! do not think a non-Napier gearbox was used because Miller told me how they had installed a Crossley clutch, and when that failed, put in a Hele-Shaw clutch obtained from Zborowski; so he would no doubt have mentioned a change of gearbox. No, I assume he scrapped the worn gears and reassembled the ‘box as a two-speed. Or perhaps it was thus when he obtained the old chassis, the change having been made after an earlier failure. If this chassis had come from Sandringham, two speeds might have been sufficient fir taking guests to the butts, even on royal occasions.

Be that as it may, after its racing career was over, Avon used the ageing Viper for tyre testing. Then in 1931 Miller offered it to me for £25 complete with new tyres. I was tempted, realising that when others were taking girls up in aeroplanes, I could offer a few fast laps of the Track. Shed rent at Brooklands was modest and the tyres should have lasted a month or two. But I couldn’t raise £25 and, like the L48, the Viper vanished without trace.