It rained. It was misty. Just like in 1922. Paul Fearnley gets a realism overload on the Isle of Man TT course in Chassagne’s winning machine. Photography by Ian Dawson
Face stinging. Soaked to the skin. But pressing on. Despite there being only nine entries — three Sunbeams, three Bentleys and three Vauxhalls — and Jean Chassagne being in one of the fastest of them, the 1922 RAC Tourist Trophy was no sinecure for the Frenchman. His Sunbeam team-mate Henry Segrave had set the pace, but when he clunked to a halt with a puncture and pitted for a spare Dunlop, as well as fuel and oil, Chassagne skittered past to lead on the road — and on time.
That fourth lap had, according to The Autocar, seen the race “descend into a zenith of misery”. On Thursday June 22, keyed-up racers awoke to windows drummed by incessant rain and the Sunbeam team, everyone’s favourite, was in disarray. It was the last to arrive at the start above Douglas. And it arrived a car short. Kenelm Lee Guinness, the 1914 TT winner, had been forced into the spare because of engine trouble on his race car. He pronounced himself happy with his new mount — until its clutch failed as he left the team’s Fort Anne Hotel base.
The grid was awash with rain and activity. Chassagne swapped from ribbed tyres to Dunlop’s newest traction-treads, and with 10 minutes to go was rebalancing his front wheels. The Isle of Man’s roads had been improved greatly from the two-rut tracks of its 1904 Gordon Bennett Trial, but the famous section over Snaefell was still a loose surface, and the roads which were sealed were now smeared with mud.
Only Segrave seemed unmoved. Statuesque in the cockpit, he tore into the conditions. Third away, he’d caught the Vauxhall and Bentley that had started ahead of him by Sulby Crossroads, halfway into the 37.75-mile lap. His 57.7mph average from a standing start would remain the fastest in this 302-mile encounter.
Chassagne, two minutes adrift, had expected this and was content to play the anchor role. He was an established part of Sunbeam’s French spine: chief engineer was Brittany-born Louis Coatalen; the designer of this car’s 3-litre engine was Swiss Ernest Henry of pre-war Peugeot fame. As a professional racer, Chassagne would happily peddle his skills — he drove for Peugeot and Ballot in 1921 — but he owed a lot to Coatalen, who had given him his break in the 1913 French GP at Amiens, where Chassagne repaid his faith with third place.
Sunbeam, therefore, was close to Chassagne’s heart. And now, as he roared towards the team’s signalling station at Hillberry, at the end of the four-mile descent to Douglas, he realised he was its only hope for a vital victory. ‘Segrave out!’ intoned the message. The American-born Englishman had misfired to a halt in Ramsey’s Parliament Square, a contact-breaker having failed in one of the magnetos. The on-board kit did not include a spare, and the 1384ft ascent to Brandywell on four cylinders was an impossible task.
The pressure on Chassagne was immense: Sunbeam sought redemption after its disappointments of 1921, when its ambitious plan to build 10 cars for attacks on the Indianapolis 500 and French GP had come unstuck. Outshone by the Frontenacs and Duesenbergs at The Brickyard in May, it withdrew its seven-car entry from the July GP, citing a coal strike as the reason. But the truth was that Sunbeam had overreached itself and was underprepared. Political pressure saw it run four cars at Le Mans — two as Talbots, two as Talbot-Darracqs (it had merged with these companies in 1920) — but ignition and tyre troubles meant a best finish of fifth.
With the GP limit trimmed to two litres for 1922, the TT provided a rare opportunity for the 3-litre to grab some glory… But could Chassagne keep it on the island?
I am experiencing a microcosm of Chassagne’s predicament. Accelerating from The Gooseneck, the tight right that leads you from Ramsey onto the Mountain proper, I reach for second. The lever is a blend of engineering and aesthetics: a shapely forging crowned by a snooker ball-sized wooden knob which provides a satisfying tactile experience. Except when it’s slick with rain. It’s mounted outside the bodywork and my gloved hand slips off it. I find myself marooned in neutral and off the cams.
Potential problems lie around every corner of this epic circuit — even in the dry. Its scale dwarfs the ‘Ring’s Nordschleife; its challenge is hemmed in by every natural hazard — including fog. Like Chassagne, I nose that lucky horseshoe-adorned rad into the mist. Unlike Chassagne, the surface beneath my narrow Dunlops is tarred. And still the spring-spoke wheel flexes in my grasp as friction dampers and semi-elliptic leaf springs lose the battle against even modern-day bumps.
This track was not considered quick by 1922 standards, but it was fast enough for a prankster to paint an extra nought on his village’s 10mph sign. And that’s how it seems to me: fast enough. With second engaged and the revs wound back on — there’s usable power from 2000 to 4500rpm — the Sunbeam dispatches fast bends with the tiniest of inputs. I essay third — push, slide towards you, push on this H-pattern four-speed crash ‘box — and for a brief moment l am the ‘Ghost of TT’s Past’.
As the fog thickens, however, the lack of headlights makes it prudent to stop in a lay-by just short of The Bungalow. That’s just fine by me. I wouldn’t have fancied the descent even in perfect conditions: downhill in the 100mph top gear is distinctly Segrave territory. No, I’m happy to wait as the crew fetches the trailer from Ramsey Hairpin.
It’s only now that I notice it. Had this been Sicily and the car an Alfa Romeo, a querying crowd would quickly have mustered, but even here, the ‘Road Racing Capital of the World’, most Brits barely stare, never mind stop. Yes, the weather is inclement, but the indifference is undeniable. I’d probably have been arrested on the mainland.
The situation was little different in 1903 when Julian Orde, Secretary of the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland, was scrambling to find a venue for the Gordon Bennett Trophy. Racing was banned on British roads and the government was implacable, so Orde took the Trophy to Athy in Ireland.
The following year he looked closer to home for a site for the British team’s Gordon Bennett Trial. It so happened that his cousin, Lord Raglan, was Governor of the Isle of Man… A deal was struck, King Edward VII gave his assent, and the island’s Tynwald government convened on May 5, two months earlier than normal, to pass an act that permitted three days of racing per year. The island’s motorsporting tradition began the following week.
The first circuit, known as the Highland Course, was a 52.1-mile affair which ran southwards from Quarterbridge to Castletown before heading north to Ramsey, via Ballacraine, Ballaugh — where it turned sharp left into The Curraghs — and St Judes. The daunting run over Snaefell completed the lap. The same layout was used for the 1905 Trial too, only this time there were to be four laps, not five, and no dead-stop checkpoints.
But that year’s Gordon Bennett Trophy was the last. French manufacturers felt strangled by its three-cars-per-country rule, which is why free-trade GP racing was born in 1906. Orde knew which way the wind was blowing, cajoled a new Highways (Motor Car) Act through the Tynwald in ’05 (this increased the days available for racing to six) and announced a new race: the Tourist Trophy. This was for touring cars not racing cars, and its winner would be decided by a complicated equation incorporating mph and mpg. John S Napier’s Arrol-Johnston won at 33.96mph, with 1gal 6oz of fuel in its tank after four laps.
The event was a success — but not everyone was happy. Railway bosses complained about the disruption caused by the track’s southern loop, which traversed five level crossings. From now on competitors would run west from Douglas to Ballacraine — and straight on to Peel. Two sharp rights there would send them up the coast, via Devil’s Elbow, to Kirk Michael. Another change saw The Curraghs bypassed, Ramsey instead being reached via Sulby. This, the Mountain Course, was 40.38 miles long, and the Rolls-Royce of CS Rolls completed the four-lap 1906 race in 4hr 6min (39.4mph).
For 1907, changes involved the date and class structure. Convened in May, the entry was split into ‘light’ and ‘heavy’, the latter carrying a fixed wooden air brake to reduce speeds. The race won by Ernest Courtis’s ‘light’ Rover at 28.8mph.
The major changes, though, came in 1908. Restored to September, the race was increased to 337.5 miles and would be decided by speed alone. The circuit was altered too: narrow Peel was deemed unsuitable, so cars turned right at Ballacraine, crossing Ballig Bridge on their way to Kirk Michael. At 37.5 miles this was the Four-Inch Course (competing cars were limited to a maximum bore of that measurement).
There was local rejoicing when W Watson of St John’s won. There was disquiet elsewhere about the dramatic rise in speed: the victorious Hutton averaged 50.25mph. King Edward VII had recently given the Automobile Club his Royal assent but he disapproved of cars racing on public roads. And that was that until 1914. George V was on the throne when the island hosted its most ambitious car TT: a 600-mile, two-day affair for out-and-out racers. The Sunbeams of brothers Kenelm and Algernon Lee Guinness dominated, though the latter retired.
It was, however, undeniable that motorcycle racing was forcing the pace. The first two-wheeled TT was in 1907 on a 16-mile circuit, but they stepped up to the Four-Inch Course in 1911. By 1914 the start was at the top of Bray Hill, where it remains today. And in 1920, instead of turning right, the bikes swept left at Cronk-ny-mona, turned right at Signpost Corner and completed the lap via Governor’s Bridge.
The circuit, however, still wasn’t quite as we know it nowadays. Mr Cruickshank, High Bailiff of Peel and Ramsey, had consented to competitors using his private road in Ramsey. But after the war this stretch fell into the ownership of Hugo Teare, a local MP who wanted his pound of flesh. The organisers re-routed down back roads, but the situation was unsatisfactory and a deal was reached for 1922. The New Mountain Course, today’s Mountain Course, was born.
And how Chassagne must have been cursing it. The Autocar had described him in its TT preview as “quiet, unassuming, systematic and businesslike”. But his pitstop on lap five revealed his true emotions. He overshot, splashed petrol everywhere and shouted at his riding mechanic, Robert Laly, throughout.
The cause of his disquiet was Frank Clement, who was cornering his stripped-down sportscar Bentley with “élan, verve, dash and fire”. This pair had been running companions for much of the race, even though Chassagne was four minutes up on time, and glimpses of the Bentley had seemingly affected the Frenchman’s equilibrium.
The Sunbeam was 30 seconds ahead of the Bentley on the road as they entered the eighth and final lap. Clement redoubled his efforts and scratched 21 seconds from that gap. But despite a slower average —55.78 versus 56.44mph — than the 1914 victor, Chassagne had done enough. Or had he? Where was the yellow flag to signify the finish? Unsure, he roared on for another lap.
Chassagne had discarded his misted goggles, and the calcium chloride sprayed on the roads to quell dust was now being thrown up in the spray: his eyes were on fire. He was dog-tired too after more than five hours on this he-man’s track. His mood can be imagined when, after this extra lap, he discovered that the drapeau jaune had been swapped at the last minute for a bleu one, without him being told.
There was something else he couldn’t have known: his was the last ‘competitive’ car lap of this world-famous circuit. The field had been boosted via the concurrent running of a 250-mile race for 1500s, but it wasn’t enough. Bikes were cheaper, more plentiful and caused less disruption. The writing was on the wall: two wheels good, four wheels not so good, on the three-legged island.
Driving Chassagne’s 1922 winner
Vigorous arm action on the air pump brings the fuel tank’s pressure up to 1 bar. A couple of twists on the Ki-Gass primes the manifold. Both mag switches are clicked on. Now press the starter and simultaneously pull the steering column-mounted advance/retard lever towards you. And she fires. First time. And settles into a slightly lumpy tickover that harumphs down a drainpipe exhaust. This becomes a fruity rasp as the button throttle, originally central but now on the right, is blipped.
Clutch in. This multi-plate conical-disc item six discs of phosphor bronze, six of steel has more feel than anticipated and is rugged enough to endure the slip required to overcome a tall first gear. The four-speed gearbox is separate from the engine, albeit carried by the same subframe. Its cogs are huge, but with patience, and double helpings of clutch, fuss-free changes can be achieved via a lever which chonks positively into mesh with a surprisingly short throw. Even so, that 100mph direct top remains deselected. Third is good for 75-80mph which, given the vagaries of the brakes, is plenty.
Duesenberg used hydraulic actuation at the 1921 French GP but Sunbeam stayed with cables for the following year’s TT. Like everything on this car, though, this system bristles with neat touches: steel drums have aluminium cooling rings shrunk-fit to them: cables run in phosphor-bronze pulleys for ease of movement: any slack can be taken up via two spring-loaded ratchets that jut through the floor beneath the mechanic’s legs, each of them winding in left and right-handed threads. The resultant retardation is pretty good. It’s just that it tends to dart the car towards the verge.
The worm-and-sector steering is meaty at low speed but lightens as momentum builds. It offers kart-like responses, with less than a turn from lock to lock, of which there isn’t much, which is why the exit at Governor’s was widened in 1922.
It’s on the fast run to The Bungalow that this car is in its element: not much grip, attention-grabbing roadholding, but excellent handling. Sunbeam kept its centre of gravity low by stepping down the chassis between both axles, kinking the front axle at its centre and positioning the flywheel-less engine so that its dry sump would just clear the ground with both front tyres punctured.
The chassis is simple: two longerons braced by pressed-steel cross members fore and aft and by a tubular cross member behind the gearbox. You might expect it to twist like al dente spaghetti, but there’s little scuttle shake as the car corners impressively hard and flat.
What’s really impressive, though, is that engine. It’s hard to believe it’s only three litres, such is its length and depth. The straight-eight configuration, perfected in WWI, was in racing vogue. It had plusses: reduced reciprocating weight, even torque, high revs. And it had minuses: a mighty crankshaft that was difficult to to balance, to support and make stiff enough, and camshafts you could pole-vault with.
Sunbeam’s version was drawn by Ernest Henry, designer of the revolutionary dohc four-valve Peugeot GP engine of 1912. He’d also conceived the twin-cam straight-eight that had given Ballot an edge when racing resumed after hostilities ended. The latter featured a roller-bearing crank: Sunbeam’s runs in five plain, white-metal bearings. These by design have to be wide — there’s a noticeable gap between the four-cylinder aluminium-alloy blocks hence the engine’s length. Even so, the bore is narrow (65mm), the stroke long (112mm), with domed aluminium pistons in steel liners. There is a single central spark plug and four tulip valves per cylinder in the non-detachable head, and there are two camshafts, which run in ball races and are driven by front-mounted spur gears from the nickel-chrome crank.
This is all cooled by separate water jackets, fired by two mags, and breathes, with a CR of 5.71, through two Claudel-Hobson updraughts. The bottom line is 110bhp at 4500rpm from 2973cc.
And the bills don’t end there. The drivetrain concludes in an elegant back axle, the bevel-gear diff is housed in an aluminium casing and the Hooke-type halfshafts are enclosed by steel-tapered sleeves machined from solid and 3mm thick: very light, very expensive. No wonder Sunbeam eventually went bust.
No-one got close to Segrave’s standing-start effort…
Segrave Sunbeam 39min 15.0sec Lap 1
Chassagne Sunbeam 39min 29.0sec Lap 5
Clement Bentley 39min 43.6sec Lap 8
Payne Vauxhall 40min 13.2sec Lap 8
Swain Vauxhall 40min 31.0sec Lap 4
Bentley Bentley 40min 51.2sec Lap 8
Hawkes Bentley 42min 12.0sec Lap 8
Payne Vauxhall 42min 38.0sec Lap 1