Having started my motoring career with the cars of just before and just after the Kaiser war, some of which were, I suppose, among the fastest vehicles in relation to their braking capacity ever built, I rather naturally began by taking it as a law of nature that the gearbox was, among other things, a prime agent in achieving deceleration. Subsequent graduation to earlier, more or less constant engine speed, motor cars naturally made it clear to me that the method of slowing down and cornering to which I was accustomed was a relatively late development in the technique of driving; and I suppose that if I ever graduate further to a fluid fly-wheel, automatic pre-selector automobile, I shall finally realise that it was not so much a development as a phase.
However, the attempt to trace the change in technique between, say, 1895, the date of the first real motor race, and 1914 is not without interest. There are, of course, a goodly band of nineteenth century motorists still with us, but frankly I am always rather suspicious of recollections as to how one drove half a century ago. I am, for instance, reasonably convinced that when I first drove a car I did not drive it as I should drive that same car today; and in general one is extremely apt to apply later experience to a period when one did not possess it. For this reason I prefer, where possible, to rely on contemporary sources of information.
The car with which M. Levassor won the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race of 1895 was fitted with his new vertical 2-cylinder engine, which was essentially intended to run at a constant speed of 800 r.p.m., at which it developed 4 h.p., and at this engine speed the 3-speed gearbox gave car speeds of 9, 20 and 30 kilometres per hour. It was possible to attain a faster pace in favourable conditions by cutting out the governor, but according to the contemporary report of Mr. J. H. Knight, Levassor used this facility sparingly in the race, saying that “he ran with prudence, never exceeding 38 kilometres per hour downhill.” This statement, incidentally, puzzled me considerably when I first read it because, presuming that he had no speedometer, I could not imagine how Levassor could estimate his speed with such apparent exactitude. Clearly, however, what he meant was that he did not think that his engine speed had materially exceeded 1,000 r.p.m., which would give a car speed of 37 1/2 kilometres per hour.
By means of the governor, therefore, Levassor could use his engine as a brake, but in view of its inflexibility he could scarcely call in the aid of the gearbox in so doing; and without the aid of the latter one may doubt whether the retarding effort of a 2-cylinder engine with a bore and stroke of 80 x 120 mm. and a compression pressure of about 45 lb. per square inch was very great on a car weighing 604 kilogrammes, or say 12 cwt. Basically, this same situation must have obtained up to the end of the automatic inlet valve period in 1902, although in decreasing measure, since the 70-h.p. Panhard of that year had acquired a 4-cylinder engine of 160 x 170 mm. bore and stroke, while the weight had only gone up to 988 kgs.
Mechanically-operated inlet valves and magneto ignition introduced an entirely new factor into the situation by providing the driver with a flexible engine. Thus Mors in 1902 was able to claim, according to the Autocar, that these features “allowed of the speed of the motor being reduced from the normal rate of 900 or 1,000 revolutions to 200.” But instead of realising the vast new use which this development would allow the gearbox to be put to, the reaction on such experienced racing drivers as Charron, Girardot and Voigt was an attempt to suppress it altogether by building their straight-eight 40-h.p. C.G.V. for which ,they claimed that, “as the engine will run at any speed up to 1,600 revolutions, they get a very wide range of power.”
In order to get the background to this point of view one must, I think, go back to another contemporary description of the 1895 Panhard, this time by M. Louis Lockert. “The driver,” he says, “has . . . within easy reach the lever of the brake; a second brake is worked by means of a treadle, and a support [sprag] may be lowered so as to support the vehicle when climbing gradients. The action of the brakes is so arranged that the gears are always disengaged to start with; by this means the motive power on the back wheels is done away with and the driver need have no fear of breakage or other accident on this score.”
In other words, you no sooner put the brakes on than the clutch was withdrawn — a circumstance which would have appeared highly embarrassing to our supposititious high-speed driver of 1914. The mechanical linkage of the brakes to the clutch was abandoned in different cars at varying dates, but even after its abandonment the onus of declutching was merely transferred from the machinery to the driver. Thus in “Cars and How to Drive Them,” published in 1903, Mr. C. L. Freeston, an admitted expert, thus describes the proper method of reducing speed in order to take a corner. “To do this,” he says, “[the driver] has only to press down his clutch pedal in advance — practice will soon tell him the right moment — and apply the foot brake slightly if he has taken out the clutch too late.” This is exactly what experience of driving early cars shows to be necessary, and to anyone who has been brought up to use the clutch sparingly, a pretty shocking procedure it at first appears!
Mr. Freeston, of course, is writing of touring, not of racing; but one feels that Charles Jarrott is thinking of exactly the same technique of driving when he says of the 40-h.p. Panhard which he drove in the Circuit du Nord race of 1901, that it was “a beautiful car to handle, sensitive and delicately responsive to each movement of the steering wheel, clutch and brakes.” Far more explicit, however, is the same writer’s description of his experiences when driving his 96-h.p. Wolseley in the Gordon-Bennett race in Germany in 1904. “Ten miles further on,” he writes, “I found that my governor was not working, causing the engine to race every time I took the clutch out, thus making everything terribly hot, and also making it necessary before changing speed to retard the motor by the ignition. The difficulty of this was minimised to a certain extent by Bianchi switching off at the corners to enable me to take them with the clutch out . . .”
Well one can imagine that it would be exceedingly awkward to find oneself more or less with the throttle stuck wide open, and the expedient of switching off at the corners would have appeared, in the circumstances, an eminently reasonable one. But why, it would have been asked ten years later, did he not use the opportunity thus presented to take his corners with the clutch in?
The habit of coasting with the clutch out was, however, one that died hard, at least in touring circles. In the Fifth Edition of “The Autocar Handbook,” which is undated, but which betrays the date of its preparation by giving the number of members of the R.A.C. and A.A. at the beginning of 1913, the following advice is given with regard to negotiating down-grades. “If the hill is straight and short the engine may be left running at a slow speed and the clutch disengaged. If the hill is a long one, the motor may be stopped altogether, and the car allowed to run down by gravity; the quiet running will be found a welcome change(!). On nearing the bottom of a hill, and when running slowly, the clutch should be gradually let in so as to start up the motor again.”
Well, this sort of coasting is just what this petrol rationing nonsense has of late reduced me to at times; but from respect for its race I have not done it with the clutch out, and I know from experience of 1913 cars that there was really nothing to be said for the practice then. Quite apart from the well-being of clutches, moreover, there are few things that go further to make me feel that I am being dangerous in a motor-car than not having the engine on, so to speak, which is why I never could stomach those cars with free-wheel devices. But as late as 1913 this would doubtless have been regarded as a most curious idiosyncrasy, as witness the “Handbook” on the subject of “The Sideslip.”
“If the car begins to slip,” the driver is warned, “keep your wits about you and begin to steer in the direction of the slip. Keep the clutch out and do not apply the brakes unless absolutely necessary. This may be exactly contrary to your inclinations . . .”
As far as keeping the clutch out is concerned, it would, so much so, in fact, that I am sure I should have even fewer wits about me than usual.
To do the “Handbook” justice, it does recognise that there are occasions when the suggested method of descending hills is unsuitable. “If the hill is very steep and at all dangerous,” it admits,”… the first (lowest) speed should be put in and the current switched off.”
“So that the plugs will get nicely oiled,” adds the sarcastic modern motorist. But by doing so he displays his ignorance of the refinements of the Edwardian motor-car. By the time he was ready to write “The High Roads of the Alps,” in 1910, Mr. C. L. Freeston knew all about using the engine as a brake on “very steep and dangerous” hills, and this is what he says about it. “Long-drawn, however, as the descents may be. . . the changes can be rung from one brake to another, while at any time the current can be switched off and the car allowed to run down against the compression of the engine . . . the flow of oil to the cylinders, of course, should meanwhile be reduced.”
All the same it is rather surprising that they could not achieve a slow enough tick-over for the current to be left switched on.
So much for touring. As far as racing is concerned I have drawn a complete blank in my researches into the period from 1904 until the end of the first series of Grands Prix in 1908, and I can only deduce from my ill-success in the matter that the Jarrott style of rolling round corners and changing down after them if the car speed had fallen sufficiently remained in vogue throughout the period, with the result that no one found any novelty in the matter on which to comment. I am confirmed in this supposition because, when the Grand Prix was resumed in 1912, Fiat appeared at Dieppe with some real old-style 14-litre, chain-driven monster racers, their only concession to modernity being a relatively long stroke (dimensions, 150 x 200 mm. as against 155 x 160 mm. in 1908). And this time the Autocar did find something on which to comment. Its report of the race was accompanied by a magnificent drawing by Gordon Crosby, then in the most dramatic phase of his artistic development, entitled “Violent Cornering,” and described as “An impression of Bruce Brown sideslipping round one of the dangerous hairpin bends on the Grand Prix course on one of the monster 200-h.p. F.I.A.T.S. These corners were negotiated in the race by momentarily locking the rear wheels with a touch of the brakes, the lateral momentum of the car thus swinging the rear wheels across the road to the position required for the new direction of the car which is maintained by sudden, but accurately-timed movements of the steering wheel. “These skids were apparently executed on a dry road — the success of the dust-laying preparation was commented on — and as I cannot imagine that “a touch of the brakes” would have stopped 14 litres worth of engine, I can only conclude that if the rear wheels really locked, Bruce Brown, like Charles Jarrott before him, “rolled,” rather than “motored,” round his corners.
At first I was inclined to sum up the whole of this matter in the one word “chains.” The strength of a chain, after all, is proverbially its weakest link and perhaps neither Bruce Brown nor any of his predecessors dared put the braking power of their mighty engines through so delicate a medium. But what, I thought, of the lighter, shaft-driven cars, developed from the Coupe de l’Auto racers which, in the shape of Boillot’s Peugeot, beat these Fiats, the last of the monsters, that June day at Dieppe? And for answer, it seems, I have only got to turn on to the report of the 1913 Grand Prix at Amiens. This race was run on a limited fuel basis, which might, though not necessarily, have excluded 14-litre engines (on which subject I have a mind to discourse some time, when the Editor has some space going a-begging). In any case, all the starters in the race were shaft-driven, and all of them, with the exception of the Italas, were basically Coupe de l’Auto types. Again Gordon Crosby contributes an inspiring illustration — this time entitled “Corner Jumping” — showing Hornsted’s, Excelsior following Resta’s Sunbeam round the corner under the railway bridge. But the accompanying text is not so helpful as in 1912. “The way in which some of the cars were taken round the worst corners of the Grand Prix course,” it says, “can best be described as corner jumping.” A wild rush, violent braking, a series of jumps and a corner is passed; this is one of the things which make racing a real test.”
Of Messrs. Resta, Hornsted and company, presumably, and not specifically of Sunbeam or Excelsior transmissions, because there is no indication of what use was made of the gearbox in the course of these “jumps.” The report of the race from a contributor who saw it from near the corner at Dernuin is, however, more explicit. “… It was necessary,” he wrote, “to pull up almost directly the top of the hill had been breasted for the corner, and Schneider III (No. 16) did this by shutting the throttle and declutching, so running several hundred yards by momentum and saving some fuel. It sacrificed speed, however, as the cars which were eventually the leaders all took half the bit of level all out, and pulled up for the corner entirely on their brakes” (my italics).
Even more interesting, perhaps, is the description of one of the photographs. “The finish of a tremendous skid,” it says, “by Champoiseau on the Schneider at the right-angle corner at Moreuil. The corner is approached by a long descent, and is succeeded by a rise necessitating a change of gear.” Now I cannot say I remember that bit of Route Nationale 85 on to which the cars turned at Moreuil all that well. But the invaluable Michelin map comes to the rescue and duly marks the gradient in question with one arrow, which means that it is of the order of between 4 and 7% (or, in English, 1 in 25 and 1 in 14). The top of the hill is approximately a mile and a quarter from the corner, and unless there is time to change up after you have rounded it, one can hardly imagine any modern driver negotiating a right-angle bend on a higher speed than would be suitable even for 1 in 14.
I strongly suspect, in fact, that Messrs. Champoiseau and company were still “rolling” their corners in 1913, and I wonder whether this was now due to the fuel consumption limit? Because if not, a revolution in driving technique obviously took place between the years 1913 and 1914, a revolution which perhaps was entirely due to the revival in racing since, say, 1910. For the 1914 Grand Prix at Lyons, it will be remembered, a good many of the cars had 4-wheel brakes, but in its “Notes on the Driving” which accompanied the report of the race, the Autocaris most explicit on the use of the gearbox. "The drivers," it says, describing one section of the course, "applied their brakes and shut off, dropping to a comparatively gentle speed immediately before the turn, and changing down to get a quick acceleration after the turn was negotiated. "Again, of another corner: "So far as one could observe . . . some changed down twice before the turn, some once before and again after, the drop being necessary to negotiate the hairpin about 400 yards below . . ."
A fortnight before, Mr. H. Massac Buist, writing about the 1914 Tourist Trophy Sunbeam drivers in the same journal, had remarked: “Kenelm Lee Guinness performs miracles in the way of driving all round the circuit without touching the clutch and, like his brother, with a minimum of brake work at need. Dario Resta has a way all his own of setting his right foot sideways and doing heel and toe work between brake and accelerator when taking corners and popping the speeds in and out. All these drivers, too, have an unerring instinct for employing the pull of the engine to steady the car on rounding a corner . . .”
Unquestionably the racing driver of 1914 employed the same technique as that used after the Kaiser war. But had it grown overnight? I am afraid I must confess my ignorance and await the observations — more probably the castigations — of the pundit Vintagents.