Not Content with Legend, the Editor Takes to the Road in this Fabulous Aeroplane-engined Motor Car
Count Zborowski was a picturesque figure of the “gay ‘twenties,” with his remarkable practical jokes, memorable house-parties, his garages at Higham and his aeroplane-engined Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bangs. Small wonder that legends were woven around these fabulous Brooklands cars — of how each huge cylinder fired once every lamp-post, of early morning races along the Dover Road by the entire stable of monsters, the police suitably hushed, of tyre bursts and wild skids …
Some of these legends have elements of fiction about them, but I was extremely fortunate to be able to turn to Lt.-Col. Clive Gallop for information about Count Zborowski’s four Chittys when engaged in compiling my “Story of Brooklands,” and what is told of these great cars in the pages of volumes one and two can, I think, be accepted as the truth, devoid of time’s veneer!
Aeroplane-engined giant motor cars were almost prolific in the years immediately following the first World War, and I have evidence that at one time or another, for reasons valid or otherwise, most of these startling vehicles were driven on the public roads. They were, however, before my time and consequently when I heard that one day last August the present enthusiastic owner of Chitty-ChittyBang-Bang II was going to drive the old car from Brooklands to his home at Deal I laid my plans carefully so as to be able to accompany him on part of this epic journey.
Chitty II was the smaller of the first two Chittys, having a 19-litre Benz aeroplane engine instead of the 23-litre Maybach Zeppelin motor which powered Chitty I. Whereas Chitty I was intended for racing at Brooklands and, indeed, gained fame and notoriety there, the Count built the second of these giant cars more as a fast touring machine. In fact, Chitty II raced at Brooklands at one meeting only, when it proved able to lap at 106.42 m.p.h., after which, endowed with road equipment, it was used for some fantastic long-distance runs. For example, Gallop has been three times to the Riviera with the car and on one occasion, at a sudden whim of the Count’s, Chitty II and Chitty III ventured some 150 miles into the Sahara, before the desert had been conquered by the Citroën Kegresse expedition.
Such is the car Peter Harris-Mayes owns today; it is extremely good to know that it has survived into the present, and it is to Peter’s everlasting credit that it is in a very fine original state of restoration, for before he took care of it Chitty II had lain in the open for twelve years and Chitty I had been broken up. Incidentally, the car first changed hands from Higham before Count Zborowski’s death in 1924.
The reason why our pilgrimage on that blazingly hot summer Sunday commenced from such an appropriate place as West Byfleet, under the shadow of Brooklands, was because the car had been in the excellent hands of Mr. Ken Taylor, of Thomson and Taylor Ltd., for general strengthening of its 45-year-old gearbox.
Creditably early, Chitty’s escort arrived to view the awesome starting-up ceremony. There was an open four-seater Healey with immaculate engine, bringing two enthusiastic members of the fair sex, Harris-Mayes’ smart VW containing tools and batteries and driven by his able helper, Clive Gallop’s small Ford, and the Motor Sport party in a borrowed Standard Eight enlivened by Michael Christie’s Alexander Eng. Co. “mods.”
While the workers toiled, installing the batteries, adjusting the rear-wheel brakes, and blowing up the tyres. I was able to take in the main details of this remarkable car. The engine, as has been said, is a war-time Benz aeroplane engine, with six separate cylinders and four valves per cylinder operated by exposed push-rods and rocker gear. Two Zenith carburetters supply the mixture (Ken Taylor had equipped them with neat flame-traps), and the plugs, now Champion, are fed from a Bosch magneto. The exhaust gasses leave via a huge expansion chamber on the near side of the bonnet, to which the large-bore exhaust pipe is attached without any clamp-ring, this pipe dropping down to disappear under the chassis. To provide ground clearance Zborowski scrapped the sump and the lubricating oil is contained in a long, streamlined tank beside the off-side chassis side-member. The crankcase has transverse cooling tunnels running through it and to steady this great power unit as it rocks under idling torque a metal strap passes under it from the side-members of the chassis. A very big water pump is driven from the front of the crankshaft and mounted vertically.
The entire chassis is Mercedes, the origin of which is obscured by the passing of the years, but Gallop believes it to have been a Sixty suitably lengthened, where a Seventy-Five or Ninety was apparently the basis of Chitty I. The beautifully-polished brass radiator, devoid of badge, blends splendidly with the enormous length of unpainted bonnet, and the drive goes through the Mercedes scroll clutch to the original Mercedes gearbox. Final drive is by countershaft and exposed side chains, Gallop fitting huge sprockets for racing purposes, which must give approximately a direct top ratio. The cogs are swapped by a quite gigantic outside lever working in a gate adjacent to which is an equally big lever for applying the massive rear-wheel brakes.
Mercedes ancestry is evident in the four foot pedals, the normal accelerator, brake and clutch pedals being kept company by an additional pedal for both applying the brakes and throwing out the clutch. I think that the oil supply to the steering box (with sight-feed on the dash) is also a legacy from the Mercedes chassis of circa 1910, but the oil feed, tapped from the engine, which drips onto the driving chains was a later-owner’s innovation, because Gallop reminded us that in Zborowski’s day the chains were removed periodically and fried in Russian tallow!
The wire wheels are Rudge Whitworth, with carless hub caps, two spares being strapped on behind the four-seater body. Chitty is today proudly shod with Dunlop herringbone-tread, beaded-edge tyres on three of its wheels and the spares, a beautiful vintage-tread Pirelli gracing the off-side front wheel.
It is particularly pleasing that the car bears its original registration number, and I must congratulate its young owner on his painstaking restoration, even to the elaborate wood-stiffening frames for the leather mud-flaps which depend from the front mudguards, and the high polish on the Lucas “King-of-the-Road” headlamps and sidelamps. The windscreen is a replica of the original, perhaps rather higher, but correctly reproducing the glass panels in its scuttle-frame, while for wet weather a big hood is carried, with a screen-wiper cleverly mounted on the front hood-stick.
That, then, was Chitty II as she stood in Thomson and Taylor’s workshop, ready to take the road. She commenced very easily on the electric starter, which was an original part of her specification, aided by priming from a pump on the off side of the scuttle by the driving-seat and a few twirls of the Bosch hand-starting magneto protruding through the dash. Ken Taylor arrived to see her depart, Gallop rode in her from the garage where the tyres were blown up to 60 lb./sq. in., the rest of us resumed our current tin-ware, and the convoy was on the move.
One non-original item Harris-Mayes sensibly permits himself — a windtone horn, which now proved useful for clearing a way through the crawling traffic of an English Sunday morning. Again, sensibly, he has also fitted steel guard strips over the exposed driving chains.
To follow Chitty was amusing. Even when we couldn’t see the car we could hear clearly the bellow of the engine as the intrepid driver revved-up to change into a lower gear, while pedestrians and modern motorists who might have been expected to laugh and jeer at the unusual spectacle were, instead, awed, if, indeed, they believed their eyes!
Pressing on regardless, good time was made to the Pantiles at Dorking, where a lunch-stop was deemed advisable, for the traffic was heavy, Chitty’s steering likewise, and mostly Harris-Mayes had been obliged to stay in the second and third speeds. While the crew revived themselves Chitty towered over the small box-like vehicles in the car park, what time passing motorists would stop and come running over to take photographs. Only the driver of a veteran, intent on his own affairs, omitted to register surprise on catching sight of this intruder by the roadside . . .
When the journey was resumed I was privileged to ride in Chitty as far as Wrotham. This was indeed an experience. The view of the passing countryside from the high seats in the doorless four-seater body, the sensation of enormous power delivered through high gearing, the adequate but not powerful braking, were as a 30/98, only very much more so. Beyond that, no other car I have ridden in compares. The engine develops 230 h.p. at around 1,400 r.p.m. and I would put Chitty’s weight at not a lot over 30 cwt., if as much, so that the acceleration is worth experiencing, especially up hills in top gear! As the throttles are opened the old chassis becomes alive with flexing and vibration, the exhaust stutters its proud war-cry as each 145 by 190-mm. cylinder delivers its punch. Chitty seems to bunch herself up, and you are propelled rapidly forward. At other times the rattle of the chains is loud, pleasant music in one’s ears.
The traffic congestion impeded our progress considerably, but Harris-Mayes made use of Chitty’s powers of acceleration to dispose of the more loitering obstructions, and once on the Maidstone road 60 m.p.h., probably more, was held for many miles. No overheating was evident in spite of the day being so hot that one charming lady passenger insisted on sitting on the floor in the back to keep cool, although she was wearing an off-the-shoulder sun-frock! In fact, great waves of heat rose from the front floorboards to roast the feet and the radiator thermometer read 80 deg. C. instead of its customary 60 deg.
The dashboard contains this radiator thermometer reading to 140 deg., a Dixie ignition switch, the Bosch starting magneto, the starter switch, like a giant clock key, a simply enormous, not very informative, rev.-counter reading to 2,600 r.p.m. (it sat mostly at a mere 1,000), an oil gauge which showed 10 lb./sq. in. pressure, and air gauges for fuel and oil-feed systems, the latter made by the Budenberg Gauge Co. In addition, Harris-Mayes has added a nice Hispano-Suiza ammeter and a voltmeter. A hand pressure pump in the centre of the scuttle, its handle protruding into the cockpit, pressurises the fuel tank or oil tank according to the setting of its two-way tap.
There are the usual minor control levers on the (non-original) steering-wheel centre, in a beautifully-polished brass quadrant, and rows of aircraft lighting-switches below the dash proper. A Pyrene fire extinguisher is clipped to the inside of the scuttle on the passenger’s side, and on the driver’s, apart from the priming pump, is a hefty little lever opening extra air holes on the carburetters.
As the journey progressed the more observant onlookers would wave a greeting, or, catching the name “Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang” on the long bonnet, raise a cheer.
In Westerham, where we paused awhile, a Bentley boy went by undecided whether to stop (we got a cheerful wave) and an Austin Seven Special and “chain-gang” Frazer-Nash paused to admire. In particular, drivers of the older cars acclaimed us readily but mostly Chitty was too much for the great British public — like the little girl and the hippo, they just didn’t believe it.
Certainly to ride behind that long bonnet and those 19¼ litres of powerful, leisurely machinery is to have tasted faintly the joys which Count Zborowski and Clive Gallop must have experienced on the emptier roads of long ago.
Peter Harris-Mayes has made a fine job in the resuscitation of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang, and rightly so. She is not only a very great motor car; she is an extension of one’s personality. — W. B.