Wreckage and Restoration

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Last month we published a full account of the 1903 Gordon Bennett Napier which has returned to Britain from the USA through the good offices of Lord Montagu of Beaulieu. The car has aroused much attention.

Its history seems accurately documented, although the Curator of the National Motor Museum suggests that, after being rebuilt and rebodied following Earp’s crash at Douglas during the Isle of Man Eliminating Trials for the 1904 GB race, it passed into the hands of a Mr J W Simpson of Margate — whereas an earlier report in Lord Montagu’s own magazine said a Mr Shaw of Addlestone had invested in it that December.

Perhaps both owned it, before it passed to Mr Douglas Wilson of Hove and then to a Mr Crew of Malvern. The latter seems to have stored it in London (some accounts say for 18 years, others for some 27 years) until his death, whereupon the Blake brothers acquired it. WB

When the car appeared at this year’s Prescott hill-climb it wore racing number six, as had the Napier which Earp crashed. It does seem that the design of the brake-gear was the cause of the 1904 accident, the handbrake-pawl locking on if the brakes were applied without due care. The catch, it is said, had broken and been wired up before the loM speed trials.

But it seems more likely, knowing the ability of the catch to keep the brakes locked on, that it had been wired so as to give the lever a “fly-off’ effect; but that when the wire broke Earp (who was foolishly approaching a barrier across the road too fast after the trials were over) had to apply his brakes hard, and was unable to unlock the back wheels, causing the Napier to run into a wall. Earp and his brother Arthur (who was his passenger) were injured, along with a straying spectator.

The photograph shows just how much damage was done to the car. So effective was the post-war restoration for Harrah in the USA that the Napier successfully completed the 1975 Brighton Run, which cannot have been easy for this primitive, high-geared racing car. That year it also appeared on the NMM stand at the Motor Show, and at Beaulieu before going back to America.

After Bill Harrah’s death it passed into the ownership of Holiday Inns, but now it belongs to Britain again. Surprisingly, with its plated radiator and sprayed-on green paint, one current commentator has described it as looking like something off the lid of a chocolate box! WB