One of the stars of this summer’s COYS historic festival, the Talbot 105 is one of Britain’s most underrated sportscars. Matthew Franey samples a little bit o history in this remarkable car
One wet afternoon in 1934, three apple-green sportscars cruised into Munich, their mud-spattered occupants smiling broadly as they pulled into the city’s impressive stadium. There, with the red and black swastikas of the Third Reich swaying in the wind and hundreds of Hitler’s followers and troops cheering them in, the three cars came to a halt, their exhausted passengers savouring the knowledge that they would go no further that day.
Behind them lay 1970 miles of one of the toughest motoring challenges imaginable, the Alpine Trial: a six-day charge through half a dozen European nations, across two of the harshest passes ever constructed, with not a single alteration made to the cars before or during the event. Their success was a faultless motoring achievement in the face of genuine adversity. The equipment behind that success was the Roesch Talbot 105, arguably one of the most remarkable vehicles to leave a British manufacturer in a century of car production.
The 105 was seemingly invincible, capable of not just withstanding the harsh demands of a nonstop European rally, or the huge stresses of speed runs around the banks of Brooklands, but simply shrugging them off. Consider this: In 1932, a team of 105s had already conquered the Continent, bringing the coveted Coupe des Alpes back to Britain without so much of a change of spark plug. The 3.0-litre Talbots had shown a remarkable aptitude for the tough conditions meted out by the trial but when three cars were sent back two years later to try and repeat the feat, the odds were stacked against them enjoying the same measure of success. But repeat that success they did and then, as if the trial was just a warm-up, one of the 1934 Alpine winners, BGH 23, uprated to 3.3 litres, went on to become a legend well within its own lifetime with some extraordinary feats at Brooklands in 1937-38.
The brainchild of designer Georges Roesch, the 105 ironically enjoyed its greatest successes at a time when the Talbot name was inexorably being swallowed by the Rootes Group’s expanding Humber and Hillman marques. The requirements of the Rootes bean-counters and Roesch’s own agenda were not compatible and, despite the many achievements of the 105 throughout the 1930s and its obvious qualities as a road car, the Talbot and then its engineer were slowly edged towards the sidelines.
But throughout this period Roesch, determined to prove the 105’s mettle, and driver WM ‘Mike’ Couper made Brooklands their second home as they shuttled between Surrey and the car’s showroom to break record after record, rounding out the 105’s career in 1938 with the fastest ever lap of the Outer Circuit by a four-seater car at 129.7mph.
With BGH 23 very much a demonstrator for potential customers, Roesch and Couper could use it on the condition that it was returned as taken and, in its racing guise, was still showing the capabilities of a standard Talbot chassis. As a result, its road specification was what it took to the track, where Couper and his mechanics would simply unbolt the lights and mudguards and head out and compete. Tongue in cheek, its driver would often make the journey from London in bowler hat and suit, throw his attire into the back and rush onto the circuit at great speed.
The 105’s great strength lay not in its radical design, for Roesch eschewed the trend to ever sleeker cars, his only concession to aerodynamics a series of slightly revised fairings and a raked front cowling late in its competition career. The Talbot’s secret lay in its almost bomb-proof six-cylinder engine.
While any major tweaks to the big block were impossible within the restrictions laid upon the designer, Roesch still managed to tune and improve output as Couper went quicker and quicker. A new stronger, lighter crankshaft adapted from an eightcylinder Sunbeam engine was fitted to BGH 23 and running on alcohol it revved effortlessly to 6000rpm, producing well in excess of 150bhp. From that moment on it was just a matter of increasing the compression ratio and ekeing out that extra few percent. Soon 120mph flying laps were achieved with relative ease, a figure only achieved at that point by two other types of four-seater tourers: a supercharged 4 1/2-litre Bentley and Birkin’s blown 2.3-litre Alfa. Even more remarkable was the fact that both the Bentley and Alfa were heavily evolved racers. Underneath the Talbot lay framework identical to that of a London ambulance…
Sixty years on BGH 23 remains in remarkable condition, rescued from the scrap-heap in the 1960s and restored to its full Brooklands condition by the late Talbot fanatic Anthony Blight. Its apple-green shade — Britain’s racing colours for the purpose of competition but also the hue of Mrs Roesch’s favourite dress! — remains to this day, and underneath its tall bonnet the block is as potent as ever.
Viewed from the front, the Talbot still looks surprisingly narrow. Its height perhaps fools the eye slightly for it doesn’t feel that way from the driver’s seat — the four-seater layout offering generous room to its occupants, and the huge steering wheel with its Jour-speed gearbox pre-selector lever not impinging on room or comfort in any way. In fact the Talbot is remarkably advanced in ergonomic terms, its seats providing considerable support and the large Jaeger dials — a speedometer up to 160mph and a rev counter that redlines at 5000 — ideally placed for instant information gathering. The roomy footwell houses widely-spaced pedals, with the clutch for the` self-changing’ gearbox offering no resistance whatsoever — a disconcerting feeling for the uninitiated. Scattered across the dash, an oil pressure gauge, temperature dials, magneto switch and starter button are all the driver needs to get things going, a short push all it takes to get the Talbot turning over comfortably.
The first thing that strikes you as the 3.3 bursts into life is not the noise, but lack of it. When the upright green tourer flashed around Brooklands in its heyday, people marvelled at the way it made its silent progress. Sixty years on at Silverstone’s South Circuit, as BGH 23 was being prepared for its run in the Coys Historic Festival, nothing has changed. As you slide the pre-selector down to first, dip then lift the clutch to engage gear, and head out onto the track, the wind buffeting your helmet is more pervasive than the tones from beneath the bonnet.
But sound and speed have no correlation in this instance, for the Talbot makes forceful progress through Silverstone’s Becketts Complex, gathering speed without complaint, even mid-corner. In fact the acceleration, while not shattering — 150bhp and well over a tonne of car remember — is enough to ensure that you keep one eye firmly on the rev counter. The Talbot will happily pull to its redline, but this is not the day to stretch it to its maximum, and 4500rpm arrives quicker than you first expect. Changing up is simply a case of a quick dip of the clutch, the gearbox instantly selecting the ratio indicated by the lever. The change is smooth and quick, another delightful indication of the technological strengths of this car. Once into the pre-selected gear, all you need to do is choose the one you want next and wait for that time to arrive.
This is a day of surprises, for all around the fast, flowing circuit the Talbot demonstrates its potential in nearly every area. Through the left-right-left flicks that lead you out onto the Hangar Straight the car’s poise and attitude remain very nearly perfect. The worm and nut steering remains tight with reassuring levels of feedback, and the loose take-up that you might expect to find in a car nearly 70 years old is simply non-existent, the large wheel turning easily as the Talbot leads you into the corner.
Allied to this is handling that would grace a car 20 years younger. Sitting bolt upright so many feet above the ground, any roll within the chassis of the 105 is bound to be amplified by the height of the driver’s position. But the transition between turnin and the mid-point of every corner is superb, the Talbot leaning far less than you might expect and all four wheels breaking traction without fuss and with plenty of warning. This car can really be driven hard, in fact asks to be. Mike Couper lapped Brooklands at speeds in excess of 130mph, the Talbot well clear of the ground at times. Here, on the perfect surface at Silverstone, it is well within its element.
Leaf springs at all corners with lever-arm hydraulic shock absorbers do an admirable job of keeping a good, firm contact between the asphalt and the 18×6.0in tyres, while the grip levels themselves are quite high for a car of this era. When the 105 does finally start to slide, a quick flick of opposite lock sets up a tremendous drift that can be held without much effort or fuss, a real illustration of just how forgiving it is. In the 1934 Alpine Trial, Talbot driver Tommy Wisdom relates how the trio of cars were thrown around with almost complete abandon, sliding within feet of rock faces and cliff edges. Here, on the wide, safe expanses of the race track, you can see exactly just why they felt able to do it.
The speedometer indicates around 90mph at the end of the main straight its bluff nose, fairings and lighting system creating considerable drag when a firm press on the brake pedal reveals perhaps the one slight flaw that the Talbot possesses. The large drum brakes seem to snatch on and then, as we haven’t had time to properly adjust them, pull hard to the left, forcing quick corrections to ensure the 105 keeps on its true course. A chance to dial in the brakes would probably have improved things by a fair margin, for Talbot brakes were very much the equal of its contemporaries.
At the end of 1938, Couper retired from racing and, unable to leave BGH 23 behind, purchased it from Talbot. Throughout its history, the car had been an impressive advert for its maker and a visible illustration of the durability and performance that Georges Roesch managed to harness in one formidable piece of engineering. In its last season, the year that it rounded Brooklands at nearly 130mph, the 105 suffered not one mechanical failure. Yet despite this, Rootes failed to recognise the remarkable achievement of Roesch and his car. In September 1939, he resigned from the company leaving the Talbot 105 as his masterpiece. It is a genuine classic. Our sincere thanks to Mrs Mary Blight and Stephen Curtis for the loan of BGH 23, Silvetstone Circuits Ltd (01327 8 5727 °for the use of the track and the organisers of the Coys Festival for helping to make this feature possible.