Veteran Types - XXXVI

A 1909 Six-Cylinder Napier

To the philosophically minded, the history of the six-cylinder engine over half a century must appear as a most curious illustration of the ebb and llow of human fortune, and incidentally, may add ammunition to the armoury of those who argue that no good thing ever reached the touring car which did not come out of the crucible of racing. For the six-cylinder engine, although the reason, as far as the present writer is concerned, is obscure, has never been typical of the racing car. By the end of the nineteenth century, the original two-cylinder racing engine had been replaced by the four-cylinder, and thereafter until 1914 no event of Grand Prix stature was won with any other type of power unit. After 1918, the capacity limit, by encouraging a multiplicity of cylinders, might well have been expected to usher in a six-cylinder epoch in Grand Prix racing, but in fact it did nothing of the kind. It is true that FIAT won the Grand Prix in 1922 with a six-cylinder engine, but its use was due less to choice than to expediency, arising from the fact that the firm had already developed a 3-litre straight-eight, and a 1,500-c.c. four-cylinder racing engine, each with the same cylinder dimensions, and front them a 2-litre six-cylinder could readily be devised by means of a moderate reduction in the stroke. As soon as the FIAT engineers had had time to design a new 2-litre engine from ‘scratch for the 1923 season, it proved to be a straight-eight. It is equally true that Sunbeam won the Grand Prix in 1923 with a six-cylinder engine, but again its use was due less to choice than to the fact that it was an almost exact copy of the 1922 FIAT engine. As soon as the S.T.D. engineers set about designing an entirely new racing engine from scratch – in the shape of the 1,500-c.c. Talbot of 1926 – it proved to be a straight-eight. The only prominent six-cylinder racing engine of the 1930’s was the E.R.A., but as this was not in origin a racing engine at all, it was decidedly the exception that proves the rule. Of recent. years there has been a marked revival of the four-cylinder racing engine, but this has not extended to the six, except in the case of what. are really touring engines, and the emphasis still rests on eight-, 12- and 16-cylinder designs.

In the meantime the six-cylinder engine has had a long and varied history as a power unit for touring ears. Starting in the early years of the century as an almost exclusively luxury product, it was so popularised between the wars that at one time it promised to renlace the four-cylinder engine on all but the very smallest cars. The touring car of to-day, its exponents might have said, is by no means the racing car of yesterday. But the tide, having thus reached its flood, has since begun perceptibly to ebb. By the end of the ‘thirties such prominent six-cylinder exponents as Hispano-Suiza and Rolls-Royce had abandoned this type of engine for their luxury models in favour of 12-cylinder designs, and in the case of the latter maker only austerity apparently prevents the present use of a straight-eight in place of a six-cylinder. At the other end of the scale, the coming of the flexibly mounted engine greatly diminished the appeal of a six compared with that of a four, and for engines with capacities of up to, say, 2-1/2-litres, where six cylinders would undoubtedly have ben used some years ago, four is now much, the more usual munber. It would be an exaggeration to claim that, as in the matter of sleeve-valves, the attempt of the touring engine to develop along other paths than those where racing led had once more failed, and that the six-cylinder was on the way out; but undoubtedly the present trend is against it.

“The multiple-disc clutch, which permits a car to be started without shock,” declared the Hon. C. S. Rolls, writing in the Encyclopaedia Britannica, “is an English invention, as are the detachable wheel, the spare wheel and the six-cylindered engine.” As far as the last, named is concerned, it can be claimed that Mr. Rolls statement is not strictly accurate; but it is certainly true to say that the six-cylinder engine is as much an English invention as the modern petrol car is a French one. Others may have thought of the idea earlier, but it was undoubtedly the English Napier company which first brought it to the attention of the public. The original six-cylinder Napier was built, according to Mr. Filson Young, in 1902 and in the years which immediately followed Napier and the six-cylinder engine were regarded as practically synonymous. It appeared to many contemporary observers to be one of the most significant advances that had even been made in automobile engineering, and as a result of it the Napier was acclaimed as being as far in advance of the Mercédès as, a year or two before, the Mercédès, with its gate-change and mechanically-operated inlet valves, had appeared to be in advance of the Panhard.

Curiously enough, however, this prophet was for a time not without honour but outside his own country. In England the six-cylinder engine created a furore; on the Continent, designers blinded presumably by the lessons of racing, remained almost wholly indifferent. to it. “At Olympia,” wrote Mr. H Massac Buist of the Motor Show of 1905,” there was what one might term a six-cylinder boom; at Paris, this was conspicuous by its absence. This may be indicative of the fact that… the multi-cylinder development is in the nature of an artificial demand. On the other hand, the fact that a firm of such standing as Panhard and Lavassor showed a chassis equipped with a six-cylinder motor at Olympia, but did not deign to display it at Paris, may point to the French not having been able to produce such a type of machine to give satisfactory results, thus having been surpassed by Britain in at least one line of development.” Apart from Panhard et Lavassor, Mr. Buist could only hear of two French firms, Clément and what he calls Vinot et Dedeguingand who were “putting six-cylinder machines on the market”; while “the German industry is not concerning itself with six-cylinder machines”; and “Italy is only making one type and that under licence from the Napier designs.”

This curious local divergence in the development of the motor car may perhaps be ascribed, as is so often the case, to differences in road conditions. On the Continent, the most expensive cars offered by the leading makers were in effect the racing cars of a year or two before, and these, as has been seen, inevitably had four-cylinder engines. In England, however, their use was not favourably regarded even by such a witness as C. S. Rolls, himself a racing driver of’ no mean achievement “The attitude of the police in showing little or no leniency in the application of the law,” he remarked in the article already quoted, “probably did good in other directions… It considerably limited the use of excessively powerful cars (for example, a 60 or that could attain 60 m.p.h.) and experience has demonstrated the fact that, intersected as England is with a network of narrow roads carrying considerable traffic, there is little opportunity for the full power of such a car to be used…” I do not know whether some present-day users of “excessively powerful cars” of that period, such as Mr. Cecil Chilton or Dr. G. A. Ewen, would altogether agree with him, and although English roads are now perhaps a trifle less narrow, they carry traffic which is even more “considerable” than they did forty years ago. They would. however, probably admit, wit It Mr. Max Pemberton, that there are some conditions for which is four-cylinder racing car of the classic type is not altogether suitable. “It is simply a mechanical outrage.” declared that forthright authority in 1907,” to drive high-powered cars constantly in London, or any big city. You cannot keep this great power under control and escape certain consequences. Many of these engines overheat upon the smallest provocation. Other drivers tell you of red-hot clutches and water boiling, and countless less troubles attending a shopping excursion. If It man must have a big car for town use, then, opponent of the six-cylinder car that I am, I would advise him to buy it six-cylinder, and go to S. F. Edge or to Rolls-Royce for it.”

Mr. Pemberton’s advice is this matter is noteworthy; although as a writer he cannot by any means be regarded as insular in his outlook, the intending purchaser of a six-cylinder car should, he suggests, confine his attention to the two leaders among the twenty or so makers who were offering cars of this type. None of the Continental manufacturers, he implies, are worth consideration, although it could no longer be said that they were neglecting this type of product. Admittedly, if Panhard were still making a six-cylinder car in 1907, they were apparently diffident about listing it, but apart front Clément and Vinot et Déguingand, whose plans were already known to Mr. Buist early in 1906, other French makers such as Berliet, Brasier, Darracq, La Buire, Gladiator, Hotchkiss, Leon Bolleé, Mors, Porthos and Rochet-Selmeider were all offering six-cylinder cars; the German industry, represented by Mercédès and Horch, was also “concerning itself with six-cylinder machines; Italy, far from making only the San Giorgio under licence front Napier, was represented in the field by F.I.A.T., Itala, S.P.A., and Florentia; while the Belgian contingent included Minerva, Germain and Orleans. Notw of these famous makers, Mr. Pemberton implies, were in it, as far as six-cylinder cars were concerned, with Napier and Rolls-Royce; by their pioneering work in this field the English manufacturers in general and Napier in particular had stolen a march on their competitors and established a lead in the production of luxury cars which, it would probably be true to say, they have never since lost. As Mr. S. F. Edge himself put it at the time, “the principle of using six cylinders was introduced by Mr. Napier… and owing to its continued success there are nowa hundred and forty-one firms in all parts of the world who have copied Mr. Napier’s principles and are starting to make six-cylinder motors. The result is that the makers have had years of experience in designing and constructing six-cylinder cars, while some other firms are now experimenting in this type of engine at the expense of their clients. “In which piece of pellucid English prose there was no doubt a great deal or truth.

Against the background of this chapter of motoring history (which, I must apologise for having sketched at so great length) I was particularly interested when the Editor suggested to me that Mr. Ronald Barker might permit me to include his 30-h.p. six-cylinder Type 26 Napier of 1909 in the Veteran Types series. (We are at last, in fact, approaching the subject of this article!) Mr. Barker, said the Editor, would be attending the veteran car rally at Bristol on July 15th., and would allow us to accompany him. As I had myself seen Mr. Barker in France ten days earlier and as he was then heading for the Alps in a 1913 Lanchester, this prophecy with regard to his movements on July 15th appeared to me to be bold. The Editor, however, was confident. Mr. Barker, he declared, would return frtamt the Alps just in time, and if we betook ourselves on that Saturday morning to the premises of the Basingstoke Motor Company, where the Napier had been left, we would be joined there by its owner. Having had a very long experience of motoring assignations of this kind, I was, frankly, sceptical; but as usual, of course, the Editor was right, and everything worked almost miraculously to schedule.

The premises of the Basingstoke Motor Company constitute, in my opinion, one of the major and more unnanatural hazards of the English road. They are situated on the bye-pass, just as you are coming front London, before a roundabout, at a point where road conditions demand the full attention of the driver. But as their showrooms are practically always filled with delectable, and constantly changing specimens of motor cars of the heroic age, he is a strting-minded enthusiast indeed who at this point can keep his eyes on the road. On this occasion the danger was lessened by the fact that we intended anyhow to stop, and one of the exhibits which thereupon commanded our undivided attention was the Napier which constituted the object of our journey.

It was indeed a most delectable sight. Painted in Napier green, picked out in yellow, the carriage-work represented as delectable a “convertible” of 1909 as the mind of man could well conceive. Behind a rather low bonnet, there rose a magnificent double windscreen, divided horizontally, and with a substantial gap separating its two halves, between a sloping section inclined backwards from the dashboard, and a vertical section reared high into the air. Above the “box” there was stretched, over the heads of’ the pampered chauffeur and footman, a flexible leather “extension”; behind it there rose is glass partition of enormous height; and behind that again, pierced by wooden-framed windows, was the collapsible leather hood of the cabriolet. By a simple process of conversion, her ladyship of 1909 could either remain entirely protected from the inclemency of the weather, or else, once Perkins had attended to the hood, freely display her charms to her admirers in the Park.

If Mr. Barker was a little late at our rendezvous, this was in no way attributable to the unreliability of’ the Hutton-Stott Lanchester, but solely to the dilatory proceedings of the Custom-Officers at Dover. Leaving Geneva on the Friday morning; the Lanchester had been driven post to the Channel; had been ferried across during the night; and on the Saturday morning, little more than 24 hours after its departure front Switzerland, deposited Mr. Barker at Basingstoke. In so rapid a journey our future conductor had had little leisure for sleep, food, or even ablutions; but without the slightest hesitation he now set about preparing the Napier for the road.

The designer of the showrooms of the Basingstoke Motor Company was apparently unaware of the fact that their functions would include the housing of a 1909 Napier cabriolet; for while he provided them, with a ceiling of ample height for the purpose, he so severely restricted this dimension in the doors that the Napier is denied ingress or egress with its hood in the erect position. Before it could emerge, therefore, the top had to be lowered; but the necessity for this operation provided an interesting object-lesson in one aspect of the duties of the supposititious Perkins, the chauffeur of 1909. First the extension over the box is unclipped from the windscreen and rolled back to the front of the cabriolet hood, where it is secured by straps. Next, the depression of a small plunger on either side of the car releases from the uprights of the “division” the wooden lintels of’ the side-windows, the hood-irons are “broken,” and the cabriolet top, to which the lintels are attached, is folded back. The glass window of the division is next let down by its straps, and its wooden side-supports folded down on to the top of it; a similar process is applied to the side-windows; and the whole of the carriage being thus exposed to the wind and the rain, the total height of it is sufficiently reduced to permit of its exit from the showrooms of the Basingstoke Motor Company. Once outside, we put the whole lot up again.

Some pressure having been applied to the fuel tank, carried rather high up, and looking something of an afterthought at the back of the chassis by means of a hand-pump on the foot-board, and the S.U. carburetter, one of the first of its race, having been choked by means of a rod situated close to the starting handle, the engine started with exemplary promptitude. Indeed, the outstanding impression left with one by the car after a day’s journey in it was of its delightful ease of operation, and one was not surprised to learn that Mr. Barker finds it perfectly convenient as his sole means of everyday transport. Writing of six-cylinder cars in the 1906 edition of the Badminton book on “Motors and Motor-Driving,” Mr. R. J. Mecredy remarked that: “The initial cost of cars so fitted is high; the up-keep is considerable, and it is essential to have a really skilled chauffeur-mécanicien, who is is capable of keeping such a complex piece of machinery in through order, and of diagnosing the source of any weakness or failure.” Mr. Barker, so he informs me, keeps no chauffeur-mécanicien at all He is, of course, himself a really skilled mécanicien, but his skill in this direction is rarely called upon by his Napier. As to the chauffeur part, well, he bought a chauffeur’s cap while he was in France, and wore it on the way to Bristol, so that even this item of the Napier’s equipment was properly attended to.

While in 1906 Mr. Mecredy was still declaring that the initial cost of six-cylinder cars was high, Mr. Barker’s 1909 specimen, in spite of its beautiful finish and elegant carriage-work, was not, so he assures me, originally a particularly expensive car. Indeed, he claims that it was known at the Napier works as the “cheap Thirty.” It represented, in fact, an early attempt to remove the six-cylinder car from the purely luxury class, and to apply an engine of this type, and of relatively moderate power, to a purpose for which less multi-cylinder minded designers considered four cylinders amply sufficient. At about this period, Messrs. Napier evidently regarded five inches as the optimum piston stroke, and in their larger engines used it with an equal, or even larger, bore. In the Thirty, however, the bore was reduced to the moderate figure of 3-1/4 inches, giving dimensions equivalent to 82.56 by 127 mm., and a capacity of 4,077 c.c. (R.A.C. h.p.: 25.35).

Unlike the contemporary Rolls-Royce engine, which was regarded as two three-cylinder engines in tandem, with the cylinders grouped accordingly, and a long bearing between the groups, the six-cylinder Napier engine was conceived in effect as three twins, with the cylinders cast in pairs. From the first, too, Napier adopted the firing order 1, 4, 2, 6, 3, 5, which, as noted recently in these columns, was also used in the six-cylinder Hispano-Suiza engine of 1919, before being replaced by the now more usual order 1, 5, 3, 6, 2 ,4. Otherwise the design is fairly conventional, with all the valves on the same side of the engine, and high-tension magneto ignition.

Behind the engine is a three-speed gearbox, operated by a lever working in Mercédès-type gate. In a moderately-powered chassis obviously intended to take heavy bodywork, one might rather have expected four speeds; but three only is much more nearly in the Napier tradition, any greater number having been abandoned on the racing cars from the 1902 Gordon Bennett winner ownards, and any suggestion that in the case of the Thirty special considerations dictated a break with this tradition could be refuted by reference to the six-cylinder principle.” With regard to gear-changing” wrote Mr. Edge in 1907, “this bugbear of every driver is practically never necessary, as six-cylinder Napier cars can be run from a standstill to their highest speed on the top-direct drive, which does away with the discomfort and clashing noise of the incessant gear changing which is necessary with powerful four-cylinder cars in traffic.”

Behind the gearbox again the drive is taken by an open propeller shaft to the live back axle and thence to the chassis through the forward part of the half-elliptic rear springs. These latter were apparently an innovation in Napier circles when Mr. Barker’s chassis was built, others but little earlier having “platform” rear suspension, in which the two half-elliptics are joined at the back by a transverse spring. Torque and reaction are looked after by a stout triangulated torque truss, and the front springs are normal half-eiliptics. [In the case of the car in question it is painfully obvious to those riding on the back seat that the half-elliptic rear springing is not all it might be; perhaps this explains the adoption of three-quarter-elliptics on later versions of the same model. The makers were apparently conseious of the need for improvement as their catalogue of the period lists as an extra the “S. F. Edge Patent Snubber” – ED.]

Having in the meantime filled the Napier’s tanks, we were now ready to take the road for Bristol. It had been a glorious morning while we had been waiting at Basingstoke, but by the time we set off thick sodden banks of cloud had come rolling up from the west, and before long sheets of rain were sweeping across the countryside. In order to see at all it was frequently neeessary for the driver to peer through the gap in the windscreen, which was convenient for this purpose, but which inevitably allowed those on the box to become a trifle damp. Mr. Barker, however, appeared to be quite unperturbed by these conditions. He did not, I noticed, run his six-cylinder Napier from a standstill on the top-direct drive, even abhorring the second speedas a starting gear, although it would have doubtless served well enough for the purpose, in favour of the rather low first. On the other hand, I heard no clashing noise from his incessant gear changing, which suggests that this process is less of a bugbear to him than it was to Mr. Edge.

One of the latter’s great claims at about the period when the Thirty was built was that all Napiers were fitted with a speedometer, and that their fortunate owners were thereby protected from the risk of’ exceeding the speed limit. One rather wonders, if this was the real object of this accessory, why the instruments were calibrated to more than 20 miles an hour. In any case, Mr. Barker’s car still retains its speedometer, and it was thus possible to see that, even in the pouring rain, the Napier settled down to a comfortable cruising speed of from 40 to 45 m.p.h., which appears to be some 10 miles an hour within its maximum.

At this speed the Napier emits in fair measure that by no means unpleasant concert of humming and whirring noises, the exact provenance of which it is difficult to determine with confidence.

Frankly, I find it hard to say whether, at what one now regards as a normal cruising speed, the Napier would easily be recognised, by one who was ignorant of the details of its engine, from a good four-cylinder car of the period. “The six-cylinder engine,” wrote Mr. C. S. Rolls, “…has exerted a great influence on British tastes, because it created a growing dislike to noise…” With the engine idling, or pulling under heavy load, the improvement in this respect was no doubt impressive to his contemporaries, but nowadays, when a a still greater measure of silence has been achieved by other means, their enthusiasm on this score seems perhaps a trifle exaggerated. On the other hand, some of the further claims made by the six-cylinder enthusiasts are even harder to swallow. “As some slight compensation for these increased expenses,” wrote Mr. Mecredy, “the strain on the transmission system is reduced by reason of the constant torque, and for the same reason the tyres will wear better than in the case of, say, a four-cylinder engine, weight for weight and speed for speed.” Mr. Edge, as usual, made the same point, only even more strongly. “This even pressure on the working parts,” he declared, greatly reduces the wear on the tyres, as instead of the wheels being jerked round by four large explosions, an even pressure is always kept on the tyres.” But in sober fact, unless you actually allow the transmission to snatch (which, incidentally, is perfectly possible even with six cylinders) do even the rear tyres know how many cylinders are driving them?

To my mind quite the most impressive feature of the Napier is its brakes. The side brakes consist of metal-to-metal drums on the rear wheels, while the foot-brake works on the transmission; and even on the slippery roads which we traversed en route for Bristol, either could be applied really hard without the car showing any tendency to misbehave. Moreover, when they were applied as if you meant it, their power was truly astonishing, considering that they worked only on the back wheels. Indeed, I should like to have had with us that day a representative of those gentlemen who doubtless know all about motor cars, being engaged in insuring them. The Napier, which practically all of them would regard as an abominable risk, was patently safe; whereas the 1950 car in which we made the rest of the journey, and to insure which they would have fallen over each other in their eagerness, was itself so eager to go broadside if  its throttle was opened on even the slightest bend that only the peculiar skill of the Motor Sport drivers prevented, I am convinced, that journey front being my last.

After a time, Mr. Barker magnanimously invited me to take over the controls the Napier while he retired inside the cabriolet to confer with the Editor. I was thus treated to a spell of real driving pleasure. Owing to the difficulty of finding an oil which is suitable under all conditions, the clutch drags somewhat when everything is cold, but by the time I took over I found that the first speed could be put in with no difficulty and that the clutch was delightfully smooth in its action. The gears, too, changed with that precision and ease which once again reminded one that the real bugbear of gear-changing only arose in the ‘twenties, and that the Edwardians had, by comparison, nothing to complain of. In the “top direct drive,” moreover, the car certainly fulfils Mr. Edge’s claims in so far as it has a very considerable range of flexibility, and while, emulating its owner, I fiddled about a good deal with the advance and retard lever working in a quadrant on the top of the steering wheel, this process seemed to be quite unnecessary in order to avoid either “knicking” or any suspicion of transmission snatch, and in fact the engine did not appear to be particularly responsive to this control. The rim of the steering-wheel, incidentally, was in a very dilapidated condition when Mr. Barker took over the car, and in consequence he had the five spokes cut down by its original makers, and a new rim fitted, so that the total diameter is now only 15 inches. There is no suggestion, however, that as a result the wheel is in any way inadequate for its purpose, and although to me (but not, I gather, to others) the steering felt rather dead on the straight, the car steered with beautiful precision when it. was required to, and has the excellent lock associated with the track-rod in front of the axle lay-out.

The driving position is, of course, decidedly upright, and the arrangement of the pedals is rather intriguing, those for clutch and brake being placed remarkably near to the seat, and their movement almost vertical. The throttle pedal, on the other hand, is not only away to the right, but is considerably further forward, a feature whichi must have appealed to those who, accustomed to hand throttle controls only, were always fearful of mistaking the accelerator for the the brake, and which, incidenlally, lends itself admirably to a toe-and-heel operation of both together.

From the driving seat, the top of the bonnet, riding ahead in the manner typical of Edwardian springing, appears to be on a level with one’s feet. One has, of course, a superb view; here is no banal ability to see both front wings, one can see down between them and the bonnet and watch the front wheels themselves going round! One inevitably takes over the controls of a valuable Edwardian in the pouring rain with a certain diffidence, but within a very short distance the Napier had done as much as any car could do to dispel this feeling, and although I did not seek to emulate its owner’s gait, one very quickly felt that one could go on driving it all day, in any contlitians, with the utmost confidence. The Reliability Trial, in which we took part after arriving at Bristol, presented no difficulties whatever to so practical a motor car, and we took farewell of the Napier in the evening realising that Mr. Edge really did have something to boast about, and greatly regretting thatl a car which set an English fashion to the world has no present-day heirs.