M. N. Mavrogordato’s significantly-original 1914 GP car
There is perhaps nothing more exciting and satisfying in the old-car firmament than a racing car from the glorious, glamorous, and now far-distant world of pre-Kaiser-War road-racing. Quite a number of such cars has survived, fortunately. But time takes its toll, and most of those that are in working order today have had to be substantially re-built, using many re-made and fabricated parts. Philip Mann’s 1914 French Grand Prix Mercedes is a good example (Motor Sport, June 1970). Another car from this heroic age of motor-racing is Noel Mavrogordato’s beautiful white 4 1/2-litre Opel, which ran in the same dramatic race, finishing 10th, driven by Carl Joerns. When I went down by BMW to Hampshire the other day to see and sample it, for the purpose of this article, I was gratified to discover how original is this survivor from that long-ago Lyons French GP. It has not had to be rebuilt to any great degree, as you shall see, in pleasing contrast to most of the other aged racing cars which deport themselves at VSCC and other appropriate meetings, for our edification and enjoyment Incidentally, whereas three of the four 1914 GP Mercedes are known to survive (Mann’s, another in Germany, one in America), another 1914 GP Opel also exists, the Neil Corner car, hut this has been so materially rebuilt over the years as to be more or less a replica.
Opel built a team of three of these cars for the 1914 season, referred to by Kent Kerslake in his book “The French Grand Prix 1906-1914” (MRP, 1949) as having “…engines of the conventional dimensions of 94 x 160 mm. (4,441 c.c.), with four overhead valves per cylinder, operated by a single overhead camshaft driven by a vertical shaft at the rear of the engine.” Before this Opel had built a 4-cylinder 12-litre racing car, the engine so tall that the exposed valves (which are so on the 4 1/2-litre GP cars) protruded through the top of the bonnet.
Rather surprisingly, instead of conserving his team cars for the French GP, Adam Opel entered Joerns in one for races at the 1914 Brooklands Easter Meeting The German duly dressed-up in the required racing Silks (dark green coat and sleeves, violet cap) and, lapping at just under 100 m.p.h,, finish ed third in the “100 Long” handicap. During the early part of the summer the French Grand Prix occupied the Germans’ time. Two of the Opels, driven by Erdtmann and Bruckheimer, retired after 12 of the 20 laps. Joerns, however, brought his Opel I (racing no. 2) home in 10th place in this gruelling 466.6 mile race, at 56.3 m.p.h., having been at it for more than 8 1/4 hours. Opel then sent two of the cars to Brooklands, for five races at the August Meeting. However, the threat of war was too much and Joerns and his colleagues fled to the Fatherland. The Opels remained here, interned “for the duration” at Halkin Street, which I suspect may have been Opel’s London depot at that time.
After the Armistice these Opels were discovered by Paddon Brothers, who dealt in Rolls-Royces and racing cars. Opel I retained its bolster-tank GP body but the other is rumoured to have been fitted before the war with a single-seater body, and its chassis slightly lengthened, because, it is said, Opel intended to attack Percy Lambert’s hour record, established at over 103 m.p.h. with a side-valve 25 h.p. Talbot. Paddon Bros. later moved to Cheval Place, off the Brompton Road (the pre-war Benz depot), taking the Opels with them. They soon passed them on to Capt. (later Sir) Alastair Miller, who entered them for Brooklands’ races when the Track was re-opened in 1920. The ex-Joerns car, now with a grey bolster-tank body, was confusingly called Opel II, the other Opel now being a red two-seater with streamlined tail. (If one of these had had the alleged single-seater body put on it, it seems odd Miller did not retain this. But perhaps he regarded a two-seater as more saleable. I think it more likely that both Opels still had bolster-tank bodies and Miller put a tail over one of these tanks.)
At all events, Hornsted, the famous prewar Benz driver, was allocated the renumbered Opel I, which was prepared by S. C. Cull, and Segrave, who was anxious to gain a foothold in motor racing and had unwisely invested some money in Miller’s motor business, was allowed to work on and race Miller’s Opel II. Incidentally, the car had been registered in Ireland, presumably to provide the sort of registration number favoured by the Paddons. It must be remembered that Segrave was then an unheard-of driver. He competed in Miller’s Opel II at the 1920 Brooklands Whitsun Meeting but lost a rear tyre while at speed on the Members’ banking. Segrave controlled the car with such skill that this is said to have had some influence on Louis Coatalen, in later giving the Major a place in his Sunbeam team. Segrave then brought the Opel, back on four tyres, out for a Sprint handicap, which he won from the scratch mark, at 881 m.p.h. Miller was so impressed with this that Segrave was thereafter promoted to his Opel I intended for the great Hornsted, and with which Segrave had much success, winning two more Brooklands races; before this he took part in the Westcliffe speed trials in Opel II. (Miller’s red Opel I does not really concern us here but it was owned subsequently by A. C. Westwood, was rebuilt by Brian Morgan as a replica of the GP car—he made a new bolster fuel tank for it, which may destroy my theory that Miller, or Hornstcd, fitted the long tail over the original bolster tank?—was then sold to Stanley Scars, who had to have a new cylinder block cast for it, and is now in the Corner Collection.)
To return to Mavro’s Opel, after Segrave had finished with it the car was sold, either by him or by Miller presumably, to a Miss G. Curie, who lived in Yorkshire—one would like to know what prompted a lady to acquire a pre-war racing car? The Opel was next heard of at Fleet, in Hampshire, where it formed a sort of “exhibit” outside the “Oatsheaf” at the crossroads, although I have heard that the publican’s daughter sometimes drove it. (This was before I lived there and before the VSCC was formed, with Tim Carson “down the road” at the Phoenix, otherwise the outcome might have been different!) Then, in 1931, the car was offered for sale by BMC Motors of Brick Street, London, maybe on behalf of the retired publican. E. K. H. Kerslake was then writing those “Veteran Types” articles for Motor Sport that did so much to foster the Edwardian movement. He duly drove the Opel, which was now equipped with a fold-flat screen, a hood, a Klaxon horn and an Autovac and was painted maroon. His story appeared (Dec. 1931 issue) just after Mavro had bought the Opel, for £40, having knocked the vendors down a fiver! They soon realised their mistake and tried to persuade him to sell it back, but he refused.
At that time Mavro was apprenticed to De Havilland’s at Stag Lane, so to that aerodrome he drove his pre-war GP car. It promptly caught fire in the Edgware Road! (When Segrave wrote to Westwood about the other Opel he remembered this inflammatory tendency.) For some time the Opel, quickly repainted white, was used as Mavro’s hack transport. He was a well-known racing motorcyclist, so the car was used for towing his racing machines on their trailer, including his Brough Superior to Brooklands, etc. A big-end soon failed due to an oil-scoop falling off, so the mains and big-ends were re-metalled, Mavro scraping them in himself. At the same time Specialloid made a new set of pistons to the original pattern, these being alloy pistons, possibly fitted for Brooklands. A dynamo lighting-set was installed and the Opel then gave good service as an ordinary car; Dick Craddock was a fellow-apprentice at Stag Lane and together he and Mavro worked out how the lubrication System, etc. worked. The car then went with Mavro to wherever he was posted, as he flew various interesting aeroplanes (including his Bristol Fighter—but that is another story) and not a single nut was lost in taking it to Hooton Park, Witney, and finally to Morris Motors’ aerodrome at Headingley when Mavro was flying the Nuffield Leopard Moth. When the VSCC instituted its Edwardian class, he drove the Opel at SheIsley Walsh, clocking 51.17 sec, there in 1938, a time not bettered by the 1914 Mercedes in modern times. Laid up throughout the war, while Mavrogordato was a Flying Instructor, he decided in 1969 to strip the old Opel down and clean it up.
When I called to see the car last month It stood in solitary dignity in its garage, a gleaming white racing car, more original than almost any other pre-1914 racing car I can think of, except perhaps Neve’s 1914 TT Humber. The last strip-down was for painting and careful re-assembly, not for an overhaul or rebuild. The brass, slightly-vee radiator is original, so is its stone-guard, and although he regards it as ugly, Mavro has retained the original clip for this, to the filler-cap. The stone-guard now carries the car’s licence disc and a VSCC badge. Simple mudguards have been fitted so that the Opel can be used on the road, these being made by Bramber Engineering, who also rebuilt the wheels, which are shod with 5.00 x 20 Australian Olympic tyres, as the correct he. covers were then unobtainable. On the n/s front dumb-iron you have a Ki-gass, on the o/s dumb-iron the original half-compression control. Using these, the engine either starts at the second pull-up of the starting-handle, or it remains obstinate for a very long time!
On the o/s of the impressive power unit there is the correct barrel-throttle Zenith carburetter (the throttle spindle turns on ball-races), feeding into a conventional copper inlet manifold, and the Bosch DU4 magneto. There are eight sparking plugs and to feed the second set Mavro has rigged up a coil-ignition system, using a modern distributor driven by chain from the water-pump spindle, and a very vintage Bosch coil. This was originally at the back of the engine on the o/s but in 1969 was moved to the n/s. At the same time all three brakes were relined with Ferodo (they were originally cast iron), Paul Morgan line-bored the crankcase and slightly built-up the housing of the massive ball-races, the gearbox was stripped but all was in order and the Ki-gass was fitted. Otherwise nothing was done to the car, which is today almost exactly like it was 63 years ago. Even the original undershield exists and may one day be refitted.
The four-branch exhaust system is on the n/s, running into the impressively large external exhaust pipe, which terminates in a detachable “pepper-box”. The exhaust pipe is asbestos-lagged where it passes the cockpit. Above the camshaft-cover run eight copper oil pipes, all original, which take lubricant to the camshaft and rockers from the belt-driven Bosch Type 001-8 oiler in the cockpit. This ingenious and beautifully-made device contains two swash-plate pumps. The main lubrication system consists of a pump taking oil from the sump to a gallery which supplies the troughs into which the big-end scoops (now of bronze, originally copper) dip, and to the main bearings. It is rather surprising to find splash-lubrication for a 1914 racing engine. The Opel has a five-bearing crankshaft, with three large ball-races and two plain white-metal bearings. That no expense or man-hours were spared in making these cars is evident from the hand-scraping all over the crankcase and gearbox, even on the underside of the latter, which finish is still clearly evident. The cylinders of the Opel are in one block, unlike the complex Mercedes arrangement, and the water-plates follow, in part, the outside curvature of the cylinder bores, as they did on the 12-litre Opel. The engine sits on a parallel subframe in the high chassis. The pump cooling is supplemented by the original belt-driven fan. The c.r. is 6 to 1.
I have said that the radiator is the original —it is a German Serck, tubed radiator. The car also has its original bonnet, the one intended for it, as it is numbered 30097, like the engine. The drive from the engine goes via a cone clutch, now Ferodo-lined, through a fine double universal joint, to a separate 4-speed and reverse gearbox, then by open propshaft to the back axle. The body is original even to some of the lino-covered floorboards, except that Segrave, being tall, added a few inches to the cockpit sides. This thrust the back of the body up onto the rear upsweep of the chassis side-members and an ugly piece of wood was inserted beneath it. Mavro has reinstated the body to the correct original length. The seats were re-upholstered by a Bournemouth firm. The original bolster petrol tank is behind the seats, with a pressure-pump on the driver’s side of the scuttle, the tank having a fine glass-topped gauge and a quick-action filler. The body has angle-steel framing covered with aluminium. Incidentally, the Opels were the lightest cars in the Grand Prix, at 18 cwt. The wooden-handled gear and brake levers are outside the cockpit, the latter, outboard of the gear-lever working rod-operated brakes in unribbed drums on the back wheels; the pedal works a transmission-brake. Mavro uses both together, the retardation being effective. The gear-lever is unusual in that, although the gate is of the conventional pattern,
1 – 3 2 – 4
with reverse beyond 1st, only the higher-gear positions are gated in a simple openwork gate. Each axle is damped by drum-type steel/bronze shockabsorbers. Suspension is by rear-shackled 1/2 -elliptic springs.
Climbing into the cockpit, after the engine has commenced at the second pull-up, you find the Bosch-oiler, with its eight visible drip-feeds, by the passenger’s feet, and a central vertical gauge on the dash showing the contents of the scuttle oil-tank, a tap on the oiler allowing this to feed extra oil to the sump, if required. There is an adjuster for the transmission brake on the floor, and a Pyrene fire-extinguisher is clipped to the inside n/s of the body. The biggest instrument, centrally placed below the instrument panel, is a German AT speedometer, reading to 100 m.p.h. in steps of ten, from 10 m.p.h. This is original, but has been overhauled by the AT people in Hammersmith and recalibrated to suit the present tyre-size. The wood, inverted half-moon instrument panel itself contains two tumbler-switches before the passenger, for the ignition system, both of which are normally used, the aforesaid oil-contents gauge in the centre, then on the driver’s side an oil gauge and the fuel air-pressure gauge reading from to 5 lb./sq. in. Due to the splash-lubrication system a reading of 5 lb./sq. in. is normal on the oil gauge, which “manometer Schauffer/Budenberg” was made by MBH Ltd. of Megdeburg-Buchac. On the big, four-spoke, wood-rimmed steering wheel are the two levers, in their quadrants, for ignition advance and retard and hand-throttle There is a tool-box under the fuel tank and the spare wheel is behind the tank.
Driving in this delectable racing car down Mavro’s private road, past his lakes on which the ducks and swans were sunning themselves, I noted that the springing of the Opel is by no means in the harsh, vintage-racing category. And as the engine was opened-up, to a throaty roar from behind in place of the splendid idling “blob-blob” note of the exhaust, I was aware, as Karslake had been nearly 46 years before, of how quiet are the oh. camshaft valve-gear and the indirect gears in the gearbox. Unfortunately, the fierce clutch had been given a too-generous dose of oil and was slipping, so performance suffered. Nevertheless, 60 m.p.h. came up easily and all the delights of motoring a sunny day in a pre-1914 racing car emerged. Mavro tells me that a 70 m.p.h. cruising speed is normal and that 90 m.p.h. comes up with astonishingly little effort. At the opposite end of the scale, this remarkable Opel will run smoothly at 20 m.p.h. in top gear. At the Brooklands Re-Union this year Mavro’s son took the car up the Test Hill, which the 1914 Mercedes apparently didn’t attempt, and his daughter drove it much of the way home from Byfleet to Hampshire, changing gear once only which emphasises the Opel’s docility. If I was astonished at the absence of a tachometer, I was equally surprised at this civilised top-gear running. Fuel thirst, too, is, I am told, a modest 20 m.p.g. of 2-star.
Altogether, this is a highly individual and desirable motor car and it is so fortunate that it has survived in so nearly 100% original form, and that it is owned today by such a great and accomplished enthusiast. Mavro showed an early appreciation of good and unique machinery when he paid that £40 for the car back in 1931. What its worth is today in monetary value does not, I think, bother the Opel’s owner; but I see that one newspaper puts it at £100,000.—W.B.