Veteran to classic: The 1903 Gordon Bennett Napier

First to wear the green”

Last month we heard the good news that, after persevering since 1979, Lord Montagu of Beaulieu has been able to arrange for the return to this country of Britain’s oldest surviving racing car, which had been in the United States for 37 years.

The National Heritage Memorial Fund has contributed £150,000 to the total cost (approaching £300,000), and it is hoped that the balance, or part of it, will be recoverable through a recently-opened public appeal. The venerable 45hp Napier was demonstrated by Jackie Stewart at Silverstone during British Grand Prix weekend, and by Napier expert Ron “Steady” Barker at VSCC Prescott. Many more people will go to see the old can when it resides permanently in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu.

Why is this veteran racing Napier worth so much money, and why is its return on important? It never won any races. It is not a particularly good example of contemporary design.

The reasons must be that apart from being the oldest surviving British car of its kind, It was made by the first company in this country (before Sunbeam) to build cars for international races, and which won the 1902 Gordon Bennett race, which was then akin to a Formula One Grand Prix today.

There is also the historical link that, after Count Eliot Zborowski and Claude Johnson had been to Ireland to find a suitable course for the 1903 GB race, the Count asked that Napier paint its cars green as a gesture to the Irish — and it has been Britain’s national racing colour ever since.

That being the case, the history of this particular Napier bears further investigation. SF Edge in the 6.4-litre Napier had been the only finisher in the 1902 GB race, averaging 31.8mph from Paris to Innsbruck and completing the 3511/2 miles in just over eleven hours (this GB was run as part of the Paris-Vienna race, which was won by Henry Farman’s Panhard, at 38.4mph for the 615 miles. As a result, the 1903 GB contest had to be run on British soil.

The Lambeth firm of Napier had apparently gained much benefit from Edge’s rather lucky victory, and had opened a new factory at Acton, increasing output from 100 to 250 cars a year. It built new 7.7-litre 45hp cars for the 1903 Irish race, augmented by a 30hp, of the kind used in 1902, and the K5 13.7-litre 80hp should Edge want more power.

Eliminating trials were held at Dashwood Hill near Oxford, and at Welbeck, over a course Motor Sport has described in recent times. At Welbeck the 45hp Napiers were driven by JW Stocks and the Hon CS Rolls, the 30hp by Mark Mayhew. Stocks did better than Rolls, who had valve trouble, but at Dashwood he stalled his engine. Mayhem’s 30hp Napier was naturally slower, but managed an uphill kilometre at 52.9mph, and apparently the 45hp cars could ascend Handcross Hill on top speed; their maximum speed is quoted now as over 75mph. Edge, Jamul and Stocks were the race drivers for the GB race itself, the latter on the 7.7-litre cars, Edge on his monster.

Edge left the start of the 1903 GB race first (his cousin Cecil beside him) despatched with a pistol-shot by Lindsay Lloyd, who was later to be a very-effective Brooklands Clerk-of-the-Course. Stocks retired early after colliding with a barricade at Ballymoon.

Jarrott also crashed, his Napier rolling over after running up a roadside bank between Maryborough and Stradbally when the steering failed. Bianchi, his mechanic, was pinned beneath the car with the hot exhaust-pipe resting on his chest but Jarrott managed to release him before both men collapsed. This has given rise to the classic story of them both being covered with sheets and left for dead, which says little for the intelligence of the soldiers on the spot, but is, I suppose, just possible if they had no knowledge of first aid and were told to await the doctor— it certainly shows how far we have progressed since, to today’s ambulance helicopters!

Edge was probably by now wishing he had driven one of the 45hp Napiers, because his giant car was held back by tyre failures (he changed them seven times) and overheating, though only 2mph slower than Jenatzy’s winning Sixty Mercedes and one mph slower than the Panhard-Levassors through the grandstand speed-trap. Buckets of water had to be chucked over the tyres, which still left the wheel-rims; Edge finished last, and was then disqualified for receiving outside assistance. He had averaged 35.2mph to Jenatzy’s 49.2mph.

So the 1903 GB Napiers hardly covered themselves with glory! Nor was their design revolutionary. The 45hp cars, of which the remaining one has just returned from America (flown back free of charge by British Caledonian — a nice gesture), had fourcylinder engines of 139.7x127mm (7708cc), of which the inlet valves (four per cylinder) were automatic at a time when others were using mechanically-operated valves. Likewise, the Napier chassis-frames were of reinforced-wood construction and were thus becoming obsolete.

Lubrication was by drip-feed, and petrol-feed was by gravity, ignition by coil. The drive went via a metal-to-metal clutch and a three-forward-speeds gearbox to a shaft-driven back axle. Wheelbase was 7ft 10in, track 46ft 61/2in, and half-elliptic springs were used all round. The Mulliner racing bodies weighed 70lb each, and the total weight was 171/2 cwt.

These cars were used again for the loM Eliminating Trials for the 1904 GB race. Jarrott’s car, with which we are here concerned and which had crashed in the 1903 race, again crashed badly (injuring its works driver Clifford Earp and his mechanic) due to a hand-brake design fault (which I believe Bob Chamberlain discovered and rectified when rebuilding the 90hp Napier L48 “Samson”). That was the last time these 45hp Napiers raced. So what happened to this ill-fated ex-Earp, 1903 GB car? After it had been fitted with a two-seater touring body, it was bought in December 1904 by a Mr Shaw of Addlestone, who had an accident with it and sold it to a Mr Douglas Wilson of Hove. In 1905 it seems to have passed into the possession of a Mr Crew, who had thought of taking it to India. The idea was abandoned, but the owner paid garage rent on the Napier, which was stored in a Kensington mews until the outbreak of war in 1914. The engine was turned over regularly, although no-one ever saw the owner!

There this old Napier remained until interest in veteran cars was aroused by the formation of the VCC. The Blake brothers, RC and WHC, saw a note about the car in The Autocar in 1932 and were able to acquire it that summer. They put on a light racing body and took it to Brooklands, where it lapped at around 62mph, doing perhaps 65-70 off the bankings, until the aged tyres said “enough”!

The old racer was repainted green (instead of grey as when discovered) and used in many events including the Brighton Run. At the Tilburstow (public road) VCC hill-climb it clocked 81.6sec in 1934 and 79.6sec in 1935, misfiring on the latter occasion but beating a 60hp Mercedes. The Blakes had hoped to have a Brooklands outer-circuit match race with it, against Shuttleworth’s 1903 de Dietrich and Mitchell-Thompson’s Sixty Mercedes, but the Track officials said a very definite “no”! The Napier never ran in the BARC veteran car Mountain Handicaps, but when I had the idea of a small exhibition of old racing cars to be held during the 1934 Brooklands Easter races, the Blakes brought the car along. Captain (later Wing Commander) V Holmes, who owned Brooklands — Track & Air, whose motoring pages I then wrote, approved of my suggestion and got a local sign-writer to describe the exhibits.

The Napier was supplemented by the Richard Shuttleworth 1903 de Dietrich with replica “Paris-Madrid” body and aluminium pistons, Dick Nash’s 1912 GP Lorraine-Dietrich “Vieux Charles Trois”, and “Chitty 1”. For my pains, I got a ride round the Track in true Gordon Bennett style, sitting on the Napier’s step.

The problem of where to put the cars was solved when Clerk-of-the-Course Percy Bradley remembered a narrow enclosure along one fence of the paddock, and found the key to its wire-mesh door. I had been going to the Track for seven years but had never noticed this bay —it had apparently been used in olden times for auctioning cars in “Selling Plate” races.

What happened to the 1934 exhibits afterwards? The de Dietrich and Lorraine were simply taken back to the aerodrome. and the Blakes collected their Napier; but Chitty (which had been towed from London behind RGJ Nash’s Ford V8) languished on, waiting for someone to offer the Conan Doyles £50 for it, until it finally went to some northern builder’s yard where its gearbox was removed as a replacement for that in the 200hp Benz.

In 1937, SF Edge used the Napier to open the new Campbell Circuit, and it continued to enliven VCC events. “Steady” Barker drove it in an old-car demonstration during the 1950 International Trophy meeting at Silverstone. By now, however, it was becoming a bit long-in-the-tooth, and a front wheel collapsed on one run (fortunately on a private road) when the Blakes were playing with it. So in 1951 WHC Blake sold the car to his friend George Waterman in the USA, thereby bringing down on his head the acrimonious wrath of the VCC and others.

What was not generally known at the time was that in 1947 he had offered this historic racing car to the Science Museum, as a memorial to his brother who had been killed in the war, but it had been of no interest to anyone. Besides, as he said, the Gordon Bennett Cup, for which the machine had been built, was an American institution!

The Napier later went into the Bill Harrah Collection, and was restored. When Harrah died in 1978 it was bought, along with 81 other old vehicles, by General William Lyon. despite Harrah’s apparent wish that it should not be sold. Lord Montagu kept a close eye on all this, and is delighted to have been able to bring the car back to Britain, albeit at considerable expense.

We have been fortunate in respect of historic Napiers recently. Lord Montagu was also able to have the 1904 100hp GB car at Beaulieu for a time, while it was in transit between America and a Continental museum. and in 1983 we saw Bob Chamberlain’s 15-litre “Samson” (a replica, if you will) in action at the Brooklands Reunion. WB