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The triumphant progress of Napier cars

Posted in Cars, Engineering, Historical articles, Sport on Thursday, 29 September 2011

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This edited article about cars originally appeared in Look and Learn issue number 828 published on 26 November 1977.

Napier 1904 victory, picture, image, illustration

Selwyn Edge driving a Napier to victory in the 1904 Gordon Bennett Race, by Graham Coton

It was night and Brooklands race track in Surrey looked dark and eerie. The place was virtually deserted save for a few officials and the lone driver racing unceasingly round and round the circuit.

Hurricane lamps, glowing yellow around the middle of the track, helped the driver to steer his course. By day he followed a mid-track line of paint-daubs, specially put there to ease his task.

The year was 1907. The track had been open for two weeks and already it was the scene of a world record challenge.

A racing star of those days, Selwyn Francis Edge, was making an attempt on the 24-hour record, then held by an American who had covered 800 miles in this time.

Edge in his 60 hp Napier car was out to average 60 mph to reach a total mileage of 1,440. The pessimists doubted whether he could do it, but Edge roared around the track, breaking one track record after another.

Edge kept going and, after the 24 hour deadline had been passed, had driven over 1,581 miles for an average speed of just under 66 mph, a record which no other competitor could surpass for 17 years.

Not only was this achievement a triumph for Edge, it was also a tribute to a fine breed of racing car, the Napier. Its triumph was confirmed when the first race in the track’s opening public meeting was won by a Napier car, this time driven by H. C. Tryon.

For many years, the names of S. F. Edge and Napier were closely linked, for it was this driver who raced the early Napier cars to victory.

Their association had begun before the First World War when, in 1902, Edge left all his opponents standing in an international race organised by American newspaper magnate Gordon Bennett.

By his successes, Edge also brought publicity to the six-cylinder engine designed by Montague Napier. This powered the first commercially successful motor-car of this capacity.

The Napier firm, at that time, was as esteemed in the motor world as Rolls-Royce is today.

Edge and Napier went their separate ways in 1912. This was somewhat of a handicap when Napier introduced their new 40/50 hp car in 1919. With his flair for attracting publicity, Edge had kept Napier in the limelight in the past. However, Napier had another publicity-getter up their sleeve.

This was the six-cylinder engine, made of a light alloy, which was the power plant of the new car.

During the war, Napier had been making aero engines and this was the field on which their managing director, Montague Napier, thought his company should concentrate. In his eyes, the 40/50 hp car was a way of guiding his company towards aero engine manufacture.

Near the conclusion of the war, Napier had produced their famous Napier Lion twelve cylinder aero engine. It was designed by A. J. Rowledge who was also responsible for the Napier 40/50 hp car.

This was a luxury car which was tough and fast. An open-tourer version which was driven around the Alps in 1921 came back in such good shape that it touched 72.38 mph when driven on the Brooklands track. And in those days, such a speed was breath-taking.

In fact, practically every car of this period was raced at Brooklands. Among them was the Napier 40/50. A version of it appeared in 1929 with a racing body and a cowled radiator.

The Napier 40/50 could be bought in chassis form for £2,100. Owners could then have the body of their choice built on to it by a coachwork company. Captain Alistair Miller, the owner of the racing model which appeared on the track at Brooklands, had his painted navy blue and named the Auto-Speed Special.

However, it did not fully live up to its name because its fastest lap was only 78.18 mph, whereas tuned versions of similarly-powered cars had reached 100 mph and more.

Napier had first entered motor racing with a four-cylinder machine which ran in the 1900 Paris-Toulouse-Paris race. It was unsuccessful, as was the car they produced in the following year, which was a big, unwieldy model of 50 hp.

However, their fortunes changed with their 1902 success in the Gordon Bennett Race when Edge, their main sales agent and publicity-getter, beat his only serious rival, the French 70 hp Panhard.

Three Napier cars failed to win any laurels in the 1903 Gordon Bennett Race in Ireland, although Napier’s 30 hp “Gordon Bennett” engine went into a touring Napier which was on sale in 1903 at a chassis price of £1,200.

Records lay ahead for the Napiers, however. A six-cylinder car introduced in 1904 made the fastest time of the day at the Portmarnock speed trials. It was driven by Arthur Macdonald who set up six world records in Florida, USA a year later.

This Napier was Britain’s fastest car and as such it was chosen for the 1905 Gordon Bennett. But bad luck restricted it to ninth place.

Improvements were made to the car and in 1907 it reached a record 119.34 mph at Brooklands.

Fame in Grand Prix racing, which is a racing car manufacturer’s dream, eluded Napier. The reason for this was simple. They did not enter for the first two Grands Prix, but they had three cars with six-cylinder engines ready for the 1908 Grand Prix.

They were fitted with detachable wire wheels which could speedily be changed for substitute wheels with fresh tyres at pit stops during a race.

After protests from the French, who said that the wheels were part of the car and should not be changed, Napier withdrew.

This was their last appearance at a Grand Prix, for the next such race was not held until 1912, and by then Napier had withdrawn from motor racing. However, it was not the end of Napier cars. A Grand Prix model, given the body of a tourer, found a purchaser in America. Customers in Britain bought cars modelled on the withdrawn Grand Prix entrant.

But the days of Napier’s glory were not yet at an end. Racing driver John Cobb, in a Napier-Railton Special, three times set up world land speed records on Bonneville Salt Flats, USA – in 1938, 1939 and 1947 – the last raising the figure to 393.8 mph.

His record breaker had two enormous 12-cylindered Napier Lion super-charged aero engines, each developing 1,250 hp, one fixed at each end of the car. On one of his two runs, Cobb broke the 400 mph barrier by just over 3 mph. He did so in a car that had four-wheel drive, no clutch and no radiator.

It was a record that stood until Donald Campbell topped it in 1964. For a record to stand unchallenged for 17 years is a tribute to the driver, the car and the Napier engine which proved itself to be a worthy progeny of a famous breed.

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