Bonhams Set To Auction Reconstructed 1904 Gordon Bennett Napier L48 “Samson” Racing Car

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Napier’s first six-cylinder racing car, the L48, was first shown in June 1904. It was built for the 1904 Gordon Bennett race and contested many competition events in the U.K., including the 1905 British Gordon Bennett eliminating trials, but could never fulfill its potential. Its unusual cooling system, consisting of copper tubes running the length of the engine, was apparently not for streamlining or for efficient cooling, but because Edge thought the pipes would make the Napier stand out.

Fitted originally with a 155 x 152 mm 90-hp engine the L48 was first raced in September 1904 at the Portmarnock Sands Speed Trials in Ireland, where it put up fastest time. That same month saw the Napier return to the Continent at the Gaillon Hill Climb in France, where the twenty-two-year-old British driver, Arthur MacDonald, completed the Flying Kilometer in 29.4 seconds, setting a record that would be beaten in a subsequent run by the Gobron-Brillié and then later by Darracq. The L48 finished third.

The car’s greatest victory was won on the 25th of January 1905 on a stretch of sand between Florida’s Ormond and Daytona Beaches where cars could realize their full potential on flat land unencumbered by speed limits. With Englishman Arthur MacDonald at the wheel, the Napier broke the Flying One Mile World Record of 104.65mph (or, 106.64mph). It was the first car to record 100 mph on American Soil and the first British car to crack the 100-mph barrier. Other achievements at the Velocity Weekend included the Flying Kilometer (American Record) 97.26 mph; the World’s Competitive Kilometer Record (Standing Start) 81.6 mph; the World’s Competitive Mile 96.25 mph; the World’s Five Mile Record 91.37 mph; the World’s Ten Miles Record 96.00 mph (winning the Miller Trophy); and the World’s Twenty Miles Record 89.21 mph (winning the Thomas Trophy).

Six months later, on a glorious day, near Auvergne, France, at the Gordon Bennett Cup, British entrant Napier was the fastest over the kilometer with the L48 but finished the race in ninth place due to poor preparation. The car returned to the Daytona Beach Speed Trials in 1906, piloted by Walter Thomas Clifford Earp, dubbed ‘England’s Leading Gentleman Driver’ by the Washington Post. The Los Angeles Times concurred that, ‘England has certainly sent her best, both in a man and machine, to battle for the world’s supremacy in automobile speed.’ The other five racers were: Vincenzo Lancia driving a Fiat (he would later manufacture Lancia cars in Italy), Louis Chevrolet driving a Christie, Emanuel Cedrino from in Italy in a Fiat, William H Hilliard from Boston in an ex-Gordon Bennett racing car Napier, and J.R. Harding from Boston in a Daimler. At the 32-mile mark, disaster struck. The Napier’s right rear tyre exploded, throwing fragments of rubber all over the beach to the horror of spectators. In the previous year, the car had wooden spoked wheels, but this time it had the first Rudge Whitworth wire wheels, he was confident could withstand the side strain on cornering. At fifty-eight miles, Cedrino was a handy seven minutes ahead of Clifford-Earp, but he too encountered trouble with his tires and began to slow down. In a moment of sheer brilliance, he stopped his car next to Vincenzo Lancia’s car and proceeded to remove two tubes from the stranded car to put on his own wheels. He would not be denied. It was now a race of two, with Earp on three wheels about three minutes ahead, with Cedrino chasing behind with fresh tires and tubes. Clifford-Earp’s winning margin was only 50 seconds after 100 miles. Despite racing 63 miles on only three tires, he had set a world record time of 1:15:40-2/5sec or 79.288 mph, beating the previous time by three minutes. Amongst the spectators, “pandemonium broke loose” was reported. The win was instantly legendary, later inspiring racing historian Dick Punett to title his book on the Ormond and Daytona Beach tournaments “Racing on the Rim” in tribute to this remarkable feat.

Clifford Earp and Arthur MacDonald were not the only drivers to find success behind the wheel of the L48 in this period of ‘Edwardian Giants’. October 1906 saw Dorothy Levitt establish the Women’s World Speed Record over the Flying Kilometer with a speed of 90.88 mph at the Blackpool Motor Race Meeting. Between 1906 and 1908, the Napier continued to be raced, gaining an even larger 20-litre engine along the way. The car was nicknamed ‘Samson’, a nod to the resemblance of the engine’s copper cooling tubes to the flowing locks of the biblical strongman.

Fifteen miles away from their new factory in Acton, London, Brooklands, the world’s first purpose-built ‘banked’ motor racing circuit was the place for high-speed testing. At a time where blanket speed limits were 20 mph. In November 1908, on the “Byfleet” banking, ‘Samson’ achieved a top speed of 130 mph. A record lap which stood for six years. In the months leading up to this achievement, L48 had set many more records including: first in the Thirty Mile Race (Montague Cup); 90 hp Ten Lap record raised to 102.21 mph and Half-Mile record raised to 114.98 mph; 90 hp Class short record pushed up to 119.34 mph.

The car was eventually sold for scrap by Napier. Fatigued by such an eventful career, it had become too dangerous for fast driving. In 1909 the second engine was taken out of the chassis and installed in a speedboat. This had been the fate of the first engine with the larger bore of 6¼”, which was bought from S.F. Edge by speedboat racers Percy and Fred Cornwell of Cornwell Pottery, Melbourne, for the speedboat ‘Nautilus II’. Napier had become the only manufacturer in the world to hold both the world land and the world water speed records. In 1905, Mr. Tucker and his Jarrow-Napier motorboat had achieved 30 knots; Albert I, Prince of Monaco, bestowed upon S.F. Edge the Order of St Charles in recognition of his achievement.

The story of the engine’s survival after its racing career begins with Alan ‘Bob’ Hawker Chamberlain, manufacturer of the celebrated Australian-made Chamberlain Tractors. The Hawker name resonates: Bob’s uncle was Harry Hawker, best known as the aviator and engineer associated with the Sopwith Camel and the Hawker aviation firm. Faced with the choice to either to polish this relic of the racing’s golden age and put it on a stand in a museum, or to recreate the original car around the engine, the engineer’s decision was of course in favor of the more ambitious line of action. Had the car been of a more conventional design, Chamberlain may not have bothered to re-construct the car.

At the Cornwell pottery factory where the engine was rediscovered, only the intake valve rocker arms and domes were visible, poking through the dust. England’s Motor Sport magazine printed a photograph of Chamberlain’s engine block with a notice asking for information, to which Anthony Heal responded by sharing the research he had conducted into Napier over several years. Fortunately, unlike other manufacturers, Napier did not destroy their records. The archiving efforts of enthusiasts such as Heal and Derek Grosmark enabled Bob Chamberlain to rebuild the Napier with characteristic thoroughness. When enlarged, excellent photographs of the engine taken in June 1904 even showed details of the casting imperfections. During the original construction of the car in the early 20th century, hundreds of wooden casting patterns had to be made as every component of the engine was a new design, so much was the engine at the cutting edge of engineering. Chamberlain did the same, reproducing from photographs and plans hundreds of wooden casting patterns to form the car presently offered at this sale. Chamberlain’s friend found an article in an English motor journal which included original assembly drawings of the L48 engine, and it was learned that these were printed from the original and well-preserved ink on linen drawings held by a London Museum. These left no doubt that the engine found in Australia was the first and original one used in the Napier racing car L48.

The rebuilt engine was started for the first time in sixty-seven years on the 8th of July 1982, and it is said to have started on its first turn. It was tested on a dynamometer and showed almost 180 bhp at 161km/h. Journalist, author and stalwart Editor of the famed Motor Sport magazine, Bill Boddy, who had been a critic of poorly executed replicas, said in Motor Sport magazine in 1988, ‘Whether or not you approve of the modern reconstruction of old cars, you must concede that this is the recreation of the decade’.

In May 1982 the car was shipped to the United Kingdom and campaigned twice, appearing in the June 1983 Brooklands Reunion and the July 1983 Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb. Australian F1 driver Tony Gaze drove it at the Colerne Sprints in 1983 and recorded a standing start kilometer in 30.67 seconds with a terminal speed of 111.73 mph. A record which stands in perpetuity, despite the best efforts of many potent Edwardian racing cars whilst this course was in use. In May 1983 the L48 was again shipped to the United Kingdom, getting its first high speed run at Donnington (Tom Wheatcroft had visited Australia to see the reconstruction underway).

To an independent Melbourne evening auction of the 23rd of April 1993, the Chamberlain family consigned the Napier and two other important cars: 1910 Craig “Prince Henry” Benz works racing car, and the Erle/Syme “Prince Henry” Benz works racing car. That night saw ownership transfer to Peter Briggs and his wife Robin. Mr. Briggs housed the car in his York Motor Museum, Western Australia, but the couple took it out on many an excursion. Following Briggs’s death, the car was offered for sale in Australia and now has been consigned to Bonhams.

Words by Ryan Cigana

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If you are interested in Napiers at Gordon Bennett, please check out Rare & Unique Vehicles, No12

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