Napier was one of the most prolific British car manufacturers in the first decade of the 20th Century.
The origins of Napier go back to the early 19th century. The dawn of British motoring history at the end of the 19th century was accompanied by the third generation of D Napier & Son, namely Montague Napier taking the helm of the business. He was an avid cyclist and that is where he met both Charles Rolls and S.F. Edge. Charles Rolls and S F Edge both had Panhard et Levassor cars which interested Montague Napier. At the prompting of S F Edge Napier converted his Panhard to wheel steering , electric ignition and pneumatic tyres in 1898/9. This clearly started a train of thought with Napier which resulted in the manufacture and production of the first Napier vehicle in 1900. Soon S.F. Edge became the sole agent for Napier cars.
Edge was an entrepreneur who had the vision and ability to entice the interest of the fledgling motor enthusiast. He excelled in Motor Sport drew a huge amount of publicity for Napier cars as well as gaining many accolades for Great Britain.
Napier built a racing car in 1901 which was entered in both the Paris – Bordeaux and Paris – Berlin races, without any notable success. This 50 hp machine was a real monster. Its 16,304 cc four-cylinder engine developed close to 100 hp. But with a weight of over 1800 kg, the car was not competitive. The wheels and tyres could not cope with the weight and speed of the vehicle.
For the 1902 season, the car had to be completely redesigned to adhere to the new rules. Whereas Napier had previously focused on safety and durability by over-engineering many parts, they now had to focus on weight saving. Napier used Renault’s direct drive where shaft drive replaced chains! The four-cylinder 6436 cc engine was considerably smaller when compared to the previous year’s powertrain. It developed 45 hp. Each cylinder had four automatic intake valves. The upper crankcase and the cylinder block were made of cast aluminium. The radiator was extra large and made by a company that normally produced steam-powered buses. The gearbox had three gears because Edge thought three gears would be enough. A 180 litre petrol tank was fitted underneath the seats. The Napier team was too small to set up petrol depots, and it was not so easy to buy petrol along the route. Even with a full tank, the car weighed just 933 kg. The car, called the D50, was chassis number 239, probably the 239th car produced by Napier. It was painted olive green – in fact it was the first British racing car to be painted British Racing Green.
Burning a lot of midnight oil, the car was completed just before the 1902 Paris-Vienna race, which also incorporated the Gordon Bennett Cup.
Despite plenty of mechanical problems the car arrived to Paris just a few hours before the official start. And as they say, the rest is history – Edge won the Gordon Bennett Cup for Britain, which was a huge marketing coup for Napier as well. The company has opened a new factory in Acton and increased its yearly output from 100 to 250 cars a year.
Because of Edge’s victory the 1903 Gordon Bennett Cup was held in Ireland. Napier built new 7.7-litre 45hp cars for race, augmented by a 30hp, of the kind used in 1902, and the K5 13.7-litre 80hp should Edge want more power. After the elimination triels Edge, Jarrott and Stocks emerged as race drivers, the latter on the 7.7-litre cars, Edge on his monster. None of them fared particularly well.
The 45hp cars had four-cylinder 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. The chassis was built from reinforced-wood. 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. One of the 45-hp cars is now on display at the National Motor Museum in Beaulieu.
The K5 was a very important development in the history of Napier racing cars. Like the earlier Napier racing cars it used a four cylinder engine but with a larger bore of 165.1mm and stroke of 152.4mm making 13.726 litres, it was more powerful. This engine was somewhat outdated in using atmospheric (automatic) intake valves but it had a rigid crankshaft running in five main bearings – the first time Napier put a main bearing between each crank throw.While earlier Napier racing cars used wooden chassis with sub-frames hand forged from standard sections of steel angle, the K5 used
a pressed steel chassis (formed in a hydraulic press) and this construction enabled Napier to incorporate features which were in advance not only of earlier Napier cars but perhaps of all cars built in this period.
Napier announced a six-cylinder racing car, the L48 for the 1904 Gordon Bennett Cup. Though it was sent to Germany, it was not raced as it was not properly tested. A new, four-cylinder, 100-hp machine was built for Colonel Mark Mayhew, who crashed it during qualifications. This left S.F. Edge who again drove the 1903 K5 – which now featured mechanically operated intake valves, which broughtthe maximum power from 80 bhp to 100 bhp. Edge had to retire from the race due to an overheating engine.
Clifford Earp drove the six-cylinder L48 during the 1905 Gordon Bennett Cup. The L48 used the chassis, suspension, steering, clutch and rear axle of the K5. It was fitted with a 155x152mm engine, capable of 90 hp. The three-spead gearbox would not fit, so a short two-speed and reverse gear unit was installed. Apparently the distinctive appearance of the car with copper tubes running the length of the engine, was not for streamlining or for efficient cooling, but because Edge thought the pipes would make the Napier stand out!
Earp had to give the race, but the L48 went on to have a succesful racing career. Later it received a new engine and a new name – it became the Samson.
- Napier Power Heritage Trust
- Motorsport Magazine, 1951 December
- Motor Sport Magazine, 1987 September
- Napier L48 Samson. An Edwardian Giant by Graeme Cocks