In today’s world of hybrid-centred automotive technologies and highly strung twin-turbo hot hatches, the old adage ‘there ain’t no substitute for cubic inches’ seems to have lost its mojo somewhat. But there was a time – long before the likes of the 427 Cobra – when it really did hold true. An era when the only way to SERIOUS get performance was to drop an aircraft engine into a four-wheeled body of your choice.
BY: Graeme Hurst
PHOENIX FROM THE ASHES
The cessation of hostilities in the First World War was good news for peace-loving nations around the globe. And for the automotive world in particular which was gifted a supply of surplus military engines. Vast engines such as the American-made 27-litre 450bhp V12 Liberty unit that powered the enormous Curtiss flying boats during combat but soon found their way into cars such as Count Louis Zborowski’s amusingly named Chitty Bang Bang.
The last of four cars built by the flamboyant speed freak in the early 1920s, BABS (as it was later renamed) was put to good use breaking the land speed record at the hands of J.G. Parry-Thomas shortly after Zborowski’s death. Parry-Thomas managed a courageous 171mph in 1926 but a subsequent attempt to improve on that a year later at Pendine Sands led to his sudden demise after BABS turned over and caught fire while hurtling along at 100mph.
The charred and twisted remains were buried in the Sands but excavated in the late 1960s by a Welsh university lecturer who spent 16 years restoring it to its former glory. It is now a regular participant at the annual Goodwood Festival of Speed.
THE BENTLEY THAT SHOULD’VE BEEN BUILT
Credit Bentley Spotting www.vintagebentleys.org/specials/0001.php
Inspired by the same era but built from scratch around the same time BABS was being resurrected is the mighty Napier Bentley, constructed on one of W.O. Bentley’s 8-litre chassis. With a 550bhp on tap from its huge W12 24-litre Napier Sea Lion engine, it’s a well-known crowd-pleaser at UK and continental European race meets where current owner Chris Williams (complete with trademark Bowler hat) regularly smokes the tyres off the start line to add to the theatrics.
Strictly speaking it’s powered by the marine version of the regular aircraft Napier Lion unit but it’s known for sounding like a World War 1 fighter plane. One that you quite literally fly by the seat of your pants if the ‘Ultimate Laxative’ strapline on the bonnet is anything to go by!
AIRBORNE AT 143MPH
PIC: John Cobb Napier-Railton CREDIT: BROOKLANDS
It’s one of the most famous images in all racing history: John Cobb’s eye-catching 1933 Napier-Railton with all four wheels in the air as it thunders around England’s Brooklands banked outer circuit in the epic Brooklands 500 race back in 1935. And it’s famous for another reason: Cobb was clocked at a 143.44mph, a record that still stands today as the circuit ceased to be used after being bombed during World War 2.
And making the 24-litre Napier Lion-engined record holder – which also set a 24-hour record of 150.6mph over at the Bonneville Salt Flats in the USA in 1936 – particularly special is that it was built at the famous UK track to take the Brooklands speed record.
It subsequently starred in a film and was later used to test the efficiency of parachutes before changing hands privately a few times, ending up in then Aston-Martin company boss Victor Gauntlett’s garage at one point. Following a fundraising drive some years back it is fittingly back at Brooklands (www.brooklandsmuseum.com) where it has pride of place and is a regular crowd-thriller at events.
UNCLE SAM COMES TO THE PARTY
PIC: MORMON METEOR
The Brits were by no means the only nation to run with the aero-engined theme as the Americans were right behind (and often in front) of them when it came to brinkmanship on the outright speed front.
That was the case with the supercharged Duesenberg Model J which was commissioned by racing hot shoe (and former mayor of Salt Lake City) Ab Jenkins the same year that Cobb was all four wheels in the air at Brooklands. Jenkins’ aim was to clinch the 1-hour speed record at Bonneville, with an impressive 153.97mph in October of 1935.
But he was soon in search of more speed and opted to junk the 400bhp straight-8 Duesie engine for a mighty Curtiss Conquerer V12 aircraft item, renaming the car the Mormon Meteor in the process.
That added 350bhp to Jenkins’ right foot and took the Bonneville Speed Record up to 164.47mph in 1936. The Mormon was later returned to Duesenberg-engined specification but the name has stuck ever since and added to the car’s fame. An aspect which saw it go under the hammer for a heady $4.45 million at Pebble Beach back in 2004 before winning Best of Show at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance three years later.
THE BOER WHO MADE A 220MPH PLAN
You’ll be pleased to hear that the thrill of aero-engined fare continues to inspire petrolheads. And not just abroad but right here: Capetonian Rusty Crowhurst crafted his own aero-engined hybrid in recent years after being inspired by the rakish lines of the Cobb car.
A lawyer by day, Crowhurst wielded a cutting torch and welder by night for eight years to fabricate a suitable body in which to house a 27-litre Rolls-Royce engine (the tank version of the illustrious Supermarine Spitfire fighter’s Merlin engine). And he embarked on some serious engineering in his Marina da Gama garage to get the rather heady powerplant connected to the wheels, including the design (in partnership with a UCT engineering student) of a colossal step-up transfer box to shed the V12’s colossal torque so that it doesn’t rip the car’s Jaguar-based gearbox and differential to shreds under acceleration.
With the peak power of 650bhp coming at just 2500rpm Crowhurst’s special (complete with two passenger seats!) is good for a theoretical 220mph. A figure we reckon would easily allow him to replicate that famous Brooklands photograph (possibly just once…)
FAKING IT IN THE FAST LANE
PIC: The Beast 1 & 2 Credit: classicdriver.com
800bhp, 200mph and 2mpg. Three eye-watering metrics but ones which are entirely appropriate for one of the most publicised takes on an aero-engined monster: John Dodd’s Spitfire-engined Merlincar. Developed by the rather eccentric Englishman in the early 1970s to restore the then-lost country’s reputation for having the fastest car, the V12 Merlincar (more commonly known as The Beast) featured a fibreglass body to Dodd’s own design with an ample bonnet to cover the 27-litre (and very thirsty!) engine.
Performance was understandably impressive (as was the Battle of Britain dog fight sound that flowed from its town-sewer sized exhaust) but Rolls-Royce wasn’t exactly enamoured, especially as the Rolls-Royce-powered hybrid was fronted by a traditional Spirit of Ecstasy-bearing Parthenon-like grille. Naturally it wasn’t long before the famous Crewe-based manufacturer was dueling with Dodd in the English High Court.
The ensuing case made riveting headlines on a near-daily basis as Dodd engaged in publicity-seeking antics which included goading the Crewe firm’s lawyers by parking The Beast outside and borrowing horses for his family to ride to court with in a bid to take the mickey out of a line of questioning about horsepower. Dodd famously lost the case (and his house) but kept his creation which is still in use today, albeit with an adapted grille now bearing his own initials.
The Beast 3 Credit www.spainvia.com/merlincar.htm
And what made the pinnacle of the automotive establishment take him to court you may ask? Well The Beast overtook one of RR’s longstanding well-heeled customers on a German Autobahn and the chap immediately rang to enquire about the company’s latest model…
Look out for a future SentiMETAL piece on turbine-powered cars.