1907 to 1908
Up to this point, 1906, motor racing had never taken place in mainland Britain, and the motor industry had no facility for testing motor vehicles. The legal speed limit on British roads was 20mph, and Acts of Parliament had been required for the 1903 Gordon Bennett race in Ireland and the 1904 Eliminating Trials in the Isle of Man. Furthermore, such races on large circuits using public roads did not provide good spectator sport.
The idea of a closed, purpose-built, motor racing track had first been suggested by a young gentleman by the name of Oswald Massingberd-Mundy in 1903, when the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland had been trying to work out how to stage the 1903 Gordon Bennett race. Massingberd-Mundy had already identified available land in Riddlesdown, near Purley, south of London, including Purley Bury House, which could become the Clubhouse and race headquarters. The ACGBI had been sufficiently interested to arrange for a delegation to visit the site and had invited SF to join it as an expert, not just because of his recognised skill and experience as a racing driver, but also because of his intimate knowledge of the area gained during his cycling exploits with the Anerley Bicycle Club. SF gave his approval and Massingberd-Mundy started drawing up detailed plans and negotiating a lease of the site. However, for reasons that are not clear, although probably related to difficulty in raising sufficient finance, the track was never built.
SF was therefore very interested when he received a letter in 1906 from one Ernst de Rodakowski, an Amsterdam-born Austrian who became a British citizen in 1903. Rodakowski told him of new plans to build a motor track on the outskirts of London and invited him to a dinner at which it would be discussed. There SF learnt that Hugh Locke King, a keen motorist with a large estate near Weybridge, Surrey, was willing to construct a track on his land. Locke King was eager to get as much advice as possible, especially from those who had taken part in motor racing on the continent. There was much discussion over the optimal length of such a circuit. Jarrott, who was also consulted, was in favour of as long a distance as possible, to enable high speeds to be attainable, while SF felt spectators would enjoy it more if it was made as short as possible. In the event, a track of 2.75 miles was built, which was probably closer to SF’s way of thinking than to Jarrott’s.
Even at this early stage, before a decision had been made to go ahead with the construction, SF informed the meeting that he would like to book the track for the first available opportunity, for an attempt to drive, single-handed, at 60mph for 24 hours. SF was aware of only one similar attempt, in America in 1905, when two drivers, Charlie Merz and W.F. ‘Jap’ Clemens, achieved an average of 45.6mph over 24 hours.
After extensive consultations, by the autumn of 1906 the decision was taken to proceed with construction as quickly as possible. Colonel Holden, RA, at one-time Chairman of the competitions committee of the Automobile Club, was put in charge of the design of the track. The cost of construction was to be borne from Locke King’s pocket, and an early estimate for the cost of laying the track, building three bridges and erecting eight miles of fencing was £22,004. But this was for a flat track, and Holden insisted that the curves would have to be banked so that high speeds — as much as 90mph — could be maintained. By November 1906 the estimate had been increased to £43,000, and by December to £60,750. The final cost, once the track had been opened, has been estimated at £150,000. This left Locke King near bankrupt and a sick man. At the opening of the track, he had to be driven by his wife Ethel, who had more or less taken over the running of the family’s affairs. SF followed the progress with interest and made several visits to the site during construction.
The track, although not quite complete, was opened on 17 June, with the first race meeting to be held on 6 July. However, SF was allowed to book the track for 28 June for his 24-hour record. For the attempt, he chose a 60hp touring model, with minimal bodywork, a very large petrol tank behind the two seats, and a special windscreen, built to his own design. To ‘break the monotony’, he was to be accompanied by two other Napiers, each with two drivers, who were all testers at the Napier works. The three cars were each painted a different colour: SF’s was green while the other two were red and white. SF was conscious that much time could be lost in changing tyres, so the car was fitted with Rudge-Whitworth detachable wheels carrying Dunlop tyres, and a quick-lifting jack was designed. At the last minute, SF realised that the track needed to be lit since the new white surface made it difficult to navigate using only the cars’ acetylene headlamps. So some 350 lanterns had to be procured and placed at ten-yard intervals around the inside edge of the course.
Jarrott again seemed to have a difference of opinion with SF. He had told The Autocar reporters in January 1907: ‘Really, I don’t think sixty miles per hour for twenty-four hours on end without stopping is possible, or anything like it. Only men in perfect condition and young [SF was now 39], could hope to approach it. There is also the question of tyres, which I think will be a problem, and I feel sure they will use up very quickly when in use at that speed continued for so great a length of time.’
SF was certainly aware that success would depend as much on his personal endurance as that of the car, and he went through a rigorous training regime prior to the attempt. This included a cold bath each morning, a swim in the lake at his ‘country place’ in Frensham when possible, a spin on a bicycle, and long walks. He also indulged in fishing: ‘A restful out-of-door occupation, which tends to put one in a perfect state of health’, and ‘Angling trains one to keep the muscles in good condition for sitting still’. He further claimed to be ‘an absolute teetotaller and a non-smoker’, although some have said that at other times he enjoyed the occasional glass of light claret.
The attempt started at 6pm on Friday, 28 June 1907, and SF had a ‘splendid sleep during the day’, declaring later that ‘I felt very fit, as never before in my life’. SF was accompanied at the trackside by Eleanor, and Montague Napier and his wife were also present, together with a whole team of mechanics. SF’s mechanic was his chauffeur, Joseph Blackburn, who insisted on riding with him for the whole 24 hours despite SF’s intention that other mechanics would relieve him. Jarrott seems to have overcome his earlier scepticism and was now an enthusiastic supporter, described by The Autocar as ‘confident that Edge would succeed’.
The Trial was observed by the Royal Automobile Club, as the Automobile Club of Great Britain and Ireland was now known. In charge of the timekeepers was A.V. Ebblewhite, who continued to be the permanent timekeeper and handicapper at Brooklands until its closure in 1939.
The Napier covered 70 miles in the first hour, and the first stop was for water at 8.10pm. At that point the lanterns were lit all around the track, and SF pressed on through the night. At 350 miles came the first stop for a change of tyres, which the team carried out very efficiently, being well-rehearsed. However, occasionally tyres would come off the rims while the car was out on the circuit, but the wheels were strong enough for SF to be able to continue driving at 60mph round to the ‘depot’ for a new wheel to be fitted. ‘The car ran like the proverbial clock and never caused me a moment’s anxiety’. The greatest distance run in any single hour was over 72 miles, in the 14th hour, and the slowest was the 23rd hour, when 61 miles were covered.
The track, which was not fully finished at this time, was already giving trouble, with holes appearing that had to be filled with gravel as the cars continued circulating. On the penultimate lap, as a result of vibration caused by the rough track, the specially designed windscreen broke, and the glass struck both SF and Blackburn full in the face, but fortunately neither of them were cut. They had been lucky with the weather until towards the end of the run, but as they pulled up at the end, the heavens opened.
The total distance covered in 24 hours was 1,581 miles 1,310 yards, giving an average speed of 65 miles 1,594 yards per hour, comfortably above SF’s goal of 60mph. The red and white ‘support’ cars also completed the 24 hours at an average of over 60mph, but each had more than one driver. SF changed clothes once because the night was cold, but the following day was warm. He took no food during the stops but was fed bananas by Blackburn while driving. During the 24 hours a total of 24 tyres had to be changed on his car. While tyres were being changed, he would lie down for a few moments, which he found refreshing. The last tyre change, made close to the end of the run, was timed at 31 seconds from the moment the car stopped to when it moved off. This was not quite up to modern Formula 1 standards but very impressive nevertheless, and a far cry from the 1902 Gordon Bennett race when SF and his cousin were left to their own devices and had to change tyres with no jack! After the run ended, SF drove himself to the White Lion Hotel in Cobham where he ‘slept like the proverbial top the night through’.
The event had been a tremendous success, providing excellent publicity for the Napier concern, which by now was employing 1,200 people at Acton, and giving SF a further boost to his reputation as a successful, and heroic, sportsman.
This British 24-hour record stood for 18 years until beaten by Thomas Gillett driving an AC at Montlhéry, another banked high-speed track near Paris. Weybridge residents had been quick to complain about the noise during the night of SF’s attempt, and no more 24-hour events were permitted at Brooklands. As a record on British soil, SF’s solo achievement still stands.
The official opening of Brooklands took place on 6 July 1907. Although SF did not race, he set up and managed a team of five Napiers, to be driven by Henry Tryon, Sidney Smith, Cecil Edge and Frank Newton. The cars included a 90hp model, known as Samson, with a tubular radiator running down each side of the engine compartment.
The opening meeting was not a success from an organisational point of view but provided more good publicity for Napier. A crowd of 13,500 attended and 500 cars entered the grounds. Tryon won the Marcel Renault Memorial Trophy, Clifford Earp, now driving for a rival concern, Iris, coming second. Smith was less successful, forgetting to put the car in gear before attempting to start his race! Newton was competing for the Byfleet Cup, and his race was declared a dead heat with Jarrott driving a De Dietrich. Jarrott lodged a protest, but it was disallowed. SF immediately challenged Jarrott to a race for £1,000 between his Napiers and any cars Jarrott could put up, but the challenge was declined. Cecil Edge competed for the Montagu Cup but had to retire with fluid leaking from his car, the Cup being won by John Hutton on a Mercédès.
The Napier racing team was back at Brooklands for the August Bank Holiday meeting on 5 August 1907. Newton won the International Plate, and the Belgian Plate was a 1–2 victory for Napier, Tryon winning by 100 yards from Cecil Edge. Browning then won the Oatlands Selling Plate on a 38.4hp Napier. The names of the trophies are reminiscent of horse racing, and indeed to begin with all the arrangements followed horse racing practice. Initially, the drivers had to wear different coloured shirts so that they could be identified, like jockeys, and many of the races were ‘handicap’ ones. However, Ebblewhite was quick to insist that the cars be identified by numbers painted on them, instead of by the colour of the drivers’ clothes.
In that first season, 1907, the Napier team scored six wins, one tie, one second and two third places, and collected prize money totalling £1,678.
SF privately booked Brooklands for 2 January 1908, for an attempt to recapture the 50-mile flying start record. Tryon, driving a 60hp Napier, successfully established a new record at 79.44mph. As he continued in pursuit of the 100-mile record, a burst tyre caused a wheel to lock up, the car spun around three times, and Tryon was thrown out. He was lucky to suffer no more than bruising, and he was up and about within a few days. Jarrott then went out on a four-cylinder De Dietrich on 5 February and pushed the record up to 83.11mph. SF could not stand for that, so Newton was sent back with the same 60hp car, and was able to achieve 85.41mph before going on to set new records for 100 miles and 150 miles, and for one and two hours, the last two of which had been set by SF the previous year.
The first meeting of 1908 was held on 18 April. There was a race for 90hp cars in which Newton’s Napier slipped down the banking towards Dario Resta’s Mercédès on the last lap. The two cars touched momentarily, and spokes went flying, but Newton was able to regain control and pull clear, going on to win the race. Resta lodged a protest, but it was not upheld.
In August 1908, a race of 100 miles was run. It was marred by a fatal accident, when Charles Lane hit a parapet of the bridge in his Mercédès. The mechanic, William Burke, was thrown out and died soon after. One of the Napiers also crashed following a tyre burst, but without fatalities. Newton, in a 60hp Napier, won the race at 98.5mph.
Another race for 90hp cars was run in June 1908, and this time Newton in Samson was pitched against a giant chain-drive FIAT of 89.5hp, driven by Felice Nazzaro. In practice on Saturday Newton stripped a gear on the Napier. The car was returned to the factory and the mechanics worked all through Sunday making a new gear, with Newton driving the big car from Acton to Brooklands at 4.00am on the Monday morning ready for the race that day. The race was to be of nine laps but Newton, having led from the start, had to retire on the third lap with a ‘fired big-end bearing’, leaving Nazzaro to drive on alone and win the race at 94.75mph.
In the middle of the racing season came the sad news that SF’s cousin, Cecil, passed away on 27 July 1908 at the tender age of 28. A successful racing driver in his own right, he had accompanied SF on the 1902 and 1903 Gordon Bennett races and played a leading part behind the scenes during the 24-hour drive at Brooklands. He was an employee of SF and had driven non-stop for 1,107 miles in an 18hp Napier in 1904. He was also the driver of the Napier that made a Brighton–London–Edinburgh run in top gear in October 1905, and in May 1907 he had won a gold medal for his performance in a 40hp Napier in the Frome hill climb. The Autocar reported that he had been suffering for some months with a chest complaint, but that at Brooklands on 8 June he looked ‘almost robust’. Elsewhere his death was attributed to ‘consumption’, a term commonly used to describe tuberculosis. He must have been sorely missed by SF.
Disturbed by the accidents that had occurred at Brooklands, especially by the death of Burke and, possibly, by the death of his cousin, who had played a key role in managing the racing team, SF wrote the following letter that The Times published on 23 September 1908:
The views which have been so well expressed in your columns with regard to dangerous motor racing have interested and impressed me greatly.
I feel that you will realize that the question is a very serious one for the manufacturer.
There can be no doubt that the rapid development of the automobile has in the past been very largely due to racing, and the public undoubtedly then took a great interest in it, but your recent utterances have developed the fact that there is now an immense volume of public feeling against dangerous racing, and that there is a general idea that the automobile is developed and established so sufficiently that racing demonstrations of an extreme type are no longer necessary.
As one who has been responsible for most of the racing in this country, I think it may perhaps be my duty in deference to public feeling to be the first manufacturer to publicly announce my intention of withdrawing Napier cars from all dangerous competitions.
In making this announcement I hope the public will accept my assurance that my sole object in automobile racing in the past was to demonstrate the ability of a British manufacturer to hold his own in this high type of engineering against any one in this world, not withstanding the long start our faulty legislation gave our foreign competitors in this great industry.
I feel that that object has now been achieved, and that the British motor-car now leads in type, design, and workmanship.
As I have said, this matter is a serious one for the manufacturer; and it is possible that abstention from racing contests may, as some think, react upon my firm. I must therefore qualify this declaration of my withdrawal from abnormal contests by claiming liberty to lead the fray again if I have mistaken the trend of public feeling.
I would add that my decision in relation to racing will involve no relaxation in every possible scientific effort towards the refinement and development of the British motor-car.
S.F. EDGE. 14, New Burlington Street, W., Sept. 22.
Another factor in reaching this decision may well have been the financial difficulties his company was experiencing following the slump in sales resulting from the ‘Panic of 1907’ as described in the next chapter.
SF now focused all his attention on his various business activities.