The Remarkable Story of the Napier in Florida
During the early years of the last century, the annual automobile racing contests held at Ormond and Daytona Beaches captured the world’s attention. Many of the best and bravest drivers in the world steered powerful brutes of cars along the beach to win races and set speed records.
On 25 January 1905, on a stretch of sand between Ormond and Daytona Beach in Florida, an Englishman became the first person to exceed 100 miles per hour on American soil.
To put this into perspective, in 1903 the State of Connecticut was the first to introduce a speed limit set in law. It was 12 mph in cities and 15 mph in the country. Good luck with that! Most country roads were little more than wheel tracks and were unable to support a car going at such a wild speed, but it was a different story on the hard and flat beaches of Florida where cars built for racing could be driven to their absolute limit.
One of the manufacturers enticed to ship car from Europe to enter the 1905 speed contests in Florida was the British firm of Napier. The company was owned by Montague Napier, the heir to a precision engineering business which manufactured gold scales for the British Royal Mint. Montague had a sales and marketing agreement with an Australian-born “super marketer”, Selwyn Francis (SF) Edge who used auto racing success as one of promotional hooks. Up until the emergence of Napier as a force in racing, British drivers had to use French or German race cars.
Napier and Edge employed a young engineering draftsman named Arthur Rowledge to help them design a revolutionary new engine. (Rowledge would later be part of the design team responsible for the Merlin aircraft engine which powered the Battle of Britain Spitfire and Hurricane fighters in World War II). The engine was to be a whopping 915 cubic inches in capacity (15 litres) but most importantly, it was to be six cylinders shoe-horned into a chassis with an overall weight of less than 1000kg (2,204lbs) to meet European motor racing regulations. The Dutch manufacturer, Spyker, made the first six cylinder engine only months before the completion of the Napier, designated L48, in 1904. History now records, however, that Napier undoubtedly produced the world’s first successful six cylinder race engine.
SF Edge could not cross the Atlantic as he was preoccupied with getting a team together for the international Gordon Bennett contest but he had a team of amateur and professional drivers at his disposal. He decided to send one of his best “mechanicians” to Florida to race the car. His name was Arthur Macdonald. The 23-year-old was born at Wimbledon near London and he had been Edge’s riding mechanic on several occasions. “Of slight build and short stature”, he had successfully raced the 90hp car at the Gaillon hill-climb in France a few months before, reaching about 75 mph and giving the local French drivers a lot to think about.
On the first day of the speed carnival, Macdonald set a new speed record of 91.371mph over five miles bug he was only getting started. On the following day, he set a world’s record of 104.651 mph over the mile. By the end of the meeting, Arthur Macdonald and the Napier set 5, 10 and 20 mile speed records, and set a new American record for a flying kilometre at 97.258 mph. Frustratingly, the Automobile Club de France would not recognise the records because they were done with manual and not electric timing, but this did not stop the world hailing Macdonald’s achievement.
In 1906, SF Edge sent another one of his drivers to race at the Ormond and Daytona Beaches. Walter Thomas Clifford Earp was described a “England’s Leading Gentleman Driver” by the Washington Post. The Los Angeles Times said “England has certainly sent her best, both in man and machine, to battle for the world's supremacy in automobile speed”.
The Napier with Clifford Earp at the wheel could not match the speeds which the new cars which came to Florida could achieve, but in the greatest race of the speed carnival, the performance of this combination of man and machine became legend. The 100-mile event was the blue-riband race. Six cars lined up for the start and Clifford Earp led for the first 37 miles. At this point, his right rear tire exploded, scattering rubber across the beach. He stopped the car and he and his riding mechanic, HB Baker, proceeded to remove all the tire’s remains from the rim. A similar blowout had happened during practice and they found that they could still race on the rim as long as they did not turn the corners too tightly. While they were removing the rubber, three cars passed them. They were back to fourth place. In front were two people who would soon become legends of the motoring world: Vincenzo Lancia driving a Fiat (he would later manufacture Lancia cars in Italy) and Louis Chevrolet driving a Christie. The other car was a Napier. Clifford Earp was undeterred and gradually worked his way to near the front. After 70 miles, he hit the lead again when the race winning Fiat stopped to change a tire. When Clifford Earp turned at Ormond Beach with 12 miles to go, he was only narrowly ahead of his rival. He won the 100 mile race by a mere 50 seconds and “pandemonium broke loose” amongst the crowd. Not only had he won the race, he also set a new world record for 100 miles of one hour 15 minutes 40 and two/fifths seconds or 79.288 mph. The win inspired great stories, even inspiring the motoring racing historian Dick Punett to title his book on the Ormond and Daytona Beach tournaments “Racing on the Rim” out of respect for the remarkable feat.
But what happened to the 15 Litre Napier L48 later called Samson? With newer and faster cars being designed every season, a few years later, the first car to exceed 100 miles per hour on American soil was broken up. The engine was sold to a couple of brothers who operated a ceramic factory in Australia. They put the engine in a motor boat with a special American-designed planing hull and won Australia’s premier power boat race.
The engine was removed after the Great War and put in the corner of their factory where it gathered dust and almost disappeared under piles of ash and waste.
Decades and another world war passed when an engineer spotted it. He was fascinated by the relic. When the ceramic factory was closed, he secured the engine but with no real thought of what it was, or what to do with it. He just had to have it.
That engineer was Alan Hawker ‘Bob’ Chamberlain. The Hawker name resonates of course. Bob’s uncle was Harry Hawker who is best known as the aviator and engineer associated with the Sopwith Camel and the Hawker aviation firm which built the Hurricane fighter using a Merlin engine.
A major piston manufacturer (Chamberlain’s company made 13 million pistons during and after World War II) and the manufacturer of Australia’s most widely used farm tractor; in his spare time Bob Chamberlain began writing letters to anyone he could think of in the UK who may have known something about his Napier engine. A story emerged. Sitting in his workshop was one of the most important engines in motoring history - the world’s first successful six cylinder racing engine and the engine which inspired the movement from four cylinder to six cylinder engines.
Bob Chamberlain was faced with a choice: either to polish this artefact of the golden age of motor racing and put it on stand in a museum, or to recreate the original car around this engine. Fortunately for us, Bob was a builder and he chose the latter! Using the resources of his tractor manufacturing operation and the expertise of his staff, he reverse-engineered the Napier L48. Race cars constantly change during their racing career so he had to pick a precise point in the development cycle to recreate. He selected the ultimate version of the car showcase Napier, Rowledge and Edge’s engineering and racing success.
Napier drawings and document in London’s Science Museum archive were consulted and just like Arthur Rowledge had done 75 years before, new drawings were made of every component. And just like Rowledge had done, casting patterns were commissioned. Nothing much had changed in 75 years. The casting patterns, hundreds of them, were carved out of wood then sent to a foundry for manufacture. Indeed, it was like Bob Chamberlain was back in 1903 or 1904 making the original car.
The rebuilt engine was started for the first time in the first time in 67 years in July 1982. It ran better and was more powerful than even Bob Chamberlain had hoped. By the end of the year, the car was running on race tracks in Australia for the first time. In May 1983, the Napier L48 was shipped to the UK, getting its first high speed run at the Donington circuit in England. In the subsequent season of vintage racing, the car clocked times in excess of 110mph, validating the quality of the original car’s design and attesting to the excellence of the recreation. Retired grand prix race driver Tony Gaze drove the Napier at the Colerne Sprints in 1983 and recorded a standing start kilometre in 30.67 seconds with a terminal speed of 111.73mph.
English motoring journalist 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. Modifications made were in keeping with the ethics of a highly-experienced engineer intent on providing a habitat for a decidedly historic engine, and had the task not been undertaken there would now be no 1904 Napier L48.” Bob Chamberlain’s single-minded goal to bring his engine to life was vindicated by one of the greats of motor sport journalism.
The Napier L48 was sold in April 1983 to Australian car collector Peter Briggs and placed in his York Motor Museum in-between excursions around the world. He was invited to take the car to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1999 in the special class for important racing cars produced pre-World War I. He was awarded the “Automobile Quarterly” prize for the most historically significant car at the event. The car has twice been campaigned in VSCC events in the UK and raced at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. It has been driven at more than 100mph at the historic Lake Perkolilli claypan in Western Australia.
The engine is now looking for its fifth owner (SF Edge, the Cornwell brothers, Bob Chamberlain and Peter Briggs) in 120 years. The Napier recreation in which it is mounted is looking for its third owner in 40 years - hopefully someone who will appreciate the engineering excellence of Napier, Edge and Rowledge and the feats accomplished between Ormond and Daytona Beach; and the vision of Bob Chamberlain who wanted to feel what it was like to drive and race one of Britain’s and the world’s greatest race cars.
Written by Graeme Cocks, 10 January 2024
The Napier will be offered for sale at the Bonhams Auction at Amelia Island, Florida on 29 February 2024. Link at https://cars.bonhams.com/auction/29261/preview-lot/5775130/1904-napier-samson-l48-15-litre-240-bhp/