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1904 Napier L48 Samson



(Later known as “Samson”)

Constructed in Australia (Original UK)


15 Litre 6 Cylinder

Overhead inlet and side exhaust valves

Copper tubes used for engine cooling

240 B.H.P. (as restored) at 2300 R.P.M.

2 Speed transmission



The Napier company was put on the map by Australian Selwyn Francis (SF) Edge who was born in New South Wales but went to Britain with his parents in 1871 at the age of three.


Montague Napier built a prototype motor vehicle in 1895 using a Panhard chassis and Napier engine. SF Edge was so impressed with the engine that he and Harvey du Cros formed a new sales organisation called S.F. Edge Ltd, to sell the new automobile on debut in 1900.  They agreed to sell the entire output of the new motor vehicle division of the company and the close association which lasted until 1912.


Edge was a skilled marketer, having honed his skills in the bicycle industry, and used record breaking and motor racing as a way to garner publicity for the brand.  


In 1903, he announced a new model for 1904 –– a six cylinder machine. Napier was not the first to build a six cylinder engine (Spyker had already done) but it can be argued that Napier was the first to build a successful race engine of six cylinders and Napier was certainly the world's first series manufacturer of six cylinder motor cars.


On Napier’s own admission the earliest date that their six cylinder appeared was February 1904 and the Dutch Spyker firm had completed its car by November 1902.  


“Samson” L48 was first shown in June 1904 and it was the company’s first six cylinder racing car. It was built for the 1904 Gordon Bennett race and contested many competition events in the UK, including the 1905 British “Gordon Bennett” eliminating trials.


L48’s 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 155x152mm engine it continued to compete in events up to 1908, including Brooklands culminating in its challenge race with the great Fiat, “Mephistopheles” in 1908.


It was later fitted with an even larger engine of over 20 litres (when it was named “Samson”) and with this engine took the British half-mile record at 119.34 mph.


With the original engine, (now in the recreated vehicle) Edge’s 90hp “L48” took out the World Land Speed Record at Daytona Beach in the USA in 1905 (January), driven by Arthur Macdonald at 104.65mph (168kph) over the measured mile.


Macdonald was a young Englishman in spite of his Scottish name, and was one of the first people in the world to travel at over 100 mph. The record was achieved during the annual Speed Week at Daytona Beach.  It was the first time a car was recorded at over 100 mph in the United States and it was the first British car to exceed 100 mph. Over the course of the week, he drove the Napier to set world’s records over 5, 10 and 20 miles, and a new American record for a flying kilometre at 97.258 mph.

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.


The competition successes of the Napier L48 were many and stretched across two continents:-


  • Portmarnock Sands Speed Trials, UK - September 1904. L48 was raced for the first time putting up fastest time.


  • Gaillon Hill Climb, France - September 1904. The “Big” car class featured eight vehicles with the Napier L48 being driven by Macdonald.  The car completed the flying kilometre in 29.4 seconds, creating a new record, unfortunately beaten by a subsequent run by the Gobron-Brillie of M. Rigolly and later the Darracq of M. Baras. L48 finished 3rd, .4 of a second behind the other two drivers.


  • Ormond-Daytona Beach Meeting, Florida, USA - January 1905. In addition to the Flying One Mile World Record of 104.65 mph, L48 achieved other records including:-


    -    Flying Kilometre (American Record) 97.26 mph

    -    World’s Competitive Kilometre Record (Standing        Start) 81.6 mph

    -    World’s Competitive Mile 96.25 mph

    -    World’s Five Mile Record 91.37 mph

    -    World’s Ten Miles Record 96.00 mph (winning the    Miller Trophy)

    -    World’s Twenty Miles Record 89.21 mph (winning  the Thomas Trophy).


     “Gordon Bennett” Races, Clemmont Ferrand - June 1905. Napier timed fastest over the kilometre but finished a disappointing 9th due to poor preparation.


  • Brighton Speed Events - July 1905. British record for the flying kilometre, 97.2 mph.


  • Blackpool Speed Events - July 1905. Beat both a 100 hp Fiat and a 100 hp Darracq.  Flying kilometre 104.52 mph and mile at 96.25 mph set fastest time.


  • Chateau-Thierry Hillclimb, France - October 1905. Fastest time of the day.


  • Doundon Speed Trials, France - November 1905. Fastest time of the day over both kilometre and mile events.


  • Ormond-Daytona Beach Speed Trials, Florida, USA - January 1906. 1st in the five mile event. Won the Miller Trophy.


  • 100 Mile Minneapolis Cup, USA - 1906. 1st ahead of the Napier’s Fiat rival.


  • Blackpool Motor Race Meeting, UK - October 1906. Initially tied with a 200hp Darracq in event 12, but beaten in a run-off by .2 of a second. Established Ladies Record driven by Miss Dorothy Levitt over the flying kilometre.


  • Gaillon Hillclimb, France - September 1907 (fourth visit). Fastest time of the day (average 84mph).


  • Brooklands UK - August 1908 (fitted with a new engine and now named “Samson”) First in Thirty Mile Race (for the Montague Cup) New Record.


  • Brooklands, UK - October 1908. 90hp Ten lap record raised to 102.21 mph and half-mile record raised to 114.98 mph.


  • Brooklands, UK - 18 November 1908. 90hp Class short record pushed up to 119.34mph. Top speed of 130 mph achieved on the “Byfleet” banking. (“Samson’s” Brooklands record lap stood for six years).


The record breaking first engine from “L48” was sold in 1908 to Australia’s Cornwell brothers who used it in their record-breaking speedboat, “Nautilus 2”. (In 1909 “Samson’s” second engine was taken out of the chassis and lost when the speedboat it was in sank. The chassis was also broken up in 1909).


“Nautilus 2” was specially built by the Cornwell brothers to house the L48 engine now in the recreation and with it won many races including the E.C. Griffiths Cup in 1914 and 1915. It was the fastest boat in Australia in its day, even against imported competition.


The engine from “Samson” remained in Australia, apparently ignored in the Cornwell brother’s pottery factory for around 34 years, until discovered in 1950 by Bob Chamberlain, the wealthy industrialist.  Chamberlain bought the engine, originally with the ideal of cleaning it up and displaying it at one of his factories. Not until 1977 did Chamberlain begin the daunting task of actually re-creating “L48”.  Using original factory drawings from the Science Museum in London, photographs, and his company’s enormous engineering facilities he recreated the car to its 1908 specifications, when it raced at Brooklands with the 15 litre engine.


The rebuilt engine first started in July 1982, instantly with no problems. Early demonstration runs in Australia showed up problems with the tyres moving on their rims, so more modern tyres were used on the rear wheels for serious work and these were the ones used at Lake Perkolilli and Lake Seabrook in 2007.


The Napier attracted a great deal of worldwide interest when it was completed as up to that time few recreations of Edwardian racing cars had been made – and even fewer of the quality of the Chamberlain car.  The Napier, however, set the standard for the recreation of historic cars. It is now accepted that it is legitimate to recreate a car around the original motor so that once again the spirit of the early years of motoring can be enjoyed by younger generations.


The first demonstration run of the Napier was on 8 September 1982, at the Sandown Racetrack, prior to the running of the “Castrol 400”. On 22 April 1983 “Samson” was taken to the Mangalore Airstrip and the Vintage Drivers Club provided timing equipment. There, driven in turn by Bob Chamberlain and former race driver, Tony Gaze, the Napier reached 100 mph.


In 1983 the car was taken to Donnington in the UK and was demonstrated at the famous Brooklands track.


It also ran at the (also famous) Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb, recording a run of 50.4 seconds, and at the Colerne Sprints, recording 30.67 seconds (terminal speed 111.73 mph), for the standing-start kilometre, driven by Tony Gaze. They must have been serious because L48 took 27.2 seconds to cover a standing kilometre in 1905, when it took out the world record.


To put the Napier’s speed into perspective, in earlier Australian demonstration runs at the Geelong Sprints in 1982, L48 covered the standing start ¼ mile run in 16.9 seconds. While starting cautiously to preserve the back tyres, that run compares to a modern passenger car, not bad for a 1904 design!


It was sold in April 1993 at a Sotheby’s auction in Melbourne, as part of Bob Chamberlain’s estate and purchased for display in Peter Briggs’ York Motor Museum collection.


The Napier became a major feature of the York Museum Collection.  In 1999, Museum owner Peter Briggs was invited to exhibit the Napier in the special class for important racing cars produced pre-World War I in the concours to be held in September 1999.  To cap off his participation, Peter Briggs was awarded the “Automobile Quarterly” prize for the most historically significant car in the event.  


In 2000 the Napier was invited by Lord March to the Festival of Speed in the UK where driver Peter Briggs took out a class win in the hillclimb. The vehicle remained in the UK so it could be seen more and it participated there in VSCC events including Prescott.


The car has been exhibited in recent years at the York Motor Museum.


The Napier will be offered for sale at the Bonhams Auction at Amelia Island, Florida on 29 February 2024. Link at

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