The sedate 60-mile amble from Britain’s capital to its south coast seaside must have seemed pretty tame to the three powerful Napier racers taking part in the recent London to Brighton Veteran Car Run.
The big green Napiers stood out as thoroughbreds in their century-ago heyday, among the field of 385 fragile pre-1905 veterans that clattered and chuffed off on the annual run, which celebrates the emancipation of Britain’s motorists by the 1896 Locomotives on the Highway Act. It raised speed limits from four to 14 mph, and no longer required a man on foot carrying a red flag to precede vehicles.
The 1902 member of the brawny Napier trio holds a special place in Britain’s racing history, as the first to introduce British racing green as the country’s motoring competition livery – and with a famous win on the continent, making it a colour to be respected in the heroic and often deadly international city-to-city racing events of the era.
The Napier nameplate would go on to make history on this side of the Atlantic a couple of years later when a touring version – with British chauffeur and mechanic Charles Thomas at the wheel and American Charles Glidden, his wife Lucy and various Canadian Pacific Railway conductors aboard – became the first car to conquer the Canadian Rockies.
The speeds the racing Napiers reached on the way to Brighton were considerably more sensible and safe than when they were the Formula One cars of their time. Their up to 11.1-litre displacement, four-cylinder engines – that thumped up to a heady 1,000 rpm – propelled these steel-reinforced, wooden-framed, narrow and fragile-tired, almost brakeless racers at speeds of up to 130 km/h, along the narrow, dusty, unpaved roads that linked the cities of the early 1900s.
But their still-sharp bark drew attention once again to the now long-departed Napier brand, which gave Britain its first international win in the 1902 Gordon Bennett Cup road race between Paris and Innsbruck.
The Napiers on the London-to-Brighton run included the 1902, a 6.5-litre car driven to that legendary win by sporting motorist Selwyn F. Edge, who was instrumental in the creation of the brand, a 7.7-litre-engined 1903 that crashed in a qualifying run, and the massive 11.1-litre, 100-hp model that crashed in the 1904 Gordon Bennett race. All finished in fine fettle on the Brighton waterfront.
Glidden was born in 1857, became a telephone pioneer at an early age and invented the telephone exchange, which he staffed with female operators – their voices were more easily understood. All of this subsequently made him a wealthy man at 43.
Also a pioneer automotive enthusiast, Glidden and his wife then set off on what would amount to a pair of around-the-world tours in his 1902 Napier, which would eventually cover 46,000 miles through 39 countries.
Along the way, he would become the first motorist to cross the Arctic Circle and the Canadian Rockies – feats accomplished in an era when roads through remote regions were almost non-existent – by fitting 40-inch tall flanged steel wheels that allowed the Napier to run on train tracks. He reportedly began his Canadian tour after switching from roads to rails in Minneapolis, and, with the CPR conductors no doubt anxiously looking over their shoulders, rolled west to Vancouver.
Glidden went on to sponsor a silver cup for reliability trials in the United States, events that continue to this day as the Glidden Tours for vintage vehicles.
D. Napier & Son came into being in the early 1800s as an engineering concern that built steam printing presses and later machine tools and coin-making and weighing machinery, but was in dire shape when it came into an ambitious and inventive Montague Napier’s hands in the mid-1890s.
Napier was a bicycle racing enthusiast and an acquaintance of Australian cyclist Edge, who ran an ex-racing 1896 Panhard. Edge had Napier switch it from tiller to wheel steering, and it was later fitted with an engine of Napier’s design. In 1899, Edge, who worked for tire-maker Dunlop, and a partner set up a company to sell cars, and commissioned Napier to build them.
Edge immediately jumped behind the wheel of the first and set off to successfully prove the Napier in competition. Napier’s first international outing was in the 1,350-kilometre Paris-Toulouse-Paris race of 1900, with Edge driving and Charles S. Rolls as riding mechanic. They failed to finish, but Napier went on to display Britain’s new racing colours until 1908, when it withdrew from competition. It continued to build commercial vehicles, taxis and Rolls-Royce calibre luxury automobiles until 1924.
During the First World War, Napier created an aero-engine called the Lion, which would continue the company’s wheeled heritage for another three decades by powering eight land-speed record cars.
The Napier name appeared on aero-engines until its purchase by Rolls-Royce in 1961, and survives today as a brand of turbochargers.
Back in 1902
“Love it, or hate it” yeast-based food spread Marmite is created in Britain, which also crowns its new king Edward VII, and whose Royal Navy launches its first submarine.
Canadian troops are welcomed home from service in the Second Boer War, the country’s first motion picture theatre is opened in Vancouver, and band leader Guy Lombardo is born.
French steam car maker Leon Serpollet sets a new land speed record of 75 mph (120 km/h) driving a Gardner-Serpollet and the Wright brothers figure out how to fly in Glider No. 3, before building the powered Flyer that makes them famous a year later.
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