IN THE EARLY DAYS of motoring, the easiest way to make a car go faster was to increase the size of its engine, but by the close of the Edwardian era this equation had largely been outmoded, in racing cars, by a 'chicken-and-egg' progression of increased volumetric efficiency and formula restrictions on engine size.
The racing monsters of the 1900 - 1908 period were supplanted by faster, lighter, smaller cars, culminating in the 4.5-litre Grand Prix
models of 1914. There was, however, one circuit - Brooklands
- where giant cars could still race, thanks to a formula litre system based on handicapping.
The first of the giant cars specially built for Brooklands was the single-seat Sunbeam, Toddles V,
designed in 1913 by Louis Coatelen. It had a Coupe de I' Auto-type chassis and a 9-litre, V 12 Sunbeam
aero-engine of the type which inspired Jesse G. Vincent of Packard to design the Twin-Six luxury model of 1916.
It was after World War 1 that aero-engined cars really came into their own at the Weybridge circuit, thanks to the availability of war-surplus aircraft power units at knockdown prices. Once again, Coatelen led the way, with a new V12, this time with a 350 bhp Manitou seaplane engine, which proved itself one of the most versatile competition cars of all time.
It made its debut in 1920. A few months later, the most famous of the aero-engined cars appeared, the brainchild of Count Louis Zborowski, an ebullient-and very wealthy-s-z g-year-old, who lived in a handsome Palladian mansion at Higham, near Canterbury, Kent.
Shoehorning The Maybach Zeppelin 23 Litre Engine (Yes - 23 Litres!)
Zborowski, whose father had been killed in a Mercedes 60 at the 1903 La Turbie Hill-climb, was half-Polish, half-American, and had been educated at Eton. His collaborator in the development of a giant racing car was Clive Gallop, who had been involved in the evolution of the 3-litre Bentley: in the work-shop at Higham they shoehorned a six-cylinder 300 bhp Maybach Zeppelin engine into an innocent 75 bhp Mercedes chassis of pre-war vintage. Of course, the engine had to be mounted the 'wrong-way-round', with the drive taken from what would have been the propeller end, through the distinctive Mercedes scroll clutch, to the car's original four-forwards-and-reverse gearbox, which coped well with three times the power for which it had been designed.
The swept volume of the engine was 23 litres, the bore and stroke were 165 x 190mm respectively, and the all-up weight was 911 Ib, approximately the same as a complete Austin Seven tourer! The two-yard-Iong engine was so deep that the oil sump had to be blanked-off, lubricant being carried in a shell-shaped tank on the offside of the chassis, pressurised by a scuttle-mounted pump. The Maybach engine had six separate cylinders of almost four litres capacity each. The chassis was believed to be from a 1907 Mercedes, albeit in highly modified form. Maximum power was developed at 1500 rpm, a fairly ambitious crankshaft speed for so large an engine, which called for a high final drive ratio-easily achieved with chain drive.
Cascara Sagrada out Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang in
Initially, a crude four-seat body was fitted, built by Blythe Brothers of Canterbury, a garage and coachbuilding concern in which Zborowski held a stake. Once the car had proved itself, a more refined airship-tailed, two-seater was fitted. When asked to name the car for Brooklands, Zborowski originally put it down as Cascara Sagrada but the track authorities would have none of that so he tried again with the onomatopoeic Chitty-Chitty- Bang-Bang-and the name was accepted, which only goes to show that the Brooklands 'bigwigs' had never been in the Royal Flying Corps, for it was derived from the refrain of a ribald RFC song.
21.7 Litre Fiat - Mephistopheles
However, Chitty, as the car was generally known, made its debut at the Easter 1921 Brooklands meeting, carrying 7 cwt of sand in the tonneau to alleviate its nose-heaviness; it led the field from the start in its first race, the 100 mile Short Handicap, winning easily at an average speed of 100.75 mph from Rene Thomas's 5-litre Sunbeam. Zborowski's crude experiment, which contrasted oddly with the more sophisticated vehicles in his racing stable-like the 1914 GP-winning Mercedes and a 5-litre Ballot - had proved a success, and was copied by several other Brooklands drivers, notably by Ernest Eldridge, who built the 250 bhp Isotta-Maybach and the 21.7 litre Fiat, Mephistopheles, and Alastair Miller, who created the I I. 7-litre V8 Wolseley Viper.
In the two seasons that it was raced at Brooklands, Zborowski and his Chitty proved to be a match for most of its rivals, including the V 12 Sunbeam; Zborowski was so pleased with its performance, both on road and track, that he and Gallop put a touring version - Chitty II - in hand. However, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang I's racing career came to a spectacular conclusion in the autumn of 1922. Although it was rebuilt after the accident which F. G. Hunt, head mechanic with Aston Martin (in which company Zborowski had invested heavily), it seemed to have lost its old zest, and languished away until it was broken up in the mid 1930s.
Count Zborowki was practising down at Brooklands for the September 1922 Essex MC meeting with Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang when he had a tyre
burst. He just touched the bridge on the Railway Straight, immediately before coming off the Members' Banking, where the track crossed the River Wey. The impact turned the car round, and Zborowski shot backwards off the track. In the timing box was a man named Chamberlain. As Chitty demolished the box, Chamberlain leaped down into the ditch beside the track, but he put his hand up. As the car passed over him, it took two of his fingers off. The front axle was torn off the car, the Count's mechanic was thrown out, but Zborowski was still sitting there, somewhat shaken.
Lionel Martin got out his car and drove round to him. 'Come on, Lou,' he said, 'Get another one out and do two or three laps. You'll never be able to drive again if you don't'. Alas, poor Chamberlain. After this incident, he was given a job in the comparative safety of the gate- keeper's hut on one of the entrance roads, outside the track. One day a speeding motor cyclist flew over the top of the banking, described a parabola through the air, and crashed on to Chamberlain as he sat at his work. Fate really had it in for him.
Chitty II, which was completed in the summer of 1921, was based on a similar chassis to Chitty I, but had a smaller Benz aero-engine, again a straight-six, with a capacity of 18.9 litres. In keeping with its role as a tourer, it only appeared once at Brooklands, in autumn 1921, when it lapped at 108 mph but failed to beat its handicap. Then, in January 1922, the Count and Countess Zborowski set out on a truly Grand Tour in Chitty II: accompanying them as 'baggage wagon' was Chitty III, a 28/95 Mercedes 7.4-litre, six-cylinder racer similar to the 1921 Targa Florio
Disappointed with its performance, Zborowski would later fit this car with a 14.7-litre Mercedes aero-engine, race it successfully at Brooklands and use it for Continental trips. The two cars drove through France to Nice, and were then shipped over to Algeria, penetrating as far as the Sahara Desert-at between 7 to 11 miles per gallon, Chitty Il's maximum touring range on a tankful of petrol was around 300 miles. The three Chitties were not the total sum of Louis Vorow Zborowski's motor-megalomania, for, in 1922, he appeared at Brooklands with a 200 hp Blitzen Benz - which he subsequently scrapped as 'too dangerous and uncomfortable' - while in 1923 an even bigger racer was taking shape in his workshops.
Though this monster, powered by a V I2 Liberty aero-engine of 27 litres swept volume, followed the same lines as Chitty I, cannibalising some transmission components from the scrapped Benz, it was called the Higham Special. On its first trial, the Benz gearbox disintegrated, and Gallop had to fly to Germany to collect the last of these components from the factory. The big car was never a success in its original form, as the chassis was too flexible; after Zborowski's death at Monza in 1924 - driving a 2-Iitre works Mercedes, not one of his own creations - it was sold to Parry Thomas, who transformed it into the land-speed-record-breaking Babs
Give Me Liberty And Give Me Death
'Give me Liberty and give me death' might have been his epitaph, for the big car's driving chain snapped and decapitated Thomas when he was trying to raise the record at Pendine Sands in 1927. Had Zborowski not been killed, there would have been a Chitty IV, too, for he planned a saloon, possibly Liberty-powered, with a rigid chassis and a low roofline; but the project died with its instigator. Chitty I passed to Captain Jack Howey, founder of the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway; so did Chitty III, which was later fitted with a I7.8-litre engine; Chitty Il went to C. Merrick Fowler for £825 (including a spare engine), and eventually found its way into the hands of W. Hollis of Dover, who drove it until the transmission gave out in the mid-rqjos.
Around that time the other two Chitties were scrapped; but Chitty II languished on until a young man named Harris-Mayes persuaded Hollis to part with it, and spent the next decade restoring the car. In 1969, Chitty II was sold to a new owner in America for £16,500. It had already been preceded by a 'pseudo-Chitty' built, in 1921, for a rich Londoner named Scarisbrick. This car, now fitted with a Locomobile radiator
and AC body, passed into the ownership of artist Peter Helck. The legend of the original Chitty's was to make a come back, thanks to Ian Fleming's children's book Chitty Chitty Bang Bang, and the subsequent musical film - these being inspired by the romance of Zborowki's exploits. Ian Fleming had known Higham Park as a guest of its later owner, Walter Whigham, chairman of Robert Fleming & Co. To avoid confusion, with the pronunciation of his surname, Walter Whigham renamed the house Highland Court.
Also see: Brooklands Race Track
| World Land Speed Records