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News from 100 years ago, 1921 – Aero Engines in Road Vehicles

This second news item in our series ‘News from Years Ago’ was published in the 13 August 1921 issue of The Autocar. It covered a road trial of an aero-engined motor car. The article started with the unsurprising explanation of the popularity, among certain sporting motorists, of such cars just after World War I:

“Cars fitted with aero engines are hardly suitable for the average man. Nevertheless, they possess great attractions for the enthusiast. Aero engines which only recently cost large sums to build because of the high-grade material and the careful workmanship put into them, can now be bought for comparatively little money; furthermore, cars of large size and early design can be picked up cheaply. What could be more interesting than to marry the two, and thus obtain a super-car? The late H. G. Hawker had a car fitted with a Sunbeam aero engine; Count Zborowski’s Chitty-Bang-Bang is famous, and there are others.”

The car in the news article was built by Lt. Col. G. H. Henderson using a Rolls-Royce Falcon 60° V12 of 14 litres capacity that came from a Bristol aeroplane. He rebuilt an old 40 h.p. Napier chassis, with many modifications: the gearbox was inclined to obtain a straight-line drive; the engine’s crankshaft was extended fore and aft; a flywheel and clutch from the old Napier engine were installed on the end of the Rolls-Royce crankshaft; two Zenith carburettors replaced the originals; and the fuel feed comprised a reserve tank as well as a main rear tank retrieved from a Bristol fighter.  More remarkable still was the ‘gigantic’ starting handle visible in our image. The problem of spares was discussed; it had been solved by acquiring several more Falcon engines to be stripped and used as required.

The road trial was observed by The Autocar  on a journey from Le Havre to Le Mans, round a couple of circuits of the Grand Prix course (two years before the advent of the 24-hour race) and back to Paris. France was considered to be an ideal place for such a car, with its long straight roads and few blind crossings – and, importantly, the intense interest of the French in cars of all kinds. The writer was deeply impressed with the car’s ability to run all day at fifty or sixty miles an hour with the throttle almost closed. More throttle would cause clutch slip, “and if it did not slip the transmission might suffer.”

A warning was given, however, that the chassis to be used should be capable of taking the extra stresses of the engine, in particular the brakes and steering, since much of the pleasure would disappear if these “were never meant for seventy miles an hour.”

Photo courtesy of The Richard Roberts Archive.

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