Based in Lambeth and, from 1903, in Acton, West London, the Napier firm was known for precision engineering well before they began building cars of their own make, having modified a 2-cylinder Panhard for S.F. Edge who later, in 1902, won the Gordon Bennett race driving a 60HP 4-cylinder Napier, greatly enhancing the marque’s fame. Edge, in fact, was something of a ‘super salesman’ for Napier. One of his greatest successes in this regard was, in one sitting, to sell half a dozen Napiers to the Nizam of Hyderabad, said to be the richest man in the world at that time.
The first 6-cylinder shaft-driven Napier was introduced in 1903. The engine, with overhead inlet valves, was smooth and flexible and, coupled with Napier’s easy-to-operate gearbox, gave the car a reputation for being very pleasant to drive, unlike many of its contemporaries. Indeed, Napiers were said to enjoy the sobriquet ‘the best car in the world’ well before Rolls Royce adopted the catchphrase.
Racing and record breaking such as Edge’s 24-hour record run at Brooklands in 1907 continued to attract publicity and by 1910, the Napier range included no fewer than ten models, ranging from a 10HP twin to a mighty 90HP six. A flourishing export business saw Napiers being built in Italy as the San Giorgio. After WW1, with Edge having left the company in 1912, the firm’s attention turned more towards aero engines, the only model produced being the luxurious 40/50HP, a competitor to the Rolls Royce Silver Ghost. It had a 6.2 litre, 6-cylinder engine in unit with a 4-speed gearbox and some 200 units were built before production ceased in 1924.
According to documents, the 1904 Napier L49 shown here, chassis number 823, was among the Nizam of Hyderabad’s collection although it was discovered in a parlous state in a barn in Argentina by California-based dealer Ben Moser. It then passed via a Dutch dealer to Colin Crabbe who imported it to the UK. Baulking at the extent of the work needed to restore the car, Crabbe sold it on. The restoration went ahead and the car is now in top concours condition and was awarded the prize for the Most Opulent at this year’s Salon Privé at Blenheim Palace. A forthcoming book entitled ‘The Noble Napier 823’ is being written by historian Mohammed Luqman Ali Khan.
Photo and text by Peter McFadyen. See his website: http://petermcfadyen.co.uk