The World Land Speed Record Breaking 1905 200-hp Darracq Sprint Two-Seater
For a real thrill and for pure joy, nothing ever came up to a full throttle run on the 200, with the car in Algy Guinness capable hands. Old Iron, as its owner had christened it, was definitely one of the great cars of all time! Captain H.W. Bunbury
If the heartbeat of America is the matchless throb of a big V8, then that heart beats with a decidedly French accent, for this impressive centenarian is powered by the first true example of a V8 engine to be seen on either side of the Atlantic. Moreover, this mighty Darracq was the first petrol car to travel at two miles a minute. Built in France with the sole aim of breaking speed records, it was shipped to the United States soon after its debut to show its prowess and made its first 120-mph run at Americas birthplace of speed, the Ormond-Daytona Beach in Florida. Alexandre Darracq had made his fortune in the cycle industry before building his first car under his Gladiator marque in 1895, but sold out to an English syndicate headed by Terah Hooley and Harry Lawson in 1896 and formed A. Darracq & Cie the following year. Real success came in 1900 with a 6.5-hp single-cylinder car designed by Paul Ribeyrolles, a graduate of the Arts et Métiers college at Chalons-sur-Marne. The Darracq company was acquired by an English financial grouping in 1903, which left Alexandre Darracq in charge. He decided to publicise the company by racing powerful racing cars but concentrating on the manufacture of small and medium-sized automobiles particularly aimed at the British market. These were all the work of Ribeyrolles, described by that doyen of Continental correspondents W.F.Bradley as a born engineer who had a tiny drawing office overlooking the main machine shop. Darracqs policy of promoting the marque in competition moved into high gear with an all-out assault on the Gordon Bennett Cup in 1904, dodging the rule restricting each competing country to an entry of three cars by having 11.25-litre four-cylinder cars designed by Ribeyrolles built in Germany as Opels and in Great Britain as Weir-Darracqs, a ploy which sadly failed to bring results. However, one of the Weir-Darracqs was acquired by Algernon Lee Guinness, who, with his younger brother Kenelm (Bill), was building up a stable of fast racing cars at his home at Windsor, and completely reconstructed by his mechanics Harold Cook and Davy Cleghorn (who had come from Weirs with the car), to such good effect that it proved one of the fastest cars in the eliminating trials to choose the British team for the 1905 Gordon Bennett race before piston failure put it out of contention. Meanwhile, Paul Ribeyrolles was intent on building the fastest car in the world, following a policy colourfully described by the Guinnesss good friend and business partner H.W. (Bill) Bunbury as putting large engines into the lightest possible chassis; in search of what we now call today better power to weight ratio he stripped his cars of every possible trapping, leaving the bare necessities to make the wheels go round, and to stop the car, otherwise stark naked, showing everything they had got, with not even a bikini to hide their nakedness The first fruit of this policy was a 100-hp car with an engine of 190 bore, put into a very flimsy chassis with just two bucket seats with which works driver Paul Baras set a new world speed record of 104.5 mph for the flying kilometre, and which was then bought by Algy Lee Guinness. Ribeyrolles then set to work developing an even faster sprint car and in order to obtain maximum power for minimum weight hit upon the brilliant idea of mounting eight cylinders in a 90-degree vee configuration on a common crankcase, using forked conrods to enable two opposed cylinders to be served from one crankshaft throw. He used four sets of pair-cast cylinders of the Gordon Bennett pattern, bored out to 170mm, giving a total swept volume of 25,422 cc, set low in an Arbel pressed steel chassis. A two-speed rear axle was fitted, with a short gear lever placed between the drivers legs; there was neither reverse gear nor differential. A vee-shaped Grouvel & Arquembourg radiator was supplemented by a projectile-shaped water tank above the cylinders. Weighing in at just 900 kg (1982 lb), the new 200-hp Darracq was completed on 28 December 1905 and was immediately taken south to Provence to be tested on the classic speed road that ran arrow-straight for over nine miles across the plain of Le Crau, between Salon-de-Provence and St Martin de Crau (the modern N113). On Saturday 30 December, Darracqs leading driver Victor Hemery who had already won the Circuit des Ardennes and Vanderbilt Cup during 1905 made four timed runs on the Salon road, observed by the official timekeepers of the Automobile Club de France, MM Gaudichard and Hunziker, and the president of the Automobile Club de Salon, M Bertin. His times were remarkably consistent: with one run in 21.8 sec and one in 20.8 sec, twice he covered the flying kilometre in 20.6 sec, a speed of 175 km/h (109.65 mph), faster than the fastest express train, making the Darracq the fastest vehicle on earth and beating the existing speed record by almost 5 mph. Gasped L. Gerard, who reported the cars speed run for La Vie Automobile: Can you imagine what that frightening speed of 5 metres a second [110 mph] must be like? No? Well, its that of hurricanes that flatten houses and trees, of tempests that exert the formidable pressure of 300 kg per square metre on the surfaces that they meet this time, without any exaggeration, the car has beaten the train The mercurial Hemery grumbled that the very cold weather had adversely affected the carburation, and declared that the car would be even faster in finer weather. Three weeks later, he was given the opportunity to prove his assertion when he and the 200-hp Darracq formed part of a four-car team competing in the fourth annual Ormond-Daytona Beach Automobile Races. However, while three of the cars successfully passed the weight test for the event, the fourth was ruled to be too heavy and thus ineligible for the lightweight class. Hemery protested the decision, and when he was over-ruled, had all four cars hauled back to the garage at Ormond. Charles Cooke, Darracqs American distributor, declared that all four cars would race, whether Hemery agreed or not. Then it was found that the car that had been declared overweight could be lightened enough to comply with the regulations and Hemery relented and decided to compete after all. But then he fell out with the judges again when it was declared that he had made a false start in a race against Fred Marriotts streamlined Stanley Steamer and a 110-hp FIAT, and was barred from the event. Declared Motor Age in its issue of 25 January 1906: Hemery, successor to the great Théry, has been given a taste of American discipline, which will do his peppery temper good. He had a close call yesterday from being set down, and this was not enough for him, for he broke loose again today and got what was coming to him and he got is good and plenty, nothing less than disqualification for the entire meeting for refusing to obey orders. Charles Cooke was given full control of the four Darracqs and Louis Chevrolet drove the 200-hp to a new world one-mile record for petrol cars of 30.6 sec (Marriott had just set a steam car record of 28.2 sec, equivalent to 127.66 mph). Then on the last day of the race, Cooke put Darracqs No 2 driver Victor Demogeot in the 200-hp. Matched against the Stanley in a 2-mile race, Demogeot riposted to a time of 59.6 sec by Marriott with a run in 58.8 sec, or 122.5 mph and was crowned Speed King of the World by 14-year-old Mary Simrall, the prettiest girl in Florida. Then, recalled Bill Bunbury, the 200 returned to the Darracq works at Suresnes, and Algy travelled one day [in May]. After a terrifying trial run round and about the works conducted by Hemery and a bit of haggling, he bought the car for what was a very reasonable figure [and] brought it to Windsor. On 14 July Algy Lee Guinness competed in the Ostend speed trials in Belgium with the 200-hp Darracq and set a new European flying kilometre record of 117.7 mph, covering the distance in just 19 seconds. Three days later the Darracq was first of the big speed cars in the Circuit du Littoral. The Darracq was scheduled to race against formidable opposition, including the Maharajah of Tikaris 130-hp De Dietrich and Cecil Edges 90-hp Napier, during the Notts ACs annual race meeting on Skegness Sands on 8 September, but the deteriorating condition of the course meant that these fast cars only made demonstration runs. But a week later the Darracq covered itself in glory at the race meeting organised along the Blackpool Promenade by the Blackpool & Fylde Motor Club, winning silver cups for setting new world records for the standing kilometre (32.4 sec) and standing mile (45.6 sec), and also created a British flying kilometre record of 21.0 sec (106.52 mph). On 21 October Algy Lee Guinness took the 200-hp Darracq back to France and set a new world record for the flying kilometre of 20.0 sec, equivalent to 180 km/h (111.8 mph) at the Dourdan speed meeting. A week later he drove the car at Gaillon, and climbed the famous La Barbe hill in 25 seconds, averaging 144 km/h. Around this time the Guinness brothers and Bill Bunbury set up a business in an old farmhouse at Datchet to manufacture an ignition device known as the Hi-Lo and to operate as a garage and repair business, tuning peoples cars for the newly-opened Brooklands track. The 200-hp Darracq was still very competitive, and was tuned for maximum speed, with the addition of forced lubrication with drilled crankshaft and conrods and a pump chain driven from the front end of the crankshaft, a high-tension magneto instead of the low-tension ignition and a supplementary lightweight radiator. The car was tested on the open road over Hartford Bridge Flats in Surrey. Recalled Bill Bunbury: It was towed there at night, and we used to time our arrival so as to get the first run in soon after dawn. Other cars brought materials and mechanics and were also used as patrols. We had no trouble from the police, however; the noise could not have disturbed many people. Actually the police used to ask when we should be there, for they loved to look on - unofficially. It was a thrilling sight to see the 200 approaching, thundering down the road, stabs of flame coming from the stub exhaust pipes, the two occupants crouching down on the car and a great plume of dust following behind I was very lucky to have a few runs on the Flats with Algy, and can say without question they were the biggest thrills I ever experienced on any car, including the big Benz on Brooklands with Hornsted. I will try and give some idea of what a run on the 200 felt like. Firstly the bucket seat was more bucket than seat - one seemed to be sitting on it, not in it. There being no floorboards, one's feet had to be braced against a cross member of the frame, the right arm stretched out behind Algy gripping the flange at the end of the petrol tank, the left hand engaged with the air pressure pump. Failure to keep up the pressure was a short jump off murder in Algy's opinion! And so you started. Up to about 40 mph the car seemed to be devoid of any springs at all, and one felt shaken to pieces. That period lasted a very few seconds, after which, when on full throttle, the car was not unduly uncomfortable as far as springing went, but the air pressure on one's body was terrific. Remember that the seats were well perched up with absolutely no protection, which made one hang on for dear life. I remember glancing down between my legs one day, and to see the road passing in one grey-coloured ribbon within inches of one's anatomy made me very hastily look up, but with ugly thoughts of what would happen supposing one's foot slipped off the cross member! Added H.J. Needham, who subsequently joined the trio in the garage at Datchet: One day somebody bet Algy he would not drive over to Maidenhead and back on the "200". Needless to say, it was a foregone conclusion. The following Sunday, a lovely hot Summer's day, Algy and "Snowball" Whitehead, attired in white flannels, blue "reefer" coats, and straw boaters, fixed themselves firmly in the two bucket seats of the 200, all hands turned out to push, and with a roar and a sheet of flame from the eight stubby open exhausts, and in a cloud of dust, off she went up our lane. Snowball was hanging on like grim death to his seat with one hand (when it was not pumping pressure into the brass cylindrical petrol tank mounted behind the seat) and to the two straw hats with the other! The car had only two speeds forward and NO reverse, was unlicensed, and had no number plates attached! Algy duly arrived at Maidenhead, turned into the entrance of Skindles Hotel and out again and left into the Bath Road, and drove straight back to Datchet without stopping. By some miracle, no policeman seemed to have seen (or heard!) them, and nothing was ever heard in the way of complaint. The Gents Straw Boaters were donned for the last few hundred yards to and from Skindles, and Algy and Snowball were bowing left and right to the youth and beauty of Maidenhead like royalty! June 1907 saw more successes for the big Darracq. On 16 June it set a new standing kilometre record at Schveningen (Hague), and the following week at the Saltburn speed trials, on 22 June, Algy Lee Guinness set a new Yorkshire record for the flying kilometre of 111.84 mph over sands awash with water from the heavy rains. On 20 September the 200-hp Darracq was taken to the newly opened Brooklands track where it was demonstrated to an American enthusiast named Dugald Ross, who had offered to buy the car for £2000, provided that it could reach a speed of 100 mph. Though Algy Lee Guinness made two runs of 112.2 mph and 115.4 mph, the sale fell through, apparently because Ross was too frightened to complete the £2000 deal. Indeed, Algy Lee Guinness continued to compete with the mighty Darracq at Saltburn during the following two seasons, and on 28 June 1908 he announced that he would not only attempt to beat the national record that he had set the previous year but would try and establish a world record, too. On his second attempt on the flying kilometre he recorded a speed of 121.57 mph to equal the existing world record and set a new British & European record. The event was captured in a dramatic painting illustrated here - by Autocar artist Frederick Gordon Crosby, which created the legend that yards of flame poured from the stub exhausts of the eight-cylinder engine, imperilling the trousers of Bill Lee Guinness, acting mechanic, who had to hold two chronometers all the time. The Darracq made one final appearance at Saltburn on 26 June 1909, where it recorded fastest time of the day by covering the flying kilometre at 120.25 mph and averaging 118.09 mph over the four runs it made that day. That was, it seems, the end of the Darracqs competitive career, but it remained in the garage at Datchet until the business closed down, when it was sold. It apparently fell into the hands of a dealer who we understand scrapped the axles and front and rear of the chassis and just retained the power unit in the remaining chassis channels. Some time later, noted Bunbury, Algy managed to lay hands on the engine, which remained in his workshop for the rest of his life. When Algy Lee Guinness died in 1954, his widow was determined that the engine should go to a good home. She canvassed expert opinion and the name of Gerald Firkins, who already owned a 1914 16-hp Darracq, was put forward. He already knew of the car and was able to purchase the engine, still mounted with part of the original chassis, from the family in 1956. He eventually decided to recreate the 200-hp racer, and a slow and painstaking restoration began, using period Darracq components wherever possible, for the car had originally used a production chassis. When the engine was dismantled, it was found to be in surprisingly good condition. Measurements proved that its swept volume, long believed to be 22.5 litres, was actually 25.5 litres. The original crankshaft, con-rods and camshaft were retained, but eight new pistons were cast in 1991, as one of the original 6.7 in diameter cast iron pistons was found to be cracked, apparently a legacy of its final run at Saltburn. The long-lost two-speed rear axle had to be recreated, for it had no production equivalent: fortunately a drawing of this component was found in a 90-year-old book, which enabled an accurate replica to be made. The rebuild was advanced enough for the car to be shown as a static exhibit at Shelsley Walsh, Brooklands and Goodwood in 2004-5, and it was virtually finished in time for its centenary on 30 December 2005. It was shown at Retromobile in Paris in February 2006, and was fired up for the first time in 97 years on 1 April 2006, making its first public run on the long drive of Madresfield Court in Worcestershire on 4 July 2006. Now offered for sale for only the third time in a century, the Darracq is a unique survivor from the heroic age of motor racing awaiting a new custodian to realise its full potential.