A Different Napier

When I was about 15, and still a long way from having a drivers’ licence, a friend showed me an advertisement in a magazine for a 1908 60HP Napier Racer for sale. It had an engine of almost 12 litres, which really appealed. Needless to say, even nearly 50 years ago, the price was more akin (in pounds) to a telephone number than a sum of money to a schoolboy on a weekly allowance. It served, however, to open up an interest in the Marque, and I told my friend Nick, “one day I’ll own a Napier”.

This could of course be interpreted as having ideas above your station, but we can all dream. They are not a common car, as the total built was just over 4,000 in nearly 23 years of production. Much as a giant racer was considered the ideal, reality told me I would have to settle for something rather more mundane.

About 25 years later in 1984, a 1913 20HP tourer was offered for sale in Adelaide. I didn’t hesitate, and was too excited to even haggle about the price. As purchased, the car was complete with lights and gauges, and I drove it from purchase point to storage with only one of the marginal tyres exploding on the way. It was very scruffy, and I had no idea how much of it was original – all that mattered was that I owned a Napier.

I understand the car had been restored in Victoria in the 1950’s. although it ran smoothly, the biscuit-coloured paint was in various shades and appeared to have been applied with a long-handled broom. The wheels were under-sized (no doubt to suit tyres that were then available) and the upholstery was in early (by now, very slippery and crisp) orange vinyl. But, it was a Napier.

After completing the restoration of two veteran motorcycles, it was time to attack the car. In hindsight, they served as a good apprenticeship, though most of the project was fairly straight-forward, taking 3 years of spare time work.

Mechanically, new rings and a hone was all that was required. Crankshaft bearings were set to tolerance, waterways de-scaled and the valves lapped in. Of these, the inlet valves still carried the engine number. Both oil and water pumps had been upgraded and were quite satisfactory.

New rims and spokes were matched to the existing hubs and correct size tyres added. Very minor woodwork was carried out, and it was then I found the chassis number stamped into the underside of the front floorboard and into the back of the number-plate. New paint, nickel and upholstery completed the job.

As it turns out, the car is a very interesting one. The flywheel is at the front of the engine so the axle lifts it over any obstacles in the road, just as in other colonial Napiers. However, 20HP models were not listed until 1914, and vary considerably from my car. For instance, they have 4 speed gearbox and a longer chassis, so naturally I thought my car was not very original.

None-the-less, factory records show that all component parts were as fitted on the assembly line, even down to the remark that no rear axle number was allocated (and indeed there isn’t one). It has been suggested that it is a prototype specially assembled in 1913 for the Australian Motor Shows of 1914 to promote the new model. It is based on the 15HP car of the time but carries a larger engine. However, even the 15HP models had 4 gears at this stage, so maybe Napier had some old stock that needed a home.

The beautiful bodywork carries scuff plates under the three doors declaring that it was made by Napier carriage works. This is a bit mysterious, as the in-house coach builders went under the name of Cunard, and anyway rarely was an export car fitted with a body. Maybe the company decided that perhaps Australian coach makers were not to be trusted with so important a job as a promotional prototype for Australian Motor Shows.

The car drives very well, and the third rear spring upside down across the back gives a very comfortable ride, and perhaps unexpectedly seems to induce very little body roll. All in all, I’m very satisfied with my dream car.

Howard Filtness

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