It’s not called Mephistopheles for nothing. This big red Fiat feels like it sold its soul to the devil, with hellish quantities of smoke and streams of flame emerging from the exhaust, and the air filled with a pandemonium of cackling, clattering and whirring.
I’m sitting in the seat that, on 12 July 1924, held the bespectacled, tubby aristo Ernest Eldridge. Wreathed in a fog of hydrocarbons, I’m waiting for the off, just like Eldridge 87 years ago. Then, the singular nose of this fearsome machine was pointing down a narrow, tree-lined stretch of unpaved Route d’Orleans at Arpajon, about 18 miles from Paris, for his final run at the world record for the flying kilometre – the last time such a record would be set on a public road.
The massive rev counter in the aluminium dashboard flicks around as the 320bhp, 21.7-litre aero engine blips against its 80kg flywheel. It feels unstoppable, a living thing under its battered bonnets. That aluminium facia is about the only thing in the cockpit that isn’t wood. Wood defines this car: it’s everywhere, burnished with motor oil and years. The floor is wooden planking, the rear firewall is wooden, the bonnet rests on wooden runners; there’s even wood stiffening the five-metre-long chassis, extended, according to legend, with sections from a London Transport omnibus. All is sheathed in handsome aluminium coachwork that, like a battered, time-worn visog, shows every scar, spill, fire and dent of its years.
Outside the spacious cockpit is a drilled-steel gearlever to engage one of just four ratios (no reverse), feeding the humongous torque into a centre differential and out to twin Reynolds driving chains, one for each wheel. Mephistopheles likes to leave a calling card wherever it runs. The single exhaust stack alongside the monoposto coachwork leaks heat and smoke, the total-loss oil lubrication for the clutch drips onto the tarmac, and an emulsion of coolant and oil is collecting in the belly pan, ready to slop out when we get underway.
These between-the-wars machines were built to thrill the crowds, race and gain records. They took brave drivers and braver riding mechanics to new heights of speed on the ground. Frequently off it, too, as primitive friction dampers would fire the entire car into the air over the notoriously uneven Brooklands banking. Talking to Bill Boddy for his book Aero-engined racing cars at Brooklands, Eldridge’s riding mechanic Jim Ames recalled the terrifying experience of hanging on, pumping to pressurise the fuel tank and turning on the oxygen supplement to the intake air all at the same time.
It was that lack of a reverse gear that proved Sir Ernest’s initial downfall, as he roared into the timing zone with Mephistopheles weaving and bucking like a young horse. In the blue corner to Mephistopheles’ blood red was René Thomas’s 350bhp V12 Delage. Thomas protested against his faster Fiat rival for not having a reverse gear, and Eldridge was forced to repair to a French workshop to jury rig one in order eventually to gain the flying kilometre record at 146.01mph.
Nowadays even a starter Mercedes-Benz can attain that speed, but it’s worth recalling the primitive nature of the Fiat, which steers along the road in a series of darts, with the rear wheels alternately spinning and sliding sideways. Michele Lucente, its sole designated driver, confesses to have driven this Behemoth at over 100mph. What was it like? I ask.
‘I don’t remember,’ he confesses. ‘I am so busy with the steering, the gears, looking for the braking, there’s no time to think about what it is like. When I get out, my hands, they are shaking.’
Oh, right then. Thanks for that, Michele.
Boots scuff and grunts of effort come from behind me as Gianfranco Dazia (Mephistopheles’ chief mechanic) and Raffaele Terlizzi (the director of Fiat’s museum) help to push the 1.78-tonne Mephistopheles forward and ease the strain on the clutch. I heave on the stubby gearlever as straight-cut gears gnash and grate in protest. Grummph, graunch, clunk; we’re in. Ease up the clutch and we’re off.
Most of these pre-war Leviathans have a fat, lazy torque and increase speed deceptively quickly, with engines that are fabulously inefficient. The Fiat has a compression ratio of just 4.8:1, 8cm whitemetal bearings for its 100kg crankshaft, and levels of internal friction unknown to a modern, yet it crackles up and down the revs like a small Alfa Romeo, eager for the off.
And driving it is a high art form, with the pedals crammed to the right of the cockpit, along with the spindly advance and retard mechanism that is easy to inadvertently nudge. I’m driving in stockinged feet, which seemed a good idea until my toes feel the heat of this mighty engine.
And Lucente is right. The first few yards are a confusion of gears, smoke and revs. The noise is bamboozling. A slight distortion in the mainshaft means you need a strong right arm to surprise the lever into second and the engine shunts back and forth, making splendid quantities of smoke. Fiat’s remarkable Twinair engine was awarded the 2011 Engine of the Year prize and emits just 85g of carbon dioxide per kilometre. Mephistopheles pours out CO2 at a rate of 3200g/km, with concomitant hydrocarbons, carbon monoxides and oxides of nitrogen; petrol never went to a finer pyre.
Up into third and this devil car is flying. The front wheels wobble, even on the billiard-table-smooth track, and the deafening open valvegear competes with gear whine and buffeting wind. At 80mph it roars its defiance against the heavens, and I struggle with the outside handbrake to slow the beast for the return run; the worm-and-screw steering is heavy, but not impossibly so. Cars like this don’t really handle in the accepted sense. You lean into the wheel and get the lock on quick before the weight transfer binds-up the kingpins, but the big Fiat has an agility that belies its size and weight.
Back through the smokescreen laid on the previous run, Mephistopheles feels fast in a way its rivals never did. Lucente reckons she is as quick as a rally car in the mid-range and I’ve little reason to doubt him. You surge against the throttle, a Siren’s voice urging you to keep going and throw yourself into damnation at the other end of the straight. Too late I lift off and the astounding over-run cacophony of thrashing chains, rattling gears and banging engine sounds like a door opened on Hades. The wheels lock and slide on the road and I only just stop before taking out the pit crew and their cars. You can see them heave a collective sigh of relief.
And when I switch the magnetos off and the engine dies, the silence is profound and almost heavenly… Except for a slight rattle somewhere in the cockpit. I look down and see my hand is shaking my wristwatch against the steering wheel.
Dancing with the devil is not for the faint-hearted. Lucente deserves a bloomin’ medal.