When I was a kid there were two pictures that really caught my imagination. One was Rollie Free riding a Vincent Black Shadow at 150mph wearing a swimsuit. The other was John Cobb setting the record at Brooklands, that still stands to this day, at about 144mph, with all four wheels off the ground in the Napier-Railton.
The Napier was one of those vehicles that, as a kid, I didn’t know still existed. For many years I thought I would never see it, so to actually get a chance to drive it at Goodwood for the Festival of Speed was truly an amazing experience. How often are you able to drive a car that is actually a legend?
The car in the picture I had on my wall as a kid seemed to be ten times bigger than reality. It’s still a big machine. And massively impressive to stand beside. I’d seen the Napier in the museum, but to get a chance to drive it was entirely different.
Despite it’s brutishness it’s not particularly intimidating to drive because it has such tremendous torque that you almost can’t stall it. You run through the procedures and, as soon as it idles, you put it in gear and let the clutch out, even with no gas, and it will just walk away. It’s not like some 750cc racer that you’ve got to rev, stall, people point and then you start it again.
We pushed it to get it going up the hill but, once I was up the hill, I turned around and luckily there was a bit of an incline. So I just turned on the magnetos, put it into first gear – it’s geared so high you can jump-start it in any – it bumped once, then fired and it was quite docile.
I had this fear that I’m going to be the stupid American that wrecks this amazing car when he hits the wall or lets go. But actually it’s user-friendly. A bit agricultural but second is good for something crazy like 80mph. It was actually quite pleasant to drive and I thought to myself, why don’t I just take this up the M1?
Owning a couple of aero-engined cars myself, I’m used to that tremendous torque, and just letting it do the work for you. The Napier-Railton’s clutch is extremely heavy, especially by modern standards.
If you had to sit at a light with your foot on the clutch, after a few minutes your knee would start to shake. To set off, just let the clutch out and it pulls away. Step on the gas, just a little bit, and you can feel those tyres wanting to break loose. If you’re used to small four-cylinder cars you have no idea what this is like. It’s like someone is picking up the back axle and shoving it; just a tremendous rush of torque.
Since day one cars have been pretty powerful. Power was not the problem; it’s suspension and brakes. And when you look at something like the Napier-Railton there’s no brakes on the front, it’s got those kind of aeroplane disc brakes on the rear only. There are no shock absorbers per se, just springs. Even going up the driveway, which is incredibly smooth, you get around the corner and you hit a little gas and you feel the same sort of bobbing. You think, I’m only going 40 or 50 and this thing is bobbing. What is it like at 144mph? How brave was that guy to take this thing on that track which, by the time he set the record, was pretty uneven and full of bumps and potholes?
I think the difference is that, back in the day, a good driver could win in a bad car. I don’t think that happens anymore. Now you have to be a good driver in a good car. My strategy was just to get to the top of the hill safely. You want to go faster than some, not as fast as most. You’re not there as a racer, you’re there as an ambassador. Don’t screw it up.
The Napier-Railton’s not just about the car. Guys like Cobb were real manly men, guys who were bigger than life in the early days. Rollie Free went 149.8mph and couldn’t get the bike to go any faster, so took off his leathers to get the extra speed. You wonder how that relates to modern men and machines. To me, there’s nobody braver than Andy Green, the RAF pilot who broke the sound barrier in a car and is aiming for 1000mph. You don’t see him stripping down to his underpants to drive the car to get it to go faster. There are things that happened with the old guys that don’t quite happen with this generation of heroes.
I got to drive three cars up the hill. First was the Jaguar XKR-S which has 550bhp, similar to the Napier-Railton. Tie a chain between the Jag’s bumper and the Napier-Railton’s axle, go in opposite directions and the Napier would just pull the Jag down the street. It has so much torque. Torque is what British cars are all about. The Napier is the in the classic British bulldog tradition of WO Bentley.
It’s not often you can say you were given the opportunity to drive such a truly historic vehicle.