Historic Car Brands
D Napier & Son Limited was a British engineering company best known for its luxury motor cars in the Edwardian era and for its aero engines throughout the early to mid-20th century. Many world speed records on land and water, as well as the Hawker Typhoon and Tempest fighter planes, were powered by Napier engines.
David Napier founded a precision engineering company in 1808 and for nearly a century produced machinery for the financial, print and munitions industries. In the early 20th century it moved for a time into internal combustion engines and road vehicles before turning to aero engines.
David Napier took engineering training in Scotland before coming to London.
Between 1840 and 1860, Napier was prosperous, with a well-outfitted factory. David’s younger son, James Murdoch, joined the firm in 1837 and became a partner in 1847.
James succeeded his father as head of the firm and although he was an excellent engineer, he was a poor businessman and there were as few as seven employees – down from 300 – by 1895.
James’ son Montague inherited the business in 1895, along with his father’s engineering talent. Montague was a hobby racer and, at the Bath Road Club, he met Australian-born S F Edge, who was a manager at Dunlop Rubber.
1903 Napier 100hp Gordon Bennett – Alf van Beem
Edge persuaded Napier to help improve his Panhard-Levassor – ‘Old Number 8’ that had won the 1896 Paris–Marseille–Paris race – by converting it from tiller to a steering wheel, fitting pneumatic tyres and improving the lubrication system.
Dissatisfied with the Panhard engine, Napier offered to fit an engine of his own design. This 2.5-litre, 8hp vertical twin had electric ignition that was superior to the Panhard’s hot-tube type.
Edge was sufficiently impressed to encourage Napier to make his own car and collaborated with Harvey du Cros, his former boss at Dunlop, to form the Motor Power Company, to buy Napier’s entire output.
An initial six chain-drive cars were fitted with aluminium bodies by Arthur Mulliner.
Recognising the value of publicity gained from racing, which no other British marque then did, Edge entered an 8hp Napier in the 1900 Automobile Club’s Thousand Miles Trial, on a circuit from Newbury to Edinburgh and back.
Driven by Edge, with novelist Mary Eliza Kennard on board, the Napier won its class. It was one of only 35 finishers out of 64 starters and one of just 12 to average the legal 12mph (19 km/h) in England and 10mph (16 km/h) in Scotland.
S F Edge repairs a puncture on his Napier during the 1000-MileTrial – The National Motor Museum Trust
By June 1900, Montague had derived a five-litre, four-cylinder, 16hp engine from the 8hp model and Edge entered a 16hp Napier in the 837-mile (1350 km) Paris-Toulouse-Paris race, with Charles S Rolls (co-founder of Rolls-Royce) as riding mechanic. However, the engine had ignition coil and cooling system problems and failed to finish.
For the 1901 Gordon Bennett Cup, Montague designed a car powered by an enormous 16.3-litre, side-valve, four-cylinder engine rated at 103hp (77kW) at 800rpm, with a four-speed gearbox and chain drive. Known as the ’50 hp’, it was a racing special and only two or three were completed, including one for Rolls.
Naturally enough it overpowered its Dunlop tyres and fitting new tyres, bought in France, led to disqualification, since they were not from the nation of the car’s origin. In the concurrent Paris-Bordeaux Rally, it retired with clutch trouble – also unsurprising.
For the 1902 Gordon Bennett, the Napier entrant was powered by a more sensible 6.44-litre four, rated at 44.5hp. It had a three-speed gearbox and shaft-drive.
1907 Napier 60hp T21 SF Edge – Alf van Beem
Painted in Napier Green that would later become known as British Racing Green and piloted by Edge and his cousin, Cecil, it won at an average 31.8mph (51.2km/h). This was the first British victory in international motorsport and would not be emulated until Henry Segrave won the French Grand Prix in 1923.
In late 1903, Napier announced a six-cylinder, 30hp, 4.9-litre model, with a three-speed gearbox and chain drive. That made Napier the first car maker in the world to produce a series-production, six-cylinder engine. Within five years, there were 62 makers of six-cylinder cars in Britain alone.
However, it wasn’t all plain sailing for the Napier six that was plagued by crankshaft vibration that caused ‘whip’ and even breakage in the shaft. Edge called the phenomenon, ‘power rattle’!
First Napier six-cylinder car with S F Edge – Napier Power Heritage Trust
Napier gained North American fame in 1904, being the first brand of car to cross the Canadian Rockies. Also, Charles Glidden and his wife – sponsors of Glidden Tours – covered 3536 miles (5700km) from Boston to Vancouver in their Napier.
However, those feats failed to inspire US customers for Napier’s Boston factory output and a similar assembly operation in Genoa also failed.
Glidden in London – Napier Power Heritage Trust
Napier had a poor racing year in 1904, but in January 1905, the L48 with McDonald in the seat, took the mile (1.6km) record at Ormonde Beach at 104.65mph (168.41km/h).
Edge’s secretary, Dorothy Levitt, drove a 100hp (74.6kW) development of the K5 at the Blackpool and Brighton Speed Trials in 1905, and the next year ran the L48 at the Blackpool Speed Trials, showing talent by equalling Edge’s speed and setting a women’s record in the flying kilometre of 90.88mph (146.25 km/h).
1909 Napier T23 Roadster 6.6-litre – Nemor2
In a display of unrivalled engine flexibility, Edge’s cousin, Cecil, drove a Napier six from Brighton to Edinburgh – in top gear all the way. That was an important selling point at a time when gear shifts in sliding-mesh transmissions challenged drivers.
In 1906, Napier offered 40hp and 60hp sixes, plus 18hp and 45hp fours. By 1907, 1200 people were employed by Napier and were making about a hundred cars a year, aided by continuing racing success.
1907 Napier 60hp – Napier Power Heritage Trust
The legendary Brooklands track opened that year and Napier engineer H C Tryon won the first ever event in a 40hp model, and Edge made a famous 24-hour run in June, covering 1581 miles (2544 km) at an average 65.905mph (106.06 km/h) in a 60hp, 9.6-litre six; a record that stood for 18 years.
L48 Samson with McDonald driving – Napier Power Heritage Trust
The L48, nicknamed Samson, became famous there in the venue’s first two years. In 1908, Napier’s Frank Newton covered a timed half-mile (800m) at 119.34mph (190.05km/h) in the stroked L48.
The company’s last race win was with a four-cylinder Napier, in the hands of Willy Watson, at the 1908 Tourist Trophy, but in a car branded ‘Napier-Hutton’, to preserve the reputation of the sixes. This was known as the Four-Inch Race, because that was the dimension limit for the cylinder bores of each entrant!
1912 Napier T38 15hp four-cylinder Tourer – Charlie Napier
By 1911 Napier was selling two-, four- and six-cylinder cars, but that was trimmed in the following year to one 15hp four and sixes of 30, 40, 45, 60, 65 and 90hp – the latter displacing a whopping 14.6 litres.
In 1912, D Napier & Son Limited went public and bought out Edge’s distribution and sales company. Production rose to around 700 cars a year with many supplied to the London taxi trade.
1908 Napier 45hp Type 23 Limousine – Napier Power Heritage Trust
At the outbreak of World War I sales of private vehicles collapsed and Napier turned to military orders, resulting in around 2000 trucks and ambulances being supplied to the War Office. Montague Napier’s health declined and in 1917 he moved to Cannes, France, but continued to take an active involvement in the company until his death in 1931.
Napier Lion engine – London Science Museum
Early in the war, Napier was contracted to build engines designed by other companies, but in 1916 Napier designed its own. The product was the superb W-12 Lion that came into service shortly before the end of the War.
The Lion displaced 24 litres and produced 580hp at 2585rpm, using dual-magneto, twin-spark-plug ignition. The 12 cylinders were in three banks of four (broad-arrow configuration), so it had a triple-manifold exhaust system.
1931 Napier Railton – Dave Rogers
The Lion later powered Malcolm Campbell’s Napier-Campbell Blue Bird of 1927 and Campbell-Napier-Railton Blue Bird of 1931; Segrave’s Golden Arrow of 1929 and John Cobb’s Napier-Railton and Railton Mobil Special land speed record cars.
1919 Napier T45 40/50
In 1919, Napier’s car production resumed, but the Rolls-Royce Ghost challenging T75 40/50 proved to be Napier’s last. Engineered by Lion-designer A J Rowledge, who later left for Rolls-Royce, its engine was an 82hp, 6.2-litre aluminium-alloy, six-cylinder with detachable head, single overhead camshaft, seven-bearing crankshaft and Napier-SU carburettor.
1919 Napier 6.2-litre 82hp six – Bonhams
In the best Napier tradition the T45 had excellent top-gear flexibility, requiring only a two-speed transmission, but some cars had four-speed boxes. It was available in many body styles, with top-shelf coachwork by Cunard, a Napier subsidiary.
1920 Napier Type 75 TT – De Facto
By 1924, Napier had sold 187 T75 40/50s and the company quit car production, with a total of 4258 Napiers built. The Napier brand continued in aero engine production, with its Sabre engine powering the lethal Hawker Typhoon ground-attack fighter-bomber of Word War II.