Author Archives: David Greenlees
Maurice Ballot at the factory in Paris, France with one of the 1919 4.9 liter Indianapolis racing cars.
With the Indianapolis 500 weekend upon us, we are very pleased to be able to present excerpts from a fine article about the historic 1919 Ballot team racing cars originally written by noted English automotive journalist David Burgess-Wise for the Revs Institute and the Collier Collection. In it, he recounts the tale of how Ernest Ballot and Ernest Henry pulled off the near miraculous feat of producing a team of three race ready cars from initial design to finished product in the incredibly short time of 102 days. He then goes on to give us an accounting of the trials and tribulations that the team encountered after arriving at Indianapolis and on through to the finish of the 1919 race.
From David Burgess-Wise’s article…
“Ernest Ballot… had the reputation of being daring, quick at decisions, enterprising, and René Thomas laid the scheme before him,” recalled W.F. Bradley (a period automotive journalist), though he failed to mention that to make his decision, Ballot would have needed to consult with the board that effectively controlled policy at the company that bore his name. A 1911 buyout by a group headed by automotive entrepreneur Adolphe Clément had left Ernest Ballot no more than a senior employee holding a tiny handful of shares. That approval must have been forthcoming, for, added Bradley, “Twenty-four hours later Ernest Ballot announced that he was prepared to build four racing cars for Indianapolis. But the end of the war was not in sight; the scheme must be kept secret; and no structural work could begin until peace had been declared.”
Left to right- Driver Albert Guyot, Maurice Ballot, and Driver Rene Thomas. Photo credit: flicker user Glen H.
“ Henry was very likely the only designer capable of bringing off the feat for, declared his one-time assistant at Ballot, Fernand Marie Vadier, the Swiss was “an engineer who could design every bit of a thoroughbred vehicle from its starting crank to its rear spring shackles”. He needed to be, for time was short: the Armistice was not declared until 11 November 1918, the Indianapolis Motor Sweepstakes were to take place at the end of May 1919 and the latest date that the cars could leave Paris was 26 April. Legend has it that Ballot announced his intention of entering the race on Christmas Eve 1918, though it’s likely that work had been going on in secret before that. Whatever the truth of the matter, there were less than 18 weeks in which to have a full team of cars ready to race.”
“Miraculously, recalled Bradley, “one hundred and three days later the first car had been completed and had gone through its road tests. The others followed within a week. Immense difficulties had been overcome. On two occasions crankshaft forgings had been scrapped after machining had begun. Several makes of magnetos had been tested for 50 consecutive hours at maximum pressure and engine speed and the two best makes had been reserved.”
The photo and thumbnails (below) show the original article written by W.F. Bradley that appeared in the May 15, 1919, Automotive Industries. In it he gives the cars specifications and tells the tale of the incredible 102 day adventure of building four of them.
“Rather than send the cars to Le Havre by rail, Ballot decided to have them taken there by truck, with an expert mechanic following in a car. Team leader Thomas had chosen his drivers carefully from the old guard of racing. They were: Louis Wagner, Albert Guyot and Paul Bablot.”
“With such drivers and what he was convinced must be the finest cars in the world, Ernest Ballot was confident of success. But harsh reality intruded as soon as the cars were tested on the bricks of Indianapolis: early practice revealed that their final drive ratio was too high. That was the fault of Henry, who ,though he had never been to Indianapolis, had overruled Thomas’s advice based on personal experience of the track in what was probably an attempt to reduce the stresses on the relatively untried engines. But the team had no alternative axle sets and there was no time to have new gears cut; all they could do was change the French Rudge-Whitworth wheels for smaller American wheels to give a lower effective gearing.”
The dohc 4-valve per cylinder 5 litre Ballot straight-eight engine, with a 2.9″ x 5.5″ bore and stoke (880 x 120 mm). It featured an 4-piece built-up crankshaft with ball bearing mains.
“It appears that Jean Chassagne, who had been nominated, along with Dario Resta, to drive one of the 4.9 liter Sunbeams that had been entered for the 500, but were mysteriously been withdrawn by Louis Coatalen before they could be scrutineered, lent Ballot larger Sunbeam wheels which had enabled them to lap 3 seconds quicker. Consequently, the American wheels had been ordered and with the change made, Thomas turned in a record qualifying speed of 104.70 m.p.h., making the Ballots definitely the fastest cars on the track.”
“But the American wheels proved defective. Wagner had a wheel break at the hub on lap 44 and his car, chassis #1004 , jumped the interior wall of the track, fortunately without injury to the driver. He then took over Ballot #1002 driven by Guyot, whose hands had been blistered red raw by the pounding of the Brickyard surface.”
One of the teams cars in Paris, France, before being sent to Indianapolis for the race
“Then Chassagne who, with his Brooklands experience had replaced road racer Bablot, had a wheel of Ballot #1003 collapse on lap 64, while avoiding the ailing Duesenberg of Arthur Thurman. The Ballot left the track on the outer edge and landed on its right side, throwing out its occupants, fortunately without serious injury to Chassagne or his mechanic Romigliere. Realizing that the American wheels were weak, the drivers of the two remaining Ballots moderated their speeds and made frequent stops to check their wheels, with the Guyot/Wagner car coming home fourth and Thomas tenth.”
“When the telegrams bearing the dismal news were delivered to Ballot, waiting in his office back in Paris, he was stunned, and sat in silence for several minutes before crumpling up the telegrams and tossing them aside. ‘C’est ma poisse! (It’s my bad luck)’, he growled.”
An article about the car in the The Motor magazine dated April 17, 1940, when it was owned by enthusiast Anthony Heal.
Post Script: The car has survived to this day in America. It first came to these shores when it was bought by early collector D. Cameron Peck of Chicago in 1949 from Anthony Heal in England, looking much as it did in the photo (above) in an article in The Motor dated April 17, 1940. Briggs Cunningham bought the car in 1952 when Peck dispersed his collection and had the lone surviving car restored and the body from the hood back rebuilt to the 1919 Indianapolis configuration as seen (below).
The car remained in the Cunningham Collection until the early 1980′s when it and many of the cars were acquired by Miles Collier and added to his fine collection of racing and touring cars in Naples, Florida. It has been exercised regularly in vintage events around the world for the last 25 plus years and your writer was fortunate to have been given a memorable ride in it by Eddie Berrisford a couple of years ago after one of them.
Today, detailed research is being conducted by The Collier Collection, the Revs Institute, noted restorer Eddie Berrisford from the U.K. and others in preparation for a restoration after years of pain-staking research. The car will soon be re-restored to as raced condition at Indianapolis in 1919.
You can learn more here about; The Revs Institute and David Burgess-Wise. Many photos can be seen of the 1919 Ballot at the Goodwood Festival of Speed with both Scott George, CEO of The Collier Collection and Eddie Berrisford behind the wheel.
The 1922 Austin Seven prototype
By Robert D. Cunningham
Between 1908 and 1926, Henry Ford’s simple and affordable Model T had attracted nearly 15 million buyers. But Americans began tossing their Ts like old tin cans, lured by the color and chrome of Chevrolet, Essex and Whippet. So on May 26, 1927, Ford closed up shop in order to invent and prepare for the all-new 1928 Model A.
Meanwhile, The New York Times predicted the next great fortune would be made by the man who would produce the best new type of small car. The Austin Motor Company, of Longbridge, England, seemed the most likely contender. Since its introduction in 1922, the Austin Seven baby car had been embraced in Europe where its builder, Herbert Austin, was considered equal to Henry Ford.
1925 GM Mosquito prototype
Austin entered negotiations with General Motors for licensed manufacture of his Seven in the United States. In 1925, GM had developed a stillborn competitor, dubbed the “Mosquito,” but decided against production. Instead, GM planned to acquire controlling interest in the English firm. However, when the news reached Austin stockholders, they revolted and the American colossus quickly withdrew.
Nevertheless, Herbert Austin remained convinced that he could expand into America, and he displayed four Sevens at the 1929 New York Auto Show. The public was enthralled by his well-built little cars, and financiers stepped forward from the hills of Butler, Pennsylvania.
Left to right (above); 1929 American Austin Proposal by Murray, 1930 American Austin chassis inspection and the 1929 American Austin Proposal by Hayes
The American Austin Car Company was incorporated on February 28, 1929. By September, American Austin had commissioned design proposals from two leading firms – Murray Body Company, of Detroit, and Hayes Body Corporation, of Grand Rapids, Michigan. Both design proposals featured solid disc wheels, horizontal hood louvers, notched doors to allow room for the rear fenders, and a rear-mounted spare tire. But there were notable differences, too.
Murray’s designer, Amos Northup, presented a rendering with lines that brought a classic town car to mind. The belt line arched below the door windows, over the cowl and across the hood to join behind the radiator cap—a treatment borrowed from large Auburn cars. Luggage was accommodated by a detachable steel trunk at the rear. Although the trunk offered obvious benefits, it also caused the body to be lopped off immediately behind the seat, thereby creating a car that looked even shorter and boxier than necessary. The trunk also would have increased manufacturing costs, which were projected to be higher than the new Ford Model A.
1930 American Austin coupe from unknown Hollywood movie
The Hayes proposal was developed by art director Count Alexis de Sakhnoffsky, the son of Count Wladimir de Sakhnoffsky, counselor to Russian Czar Nicholas II. The de Sakhnoffsky illustrations featured Austin cars of fuller outlines when compared to Northup’s versions. His cabin coupe looked like a miniature sedan, since the cabin was long enough to enclose a luggage area behind the seat. He also proposed a roadster with unexpected details for the country’s lowest priced automobiles, including a Duesenberg-style painted cove across the doors. The Hayes designs captured the hearts and emotions of people who loved puppies, kittens and babies. They also captured American Austin’s board of directors.
1930 American Austin roadster complete with top and side curtains
Hayes was instructed to tool up. But just nineteen days after the American Austin Car Company issued its stock prospectus, the market collapsed. “Black Tuesday”—October 29, 1929—marked the official start of the Great Depression.
It was the worst possible time to launch a new car company.
The Old Motor is pleased to announce this first part in a monthly series on the small car by author Robert D. Cunningham. He has “studied automotive history since my childhood in the 1960s with a keen interest in America’s pioneer “orphan babies”, a term I coined to describe the very small cars built by independent domestic manufacturers who are no longer in business”.
Cunningham has written two books; Too Little Too Soon: America’s Early Economy Cars and Orphan Babies – America’s Forgotten Economy Cars. He also writes the American Austin Bantam Club news magazine and runs the clubs website.
You can also see many other interesting American Austin Bantam photos here on The Old Motor (scroll down).