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The Fire-Breathing 1905 Darracq 200 HP Land Speed Record Car

By Ivan Pozega:  During 1904, Pierre-Alexandre Darracq’s engineer Paul Ribeyrolles designed a racing car with a light chassis and a large 687 CI (11.259 liter) four-cylinder engine producing 100 hp. With this car, factory driver Paul Baras reclaimed the title of fastest on earth from the alcohol fueled Gobron-Brillié driven by Louis Rigolly. On a short road in the coastal town of Ostend, Belgium where only the occasional local could be seen during the cold month of November, Baras flew through the kilometer in 104.52mph, almost a full 1 mph faster than Rigolly’s success a few months prior.

  • 1905 Darracq 200 HP Land Speed Record Car
  •           The 1905 Darracq 200 HP Land Speed Record Car – All photos courtesy of Stefan Marjoram.

Not content to sit on his laurels, Darracq summoned his flamboyant designer to build an even more powerful car. With an all new ohv V8 engine developing a claimed 200 hp, it was by far the most powerful racing car in the world and remained so for quite a number of years. In late December of 1905 on the Arles-Salon road in southern France, the outspoken Victor Hémery set a new Land Speed Record stopping the clocks in 20 3/5sec and 108.59 mph.

Shortly thereafter, the big Darracq was on a boat headed for Florida and the 1906 Daytona-Ormond Speed Trials. There it made a good showing of itself although the same cannot be said of its driver Hémery, who was disqualified by officials for his bad temper and behavior. Louis Chevrolet next piloted the car to an 115.30 mph speed and finally Victor Demogeot, Hémery’s mechanic recorded 122.45 mph over the smooth sand. Learn more about this event at First Super Speedway.

1905 Darracq 200 HP Land Speed Record Car

Upon its return to France, the powerful car was acquired by Algernon Lee Guinness. Heir apparent to the famous brewery company. Algy, as he was better known, also had in his possession the 100 hp former record holder which he used mainly for sprints throughout 1905 and also a 1904 GB Weir Darracq. After rebuilding the latter, it was entered in the 1905 Gordon Bennett British trials but succumbed to mechanical failure, never progressing past the second round of eliminations.

From 1906 to 1909 the 200 hp car resumed where it had left off, collecting the French National Record, the European and the Worlds Standing Kilometer on the Boulevard Scheveningen in 1907. That same year Guinness procured the British Flying Kilometer on the sands of Saltburn and returned the following year where he recorded an unofficial 121.57 mph.

1905 Darracq 200 HP Land Speed Record Car

Following its retirement after 1909, its history becomes unclear and something this scribe will not attempt to unravel. Two well-informed reports however suggest that two-thirds of the frame survived still cradling the engine and it was left in this state until Guinness’s death in 1954. It was then bought two years later by Mr. Gerald Firkins who for the next 50 years collected enough parts and revived the old record holder. Unfortunately, amid flailing health, Firkins decided to place the car on the market in 2006 when it was purchased by Mark Walker and it remained in England.

1905 Darracq 200 HP Land Speed Record Car

Well known in vintage and veteran car circles, Mark has over the years campaigned a number of outstanding vehicles from aero-engined specials as well as a 1908 Grand Prix Panhard. When tasked with the rebuild it was found to be inaccurate in some respects. Although the previous owner procured enough parts to return the car to a state where it mirrored its former self, its new owner was determined to return the car to its original form.

Fortunately, many historical photos were found that would later assist in the authentic rebuild. With modern computer software it was also possible to deduce the exact length and profile of the front and rear of the frame as well as the wheelbase. Period images also came in handy when recreating of the unique two-speed rear axle and its torque arm. An original Darracq front axle was used.

1905 Darracq 200 HP Land Speed Record Car

Detailed accounts from early publications were another source utilized when searching or remaking other vital components. The V-shaped radiator by Grouvelle & Arquemborg was lost to time, but Mark was able to produce an exact replica along with the large water tank sitting above the original but updated carburetors. The shock absorbers are also from the same maker when the car made its record run in 1906.

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Since its public debut contemporary reports always quoted the swept volume of the V8 engine as 1373 ci (22.5 liters – 160 x 140mm) but during reconditioning it was later discovered to be 1551 ci (25.42 liters 170 by 140mm). During its rebuild, the engine also received a new crankshaft, rods and pistons. Even though the engine had been run before Mark purchased it, both the original crankshaft and four of the connecting rods after inspection were found to be cracked.

Overall the car has been restored to a state that can only be described as amazing. Being superbly painted and patinated in a way that makes one perceive the chassis and engine never really were apart. To the unknown passerby it actually mimics a well preserved piece of history.

1905 Darracq 200 HP Land Speed Record Car

Mark completed the rebuild in just under four years and since then has participated in many events. Just as Algy Guinness had done all those years ago when in his ownership, both the car and its owner have returned to winning and record breaking. It has also crossed the Channel to its birthplace for French Grand Prix Centenary celebrations. It did so on its own four wheels while spitting flames from its short exhaust pipes as if to alert every man, woman and animal of its approach and scaring any would be passenger who dares to ride along knowing there is nothing between them and the road below.

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Darracq History Up Until The Time Of The 200 HP Land Speed Record Car

Throughout the pages of history it has been noted that Pierre-Alexandre Darracq was a businessman and not an engineer. Born in 1855 amongst the wineries in Bordeaux, France. Two decades later he would relocate south to the military and industrial town of Tarbes where he trained as a draftsman. Discovering a penchant for business and a strong entrepreneurial mindset, he became a director of Hurtu-Hautin & Diligeon, makers of sewing machines and typewriters that were both beautiful and typically French in style. With the advent of the safety bicycle, the company would later expand into the manufacture of the popular invention.

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In 1891, Darracq co-founded the Societé Française des Cycles Gladiator. His bicycles were reputed to be reliable but also very affordable. The Gladiator was so inexpensive it left one of his direct competitors, a syndicate from England, no choice, but to purchase a substantial controlling interest in the company. Using some finances from a large portion of the profit he made after the sale of the bicycle business, Alexandre, as he has become universally known, entered into the new and unknown world of automobile manufacture with the founding of Automobiles Darracq S.A. in 1896.

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In fact, his first venture into motorized transport manufacturing two years before proved unsuccessful. Purchasing the production rights from Félix Théodore Millet for the latter’s rear wheel mounted radial-engined motor bicycle. Only two were said to be made including the designer’s prototype, it’s subsequent failure at the 1895 Paris-Bordeaux-Paris race rendered the business venture unsustainable. This is also recorded as M. Darracq’s first foray into motor racing.

With the purchase of Léon Bollée’s patents the company also built and exhibited at the 1896 Paris Salon an electric powered carriage under the brand name PREFECTA and in 1897 built a tricycle said to reach speeds of up to 60 kmh. This was just short of the 63.15 kmh Count Gaston de Chasseloup-Laubat recorded the following year as the benchmark for a new contest based on distance versus time and what would eventually become the first Land Speed Record.

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In 1901, with the arrival of new designer, Paul Ribeyrolles, the company produced its first successful model, the 6.5 hp Model C. This model, also sold with 8.5 hp twin and 16 hp four-cylinder engines proved its worth in many French races, particularly the former. These cars were well represented at the 1901 GP de Pau, the Paris-Bordeaux-Paris and the Nice-Salon-Nice races with future aeronautical figure Henri Farman and the relatively unknown Paul Baras competing, although the latter was victorious at the Paris-Ostend race of 1899.

With a sound reputation carrying on from the previous year, M. Darracq signed a license contract with Adam Opel to produce cars in Germany under the name Opel-Darracq. It was a business decision he would emulate once more into the near future. Throughout 1902, Darracq had another good showing at the major continental races but the year also signaled the arrival of  works drivers, Baras, and Victor Hémery. Although not successful at first, this period is noted in historical literature as the beginning of an influential relationship that would inevitably produce winning results for the company and the two men.

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Following on from positive results in the marketplace, both home and abroad, most notably in Britain, and with the release of newer inexpensive models, Alexandre Darracq continued on with his aggressive approach to business. With the Gordon Bennett Trophy fast approaching, the Suresnes factory felt it was imperative to have as many cars entered giving the company much greater chance at winning which would later reflect into more sales. It was a typical “Win on Sunday-Sell on Monday” approach.

At the time only three cars were allowed entry after the nations elimination trials and regulations stipulating that the entire car be built in the country the cars represented. M. Darracq, seeing an opportunity for another British entry, entrusted the Glasgow engineering firm, G & J Weir Ltd. with the building of identical 80 HP racers based on drawings provided by Paul Ribeyrolles. With Fritz von Opel representing Germany, there were a total of seven Darracq machines. Unfortunately, the V Coupe Internationale was a failure, both for the German organizers and Darracq. Lord Montagu, venting his displeasure in his book on the subject wrote, “this was poetic justice, after M. Darracq’s attempts to swamp the race with his creations”.

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Editors note: The text in this post is by a good friend Ivan Pozega of Australia. All of the photos in this post are courtesy of Stefan Marjoram, who took these photos on a journey from England to France this past summer; he had the following to say about the enjoyable trip:

“Yet again I was lucky enough to be invited along on the annual road trip which visits the scene of a French Grand Prix 100 years earlier. This year’s goal was Lyon, scene of the 1914 GP – which meant a trip of over 1000 miles. Most of the eccentric band of friends chose to trailer their vehicles to the circuit and then use them to explore the area, but a few were driven the entire way. Our small convoy of V8s was made up of Annie and Richard Scaldwell in the JAP GN, Duncan and Charlie Pittaway in the OX5 engined Monarch and Mark Walker and myself in the 1905 Darracq Land Speed Record Car.

“Traveling so far in the century-old cars meant that we spent most of the time on the journey and not so long with the others at Lyon, but the long journey threw up many funny and unplanned adventures along the way. Annie Scaldwell  found the most superb route with wonderful places to stay and the cars all performed brilliantly. With such special cars and great company it was a trip I’ll never forget”. Visit with Stefan Marjoram here to view more of his work.

29 responses to “The Fire-Breathing 1905 Darracq 200 HP Land Speed Record Car

  1. These images are so remarkable, I found myself studying them for quite some time as I examined the overly-complex linkages and brass fittings of that wonderfully mechanical era. This is steampunk culture in it’s purest form, captured in detail by the photographer. Thanx for sharing them.

    I remain puzzled however at the rear shots of the V-8 engine. There are two large pipes routed from the valley between the cylinders that split off to each side and join the rear stubby exhaust pipes only. I can not figure out the purpose of those pipes or where they could possibly originate. Crankcase breathers? I know those coffee can sized pistons must move some air but I’ve never seen pressure relief approached in quite this way.

      • Thanx for the reply David, but it’s an odd way to do so.

        I would think fast moving exhaust gasses exiting the #4 & #8 stacks would create a low pressure venturi at the pipe connection, effectively drawing air from those pipes and out into the exhaust stream instead of the other way around.

        It’s puzzling to me because the pipes are so large and obviously purposeful, but I’ve never seen such a strange device. If they’re for crankcase relief, I’d think they could actually create a partial vacuum inside the block at high RPM, and I’m not so sure that’s a good idea. Whatever they are, it’s not something that caught on.

        • While we still don’t have an answer as to what they were for sure, crankcase scavenging does seem the most likely. Despite your comment “I’d think they could actually create a partial vacuum inside the block at high RPM, and I’m not so sure that’s a good idea,” creating a vacuum inside the crankcase is a known way to increase power and is commonly done on race engines. The vacuum helps the rings to seal and reduces the density of the windage, creating less internal drag.

    • Johnny, those pipes are leading warm air from the rearmost exhaust stacks to the twin carburetors – one for each bank of four.
      But, I must say to call this “steampunk” is sort of like like telling Stephen Hawking he has a brain like a computer – both Stephen and that Darracq are the real deal, computers are stupid and “steampunk” is fake.

  2. David, thanks again for letting us mere mortals see the quality of things that went on before and outside of our normal world. This is astonishing. Wonder if Henry Ford and our other automotive pioneers were aware of these mechanical marvels ? Thanks again, to your wonderful site and folks like Stefan for the fabulous photos, JB

  3. Mark Walker has sent along this explanation of the the two pipes at the rear of the engine: There were four versions of the hot air supply to the twin carbs. The first version from December 1905 when it broke the LSR (and how I have made it) has the pipes just drawing off the rear stubs. Three weeks later at the Florida Speed Week the pipes had been extended to draw hot air from all four stubs with the pipe sealed at the front. This was clearly not believed to be enough as by the sprint at Dourdan in October there were boxes round the stubs with the air entering at the front. However by 1908 at Saltburn there were air inlets on the back of these pipes with adjustable butterflies to bleed in cold air. My conclusion was that they were trying to cure poor carburetion with hot air. This is one of the reasons I added compensating jets (not invented until 1907). It now runs really well!

    • Thanx for going to the trouble to solve this mystery. It’s amazing what an engineer can come up with when presented with such a unique problem, especially in those pioneering days when nearly every problem was unprecedented. If those pipes were drawing intake air I’d think it would be rather void of precious oxygen using exhaust gases though.

      …and thanx again for the gift of this entertaining and informative blog. As far as I know, there’s nothing else like it. These are automotive projects I would probably know nothing about if not for your efforts.

  4. Great article, thanks Ivan! Enjoyed the Ormond Beach clipping. Mark very kindly sent me a copy of Under my Bonnet by G R N Minchin – full of terrific stories about the early days of motoring and motor-racing. It features first hand accounts of the Darracq when it was in Guinness’ hands – including going to buy it and starting it up in a low-ceilinged basement! There’s a lovely H W Bunbury quote, “I have ridden in the mechanic’s seat in very many racing cars between the years 1903 and 1939, but for a real thrill and for pure joy, nothing ever came up to a full throttle run on the 200, with the car in Algy Guinness’ capable hands.” It’s such an enormous privilege to experienced a 1000 mile road trip in it.

  5. David,

    Thanks for showing this great car to a wider audience, for Johnny Ringo, the warm air collection pipes aren’t connected to the exhaust stubs, they are positioned closely enough just to pull in warmer air not combustion gases.

    Andy

    • Ahhh…now I understand. Those pipes are acting much as an intake stove. I couldn’t figure out how air that had the oxygen already burned out of it would work for carb intake. Now I realize the intake pipes aren’t grafted into the stubs as they appear. Thanx for clearing that up.

      The same theory of using pre-warmed air is why my old Triumph TR6 runs a hot water pipe through the intake manifold, another mystery that has evaded me for some time. I recall that many vintage performance cars seek dense cold air, even running the intake through an ice box on race cars, and I never understood why warm air is preferred in some cases.

  6. This is my idea of a really artistic and sympathetic restoration, looking both well used and well cared for and, at the same time, as if its ready to run. I can only hope my own early car (a very pedestrian one in comparison) comes out half so well.

  7. Excellent article and wonderful pictures!
    For those who would like to learn more about the designer, Paul Ribeyrolles, I have published a detailed article about his life and work in the Journal of the Sunbeam Talbot Darracq Register, issue n° 196 (Autumn 2014). All his Darracq racing cars are tackled (including a genealogical tree of them) plus his Darracq aero-engines, his involvement in the Chauchat automatic rifle, and his post-WWI Gladiator motorcycles… Definitely a fascinating designer!

  8. I saw the Darracq yesterday in Dieppe (France) together with many other pre ww1 monsters such as the Monarch and a V8 Vauxhall. I was amazed. I spent two hours studying the Darracq and was particularly interested in the hot air intake but also by the small wooden block used to block what I believed to be the clutch pedal during parking (can somebody explain?). Then came the engine start ceremony ( crank, decompress, position, launch) and the thing came to life with a barking stunnning all the spectators. And it went …
    I am more a ’50 car fan and I knew nothing of these machines. Now I am impressed and marked for life.
    Many many thanks to the owners of these cars who crossed the Channel to visit their friend in Dieppe and who have made all spectators such a wonderful gift.
    Michel

  9. As the son , grandson, and nephew of auto mechanics, I’m in awe of what Mark has done to restore this gem. May he long enjoy racing it. Wonder how it would do at Bonneville or Daytona today?

    Dave G.

  10. What a beautiful piece of automotive/racing history. Thank you for the pics. Is there any change that a video clip exists of the starting and running of the car?
    Regards,
    Christopher MacPhee
    Ottawa, Canada

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