It has been said that the sun never went down on the British Empire. Yet for the British auto industry, it’s been one of consolidation and even of lines, models and even whole brands and automobile companies that over time have disappeared from roads, highways and tracks across the world. Sure many of the best known monikers such as Rolls-Royce and Jaguar have been retained.
Others such as the Austin Mini are now part of the German BMW enterprise and yet even others are now owned and part of firms in what are now emerging markets in former colonies of the British Isles in such counties as India. Other automobile making and manufacturing firms have just disappeared off the scene – one such company is Napier which built the Napier 40/ 50 in the pre-war years of 1919 to 1924.
Before World War 1, Napier could have been said to have been one of the greatest of British thoroughbred auto building firms and operations. From 1919 to 1924, with the Napier 40/50 model they tried and attempted to beat Rolls-Royce yet once again. It can be in retrospect that they failed – gallantly. Although their all-new power plant was very advanced technologically, reliable and effective as well, the rest of the chassis was old hat “Edwardian” in concept. 40/50 prices were always very high if not extreme in costliness since most of the bodies and coachwork were supplied by Cunard itself, whom Napier had actually taken over by now.
The Napier 40/50 splendid and highly dignified as it was could not quite match nor live up to the Rolls-Royce “Silver Ghost” in all around “excellence” and elegance, especially as the bespoke coach builders were rarely allowed to ply their craft , trade and creativity to full venue. By then , in any case Napier were very famed for their powerful and effective aero-engines and were inclined to specialize in that field and niche market for the upcoming future. Their original enthusiastic chief, Selwyn Edge, had left the firm in 1913. Incidentally, there was also a 40/50 in pre-war years, but this had a side-valve engine and different chassis.
Maximum speed of up to 70mph was clearly superior to that of the Rolls-Royce product, yet the suspension was hard and set to provide stability on the road rather than comfort levels. The engine itself was designed by A.J. Rowledge, who was also responsible for the W-formation “Lion” aero-engine, was most advanced and effective, being light in weight wherever possible, with a single overhead camshaft along with a host of other intriguing proprietary details of advanced auto engineering and technologies for its time. One interesting point is that the engine roughness at low speeds was cured by having a special low-compression piston in the rear cylinder (number 6) piston only!
In addition to normal models of the Napier 40/50 there was a “Colonial” version (of which 17 were built) with increased ground clearance provided by a special chassis side members and suspension parts. All up weight of the normal British limousines could be more than 5200 lb ( 2358 kilograms) which helped to explain the high price and gasoline consumption overall.
The last of the Napier 40/50s were built in 1924, after full-four wheel breaking and brake system had been adopted. Only 187 of the planned production run of 500 were ever made. On top of that labor strikes and very high prices were the death knell for this fine and distinguished automobile.
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