I’m not a huge fan of the insanely old antique cars, but every so often, something springs onto my radar that makes me stop and take notice. One such example was my nominee for Hooniversal Car of the Year. If I hadn’t found that car, this might have been my runner-up.
Way back in 1904, a man named Victor Hémery joined Darracq as their chief car tester. He set to work right away in developing vehicles to win races. Even back then, Darracq saw the potential for race victories to raise the profile of their brand and boost sales of their street cars. To that end, Hémery began a project to develop a race car faster than anything else in the world.
By 1905, that project was complete, with the assistance of another French racing driver who had been working for Fiat, by the name of Louis Chevrolet. They had heavily modified two Darracq four-cylinder engines, mating them together to create a 90-degree V8. As each 4-cylinder engine had come from a 100-hp race car, they nominally called the car a 200-hp car and called it a day. In reality, with the heavy modifications they had done on the engine, it was likely producing significantly more. This, at a time when a fairly “powerful” production car would be producing 20 horsepower. Incidentally, the engine displaced about 25.4L.
During initial production tests, the first couple of runs the car made showed great promise. They managed an average of 109.65 mph, as officially recorded. Hémery was disappointed with this result, despite the fact that it was a world record, feeling that the cold weather had prevented it from achieving its best result.
Just over a month later, the vehicle had been shipped to America for something of a “grudge match” against a twin-engined, aerodynamic Stanley Steamer. In its first run, the Stanley managed 111.8 mph, and Hémery felt they could best that comfortably.
Hémery was not known for his sportsmanship, however, and when he pulled the car up to the starting line beside the Stanley, he aggressively revved the engine in his powerful V8, and the resulting flames from his open exhausts threatened to set the wood-and-canvas body of the Stanley on fire. The officials threatened him with disqualification for poor sportsmanship, and the flood of vitriol that he released in response would surely have sealed the deal, except that the American officials couldn’t understand a word of his French.
He did manage to make a run at 115.3 mph, but the timing mechanism broke for his return pass to confirm it. The officials were able to understand enough of his response to disqualify him, and he was sent home with his Darracq in tow. In response, the Darracq factory fired him.
In the absence of Hémery, Louis Chevrolet agreed to drive the car for further testing. They managed speeds of 117.65 and 127.66 mph. Keep in mind, this was 1906. The Sopwith Camel biplane would not be introduced for another nine years, and when it was, its top speed was 117 mph. That was certainly a prodigious result for a road-going car.
Unfortunately, it was a little too much for Louis Chevrolet. He privately admitted that the car was terrifying to him, and would not drive it again without a substantial extra fee being paid. At that point, the car went into storage for almost a year, until it was purchased by Algenon Lee Guinness, a member of the Guinness family famous for their deliciously chewy beer. He used the car to do a few speed runs and exhibitions around Europe, but was never able to exceed his personal best of 122 mph, and had never been able to repeat that speed and earn the record. He was chasing this personal record in 1909 when Guinness cracked a piston. The car was brought back to his estate for repairs, but other priorities got in the way, and in about 1917, Guinness mother complained about the mess, and insisted that he dispose of it. Unbelievably, he did.
He regretted it some time later, but by that time, the car had been largely dismantled, and he only managed to retrieve a pile of left-over parts. It remained in that state until his death in 1954. From there, the car went to a Darracq collector, Gerald Firkins, who didn’t realize at first the true value of the piece he had acquired. After some research, he discovered that the pile of parts he had in his shed was, in fact, a former world land speed record holder, and he began a very long, very slow restoration. The car was unveiled in April 2006, firing up and running perfectly after a ninety-seven year hiatus.
The car was sold again later that year, and the new owner undertook an even more perfect restoration, revealing the final result last year. It has been driven many times since in various demonstrations, and virtually every passenger has commented that they can understand Louis Chevrolet’s trepidation. There is are no doors, no floor, no fenders, and no cover over the engine. There is no exhaust, and the open headers can belch flames over six feet long. There are no safety restraints, and only the most basic of chairs to keep you in place. Indeed, it is little more than a massive engine in a very small frame.
The speeds this car could attain — 200 km/h or 125 mph — are incredibly fast in most production cars today. Those who have done them can attest that even in the collapsible safety cages currently on the market, it’s a frightening speed. In a vehicle that is little more than a steel ladder with a belching, fire-breathing Victorian-era factory bolted haphazardly to the front, it must be positively terrifying. For those men who willingly pushed the limits, and kept trying for more, we owe them a debt of gratitude for every automotive advancement that followed.
We also owe them our unwavering respect.
[Editor’s Note: I started writing this article three months ago, and have since lost the sites I drew info and photos from. If they’re yours, PLEASE let me know and I’ll happily credit you!]