The Napier company was already well known as a leading precision engineering company when it commenced building motor cars in 1900 having been formed in the early 1800’s.
They earned their fame making machinery to very precise standards. Some of their better known designs were printing machines for the Hansard of the British government, bank note printers were made for the Bank of England as well as coin weighing machines.
An early car owner was Selwyn Francis Edge ,Sydney born and the London manager of the Dunlop company, had purchased a 6hp Panhard-Levassor of 1896. He felt that it needed bringing up to date and was advised to go to the Napier company. They converted it to Edges wishes and started to look at the production under their own name.
A deal was struck whereby Napier would build the cars and Edge would have sole rights to sell them. The first car was available in 1900, it was powered by a two cylinder and optionally a four cylinder engine.
Success in car Trials which were very popular at the time brought the cars in the view of the public and their abilities became common knowledge. Next came a 16hp four cylinder car . Soon after a 16 hp car was modified to take a 24hp engine and it was a 24 that was driven by Charles Glidden around the world generating more interest in Napier cars.
The company took the road of larger high powered cars for the better off customers. They were not the first to use six cylinders but they certainly were to perfect them and use them in considerable numbers. They moved along from 30 hp cars to 40hp, 45hp 60hp 65hp to 90 and 100hp, and a few in between. A series of four cylinder 15 and 20 hp cars were built concurrently . More of the smaller cars were built but it was the big sixes that brought fame to Napier especially stunts such as Edges 24 hour drive around Brooklands track with only stops for fuel oil etc. He averaged 65.9 mph (106.3 kmh) an unimaginable feat in 1907.
By comparison with other makes the output of some Napier models was quite limited . This was intentional, small numbers of big cars for Royalty and the titled gentry, and the prices charged made sure this aim was achieved.
During the First World War Napier like other companies turned to war production. The four cylinder cars of 15 and 20hp which had been made alongside the big cars were converted for many uses such as ambulances ,troop carriers field kitchens etc.. Trucks were also built for the war effort as were aero engines under contract to the Air Ministry. This probably irked the company somewhat and their designer Rowledge was instructed to develop an aero engine under Napiers name. This became the Lion a ‘W” or broadarrow configuration which became famous for its performance lasting up to the second World War.
When WW1 ended the company only built limited car types , and the final type T75 which developed into the T77,T79 and T80 .The total production was a mere 187 cars of which 5 are know to have survived. They were sold as the 40/50.
The last were built in 1924 and then the company turned to high quality engines for aircraft, trains and marine purposes. Its famous engine of the WW2 period was the ‘Sabre’ a 24 cylinder H section engine which powered Typhoons and Tempests.
As an aside, Napier were very imaginative when it came to engine configurations. The in line upright engine was no longer for them. As mentioned the Lion was a W configuration and they later used a vertical engine with two crankshafts at each end with the pistons which travelled in one cylinder creating a combustion chamber when the pistons are at their closest point, inwards vertical H , horizontal H and for those interested in trains they built the famous Deltic. A triangular configuration with three crankshafts at the points with two pistons travelling toward each other on each side of the triangle. Simply put each triangle has three crankshafts and six pistons. This engine could be built in various power outputs by placing layers back to back . the biggest was of 18 cylinders . High power output and rapid acceleration was the Deltics strong point .It was also used for high speed naval vessels.
The company had been absorbed into English Electric Company in 1942 and since then has had several other owners . the current owners being Wabtec USA.
For further information:
www.napierheritage.org.uk or www.napiercars.com