ROGER COLLINGS

I have known Roger off and on since 1977 and met him just after he had bought Gilbern Cars. He’d come out of the R.E.M.E where he’d done his National Service, made a fortune in the Slot - Machine business and then decided to do something crazy, a bit like Colin Chapman and Jem Marsh: although, upon reflection, a bit more like Jem Marsh.

Shortly after leaving the forces, he paid 55 for an 11.9 Lagonda and then 206 for a 1912 Brixia Zust. He still has them both. He owned the fabled 1903 60h.p. Mercedes, in which he had many epic drives and recently built a 19-litre Maybach. He loves vintage Bentleys, races, rallies and trials them. He is a Past – President of the V.S.C.C. and is currently still competing most weekends. 

Well, here’s a man who, no doubt, has had a few hairy moments in a motor or two, so, settling down with a cup of tea, I asked him 

What was the greatest drive of your life?

Listen here, Shag, Roger said with a trace of the Welsh vernacular, I've had more great drives than you BRDC members have had big moments. But, there was an occasion when Bill Boddy and I took the Mercedes 60 out for the day, to celebrate the anniversary of Jenatzy's drive in the 1903 Gordon Bennett race. Bill wrote about it in "Motor Sport" so why not use his account. So, there now follows an edited version of WB's account of the drive.

“On the appointed day, before 8.30 a.m., we had left the Collings’ house in Peterson-Super-Ely, and, after taking the two daughters to school, for this remarkable Mercedes is a practical everyday car, we were on our way, with something like five Brighton Runs to complete!

The only preparation had been routine oiling-up of the exposed push-rod ends, ignition-camshaft bearings, the mangle-like exposed timing gears and pinions of the famous 60 h.p. power unit, and of the driving chains.

Then the low-tension ignition was switched on, augmented for starting by the high-tension circuit, the half-compression handle by the radiator pulled out, Collings wound the starting handle, and very soon the great car broke into life, the motor-house filling with the sound of its mighty cylinders separately firing, its front mudguards and steering column trembling in response.

The Sixty Mercedes has a 140 x 150 mm. (9,236 c.c.) engine with its cylinders cast in pairs, the special annular valves overhead actuated by exposed push-rods and rockers, exhaust valves at the side, operated from a n/s camshaft. On the opposite side another camshaft looks after the four slender push-rods actuating the l.t. breakers.  The carburettor on this side, originally a Mercedes Simplex, feeds into a Y-type manifold. Water circulation is by pump and lubrication is via a series of drip-feeds from a pressurised system feeding various parts of the mechanism. Fuel feed is by exhaust pressure, authentically retained on Collings’ car.

The drive goes through the famous Mercedes scroll clutch.  The four-speed gearbox is combined with the differential, final drive being by side chains. The transmission brake is pedal applied, the rear-wheel brakes by the lever. The engine develops 60 b.h.p. at 1,200 r.p.m.

The car has a Mercedes tonneau body, with no windscreen, equipment being confined to a wicker umbrella basket, foot-operated Klaxon, snakelike bulb-horn and Ducellier oil side- lamps. It is shod with 875 x 105 front, 880 x 120 rear Dunlops.

It was soon apparent that a veteran in dating and specification, this 1903 Mercedes performs better than most Edwardian cars. Unlike Jenatzy, we had no problems of dust or controls to pass through. But the traffic was heavy and in Salisbury we paused to refuel, and oil-up. Yet, having left the Aust Service Area of the M4 after 10.30,  we  were  at  lunch  at the  “MasterBuilders” at Buckler’s Hard, at 13.35 hours. 

The weather, apart from a spattering .of rain, was kind, the traffic was not. Filson-Young wrote of riding on a fast car in 1904: “The ineffable thrill and exhilaration of such a flight none but they who have experienced it in their own bodies can even conceive. It is beyond everything else in our physical existence. It is the exaltation of  the  dreamer,  the drunkard, a thousand  times purified and magnified”. I don’t know about that! But it was exceedingly satisfactory, commemorating Gordon Bennett Day in this fashion, the Mercedes not merely keeping up with modem traffic but accelerating like a good vintage sports car, to the deep beat from its great cylinders, when opportunity presented itself, those at the wayside oft waving their appreciation, the wind playing about us, for there is no protection above the ankles in the front seats, the speed rising to 60 and more m.p.h. whenever possible, confirmed by Erik Johnson’s Mercedes-Benz 350 SL which was following us.  In the tonneau it was more sheltered, and the rustle of the side chains mingled with the engine beat.

In sober fact, that day we completed only 42 miles fewer than had Jenatzy in winning the GB, at an overall average running time of 41 m.p.h.  The Mercedes drank 2.5  gallons of Castrol oil, averaged 17 m.p.g. of petrol and gave no anxiety, apart from temporary loss of power on the homeward journey when a  l.t.  push-rod unslotted. It is verily a magnificent machine! 

When I took my spell at driving, I was more than ever convinced of this veteran’s superiority.  In 1903 it must have seemed almost unbelievable.  You sit looking down at the wide and shapely radiator and bonnet. At knee-level are the eleven drip-feeds, a glass-reservoir  hand  oil-pump  for  starting up these lubricators until the engine takes over, a brass-cased 8-day Smith’s clock and, on the floorboard, four pedals, the small left-hand one for the clutch, and the foot accelerator, to which the car has been converted, between the bigger pedals which put on the transmission brakes and throw out the clutch. Of this Mercedes scroll clutch, Lt.-Col. Clive Gallop once told me that Zborowski, Jun.  retained it for his Chitty-Bang-Bangs because it  never  slipped  unless  a  bump  caused  the chassis frame to distort, and although if misused it could stress transmission and tyres, it was acceptable on low-speed engines which would allow it to engage without stalling be-fore opening-up.

I found it easy to use and when I came to change down with the enormous outside gear lever, which sits inboard of the equally-long brake  lever,  this,  too,  was  unexpectedly simple, even getting from third to second “round the comer” of the gate. As I drove along M4 after a splendid run on deserted roads in the evening sunshine from Chippenham, Collings borrowed my Breitling wrist stop watch to time our effortless, slightly wallowing, progress, which was, shall we say, at a good 70 m.p.h.?  The steering, with the small 4-spoke wheel, is direct and, unless oiled, inclined to be heavy; significantly, one of the other 60 h.p. cars has one of its oilers directed to the column.

All too soon this unique experience was over. In the chill of the evening, so that I was glad of my (now oil-spattered) Functional coat (and flying-hat!), some 12 hours after setting out, for there had been a number of refreshment  stops,  we  were  back.   As E.K.H.K. wrote in MOTOR SPORT in 1930,after he had been out in a 60, “. . . for a moment the (garage) walls echoed the thunder of the exhaust, then the motor gave a few dying gargles, and all was quiet. We descended, feeling that perhaps we had not after all been born a generation too late, as we had been privileged  to travel  in  that veteran  monster . . .”. Later Karslake said of another 60:“. . . when the throttle is opening, a series of giant impulses, smoothly delivered but each individually appreciable, give an impression of irresistible power and communicate an intoxicating  sense  of  omnipotence  to  the driver.  Now one can understand why the Sixty, although good drivers declared it to be the safest car that at that date had been built, was the death of so many less experienced owners. It is not good for the uninitiated to receive the impression that they walk—or motor with the Gods”. Fortunately, Collings drives his 60 with verve and skill tempered with a sensible restraint....

The only remaining examples of this outstanding Mercedes of the  veteran  period seem to be in England—those of Harmsworth, Hampton and Collings. It is astonishing that the Daimler-Benz Museum in Stuttgart is without such a prize.

As I drove home in my modern BMW that evening my thoughts were very naturally with Jenatzy and Mercedes. Not many owners of a veteran, especially one on its original low tension ignition and exhaust pressurising, would have so cheerfully entered into a trip of nearly 300 miles in a day, as Collings had. On the 1903 Mercedes this proved, however, a very pleasant, instead of a painful, experience.—W. B.”

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