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15-litre Napier leaves home

ONE of the world’s most famous racing cars, the 1904 Napier owned by Perth collector and motor sportsman Peter Briggs, is leaving its home in Western Australia, bound for auction at Amelia Island on February 29, 2024.

The massive and distinctive car, also known as Samson, was part of the Peter Briggs Collection for 20 years, most recently at the York Motor Museum in Western Australia.  

Motoring author and historian Graeme Cocks worked for Peter, running both his York and Fremantle Motor Museums at different times. 

Peter died in May last year and his widow, Robin, has decided to send the car to auction.

Cocks has been involved with the car for a long time and knows more about it than probably anyone alive.

This is his story:

The car is a recreation but this description does not do justice to the achievement. 

The car is based on a monster 15-litre powerplant which was the world’s first successful six cylinder racing engine. 

It was designed by Arthur Rowledge who is perhaps best known for designing the Napier Lion aircraft engine in the Great War and his contribution as part of the design group for the Merlin engine which powered Spitfires. 

After a successful racing career in the United Kingdom, on the continent and in the US, the engine was removed from the Napier and sold to the Cornwell brothers in Australia. 

The Cornwells operated a large ceramic factory and they could indulge a passion for powerful motors. 

They put the engine in what became Australia’s fastest motor boat. 

It survived in a corner of their factory until it was purchased by the tractor designer and manufacturer, Bob Chamberlain. 

At first he did not know exactly what he had bought, but then he began writing letters to many different figures in the motoring world in the UK and determined that he had perhaps the most important engine in British motor racing history. 


It was in the 1970s that he decided to recreate the 1904 Napier and bring the engine back to life.

The scale of the undertaking at that time is difficult to comprehend today when parts can be carved on CNC machines. 

In 1903 and 1904, the Napier L48 was built from scratch. 

Hundreds of wooden casting patterns had to be made as every component of the engine was a new design, the engine itself was at the frontier of engineering technology.  

Bob Chamberlain did the same, making hundreds of wooden casting patterns to recreate the original car. 

His work was a tour-de-force and it ran for the first time in 1982. 

In 1988, Bill Boddy, editor and founder of the famed Motor Sport magazine described it as ‘the recreation of the decade’ and it set a standard for the reconstruction of original cars in the modern era using historic components.

The Amelia Island auction was chosen by Robin Briggs as the best place to offer the car as arguably its greatest successes were achieved on the Florida beaches.  

In January 1905, the Napier broke the Flying One Mile World Record of 104.65 mph at Ormond Beach (near Daytona Beach).  

The Napier team returned to the speed trials in the following year and broke the 100 Mile Record. 

The car won many races and was regarded as the fastest motor car made in the United Kingdom over a four year race career. 

In October 1906, Dorothy Levitt established the Women’s World Speed Record over the flying kilometre by recording a speed of 90.88 mph at the Blackpool Motor Race Meeting.

Peter Briggs was invited to take the car to the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1999 in the special class for important racing cars produced pre-World War I. 

He was awarded the Automobile Quarterly prize for the most historically significant car at the event. 

The car has twice been campaigned in VSCC events in the UK and raced at the Goodwood Festival of Speed. 

Tony Gaze drove it at the Colerne Sprints in 1983 and recorded a standing start kilometre in 30.67 seconds with a terminal speed of 111.73 mph.

The engine is now looking for its fifth owner (SF Edge, the Cornwell brothers, Bob Chamberlain and Peter Briggs) in 120 years and the Napier recreation in which it is mounted is looking for its third owner in 40 years.

When the Napier was completed in 1982 it was controversial and questions were raised about whether the engine should have been placed in a museum on display rather than being used as the catalyst to recreate an artefact from the first great era of British motor sport. 

But times have changed in 40 years, now recreations are celebrated in events such as the SF Edge Trophy at the Goodwood Revival and it is accepted that if people like Bob Chamberlain don’t put their expertise and resources into reviving such great cars then we would not be able to appreciate the magnificent race cars of the past.

Cocks has more pictures of the car and of its history and is planning to drive it along Daytona Beach a couple of weeks prior to the auction if possible. 

Potential buyers can reach him at

Malcolm Barber from Bonhams in London is handling the auction.


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