By William Pearce
In 1907, FIAT won the French Grand Prix and had a good racing season overall. The manufacturer’s success inspired Scotsman George Abercromby to order his own FIAT race car with the hope of winning the 1908 Montagu Cup Race held at the Brooklands raceway in Surrey, England. Abercromby’s car was designated SB4 Corsa (Race) by FIAT, and was an improvement of the 1907 Grand Prix racer.
The FIAT SB4 consisted of two straight frame rails that supported the engine at the front of the car, followed by two very open seats just before the rear wheels and a fuel tank at the extreme rear. The four-cylinder engine had two cast cylinder blocks, each with two cylinders. Reportedly, each cylinder had one intake valve and two exhaust valves. The intake valve and one exhaust valve of each cylinder were actuated by pushrods from the right side of the engine, while the remaining exhaust valve was actuated from the left side of the engine. The cylinders had a 7.48 in (190 mm) bore and a 6.30 in (160 mm) stroke. The SB4 engine displaced 1,107 cu in (18.15 L) and produced around 175 hp (130 kW) at 1,200 rpm.
The engine was concealed in the SB4 racer under a cowling and had an underpan. Mounted behind the engine was a four-speed transmission that powered a differential shaft just forward of the rear wheels. Sprockets and chains delivered power to the rear wheels. All of the wheels were made of wood. A foot pedal engaged a brake on the gearbox, and a hand lever operated a brake on the differential shaft. There were no front brakes.
Abercromby’s SB4 was delivered to England in the spring of 1908, and FIAT driver Felice Nazzaro raced the car at Brooklands in June. Nazzaro defeated Frank Newton driving the Napier Samson and averaged 94.75 mph (152.49 km/h) over the 27.25-mile (43.85-km) race with one lap recorded at 121.64 mph (195.76 km/h). However, Abercromby was not pleased with the car (or perhaps FIAT) and refused its delivery. Therefore, the FIAT was not entered in the 1908 Montagu Cup Race held in August. A legal skirmish ensued between Abercromby and FIAT and was won by FIAT, with Abercromby ultimately taking delivery of the vehicle.
Abercromby raced the FIAT a bit in 1910, but mechanical issues prevented success. The car passed through a few owners before World War I but was run very little. After World War I, John Duff discovered the FIAT stored in a garage and was able to purchase the car. Duff somewhat restored the racer, replaced the wood wheels with wire ones, and had a new body made that enclosed more of the car and improved its aerodynamics. Duff and co-driver R F Cooper entered the car for various Brooklands meets in 1921, but mechanical issues prevented it from starting most of these races. The Fiat did place second in a Lightning Short held in August, but cracked pistons took it out of subsequent races.
In 1922, Duff had replaced the pistons with lighter ones designed by Harry Ricardo. With co-driver L G Callingham, Duff finished third in a sprint race held in May, turning a lap at 107.10 mph (172.36 km/h). However, the FIAT’s engine blew up spectacularly during a longer race, with parts flying in all directions. Duff decided that the FIAT was not worth his time, and he sold the damaged, 14-year-old car to Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge.
Eldridge had started racing at Brooklands in 1921 behind the wheel of a 1907 Isotta Fraschini Grand Prix car powered by a 488 cu in (8.0 L) four-cylinder engine that produced around 100 hp (75 kW). Disappointed by his lackluster performance, Eldridge decided to modify the car with a six-cylinder, inline Maybach AZ engine that displaced 1,251 cu in (20.5 L) and produced 180 hp (134 kW) at 1,200 rpm. The Isotta Fraschini car required extensive modifications to support the large Maybach engine, which originally powered an airship. The modified car was known as the Isotta-Maybach, and Eldridge debuted it in April 1922. Eldridge found success with the Isotta-Maybach and was able to lap Brooklands in excess of 100 mph (161 km/h).
In search of more power, Eldridge was able to acquire a war-surplus FIAT A.12bis engine, a type that powered various Italian aircraft during World War I. The six-cylinder, inline A.12bis had two intake and two exhaust valves for each cylinder, all actuated by a single overhead camshaft. Two spark plugs were fitted on each side of each cylinder. The engine had a 6.30 in (160 mm) bore and a 7.09 in (180 mm) stroke. The A.12bis displaced 1,325 cu in (21.7 L) and normally produced around 260 hp (194 kW) at 1,700 rpm. Eldridge had made some modifications to the engine, including improving its ignition system, and his example produced 300 hp (233 kW) at 1,400 rpm and 320 hp (239 kW) at 1,800 rpm. Rather than modifying the Isotta-Maybach, Eldridge sought a new chassis for the engine and purchased the FIAT racer from Duff as the basis for his new project. The Isotta-Maybach was sold to Loftus Claude Gerald Moller Le Champion, and Eldridge focused on his FIAT racer.
In order to fit the A.12bis engine, Eldridge added about 17 in (432 mm) to the FIAT racer’s chassis. Some sources state that this section was originally from a bus frame, but it is more likely that the metal was supplied by the London General Omnibus Company and that it was not from a scrapped bus. A new, more enclosed body was made to cover the longer car, but the transmission and chain drive were retained. The car used a 176 lb (80 kg) flywheel, and the clutch had 57 plates. The underpan was extended the entire length of the car. Eldridge’s 300 hp FIAT was 16 ft 8 in (5.09 m) long, 6 ft 1 in (1.85 m) wide, 4 ft 7 in (1.40 m) tall, and weighed approximately 3,858 lb (1,750 kg). Mounted on the car’s 21 in (533 mm) wire wheels were 33 x 6 in (838 x 152 mm) tires.
Eldridge debuted his 300 hp FIAT at Brooklands for the Summer Meeting held on 23 June 1923. The car was run without the body, as it had not yet been completed. Various issues were encountered, but Eldridge was able to complete a lap from a standing start at 88.77 mph (142.86 km/h), which was a good speed but not fantastic. After repairs, Eldridge pushed his standing start speed up to 91.17 mph (146.72 km/h), but trouble persisted, and the car was withdrawn.
In late October 1923, the 300 hp FIAT was back at Brooklands where Eldridge set a world half-mile (.8 km) standing start record, averaging 77.68 mph (125.01 km/h) over two runs. In April 1924, Eldridge completed a Brooklands lap at 122.37 mph (196.94 km/h) and finished second in the Founder’s Gold Cup Race, coming in behind Le Champion driving Eldridge’s old Isotta-Maybach, which had a 20 second head start. The powerful car had an extreme tendency to quickly destroy tires. In early June, Eldridge was back at Brooklands and lapped the track at 107.10 mph (172.36 km/h) from a standing start and 123.89 mph (199.38 km/h) the next time around. Eldridge had become as comfortable as possible in the 300 hp monster FIAT.
The Automobile Club de France was sponsoring speed trials in Arpajon, France in early July 1924, and Eldridge decided to take the 350HP FIAT and attempt a Land Speed Record. At the time, the LSR stood at 133.75 mph (215.25 km/h) over the flying km (.6 mi) and 129.17 mph (207.88 km/h) over the flying mile (1.6 km) and was set by Kenelm Lee Guinness driving the Sunbeam 350HP at Brooklands on 17 May 1922. The course for the trials was a 4.5-mile (7.2-km) straight section of a tree-lined public road that linked Arpajon to Paris.
The aero-engined FIAT, now with white ‘FIAT’ lettering, caused quite a commotion in France, and the car was nicknamed Mephistopheles (Mefistofele in Italian) by the press. Mephistopheles is a folklore demon that collects the souls of the damned. The name stuck, and the car became known as the FIAT Mephistopheles / Mefistofele.
On 6 July 1924, Eldridge and his co-driver Jim Ames took Mephistopheles out for a record run. The co-driver had the tasks of actuating a pump to maintain fuel pressure and of opening an oxygen bottle, which Eldridge had devised to feed the gas into the engine in an attempt to make more power. The pair ran at the record-breaking speed of 146.8 mph (236.3 km/h) over the km (.6 mi). However, Frenchman René Thomas protested the run, as Mephistopheles had no reverse gear, which new rules stipulated was required. Earlier in the day, Thomas had established a new record in his V-12-powered Delage DH at 143.312 mph (230.638 km/h) for the km (.6 mi) and 143.26 mph (230.55 km/h) for the mile (1.6 km). Thomas’ protest was upheld, and he retained the LSR while Eldridge was disqualified.
Not to be outdone, Eldridge modified Mephistopheles to conform to the rules. Exactly how this was done is up for debate. Some sources state that he flipped the drive chain to make a figure eight and spin the drive axle in reverse. Others contend that while this would make the car back up, it would not be able to move forward without having the chain put right again, and such a modification was unlikely to conform to the rules. More likely, a simple reverse gear was made incorporating an auxiliary shaft from the transmission.
Whatever the ‘fix,’ the modifications to Mephistopheles satisfied the officials, and another record attempt was planned for 12 July 1924. At this point, the time trials were over, and the public road was open to normal traffic. In the early morning, with police standing-by to hold traffic, Eldridge and co-driver D. W. R. Gedge ran the 16-year-old Mephistopheles on the road and established a new LSR at 146.014 mph (234.986 km/h) over the km (.6 mi) and 143.260 mph (234.794 km/h) over the mile (1.6 km). True to its nature, Mephistopheles destroyed its tires along the way. This was the last LSR set on a public road. They also set a standing start 1 km (.6 mi) record at 85.477 mph (137.562 km/h). Eldridge held the LSR until 25 September 1924, when Malcolm Campbell set his first LSR at 146.16 mph (235.22 km/h) over the km (.6 mi) in Guinness’ old Sunbeam 350HP, which became the first Blue Bird.
After the record run, Eldridge had Mephistopheles modified slightly with a new, more-streamlined radiator cowling. In October 1924, the car competed against John Godfrey Parry-Thomas in the Leyland-Thomas racer at the opening of the Autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry track south of Paris, France. Mephistopheles won the six-lap race at 121.04 mph, but both cars suffered tire failure along the way. On 27 November 1924, Eldridge attempted to better his LSR but was only able to establish a new 10-mile (16.1-km) record at 121.443 mph (195.444 km/h). In December, a new 5 km (3.1 mi) record was set at 128.53 mph (206.85 km/h). Back at the Montlhéry track on 29 March 1925, Eldridge and Mephistopheles set new records covering 5 km (3.1 mi) at 129.23 mph, 5 mi (8.0 km) at 128.20 mph, and 10 km (6.2 mi) at 128.34 mph (206.5 km/h).
Since the debut of the 300 hp FIAT, there had been much interest in a match race against Thomas in the Leyland-Thomas racer. That head-to-head race was finally held at Brooklands on 11 July 1925, and no one in attendance was disappointed. Mephistopheles’ new radiator cowling had been discarded by this point. The Leyland-Thomas used a highly-turned, straight-eight engine that had a 3.5 in (89 mm) bore and a 5.75 in (146 mm) stroke. The engine displaced 443 cu in (7.26 L) and produced an impressive 240 hp at 3,500 rpm. Thomas got off the line first but was soon passed by Eldridge. Both men pushed their machines to the limit, skidding around the track at times. Thomas was able to get back by Eldridge and take the win, although both cars lost one tire near the end of the three-lap race. Eldridge and the FIAT had a best lap of 125.45 mph (201.89 km/h) and finished at an average of 121.19 mph (195.04 km/h). During the race, Thomas set a Brooklands lap record at 129.70 mph (208.73 km/h) and finished at an average of 123.23 mph (198.21 km/h).
In late July 1925, Eldridge sold Mephistopheles to Le Champion. Le Champion campaigned the car off and on for some time, but Mephistopheles’ habit of devouring its tires did not serve it well during most races. The car was acquired by W.G.S. Wike and George Gregson in October 1931. After racing it for a short time, Wike and Gregson regularly drove the car on public roads. Gregson eventually took full ownership of Mephistopheles but was killed at the Battle of Dunkirk during World War II. In 1945, the car was acquired by Charles Naylor, who later sold it to Fiat around 1960. Mephistopheles was restored and participated in a vintage race in 1961 and in other races over the years. It has most recently appeared at the Goodwood Festival of Speed in 2001 and 2011. Mephistopheles is preserved at the Centro Storico Fiat (Fiat Historic Center) in Turin, Italy. Although Eldridge did not make any further LSR attempts, he was involved with George Eyston’s Speed of the Wind and Thunderbolt cars.
This article is part of an ongoing series detailing Absolute Land Speed Record Cars.
– Brooklands Giants by Bill Boddy (2006)
– The Land Speed Record 1920-1929 by R. M. Clarke (2000)
– Reid Railton: Man of Speed by Karl Ludvigsen (2018)