MEFISTOFELE 1923, SIR ERNEST ELDRIDGE, ARPAJON FRANCE 1924
In action, the 21.7 litre Fiat was so diabolical that press observers dubbed it Mephistopheles, which sounds suitably operatic in its Italian form of Mefistofele.
The Fiat Mefistofele began life as a 1908 Fiat SB 4 chain-driven Grand Prix car, using an engine of no less than 18 litres, with two individual but linked-together cylinder blocks. By 1922 it had come into the hands of John Duff, who was racing it at Brooklands when he became the innocent party in one of the biggest blow-ups ever recorded in the entire history of motorsport. One of the cylinder blocks exploded, separated itself from the rest of the engine, and departed skywards, taking the bonnet and several other supplementary components with it. Duff rather lost interest in the car after that, and went off instead to help start Bentley's winning run at Le Mans.
The shattered remains of the Fiat were taken over by an amazing character, Ernest Eldridge. He looked at the 18-litre engine and came to the conclusion that it was a little on the small side. It certainly was, in comparison with his current Isotta-Maybach, which had a 20.5-litre Maybach engine insinuated into an extended 1907 Isotta-Fraschini chassis. Eldridge managed to acquire a 21.706 litre six-cylinder A-12 Bis Fiat airship engine. The Fiat A-12 engine was a six-cylinder liquid cooled in-line, single overhead camshaft, engine of 260 horsepower. It was used in such aircraft as the S.I.A. 7B1, Fiat R-2, and S.A.M.L. S-2 reconnaissance aircraft, and the Caproni Ca. 46 bomber. Eldridge was then obliged to lengthen Mephistopheles to accommodate it. The story goes that elements of a London bus chassis were used in the conversion.
The rebuilt car was no crude job, though. It was given rather elegant new bodywork with a shapely tail, and it had the centre line of the front wheels farther ahead of the radiator than any other record car of its day. Eldridge had also breathed on the engine, which, modified with four valves per cylinder, 24 spark plugs all fired by Magneti Marelli magnetos, but with only two carburettors, now gave a full 320bhp at 1,800 rpm on a 5 to 1 compression ratio. Still chain-drive, of course, no front brakes and two tons in racing trim.
The vehicle's 1923 debut at Brooklands saw Ernest Eldridge establish his first 1/2 mile record from a standing start. Soon afterwards, on 12th July 1924 at Arpajon in France, he broke the absolute speed record by achieving a top speed of 146.01 mph. Other records over distances of 5 km and 10 km would follow.
Eldridge, ready to start the record run at Arpajon in 1924
Contemporary sketch of the Mefistophele showing the high back bodywork.
Photo of the Mefistophele showing the passenger seat and the high back bodywork.
Photo of the Mefistophele showing the high back bodywork.
Photo of the Mefistophele showing the high back bodywork.
The Mefistophele's 21.7 litre 6 cylinder engine.
The sight of this black leviathan flashing between the trees, engine bay emitting smoke, and exhaust jettisoning occasional flame must have stunned locals as the ground shook from its gutteral, rumbling power.
On a Sunday morning on a narrow tree-lined public road at Arpajon, not far from Montlhéry, on 6 July 1924, two teams converged to do battle. A plucky, large, bespectacled Englishman, Ernest Eldridge, in the 21.7-litre Fiat Mephistopheles and a Frenchman, René Thomas in a V12 Delage La Torpille would fight for the title of the fastest man in the world.
Eldridge and his intrepid passenger John Ames dismissed fears of blown tyres or perilous obstacles such as farm workers who might stray onto their hazardous route, and simply got down to business. Eldridge loved trying new experiments to maximise power, and had fitted an oxygen cylinder on board to energise the WW1 aero engine. Poor Ames, as well as hanging on for dear life, was required to maintain fuel pressure via a hand pump and turn on the oxygen when his manic driver yelled instruction. The ex-airship engine delivered a fearsome 320bhp, while front brakes were regarded unnecessary for this heroic act. No crash hats, and only woolly jerseys for protection.
The sight of this black leviathan flashing between the trees, engine bay emitting smoke, and exhaust jettisoning occasional flame must have stunned locals as the ground shook from its gutteral, rumbling power. On other occasions, high on the Brooklands banking, Mephistopheles was a devil to control. On the straight road at Arpajon, it was still a major handful. But Eldridge was up to the job. One journalist described the car as "a terrifying sight" as it hurtled past, needing all the driver's considerable strength to keep it under control, snaking from one side of the road to the other. Eldridge didn't lift, though, (he never lifted) and went faster than the existing Land Speed Record with a two-way average of 143.26mph.
Then the Delage team protested that the Fiat was unable to reverse. In fact, it didn't have the reverse gear insisted on by the regulations. The time set by Mephistopheles wasn't ratified. Eldridge took it away to a workshop in Paris, while Thomas, still at Arpajon, worked the V12 Delage up to 143.31 mph over the flying mile and snatched the official record. The Delage was then taken to the company's main Paris showroom in the Champs Elysées, and put on proud display.
Eldridge went back to Arpajon on July 12, with Mephistopheles having been given some arcane mechanism which would move it, however briefly and convulsively, backwards. With his passenger/mechanic John Ames - a man whose nerves must have been as steely as his own - pumping up the fuel pressure, Eldridge gave it the works. Mephistopheles was once again using the whole width of the road, verge to verge, but it was going faster than ever, and took the record from the Delage at 146.01 mph over the flying kilometre, vanquishing French rival Rene Thomas and his Delage V12 by just under 3mph. It was the last time a public road was used for a world record attempt.
The Rene Thomas' record had stood for just six days. Story has it Thomas’ car had sat proudly in the Delage showroom on the Champs-Elysees with a sign boasting the French success when the Fiat arrived and parked, in a pointed manner, across the road from the Delage showrooms.
The road used for the Arpajon speed trials is now buried under an autoroute, but both the Fiat and Delage rivals survive in museums.
Then 2 1/2 months later, on September 25, 1924 at Pendine Sands in Wales, Englishman Malcolm Campbell, driving a 350hp Sunbeam Blue Bird, broke the record at 146.16 mph over the flying mile. Just .15 mph quicker than Eldridge.
Words by - Ross Finlay, Mick Walsh and Jon Crooke
Who was Ernest Eldridge.
Very little is really known about E A D Eldridge. He has one surviving son, but he can remember very little about him. There are some facts and myths that have been passed around concerning EADE, and here are a few of them.
Ernest Eldridge was born Born on the 15/9/1897 to a wealthy family in Hampstead, London. His father was a "bill discounter" and amassed a very tidy fortune. Educated at Harrow School he quit while in the 6th form to go to the Western Front.
There was talk that he went to be an ambulance driver, but it appears that he lied about his age and joined the French Artillery.
Not much is known about the years between 1918 and 1921 when he reappeared at Brooklands. There are family myths about him flying with Count Zborowski, but this can not be confirmed.
The early part of his racing career is littered with corpses of large, often aeroplace engine, racing cars.
His first racing appearance was in 1921 with a rare chain-driven Isotta-Fraschini which was lapping at more than 90 mph.
The following year Eldridge startled the Brooklands crowd by appearing with a 240 horse-power Mayback aero engine in his 1907 I.F. chassis, which had been stretched to accommodate the giant power plant.
This 20 litre racer had a tiny two-seater body made by Jarvis of Wimbledon and caused something of a sensation, even when monstrosities were not uncommon in motor racing circles.
It won its first race at more than 101 mph. Eldridge then turned to a 10 litre Fiat, which he drove with some success.
He then appeared with the Issotta Maybach. 20 or so litres of Racing car, and quite fearsome. He drove this for a while, but was not terribly successful and sold it to a Frenchman who went under the non de volant of 'Le Champion'.
With the proceeds he bought Mephistopheles, and embarked on his famous escapades and taking the World Land Speed Record record at an average of 146.013mph over the flying kilometre.
In 1925 he sold Mephistopheles to 'Le Champion' and decided to enter the world of Grand Prix racing with cars of his own design, The Eldridge Specials. Based on Amilcar Chassis with Anzani Engines, these cars were entered at many races for the 1925 and 1926 seasons including the Brooklands 200, The San Sebastian, the L'ACF and the Italian GPs. He also entered the 1926 Indy 500, no doubt tempted by the prize money.
Whilst in the USA, he tried a Miller 122, and was so impressed he ran it at Salem Rockingham, Atlantic City and Altoona and then Returned to Europe to Break Records at Montlhery. Whilst attempting some speed records over the Xmas Holidays the front axle disintegrated, the cars somersaulted, and Ernest was left with some very serious head injuries and the loss of one of his eyes.
Once recovered he continued to take records with other cars, including a Chrysler at Montlhery, and then found himself becoming the "Record Attempt Manager" for Capt Eyston.
In 1929 they meant to co-operate in a joint assault on the 750cc world records with a French-built Ratier. When it was ready for testing at Montlhéry, Eyston was away racing somewhere else, and Eldridge took the wheel.
As Eyston recalled in his book Flat Out: "I heard afterwards what a comic sight this had been. Ernest is by no means slim, and here he was sitting in a little bucket seat on the bare chassis, the wind ballooning his trousers and coat. He, I was told, looked like a true 'Bibendum' as he manipulated the chassis round Montlhéry."
The Ratier project was scrapped, though, as the two friends became involved with the first-ever MG record car EX120. With Eyston at the wheel, it was the first 750cc car in the world to set records at more than 100mph.
But Eldridge played an important part in the development of the pioneering MG record-breaker,EX120. He designed a counter-balanced crankshaft as part of the tuning work on the engine, before EX120's first visit to Montlhéry in December 1930, when it took several records at speeds up to 87mph. Then he told Cecil Kimber of MG that the car would have to be supercharged, if it were to have any chance of heading off a rival 100mph attempt by Malcolm Campbell in a blown Austin Seven.
Kimber agreed, and Eldridge supervised the work as the engine was fitted with one of Eyston's Powerplus superchargers. And he was there at Montlhéry as Eyston's signaller: "Uncle Ernest stood out in the middle of the straight opposite the timekeepers' box with a little flag in his hand. He would raise or lower it in accordance with the lap speed I was putting up."
Once recovered he continued to take records with other cars, including a Chrysler at Montlhery, and then found himself becoming the "Record Attempt Manager" for Capt Eyston. Ernest coordinated and sometimes drove during the record attempts with the MG cars. He helped design the 'Speed of the Wind' record breaker and went to Bonneville to manage the record attempt.
Eyston had also been successful attacking records over longer distances with Hotchkis and Panhard machinery, as well as his own Rolls-Royce diesel-engined 'Speed of the Wind', which Earnest also helped to design, at venues such as Brooklands, Montlhery near Paris, and Bonneville.
It was whilst returning from a trip to Bonneville to supervise the record attempts that Eldridge contracted the pneumonia that he subsequently died from in Kensington on the 27/10/1937. He was 40 years old.
Ernest was certainly a colourful chararcter. He spent the family fortune on gambling, racing and flying. He once lost £60,000 playing "chemy", in Monte Carlo in 1922, on the turn of one card.
A few years ago a pair of his racing goggles came up for auction, being sold by his wife. This was strange as his wife had died before the war. It turned out that this was Ernest's 2nd wife that he had married in 1925 Whilst still married to his 1st wife.
The 2nd wife was a French woman named Marie by all accounts. So he was a bigamist as well.
We then heard the shattering noise of Mephisto returning, and this time Michele embarrassed - was really ON IT!
BBLAAAAAAAAAAABLARBLEBLAAAAAHHHH!! - 80-90mph, the great car visibly enraged, just like Old Nick himself, squalling, clattering, belching smoke, flame, melting tyres…absolutely streaking towards us wreathed in blue smoke, streaming vapour, gushing water, dribbling hot oil…
While stepping smartly back we also signalled ‘slow’ and pointed to the freshly hosed-down track.
Michele’s right arm popped out of the cockpit, heaved on the outside handbrake and he feathered the throttle, just through the puddle, then BLAAAAAAAHHHH!!! Instantaneously back on the noise, big time.
'Mephisto’s tail swiped out in a vicious tail-wag, he left-handed on opposite lock, caught it just brilliantly and simply kept that centre throttle nailed. It was glorious - for us but the parchment white journo beside him later confessed 'I was absolutely ------- terrified!!!!!'.
Later that evening, I was given command, just barely squeezing muscular (who are you calling fat?) thighs between wheelrim and seat. The floorboards on which I was almost sitting were awash with hot oil and slimy water. There’s a centre throttle, and I could just barely get my right toe onto the footbrake pedal leg, not onto the pad at all. In any case it’s just a token transmission brake, ‘useless’, says Michele, ‘usea ’andbrake’.
After two doomed attempts to pushstart 'Mephisto' with me on board? - they tow-started it, after going through the 1,2,3,4 routine over a tow rope.
Oh yes, and the car caught fire a bit, several times…
Once running, one has to keep it revving, it’s all thunderous din and quiver, leave the outside gearchange locked in second, as long as you hold the clutch out its release bearing has a total loss oil-spray showering onto it, hence 'Mephisto’s appalling table manners, slobbering from the undertray.
Sight along that endless bonnet, through the spurting fumes and thin coolant geyser, and we were on the move drive chain clattering just below right elbow, brakeless front wheels just in sight.
Expecting it to be dreadful I found it in the literal sense awful, a notch less positive than ‘awesome’ but its power and throttle response simply have to be experienced to be believed.
Having driven both the 10.66-litre V12 Delage with which 'Mephisto' duelled for the Land Speed Record in 1924, and the 24-litre Napier-Railton, Ernest Eldridge’s Fiat confection feels more vivid than the former and just outrageously primitive against the latter. While hauling it around Balocco’s curves did not, in truth, seem that difficult though 16-inch biceps certainly helped - it really did have an awful lot of power and almost instantaneous throttle response. 1400 to 1800rpm was just a toe-prod, the spurt of acceleration a real neck-bender. I found one could make it a corner like a threepenny bit by a sequence of throttle stabs - wheelspin and tail-wag instantaneously on demand.