Fiat Mefistofele

Fiat Mefistofele

Infobox Automobile
name = Fiat Mefistofele


manufacturer = Fiat
parent_company =
aka = SB 4
production = 1908
assembly =
predecessor =
successor =
class = Race car
body_style =
layout =
platform =
engine = Fiat A.12
transmission = Manual
wheelbase =
length =
width =
height =
weight = 2 Tons
related =
designer =
sp = us

The Fiat Mefistofele was the car Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge broke the World Land Speed Record with in 1924.

Design and development

The Fiat Mefistofele began life as a 1908 Fiat SB 4 chain-driven Grand Prix car. It initially had an 18 litre engine, consisting of two individual but linked cylinder blocks. John Duff raced it in this configuration in 1922. It was at Brooklands that Duff was involved in one of the more spectacular engine failures in motor sport history. One of the Fiat's 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.

Ernest Eldridge purchased the shattered remains of the Fiat. Eldridge acquired a 21.706 litre six-cylinder Fiat A.12 Bis 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 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 modified the engine 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, no front brakes and two tons in racing trim.

The vehicle's 1923 debut at Brooklands saw 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.

The Land Speed Record

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 guttural, 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-Élysées 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

The story of Eldridge and the Mefistofele

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 guttural, 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 guttural, 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-Élysées 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".

Road test

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."

External links

* [http://www.bigscalemodels.com/cars/fiat_mefistofele/mephistopheles.html] www.BigScaleModels.com - 1/12 scale model information and reference photos.

See also

*Land speed record


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