Last week I was out for a pre-Christmas lads’ get-together – where we inevitably talk engineering or bloke stuff – and managed to mention somebody so obscure that several people reached for their phones and that old standby, Google.
Has anybody heard of Ernest Eldridge and Mephistopheles? No? I’ll tell you. Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge was an English racing driver whose real-life exploits made Bulldog Drummond and the other fictional heroes of the 1920s look like kiddies. He’d served in the First World War, reputedly with the French artillery after dropping out of school so he could join in. He had two wives – Marjorie, who he married in England; and Marie, who he married in France in 1925, apparently omitting to first divorce Marjorie before doing so. He blew his family fortune gambling – allegedly once losing £60,000 in a card game.
His favourite pastime, though, was racing cars. Those were the hero days of wire-wheeled, thin-tyred beasts with colossal aero engines and minimum bodywork that drivers booted around the track at Brooklands with scarce regard for safety.
Eldridge had a number of cars but is best known for the biggest. This monstrosity was based on a 1908 Fiat SB-4 racer that had ‘blown’ its motor – literally, as in it exploded – while belting around the track at Brooklands. Eldridge bought the wreck, lengthened the vehicle by splicing pieces of London bus chassis into it, and replaced the engine with a huge 21.7 litre Fiat A-12 aero engine, boosted with four carburettors (some sources say two), and fired with Magneti Marelli magnetos. It sent its 320 horsepower to the back wheels via four-speed crash gearbox with 176-lb flywheel – and then, externally, by means of heavy-duty chains. The two-ton car was braked only by drums on the rear wheels. He drove the colossus out on to the Brooklands track in October 1923, where he promptly demonstrated what it could do in a drag race, breaking the half-mile record for a standing start.
The following year he took the beast to Arjapon, France, where he tackled the big one – the World Land Speed Record, which was being challenged by French driver Rene Thomas with a rather natty looking Delage la Torpille. Eldridge wheeled his Fiat out and unleashed the monster down the same road, beating the Delage on a time trial. The French protested: the Fiat didn’t have a reverse gear and was disqualified. Eldridge took it away for modifications; the French, meanwhile, set a new record of 143.31 mph.
And then Eldridge was back. Mephistopheles now complied with the rules – and on 12 July Eldridge cut loose down the road once again, with engineer John Ames in the passenger seat, allegedly to run the fuel pressure pump – but, under the circumstance, more likely hanging on for dear life. The two men wore neither helmets nor protective clothing. Eldridge kept his foot hard down and Mephistopheles bucked down the road, while the motor bellowed and spat flames and smoke. This was heroic driving of the highest order – one man wrestling with the huge machine as it slid and slithered its way to glory. And he set a new world record – 146.01 mph over two runs, and the last record of its kind set on a public road.
Then he drove the car to Paris and parked it, ostentatiously, outside the Delage showroom on the Champs Elysse where Thomas’s car was on display.
In 1925, Eldridge raced Mephistopheles at Brooklyn against John Godfrey Parry-Thomas’s custom Leyland-Thomas Special – sliding and slithering the black monstrosity around the track and sending the crowds running for cover, but winning the £500-a-side stake. But he sold the car later that year and went on to build his own grand prix cars, then got involved with Sir George Eyston’s various record attempts – as manager – before succumbing to pneumonia in 1937. He was just forty, an incredible character who lived at an incredible time.
Mephistopheles was later modified, painted red, and in 1969 was purchased by Fiat who have since restored it. Just to put its performance in perspective, it’s reported to be as hot as a modern rally car across middle speed ranges. Here’s the car at Goodwood, still in its later red livery.
And so now you know…
Copyright © Matthew Wright 2015