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Automobile of the Week: The Napier ‘Samson’ L48 Was the First Automobile to Cross 100 MPH in America. This Recreation Might Fetch $1.1 Million.

Automobile of the Week: The Napier ‘Samson’ L48 Was the First Automobile to Cross 100 MPH in America. This Recreation Might Fetch $1.1 Million.

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The age of another person, or even a thing, is always gauged relative to one’s own. For those of us old enough, it’s hard to believe that automobiles built in the year 2000 are now nearly a quarter-century old, because to some of us who bought them new, our experiences with them seem like yesterday. Compounding any confusion is that, according to our age-obsessed society, 60 is the new 40. For an automobile to seem really, really old, it’s got to be an artifact from such a bygone era that it’s almost unrecognizable as a car at all.

The Napier L48, originally built in 1904, was just such a vehicle. And while the intact original is no longer extant, its heart—the remarkable L48 engine—lives to power the reconstructed Napier L48 racing car, called “Samson.” The meticulous replication is coming to the Bonhams|Cars Amelia Island Auction at the Fernandina Beach Golf Club on Amelia Island, Fla., on February 29—one of the major events surrounding the Amelia concours from Hagerty. In advance of the sale, “Samson” joined the Historic North Turn Beach Parade, on February 10, in commemoration of its 1904 victory at Ormond-Daytona Beach, only 15 miles away.

A genuine automotive Methuselah, the Napier was built 120 years ago, and was the first car to exceed a speed of 100 mph stateside, doing so on January 25, 1905. A 23-year-old Englishman named Arthur MacDonald performed that astonishing feat at a then-unfathomable speed of 104.651 mph, setting a world record at Ormond-Daytona Beach, a racing venue that attracted the most accomplished drivers—and machines—of the period. Remarkable is that the following year, the British “gentleman” driver Walter Thomas Clifford Earp won the same race—against stiff competition—by only 50 seconds, despite blowing a tire and riding on a rim to clinch a new 100-mile world record.

Arthur MacDonald sits in the original Napier “Samson” L48 race car at Ormond-Daytona Beach in 1905.

Courtesy of Bonhams

Describing the sensation behind the wheel of the Napier, one of the fastest cars in period, Evan Ide, for Bonhams|Cars, says, “You are launched to over 50 mph before you can grasp what has happened, and you are still in first gear! You need a bit more speed still to drop it in the only other gear, and then it starts all over with the engine dropping to just a few hundred revs. When you open the throttle, it feels like it could go forever, well past 100 mph.”

The genesis of this unique racer is as fascinating as it is complex. Montague Napier’s father founded the eponymous company more than 100 years before the creation of the L48 race car. The L48 was born from a competitive spirit, as, by early in the 20th century, Britain’s automotive industry was vying for recognition in a field dominated by French and German marques. With a powerful and radical new engine, Napier and his Australian-born collaborator Selwyn Francis Edge announced, in October of 1903, that their company would compete in the 1904 racing season with the world’s first successful six-cylinder car. 

A close-up of the cockpit of the recreated 1904 Napier

A meticulous replication of the cockpit where Arthur MacDonald piloted the original car to 104.651 mph.


While Napier did not build the first six-cylinder engine—Spyker made an unsuccessful attempt in 1902—Napier’s was a 15-liter inline, F-Head engine that developed 240 hp at 2,300 rpm, an impressive output for the day. A two-speed manual transmission was fitted, as a longer three-speed could not be accommodated in the chassis. From 1906 to 1908, the Napier continued to be raced, gaining an even larger 20-liter engine.

A look at the extant, though rebuilt, 15-liter engine inside the recreated 1904 Napier

A look at the extant, though rebuilt, 15-liter engine that makes 240 hp.


The car was nicknamed “Samson,” apparently in reference to the Biblical hero whose flowing hair is suggested by the long copper cooling tubes of the engine’s radiator that encircle the front hood. Sharing the fate of so many great but worn-out race cars over the decades, “Samson” was eventually sold for scrap by Napier, while its engine was acquired by the Cromwell brothers of Australia, who transplanted it into a record-breaking speedboat.

In 1950, the engine was discovered at the brothers’ pottery factory by Bob Chamberlain, a wealthy Australian industrialist. Decades passed, and in 1977, Chamberlain undertook the recreation of L48, using original factory drawings held in London’s Science Museum, period photographs, and support by his company’s formidable engineering capabilities. The car was recreated to its 15-liter, 1908 specification, and when the rebuilt engine was fired up for the first time in 1982, it’s reputed to have started on its first turn.

Driving the recreated 1904 Napier

In 1977, Australian industrialist Bob Chamberlain undertook the recreation of L48, using original factory drawings, period photographs, and his company’s engineering resources.

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In 1983, the replicated Napier was raced at the Brooklands Reunion and the Shelsley Walsh Hill Climb. The car was sold ten years later to Peter Briggs, going to his York Motor Museum in Western Australia. Showing at the Pebble Beach Concours d’Elegance in 1999, it was awarded Automobile Quarterly’s “Most Historically Significant Car.” Replicating every last detail of the lost original and sharing its same six-cylinder heart, this L48 is forged from the same spirit that earned Napier its rightful position as builder of one of the most impressive race cars ever made, and why this recreation carries a high-end estimate of $1.1 million.

Click here for more photos of the recreated 1904 Napier “Samson” L48 race car.

The recreated 1904 Napier

The recreated 1904 Napier “Samson” L48 race car being offered through Bonhams.


Source: Robb Report

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