Was this the inspiration for the Hirondel? Mighty Lagona-Rapide Perfect pre-war tourer. Lagonda M45 Rapide. A pre-war tourer fit for The Saint? The M45 Rapide was quick enough to be. The Saint’s mystery chariot, says Mick Walsh as he revels in the pace of a Lagonda first owned by Leslie Charteris. Photography Tony Baker.
Staines doesn’t have the cachet of Milan, Coventry or Stuttgart, and as they drive through the centre hardly anyone today will acknowledge its once-glorious past as the home of the great Lagonda marque from 1900-1939.
But from the Thorpe Road factory close to the Thames emerged arguably the finest British sports cars of the ’30s, including the handsome M45 Rapide T9. When launched in the autumn of 1934, this top of the range model featured an all-new chassis based on the successful Fox & Nicholl team cars but designed from scratch to take the superb Meadows engine and gearbox.
Few in England had a better eye for styling than Frank Feeley. After joining Lagonda aged 14 in 1926, he worked his way up from office boy to coachwork manager. Feeley was responsible for the new-look T9 tourer body with its long, flowing wings, shallow cutaway door and neat disappearing hood. Understated, elegant and rakish – particularly with the ’screen folded flat – it has an imposing but reserved presence. From the closely paired Lucas P100 lamps to the boot-mounted spare, theT9was a natural evolution of the elegant six-cylinder Lagonda style from 1934 that culminated in the extravagant ’37 Speed Model, another Feeley masterstroke.
Road-testers begged to try the new Lagonda, but had to wait until spring the following year to get behind the broad, four-spoke wheel. Hardly any production cars in ’34 could break the magic ton in this pre-streamlined age, but the Rapide lived up to its name. The Autocar described it as ‘out of the ordinary’, with ‘wonderfully easy cruising-speeds and brilliant acceleration’. It’s a thrill to climb aboard the flagship machine, slide on to the wide, supportive leather-trimmed seats and review the white-on-black Smiths instruments including saucer -sized 120mph speedo.
But the buzz must have been heady 79 years ago with the chance to finally break into three figures. Even the Metropolitan Police evaluated an M45, and was so impressed that it ordered four saloons with reinforced running boards.
Start-up requires no key and, with three clicks of the ignition switch, you just press the button and that smooth straight-six eagerly awakes with a woofly burble. The unit gave about 110bhp in period yet, like many pre-war engines, this has been improved but without major modifications.
A new crankshaft and rods have strengthened the bottom end because the original split little ends were weak, while a different cam, higher compression and porting have raised output to 160bhp without radical work. There’s no point in revving beyond 4000rpm because peak power and torque are done by 3800rpm, but its delivery is strong and energetic up to that point despite this tourer’s c3700lb. One key feature was the Rapide’s special inlet manifold, which improved flow to compensate for the twin SU carbs’ habit of starving the outer cylinders on standard cars.
Clockwise: classic dash, with black-faced Smiths dials; Charteris, creator of The Saint, was this car’s first owner; earlier M45 T8 of Malcolm Campbell.
The Meadows’ thrust is wonderfully linear right through the range, pulling vividly from 1200rpm. You’re quickly into top on clear, open Cotswold roads, but even in fourth the response is mighty and it’s easy to appreciate why pre-war journalists marvelled at its effortless charge.
The engine was moved further forward in the new chassis, so you’d expect the car’s handling to be biased towards understeer, but it feels neutral in the dry. The shorter, 10ft 3in wheelbase sharpened the M45’s cornering attidude, and made it handy despite its size in the mountains on rallies. The heavy nose results in pronounced understeer in the wet, although you can sling this big car around on a dry track and play to the crowd with measured oversteering drifts.
The Meadows T8 gearbox is one of the sweetest unsynchronised changes I’ve experienced. The lever is inside the body to the right, plus it’s faster and more precise than a Derby Bentley. First and second are straight-cut while the top two ratios are herringbone-type. The action from first to second is long but the higher shift is faster. The centre throttle makes heel-and-toeing a joy – the short lever slicing beautifully through the gate – but the substantial torque encourages a tired driver to let the engine do all the work, storming hills without a down-change.
It pulls like an A4 streamlined steam loco, the only criticism being the big gap from second to third – an original specification decision for lazy owners who continually started in second. The superb 16in Girling drums also inspire, the far right pedal directly operating the longitudinal rods. There’s excellent feel but it requires a hefty, progressive push with no servo.
The centre throttle seems totally natural after a few miles, too, as Julian Messent of specialist LMB Racing concurs: “Owners initially want a conversion, but we encourage them to try this layout for a week before making the decision. Few then want it to be modified.”
The chassis rides well given its conservative design, the Hartford dampers doing their best to smooth out the bumps, but there’s strong scuttle shake over the worst ruts. The Cam Gears steering has a 14:1 ratio and you have to juggle the big wheel around tighter turns – feeding it hand to hand – although the action sharpens and is pleasingly weighted through faster bends.
The Rapide’s charms are easily accessible. You’re soon relaxed and enjoying the well-engineered controls and the lusty Meadows’ delivery.
Looking down that long bonnet to the radiator cap and big headlights, you could happily drive long distances with little challenge. Small wonder that Spaniard Luis Fontes and Brit John Hindmarsh scored an emphatic victory at Le Mans in ’35with BPK202, which underlined the design’s durability, pace and build quality.
The works demonstrator CPC 743 featured in many of the factory adverts and was sometimes borrowed by hot shoe Eileen Ellison. Mad about cars from an early age, at Cambridge she befriended various undergraduates including Thomas Pitt Cholmondeley-Tapper. Ellison first came to notice after winning the ’32 Duchess of York Ladies’ Cup at Brooklands in a white second-hand Bugatti Type 37, beating more experienced rivals Elsie ‘Bill’ Wisdom’s Invicta and Kaye Petre’s ‘Red Hornet’. Ellison later ventured abroad, towing her T37 with another Bugatti and camping in the paddocks to save money. Her standout performances included a third at the Klausen hillclimb in the rain, and running fourth at Albi before a fuel pipe broke.
Ellison invited Cholmondeley-Tapper to be her co-driver in the Rapide for the 1935RAC Rally and, starting from Leamington, claimed a second-class award after encountering snow and fog over Bodmin. Most of the 309-strong entry made the Eastbourne finish unpenalised and the awards were decided by tests and a hillclimb.
Ellison’s enthusiastic reversing skills were noted and illustrated in The Motor. The boyish blonde was clearly not intimidated by the big tourer.
She obviously enjoyed driving CPC 743, and entered the Mille Miglia – again with Cholmondeley- Tapper. Event founder Count Lurani even mentioned Ellison’s Lagonda in his preview for The Autocar, a reference that later guaranteed the marque eligibility on the modern retrospective. The factory sold the car prior to the Italian sortie, so a frustrated Ellison had to cancel her entry.
Clockwise: radiator was moved forward in new Rapide chassis; supportive seats; handsome, well proportioned styling by Frank Feeley; torquey, 41/2-litre Meadows ‘six’.
The first owner of CPC 743 was Leslie Charteris, the Singapore-born, half-Chinese author of The Saint. The famous fictional hero of his ’30s thrillers, Simon Templar, drove the mythical Hirondel. It’s fun to imagine that the featured Lagonda may have inspired this ‘flamboyant monster, with eight cylinders, a heady top speed, and a low throaty exhaust’. Charteris states that The Saint gunned the two-ton, cream-and-red sedan with ‘the devil at his shoulder’. The Cambridge graduate published his first thriller Meet the Tiger by 1928, and immediately gave up university to write before moving to the US in 1932. The Rapide, reported The Autocar in March ’35, was bought to celebrate the publication of his 15th novel, The Saint in New York.
The diversity of models – marque authority Arnold Davey calculated 13 in the mid-’30s – guaranteed regular coverage in the press but no doubt confused buyers. The performance of the new M45Rapide caused a sensation when The Autocar recorded 100.56mph over a half-mile at Brooklands. The ton was achieved with the windscreen folded flat and a passenger on board. The silver-grey tourer – so painted to celebrate the Jubilee year – stunned the weekly journal’s staffers, who reported ‘instant acceleration’ and ‘exceptional performance’ for the Lagonda supplied by distributor Warwick Wright.
The two-tone blue-and-white M45 Rapide Featured was also borrowed by Tommy Wisdom, who achieved a 0-60mph time of 13.8 secs when writing for the Daily Herald and Sporting Life – the best that he’d managed in any car he’d tested. A Rapide was even put through its paces for Prime Minister Ramsey Macdonald when Lagonda customer Sir Dermot Hall-Caine chauffeured the Labour leader to Doncaster.
Story has it that Hall-Caine unleashed all of the M45’s poke – much to the dismay of the police escort, which struggled to keep the PM in sight. Such performance, quality and style came at a price. The M45 Rapide cost an exclusive £1000, which sat above the rival Alvis Speed 20 tourer at £850 – but that was considerably below the more conservative Derby Bentley, which cost £1100 for the chassis alone. That said, an exotic Alfa Romeo 8C, the ultimate road car of the early- ’30s – with multiple Le Mans-winning pedigree – would have required a hefty £2035 outlay.
It’s fascinating to picture yourself as a wealthy enthusiast trying to decide which vehicle to buy in 1935. The news that Lagonda was in trouble might have influenced you, while a trip to Staines would have revealed a glut of Rapier chassis clogging up the factory, but there’s no doubting the M45’s seductive appearance and relentless grunt. Sports-car design was developing fast, and the Rapide’s weighty, live-axle chassis was being upstaged by quicker Continental opposition, headed by the lighter, independently sprung Delahayes and nimble BMWs. But, with a consortium headed by saviour Alan Good just around the corner – and WO Bentley about to join the engineering team – the Rapide had a stay of execution while a new V12 model was planned.
Along with Riley, the big ‘sixes’ continued to compete internationally and, although they never matched the heady glory of that 1935 Le Mans victory, their reliability always scored over the quicker but troublesome Gallic opposition. The brilliant young Feeley also returned, later giving the Rapide a dramatic makeover with more rounded wings and brash outside exhausts.
Only an SS100 matched it for playboy appeal. LMB looks after no fewer than 40. “They will cruise at 80-90mphall day long, and never overheat,” says Messent. “Try that with an Alvis. The simplicity and quality of construction mean that owners thrash the nuts off them but they carry on working. These cars were hand-built so every part was specially fettled to the chassis, which makes spares interchangeability a problem, but the design is basic and very good. Other than a team car, which is close to £1m, the M45 T9 is top of the bill. The problem is finding one.”
More glamorous than a Derby Bentley and sportier than an Alvis, the Lagonda would have been my pick of the three. A day’s driving in CPC 743 really confirmed its appeal, and this rare M45 Rapide – just over 50 were built – would be on my ‘must own’ motoring shopping list. Perfect for a touring holiday across Europe with mates, a blast up Prescott or an entry on the Flying Scotsman, it’s the definitive all-round British’30s sports-tourer in my book.
Thanks to Martin Chisholm (01242 821600; www.martinchisholm.com) and LMB Racing (0032 3 354 05 52; www.lmbracing.be)
‘THE NEW M45 RAPIDE CAUSED A SENSATION WHEN THE AUTOCAR RECORDED 100.56MPH’
‘THE EMPHATIC WIN ATLEMANS IN 1935 UNDERLINED THE LAGONDA’S DURABILITY, PACE AND QUALITY’