FRENCH REVOLUTIONS / #Renault
40CV / At Montlhéry in Renault’s record-breaking monster / #1926 #Renault-40CV-NM
/ #1965 #Renault-40CV
NM / #Renault-40CV-Replica
With the unlikely-looking 40CV NM, Renault scored a host of speed and endurance records at the newly built Montlhéry bowl. Time to revisit those efforts Words Richard Meaden // PhotograPhy Andy Morgan
The pursuit of speed has long been an obsession for automobile manufacturers, but never more intently than during the 1920s. Helped by the construction of numerous purpose-built circuits designed solely with speed in mind, this inter-war period saw a burgeoning car industry embrace the challenge of setting speed records to market their products. Ever the pioneer, Louis Renault saw such feats of performance and endurance as an ideal means of generating publicity and selling cars.
In the nearby Linas-Montlhéry circuit he had the ideal proving ground on which to make those attempts. Built on a 650-hectare site, the circuit was itself an extraordinary feat of engineering. Measuring a little under 1.6 miles in length – the bulk of which was two vast banked turns, linked by a pair of short straights – the high-speed circuit was the first track to be built from reinforced concrete. Some 8000 cubic metres of the stuff to be precise. Supported by a lattice of 3300 posts, 8000 beams and 7000 struts, also made from reinforced concrete, it must have been one of the great manmade wonders of the world.
Incredibly it took only six months to build, with work commencing in March 1924 and the completed circuit hosting its first competitive event in early October the same year, at that moment joining Brooklands, Indianapolis, Avus and Monza as one of the great cathedrals of speed. Fittingly, Renault was the first car manufacturer to use the remarkable new facility for testing and development purposes. Engineers completed extensive testing of the new 40CV road car over a seven-month period, during which Louis Renault’s plan for assault on the record books gained momentum. And 90 years later we’ve returned to Montlhéry to drive his most successful record-breaker around that very same super-sized saucer of concrete.
Its glory days as host of the French Grand Prix might be distant echoes on the breeze, but Linas- Montlhéry is still used as a proving ground to this day. Still, I’m not convinced those testers present are quite prepared for the sight of Renault Classic’s bright blue monster as it’s disgorged from the transporter. Even those sent to chaperone the car look in awe of the thing as it sits in the shadow of the imposing banking. But then, at five strides long, standing as tall as a man and powered by a 9.1-litre straight-six, this faithful reproduction of the original Renault 40CV NM Montlhéry record car is truly a gargantuan, gobsmacking machine.
There is no trace of the original one-off recordbreaker, or a number of other precious cars that formed part of Louis Renault’s personal collection, believed to have been destroyed in an artillery bombardment during the Second World War. Were it not for Robert Pichon, this amazing car would only exist in grainy archive images but, as a member of the team who worked on the original car, Pichon was perfectly placed to create an exact copy. Built on a rare 40CV chassis, this faithful reconstruction was made in 1965 and spent much of its early life in a museum, before Renault Classic acquired it and put it through a typically thorough restoration. The result is magnificent; one of the jewels in a truly remarkable collection of cars and a welcome participant at events such as the Goodwood Festival of Speed.
It’s in marked contrast to the regular production 40CV, which was a stately, coachbuilt machine. Luxurious, stylish and hugely expensive, this prestigious touring car was even used by the French President for official duties. However, with the advent of Montlhéry and its high-speed bowl, Louis Renault saw its potential as a record-breaker.
The project began in 1925 with a 40CV wearing semi-streamlined (I use the term loosely), windscreenless open-cockpit fourseater bodywork. Despite its unlikely looks, its prodigious performance far exceeded tyre technology of the day, with treads being thrown after just a few laps of sustained running at 90mph.
Undeterred, Renault continued its extensive and somewhat perilous testing programme until tyres were developed that could cope with sustained speeds of up to 110mph. Emboldened by this breakthrough, Renault made its first official record attempts with the 40CV, its drivers factory employees Robert Plessier and the American JA Garfield, setting new 500km, three hours, 500 miles and six hours records, plus a new one-lap record for the Montlhéry high-speed circuit of 51.4sec – a little over 111mph.
A month later they returned for an attempt on the 24-hour record. Despite the loss of two hours’ running to replace a broken timing chain and having consumed no fewer than 100 tyres (!), the 40CV set nine new World Records. It was a triumphant, heroic effort, but Louis Renault’s thirst for speed remained unslaked, and his engineer’s pride was dented by the timing chain failure. Not only did he want his car to go faster, he wanted it to deliver a flawless performance. And so plans were hatched for a more extreme record-breaker. The 40CV NM was born.
What people must have thought of it in 1926 is anyone’s guess, but here in 2015 the 40CV NM is remarkable and ridiculous in equal measure. Your first response is to laugh and shake your head at the absurdity of it, but then the seriousness of its intent and scale of its achievements hit you, at which point you fall into reverential silence. Everything about it is so alien to 21st Century eyes. There are no front brakes. The ride height could be measured in feet and inches; the wheels are almost waist-high. Where you might expect to see an exhaust manifold, six stubby pipes jut from the left flank of the fully enclosed bonnet, while the inclined grille and low-slung headlights are Art Deco’s nod to aerodynamics. And then there’s the leatherette fastback, formed around a wooden frame and pinched tight into a boat-tail. It’s a bizarre yet strangely beautiful thing.
As you might imagine, the 9.1-litre straight-six is no screamer. Coaxed into life by one of Renault Classic’s technicians, it starts with a blare akin to an aero engine, but settles into a softly musical idle as exhaust gasses chuff from each of the stubby pipes in turn, like the engine is talking to you.
The driving position is almost as remarkable as the car itself. The upholstered door is light and swings on hinges that remind you of a shed, as does the basic wooden frame over which the leatherette is stretched. To get in, you climb up through the right-hand door, lifting your left leg in, then ducking your head as you pull up to settle your bum on the seat before folding your right leg in behind you. You’re set way back in the chassis and tucked inside the slimline bodywork. It’s cramped, which accentuates how huge the rest of the car feels, not helped by the inclined, letterbox windscreen that offers little view of the track.
This is intimidating enough when you’re stationary in the pitlane but, when the moment comes and you’re waved out onto the vast concrete saucer, the feeling of unease ramps up exponentially as you attempt to stir the monster up to speed and take to the banking.
You sit low in the car, but high off the ground, legs outstretched almost horizontally to reach the heavy, offset pedals, head tucked into your shoulders to clear the roofline, and hands at ten-to-two on the steering wheel. Thankfully the pedal arrangement is conventional: accelerator on the right, brake in the middle and clutch on the left.
The steering wheel is enormous and alarmingly flexible on its four metal spokes, and sits on the end of a spear-like steering column that disappears into the depths of the footwell, your inputs eventually turning front wheels located so far from you they might have a different postcode. At the best part of a metre long, the gearlever is another piece of remote-control engineering. Not surprisingly it has a weirdly pendulous feel across the three-speed gate. You don’t so much select first gear as persuade it in, depressing the heavy clutch and drawing the lever back until you feel the teeth begin to chatter into synch. Pulling away is tricky, but only because the pedals feel so dead.
Century-old clutch technology doesn’t take kindly to attempted slipping, so you need to get rolling as decisively but steadily as possible. Once those huge wire wheels begin to turn you can take your feet off both pedals and let the torque do the work. It feels more like a locomotive than a car, even when you get back on the throttle and accelerate away.
The next challenge is changing up a gear, which means dipping the clutch and fishing around for one of the two remaining forward ratios. As luck would have it I manage to find top, so once it’s in – with another toothy clatter – I’m home free, squeezing on the throttle and powering out onto the circuit proper.
As we enter the banking and I tentatively try to point the 40CV into the incline, it’s all I can do not to steer down the banking for fear of capsizing, even though we’re nowhere near the lip of bowl. Actually we’re barely halfway up the wall of concrete, which approaches an angle of 60º at its steepest, but to go any further up we need to go faster, and from where I’m sitting 50mph feels more than fast enough right now. We won’t be breaking any records today.
I’ve been lucky to drive all kinds of competition cars over the last 20 years, from F1 and Le Mans cars to Pikes Peak specials and Bonneville record cars, but let me assure you that none of them is as scary or physical as this Renault. The circuit is bumpy as hell – proper knock-the-wind-out-of you bumpy – which could easily be blamed on the circuit’s advancing age. But, having read accounts from drivers in the 1920s, it was always so.
After a handful of laps in which I’ve managed to edge up to 60mph, my arms and shoulders are burning from the exertion of holding myself in the seat and the 40CV NM in a straight line, while my neck’s stinging from having my head cocked to the left in an effort to compensate for the inclined banking and to get a decent view of the track arcing away out of the top right corner of the slit-like windscreen. And all this at roughly half the speed Garfield, Plessier and new boy Paul Guillon (also a Renault engineer) were driving at for two hours at a time.
So physical is the experience it overwhelms any conventional sense of what the machine is doing beneath you, other than administering a good beating. The steering fights and kicks in your hands, the engine blares its hard, unwavering blare, fumes suck in through the sliding windows. You feel hot, sick and scared, with nothing to do but hold on and keep your foot pinned.
Unbelievably it was the original intention for there to be a riding mechanic crammed in the tapered compartment between driver’s back and the fuel tank, in a kind of tandem arrangement. His job was to keep the fuel tank pressurised by pumping it up at intervals during the run but, somewhat unsurprisingly, the designated mechanics decided against it, forcing Plessier to arrange for a bottle of compressed air to be installed beneath the driver’s seat, from which he and the other drivers would open a valve from time to time to maintain fuel pressure. Only at the end of the 24 hours was it discovered that the pressure in the bottle was too high and that it had distorted almost to the point of exploding.
Luck – and the compressed air bottle – might have held, but there was no shortage of perils facing the plucky trio of drivers. Having removed the front brakes to prevent the risk of locking wheels when slowing for their regular pit stops, the drivers had to judge their braking from some 300-400 metres out. Quite how they did this in the dead of night I have no idea, especially as Plessier decided against using the headlights!
Tyres remained an issue too, so while the dramatic de-laminations of the original 40CV record-car testing were a thing of the past, the NM was wearing out its tyres more quickly than had been estimated. With 20 hours completed, the Renault team realised they had insufficient Michelin tyres left to see them to the end of the record attempt. To make matters worse, a recent fire at the Renault plant had destroyed the tyre store. It was also a Sunday, which meant Michelin’s depots were closed!
Yet somehow Dunlop came to hear of Renault’s predicament and offered to supply enough tyres to complete the record run, but only if Renault fitted Dunlop tyres to its production cars henceforth. Louis Renault was not happy, but it was an offer he could not refuse, so the deal was done.
Later that day Garfield completed the final lap of the 24-hour run at an average speed of just under 120mph – it was the fastest lap of the entire record attempt. Together with Plessier and Guillon they had taken ten world records and covered a total of 4167.158km at an average speed of 173.649kh/h. It was a spectacular achievement made all the more impressive by the fact that over the entire 24-hour period this incredible car travelled further than noted aviation pioneers of the day, the Arrachart Brothers, in their own record-breaking 26-hour flight from Paris to Baghdad, prompting Le Figaro to run the headline ‘Faster than a plane for 24 hours’.
True to Louis Renault’s word and ambition, the 40CV NM required nothing but fuel, oil and tyres throughout the 24-hour run. Just as remarkable as the speed and reliability of the car were the speed and consistency of the pit stops, which were handled by a team of 14 people. With two people per wheel, three for refuelling, one to top-up the oil, another to top-up the radiator and a team manager to co-ordinate the stops, the 40CV NM never remained stationary for more than 50 seconds. Given that the wheels were attached with knock-on spinners and the 100-litre fuel tank was replenished using a hand-pumped bowser, they were every bit as well orchestrated and executed as today’s Formula 1 stops.
The 40CV NM’s 24-hour record lasted for 14 months, eventually eclipsed by a Voisin, which also used Montlhéry as the venue. Then, in 1933, Ab Jenkins changed the face of endurance records forever with his Herculean effort on the Bonneville Salt Flats in his Pierce-Arrow. It brought Montlhéry’s record-breaking era to an end, but cars like this faithful copy of the original 40CV NM ensure the legacy of those speedblurred days lives on for us to marvel at.
Thanks to Circuit Montlhéry. For a full list of events and trackdays, visit www.utacceram.com.
1926 RENAULT 40CV NM (1965 replica)
Engine 9121cc straight-six, side-valve, #Renault
Power 140bhp @ 1680rpm (approx)
Transmission Three-speed manual, rear-wheel drive
Steering Rack and pinion
Suspension Front: beam axle, longitudinal leaf springs, friction dampers. Rear: live axle, oblique cantilever leaf springs, friction dampers
Brakes Rear drums weight 1600kg (approx)
Performance Top speed 191km/h (119mph); 24-hour world record average speed 173.649km/h (108.5mph)
Anti-clockwise from above Renault’s first record attempts were carried out at Montlhéry with this open-topped four-seat version of the 40CV; Robert Plessier with the 1926 car – and the 1965 recreation today at Montlhéry.
Above left, and above Record-breakers Guillon , Garfield and Plessier with the 40CV at Montlhéry in July 1926; this locomotive-like car has since been honoured by inclusion within a mural at the Montlhéry track.
‘IT FEELS MORE LIKE A LOCOMOTIVE THAN A CAR, EVEN WHEN YOU GET ON THE THROTTLE AND ACCELERATE AWAY’
‘YOUR FIRST RESPONSE IS TO LAUGH AT THE ABSURDITY OF THE 40CV, BUT THEN THE SERIOUSNESS OF ITS INTENT AND SCALE OF ITS ACHIEVEMENTS HIT YOU’
Right and below Richard Meaden at speed on the Montlhéry bowl in the 1965-built recreation of the 1926 Renault 40CV that achieved a host of speed records there; advertising continued into the 1930s, with subsequent Renault record-breakers.