Dieselpunks

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Lord K's Garage #103: 1939 Lagonda V12 Rapide

Another beautiful pre-war rarity, this time from Britain:


Lagonda brand was founded at the beginning of the 20th century by Wilbur Gunn, an American born in Springfield, Ohio, who emigrated to England.

The strange name “Lagonda” comes from Anglo-French contamination of the name Ough Ohonda, given by the American indians to the river that runs through Springfield. Lagonda made itself a fairly good name in some competitions. It even became a favourite car of Tsar Nicholas II after the victory in St Petersburg-Moscow-St Petersburg race.

After Gunn’s death in 1920, Lagonda changed several owners and produced a series of little gems at the end of 20’s and the beginning of 30’s. One of these was the famous Rapier that was able to reach 120 km/h (a speed of all respect at the time, even if the more renowned racing cars were already exceeding 160 km/h) with its engine of just about 1100 cc. and it was praised by Nuvolari as “a small Alfa”.
In spite of the quality of its products, the company was not strong enough to survive and it went bancrupt in 1935. It was the 30 years old investor Alan P. Good who re-launched it and entrusted the department of design to the famous W. O. Bentley. At the time, Bentley was the orphan of the homonymous “Bentley” company that was bought by Rolls Royce.

Bentley, who had no intensions to stay Rolls Royce’s employee for life accepted the job and fully entered his possition at the “new” Lagonda of Good.

In 1935, Bentley dedicates himself to the project of the new Lagonda, together with his exceptional staff of designers. Among these were Stuart Tresillian and Charles Sewell, the ex-employees of Rolls Royce as well. Bentley will have to face many difficulties, considering the poor conditions of the factory (he once said he saw the rain coming inside), but his efforts will be well rewarded. The result is a 4.5 litter V 12 in 60° vee, with a benchmark of almost 160 Hp (that were promoted as 180);
The architecture of the new V12 was rather unusual and interesting. The drive shaft actually relied on only 4 main bearings while there were two light alloy connecting rods paired on each crank (this makes 12 connecting rods for a total of 6 crankpins). The crankpins were subject to a hardening process and the cranks worked directly on them without interposed bearings. Instead there was a spacer ring on the crankpins between each pair of cranks.

The oil distribution was rather complex. It was made of two separate circuits, each with its own pump. One high-pressure circuit was dedicated to oiling of the drive shaft and journals while the low-pressure one was responsible for the oiling of all the other parts, for example the valve gear members.

There were two over-head valves controlled by a camshaft for each cylinder. The valves were not arranged in V but lined up and therefore it was sufficient to have only one over-head shaft for each stand.

One of the most interesting solutions was used on the distribution. Its control system was combined of gears (halfway through) and two duplex chains (one for each camshaft). It was perhaps the result of an attempt to combine the advantages of the two systems: the accuracy of gears with quietness of chains. It wasn’t a bad idea at all. It actually seems that at the end of the decade, Jean Bugatti intended to use a very similar system to improve his 57 but the idea unfortunately never made it into production (with the possible exception of few prototypes). In case of maintenance, it was possible to dismantle camshafts and cylinder heads of the Lagonda V12 without touching the valve gear train, in other words without changing the phasing.

As for the carburettors, Lagonda counted on using a particular model of the famous Stromberg that was also planned for the new Rolls Royce model Phantom III, but Stromberg eventually withdrew the model from the market, forcing Rolls Royce to develop its own carburettor and Lagonda to look somewhere else.

After some experiments with a Solex carburettor, the choice went to a model just released to the market by SU. It was decided to use two of these new SU units for the production series, even though the test series was showing an imperfect progression of the power curves between 2000 and 4000 revolutions. The use of 4 of these units proved to be the optimal solution and it was later deployed on the Le Mans model and on some passenger models of V12 Rapide. The horsepower of versions with 4 carburettors was exceeding 200 Hp.
But this is not the end of the list of V12’s qualities. Lets have a look at the chassis! The fully independent front suspensions were made of superimposed double triangles and equipped with efficient torsion bars arranged along longitudinal frame members of the chassis. The quality of the implementation was very sophisticated and the results on the road outstanding. And the specialized magazines of that time didn’t forget to mention these facts...

The V12’s chassis was available in three sizes: 350, 335 and 315 cm long. The offer varied from luxury 4-door bodies to sophisticated and elegant racing cabriolets of the Rapide version (that had at least 180 Hp). One of them was designed by Gurney Notting for Maharani Holkar of Indore, who also bought the last Duesenberg ever produced, a splendid SJ with the body made, as chance would have it, again by Gurney Nutting.
Despite its sophisticated conception, the V12 had in its first version a lot of imperfections that were hard to overlook. Bentley and his staff would surely welcome more time for the design and tuning of their engine, but the things were set up this way and the only possibility to deal with the errors was to try to fix them on the models that were already in the production...

The first models of Lagonda V12 were shipped to the clients in the spring of 1938 and many of them had to be sent back because of problems with cooling and oiling.
In reaction to this, Bentley’s team prepared the new air intakes to improve the cooling of the engine block and examined the flaws in the dual oiling system. In short, they found out that the “high-pressure” circuit could not guarantee high enough pressure, while the “low-pressure” one provided too much of it. It was decided then to join the two circuits in one and keep using two pumps, both in “high-pressure” regime this time.

The pipe connector of the oil filling was placed on the right lipping in the upper part of the engine, making the maintenance operations much easier. This modification makes it easy to quickly distinguish the second version of V12 models as the pipe connector of the first version is situated much lower. Then they removed the spacer rings placed between the connecting rods and rescaled the connecting rods by enlarging their heads. Nowadays, the original light alloy connecting rods are usually replaced by the steel ones in the refurbished cars to increase their reliability and get around the problems with the coupling of the shaft.
The second version of the V12 was released in spring 1939 and it is estimated that there were made in only 41 pieces. It is a quite small number considering the total of 190 Lagonda V12 cars produced in all. 
Nowadays, 6-cylinder Lagonda are generally preferred over the V12 as they tend to be more reliable and are easier to maintain. But a well-kept and refurbished V12 (especially in its second version) can guarantee thousands of kilometres without problems. Despite its complexity, the V12 Lagonda engine was still less complex than many of its contemporaries and it was one of very few non-supercharged passenger car engines generating more than 180 Hp.
The bodies, produced directly by Lagonda, were designed by the genius Frank Feeley, who later projected some of the more significant Aston Martin models of the 50’s.

Feeley made an extraordinary job in balancing the classical elements and the originality. The strongly curved lines and the full-bodied volume of single elements does not harm the general elegance.
Lagonda bodies covered a large range of needs, but their chassis really varied only in the length of the wheelbase. The car could have the look of a formal and noble promenade limousine but also of a strong travel racer. All this was making Lagonda a direct competitor of Rolls Royce and Bentley. And what’s more, Lagonda could sometimes come as the winner from this comparison, at least from the purely technical point of view.

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