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America’s First Car to Exceed 100 mph

The first car to exceed 100 mph in the U.S. was a 1904 Napier Samson L48 with a 15-liter, six-cylinder engine under the hood. Driven by British mechanic Arthur Macdonald, the Napier set a world record for breaking the 100 mph barrier in January 1905, clocking in at 104 mph.

Napier Samson L48
Napier Samson L48 | Bonhams

The following year, Dorothy Levitt set the Women’s World Speed Record driving the Napier at 79 mph. Perhaps remarkably, her record that stood unchallenged until 1963.

The car had a pretty brutal life, and after years of hard racing, it was sold for scrap. Its engine was extracted and installed in a speedboat; as a result, Napier became the only manufacturer in the world to hold both the world land and the world water speed records.

Decades later, the original engine was discovered in Australia, covered in dust. Alan Hawker Chamberlain, manufacturer of Australian-made Chamberlain Tractors, decided to take on the challenge of rebuilding this iconic car and consulted with researchers along with Napier’s original schematics and photos. Chamberlain created scores of wooden casting patterns for the project, rebuilt the body around the powerplant, and started the engine once again in 1982 after 67 years of neglect.

All images credit: Bonhams

It was then acquired by another Australian, Peter Briggs, and the Napier Samson L48 enjoyed a second life as a show car.

In the last 120 years, this car has had only four owners. And on 29 February at the Amelia Island Auction in Florida, Bonhams will sell it to one more deep-pocketed custodian. Estimate is $1m. With such a remarkable history, maybe this trailblazing car has one more interesting chapter to reveal.

If you're wondering who drove the first car to exceed 100 mph, that honour goes to Louis Rigolly, a Frenchman. He set a record of 103.5 mph (166.6 km/h) on a beach at Ostend in Belgium on 21 July 1904, driving a 13.5 litre Gobron-Brillié racing car.

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