Memories of the Match-Race

Any fresh information about Rolls-Royce history is getting very hard to come by, and although new things about Brooklands come to light from time to time, even this source is drying up. So I was very interested when a thoughtful reader (we are blessed with many) sent us a copy of the January issue of Rolls-Royce News containing an article by Mr. L. W. Cox, formerly Car Sales Manager to Rolls-Royce. In this article Mr. Cox recalls how “that well-known and distinguished gentleman, Mr. Nubar Gulbenkian” wrote to Rolls-Royce Ltd. to say that he had driven his Hispano-Suiza from London to Folkestone in 1 hr. 40 min., and challenging a Rolls-Royce to beat his time for that journey. According to Mr. Cox, the challenge was carefully considered and Rolls-Royce said they would be pleased to drive Mr. Gulbenkian over the same route in less time. Apparently no reply was received, but Mr. Cox goes on to say that some weeks later Mr. Gulbenkian called on him at the Conduit Street offices to apologise for having been unable to arrange the trip. He is described as owning a “big Hispano-Suiza”, so it may well have been the 45-h.p. model. If the distance from London to the Kent port is taken as 73 miles, Mr. Gulbenkian was claiming an average speed of not quite 44 m.p.h., which, on the uncrowded roads of those days, was quick but by no means impossible.

Mr. Cox then comes to the fascinating part of his story. He says that the purpose of the multi-millionaire’s call was to say that he was about to go to Brooklands with his Hispano-Suiza, accompanied by a friend who had a straight-eight Isotta-Fraschini, to see which was the faster car and that he would like Mr. Cox to join them, with the latest Rolls-Royce. Mr. Cox protested that the Rolls-Royce was not designed for track racing and that on Brooklands the other cars might well be faster. Mr. Gulbenkian is reported as saying that he appreciated that and if the British car put up a good comparative performance the fact that it did not win would not deter him from probably buying one.

So Mr. Cox took the open demonstration Rolls-Royce to the Track on the appointed day. He did not so much as open its bonnet on arrival, but found “a lot of work being done under the bonnets of the Hispano and Isotta cars”. (He says he “gathered the compression was being raised on at least one of them”; it seems unlikely that anything so drastic was in progress, unless compression plates were being removed, and more probably jets and plugs were being changed and perhaps the ignition advanced. But after such a lapse of time I am not going to hold this against Mr. Cox, or suggest that it diminishes the authenticity of his story.) Incidentally, he gives no date, but although the Isotta-Fraschini was known in this country soon after the Armistice, I think it would not have been until about 1925 or 1926 that a private owner would be using one, so perhaps we can assume that what Mr. Cox took to Brooklands was one of the early Phantom I tourers?

Unfortunately the printers of Rolls-Royce News seem to have jumbled the account of how the match race went but the reader who sent us his copy, Mr. Rowland of Heage, has sorted it out to read as follows, and it is certainly worth quoting in full: “At last they were ready and we were off to a rolling start at about 30 to 40 m.p.h. The Isotta accelerated faster at that speed and took the lead. But the Hispano, with which I was more concerned, did no more than keep alongside for a short while and then gradually faded out because of the superior speed of the Rolls-Royce. I did not see the Hispano again until the race had finished. It was still some distance behind. As for the Isotta, after about 1½ miles it stopped, enveloped in a cloud of smoke and did not finish.” The story goes on to describe how Mr. Gulbenkian sportingly congratulated Mr. Cox and, when asked why he had expected his car to be faster, said the speedometer had misled him. He duly bought a Rolls-Royce and is thought to have owned one ever since. (He certainly had a Silver Wraith with an odd Hooper body and disguised radiator.)

Now this is most interesting, and proves the speed of a Rolls-Royce against two very fast Continental cars, even if, as Mr. Rowland thinks may have been the case, Mr. Cox drove a Phantom II tourer and the Hispano-Suiza was a 37.3-h.p. model. I do not think Mr. Gulbenkian was a member of the B.A.R.C. at the relevant time but match-races like that described could be staged by non-members, as the Track was open to anyone who cared to pay 10s. to use it. What is interesting is that when I consulted the list of Brooklands Certificates issued for timed performances on the Track, published as one of the appendices to my “History of Brooklands Motor Course” (page 348), I found two entries for 1928, concerning a “Mr. M. lulkenkian” who was timed over the f.s. kilo. at 100.4 m.p.h. in a 36/220 Mercedes-Benz coupé and at 91.37 m.p.h. in a Diatto. Now a difficult-to-read entry on the copy of the original Certificates which I consulted when writing my book, my bad writing, or a printer’s error, could have caused a misspelling of Mr. Gulbenkian’s name. If this is so, here is proof of the famous millionaire’s interest in fast cars and his use of Brooklands for trying them out. So there is every reason to believe the most interesting story in Rolls-Royce News about the match-race he arranged, presumably a few years earlier. But can anyone enlarge on it?

Mr. Cox tells also of a race he had in Spain, when he was going to a bull-fight with Carlos de Salamanca, the Spanish R.-R. representative, and beat a Renault 45 on the road from Bayonne to San Sebastian, driving Mr. Salamanca’s demonstration Rolls-Royce. He refers to waiting his chance to pass until the dust and traffic abated and then doing so “with open cut-out”, which makes our correspondent query what model it could have been.—W. B.