Veteran to classic -- match races

Motoring historian Doug Nye reminded us in his ‘Skulduggery’ feature in Classic & Sportscar recently of a Match Race which took place at the Crystal Palace circuit in October 1938 between Prince ‘Bira’ and Arthur Dobson, both in ERAs. Doug remarked that most Match Race themes disappointed, this race between ‘Bira’s three-year old ERA Romulus and Dobson’s two-year-old B-type ERA being no exception. He quoted Motor Sport’s report as saying: “The Match Race was, in our opinion, a foregone conclusion. . . . Dobson’s car has been none too fit lately, while ‘Bira’s’ had the distinct advantage of de Ram dampers. . . . so we were not surprised that Bira led away and was fairly comfortably ahead after two laps. Then the nearside rear tyre deflated and Dobson ran on alone to complete the distance.”

I was reporting the meeting at the Palace that day, having, if memory serves, gone there in my vintage Austin 7 Mulliner coupé, although I could have made the journey then on a No 49 bus. Anyway Doug is quite right in saying that most Match Races disappointed, as had that one at the Crystal Palace, and seldom lived up to the promoter’s publicity, hence their natural death. For once, instead of painting everything with a rosy glow, as most reports do these days, let us follow this gloomy view and see just how much of a damp squib most Match races were. These took place mainly at Brooklands, so that is where we will go, placing ourselves in the spectators’ enclosures. . . .

The first such Match Race was the contest in 1908 between SF Edge’s mighty Napier “Samson” and the GP-like 89.5hp Fiat “Mephistopheles” from Italy. It promised to be exciting but, as Nye has indicated, fizzled out like other such races. Edge, the great publicist and constant letter writer on behalf of Napier (and in later years AC and Cubitt cars) had a team of Napiers racing on the Track and he knew it intimately, having driven non-stop round and round it for 24 hours in 1907, prior to the night-racing ban. His drivers also knew the new Motor Course well and “Samson” was to be driven against the Italian champion Felice Nazzaro, idol of the ladies, by Edge’s top driver, Frank Newton. The potential of the great shaft-drive six-cylinder 90hp Napier with its pointed prow surrounded by cooling tubes in lieu of a conventional radiator will be appreciated by all those fortunate enough to have seen the car in action in recent times; it ran again at Brooklands in 1983 after having been so meticulously recreated by the great Australian enthusiast and engineer Bob Chamberlain.

In 1908 it was up against a chain-drive Fiat larger even than the GP Fiats with which Nazzaro had won the 1907 French GP, Targa Florio and the Kaiserpreis, its push-rod ohv four-cylinder engine having a bore and stroke of 190x160mm, against the 16-1/4-litre GP cars’ 180x160mm. The Match Race, for stakes of £250 (say some £10,000 today) was to be of just over nine laps, or about 27-1/4 miles. Both cars were in trouble beforehand, the Napier stripping its first gear and the Fiat’s engine having to be stripped and re-assembled, while its tyres suffered before Nazzaro discovered that to preserve them he had to drive higher up the unfamiliar bankings.

There may have been considerable excitement before this Match Race among those who went down to the Weybridge Motor Course on Whit Monday. But the fact is, the race was a fiasco. The 20-litre Napier accelerated away well from the cumbersome Fiat and had a lead of about a quarter-of-a-mile after the first lap, with the Fiat closing the gap. But the British car slowed, and by lap 3 it had retired, with a “fired big-end bearing”. Nazzaro had but to finish to win, which he did, easing up, at an average speed of 94.75 mph. To this day no-one is sure whether to believe his electrically-timed best lap of 121.64 mph, or Ebblewhite’s reliable hand-timing which credited the great Italian ace with 107.98 mph. (The respective figures handed out for the stricken Napier were 113.01 mph and 105.7 mph). No doubt Edge was appalled by the result of this much-publicised Match Race and there were those who were amused that the irrepressible Napier advocate had been humiliated. Soon afterwards Edge was to abandon Brooklands’ racing, on the grounds that it was unsafe.

So here was a potentially exciting Match Race which quickly turned into a disappointment. The cause of the Napier’s early demise is usually given as a broken crankshaft but it is interesting that SCH Davis, the celebrated racing expert, who was there, says that Edge published a picture of the fly which was supposed to have got into the carburettor, adding “a thing deeply interesting to those of us who had seen a rod hanging out of the crankcase”. The official Napier Company history Men & Machines, makes no reference to this unhappy predicament, but some newspapers did say the Napier had broken a con-rod and smashed a piston, although the car was driven back to the Paddock. Edge, of course, immediately contested the Fiat’s 121 mph lap speed. . . Incidentally, Nazzaro was escorted back to the Paddock by officials and two policemen and was paid a fee of £700 for his victory which, at £33,500 today, compares with today’s Fl drivers’ earnings. In fairness, “Samson” did gain some notable successes.

Edge had encouraged Match Races by way of £250-a-side-wagers. Two were run off at that 1908 Whitsun Brooklands Meeting. They were contested by Oscar Cüpper’s Metallurgiques. The first 26hp race, was won by Newton on the Napier Firefly, and the 40hp race went to Draper on Edge’s Napier St George. And here we go again — neither race was very interesting, because Cüpper had troubles in both, retiring a lap from the finish of the second contest. As The Automotor Journal remarked, “Edge would to be the first to have wished for a better race and it was apparent that the second event was not going to be over-exciting. . .” But pocketing £500 may have been some compensation for “Samson” disgracing Edge in the big one. . . .

At the 1908 May races there had been a better showing, when Nalder’s Berliet won a bonnet-to-bonnet battle in his private match against Oscar Thompson’s Austin, while feminine allure kept another Match Race alive that year, when Miss Muriel Thompson on the Austin Pobble, handicapped 9 sec, beat Miss Christobel Ellis driving the Arrol-Johnston Guarded Flame; (the ladies’ skirts, it was said, discreetly tied round their ankles with cord). What could have been a good contest, when Edge and Jarrott were to have met in GP cars, came to nought when Edge withdrew. . . . In such a challenge, if one driver defaulted the other could claim the stakes if he completed the course alone, which Jarrott would have done on his De Dietrich (or Mors) had the fatal accident involving Lane’s 76hp Mercedes in the O’Gorman Trophy race not caused the course to be closed.

However, there was an exciting Match Race in July 1908, when, for a £50 stake, Stocks’ De Dion had met Edge himself on the Napier Firefly. The two passed and re-passed one another, Stocks winning by about two yards, at 71 mph; it was described by one paper as “By far the best and most exciting race of the day, with the issue at all times uncertain.”

So not all Match Races were dull! But all this was a long time ago and after 1909 the BARC abandoned two-car contests. When racing resumed at Brooklands after WW1 a few such events were reintroduced, such as the still-born Brescia Bugatti v Aston Martin duel, abandoned after the Bug’s prop-shaft had broken. Repairs should have been possible, but the car never came back, so this must be regarded as a victory for the challenging AM. Ignoring some more unimpressive events of this sort, the Match which really flared was that long awaited one between Eldridge’s Fiat “Mephistopheles”, now aero-engined, and Parry Thomas’s Leyland-Thomas — 21.0-litres against 7.2-litres. The BARC refusing to hold it, the duel took place, for a £500 stake, at a 1925 Kent MC Meeting. It was alarming stuff and strong men were alleged to have retreated to the bar while it was contested! In the end the bravery of Eldridge (and his passenger) failed to prevail over the idiosyncrasies and sideways-slides of his giant car and the skill and superior track-adhesion of the Leyland-Thomas which won after three hectic laps, both cars flinging off tyre treads, their best laps at 129.70 mph (Thomas) and 125.45 mph. They must have raced down the Railway Straight at around 135 or more mph, on “wheelbarrow” tyres. . . .

Perhaps inspired, the BARC later allowed other close rivals their individual skirmishes. In 1928 Kaye Don in the Sunbeam “Cub”, substituted for the V12 4-litre Sunbeam, met Jack Dunfee’s aged 3-litre Ballot, Don making up a 32 sec handicap to win, his lap speed 12.25 mph quicker than his rival’s. In 1930 the promised treat of Birkin battling against Dunfee, now driving a 2-litre GP Sunbeam, became less of a treat when Dunfee non-started, although we did see the blower 4-1/2 single-seater Bentley raise the lap record to 135.33 mph. However, such events were vindicated when Birkin in the Bentley met Cobb in the big, more accelerative V12 Delage at the 1932 August Bank Holiday Meeting in a three-lap invitation Scratch race, for 100 sovs. Birkin overtook high on the banking and won by just 1/5th of a sec, after a lap at just under his record speed. That one was exciting!

The girls’ 50 soy Match Race of 1935 — Gwenda Stewart (Derby-Miller) against Kay Petre in the giant Delage — wasn’t on, because the authorities thought it too dangerous. Then it all came adrift in 1936 when the blond barrister Oliver Bertram agreed to a match against Cobb in one of the V12 4-litre Sunbeams, over three laps for the customary 100 sovs. Bertram was to drive the 8-litre Barnato Hassan. But it had broken a con-rod, so Richard Marker lent Oliver his 6-1/2-litre Marker Bentley, which was allowed a 9 sec start. It appeared to be a most exciting battle, for the Sunbeam was just 1/5th of a sec in front as the two cars shot over the line. What we did not know was that the drivers had pre-arranged a close finish, before the race began! The Sunbeam lapped 1.36 mph the quicker, but had its handicap to overcome and both drivers eased off, to contrive an exciting last lap. The Press was foxed, and only when Bertram told the story at a Club dinner did the hoax become public knowledge. Percy Bradley, Brooklands’ Clerk-of-the-Course, was not amused! Even Motor Sport had been hoodwinked, reporting: “It is evident that Bertram must have had his mount at its maximum speed of 129-130 mph throughout and one would have expected the Sunbeam to be faster and to pass on the Railway Straight, which lends credit to Bertram’s sporting action in instantly giving way to Cobb”! Back in 1928 there had been another close (and presumably genuine) finish to a Match Race, at a Surbiton MC Meeting, when Don, in the 4.9-litre Indy Sunbeam of EL Bouts (who still lives in Wolverhampton and retains his interest in Sunbeam affairs) just vanquished “Taylor’s” 5-litre Delage II, by about 15 yards.

Nevertheless, I do not much care for Match Races. In fact, I seem in general to be in agreement with Doug. — WB