Did it really happen?

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In Aero-Engined Racing Cars (reviewed last month), I refer to the uncorroborated story of Alastair Miller, HRH The Prince of Wales, a royal shooting-brake and the racing Wolseley Viper. I also quote another story Sir Alastair Miller told me, of an aeroplane winning a race one Saturday, after which it was flown to Brooklands and its Viper engine removed and installed in his hybrid giant racing car which then won its race on the Bank Holiday Monday. This latter story was told also by Miller to racing-driver WB (‘Bummer) Scott, and he told it to Rollo Martin, who was at Brooklands at the relevant time, as he has just reminded me. But did it really happen? It seems worth researching.

The episode was supposed to have involved the air races then held at Ensbury Park, Bournemouth, and that wild pilot Dudley Watt and his SE5. Watt had apparently been turned down by the RAF due to inferior eyesight, and he was determined to prove his ability, which he did by beating Service pilots in post-war air races. My investigations showed that Dudley Watt, wearing his famous yellow-and-black chequered helmet, and sponsored by Motor Macs, won two races at Ensbury on Easter Saturday 1927, in his SE5a biplane, the 20-mile Poole Hotels Handicap at 114.2 mph and the High Power Handicap at 116 mph. The aeroplane could have been flown back to Brooklands on the Sunday and its engine put into the Wolseley Viper car before the Bank Holiday Monday races. That’s it, I thought! Until I remembered that the Viper’s racing career had ended at the close of the 1926 season . . .

This exciting racing car was not completed until late in 1921, running in its first race on September 24. So the fact that a Viper-SE5 won the 75-mile First Waddon Handicap Race at Croydon’s three-day meeting on September 17 (I was there, aged eight) seems irrelevant – a new car could hardly have been completed in less than six days, surely?

But what of 1922? Here I sense a possibility. Freddy Raynham won the 16-mile Waddon Open Handicap with his Viper engined Sopwith Antelope on June 3. and on Whit-Monday, three days later, the Viper car was raced, but was unplaced. But it had won at the previous Brooklands meeting, so perhaps Miller, recounting the occasion some eight years later, had a slight lapse of memory. I believe the Antelope was hangared at Brooklands, the Viper racing car was certainly stabled there, and at the aerodrome suitable lifting tackle to effect a quick engine change would presumably be available.

There were still plenty of SE5s being raced between 1922 and 1928, by pilots such as Flt Lt Longton, winner of the 1922 August Waddon Open Handicap. Flt Lt Robb, who was second in that race, Flt Lt Bamber, HH Perry, Lt Turner, with the all white The Sweep machine, Mrs Elliott Lynn (Lady Heath), who won the Wattle Handicap at 116 mph in 1927, and Dr Reid. But by 1926 Dudley Watt had gone over to racing Sopwith Scooter and Grasshopper aeroplanes, with engines unsuited to a car. Dr Whitehead Reid had two SE5s, having crashed the first one in 1922, which he kept at Bekesbourne near Canterbury. He not only raced them but used them to visit some of his patients, landing in nearby fields. But none of the dates fits the problem we are trying to solve.

Back in 1921 two SE5s and an Avro 504K had contested a Squadron Relay Race at Kenley, but these were Service machines unlikely to have disposed of an engine to a racing car.

The SE5 was also flown by a number of motor racing personalities, including WL Handley with the ex-Will Hay machine, F/O AF Scroggs of later Trojan fame, who won the 1927 Sherburn Private Owners’ Handicap at 113 mph in his, and Rivers-Oldmeadow. Dudley Watt had turned his SE5a into the faster DW1 by 1927. Other SE5s were used by the Savage Skywriting Company, G Lingham, AH Wheeler, K Hunter, H Waghorn (a future Schneider Trophy pilot) and Lt G Maddocks, killed in his at Brooklands in 1928. None of these ties in with our investigation, but it does show in what high esteem this HP Folland designed, RAE-built aeroplane, which was had been described as the greatest single-seater fighter of WW1, was held.

So I can’t confirm the dramatic story of this engine-swap. After 1926 the Viper car was used by Avon for tyre-testing. It is possible that it was then that the 300 hp Hispano Suiza engine from Watt’s DWI was put into it – but that was after both had ceased racing. There is also the matter of whether an engine used in an aeroplane could have been transferred rapidly to a racing car in which it would have to be turned round and a flange for the clutch put over the propeller-boss. However, by the 1950s Miller, who was by then Sir Alastair, had written his memoirs, hoping that the British Motor Corporation might publish them – the Wolseley connection – and he gave me, and a BMC rep, lunch at The Metropole in Brighton to discuss them. (However, he had come without his cheque book, but was allowed to sign the bill.) Is it possible that he let a little ‘writer’s licence’ intrude into his story? Or did this engine change from aeroplane to racing car really happen?

I am still wondering.

W B