The Hon. Victor Bruce

The Honourable Victor Bruce started his career by driving in national trials but went on to win the Monte Carlo Rally. Bill Boddy remembers him

The Hon Victor Austin Bruce, son of the second Baron Aberdare, was born on August 4th, 1897. He left the Army in 1919 and found himself in the midst of the increasingly popular and expanding field of motoring and offered his services to the AC Company at Thames Ditton, who had built the better class of small cars since before the Kaiser conflict. The factory being close to Brooklands Track, Victor presented himself there as soon as it reopened, in 1920. Before that he had won a gold medal driving a 10hp AC in the 1920 MCC Land’s End Trial — an achievement he repeated in the JCC’s London-Manchester Trial, which necessitated making a nonstop climb of the 1-in-8 Mam Tor Hill.

At Brooklands the AC was third in the MMC Championship race but at Shelsley Walsh Bruce had trouble on the start-line, and a similar catastrophe occurred at South Harting hill. Bruce had better luck at the Track in 1921, having temporarily deserted AC by persuading Lionel Martin, who was starting to promote the new Aston-Martin, to lend him the prototype side-valve car with the Isotta-Fraschini chassis. With this old warrior Victor Bruce won both the Junior Long Handicap and the 10-lap Handicap races at the May JCC Meeting, against, in the first event, a Douglas car and AM foreman Addis in another Aston-Martin, and in the long race from a Marlborough and Addis again.

Although this old Aston must by then have covered some 140,000 miles of testing, development, and demonstration driving, Bruce borrowed it again for the JCC’s sensational new innovation, the 1921 200-Mile Race at Brooklands, and the ‘Coal Scuttle’, as it was nicknamed, was game for this arduous task until tyre trouble delayed it and a failed big-end finally stopped Bruce 12 laps from the finish.

During 1922 Bruce drove an AC on the London-Holyhead Trial (making a fine ascent of Bwlch-y-Groes) and in a JCC Half-Day Trial, but had used a GN for the Land’s End Trial, winning another gold medal.

The great event of 1923 was a freak stunt thought up by S F Edge, who was now the ardent publicist for AC Cars Ltd, as he had been in pre-war days for Napier. The object was to prove that standard ACs could climb the High Street at Clovelly in Devon, which, rising from the shore, consisted of a series of four and a half steps each four inches deep, four feet apart, along a 1-in-4, seven-foot-wide path, with a final 1-in-5 slope 300 yards long. This feat had been accomplished by a 20hp Armstrong Siddeley but it had used a special 30:1 axle-ratio. Edge saw a challenge for the AC light cars and sent six from the factory to show their step-storming prowess. Two were normal 18cwt two-seaters with 16.25:1 bottom gears while Victor Bruce drove an aluminium Sports AC weighing 17cwt with a 14.35:1 first gear ratio. The other ACs were six-cylinder models.

The crews had had an overnight stop at Yeovil after leaving Thames Ditton, and the luckless RAC Observer who was to ride in each car at Clovelly was collected at Bidefbrd. The cars had to be reversed to the foot of the steps, through a difficult seven-foot gap between houses. In spite of minimal clearance between battery boxes and those steps, all six were successful, J F Browning and A Codrington being followed by Bruce, whose sports AC “seemed to be too fast for safety, bouncing and jumping in alarming fashion and driver and passenger being lifting four or so inches off the seat as each step was struck.” But all got up easily, the AC Six with a full load, although the worst step bent the undershield of the sports AC against the flywheel, emitting a loud shriek. It was straightened out with tyre-levers… After which the AC Sixes came up, driven by Edge, Gillett and Col J S Napier, a happy occasion for the dour Mr Edge. But the police soon put a ban on further such frolics; the steps being left to a sledge pulled by an unfortunate donkey…

The next exciting assignment for Victor Bruce was attempting a climb of Snowdon, another publicity ploy thought up by Edge. This attack on the 4.5-mile, 1-in-6 track, increasing to 1-in-5, was definitely a challenge, especially as the proposed path was found to be too narrow, necessitating driving up the railway, bumping over the sleepers and negotiating several sets of points. Bruce had an AC Six, Brownsort a four-cylinder AC. Both d were standard models except for ground clearance being increased with wooden blocks. Bruce, who had again performed well in an arduous London-Holyhead Trial with a sports AC, started first and had little trouble, the 30x5in Dunlop Cushion tyres, recently made available to AC’s customers, ironing out the problems of the railway lines, etc. He left at 6.30am from Llanberis station, ahead of a train carrying spare tyres, planks and the Press and cine-camera men. He stopped for about IS minutes for water which he tried to convey to the AC’s radiator in his mackintosh but had to wait fora bucket from the train. He continued, in mist, all the way to the summit, having taken about 1hr 50min running time. Even a puncture at half-distance did not stop him, as the large fat tyre stayed on its wheel.

The four-cylinder AC had a much more difficult ascent, its unsuitable 28×3.5in tyres being bound with rope which caused a delay when these wore through and became entangled with the brake drums. So Brownsort dropped behind the train, presumably taking to a passing loop (hence the aforesaid points) to allow it to pass. He was delayed by the AC having to be chocked-up to get over gullies and then he needed water and some oil. He took about 45 minutes longer than Bruce, and had nearly failed, after letting a wheel drop off the station platform almost at the summit, before being lifted back for the last 60 yards of rocky steepness. But he drove the AC to Surrey, whereas Brownsort’s was put on a railway truck.

It had been good publicity and no doubt put another smile on Edge’s face, even if William Letts had got an Olsmobile up in 1901 in one hour, the same time as the trains. Other cars took six or more hours, walkers just two hours. But Edge’s joy was short-lived, for the very next day successful ascents were made by air-cooled vee-twin cars, a Stoneleigh and a BSA, which took under 50 minutes and 42 minutes respectively, both without stopping their engines and the latter going non-stop all the way. However, the BSA had a 26.7:1 bottom gear (compared to Bruce’s 12:1 bottom gear) and chains on its 895x35mm Dunlop Magnum tyres, used to give clearance. It was also partially stripped, it was said to prevent a gale blowing it over the Snowdon precipice!

The important event of 1924 for manufacturers of small cars intended to appeal to the growing number of comparatively impecunious buyers was the RAC Small Car Welsh Six Day Trial. Seriously as it was taken by the professional drivers there were flashes of humour, as when the Trojan contingent wrote in the mud on the disc spare wheel of a Seabrook that had suffered many punctures ‘Try Solids’, and ‘Tishy’ (the slowest of current Derby horses) was similarly inscribed on two Rhodes whose front wheels had caved inwards.

A special award was made to the RAC observer, whose appropriate name was Lightbody, for pushing the Austin 7 most of the way up Bwylch-y-Grocs. It was a tough event, in which Victor Bruce drove an 11.9hp AC. He justified the task, even taking on the observer from a car that had retired. Bruce took the gold medal in his class, the AC tying for second fastest in the Brooklands speed-test with a Lea-Francis (55.55mph).

Victor Bruce took a particular interest in freak challenges, and when the JCC invited its members to try to get up 1¾:1 Alms Hill, near Henley-on-Thames in 1924 he nearly managed a clean ascent with an AC Six, in middle gear. He continued to take part in trials, winning a silver cup and forming part of the winning Club Team in the 1925 London-Holyhead event and gaining gold medals in the 1924 Exeter run in a drenching hurricane. He took part in the 1925 Lands End and Edinburgh, with AC Sixes, and drove an 11.9hp AC in the 1925 JCC High-Speed Trial at Brooklands, claiming a silver medal, while at the Blackpool speed-trials his AC won a sportscar class from Oats’ OM. He won the 1926 London-Holyhead Trial outright, while gold and the occasional silver medals were the norm in MCC trials; his 2-litre AC was fastest up the Test Hill at a 1926 Brooklands meeting.

Bruce’s greatest achievement was taking part in that year’s Monte Carlo Rally. This great winter adventure, perhaps the most prestigious event until the Alpine Trials were established, had commenced in 1911 but the war having called a halt, it wasn’t resumed until 1924. British drivers took little notice until, that is, Victor Bruce started from Glasgow in an AC 2/3-seater with a large white flag flying from its radiator cap inscribed with ‘GB’ in large letters. He was placed 12th out of 32 and won the Mont des Mules hill-climb. For the 1926 event, he persuaded the Scottish Club to use John o’Groats as a starting point, which necessitated taking the Club Secretary A K Stevenson Up there, and back to Glasgow in another 2/3-seater AC. But history was made, Bruce being the first British outright winner, although it was a close-run thing, the ACs crown-wheel breaking up and having to be replaced with a Citroen spare by French mechanics overnight before the final test. The Autocar published a full report, its Mr Geoffrey Smith having watched the travel-stained cars (44 entries) arriving from points all over Europe. Bruce also again won the hill-climb.

Immediately after the rally Bruce married Mildred Mary Petre, the 25,000-franc prize a welcome wedding present. In 1927 the Hon Mrs Victor Bruce won the Rally Coupe des Dames, was sixth in the rally itself, and first in her class in the hill-climb with an AC saloon of course. Great motorists, the pair went off on the Paris-Nice 5000 mile trial and on into Africa with an RAC Observer, who recorded only 9.5 hours needed to adjust or repair the AC, and that the starter was used 620 times, the wipers were in action for 12 hours, the brakes twice adjusted and the pneumatic upholstery reinflated twice. The biggest repair was a replacement back axle.  In ’28 she started from Stockholm and again did well and immediately afterwards drove to Finland, further north than any mechanical vehicle had penetrated previously.

In 1929 snowstorms prevented her Arroll-Aster from reaching the Riga start, but she got to Berlin to retire due to fog and fire. In 1930 she started from Sundervall in a straight-eight Hillman and was 21st out of 87 finishers.

Back to racing. In 1925, Bruce drove an AC Six in the Coupe Georges Boilbt, reaching fifth place until the engine gave out, and he got a gold for finishing the 1927 Essex MC Six-Hour Race. For the 1930 JCC ‘Double Twelve’ race the Bruces had their own Silver Eagle Alvis, which, despite a broken valve after Mrs Bruce had challenged the leading Speed Six Bentley, came home 13th at 67.54mph. Mrs Bruce had also competed with an AC in the lesser Brooklands races.

The adventures continued, with more Monte Carlo Rallies, speed-boat racing, and experiments with air-to-air refuelling, by which time Mrs Bruce had become established in commercial aviation, after her solo round-the-world flight in a Blackburn Bluebird IV and had done that solo 24 hour record with a 4½ -litre Bentley at Montlhéry at 89.57mph. Husband and wife also set world records up to 15,000 miles, at 68.02mph in terrible weather, Bruce having a narrow escape when the AC overturned on the icy surface; they resumed, with the work’s racing driver J A Joyce sent to help, and the subsequent celebrations at London’s Hotel Cecil were thoroughly deserved. Why December? To reduce timing costs…

In 1929 they took a 7hp Jowett saloon, and towing behind it a 100gallon fuel bowser, covered a non-stop 72-hour, 2722 mile run at 38.54mph, and then drive back to Bradford, to be received by the Mayor.

In 1941 the couple divorced, and Victor Bruce married Margaret Beechey, by whom he had two daughters and a son. After the war Bruce had formed Silent Travel Ltd. in Woking, to promote electrically driven cars, using an Opel for experiments. It ran in silence, with a 40-mile range at 30mph. When a purchaser was warned of its short range, he said “Don’t worry, I only want it to get to my local pub and back…” When I met Bruce in 1975 he told me he had continued to drive an AC up to 1941, followed by a Rover, and then his current Austin 1100. He died in 1978, aged 81.