A prince in the paddock
One man’s charmed life of wealth, fame and racing success – and the woman who became his princess
Some years ago a book arrived for review: The Prince and I, by Princess Ceril Birabongse. She was the English wife of ‘B Bira’, the glamorous Siamese prince who graced the racetracks before and after the war, and I enjoyed its tales of racing and also of their sparkling social life. Recently I made contact with Ceril’s nephew Philip Heycock, and though he himself only briefly met Bira, over a leisurely lunch Philip related some of the stories his royal aunt had told him over the years.
“By the time I was around they had divorced,” says Philip, “but they were on very good terms. In fact he once flew to Bolzano to ask if she would remarry him, but she was out so he went sailing…”
Philip tells me the book came out of Ceril’s private memoirs for the family, and that much personal detail about their relationships was removed from the published version. “But Bill Boddy was still quite snooty about the personal stuff in it.”
Educated at Eton, Bira went on to art school to study painting and sculpture, showing much skill, but he was immediately distracted by motor racing and threw himself into this exciting new game. “He wasn’t remotely academic,” says Philip, “so sculpture seemed an ideal occupation, and he based himself in London because Brooklands was near.” Though wealthy himself, his lavish lifestyle, and his racing, was mostly financed by his even richer cousin and guardian Prince Chula who became devoted to his young ward, indulging his every whim.
Ceril was a fellow art student. “Bira proposed after three weeks, but the family asked her to wait until she was 21. When they did marry, Bira’s best man, a solicitor, insisted they marry under UK law as well as Thai, to allow a divorce. Just as well.
“My aunt said Bira was like Mr Toad – he had to have the latest gadget. He would have loved life today. He never grew up; he kept spending and Chula baled him out. For a wedding present Chula gave him the money for a house, but Bira bought a Rolls-Royce instead and had it delivered to the reception. However, he had been banned for speeding, so poor Ceril had to drive it away. She was terrified. ”
The young prince had no conception of budgets. “Ceril told me that Chula would give him the money to pay his debts,” says Philip, “but Bira would work out all the things that amount could buy – and then buy all of them. On an occasional economy drive he once refused to pay £2 to repaint a downstairs loo – and then went to Hamleys and bought a model steam yacht for £25.”
Always keen on models, Bira assembled an enormous train set. “I was allowed to see it,” says Philip , “but not to play with it. Prince Michael of Kent was, though.”
As the grandson of a king (Monkut, the monarch in the book and film The King and I) Bira moved in high social circles – tea with the PM, the Royal Box at Ascot, while Philip recalls a letter of Chula’s about tea with the Queen – “he said she was very catty about fat debs”. During the war their nationality rendered the princes enemy aliens and they retreated to Cornwall, where their radio was confiscated. “So Chula rang Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, and he had it returned!”
With Chula funding a trio of ERAs (the first, Romulus, unveiled at Bira’s 21st birthday party where Massine from the Russian Ballet danced for them), a Maserati 8CM and later Dick Seaman’s Delage, Bira proved a natural, winning voiturette events, setting 1500cc lap records and gaining three BRDC Gold Stars. Their White Mouse team became a crowd favourite, and Bira its ever-smiling figurehead in his favourite pale blue – it became the Siamese racing colour because of him.
A tight family quartet sharing the Cornwall house, he, Ceril, Chula and his wife Lisba toured Europe’s tracks, always looking in on the local nobility. They were welcome everywhere.
“He was immensely charming, good-looking and filled with self-confidence,” Philip says. “But they were private people, not what you might call clubbable. At Brooklands when the other drivers were in the Clubhouse they would picnic on the hill. And Bira was one of the few who would mix with the bike people. It was all racing to him.”
While Ceril became a skilful timekeeper, Chula made a fierce team manager. “She had to be right or get shouted at. Ceril said that in one of his rages Chula would literally get on his knees and chew the carpet. Once she heard shouting and found Bira and Chula racing Dinky cars. Chula was accusing Bira of illegally modifying his with chewing gum. Another time there was a furious row driving to a race. Bira stopped the car and walked off for two hours. There was a lot of shouting but Bira was actually easy-going. He would just switch off.”
According to Philip, Bira “would do anything involving racing or sport”, and once introduced to sailing immediately bought a boat and sailed every day of his honeymoon, with Bruno, the man who would later become Ceril’s partner. “He told her ‘I’m glad you’re with him – he’s a good man’,” Philip says.
Then there was gliding. Bira had a beautiful Slingsby Gull (it’s now at the Gliding Heritage Centre on Lasham Airfield) and, with his terrier for company, flew it often, winning a string of prizes. “Poor Ceril had to follow with the long trailer,” says Philip. “She told me she got stuck in a piazza in Florence trying to turn round and sweeping people’s cups off café tables…” So keen was the prince that after a race in Argentina he missed the boat home because it was perfect gliding weather.
It also may have cost him a significant drive when they went to see Enzo Ferrari post-war. While Bira tried a 125, Ceril talked in French with the great man about pig farming – he was proud of his pigs – and apparently he admired Bira’s driving. “He asked if Bira would obey team orders and she said yes, knowing Chula’s temper. Then he asked if Bira would attend testing. Well, she knew that if it was gliding weather he would do that instead…” But the September 1948 weather must have favoured racing at Valentino Park, Turin, when on the marque’s GP debut Bira had his only Ferrari drive, ended by gearbox trouble.
During the war Bira had been refused entry to the RAF, but when peace returned he bought a Miles Messenger, and later a Gemini.
“He flew down to my parents’ place and took me up for a trip. He was getting revved up about post-war racing then.”
By now the war had compromised the princes’ resources, though they remained wealthy, but with relations between them cooling Chula gradually backed out of the racing. Bira was still a draw for organisers and had victories to come, but it was all very far from the glorious White Mouse days. He bought and raced a 4CL and then A6GCM and 250F Maseratis with success (first in the GP des Frontières, fourth in the 1954 French GP) and drove for the Enrico Platé, Gordini and Aston Martin teams – but he could not alter his lifestyle.
“When he wanted a European base for his racing he asked Bruno to find him a villa on Lake Garda…” Philip smiles. “After the divorce Ceril sold her emeralds to buy it. Chula had given her the Queen of Siam’s jewels; later on we found a bank deposit slip and went to collect the contents – which turned out to be three diamond bracelets. ‘Oh, I forgot I had those’, said my aunt.”
Discouraged, the prince retired from racing in 1955 after winning the New Zealand GP, though he continued flying and sailing, representing Siam in four Olympics, but a succession of business enterprises in Thailand and England failed to restore his fortunes. Says Philip “There was always a big project; he got bored quickly and was always desperate to get on to the next thing.” That gilded, optimistic life ended in reduced circumstances in 1985 on a London tube platform after a stroke. Princess Ceril died in 2010.
It’s a shame that Philip has not found a cache of racing photos, “though I do have a nice painting my aunt did of Bira sculpting the memorial to Pat Fairfield”. That is now at Donington, and a fine example of his talents.
“One thing,” says Philip as we part: “I wish I’d asked her what it was like to have in-laws who were considered gods…”
A very special man
Steady Barker was a true character who enlivened many a car launch repast
Saddened to hear that motoring writer and enthusiast par excellence Ronald ‘Steady’ Barker had died in January just short of his 94th birthday, all the more so as we had arranged to unveil his restored ‘Steady Special’ Lancia on our Race Retro stand.
You may recall Steady’s writings in CAR magazine, where he was more likely to discuss the wines encountered on a press launch than the car, or debate ‘miles per restaurant’. Yet he was a serious car man, collecting, restoring and exercising many vehicles including a vast Renault 45, the 1908 60hp Napier and a selection of Lancias, and became VSCC president. To celebrate his 70th, 80th and 90th birthdays he chose to go wing-walking on Vic Norman’s Stearman biplane.
Cartoons were another talent; you may not realise that he was a monthly contributor to this organ – the sketches of WB and DSJ on Matters of Moment are his, capturing two characters in a few clever lines.
Above all, though, Steady was an entertainer who adored telling scandalous stories adorned with a salacious joke delivered with cherubic innocence. A lunch with Steady took a long time, as he talked instead of eating. A shame there won’t be any more.