Monte Carlo in Douglas
The thoughts of motorcyclists turn in June to the Isle of Man, where the long-established TT races are held over the famous and exacting 37 ¾-mile “Mountain” course. The island has also, of course, seen quite a number of car races.
The RAC started running its Tourist Trophies over a 52-miles course there in 1905, when JS Napier won the first, a 209-mile contest for touring-type cars with restricted fuel, for the Scottish Arrol-Johnston company, with Percy Northey second for Rolls Royce. The 1906 TT, to the same formula but over 162 miles of a 40 ¼-mile course, saw the Hon CS Rolls come home victorious on a 20hp Rolls Royce at 39.4 mph.
The event continued in 1907, but was not exactly inspiring: the only finishers were a Beeston-Humber and a Gladiator in the heavy class, and a Rover beating a Beeston-Humber in the other category, with both winners averaging less than 29 mph. For 1908 the “four-inch” (cylinder-bore) rule was introduced over the modern-day course, and Watson’s Hutton (which still exists) vanquished a couple of Darracqs at 50.3 mph for the 338 miles.
After this the RAC drew breath. But it had not forgotten the Isle of Man course and, when it decided to run a contest for proper racing cars up to the odd maximum cylinder-capacity of 3100cc in 1914, this is where it went.
By this time Louis Coatalen had learned how to copy the invincible Peugeots, and his twin-cam 16-valve Sunbeam had no difficulty in heading home two smoky sleeve-valve Minervas, the winner K Lee-Guinness averaging 56.44 mph for the arduous two-day 600-mile race and winning £1000 from The Daily Telegraph. All the team Sunbeams also still exist.
The RAC returned again in 1922, staging a TT for 1 ½-litre and 3-litre racing cars. Sir Algernon Lee-Guinness took the former class in a Talbot-Darracq, at 53.3 mph in misty rain, leaving Chassagne to win the big one with a straight-eight Sunbeam at 55.78 mph, ahead of a Bentley and a Vauxhall.
All that is pretty much ancient history, and a recent hope of reviving car racing over this same course did not come to fruition. My intention here is to consider the very different RAC Mannin Moar and Mannin Beg races which were run on the island for three years, starting from 1933.
Just as the JCC had copied the Le Mans 24-hour marathon in 1929 with its car-breaking “Double-Twelve”, these IoM creations represented an interesting copy of the Monaco Grand Prix street-races. Since the first Le Mans had been held in 1923 and the first Monaco GP in 1929, it could be said that these British copies came rather late in the day, but anyway, that was the idea! Instead of the great “Mountain” course, the RAC used a new one over the streets of Douglas.
A circuit of 4.6 miles was devised; this was very much in the town itself, and it turned right at Governor’s Bridge and round a hairpin at Onchan to go up Burnt Mill Hill and into The Crescent, with the start and finish where this met Marina Road. The IoM authorities showed their enthusiasm by improving the roads and eradicating a dangerous bump on the approach to the promenade.
There were to be two scratch races, the Mannin Beg for cars up to 1 ½-litres (with superchargers permitted for those in the lower classes) and the Mannin Moar for blown 1 ½-litre and larger cars. The former was run on Wednesday July 12 and the latter on Friday July 14, 1933; races were over 50 laps or 250 miles, starting early at 9.30am, presumably to get the racing over before too many holiday makers raised objections, which they soon did!
Entries for the “Beg” comprised six supercharged MG Magnettes, four MG Midgets, two Rileys, the Sullivan Special and a Frazer Nash which was driven by TG Moore, then the owner of Motor Sport. Compensation for the limited size of the field was provided by drivers of the calibre of Eddie Hall, Kaye Don, GET Eyston, HC Hamilton (all in Magnettes), and Freddie Dixon, who made the best lap in practice at 60 mph even though his Riley was an unblown 1100cc.
The story of the race can be quickly told, the course proving so hard that only two of the fourteen finished. Dixon won at 54.41 mph, having worn down the opposition, led by DK Mansell’s Midget. Of the fancied Magnettes, Hall’s crashed, Eyston’s broke its camshaft-drive, Don’s retired with engine failure, Yallop’s with plug bothers, Hamilton’s (while leading) and Mere’s with back-axle failure.
The “Moar” fared little better, because only three finished. The Hon Brian Lewis (Lord Essedon) drove impeccably to win at 64.23 mph in a 2.3 litre Monza Alfa Romeo, having set the best practice lap at 64.4 mph; Rose-Richards’ Bugatti T51 was second and Eyston’s Monza Alfa third. Lindsay Eccles, Mathieson and Shuttleworth all crashed their 2.3 Bugattis, the latter destroying several pits in his spectacular accident. The only British car, Lace’s Alpine Trial 4 ½-litre Invicta, also crashed, and Fotheringham’s Bugatti broke a con-rod. Kaye Don made the distance in a four-seater TT Alfa Romeo, but was flagged off.
The winning Alfa was the property of Noel Rees of Arthur Fox Ltd, attained 115 mph along the promenade, and is said to have used 50 gallons of Pratt’s fuel, its oil being Castrol. It was estimated that Lewis made a thousand gearchanges on this narrow, wall-flanked course of eleven acute corners and innumerable turns. Mechanics were carried, perhaps for the last time in Europe, and even in those days it was noted that, because there were fewer than ten starters, Lewis did not gain any points – in this case towards the road-racing Gold Star. Amusingly, Rees and Fox won the MG Trophy, and £200.
Although the races had not been conspicuously successful, the RAC repeated them in 1934. Shortened to 3.7 miles along the tramlined promenade, Bray Hill and Onchan hairpin, the course was so bumpy that the faster cars could not be driven at full throttle over some of the straight sections. Starting money was still not paid, but good entries were nonetheless received, especially for the “Moar”.
On this occasion the Mannin Beg was an MG benefit, Norman Black winning at an impressive 70.99 mph for the 183 miles, from Charlie Dodson and GET Eyston. Of the nineteen starters, only eight finished, and seven of those were MGs – the exception being Cyril Paul’s Riley in sixth place.
Greater interest lay with the Mannin Moar, in which for the first time a British driver, Lewis, would be driving a P3 Monoposto Alfa Romeo. Having been unable to buy one of these fabulous Alfas, Noel Rees had contrived to hire one from the Scuderia Ferrari, paying for its transportation and the services of two Italian mechanics. The car proudly wore Prancing Horse badges on its bonnet, and part of the bargain was that half of the prize-money went to Ferrari…
Lewis duly did the 2.6 Alfa justice, leading from start to finish at an average of 75.43 mph in spite of third gear jumping out of mesh – he used only second and top gears for most of the race, coasting round the corners and accelerating from 10 mph up the one-in-ten Bray Hill in the highest ratio. Twice he reached 132 mph just before Governor’s Bridge.
His only challenger was Rose-Richards’ T51 Bugatti, which got within 15 seconds of the hired Alfa before it retired; Dixon’s Riley took up the chase, much further back, but it ran its bearings, and the various rival Bugattis (four of them T51s) threw rods or suffered back-axle bothers. Hamilton was forced out when the exhaust pipe came off and damaged the back wheel of the Kaye Don Monza Alfa (Don was in hospital as a result of the Mannin Beg MG practice crash in which his riding mechanic was killed, which was later to put him in prison), and George Abecassis’ similar car was going well when its Portuguese driver Vasco Sameiro had a con-rod give way.
Ten laps from the end of the 50-lap race only three cars were still running, but they all finished, Charlie Dodson in Cobb’s 2.3 Monza Alfa finishing second, a lap (three minutes) behind, with Cyril Paul’s 2-litre Riley eight minutes in arrears.
In spite of this exciting contest, the RAC acceded to the Isle of Man’s wishes and staged the same events again in 1935. For these the course was changed yet again, the lap-distance now being 4.03 miles, with the fast part extended so that higher speeds would be reached. The pits were on a separate narrow lane, so permission had to be obtained to signal to drivers from the course (pit-stops for refuelling were a feature of all the Mannin races), and were invaded by the sea during the event! Practice was from the cold hour of 5am to 7am, with flagfall on race days at 10am.
Lord Wakefield had presented a splendid cup for the winner of the “Beg”, in which Dixon’s Riley lined up against five MG Midgets, including the new R-Type works entries, four MG Magnettes, two Atlas, two of the new twin-cam “works” Austins, the ERAs of Raymond Mays and Fairfield, an old T37 Bugatti, an sv Austin and Donkin’s 1087cc Maserati. As happened before, only two cars finished the gruelling 50-lap race, over such a tough course that the competitors were forced to use low gear-ratios.
It was the 27-year-old South African PG Fairfield who triumphed in his privately-owned 1100cc ERA, averaging 67.29 mph, the other finisher being Dixon at 64.13 mph. Hall’s MG Magnette and Baird’s MG Midget were flagged off, after 49 and 41 laps respectively, Mays went out with an oil leak, Black’s and Handley’s R-Type MGs with back-axle trouble and Eyston’s with a sheared magneto drive; none of the works A7s started. A hard race!
The Mannin Moar brought in entries of T59 3.3-litre Bugattis from Lewis, CEC Martin and Lindsay Eccles, these latest Grand Prix cars having given trouble in earlier races (and in Martin’s case on the drive home from Molsheim!), Mays’ 2-litre and Cook’s 1 ½-litre ERA, Seaman’s big Maserati, Rose-Richards; 2.9 Maserati, Rayson’s Bugatti declared as 1084cc and various Alfas including Shuttleworth’s 2.9 P3.
The result was the best battle yet. Lewis again drove superbly, to gain his hat-trick in the 3.3 Bugatti at 75.57 mph (with a best lap at 78.1 mph) on Shell fuel and Castrol oil. Martin’s 3.3-litre Bugatti was second at 75.16 mph, Luis Fontes third at 71.94 mph in the 1933-winning Monza Alfa and Rayson’s Bugatti fourth at 69.1 mph.
Dobson, Wilkins and Brackenbury were all flagged off after completing 48 laps, poor Rose-Richards had his Maserati’s transmission fail on the first lap, Shuttleworth’s Alfa gearbox refused to stand the strain as expected, Eccles lasted 32 laps before the transmission failed on his 3.3 Bugatti, Raymond Mays was about to fill third place when his ERA’s transmission also gave out, and Cook in the smaller ERA had the scavenge oil-pump go after 30 laps. After retiring, Shuttleworth said he would now bore out the engine of his P3 Alfa to 3.3 litres “as it is about as slow as those Bugattis”, but two of those British-owned T59s had at last vindicated themselves.
The Mannin races had been very well run by the RAC, but had attracted very little spectator-interest, and that was the last of them. in 1936 and 1937 they were replaced by the RAC Light Car races confined to 1 ½ -litre cars over 195 miles, whose respective winners were Dick Seaman with his invincible “vintage” Delage and Bira’s ERA. The theme was to continue after the war, but these events were organised by the BRDC and belong to another age. WB