The trials of Sammy Davis

Bill Boddy imagines himself in the shoes of one of the best-known of journalist-racers, and ponders the less remembered side to his motorsporting activities.

Who would I most like to have been, given a choice? SCHD (Sammy) Davis, the popular Sports Editor of The Autocar before the second World War. He was so versatile, in the sport I thought the greatest of all. Davis had considerable influence, serving on many important committees, co-founding the VSCC, becoming first VSCC President, etc. But it was the range of events in which he took part, in a fascinating variety of feats, which made his motoring career so wonderful.

His passion for motor racing began at Westminster School. Apprenticeship to Daimler’s long before WWI followed, and a spell at the Slade sharpened Sammy’s cartoon skills. By 1907 he was riding a motor cycle in trials with WO Bentley and others and his writing led to visits to GPs and trials in ‘impossible’ cars like a Cummikar and a friction-drive Pilot. War ended that, Davis serving in the RNAS and on aero-engine development. After racing recommenced he drove an AC in the 1921 ‘200’, and a wild ride in an unsuitable Miller with Zborowski in the 1924 French GP whetted his appetite for road racing.

The opportunity broke when he drove, with Jean Chassagne, for Coatalen, a 3-litre Sunbeam to second place at Le Mans in 1925. After which WO took Sammy into the Bentley team, and although he went into the Mulsanne sandbank in the only remaining, brakeless Bentley 20 minutes before the finish of the 24 hour race in 1925, there was the dramatic victory at Le Mans in 1927 with Dr Benjafield, after the 3-litre had survived the infamous White House calamity. By now proven to be a sound, intelligent racing driver, Davis then had a FWD Alvis for Le Mans in 1928 (ninth with Dykes) and drove a works Riley 9 in the first Ulster TT, only to crash avoiding other cars.

Sammy Davis then had an s/c Lea-Francis for the Phoenix Park Race (second) and a works Riley 9 again for the TT, with which he won the 1100cc class, his mechanic Major LV Head, who as ‘Caput’ to Davis’s ‘Casque’ was also an Autocar staffman, who went on many of the SCHD adventures. The BBC then flew Davis to England in a DH Moth to tell of the race. Le Mans 1930 saw a Davis driving a Speed Six Bentley with Clive Dunfee whose turn it was to retire, dug into a sandbank. At Phoenix Park in 1930 Davis had a Bertelli Aston Martin (seventh) and in that year’s TT he drove a privately entered Lea-Francis with Frank Hallam but it was too slow. After which his Invicta accident on the Mountain Course in the wet at Brooklands early in 1931 sent him to hospital and curtailed his road racing, although he resumed in 1935, only to be involved in the remarkable triple-crash of the Singer 9s with steering breakages.

At Brooklands Davis shared a GP Bugatti with George Eyston in the 1927 RAC British GP; they finished, delayed by a seized supercharger. In the Essex MC Six Hours he had won with an Alvis, and in the 1928 Six Hours Davis raced a speed Model Riley 9 until a big end failed. Now an established ‘Bentley Boy’, SCHD competed in the first JCC Double-12 Hour race in a 4 1/2-litre Bentley with Sir R Gunter (second), and was a fine second lapping at over 126mph in the first BRDC ‘500’, with Clive Dunfee, in a 6 1/2-litre Bentley two-seater which he took over at short notice, no one else wanting to drive it. For the 1930 ‘D12’ the same pair had a works Speed Six, coming a good second to Bamato and Clement. A contrast to 1929, when with the Earl of March, Davis won the 1930 ‘500’ in a s/c Ulster A7. Not a bad show for a driver who year after year wrote his Autocar column and many articles, seemingly having trained a secretary who was very knowledgeable, which I discovered as a schoolboy when I posed difficult motor racing questions.

Sammy was involved with record work in Aston Martin, Wolseley Ten, the ‘500’ A7 and a fierce Morgan three-wheeler at Mondhery, besides track tests of cars as diverse as the 350hp V12 Sunbeam, K3 MG Magnette and R-Type MG Midget, and for fun got his ‘gold’ in the 1925 JCC High Speed Trial in a fully crewed 10/23 Talbot. Then there were the arduous but exciting events like the tough 1937 Alpine Trial in the Siddeley Special team, and Monte Carlo Rallies from 1930 to 1939 in cars such as the Daimler Double Six, Armstrong-Siddeley, and open Railtons. On the RAC Rally Davis drove Alvis, Raymond Mays V8, Rover, Singer, Triumph and Armstrong-Siddeley cars.

Yet for all that, SCHD was a regular supporter of the MCC reliability trials which those clays provided publicity for new cars and were generously reported in the weekly motor magazines. A reborn WB could not have aspired to the races and rallies but would have relished these trials. For the London-Edinburgh, revived in 1919, Davis had a 10hp AC, trouble-free except for punctures and loss of a throttle connection. For the ‘Exeter’ there was an 11hp McKenzie, its makers hoping for good publicity; it finished, but no award. By 1920 Davis had one of Grenville Bradshaw’s air-cooled flat-twin ABCs on the Lands End. It was a good run (gold medal). ‘Ebby’ the Brooklands handicapper, started an entry of nearly 400 in the Edinburgh, the ABC winning another ‘gold’. Trust Davis not only to have improved his ABC but fitted a clockwork route-recorder, oil lamps to save the battery when stationary, and enough rations for four full meals.

A gold again for the ABC in the 1920 Exeter, then the MCC’s 1921 Lands End brought disaster for Davis’s ABC, with a warped cylinder on the first famous hill. A 12hp Deemster was used for the ‘Edinburgh’, an 870-mile out and out home run, in which another ‘gold’ was won, although the little car’s springs broke up. The Exeter was then a 24-hour return event; for this, Autocar‘s man had a rugged Ruston Hornsby tourer. Failure on the new terror Salcombe resulted in only a silver medal.

SCHD drove one of three ABCs on the 1922 Lands End, but after vindicating air cooling on several of the hills, Davis stopped on Porlock. Afterwards one good car had to be made from the parts of all three for the return home. To be fair, six out of seven ABCs finished, two with Golds. Davis missed the Edinburgh, but was back for the 1922 Exeter in a Palladium, a sporting car which its makers liked to run full of white-coated occupants to advertise “four seats, four cylinders and 4WB”. Davis had made the crew practice many tyre changes, so when a skid into a bridge bent a wheel it was dealt with in 7 1/2 minutes.

So another gold, another season ahead. For the 1923 Lands End the ABC ‘Grandpa’ was used. Time had not wearied it, Sammy said. It had been overhauled at 37,000 miles, and had a new body and a Claudel Hobson carburettor replacing two thirsty original ones. It romped up Porlock, Lynton and Beggar’s Roost. Davies listed many accessories including gloves with little white and red lights in them. I sense journalistic freebies… The Edinburgh saw Davis in a sports-tourer Riley – two more golds for his collection. It was back on the Sunday via Hadrians Wall – SCHD loved history. The year closed with a 1925 Waverley for the Exeter, facing rain, cold and fog on the ward run, but despite boiling, Davis’s car had no trouble. Both Waverleys took golds. The 1924 Lands End saw the ‘veteran’ ABC win Gold again (Autocar‘s report ran to 11 pages). Davis ran an ohc Wolseley 10 for the next Edinburgh, Kirkstone Pass still signed “Impossible for Motors”, but a gearbox spigot seized. The Exeter in a hurricane saw Davis in an Austin 12/4; chains on the hills it drew gold.

Untiring, SCHD took the ABC on the 1925 Lands End; it seized on Porlock but finished (awardless). Le Mans kept him out of the Edinburgh, but Davis was back for the Exeter, using a 12/25 Humber (Silver), and the fast Frazer-Nash he had for the Lands End got the same award having failed on Porlock due to “a dog-too-high”. Some took Bluehilis Mine when lit by flares.

His ABC too noisy for the JCC High Speed Trial, Sammy was back for the 1926 Exeter in one of the first 3-litre Invictas; petrol, starvation set in and he got only a Bronze medal. An A7 fabric saloon on the 1927 Lands End jibbed at the 1 in 3 1/2 Beggar’s Roost, but it got steadily up Bluehilis Mine (Silver). Bentley racing then took over – what a contrast – and snow cancelled the Exeter.

What a remarkable variety of cars Davis drove in these MCC trials and how excellent that the events continue. HS Linfield, The Autocar‘s road test writer, joined SCHD in the 1928 Exeter with a Taylor-bodied A7. Davis drove a four-seater FWD Alvis. Seemingly a had bet for a trial, it romped up all the very slimy hills with ease, two Le Mans races having much improved the cars. An 80mph Le Mans Aston Martin was wonderful in the Lands End (another gold), while an MG Six made the Edinburgh just as easy. The never-bored, ever-entertaining, indefatigable Sammy D continued to support vintage MCC trials: he had a six-cylinder Lagonda in the 1930 Exeter, its sump too low and its exhaust pipes removed by a rock, so silver medals for it and Linfield’s Citroen Six Tourer. A low-slung Speed Model Riley 9, which some thought as silly for the task as the FWD Alvis, gave Sammy his best Land’s End, almost a race, at 4500rpm up the observed sections, but cold (Gold of course). On the home run the very run racy Riley was followed for miles by a motorbike policeman, so had to go “as Agag walked”. Sammy also drove his 1898 Bollee ‘Beelzebub’ in many Brighton runs.

By now Davis had ceased to compare these adventures with the late war, mythology, or historical items on the trials route. Le Mans kept him away from the Edinburgh and rallying from the Exeter, but Linfield had an MG Six in the former, so The Autocar was well represented. What fun all of these trials must have been. Had I been SCH Davis I think I would have managed some of them, and most certainly would have greatly enjoyed them.