Prince Bira was much more than a royal with a penchant for racing: he was a gifted driver, a talented artist and the inspiration to a generation of privateer racers. By Robert Edwards
To passers-by at Baron’s Court underground station, two days before Christmas 1985, he was just an elderly man, but by his appearance not a local one. That he had seen better days was clear; that he had died from a heart attack was a fact which emerged only later, as did his identity. When it was confirmed, and the obituaries posted, there were smiles of regretful recognition; and so indeed there should have been for this had been a famous Prince, of Royal blood. He died a few hundred yards from his bed, but a long way from home. He had been born in the Purabha palace in Bangkok on July 15, 1914, a cousin of the King of Siam. His full given name was Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh. For those who knew of him through motor racing though, he was known only as B. Bira.
To many, Bira exemplified that elusive Brooklands ideal; the agreeable toff with the common touch taking on all-corners and winning; no need to practice. Just two years out of Eton, in March 1935, he had started racing a Riley Imp, which was followed by a blown MG Magnette, but he achieved little success with either.
Bira was in many ways a Renaissance Prince. While he raced he studied sculpture under the noted Charles Wheeler; it was a medium in which he became very well-regarded, and he exhibited consistently at the Royal Academy from 1936 until the war. His skills would later be called upon under more depressing circumstances.
Bira had long admired Raymond Mays, Britain’s Mr Motor Racing; he had first seen him at Brooklands in 1933, and a year or two later clapped eyes on Mays’ new ERA making its debut on the Isle of Man. But it was probably Pat Fairfield, one of the first and most successful exponents of Mays’ new car, who persuaded Bira this was what he needed; neither the Riley nor the MG had been competitive, but Fairfield proved the ERA was in a class of its own.
So, after some lobbying, Bira managed to convince his older cousin Prince Chula Chakmbongse to buy him an ERA for his 21st birthday. Chula, acting in loco parentis since the death of Bira’s father, was his financier as well as mentor in London; they shared an elegant apartment and, thanks to a generous stipend from Thailand’s equivalent of the Civil list, lived well. They were not that closely related, being first cousins once removed, and Chula was definitely the senior.
Above all, the ERA project was to be managed properly. The premises were in Dalling Road, Hammersmith, which became the headquarters of the cousins’ racing team, the White Mouse Stable. Chula ran it, and with the assistance of skilled mechanics including Stan Holgate and Lofty England, the enterprise thrived. Their ERAs became famous – Romulus, Remus and Hanuman.
It was clear that the ERA was altogether of a higher order than his previous conveyances, and also that as his car improved, so did Bira’s skill. In fact he emerges as the single most successful ERA exponent in voiturette racing. Of the two dozen rated races which the marque won, Bira accounted for no less than seven, the first at Monaco in 1936, driving Romulus.
As well as being a driver of the first water, Bira also brought much needed style to motorsport. In this, Mays was possibly his inspiration, but even that elegant mainspring of ERA could not bring himself to sport blue Thai silk overalls, however much he might have been tempted.
But there was another car which made Bira well known; the Maserati 8CM which the fabulously rich American Whitney Straight had ordered new in 1934. It had been modified by Reid Railton with a distinctive heart-shaped radiator and a preselector gearbox. It was brutally quick and Straight had had huge success with it. Upon his retirement from racing, the car was sold to Harry Rase, who sold it to Chula in 1936. His first act was to paint it the colour which became known as ‘Bira blue’.
Without Chula, it is unlikely that Bira could have accomplished as much as he did. The older cousin was a formidable organiser, a details man, whose ceaseless efforts behind the scenes ensured the cars were prepared as well as could be. Chula was still more cosmopolitan than his cousin, being half Russian, and they cut an exotic dash through the tweedy world of ’30s racing.
“The right crowd and no crowding”, a catchphrase unimaginable at Indianapolis, applied in spades to the White Mouse Stable. The forelock-tugging which went with the presence of the Princes in the paddock at Brooklands afforded them a degree of flexibility lost to commoner folk; they were treated to the type of fawning adoration Brits do so well, and were seldom disturbed by the intrusions of the press.
Bira’s artistic skills were called upon in the saddest circumstances, when Pat Fairfield died after a crash at Le Mans and the BRDC asked Bira to design a lifting memorial. He did that and more, endowing both the Fairfield Memorial Trophy and the Siam Trophy to the BRDC, to be awarded to the winner of the British Empire Trophy race.
All in all, Bira was hugely, undeniably successful; he won the BRDC road racing gold star three years in a row and set new standards at many levels. He was the first driver to lap Phoenix Park at over 100mph, and set 1500cc records at Donington and Crystal Palace which were never beaten before the-war. It is possible, given the competition which he had•with Richard Seaman when they raced in the same class, that he might have gone as far as a major Grand Prix team, but the ex-Straight Maserati sufficed to keep him both occupied and happy.
His racing made him extremely popular in Thailand; not only did he win (Thailand was not over-endowed with international sportsmen) but he acted as ex-officio ambassador with some success. The cousins were held up as illustrations of all that was sound about both the country of their birth and the public schools which taught them to speak so languidly.
The onset of the war put racing on hold, and the cousins exiled themselves down to Cornwall, to Helland Bridge near Bodmin. Here, having little else to do, they scribbled furiously, an activity at which Chula proved the stronger. Hopes of returning to Thailand evaporated as Japan joined the war, for Thailand, under Japanese occupation, was forced to declare war upon Britain, which made the pair, technically, enemy aliens. Under such circumstances, Cornwall made more sense than London. Both decamped, with their British wives.
Perhaps such enforced proximity soured their relationship, for by the end of the war they were not getting on, and when Bira sought to resuscitate his career, he did so without his cousin. It was a great pity; the White Mouse stable had in many ways established a blueprint for how private teams should be run. Certainly, that was Lofty England’s view when he looked at both Ecurie Ecosse and Lister much later on – neatness, presentation, attention to detail, all these he prized.
Post-war, competition for drives was naturally intense as the sport re-invented itself, but it was a reasonable veterans’ market. Pleasingly, his old mechanic England helped him with a drive in the new Jaguar XK120, and he partnered Clemente Biondetti and Leslie Johnson in one of its inaugural events at Silverstone.
But post-war it was different. Brooklands was gone and with it the agreeable social environment. A. generation of drivers whose boyhood had been a wartime one were on the rise. “The right crowd” was an expression which meant less than nothing; beating cabbage-chewing foreigners however, did, almost as an extension of the war.
For Bira, then, it was back to Maserati. He had bought a 4CL for the 1947 season and had some success with it, winning the Formule Libre race at Chirnay, Belgium, in May. He was one of the prized, so far as car builders were concerned, a private racer. He looked forward to a reprise of his pre-war career, but his source of income had been terminally degraded by the depredations of the Japanese Army. He campaigned the car in 1948 as well, winning at the inaugural Formule Libre race at the new Zandvoort circuit.
This was all rather promising, but without the full support of Chula or the Thai treasury he found the organisation tedious. He still had the services of Stan Holgate and for 1949 he .effectively leased his 4CL to Roy Salvadori for the princely sum of £2000 per annum, as he had himself been offered a drive in a works-prepared 4CL entered by Enrico Plate. Bira’s own car was destroyed in September of that year in a fiery crash at the Curragh; Salvadori was unhurt, and the car, happily, was insured.
For 1950, he stayed with Plate, for whom he entered four Grands Prix, coming fourth at Bremgarten, preceded by fifth at Monaco, the scene of his first victory.
For 1951, he tried an OSCA V12 engine in a 4CL chassis; it proved a dog and he entered only one GP with it, in Spain, where it expired on the first lap. Tellingly, it was entered under the Ecurie Siam banner, confirming that Chula and the White Mouse outfit were no longer a part of his professional life. He had been pencilled in as a BRM driver for the French Grand Prix in July, but, embarrassingly, the cars were not in a fit state to appear. By the time they were, the rules had changed.
The Formula Two interregnum of 1952-3 created an unseemly rush for the 2-litre marques and caused a small surge in the fortunes of the Gordini company, among others. Bira split his efforts between Gordini and Connaught with little success (the period was a Ferrari walkover) until Maserati’s new effort, the 250F, was announced and ready.
Well, almost ready. Swamped by orders, Maserati converted a small run of A6G single-seaters with 250F power to placate impatient owners, of whom Bira was one. Confusingly, and to the later lipsmacking delight of the dark side of the motor trade, they were given 250F chassis numbers. He entered his car under the for the inaugural 2H-litre race in Argentina. And, although it came nowhere, he did manage to win at Chimay again before selling the car and putting its engine into the 250F chassis which was now ready.
The 1954 season was his last and it was hard going. A fourth place in the French Grand Prix was about it for the championship, but he took the 250F to New Zealand for the winter races at the end of the season and won the New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore, followed by a third at the International Trophy at Teretonga.
He had now decided to retire. It was certainly not the same as it had been with Chula, and he leased his 250F to Horace Gould, on a similar basis to his deal with Roy Salvadori, before selling it to Bruce Ha’ford. His career had begun in 1935 and he had accomplished a huge amount. More important, he was alive, unlike his friends Seaman, Fairfield et al, so he should have been happy.
He was not. His alienation from Chula lowered him, and his first marriage broke up, whereupon he started to behave rather oddly. Whether it was in imitation of Yul Brynner in the King and I that he shaved off his hair we cannot tell, but he did, and embarked upon a volatile business career, which was itself punctuated by bouts of both celibacy and indulgence which irritated and embarrassed the dignified and conservative Chula.
Chula, who could be rather grand when he wanted to be, had strongly objected (as had the rest of Thailand) to both the Rex Harrison (1946) and Yul Brynner (1956) cinematic characterisations of his Grandfather King Mongkut, to the point of it becoming a personal issue between himself and Harrison, who was a good friend. Bira, the junior cousin, had taken the issue rather less seriously, which had not helped their relationship at all.
But by 1963, Chula was diagnosed as suffering from cancer and died at the end of that year, mourned by all who knew him. Bira’s business career was basically a disaster; the same sea-change in society which had made him just another racing driver also conspired to make him merely another businessman. Europe was awash with minor Royalty already, and many of them seemed to be trying to do deals. To a cynical marketplace, one displaced Prince is very much like another, particularly if he is endeavouring to position himself between the wall and the wallpaper, and with no business training whatsoever, he floundered in a morass of optimism and tight credit. His sunny nature and varied sources of borrowing, often from friends, kept him afloat, but often only just.
By 1985 he was 70 and tired. There were always deals in the air, but in the air they tended to stay. His business life had become that of a peripatetic Mr Fixit. He had been staying with friends and suffered his fatal coronary while setting out to do his Christmas shopping. This noble prince, fine racer and man who helped inspire a generation of private teams died, unrecognised, less than a mile from the old site of the White Mouse garage.