Bill Boddy recalls how Dick Seaman was persuaded to buy a 10-year-old Delage and how he used it to defeat the E.R.A.s and Maseratis three times in just three weeks.
The late Dick Beattie Seaman, born in February 1912, was undoubtedly one of the greatest British racing drivers until his untimely death after the accident at Spa in a Mercedes-Benz in June 1939. He was dedicated to becoming a successful racing driver, and after meeting and becoming friendly with wealthy American Whitney Straight while he was up at Cambridge, Dick decided to leave the university and follow Straight’s plan of making a career out of motor racing, Whitney Straight Ltd having been formed in December 1933. Nothing of the amateur approach here both hoped to become top professional drivers. They soon succeeded, although Straight then left racing for a business career associated with civil aviation.
Seaman, aided by his mother, was able to own sportscars while the family was living in the Elizabethan Weald Hall in Essex, where Queen Mary and Queen Elizabeth had been brought up as Princesses and to which Dick returned when on vacation from Rugby. (Does the house still exist?) He read the motor magazines (ours included, I hope) and after adventures with BSA solo and Rover sidecar motorcycles, he had his first sportscar, a Riley, while at Trinity College, Cambridge, driving it in an MCC trial. He followed this with an MG Magna, used in CUAC events and an Alpine Trial.
In his second year at Cambridge, Dick had a 2-litre Bugatti from Papworth’s, but he was aware that Straight had the ex-Birkin 2.1/2-litre Maserati. This was a ‘learning’ time for him: his social awareness had been sharpened when he was asked to be the English Equerry to the Crown Prince of Bavaria when he was in London; at Cambridge, Seaman had rowed in the second boat of the First Trinity Boat Club, and had taken his pilot’s licence at Heston.
At Dick’s suggestion the family had now moved to another mansion, Pull Court, near Tewkesbury. I remember how, when I went there after the war to buy cider from an old man at one of the estate gates, I asked him if he remembered Seaman the racing driver. He said, yes and how careful you had to be when he was testing a car down the back drive, which was very long and very straight. Later, the house became a boy’s prep school; when I went there to photograph it for Motor Sport’s ‘Homes of the Racing Drivers’ I discovered the bursar was a brother of Brooklands timekeeper, R King-Farlow.
The Bugatti seems to have been raced just once, at Donington Park in 1933, and not in Brooldands (BARC) races, contrary to some reports. For 1934, Dick came to a complicated financial arrangement with Straight, allowing him to race the latter’s MG Magnette, using his open 2-litre Lagonda to tow its trailer. He retired at Albi, was third in class in the Coppa Acerbo, won the Prix de Beme, came fifth in the 1.1/2-litre class of the Masaryk GP, second to Mays’ ERA in the Donington Nuffield Trophy and finished fifth in Africa’s East London Border Hundred.
His enjoyment of racing and increasing skill steered him into buying a 1.1/2-litre ERA, painted in his black livery, for 1935. With this more powerful car, Dick had a good year, with wins in the Coppa Acerbo, and at Berne and Brno, a fourth place in the 1.1/2-litre Eifelrennen race at the Niirburgring and just two retirements. But he was dissatisfied, believing that more attention was being devoted to the works ERAs at Bourne than to his own car, which was race-prepared there. He withdrew it, writing a restrained letter to Raymond Mays with his reasons, and sought another car for 1936.
In this he consulted his head mechanic, Giulio Ramponi, who had been associated with motor racing for so many years, as riding mechanic to Antonio Ascari, working for Enzo Ferrari’s Alfa Romeo team, and then driving himself, from 1926, winning, for instance, the 1928 Brooldands Six Hours with a supercharged, twin-cam 1500cc Alfa Romeo. He had been with Campari in the Alfa when he won the 1930 Mille Miglia, and had won the 1929 JCC Double 12 with Alfa Romeo, of course. Here was exactly the engineer Seaman needed and, backed by Birch, he became Dick’s racing manager.
Ramponi suggested buying Earl Howe’s old GP Delage, which he would revamp. After some doubts, shared by many — myself included — Dick agreed. No doubt Ramponi had been influenced by memories of the wonderful, watch-like, if complex, supercharged, straight-eight Delage designed by Lory which had won the 1927 manufacturers’ world championship. The responsibility of making a 10-year-old Delage into a racewinning proposition for a racing driver as accomplished as Seaman was a heavy one, but Ramponi obviously remembered how these can had dominated in its second year.
Revised for 1927, with a single supercharger in place of the former twin blowers, and the exhausts now on the nearside, these fabulous 130mph, 1.1/2-litre Delage cars had dominated GP racing. Robert Benoist won at Mondhery — Bourlier and Morel completing a 1-2-3 in the French GP — and Benoist and Bourlier took first and third places in the Spanish GE Benoist’s lone Delage won the European GP at Monza and the Delage team was 1-2-3 in the British GP at Brooldands.
Earl Howe’s results with these cars from 1931 to ’35 obviously confirmed Ramponi’s decision. Howe had wrapped his first Delage, with which Malcolm Campbell had also had good results from 1928, round a tree at Monza, so what Seaman was able to buy was Howe’s ex-Senechal car. Seaman’s ERA RIB was sold to G F Manby-Colegrave for £1400, and there was but one winter in which to ready the old Delage.
Ideas for a new supercharger and lightalloy block were abandoned after Murray Jamieson had seen the Delage. He said it had an excellent blower and could be made to give 175bhp, but wamed against any lighter pistons. Hepworth & Grandage supplied free sets of pistons, about an ounce heavier than the Delage items, which gave a 7:1 compression ratio, later increased slightly with another set With 151bs boost and 80 per cent alcohol fuel, 9000rpm was envisaged. The piston rings were as used in Napier aero engines.
Howe had used an ENV pre-selector gearbox but it was very heavy. Delage were asked if they had a ‘box as used in 1926/27, but had only one for the 1925 2-litre V12 GP cars, which they had long forgotten but now wanted 1000 francs for! Seaman agreed to have the gearbox, but the eight-cylinder crankcase bell-housing had to be altered to take it. Delage supplied the original valve timing diagram, and gave the speed at which maximum power was developed in 1927 as 7000rpm, peak revs as 7500.
The ‘new’ gearbox saved 701bs on the weight of the ENV. Laystall made new clutch plates for 18/6d each, Ferodo MR lined. Jonas Woodhead made new front spring leaves, Universal Power Drives supplied free universal joints and Laystall made many small parts — such as gudgeon pins of NCCH steel, and special tools — and the engine was bench tested on the last day in February on their rig.
Superflex copied the original petrol piping and two new sections of the three-piece front axle, suspect in later times, were made by Laystall’s, of heat-treated 70-ton tensile Ductalas steel (£30). Frank Ashby provided a free 17-inch diameter ‘Brooldands’ sprung steering wheel with hiduminium RR 50 boss, weighing 8.1/2-lbs, as on the ERA, its rubber rim cordbound, to Dick’s requirement. The Delage had had an 18-inch wheel. But an Ashby quick-action filler cap, at 1.3/4-lbs, was heavier than the Delage one.
Lockheed sent their then chief engineer, G van Vestraut, to change the servo brakes from cable to hydraulic operation, with 1501bs pedal pressure. David Brown’s axle gears took too long to make, at five weeks, so were not accepted. Standard Valves supplied a free set of 16 valves, and a spare set for 4/9d a valve. Progress was being made. The weight was further reduced by a new steel fuel tank, 951bs lighter than the original with its tail cowling, and the twin seven-gallon oil tanks were changed fora four-gallon tank The front springs were outrigged and some crossmembers drilled. The weight of the Delage was now down to about 14.7cwt, one cwt less than in 1926 form, and for the ‘200’ race was quoted as only 561bs heavier than an ERA. With 7lbs boost, the bhp was given as 175 at 8000rpm, and possibly 200bhp was obtained with 12lbs boost The low fuel thirst meant that Dick did not need to exceed 7500rpm in most races, the deep exhaust note reminiscent of a Tipo B Alfa Romeo.
Bosch overhauled the FH8 magneto and supplied plugs. TB Andre made duralumin shock absorbers, Arens billed at cost price, Kesterton sent an SU carburettor with aluminium piston, and a new radiator saved 621b. Hepworth & Grandage supplied costprice oversize pistons for the Dodge van, and Dunlop took space on it, paying a racing bonus of between £75 and £150. The scene was set.
Any doubts the pessimists had were dispelled when Seaman took the rejuvenated Delage to Donington in May 1936 and won two short races easily, beating Prince Bira’s ERA and then Peter Whitehead’s ERA. The Delage was then taken to the Isle of Man for the 200-mile International 1.1/2-litre race on a new road come, against nine ERAs. Before the race, Bira’s entrant Prince Chula, as recounted in his book Dick Seaman Racing Motorist (Foulis 1941), asked Dick if the Delage would go through without stopping to refill but “Dick just smiled and said he hoped so, but was not sure.” The ERAs would have to stop, hence Chula’s question. The race turned out to be a great battle between Bira’s ERA and Seaman, but Dick did not need to refuel. He won after 2hr 52min lsec, having driven his usual steady race, contriving always to be at least a minute in the lead.
Next, the Eifel race. The Delage was leading Count Trossi and Tenni in the works Maseratis in the rain when it slid off the road and got bogged down. On to Peronne for the Picardy GP. The Delage won its heat the French loved this but in the final, after a duel with Trossi, Dick went off the road and the Delage was somewhat damaged. In the Coppa Ciano, the Delage was leading when the fuel pressure pump failed and Seaman was sixth. Dick drove a Maserati in the GP proper but it fell to bits so soon that he said he would never drive a works Maser again.
Then came that magnificent ‘three in a row’. First, the Coppa Acerbo, on August 16, at Pescara, where Dick had won in ’35. It was rumoured that the spare engine was now in the black Delage, and that Ramponi had looked it over although I believe that only superficial attention was given to it between the three consecutive races. Over the difficult course it was never challenged, beating Trossi by 39.4sec.
Next over the Alps for the 11/2-litre Swiss Prix de Berne. The work ERAs were reputed to be faster than before. But Seaman won comfortably, setting a new lap record of 91.22mph.
And so to Donington for the JCC ‘200’. I reported for Motor Sport how again the wonderful Delage, so ably driven by our best British driver, won for the third time in that memorable three-week period. Seaman drove impeccably, making not a gesture to his pit, so giving no clues to Howe, whose ERA was his only close rival, whether or not he would need fuel. The more efficient French car didn’t, whereas Howe had to interrupt his spirited chase for a quick dash of fuel. Only as he crossed the line did Dick raise a finger to Ramponi and his jubilant pit staff.
It had been a race decided by pit stops. Howe led by 8.4sec after 50 of the 77 laps, but the stop cost him 39sec. Seaman passed and speeded up as insurance against the Delage requiring an unlikely stop. In fact, he finished 51sec ahead of his Lordship, after 2hr 50min 14.6sec, at 69.28mph, winning £350 and the enormous Andre Gold Cup. There was still fuel in the Delage’s reserve tank. ‘Bira’ had a big tank but it leaked in practice and the smaller one had to be used for the race.
Then, in ’37 came the call from Mercedes-Benz, and Seaman sold the famous Delage … to Prince Chula.