Bill Boddy remembers the Hon Brian Lewis – a very successful, aristocratic amateur racer who drove with professional style
It is interesting to recall how many titled racing drivers there have been. And I wonder how many declared their favourite pastime in the pages of Debrett’s? It is understandable that some of those who had wealth and leisure to spare, and who enjoyed dangerous activities such as polo and skiing, should include the racing of motor cars as a rewarding occupation.
Which reminds me of the lady who went up to the Hon Brian Lewis, just as he had come in from an exhausting race, and asked, “Why do you go in for motor racing?” “Madam” he replied, “it is one I the few sports one can enjoy sitting down.”
Had the lady seen, as I have, drivers having to be helped out of their cars after a long, hard-fought contest, in sweat-soaked, oil-stained coveralls, hardly able to walk without help, perhaps up the steps to receive the Monaco Trophy from Prince Rainier, she might not have asked the question! In the days of the pre-war grand prix Mercedes-Benz and Auto Unions, it was common to see such exhaustion, and in earlier times equally common to see drivers with bleeding hands from making hundreds of gearshifts – in a Monaco Grand Prix, for instance. All of which certainly didn’t keep the Hon Brian Lewis away from racing cockpits…
He was born in 1903 and educated at Malvern before going up to Cambridge. I have heard that his motoring education began with one of those motorcycle-engined AV cyclecars that kept its power in its hindquarters. When the young undergraduate wanted to take up serious motoring and try competition driving he went, very sensibly, to the Falcon Works in Isleworth., where Frazer Nashes were made, which were never anything but pure sporting cars. By 1925, Lewis and a friend had taken a primitive FN fitted with 1100cc Ruby engine to Boulogne and crammed themselves into the cockpit of their ‘Rodeo Special’ for the racing.
Far from objecting to his son’s pastime, his father, Sir Frederic Lewis, bought him a later Frazer Nash that year. This had its body’s rear shaped as what FN followers named the ‘fallen woman’; it was yellow and Whitehead front-wheel brakes were specified, perhaps by Brian’s father.
Lewis now really got going. In a supercharged Frazer Nash he finished in the 1927 JCC 200 Mile Race, and by ’28 was reserve driver to Malcolm Campbell in the famous ex-Benoist GP Delage for that event, although whether Campbell chose him for driver skill or in the hope of selling him a Bugatti is speculation. However, when Archie Frazer-Nash fell ill, Lewis drove his s/c Frazer Nash instead. Campbell won easily; Lewis retired. He took the hint, and by the end of that season had a 2-litre Bugatti in which he covered 85.5 miles in the MCC’s One-Hour High-Speed Trial.
In 1929, Lewis teamed up with WB Scott, a lively combination: Scott full of fun and pranks, Lewis’s determination to succeed concealing a light wit. For the BRDC 500 Mile Race they tried to make Scott’s GP Delage last the distance, but it retired in clouds of water vapour. However, they took it out again in November and it lasted for 200 miles, taking Class F records, at up to 105.48mph.
I have been told that Lewis became a great Bugatti enthusiast and gained the nickname ‘Bug’, but I cannot confirm this and I never so addressed him. But I do know that he was not impressed with the handling of the Type 59 Bugatti he shared with Earl Howe in the 1935 BRDC 500 until it was subdued by putting 2cwt of lead in its tail, after which they finished third, at 115.03mph, in spite of suffering with fuel-feed problems.
Lewis’s big opportunity to have maximum fun and satisfaction from racing came when he joined Arthur Fox’s Talbot team. Georges Roesch’s clever treatment of the pushrod overhead valve-gear of those superb Talbot 90s made supercharging seem almost a disadvantage on other cars. Arthur Willard Fox ran a big garage just off the Kingston Bypass, in partnership with the wealthy ex-Etonian Nicholl, and he made racing his overriding interest, not, I think, for any commercial reasons. His sheer love of the game ensured that his every move was meticulous in the extreme, from reading the rules, booking hotel rooms, preparing and testing his cars, picking the drivers, to keeping very detailed notes on every facet of running a top sportscar racing organisation. That is how Brian Lewis, his value realised, became one of the Talbot team.
The Talbot connection began in 1930. Lewis was not part of the ghastly accident which involved two of the Talbots in theICC Double-Twelve and, prior to Le Mans, Arthur Fox played him in, as it were, with two entries for the Brooklands Whitasun Meeting. Lewis was unplaced, but did all his flying laps at over 99mph.
His next big 1930 assignment with the Talbot 90 trio of PL2, PL3 and PL4 was Le Mans. Here, in one of these 2.3-litre cars, he justified entirely the confidence Fox had in him. The race was a battle between the two Speed Six Bentleys, but Lewis, partnered by Hugh Eaton in PL3, brought their Talbot home third, having covered 1647.86 miles compared with the 1821.0 miles of the victorious Bamato/Kidston Bentley; in averaging 68.66mph they also won the Index of Performance from the sister Talbot driven by Hindmarsh and stockbroker Rose Richards.
Four Talbots were then entered for the Phoenix Park sportscar ‘Grand Prix’ in Ireland. Lewis had earned his place in the team and he came home sixth, behind Campbell but ahead of Eaton and Rose Richards, the quietly functioning 90s the first of the non-supercharged cars to finish this fast race, defeated only by Caracciola’s massive Mercedes-Benz, Campari’s Alfa Romeo, Earl Howe in another Mercedes and Sir Henry Birkin’s blower Bentley.
So to the 1930 Ulster Tourist Trophy, where Talbots were 1-2-3 in class, Lewis well ahead, averaging 68.34mph.
In the BRDC 500, which closed the season, the single-seater Talbot 90, its drivers a most appropriate pairing of Earl Howe and Lewis, were fourth on handicap, at 104.26mph, ahead of the sports 90s.
Fox made sure Lewis kept his enthusiasm intact by putting him in for Brooklands races: he won the 1930 TT Handicap, with a lap at 101.43mph in the single-seater Talbot, and his score for 1930/31 in these BARC races was another win, two seconds and three thirds.
Before the Track closed, Lewis and Hindrnarsh took class and British records from 200km to six hours with the monoposto Talbot 90, which responded with 18mpg of fuel and 600mpg of oil.
At the 1931 March Brooklands races, Lewis, in the single-seater once more, won a Mountain handicap from scratch. The JCC Double-Twelve saw him delayed while the Talbot’s radiator was changed, and at Phoenix Park he was again a very creditable third, behind Birkin’s s/c Alfa Romeo and Campari’s s/c Maserati.
The 3-litre 105s were ready for that year’s Ulster TT, in which Lewis was fourth overall and second in class, with the fastest Class D lap of 72.32mph.
In the meantime, Fox had kept him busy again at Brooklands, where he took a Mountain second. The BRDC 500 saw Lewis and Saunders-Davies finish second, at 112.93mph, after leading from the winning Bentley until the Talbot stopped for a late wheel-change. In the single-seater 105, before the Track closed for renovation, Lewis took a second, with a lap at 109.70mph.
Also in 1931, Earl Howe had taken delivery of a Type 51 Bugatti and he invited Lewis to share it in the 10-hour French Grand Prix at Montlhéry, over the road circuit. They lost over 90min while tracing a shorting HT lead (on a new car!) but wound up in 12th place by the time the cars were flagged off the track.
In 1932, Fox was encouraged to put a Talbot in for a real road race, the Mille Miglia, but had to overcome enormous pre-race problems, and the Barley Road Talbot works had little time in which to prepare the car. Alas, Lewis went off the road 130 miles from the end of the 1000-mile route, at a bridge turn at Cornuda in the dark, injuring himself and Barnard, his mechanic. He had been running in an incredible fourth place at the time. Locals lifted the Talbot back onto the road and it still finished 25th, but Brian always said that this was the biggest regret of his racing career. Otherwise, he was a fast and safe driver during a long competition life.
In the following JCC 1000-Mile Race, he was fourth with John Cobb, and third at Le Mans with Rose Richards. Fox then made a bid for honours in the tough, destructive Alpine Trial. All three Talbot 105s gained the coveted Coupe des Alpes. Lewis and Saunders-Davies finished sixth and seventh behind the s/c Alfa Romeos in the Ulster TT, while Lewis and Cobb drove the single-seater 105 into a fine third place in the class-handicapped BRDC 500, at 111.6mph.
Lewis had another taste of GP racing in 1932, when he was asked at short notice to replace George Eyston, called away on business, in the Belgian race at Spa, in Birkin’s 2.3 sports Alfa Romeo, hastily converted into a ‘racing car’. He had to practise in a Bentley Big Six saloon; I believe his own car at this time was an aged Riley 9. They finished fourth.
Lewis now got the opportunity to race a Monza Alfa Romeo when Noel Rees, a partner in Fox’s business, acquired the first example to be seen racing in Britain. Lewis drove it first in the 1933 JCC International Trophy race at Brooklands. This 2.3 car was up against drivers like Campbell in the big Sunbeam, Whitney Straight, Kaye Don, Staniland and Rose Richards, now in a T51 Bugatti. But all went well and Lewis won easily, at 88.07mph.
For the 1933 Le Mans race, Lewis and Rose Richards shared a long-wheelbase 2.3 Alfa Romeo and managed a wonderful third behind the Alfas of Nuvolari and Chinetti, despite a leaking fuel tank.
The RAC then ran a true street circuit in the loM, literally through the narrow roads with no hazards removed. Lewis showed his skill by winning in the Monza Alfa, at 64.23mph. This was a 3hr 30min struggle, with 115mph along the Promenade, using 50 gallons of fuel.
He then went to the Nice GP (sixth) and the successes continued to build up.
For the 1934 IoM Mannin Moar race Rees hired a 2.6 P3 monoposto Alfa Romeo from Milan, with two Italian mechanics, and despite having only second and top gears for much of the race, Lewis won in it by three minutes, at 75.34mph
When Fox turned temporarily in 1934 to Singer and then to Lagonda, Lewis and Hindmarsh were seventh at Le Mans in a 1.5-litre Singer and fourth, second in class, in a 4.5 Lagonda in the TT.
Lewis had a Type 59 3.3-litre GP Bugatti for the 1935 JCC International Trophy race (it retired) and a 2.5-litre Maserati for the British Empire Trophy. He was up to third in the latter when a conrod broke. But the Bugatti gave him a hat-trick win in the 1935 Mannin Moar, at 75.77mph. In the Marne GP, however, the Bugattis of Lewis and Charlie Martin were outclassed by the Scuderia Ferrari-run Alfa Romeos.
At Le Mans in 1935, Lewis shared a 2.3 Alfa Romeo with Howe, who made fastest race lap at 86.75mph, but it holed a piston. He took a Bugatti to that year’s Roosevelt Cup in the USA, finishing 12th.
At Brooklands in 1936, he brought a 4.5-litre Lagonda home third in the 500 with Lord Howe, at 113.02mph, but clutch-slip on the Lagonda put him back to fourth in the TT.
Lewis was awarded BRDC Track Gold Stars and had qualified for his BARC 120mph badge in the 1935 500. Enough, surely, to prove the undoubted skill, determination and sensible approach to racing of this amateur with professional ability.
He acceded to the title of Lord Essendon in 1944, and died in 1978.