One of our Fiats is missing
Fiat built a pair of 10-litre racers for the abandoned 1909 French Grand Prix. One raced later at Brooklands – but where is it now?
When I visited Fiat’s Centro Historico Museum in Turin in 1967, it was full of accurate scale models of the company’s products – locomotives, rolling stock, tractors, and ships, etc, because it would have been impossible even in the enormous hall to display all of Fiat’s productions. But there were full-sized exhibits too, including cars such as Ernest Eldrige’s famous aero engined ‘Mephistopheles’ and the S61 Fiat which gave John Cobb, ex-Etonian fur-broker with a mansion in Esher, close to Brooklands, his apprenticeship to motor racing which was to lead to the ultimate lap-record there of 143.44mph and the official fastest time of 151.97mph in 1935.
These Fiats occupied 16 pages in my book Brooklands Giants (2006, Haynes). The S61 had a standard chain-drive chassis but the engine is a 10-litre OHC racing concept, as Kent Karslake detailed in an appendix in the same book. This type of Fiat was apparently intended for the abandoned 1909 French GP.
Owned by Sir Frederick Richmond of Debenhams, John Duff found it in 1920 and began racing it at Brooklands after being fastest at the Westcliffe speed trials and making fastest time of the day at Fanoe in Denmark. Subsequent owners were wine importer Philip Rampon, Ernest Eldridge until he became too busy with the Land Speed Record Fiat ‘Mephistopheles’, and petrol representative Roland Warde, who used to tow the Fiat from Sunbury-on-Thames to Brooklands behind his Chrysler. He shared it with John Cobb during 1926, the latter acquiring the car a year later.
Cobb continued to race the S61 up to 1929, after which the BARC’s ban on the older cars racing stopped its remarkable career at Brooklands of 10 wins, nine seconds and 13 third places, and a last effort by Warde with a Class A five-kilometre record of 104.10mph. Of these, Cobb contributed four wins and two second places while also driving other cars, and it was he who set the old Fiat’s fastest lap of Brooklands Track, of 110.68mph, when its engine was giving 120bhp at 1650rpm.
It all appeared to be over in 1926 when the engine blew up, but Warde encountered Lord Cunliffe’s touring S61 Fiat delivering the Government newspapers during the General Strike and afterwards acquired its 1911 engine.
When I visited the museum, after writing about the Fiat and Lancia factories, the then curator was surprised when I recognised the tandem V24 AS6 engine from the Macchi MC72 seaplane which took the Air Speed Record to 440.6mph in 1931, and said if I turned round I could see this aircraft in action.
I thought he was joking, but he had set off a film in which the pilot Francesco Agello, an immediate national hero on landing, nevertheless had to climb onto a float and get wet to ensure that the seaplane did not porpoise in the sea’s wash, until the rescue launch got him!
I was allowed to hold a splendid model of a sports Fiat Balilla, about two feet long, in which everything worked including the direction indicators, and there was a far smaller model of a railway Pullman carriage of which I was told that, had we had water available and had poured some of it into the diminutive cistern, the minute lavatory would flush correctly, and apparently each model had to follow so closely the drawings lent to its maker that when the Fiat directors discovered from a photo enlargement that its tiny door handles were fractionally too large they sent the model back for rectification.
Fiat’s chief engineer praised the Issigonis Mini but said Fiat had earlier built a small car with a transverse engine. When the S61 racing car’s Track days were over it was left for sale at Thomson & Taylor’s. There were no offers, so Ken Taylor asked Brian Pickford, who raced his motorcycle at BMCRC meetings with support from his sister, to take it away, which he did for £6. The engine was found to have a cracked head and the car languished for some time at Pickford’s Runfold place.
The VSCC had started its Edwardian class by this time and Anthony Heal and others were anxious to find exciting racing cars with which to compete. So Heal, whose father owned the well-known and prestigious shop in London’s Tottenham Court Road, collected the S61 with one of its furniture vans and took it to Slade’s Garage in Penn, Buckinghamshire. The subsequent FTD successes in VSCC events are too long to describe in detail but their total equalled the Brooklands’ victories.
The Fiat was the fastest Edwardian racing car in these VSCC events, with the possible exception of the 1912 Lorraine-Dietrich known as ‘Vieux Charles Trois’ by a narrow margin. After WW2 in 1946 the car took Heal and his bride to their wedding, the engine left ticking over outside the Register Office.
In the Brighton Speed Trials, at Shelsley Walsh, Prescott, Lewes, Crystal Palace and Poole (where in the wet it beat an ERA, an Alta and a Bugatti), the Fiat ran at so many of these events, more than once, with equal success, and Cecil Clutton also drove it.
The next owners were Dr Pinkerton who ran it in VSCC events, and for whom Frank Lockhart’s garage maintained it, and VCC member Arthur James.
The S61’s cylinder blocks had been porous from Duff’s days, and he used to postpone filling the radiator until on a race starting-line, and also dousing the wooden wheels (wire wheels were fitted later). This did not always work, and the sparking plugs might or might not get wet!
Heal adopted this precaution but James decided that new blocks were due, which he had cast, but could not machine. Fiat in Turin took over, saying they would get the machining done if James would leave the car to them in his will. But when he went to collect the car apparently nothing had been done and I have heard that after his death the S61 was relegated to the museum cellar. ‘Mephistopheles’ came to Lord March’s Goodwood Festival of Speed but there was no sign of the historic and notably successful S61, although it could surely have been run up the hillclimb course if treated to Duff and Heal’s method of ignoring those leaking cylinder blocks.
I have since tried to establish whether the S61 is still in the Centro Historico and Fiat’s Press Officer agreed to enquire, but so far I have heard nothing. I just hope this famous Fiat will not be destroyed.
In connection with the Brooklands Centenary a third book, The Brooklands Centenary Yearbook 1907 has been published by the Brooklands Museum Trust, a reminder that not only Mercedes-Benz but also Stratstone of Mayfair, the Gallaher Group plc, Tesco, Sony, Luxfords of Weybridge and Procter & Gamble occupy the Track site.
A new Brooklands Club with the right to use the former BARC badge has appeared to join the long-established Brooklands Society, which I started long ago before the commercial value of the place became apparent!
The Daily Mail and Tindle newspapers, organisers of the London-Brighton Run for veteran cars on November 4, have already received over 250 entries, 20 of which are other than those in the record 2004 entry and six of which are thought not to have previously appeared in the Run, all pre-1905 I hope. They aim for a record 500; late entries (after July 31st) cost £75. The Concours for 115 veterans (vehicles – not necessarily people) is to take place in Berkeley Square on the Saturday, with rides for the public. More details are available from Jeff Carter, Motion Works, Silverstone Innovation Centre, Silverstone Circuit. Tel: 01327 856024.
The re-enactment of the 1902 177-mile Raid Figueira da Foz to Lisboa for pre-1930 cars takes place from October 19-21.
For ten bob you could lap Brooklands in the ’20s. Safety was not a concern
Memories of Brooklands will continue throughout this centenary year. I wonder how many remember the freedom there. For instance, on non-race days, if no record attacks were taking place, anyone could take a car round the Track for 10/-.
In 1927, when I was 14, my mother and her sister thought it would be nice to go for a country car-ride on a July Saturday. So they hired a white Armstrong-Siddeley 14. I suggested the Weybridge area and, on arrival there, that we go round the Track. The young chauffeur was willing, so we paid the fee – I cannot recall any form of indemnity being signed. This unsuitable car soon developed a puncture, so as instructed we drew into the Railway Straight bay and, while it was being repaired, I got out and with my vest-pocket Kodak took photographs of the cars racing past. Wonderful freedom.
Or what about the day when I persuaded a friend who owned a Cotton-Blackburne motorcycle to do more Brooklands’ lappery? We shared the five bob, but I was told I could not ride pillion – the only safety stipulation. So I had to watch. He came in saying the ’bike’s forks needed adjusting and bounced it up and down to test them, and the front wheel fell out! He could so easily have been killed. That afternoon ended when they wanted to close the Track and sent out the BARC’s yellow and black 1931 Austin 7 to patrol it. My friend thought they were having a race with him and speeded up. They came to me asking me to stop him; I said I needed to go home but he thought my signals implied that I was enjoying watching him.
Carefree indeed, but wise? I wonder whether they counted the number of cars and ’bikes at the end of the day, in case some had gone unseen into the ditch.
It was an excellent idea of Mike Hallows, Ian Patton and Bob Jones to organise a private rally for cyclecars, which they see as an endangered species, with the generous cooperation of Sir John Venables-Llewelyn and Lady Carolyn who made their Llysdinam estate available.
The event had an entry of 27 cyclecars, from an AC Sociable and the essential Bedelia and Tamplin to rare devices like a Graham-White and a CID, Twombley, Rollo, MV Bambino, and the Morgans, GNs, Bleriot-Whippet, and propeller-driven Leyat etc, plus the near-cyclecars like the Peugeot Quadrilette and two 1914 Humberettes.
The two-day frolic included a hillclimb up the Llysdinam drive and the Souvenir Programme included a full report of the first cyclecar run of 1912 from The Cyclecar, which ended with a lobster supper, repeated in the 2007 event. Colour pictures of most entrants recall previous such events which included the ascent of the public road hill at Old Wyche in 1999, etc. It is hoped to repeat this jolly in 2009.
International Alvis Day at Wimpole Hall near Cambridge is on July 7-8, when racing cars from 1923 to 1937 will be displayed. The Singer Owners’ Club and the Hillman Club will have their rallies in Coventry from July 13-15 with a gathering of these and Rootes cars in Coombe Park, Coventry, on the Sunday and parades on all three days through the town.
Full results of the 2006 sprint events at Curborough are contained in the club’s yearbook. The Secretary is David Pattison, 19 Noddington Lane, Whittington, Lichfield, Staffs, WS14 0PA. This year’s events at the popular course continue up to October 14.
The Inter-Register competitions for less active clubs in competition, which Motor Sport suggested, are the Humber Register Navigation Rally on July 15, the STD Register’s driving tests on July 29, the Crossley Register’s Treasure Hunt on September 30, the Riley Register’s Navigation Rally on October 21 and the Austin Ten Club’s Nightjar event on November 17. Details from Stephen Weld on 01765 658569.
For many years I have answered readers’ queries to the best of my ability. May I now indulge you in trying to answer one of my own? In The Wind in the Willows, Mr Toad alarms people with his fast driving in his monster motor car. Did author Kenneth Grahame base this on ownership of his own exciting car? Is there an autobiography that would perhaps answer this query?