Man versus machine
When Hitler launched his pre-war plan to dominate racing, he reckoned without the skill of some drivers
It seems to be a fact that an inferior racing car can defeat more efficient ones if driven by a top driver.
For example, consider the 1937 Donington Grand Prix when the fabulous Mercedes-Benz cars were sent here by Hitler to demonstrate Nazi might and superiority. As fully told in Eberhard Reuss’s Hitler’s Motor Racing Battles (Haynes, 2008), top drivers would have direct access to Hitler and all were very privileged. It became necessary to employ foreign citizens to cope with the very fast German cars. Advisors had appreciated that to truly impress the onlookers a race should be staged for which purpose the Auto Union racing cars were built to join the Mercedes-Benz team.
I can still clearly remember the impression the arrival and action of the German cars made, and the impressive organisation imposed, on those who had never seen motor racing of the Nazi intensity, as told in Motor Sport at the time and in The Motor Sport Book of Donington with reports of all the race meetings there with my personal impressions of the two Grands Prix won by Germany and how the drivers arrived at Croydon Airport, except Caracciola who travelled by train.
Before the 1937 Donington GP, Hitler must have been very anxious for more Nazi propaganda via his racing cars. They were horrendously impressive, with a top speed of some 170mph or more, but with the tyres and brakes of those days. Imagine them round Donington, then scarcely more than an upgraded farm road, with acute corners and a hairpin. It was of course to become a splendid circuit under Tom Wheatcroft’s enthusiastic ownership and I hope it soon emerges as a still better one for the 2010 Formula 1 race in place of Silverstone.
The Auto Unions with engines behind their drivers were difficult to control. Yet what was the outcome of this most impressive and awe-inspiring event? The Mercedes-Benz cars were entrusted to such celebrated drivers as von Brauchitsch, Rudi Caracciola, Hermann Lang and Dick Seaman.
I can still remember vividly the long cavalcade of vehicles bringing the Mercedes-Benz challenge to the Derby circuit – motor racing such as I had never seen before! In those days devoid of F1 rules about the length of lappery on different types of tyre and several refuelling pauses, etc, it was easy to follow the race and it was exciting to excess. To control slides on corners a driver would put on opposite steering-lock with his arms fully crossed, in contrast to the short applications of the steering wheels in F1, and of course the drivers drove unaided by assistance from miracle pit techniques.
At this 1937 Grand Prix Hitler must have expected Mercedes-Benz to dominate, and it must have been embarrassing for Nazi sports corps leader Adolf Huhnlein to have to inform Hitler that victory had gone to an Auto Union, with von Brauchitsch having finished second to Bernd Rosemeyer’s Auto Union which won at 82.86mph after a race of more than three hours. Caracciola was third, ahead of the two Auto Unions of Müller and Hasse, with the first British car, Raymond Mays’ 1½-litre ERA, in seventh place, three laps in arrears. I suggested naughtily that the non-German cars should have been provided with a cycle path…
In 1938, with war threatened, Hitler must have been desperate for a German result. Under the new 3-litre formula, intended as ever to reduce speeds, the cars were still fabulously quick and the rear-engined Auto Unions still difficult to control. It was Tazio Nuvolari, the then greatest driver of his time, in an A-U who defeated the political Mercedes-Benz appearance. He won at 80.49mph from Lang, with Seaman third, both a lap behind. The great skill of Nuvolari had triumphed over that of the other renowned competitors. I think I can partially explain this.
During the race the engine of Hanson’s Alta blew up and a lot of oil was left on the road. Whether Nuvolari saw another car off the track, or the oil, I do not know, but instead of using full lock he used alternate short ones each way, to persuade his eager Auto Union not to leave the road. It did not entirely work because he eventually slid off but he was able to resume immediately, whereas Brauchitsch spun. Hasse shot across the road, uprooted some fencing, missed the hut from which Mrs Craner was spectating, and his car hit the safety bank and was badly damaged. Seaman also ‘lost it’, losing much time, and Müller also, but it was Müller who continued in the lead. So it took a superior driver to win in a car that other drivers found difficult.
Conversely, there have been occasions when a leading car has lost a race by misfortune. There was much rejoicing in 1923 when Segrave in a Sunbeam was the first British driver to take victory in a British car in a Grand Prix, in this case the classic French event at Tours. He knew that Albert Divo, who was also driving for the Sunbeam team, was far ahead. But right at the end of this arduous race his mechanic, Paul Dutoit, yelled to him in French that they were going to win, because he had seen Divo’s car stationary. The cap of its fuel tank had jammed, defeating the mechanics, so the car with that once seemingly unassailable lead now had to stop on each lap for its small reserve fuel tank to be filled. Divo eventually finished second, some 20 minutes after Segrave.
I don’t suppose the Kaiser saw any political advantage when war was imminent in 1914, but top-class Napier and Rolls-Royce cars were well established so a German win would bring prestige. And in France, also hoping to sell its finest cars against other countries’ top marques, the accomplished Georges Boillot had won the French Grands Prix of 1912 and 1913 for Peugeot. With cars possessing advanced power units and the innovation of four-wheel brakes, Boillot was expected to achieve his third important victory for his country under the Formule Libre rules. But Mercedes had prepared a significant five-car team of single-overhead-camshaft cars, and in the 467-mile seven-hour race, at Lyons, Boillot was compelled to overdrive the Peugeot. With his car’s engine seriously over-stressed and his brakes worn out, he was forced to give up on the penultimate lap. Legend says he was in tears but maybe it was perspiration. The Mercedes finished 1-2-3, their drivers being Christian Lautenschlager, Louis Wagner and Otto Salzer. The other Peugeots came in fourth (Jules Goux) and seventh (Victor Rigal).
Remembering Parry Thomas
As a schoolboy my hero racing driver was J G Parry Thomas. I had not seen him race because my first Brooklands meeting was July 1927 and Thomas had been killed attempting to set a new LSR in March that year. But I knew about racing and record-breaking from reading The Autocar, Motor Sport, The Motor and The Auto.
Thomas was killed attempting to raise the Land Speed Record on Pendine Sands with the 27-litre Liberty-engined ‘Babs’, but it overturned and he was killed. I was devastated, so much so that my mother asked if I felt ill, I had gone so pale. This is how I felt, at 14, about a driver whom I had not met or even seen race.
He was undoubtedly the most successful Brooklands competitor of the 1920s. Perhaps it is time to recall this, especially as a recent excellent book implies that after Thomas’s death J E P Howey drove “a Flatiron Leyland-Thomas”. There was no such thing.
Parry Thomas was born at Wrexham in 1885, his father a curate. Thomas went to Oswestry school and City & Guilds Engineering College in London, before starting his own engineering business. Before WWI he had designed an advanced transmission system and an X-formation aero-engine. But his memorable achievement was his very advanced Leyland Eight car with torsion-bar suspension, a 7¼-litre straight-eight overhead-camshaft engine with leaf-spring valve gear and other advanced features. This was when he was Chief Engineer at Leyland Motors in Lancashire, where Reid Railton was an apprentice, who would later join Thomas as his long-standing engineer.
However, after the Armistice the Leyland Eight was thought to be too costly to be viable. The L8 chassis was priced in 1921 at £1875, £2700 as a tourer, when a Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce chassis cost £1850.
Thomas left Leyland’s, but was given some of the chassis, which he used for his aforementioned Leyland-Thomas racing cars. He took up residence in ‘The Hermitage’ at Brooklands, where gossip regarded him as a lonely recluse with a housekeeper. As I discovered later, a married couple lived there in this large wartime building, their children joining them in the holidays. For a time Reid Railton also lived there. It was here that Leyland-Thomas No 1 and a sister car for J E P Howey were built, and for long-distance racing the four- and eight-cylinder cars, and the sophisticated low-built ‘Flatirons’.
After Thomas’s death I decided to seek more details of his life. First to photograph where he was born. As I was doing so a vicar opened the door and said that as the house was of no architectural interest it must be because a famous racing driver was born there. Rather nice! When the remains of ‘Babs’ were moved to a second grave within the Pendine military bombing range I called to see the exposed wreck to ensure that it was the car. It was a Sunday but the commandant agreed to see my wife and myself and took us to the hole where part of the car could be seen. From the chain on the off-side sprocket and what I could see of the bodywork there was no doubt.
The Commandant asked why fights were occurring between his men and civilians, and I told him that some wanted to see ‘Babs’ dug up, as a tribute to the Welsh driver, others not. Before we left, one hotel had a plea for the historic car to be left alone, the other hotel a petition against this. I signed both.
Wyn Owen finally obtained approval to disinter what remained of Thomas’s fastest car, and I went to see what damage the old car had received which might have resulted in the accident. John Bolster thought a broken radius-arm was the cause but that was intact. There was a story that the wheels Thomas had intended to use had been changed for others with thinner spokes without his knowledge, which I think was Railton’s view. But a burst tyre was generally blamed.
I stayed at Pendine with others in the same hotel as Thomas had before his fatal run; none of us wanted to know which room he had occupied… It was an emotional moment when we watched the restored ‘Babs’ come down the ramp onto the sands. An American paper had sent its representative to record this emotive occasion and he asked me when my story would appear. Next month, I told him. “Oh,” he cried, “mine will not be out for months…” To Wyn Owen’s credit he made a fine job of a difficult rebuild, with some generous help. I saw one or two other occasions when Babs was exercised, including having a fast ride round Silverstone driven by Roger Collings.
My recollections of JGPT, who played mediocre tennis at Queens club and had been a member of Leyland Motors’ cricket club, include that he had donated enough money to Great Ormond Street Hospital to endow a cot there for life. The Autocar backed this, and donations poured in, from children’s postal orders to large sums from celebrities. When recently the hospital advertised for donations I responded, asking whether the ‘Babs’ cot was remembered. The answer was ‘no’ at first, but then they called to say their 1927 daybook had the details and that they would be pleased to put a ‘Babs’ plaque above one of the beds. Memories of a great track racing driver thus remain rightly vivid.