From the archives with... Doug Nye

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Memories of Sammy Davis
One of Bentley’s celebrated Le Mans winners is known for on-track heroism, but he also went to La Sarthe during WWII

Recently – in this 90th anniversary year of the Le Mans 24 Hours – I spent a sunny few days touring around the Normandy battlefields in the ex-Stanley Sears Bentley Continental.

It seemed a highly suitable grand touring car for such a purpose, as Britannic as they come; by some margin the best-furnished and fastest Grand Routier of the 1950s, and with all those decidedly superior five-times Le Mans winner vibes embodied within its extra-tall Gothic radiator shell and winged ‘B’ badge…

One morning we parked in the layby beside the scene of Canadian Major David Currie’s jaw-dropping Victoria Cross action above St Lambert-sur-Dives, when he found himself commanding the northern jaw of the Allies’ attempt to close the Falaise Pocket, and so bottle up the retreating German army. There’s a memorial on the hilltop there, from where one can gaze south over what had become the Falaise Gap, through which significant numbers of German survivors were escaping. One who was there described how from this hill the valley before us looked like a river of field-grey humanity, horse-drawn transport and mechanised units flowing eastward as the Germans fought frantically to escape Currie’s tiny force. It was a humbling experience standing there in warm, peace-time sun, a lark singing its heart out high above and cattle again grazing in fields that once hosted such mayhem.

And looking down on the Bentley, so sleek beside that arrow-straight roadway, the racer mindset of course recalled the car’s Le Mans pedigree. And where Normandy 1944 is concerned there’s another distinct link, for it was to this area that Bentley’s 1927 Le Mans-winning driver, ‘Sammy’ Davis, returned in 1944, as a soldier.

Even then, Sydney Charles Houghton Davis was no spring chicken. He had been sports editor of The Autocar and a firm friend of W O Bentley from motor-cycling experience pre-WWI. Through the 1920s, having raced AC and Aston Martin cars and as a very well-known figure within the British motor sporting establishment, he became one of the least wealthy – yet more accomplished – of the celebrated ‘Bentley Boys’.

In 1927 he and micro-biologist co-driver Dr J D Benjafield had scored their Le Mans win in their battered 3-litre team car ‘Old No 7’, which ‘Sammy’ had retrieved from the legendary White House accident that claimed two team-mates. As Motor Sport reported at the time: “The victory, in spite of its accident of the crippled 3-litre Bentley… will always remain an epic, and even if the competition was not as keen as in the past, it is a great thing to have won a race with a car damaged in the early part of the event.”

Davis had finished second at Le Mans in 1925, driving a Sunbeam, and in 1926 had crashed his Bentley ‘No 7’ in the last half-hour, while – despite fading brakes – trying to catch the leading Lorraines. He also took second place in both the Brooklands Double-Twelves of 1929 and 1930, and in that latter year won the BRDC 500-Mile race at Brooklands, co-driving an Austin Seven with ‘Freddie’ March, Goodwood scion and future Duke of Richmond & Gordon. So ‘Sammy’ was indeed a major player.

When World War II broke out he was eager to serve, joining the Royal Army Ordnance Corps (RAOC) as an engineer lieutenant. There he found such brother racers as ‘Cupid’ Hornsted of Brooklands Blitzen Benz fame and fellow Monte Carlo rally veteran (future Rootes Group competitions manager) Norman Garrad. Davis’s unit went ashore on the Normandy beaches from an American landing ship, as he related in his fascinating book A Racing Motorist (Foulis, 1949). It would appear the most important vehicle in his charge was the officers’ mess truck, furnished with deep-upholstered sofa benches alongside a centerline table and with beer on draught from a gravity barrel.

As the Falaise Pocket was developing, in August ’44, he then wangled “a pass of formidable appearance, and no legal status” and set off “with Sergeant Propert, Corporal Cooper and a mine detector” to revisit Le Mans… The detector was “to discover certain boxes of tools buried near the pits by Propert in the retreat of 1940… our ‘official’ reason for the trip if questioned”.

This intrepid trio eventually joined American armour flooding eastwards towards Alençon, then from there headed south towards Le Mans, “the liberation [of which] was the real aim and object of one’s personal war. It was seventh heaven when from the top of a familiar hill we saw again the ancient city, apparently unharmed.

“We reached the great Central Place, noted something amiss with the Café Huber, parked the car and made for the Automobile Club de l’Ouest. And still more marvellous to relate they were all there, all the familiar officials of the 24-hour race, in one welter of enthusiastic welcome. Until one dies that welcome will remain the great memory of the war. Followed celebrations, the unearthing of much good wine, the arrival of still other friends, the giant Hémery of de Dietrich fame among them… The hotels we knew from old times were intact, the de Paris, the Moderne, almost one expected a green or blue racing machine to come along, as it was in times of old.

“Then, shall we say greatly refreshed, we set out round the famous racing circuit. Down the straight to the Café de l’Hippodrome all was well, all was even better with Madame therein. Mulsanne Corner, good, the run to Les Esses too and a good broad road as before to White House turn. But the Boche had cut down most of the trees and made a Prisoner of War camp where we knew forest. Coming round White House fast on principle, we got a shock – the road had gone. In its place was a mass of craters, unexploded bombs, wreckage of hundreds of Boche aeroplanes, many stones and barely cleared runways. With difficulty we got to the grandstand.

It was a mere skeleton, those wonderful pits were gone where we had worked so hard and slept so fitfully as the 24-hour race went on. Enclosures, camping sites, all were wrecked… If we could have caught a Boche then…”.

Deploying their mine detector to find the tools: “These we found without difficulty, the earphones howling loudly on the exact spot, but – alas – the Americans putting the airfield in operation had already laid a great concrete road right on top of the boxes.

“Then we returned to the city. The genial Berthier, secretary of the club, gave us just a small idea of the damage, some £190,000 or thereabouts, and the devastation of the Brittany-Normandy area had demolished all the club’s offices and revenue. Nonetheless, we left, after much further celebration, with endless offers of hospitality when we returned; almost, in point of fact, we were given the town…”. In fact one of the great achievements of the ACO was then restoring its circuit, rebuilding its stands and pits and reviving its great race in 1949, since when they have run the Grand Prix d’Endurance without a break.

Sometimes my generation just don’t appreciate how lucky we have been. ‘Sammy’ Davis survived into ripe old age, finally losing his life in a tragic house fire in 1981, when he was 94.

Le mans Healey offered for sale at Goodwood auction
Still in highly original condition, a 60-year-old former works chassis comes under the hammer at the Festival of Speed

One of the most unspoiled and original of all Le Mans cars features in Bonhams’ Goodwood Festival of Speed Sale. It’s the Austin-Healey 100 known by its UK registration number, ‘NOJ 392’, one of Donald Healey’s original batch of four ‘Special Test Cars’ hand-built in the Warwick works, and the only one of that batch to leave the factory in its original form – never rebuilt, as were its sisters, into 100S models.

In 1953, ‘NOJ 392’ was crewed by pre-war Austin works racing driver Bert Hadley and Flt Lt Bertie Mercer of the Royal Air Force in the Mille Miglia. The car wore start-time number ‘548’ but suffered throttle-jamming problems as the linkage’s spring-loaded brass ball joints failed before Ravenna on the initial leg.

While the Special Test Cars had worn full-width windscreens and carried hoods in the Mille Miglia, for Le Mans the hoods were set aside as the works entries were fitted with stark aero screens, a mandatory bonnet strap and two Lucas supplementary driving lamps, plus a larger-capacity fuel tank shoe-horned into the tail. A side-exit competition exhaust was used, and on the Austin Motor Company test-bed that year’s Healey Le Mans engines developed 103bhp at 4600rpm.

Dutch rally star Maurice Gatsonides – the man responsible in later life for Gatso speed cameras – and racing motorcyclist Johnny Lockett co-drove ‘NOJ 392’ as start number 34 and brought it home 12th overall, and second in class. They had completed 2153 miles during the 24 hours, were timed at 118.2mph along the Mulsanne Straight and averaged a very respectable 89.59mph overall.

After this Le Mans success, ‘NOJ 392’ was adapted to match standard production road trim. In this guise it was road tested by both The Autocar and The Motor, being represented at that time as a ‘standard’ production Austin-Healey 100 (despite it being so highly tuned by contemporary standards). In modern times, Trading Standards might have noticed…

Acceleration from 0-60mph was timed at 10.3sec, standing-start quarter-mile 17.5sec and top speed runs at as much as 119mph. ‘NOJ 392’ then entered a third phase of factory use, from mid-1954 becoming a development vehicle testing a special hand-made set of Girling disc brakes, in place of its original drums. The discs differed distinctively from the rival Dunlop equipment later standardised upon the production
Austin-Healey 100S, and were the first disc-type to be fitted to an Austin-Healey.

During its protracted factory career, old ‘NOJ 392’ is thought to have been used by Donald Healey’s son Geoffrey and new wife Margot as their European honeymoon car, and then served for several years as the company car of Donald Healey’s longest-serving employee Roger Menadue.

After a string of British private owners, in 1993 ‘NOJ 392’ was acquired by Warwick and Cameron Sell of Winmalee, New South Wales and was then painstakingly – and most sympathetically – restored by The Healey Factory (of Melbourne, Australia). At the beginning of restoration the car already retained all of its original panels and mechanicals, including the original gearbox with overdrive. Rob Roland, proprietor of The Healey Factory has been quoted thus: “It had not been previously restored and was in amazingly original condition.” Most vitally the old warhorse had, and retains, not only its original and unique very early chassis, but also a large number of other original components.

Even extra-large holes found beneath the boot lining and fuel tank were believed to have been drilled during fitting of the larger fuel tank adopted for Le Mans in 1953. Sadly, at some time during subsequent British ownership the car was artificially patinated with painted-on oil streaks, exhaust soot and road film. Its wheel spinners were replaced by originals with peeling chrome (these being spares that had accompanied the car in Australia), and the exterior chrome-work and paintwork was also over-sprayed with dull lacquer to represent ageing. I am not a fan of false patina, and together with roughing-up of the cockpit upholstery this sticks in my mind as a particularly clumsy and wrong-headed example – now happily all corrected.

But as a genuine Le Mans and Mille Miglia car, a supremely important Special Test Austin-Healey and as the works road test car immortalised for posterity in magazines, old ‘NOJ 392’ is very special. It has retained all its major components to this day. It has never been substantially crashed, damaged, neglected, modified or abused. And that’s not bad for starters.

Of course, there was a downside, but this afflicted not the car, but the works team’s Le Mans pit crew 60 years ago. Geoff Healey told the story like this: “A combination of French food and Napoleonic sanitation [struck] a crippling blow. All the mechanics were laid low with a severe gastric complaint. Our small supply of Dr J Collis Browne’s Cholorodyne helped, but was soon exhausted. The mechanics were then fed on animal charcoal on some quack’s advice. A few were able to work intermittently and nobly carried the burden of work. A further supply of Collis Brown saved the day and a willing but weakened crew was ready. Fortunately the local eating place was small, and the drivers, having more time, ate somewhere else…”

Oh my – that stirs some murky memories of what my old friend Geoffrey Goddard always decried as “eating foreign muck”. At Le Mans in years gone by, it wasn’t only motor racing that was dangerous.

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