The Cars of the Duke of Richmond and Gordon
His Grace, the Duke of Richmond and Gordon, has played a notable part in many aspects of the sporting motoring and aviation scene. His early enthusiasm for fast cars led him to Bentley Motors Ltd. in the time of the great W. O. Bentley. He won important motor-races at Brooklands, entered the Motor Trade in which capacity his company, Kevill-Davies and March Ltd., built some interesting special-bodied cars, and prior to the war he took a keen interest in private flying. When the war and his RAF service were over he won the undying gratitude of BARC members and motor-racing enthusiasts in this country by turning the abandoned service aerodrome on his Goodwood estate into one of our decidedly-better, highly-enjoyable race circuits.
These stages in the Duke’s career are known to many of us, but I was interested to discover how His Grace came to be so enamoured of motoring in the first place, and what cars he has used down the years for personal road travel. Recently he generously granted me an interview, so that I could put such questions to him.
It was intriguing to know that the Duke’s interest began while he was still at his prep school. His elder brother, five years older than himself, was a great motorcyclist and used to send to the future Lord Settrington his weekly issues of The Motor Cycle —the “blue ‘un”—which resulted in the schoolboy reading every word of this and other motor papers and becoming an incurable follower of the sport. Settrington made innumerable models of his favourite machines when at home at Goodwood. During the holidays he found himself close to Tangmere aerodrome, where he spent many very happy hours watching the Sopwith Pups and Camels, breathing in the never-forgotten aroma of burnt castor oil, and sometimes being allowed to sit in the cockpit of a training Avro.
Before he was so sadly killed on the Russian front, the brother had acquired a Grand Prix Morgan three-wheeler which was “a joy and delight” to Settrington, although he never drove it. When the boy went to Eton in 1918 he took with him a two-stroke, single-speed, outside-flywheel 2-1/4 h.p. Levis motorcycle. He was not supposed to use it, but joined the School of Mechanics, presenting the Levis as a work-subject. As it was a new machine it did not want anything done to it, so an enormous copper exhaust-pipe was fabricated for it. The result was “a very, very fine noise”, the young owner being encouraged to start it up so that it could be listened to. Later he was able to do one or two clandestine runs on it. He remembers that the flywheel used to work loose . . .
His brother, who had a good knowledge of early wireless communications, was massacred under brutal conditions in Russia, soon after the Armistice. After his death Settrington had to get a Morgan of his own. It was a Grand Prix model, with the water-cooled JAP engine. His sister had taught him to drive on a two-cylinder Swift cyclecar, the one in which the cylinders fired alternately, on private roads on the 12,000-acre Goodwood estate, after which he drove on the local roads long before he had a driving licence— in those days no-one took any notice.
The Morgan did “lots of miles, with lots of chain trouble”. Eventually J. S. Coates, Settrington’s brother-in-law, who had driven for Oxford in pre-war speed events, laid down that three-wheelers were dangerous. This made the proud owner very cross but he was somewhat appeased by the promise of financial inducement to purchase a four wheeler. The brother-in-law had been using a Singer car built for that 1914 TT race which was never run, due to the outbreak of war. This was an exciting small car, so a Singer Ten was decided on for the budding sportsman. It was a standard post-war model, quite different from the TT car, with “no performance and that terrible gearbox in the back axle”. In the end it hit the inevitable Ford baker’s van, the front axle of which folded under due to the impact, so that the Model-T knelt down as if in prayer, to the amusement of Settrington and his sister, who was his passenger at the time of the accident.
Deciding that he had had enough of indifferent small cars, the then appreciable sum of £100 was invested in a transverse-twin, shaft-drive ABC motorcycle, “such a lovely machine”. However, by now the rider had gone up to Oxford, where he was asked if he would join the OUMC. He had never heard of it, but it was explained to him that the initials stood for Oxford University Motor Club, which immediately acquired one of its keenest members! Encouraged by Tommy Lindsay, a keen member of the OUMC, Peter Kennedy and others, within a few months the ABC looked a very different machine, having been stripped of its road-equipment.
At this time Steve Bassett and one Maund were doing great work at Brooklands on very sophisticated race-tuned ABCs. Their prowess became his unattained ideal. But the fragile valve gear became too great a headache. This was around 1922, when the three undergraduates shared a shed in the City of the Dreaming spires that became quite a tuning establishment. The ABC shared this accommodation with a long-stroke Sunbeam, another ABC of Philip Child, and an overhead-valve 500 c.c. Norton of Graham Cox (later to drive in his 1931 MG team). Settrington won his class in the “Town-versus-Gown” speed-trial along Akeman Street, between Bicester and Stony Stratford, covering a flying kilometre at 64 m.p.h., of which he was very proud. But the engine-size of 398 c.c. was a handicap, so the ABC was swopped for a 350 o.h.v. AJS and “I then went quite fast”, said the Duke, who was recalling these long ago happenings without recourse to diaries or notes. Incidentally, he remarked that these public-road speed-events were by no means tame, Riddoch, for instance, riding his big Zenith at 94 m.p.h. on the indifferent surface.
Alas, all this motorcycling had had a bad effect on his attendance at lectures and when at the close of the 1924 Easter term, with the Schools examinations coming up, the Dean of Christchurch said to His Lordship “Too much of motors, not enough study”, he realised something had to be done. What he did was to approach Kensington-Moir’s brother-in-law, Peter Kennedy, who was a great friend and later his best man, asking him if there would be a job with Bentley Motors Ltd. An interview was duly arranged and Lord Settrington rode the AJS to Oxgate Lane, Cricklewood, saw both Kensington-Moir and “W.O”, and was signed on as an improver, as they did not take premium apprentices. His parents viewed this move with “abject horror” but for the future Duke it was the happiest time of his life. He was put to work in April 1924 on Dr. Benjafield’s red Brooklands Bentley and remained with Bentley’s until 1930, later being promoted to the sales-side of the business. The tale has been oft-told, but is true, of how the new mechanic was known as “Mr. Settrington” until the other workshop staff grew suspicious and asked him if he knew who the b— Lord was who was said to be among them. This hadn’t the slightest effect on the good relations His Lordship had with all these chaps and his very helpful foreman. He treasures the privilege of having become close friends with and studied under such exhilarating craftsmen.
Apart from the absolute, unadulterated joy of driving various Bentleys, three months after joining the Company an Austin 7 Chummy was obtained, and tuned at the works “which made it rather worse”. When a change of car seemed overdue, Lord Settrington talked about it to Parry Thomas. Before going to Oxford he had discovered the magic of Brooklands and used to hang about Thomas’ bungalow there. An Amilcar was mentioned and the great racing driver, who had such a car himself, said “I’ll get you one”. However, he was not really an agent and nothing happened for so long that in the end Thomas said “You’d better have mine”. It was a blue Grand Prix model, “a ghastly motor-car”, with splash lubrication which was the cause of much bearing trouble, and “non-responsive steering, like a brick”. The Duke of Richmond remembers it as giving him “a certain amount of joy, but most of it came from looking at it”. The Amilcar is also remembered for one amusing incident. Thomas lent it to Bessie Duller, the wife of George Duller, to drive at a 1923 Surbiton MC Meeting at Brooklands. It was regarded as a joke, because Mrs. Duller had not raced before and the car was expected to seize-up anyway. But she won the Junior Short Handicap in fine style at 60.37 m.p.h., from Kaye Don’s Deemster and Norris’ Morgan, to the consternation of George, who had had his money on someone else! By 1926 Lord Settrington had himself joined the BARC and was later to become a member of the Brooklands Aero Club.
This unsatisfactory Amilcar was followed by two Gordon England Austin 7 Cup Models in succession. They were great fun and it was enthusiastic driving of the second one that caused it to overturn on the Berkhamsted road on a visit to Lord Settrington’s then-fiancee. In 1927 he married and celebrated this by buying from Reggie Straker one of the first of the Riley 9 Monaco saloons, which was “such a good car”. Indeed, so good that its owner was continually telling his Chief at Bentley Motors how excellent small cars were, only to be met with a decidedly supercilious look from “W.O.” But His Lordship had two of these Rileys in quick succession, in spite of the many Bentley demonstrators he was now driving.
When the financial crash came for Bentley he joined with a friend in forming the now legendary business of Kevill-Davies and March, the subject of this interview having ascended to the title of the Earl of March. It was a bad time to begin, but by taking a first-floor office in Bruton Street and a mews garage to cut overheads the partners were able to build up a sound business. But at first it was very disheartening, as customers arrived with huge cars such as Bentleys, Hispanos and Isottas and wanted not only a new Austin Twelve or similar in part exchange, but a cheque as well! As the firm flourished the Earl of March began to take part in some mild motor racing, in short Brooklands handicaps, High Speed Trials, etc., using an M-type MG. Then in 1929 Arthur Waite took him as co-driver in an Ulster Austin in the JCC “Double-Twelve”. Charles Goodacre was their mechanic in the pits. They finished 7th in this tragic long distance race, in which two Talbots ran into the spectators, which was better than any of the other Austin 7s accomplished.
The following year March shared the “Blood Orange” supercharged Ulster Austin with S. C. H. Davis, and they achieved that magnificent victory in the BRDC 500-Mile Race, the car averaging 83.41 m.p.h., in spite of rather leisurely pit-stops, after racing for more than six hours. The little car, at a sustained 5,000 r.p.rn. on the rough Track, is recalled as a “hell of a handful” and it is amusing in retrospect that Lord Austin wrote an appreciative letter to the two drivers after the race, enclosing a cheque of £50. Present day drivers do not know how fortunate they are!
For the 1931 “Double-Twelve” the Earl of March entered his own team of the new Montlhéry or C-type MG Midgets, his company being MG agents. Chris Staniland was the Earl’s co-driver and although the race was dominated by 14 of the new 746 c.c. MGs, it was theirs that won outright, at 65.62 m.p.h. for the two rounds of the clock. March also won the Team Prize and his own car was faster than the best Riley 9 in the 1,000 c.c. class. Towards the end of the race Cecil Kimber, who had been a friend of the Earl since Oxford days, approached him and asked whether he would slow Staniland down, as they were sure of the Team award and this would spread the honours over more of the Abingdon cars. Naturally March was astonished and retorted: “If you can slow down Chris you’re a cleverer man than me”. When he was told about this afterwards, Staniland was almost speechless at the thought of any attempt being made to rob them of a great victory.
In the 1931 Light Car Club Relay Race at Brooklands, the Earl of March, Parker and Cox finished the race with their MG Midget team, at 75.18 m.p.h., but in the 500-Mile Race March’s MG failed to finish, after being plagued in practice with big-end failure. No doubt he would have entered for the 1932 JCC 1,000-mile Race, successor to the “Double-Twelve”, had some quirk of the regulations not excluded him as not sufficiently experienced!, which must have been as surprising to him as it was disappointing. However, in the outer-circuit BRDC British Empire Trophy Race March drove one of the “Dutch-clog” Austin 7s, a true works single-seater, and finished third, winning the 750 c.c. class at 92.51 m.p.h. To publicise the Wolseley Hornet, which among other cars Kevill-Davies and March were fitting with special bodies, a team was entered for the 1932 Relay Race, the drivers being the Earl of March, Beart and Raggett. They came home in 5th place, at 72.07 m.p.h. For the 1933 500 Mile Race March was in the MG Magna team but his car, shared with Wright, just failed to get home within the time-limit, by a matter of 36 sec., thus losing them the Team Prize. After this, as his children were growing up and due to parental pressure, the Earl abandoned motor-racing. However, he had another interest, having learnt to fly at Hanworth Air Park in 1929, on a DH Cirrus-Moth.
After a year he gave up flying, as not being of much practical use. But in 1935 he resumed his interest in aeroplanes, buying a Klemm Swallow with Salmson engine. This was re-engined with a more powerful radial Pobjoy. “It went off the ground like a vertical-lift machine but was dodgy to land in small fields because it floated so and had no flaps”. The Duke had his own landing field made on his Goodwood estate, between Goodwood House and the site of the subsequent motor-racing circuit. He decided to go into the world of aeroplane manufacture with E. G. Hordern, test-pilot of the Heston Aircraft Co. In 1936/37 they evolved the Hordern-Richmond Autoplane, a twin-engined two/three-seater monoplane of wooden construction with folding wings and a fixed undercarriage. The orginal plan was to use Ariel Square Four motorcycle engines and sell this aeroplane for £1,000. Mr. Snell of Pobjoy and Jack Sangster were both very enthusiastic but the designer of the engine would on no account let it be used for this purpose. This setback was met by looking through “Jane’s” for a suitable engine. The Continental flat-four seemed the thing and the Duke of Richmond, as the Earl had now become, received splendid co-operation from the makers in Detroit. Three packing cases arrived, with two engines and spares, and they were able to buy these 37 h.p. powerpacks for £115 each. However, they experienced carburetter troubles. Freddie Dixon, so expert at tuning multiple carburetters on his racing Rileys, was commissioned to try to cure it. But although he proved very good fun and spent much time intently listening to the engines being run-up, he couldn’t cure the malady. The prototype aeroplane had a top speed of 98 m.p.h., a stalling speed of 35 m.p.h. and a range of 200 miles, with these A.40 Continentals. But only one was built.
Meanwhile Kevill-Davies and March had taken over distribution of Lancia cars, which proved a very sage move. They made special March bodies on Wolseley Hornet, Hillman Minx, Riley Nine and Lancia Augusta cars and, having worked with Jack Olding on Riley sales, they did a few special ACs when he turned to that make. The bodies were made by Whittingham and Mitchell, John Charles and Co., and Arthur Mulliner of Northampton. Most of those designs were made up in model form by the craftsmen of March Models Ltd. referred to in Motor Sport some time ago. The firm now had showrooms at 28, Berkeley Street, in London’s fashionable West-End.
In the summer of 1934 the March open Lancia Augusta sold for £450. It was a handsome car, with spring-spoke steering wheel, a tonneau cover, and the spare wheel enclosed in the tail. Then they had the idea of giving the 12 h.p. o.h.c. engine just the push it needed by fitting a Centric supercharger. This turned the Augusta into “a most beautiful motor-car”. In this form Kevill-Davies and March sold it for £487 10/-. This semi-sports four-seater was based on those Le Mans Alfa Romeos with vestigial tail-fins. It would do just over 76 m.p.h., go from to 60 m.p.h. in 25 sec., and give 22 to 26 m.p.g. (there was a free-wheel), although the 1,196 c.c. engine had to haul around 16-3/4 cwt. plus the occupants.
As when he was at Bentleys, so with a business of his own, the Duke now had access to many and various cars. But he did keep his personal Augustas and when the war came found himself with the two aeroplanes and a couple of Lancia Aprilias, a saloon and a d.h. coupe. The Aprilia, he says, was “very advanced but a bundle of teething troubles, especially with the rattle from the drive-shafts of the i.r.s.” But he remembers them as very fine cars indeed. In 1937/38 the company originally formed to build the Autoplane switched to making propellers, laminated mahogany ones for trainers and a new compressed wood (Hydulignum) blade for fighting machines.
He was wholly engaged in this development at the new Hoddenham factory until 1941 when he joined the RAF. With a slight hearing defect he was not passed for general duties (flying) but served first on operations room duties and later was attached to the technical branch in which he served with the Repair and Maintenance Directorate both at home and in the USA. He was demobilised with the rank of Flight Lieut. His war-time transport in this country was provided by an Austin Eight.
When peace broke out he did not return to the motor trade, as running the Goodwood estates kept him fully occupied. He dusted off the Aprilias, motored them for a time, then bought another. After the Lancias he had one of the first Bristols, a Type 400, “a great car with poor brakes”. This was changed for a Bristol 401. He then went over to Jensen, first with the Austin-powered 541, “an awfully good car”, then with a 541R. It was in the latter that he was persuaded to try out the new Delaney-Galley safety harness, first for the front-seat passenger, then for himself. On the very first run on which he had belted himself in, a tractor turned sharp-right into a gateless field in front of the Jensen, as the Duke was driving from Goodwood to London and was somewhere near Guildford. A tremendous accident resulted, with the tractor being overturned. He is sure that the safety-harness saved his wife and himself, although he sees no reason for compulsion in the wearing of such equipment.
In 1946 Tony Gaze, then still in the RAF and whose brother was soon to be killed, alas, flying a Spitfire out of Westhampnett, as the Service airfield at Goodwood was called, said: “When are we going to have a sports-car race there?” The Duke was not at all sure of the possibilities but went home to have a look. He found the place a shambles, with timber dumps about the roads and all the litter Ministries leave behind them. But he asked Tom and Elsie Wisdom to come over, which they did in their Bentley, and while Tommy drove round the perimeter roads the Duke sat on the roof of the old Flying Control building and weighed up the thought of making them into a race circuit. He had just been asked to accept the Presidency of the JCC (soon to become the BARC) and thus had the expert advice not only of the Wisdoms but of Archie Frazer-Nash, E. C. Gordon England, etc. An experimental race-meeting was organised and at Easter the place was swamped by enormous crowds of keen spectators. A halt was sensibly called for nine months, to enable improvements to be effected. After which Goodwood became one of our best-liked circuits and the home of the re-formed BARC, with many important races held there. It lasted for 18 years, until the Duke, sadly realising that public roads were sited too close (60 feet) to Woodcote corner, which the modem sports-racing cars were approaching at some 160 m.p.h., called a halt, as he could not face the thought of a Le Mans-type disaster.
Having crashed the second Jensen through no fault of his, the Duke turned to smaller cars. He had a Singer estate-car, which “went quite quickly, although it was really a Minx”, and a Sunbeam Rapier developed from it, “quite a decent motor-car, with a useful overdrive”. After that it was back to his Morris-orientated past, if you regard the first MG Midget as an open Morris Minor (“but you didn’t say that to Kimber!”), with a series of BL 1100s. These led to a Vanden Plas 1300, which George Harriman had endowed with a GT engine and that very good automatic transmission.
Today the Duke of Richmond and Gordon has another Vanden Plas 1300 but has had to go to his friends at Downton Engineering to have it pepped up—”Like a small Bentley, one of the most fascinating little cars I ever knew”. It is supplemented by a Mini 1000 for Her Grace, the Duchess of Richmond and Gordon. As I have said, the Duke’s lifelong keenness for motoring began with motorcycles but perhaps as a boy he was to some extent influenced by the chauffeur-driven cars at Goodwood belonging to his grandfather, the Duke of Richmond, which before the first World War and immediately afterwards included Daimlers, a Studebaker Tourer, an Austin 20 Tourer and a Chenard Walcker which his motor-wise clue-less grandparent had bought personally from a salesman much to the annoyance of “Mister Brown” the chauffeur who, as typified the chauffeur of the age, regarded the cars as his own and his decisions final.—W.B.