V to C: More about The Mechanics

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Last August I attempted to pay tribute to those courageous people, the riding mechanics in motor races, who disappeared from the Grand Prix scene after 1924. It is excellent that mechanics still play a vital role in F1 racing, both in the racing-car factories, and in the pits where they are able to change all four wheels of a car in less than eight seconds.  However, they no longer ride beside the drivers and thus have no full and intimate experience of a race, as their forerunners.  The exploits of those men in earlier times is far from exhausted and I beg leave to return to some of them.

One of the more satisfying rides a mechanic could have had was surely that of Alec Hounslow, when he was appointed by his employers, the MG Car Co. Ltd., to go with Tazio  Nuvolari in the MG K3 Magnette in which they won the 1933 Ulster TT by a narrow margin. Alec could speak no Italian, Tazio no English. Nevertheless, they co-operated splendidly, Nuvolari being permitted to drive his own race, merely being given his position from the pits. It is remarkable that they had not practised the single pit-stop. Yet when the MG came in, exactly positioned, after Hounslow had indicated to Nuvolari that it was time to change the wheels, they made no blunders. When Nuvolari saw “Hammy” open the snap action fuel filler as he was on his way to grab the jack he took on the task of replenishment, putting 18 gallons of fuel from churns and two gallons of oil into the MG, never spilling a drop of lubricant as the car rolled forward on being pushed off the jack.  After which driver and mechanic changed one front wheel each, for which two jacks were used, handing the hammer for the knock off hub nuts from one to the other methodically. A bite to eat and drink, Ham ran round checking all the hub nuts, and they were away in 3 min 9 sec.

That TT was a close run thing, for although Hugh Hamilton’s mechanic (unnamed) in the MG J4 Midget, with its easier handicap, has been denigrated for muffing their pit stop, spilling the fuel and setting himself alight, when “shorting” the recalcitrant starter motor into action, they were just ahead as the furious final lap came up, but had to stop again to fling in some more petrol. Nuvolari, driving to the limit, won by a mere 40 seconds, the reserve fuel tank almost dry at the finish…

It must have been quite a ride for Alec Hounslow, what with Nuvolari breaking the class lap record for the Ards course seven times, taking splinters out of a telegraph pole with a rear hub cap, getting perilously close to a kerb on another occasion, which caused him to wag his head in self admonition, and signalling to “Hammy” to tuck himself down under the scuttle, as Nuvolari lowered his aero screen flat for the last hectic lap to win at a speed not bettered until 1951, apart from the gyrations and an excursion up an escape road in practice, before the great little Italian discovered how to operate a pre selector gear pedal!

A different way in which a mechanic helped his driver occurred during the 1931 Ulster TT. It happened after Earl Howe had run out of road at Bradshaw’s Brae, when chasing Campari. His 2.3-litre Alfa Romeo went through a hedge and fell some feet into a potato field. After a brief pause Howe restarted the engine and drove across the furrows, having seen a gate through which he could regain the course. He is said to have leapt out to open it but I suggest that it is far more likely that the Earl’s faithful mechanic, Thomas, performed this chore, although probably not having time for a deferential touch of his helmet while calling, “This way, if you please, My Lord” .  I doubt, too, whether they observed the countryside code of closing the gate behind them, although legend has it that, as he accelerated away, Howe apologised to the farmer whose field he had ploughed up…  Alas, back at the pits, the car was retired with a broken brake rod bracket.

Thomas was more than a riding mechanic. He worked on Howe’s racing cars and when His Lordship drove in the successful MG Magnette team in the 1933 Mille Miglia, he was entered with Penn-Hughes, as a competitor in Howe’s 38/250 Mercedes-Benz, that car acting as the MG team’s back-up vehicle, laden with luggage and spares. Someone once told me a rather nice anecdote about a time when Thomas was going to a Continental race with Howe and His Lordship stopped the Mercedes-Benz at an hotel. As he went in Thomas busied himself checking the car over, intending later to grab a sandwich at the bar, but it was not long before a waiter appeared, saying “the gentleman with you says will you be long, as the soup is getting cold?” So Howe and Thomas ate together, and probably spent most of the time talking about motor cars.

Yet another way in which riding mechanics have assisted their drivers has been extracting them after accidents. As for instance, when the prompt action of the mechanic, G.B. Long, saved Kaye Don after his 1-1/2-litre Alfa Romeo had overturned in the rain after Ballystockhart during the 1930 Ulster TT, and caught fire. As a result, Don got away with a fractured rib and a dislocated shoulder, instead of being burnt to death. No doubt he thanked Long but, in reverse, one wonders what Dixon’s riding mechanic said to Freddie while their Riley was flying through the air after going over a hedge at Quarry Corner in the 1932 TT, ending up in a cabbage patch?  Or Richez’s mechanic, when he had to help lift the Renault back onto its wheels after the driver had tipped it up at the sharp left hand bend at Londinieres on the Dieppe circuit, in the course of the 1907 French Grand Prix?

If any were needed, another reminder that acting as a riding mechanic in the early days was no sinecure is providing by the three hours it took Le Blon and his luckless mechanic to repair a wire wheel buckled when the driver ran off the Vibraye by-pass of the 1906 Le Mans circuit during that year’s French GP, the repair involving refitting 20 spokes taken from the Hotchkisses of his two team mates, working in the sub-tropical heat of the Sarthe valley on that long ago June day, heat which was to try other mechanics sorely, as they grappled with innumerable tyre failures.

Paul Dutoit, met recently in the article on Dunlop’s tyre testing, suggested that a riding mechanic could help a driver by conversing with him at some points in a race and I expect S.C H Davis and Head, his office colleague at The Autocar, (Casque and Caput), used to have happy, if shouted, conversations while they were engaged in the long distance sportscar races of the vintage years. Those were the days of the illustrious “Bentley Boys”, when it was thought socially advantageous to ride beside them, as the debutantes and fashionable flappers did with Woolf Barnato, up the drive of his Sussex mansion “Ardenrun”, near Lingfteld. Major Humphrey Butler, Equerry to HRH the Prince of Wales, who had finished third in his 4-1/2 litre Bentley in the one make race for these cars at Brooklands the year before, went as riding mechanic to Sir Henry Birkin in the Alfa Romeo in the 1931 TT.  According to Tim Birkin ”he discharged his duties with the assurance of an expert”  but he had an uncomfortable time after a pit stop, when he spilled a lot of benzol onto his overalls, suffering the sting like iodine that such fuel inflicts on the human skin for nearly three hours of the race that remained. They finished 5th, and 2nd in class, behind Earl Howe’s similar Alfa Romeo.

W.O. Bentley himself had ridden as mechanic to Birkin in the 1929 TT, oddly enough in a blower 4-1/2 Bentley as he greatly disliked these supercharged versions of his own design.  Apparently Birkin had suggested the ride as a joke, his regular mechanic, Chevrollier, being unavailable following the severe burns he suffered when Birkin’s Bentley caught fire while being refuelled during that year’s JCC “Double Twelve” at Brooklands, an accident accentuated because the mechanic, dazed as we have described, after the long spell in the car at racing speeds, walked towards the pit counter on which open churns of fuel were stacked, with his overalls well alight…  To Tim’s surprise, W.O. said he thought it a good idea, demurred when it was pointed out to him that his life insurance policy did not cover motor racing, but agreed after that had been sorted out. Birkin says that although W.O. was not well, he practised fastidiously for the task ahead of him. W.O. said he thought the Bentley riding mechanics were beginning to regard themselves as heroes, which is why he took on the job. But after the race, in which Birkin hit the roadside banks hard on at least four occasions, W.O. realised that it was dangerous and that the regular mechanics were right! He wore Bentley overalls with his name on the pocket but a back to front cap, instead of a crash helmet like his driver. The exhaust manifold began to blow and the oranges they had taken to suck became too hot to eat. However, they came home winner of the class, 11th overall, at 69.01 mph, (only Caracciola’s winning Mercedes-Benz went faster) their race lasting for nearly six hours. It must, inspite of the hardships, have been a great experience for Walter Bentley, going in one of his own sportscars, through a classic race, beside a top class driver.

But W.O. never went as a mechanic again…   A wise decision, as Birkin had his only crash in the next ‘TT, although he and his mechanic Whitlock were uninjured, after the Bentley had gone into a stone wall.

In shorter races and runs passengers often went in the racing cars for the fun of it, as for example with Eldridge in the giant aero engined Fiat at some 147 mph at Arpajon in 1924 and at Brooklands in 1925, when I am told, Dudley Froy occupied the “hot-seat” in the Match Race against Parry Thomas. But it wasn’t always fun, as poor “Pop” Cory, the actor, discovered. He had been persuaded into the cockpit of the Wolseley Viper for a race at Brooklands, by Sir Alastair Miller, when Kaye Don was to drive the ungainly 11-litre monster. I suspect that they were trying to get Cory to buy the car, or take a share in it.  Anyway, in he got, and all went well until Don found he was going far too quickly at the end of the Finishing straight. In applying the outside hand brake he inadvertently knocked the adjacent gear lever into neutral, and was unable, in the confusion, to get it back into gear, so that he lost the retarding effect of the big engine.  Don then took drastic action, rubbing the Viper along the earth bank below and just beyond the Test Hill, which served to stop the old car, at the expense of tearing away its oil pump: Cory was flung forward onto one of the prominent scuttle cowls and came in with blood streaming from his nose.

This exciting happening does remind us of how fast the bigger cars were going at the end of a race up the straight, even as long ago as 1922, and of how inadequate their brakes could be! 

Reverting to ways in which mechanics have assisted their drivers, in the last piece on this subject I referred to the story that Ralph DePalma wanted his mechanic, who was his nephew, Peter DePaolo, to do the gear changing for him during the 1921 French Grand Prix but that Ernest Ballot would have no such nonsense and insisted that the gear lever be returned to the right hand side of the cockpit. True or false, I would not like to say. But this actually happened after Pietro Bordino broke his left arm and wrist while practising for the 1923 Italian Grand Prix. He started the race with that arm in plaster, so his mechanic changed gear for him. Their Fiat led, until the effort of driving the car with one hand, especially after a tyre burst, caused fatigue and eventual retirement. Bordino had averaged 94.3 mph, to half distance, a matter of nearly 248 miles, and did not retire for some way after that. It is interesting that as his mechanic had to undertake all the pit-work, while his driver received medical attention, the stop took just over two minutes longer than the average time of those by Narraro and Salamano, who were able to help their mechanics: Salamano went on to win at 91.08 mph but the one armed Bordino set fastest lap, at 99.8 mph. Incidentally, Fiat seems to have been using poor steel that year, because Bordino’s practice crash, in which his mechanic Giaccone was killed, was caused by a stub-axle snapping off and the three Fiats that ran in the French Grand Prix the previous year had weak back-axle shafts, the breaking of which killed Biagio Narraro, Felice’s nephew, and eliminated Bordino, and this weakness was found on Felice Nazzaro’s winning Fiat after he had won the race.

Yet, important as these mechanics were to motor racing from the earliest days to the mid-vintage period, they received scarcely any of the acclaim accorded to the drivers. We know that Szisz had Marteau as his riding companion when he won the 1906 two day Grand Prix for Renault, that Meckle was mechanic to Lautenschlager when Mercedes won the 1908 French GP, Prevost for the great Georges Boillot when he scored the second victory for Peugeot in this race, in 1913, and Sieger for Lautenschlager when he repeated the Mercedes success in 1914, and that Bertram Marshall had H.W. Papworth, the Bugatti expert, with him when they won the 1925 GP de Boulogne.

Ernst Zim used to be Chiron’s regular riding mechanic. He was apprenticed to the Bugatti factory at Molsheim at the age of 14 and two years later had his first taste of racing, when he went with Baccoli in the 1921 Brescia race. He was Mones-Maury’s mechanic in the 1922 French GP, rode with Marco in the 1923 GP, and with Garnier in the 1924 GP at Lyons, and then was mechanic for Pierre de Vizcaya in the Targa Florio. With this intensive experience of Bugattis he was the ideal man to link up with Chiron after he had completed his military service, but first he went with Dubonnet in the 1927 Targa Florio. He joined Chiron in 1928, going with him first through that year’s Targa Florio and then in most of his races, even as far afield as Czechoslovakia. The Algerian driver Marcel Lehoux had Emile Bidon as his mechanic, having, it is said, been impressed with the efficient way in which that man had worked on a car in the Morocco Rally, so that he took him in the Bugatti in the Morocco GP, Bidon ‘s first experience of racing. Although Lehoux was not sparing in his criticism if the car he was driving gave trouble, and not very complimentary when they won, nevertheless, Bidon remained his usual mechanic.

However, little notice was taken of these brave men, and even historians seldom come across references to them. Yet they gave their lives for racing, along with the drivers, Schaube being killed with Cissac in the 1908 GP when the Panhard-Levassor crashed, Bessagrana when Colinet’s Gregoire went off the road in the 1912 race, while Marinioni had a close call when Sivocci was killed in a P1 Alfa Romeo at Monza in practice.

Of drivers who rode first as mechanics, we can add to those I referred to previously. De Paolo went with Count Masetti on the Ballot in the 1922 French GP and Delalandre, who had acted as riding mechanic to Albert Guyot in the Rolland-Pilian that won a race at San Sebastian in 1923, drove one of these cars himself in that year’s GP de Europe. We know that Ernest Olson accompanied Jimmy Murphy in the 1921 GP-winning Duesenberg, and that Paul Dutoit rode with Segrave when he won that race for Sunbeam in 1923.  Of Dutoit, Segrave wrote that “I will not hesitate to say that he is one of the best mechanics I have ever seen. His repair work, filling up and so forth, was perfectly wonderful. Together we used to practise wheel changes for hours on end, carefully taking our times and devising ways and means whereby we could save a second here and a second there…”  Otherwise the heroic riding mechanics, who were banned after 1924, got little recognition. Yet they were as brave and as dedicated as anyone in motor racing and most certainly should not be forgotten. — W.B.