Chatting with Cholmondeley Tapper

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The Editor meets a well-known pre-war racing driver

I was delighted when I met Mr. T.P. Cholmondeley Tapper, whom I had so often seen driving in pre-war motor races, at last summer’s Brooklands Reunion. The other day I drove from Wales to his home in Oxfordshire to have a further talk with him.

Before the war the British racing motorist was a pretty insular person, racing mainly at Brooklands and later at the Donington Park road circuit. Very few drivers went from this country to race abroad. Whitney Straight became a professional in this respect, followed by his friend Dick Seaman, but Cholmondeley Tapper did this, as an amateur driver, before others had discovered the pleasures of motor racing on the Continent, against the great aces of those times. Cholmondeley Tapper lived as a boy in Christchurch, New Zealand, and his first motor vehicle, bought for £3, was an aged flat-twin Douglas motorcycle, with the big exposed flywheel. It must have been a very early model, as it had automatic inlet valves; but Cholmondeley Tapper enjoyed riding it, sharing it with his dog “Digger”, before he was old enough to have a driving licence.

He was sent to England to continue his education at Jesus College, Cambridge, but as there was a two-year waiting period, he went before that to Grenoble University, and while in France became avidly keen on skiing, a sport in which he became very proficient, becoming a rnember of the University Ski Team and eventually, a member of the British Ski Team, representing Great Britain in the Olympic Games. Back in England, some Cambridge friends took him to Brooklands, in 1931, and Cholmondeley Tapper became convinced that this was another sport he would enjoy. He therefore set about finding a suitable racing car for a beginner to the game. After a visit to Isleworth to inspect the Frazer Nash, Cholmondeley Tapper decided his finances would not stretch further than a second-hand Bugatti, and following a hair-raising demonstration run by Jack Bartlett of Pembridge Villas in London, he purchased a 1926 Type 37 for £150. In this he managed, with some discomfort to carry three people, having equipped it for touring, and it was used, in fact, for a run to Scotland in pursuit of some more skiing.

However, competition motoring was the real aim, and the Bugatti was duly entered for the Cambridge University Automobile Club speed trials at Kimbolton. The bottom gear was too high for a smart getaway, but nevertheless Cholmondeley Tapper scored a 2nd place. He liked the Bugatti, which was a good car on which to start a self-imposed apprenticeship to speed events and the following one in which he entered was the Shelsley Walsh hill-climb. As before, the bottom gear was too high and a time of 60.4s just failed to quality the driver for a second ascent of the famous gradient.

Thus encouraged, Cholmondeley Tapper took the Bugatti in hand, having the engine converted to full pressure lubrication, lighter and stronger con-rods, compression ratio raised to 7 to 1, with lighter pistons and reinforced gudgeon-pins fitted. Using a 60/40 petrol/benzole mixture acceleration was improved. The Bugatti was repainted in glossy white cellulose and entered for the Guy’s Gala charity meeting at Brooklands. That was in July, 1932, before the then Duke and Duchess of York, who became King George VI and Queen Elizabeth. On the mountain circuit the car did quite well, but on the outer circuit the steering was odd until the wheels had been balanced. But the car was notably reliable, undoubtedly because Cholmondeley Tapper set a limit of 4,500 rpm.

He was taken with motor racing and entered for the BARC August Meeting, in which the Bugatti was 3rd, in a Mountain Handicap, behind Delaney’s supercharged Lea-Francis (which had started with Cholmondeley Tapper’s Bugatti and took some time to overtake) and Raymond Mays’s fast 4-1/2 litre low-chassis Invicta. Then at Shelsley Walsh that year the Bugatti managed an ascent in 55.6s., in spite of the too-high gear ratios and a bout of misfiring. It had been driven to the hill and stripped in the orchard paddock.

Cholmondeley Tapper was still at Cambridge when Donington Park was opened as a new race-circuit in 1933. He still had the Bugatti and entered it for the first meeting, taking as his passenger (they were  compulsory) his close friend and fellow undergraduate, Peter Churchill who, as Captain Churchill in the war that was soon to follow, organised resistance work in France and was to marry Odette, the celebrated fellow-agent, after she had endured a long spell of imprisonment and torture. However, to revert to that exciting day at the newly-opened Donington Park circuit, the Bugatti, having no starter, had to be hand-cranked by Peter on the fall of the flag, yet it finished second to H. J. Aldington’s Frazer Nash, and ahead of Powys-Lybbe’s Alvis, although the Bugatti was again misfiring. In the short practice allowed before Cholmondeley Tapper’s second race that day oil-pressure dropped and although he came in and removed the oil-pump in the hope of finding a cure, the drive had sheared and he had to tow the car back to Cambridge. A piece of rag was found to have been left in the engine and this had cut off the oil feed to the pump gears. That decided Cholmondeley Tapper in future to prepare the car himself, instead of sending it to an expensive expert. To overcome the misfiring he fitted a Scintilla Vertex magneto, driven from the back of the camshaft. In this form the car ran at the next Brooklands’ Meeting, making up most of its handicap on Thompson’s single-seater A7, to gain 2nd place in a June Mountain race, and at the Bugatti OC’s Chalfont hill-climb over a very loose-surfaced course Cholmondeley Tapper made ftd in 38s.

The Type 37 was now in very good form and at the 1933 BARC August Meeting Cholmondeley Tapper won the Byfleet Senior Mountain Handicap by 200 yards from Eccles’s Frazer Nash, having taken the lead on the fourth lap, averaging 63.44 mph and doing his best lap at 66.02 mph. At Donington, the last race engagement for 1933, the Bugatti was towed on a bar to the course and its owner put in plenty of practice and also walked round the course, a plan he was to adopt ever afterwards. The race was run over a wet surface, and Cholmondeley Tapper had one almighty skid which all but ended up against a tree, and the engine was again misfiring, but he came home third, behind Appleton’s much more highly-tuned Bugatti and Eccles in an also very “hot” Frazer Nash.

Before another season started there was a skiing holiday with a fellow racing driver, Charlie Martin, to Davos, and a complete rebuilding of the Bugatti, together with a fresh coat of its white paint. Cholmondeley Tapper enjoyed cornering more than driving in outer-circuit races, so he entered for a Mountain Handicap at the Easter Brooklands Meeting of 1934. Although the Bugatti was not running as properly as it should have been following its winter strip-down, he managed to out-distance the field by a large margin but was disqualified for jumping the start owing to confused signalling from Mr. Ebblewhite, the starter. It was about at this time that the larger-than-life character, Alvin “Spike” Rhiando, as I well remember, was promoting car dirt-track racing at Greenford and the Bugatti was entered, although as a new set of pistons was being run in and Cholmondeley Tapper had to content himself with a maximum of 3,000 rpm. Nevertheless, he managed second place in a heat and won the Final by a lap over Hodge’s Singer.  But Cholmondeley Tapper found this sort of racing dull and although much prize money had been mentioned, not much of it materalized!

So it was back to Donington Park, where the Bugatti won its first race at 56.3 mph over the improved course and then took second place in the exciting handicapped Final, setting the lap-record at 63.76 mph, 6.2s quicker than the previous figure to the credit of Lindsay Eccles’s full G.P. 2.3 supercharged Bugatti. Then it was to Brooklands again for the Whit Monday races and the Fourth Merrow Mountain Handicap, but after his last two laps both at 65.41 mph he was called before the Stewards, fined a “fiver”, and disqualified for the remainder of the season. To this day Cholmondeley Tapper refuses to criticise the decision or make any comment on the imputed dangerous driving, except to say that Dr. Beaver, whose 30/98 Vauxhall he was supposed to have inconvenienced at the Members’ banking turn, reported that there had been plenty of room and Kaye Don thought there was little need for the penalty. Had this not happened, Cholmondeley Tapper would have been second to Everett’s new Q-type MG, which had started four seconds after him, lapping at 69.97 mph, a new Class H lap record. Incidentally, the Bugatti had been entered by blonde Eileen Ellison, whose brother was at Cambridge with Cholmondeley Tapper. Her boy-friend had been killed flying in the R.A.F. and seeking an outlet she had teamed up to share the Bugatti. The previous year, in the Brooklands’ Cobham Junior Short Handicap she had lapped the outer circuit in it at 94.86 mph, to finish second to Esson-Scott’s 2-litre Bugatti. This bears out the top speed of 103 mph that the Bugatti had done when Cholmondeley Tapper had been testing it, after posting friends to police the area, on the then-deserted stretch of road near Cambridge behind the Gogs golf course. The Bugatti was then run again at the BOC Chalfont hill-climb, where it made fastest time by a non-supercharged 1-1/2-litre car, in 25.7s.

On the aforesaid skiing holiday Cholmondeley Tapper and Martin had met Christian Kautz, who had been at Cambridge and was, like them, committed to motor racing, and who had told of the Kesselberg hill climb in Germany. To this the Bugatli was now taken, Cholmondeley Tapper and Eileen Ellison towing it across Europe behind their £15 Lancia Lambda tourer, vintage even then, an adventurous journey in those days, even without towing a racing car. The old Lancia was used for practice, but only just made the climb and once at the top Cholmondeley Tapper was so intrigued by the entry and meeting famous Continental drivers, about which his conversation is so interesting, that he scratched from the event in favour of using his Leica on this scene, unique to visitors from Britain. The entry included two two-stroke Zollers and the Auto Union with which Stuck made ftd, Balestrero (Alfa Romeo) winning the sports car category.

Before Cholmondeley Tapper left England, Col. Sorel had given him a letter of introduction to Ettore Bugatti in Molsheim, so the journey was resumed to that shrine of every true enthusiast. The letter was not required. Mon. Paul took them round the factory, Jean Bugatti gave Cholmondeley Tapper a hair-raising run in a 4.9, they were able to see the latest 2.8-litre racing Bugatti (developed into the famous 3.3) and the camera was aimed at many things which would now fascinate greatly the BOC, such as Ettore’s old father walking his dog, bound for his morning drink at the Hotel de la Gare. Back in England Cholmondeley Tapper ran in two more Donington races, finishing 3rd in both of them, but his heart was now in Continental participation and not really in these short events, which someone I know once likened to racing round a field, in comparison with real motor racing.

Cholmondeley Tapper therefore entered for the 7-1/2-mile German Mountain Grand Prix at Freiburg im Breisgau. Arrived there, his competitors were seen to comprise such drivers as Delius, Wimmer and Tüssling (Zollers), Schellenberg, Borgmann, Simons and Sojka (Bugattis), Kessler, Malaguti, Umboldi and Count Castelbarco (Maseratis), the last-named being son-in-law of Toscanini — a strange world, but one with which Cholmondeley Tapper was to become very familiar. On the day, the Bugatti skidded off at one of the corners, but was 6th in its class, which was won by Castlebarco. Stuck made ftd for Auto-Union, in spite of the presence of Caracciola for Mercedes-Benz.

After this it was on to Berne for the Prix de Berne. Again the Lancia was used for practice and Cholmondeley Tapper also walked the course. Earl Howe’s Delage and 3 litre Maserati were in charge of Thomas, and Cholmondeley Tapper was to meet Veyron and Dreyfus with their Bugattis, looked after by Usines Bugatti’s cheerful Robert Aümaitre, with whom Cholmondeley Tapper was to become very friendly and who now helped him with his own Bugatti. The race was won by Seaman in the MG, Cholmondeley Tapper coming in 8th after fuel-feed problems had delayed his start and he had mistakenly eased upon the last lap. But he enjoyed the race enormously. The Swiss Grand Prix proper followed, won by Stuck’s Auto Union. At the prize-giving Cholmondeley Tapper sat opposite Nuvolari and his very beautiful wife.

Perhaps after this baptism in European racing Donington was something of an anti-climax, but at least Cholmondeley Tapper’s engagement there was a long race, the 1934 Nuffield Trophy. But being the only unsupercharged car, the Type 37 was out-classed, coming in 5th, the race won by Mays’s ERA. Incidentally, the Bugatti had been rigged up with a cool drink for its driver in a thermos flask with rubber tube, but while imbibing Cholmondeley Tapper hit a straw bale at Starkey’s Corner.  It was obvious that the time had come to convert the Type 37 into a blown Type 37A. Cholmondeley Tapper wrote to Molsheim about the necessary parts and was quoted the equivalent of £400. But down at Brooklands he found what he needed at Kirton’s premises and by handing over the old, now unwanted parts, did the conversion for £30, with no labour charges, as he did the work himself over two months. They even exchanged bonnets, because the 37A has a vent opposite the blow-off valve on the induction manifold. The body was resprayed blue, and as the Lancia was getting long in the tooth, a Type 40 Bugatti was substituted as the tow-car, with the racer and a heavy load of spares on its trailer.

During the winter there had been the Syston speed trials, in which Cholmondeley Tapper drove one of the new 4-litre Lagonda Rapides, as there were plans for the makers to enter him for the Mille Miglia in one, a plan that never went any further, regarded as just as well as the big Lagonda was heavy and lacking in real performance and manoeuvreability. Cholmondeley Tapper also entered for a 1935 Brooklands Mountain race driving Sidney Smith’s 37A (best lap 64.8 mph). His own Bugatti, now a 37A, started up at first attempt and sounded excellent, but at high revs blew out oil, and the Type 40 was too heavily handicapped to do much good. In May 1935 the 37A was taken to Donington and although the loss of oil was serious, out of three races Cholmondeley Tapper got a 2nd and a 3rd. The problem was apparently that the blown engine was building up more pressure in the crankcase than had the engine in unblown form, so that the single breather combined with the oil-filler could not cope, a 37A needing four small breathers as fitted by the factory (I believe the straight-eight Type 35B has but two, one on either side of the crankcase. Perhaps Hugh Conway would like to comment?)

This oil-loss persisted throughout Cholmondeley Tapper’s Continental racing of 1935 in spite of fitting an oil trap in the breather: a pity as the blower had put up top speed to around 113 mph and acceleration was much better. However, the Type 40 was loaded with camping equipment and the two friends who were accompanying Cholmondeley Tapper on the trip, which was to embrace the Frontières GP., the Eifelrennen and races in Lorraine and Albi, ending with the Grossglockner and Freiburg hill-climbs. Unfortunately the Type 37A failed to finish any of its races and the Type 40 failed to drag the trailer up some of the mountains encountered, but this does not give a proper idea of the fun the crew had, nor of the many famous drivers whom Cholmondeley Tapper got to know very well indeed; alas, lack of space prevents me frorn covering then splendid memories he has of that long motor racing tour. In the Lorraine G.P. he drove his friend Smith’s Bugatti and in spite of failing brakes that put him into some straw bales, the engine then taking a long time to restart, Cholmondeley Tapper was second and 11th overall. Veyron, who finished first in the 1,500 cc class saw Cholmondeley Tapper off the road and wagged an admonitory finger as he passed, unaware of Cholmondeley Tapper’s brake problem, but at the finish they were separated by only eleven kilometres. Then dined together after the race, the amusing Molsheim racing mechanic Robert Aümaitre among them.

The very long haul to Albi was done in two exhausting days. In the two heats the Bugatti’s frequent stops for more oil made any sort of good showing impossible. Nevertheless, they pressed on afterwards to the Grossglockner Pass, back across France, and through Switzerland, Lichtenstein and Austria, an Austro-Daimler taxi having to haul the Type 40 and trailer up the Arlberg, with the Bugatti helping the taxi on the steeper parts, the Type 37A following under its own power. Watched by some 100,000 spectators, Tadini’s Scudena Ferrari Alfa Romeo made best time up the 12-1/2 mile course with its 50 hairpin bends, and again Cholmondeley Tapper met many interesting drivers with their cars, including Zanelli and the 3 litre straight-eight Nacional Pescara, of which he has some fine photographs. The Type 40 had been entered in the appropriate sports-car class but disgraced itself when the Autovac repeatedly ran dry.

Cholmondeley Tapper’s next race was the Prix de Berne but by now the big ends in the Bugatti were showing signs of wear, so en route a call was made to Usines Bugatti at Molsheim, with the intention of buying spares. Here ChoImondeley Tapper was surprised to learn that Ettore, who arrived on a bicycle, wearing a bowler hat, knew all about his racing and offered to rebuild the 37A into a virtually new car. Day and night work ensured that the rebuilt car was ready two days before the race, and an elated owner drove it, unlicensed, to Berne, using the trailer only to get past customs’ posts, in order to run in the new engine. Unfortunately there was insufficient time to adjust the carburation to the racing fuel and Cholmondeley Tapper was 10th, with only Kenneth Evans’ MG and Prince Leiningen’s ERA behind him. Seaman had won from Bira, both in ERAs, with Howe’s Delage 3rd. It was then on to Freiburg, where Seaman won the 1-1/2-litre class from Mays and the Bugatti was 4th. The racing motorcyclist Fergus Anderson, who was reporting the climb, wrote that the “not very fast car had been driven, in the words of a great expert, by a top-flight driver”…

No more racing was envisaged in 1935, but good starting money and expenses offered to drivers in the S. African G.P. at East London, won in 1934 by Seaman’s 3 litre Maserati, proved too tempting, and Miss Ellison was nominated to drive the 37A, Cholmondeley Tapper having been offered the ex-Scuderia Ferrari Monza Alfa Romeo belonging to Austin Dobson, as he and his brother, Arthur, were going to take out their two Maseratis and a new racing Riley. Another attraction of the trip was the long sea voyage aboard the Warwick Castle, in company with Pat Fairfield who was to drive his ERA and Earl Howe who was taking his 3.3 litre Type 59 Bugatti, Cholmondeley Tapper sharing a cabin with Aümaitre, who was going to look after Wimille’s Usines Bugatti Type 59.  American cars were provided in which the drivers could see the sights; Wimille arrived in a very old Farman aeroplane and Shuttleworth flew out by Imperial Airways. The race was marred by the death of a Zulu woman who had tried to cross the course and by the horrific accident to Shuttleworth with his monoposto Alfa Romeo. The New Year’s Day event was won by the local driver, Dr. Massacuratti’s 2.3 Bugatti, from Wimille and Fairfield.

Cholmondeley Tapper had cut his hand in a fall before the start and drove the Dobson Alfa in some pain, hampered too by mis-firing and losing much time when the ignition switch wire fell off, while Eileen had the Bugatti’s engine seize up due to using the wrong fuel.

Before the 1936 season the Bugatti was sold to Lt. Lakin and Earl Howe’s 1934 3-litre Maserati was purchased, Shuttleworth’s lorry being borrowed to collect it from the London Docks, as it had been back to the works in Italy. Once again there were test-runs on the public road behind the golf -course, when the Maserati did some 140 mph and Cholmondeley Tapper realised he had a real racing car and would now fulfill his ambition to compete competitively abroad. He entered for the Deauville G.P., towing the car on a trailer behind a Marmon, accompanied by Maurice from Saffron Walden as his mechanic — the lad had never been to sea before and suffered on the rough crossing. In France the trailer tarpaulin somehow caught fire and although the racing car was saved in the nick-of-time, its fine new paintwork was a sorry sight.

On arrival at the circuit repairs were put in hand but in practice Cholmondeley Tapper went off the road due to a cracked front brake drum.  It was changed for one of the back drums but the Maserati pulled to one side under heavy braking. Cholmondeley Tapper felt he could manage but Farina made a fuss, asking what about the other drivers? He lodged a protest and Cholmondeley Tapper had to withdraw. It was highly ironic, therefore, that in the race Farina’s Alfa Romeo hit Lehoux’s ERA and the latter driver was killed. The next engagement was the German G.P., at the Nürburgring. I find it rather amazing that the Type 40 Bugatti was still in use for towing the Maserati on its new trailer. In the race the Maserati’s brakes deteriorated but Cholmondeley Tapper, who finished 10th, greatly enjoyed competing in this great motor race. That this was the “real thing” is evidenced when one remembers that Rosemeyer’s Auto-Union was victorious and that Mercedes-Benz was out in force.

The next adventure was the Limerick G.P., in which Miss Ellison wished to drive the Maserati. The crossing to Ireland was another meeting of many drivers but they were saddened when, during the race, the Duke of Grafton was killed after his 3.3 Bugatti had hit a post, bursting into flames.  Eileen was compelled to drive past the burning car, Cholmondeley Tapper took over at about half-distance, increasing his lap-speed over that of his girl co-driver by an average of 32s. He found the Maserati very fast, and it was difficult to overtake on the narrow roads, especially after a stone had broken the aero-screen. In the end they were placed 6th in this handicap race, won by a Belfast man in his MG, the Maserati the fastest in the unlimited class, at 64.64mph

The ex-Howe Maserati (now owned by David Heimann, who races the ex-Witney Straight sister-car, the cockpit of which Cholmondeley Tapper was able to sample at this year’s Brooklands’ Reunion, 50 years after he had himself raced such a car against the great Continental aces) was brought back home and entered for the 1936 JCC 200 Mile Race at Donington Park. It was a very tiring race driving the big car for 100 laps of this road circuit, but Cholmondeley Tapper was easily ahead of his class at the finish and 4th overall behind Seaman’s wonderful 1-1/2-litre Delage, Howe’s ERA and the Evans/Briault ERA. The race lasted nearly three hours for Cholmondeley Tapper, who averaged 66.09 mph.

It was found after this that the fuel tank, forming the car’s tail, had split but this was soon repaired and, in fact, the Maserati had proved marvellously reliable, needing only a new set of tyres, the brakes bled, and a clean up between races, not even the valve clearances being checked. Some carburation tests on a public road, the racing car unlicensed and unsilenced, and it was ready for Shelsley Walsh. Here rain ruined the times, so Cholmondeley Tapper was pleased when he won his class with a time of 46.4s, compared to Hans Ruesch’s 47.05s in the 3.8 litre Alfa Romeo. Much the same weather prevailed at the Brighton Speed Trials, but using 5,500 rpm in the gears, Cholmondeley Tapper made fifth fastest time, in 24.08s (74.75 mph) for the s.s. half mile. These were but preliminaries to the 1936 Donington G.P., in which the Maserati led Ruesch for the opening four laps but, later in the race, oil deposited on the course by the split crankcase of an Alta was responsible for the car helplessly skidding off the course into a tree and buckling the axle and damaging a front wheel, so Cholmondeley Tapper was forced to retire. The bent front axle was straightened by a local garage, the buckled wheel replaced by one from the stock of spares that had come with the car, and it was ready for the Brooklands Mountain Championship race, entered by Eileen Ellison but driven by Cholmondeley Tapper, who was baulked on one lap but finished 4th, with a best lap at 78.0 mph.

The autumn was occupied with a visit to the Maserati factory with John Wakefield and some ski racing, but in a blinding snowstorm Cholmondeley Tapper hit a guy-wire of a telephone post and broke his nose. As a final goodbye to motor racing he ran the Maserati in two Campbell circuit races at Brooklands early in 1937. In the first race, after an inspired drive, he was 2nd to Masters in Tuson’s Babilla Fiat, having started from scratch and lapped at 70.97 mph, easily the fastest. In the National Handicap, again from scratch, Cholmondeley Tapper slid to the top of the Members’ turn, lapping again at 70.97 mph, and coming in 3rd behind Hadley’s A7 and Dobson’s ERA. And that was it — the Maserati was put on its special trailer and towed to Cambridge, still behind the Type 40 Bugatti, for the last time. It was advertised for sale and bought by A.B. Hyde, who crashed in his first race. Perhaps Nuvolari had known a thing or two when he advised Earl Howe against buying it, as it was “a killer of a car”.

With the approach of war Cholmondeley Tapper joined forces with a friend to purchase some land at Haddenham in Buckinghamshire which they turned into an aerodrome for training pilots under the Government’s Civil Air Guard scheme. A squadron of Spitfires operated from it early in the war, and later it was used for training pilots in Air Transport Auxiliary, and a factory was established for the production of propellors from high density laminated wood.  Having been turned down for flying by the R.A.F., Cholmondeley Tapper joined A.T.A, and it was at Haddenham, where they both did flying training, that he met his wife. He now regards motoring as simply a means of transport, he and his wife Margaret sharing a Peugeot 104.

However, his motor racing is clearly remembered, and just after the war resulted in his delightful book, “Amateur Racing Driver”.  Apart from being a pioneer among those from this country who competed in the exciting Continental races, Cholmondeley Tapper was able, having driven in a Voiturette race, to watch the full-scale Grands Prix that followed, meeting all the great drivers and recording history with his camera. It was that which made his book, long since out of print, so interesting, with detailed accounts of the travel, his fellow competitors, getting prize money out of Nazi Germany, and so on, and I have hopes that the author will expand it for a new edition, enhanced by some of his unique photographs. — W.B.