Reviews, December 1992

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Grand Prix Requiem, by Willam Court. Patrick Stephens, £20.00.

This is rather an odd one! It is about how Grand Prix drivers died. Nigel Roebuck, asked to write the Foreword, thought at first it was a touch morbid. But Court’s handling of death on the circuits (and sometimes off them) convinced him of the sincere purpose of the book, a celebration of a widely disparate group of men, some splendid, others despicable (I wonder whom Roebuck rates under the latter heading? “who died doing something they regarded as worthwhile”. )

Leaving aside the morbidity of Court’s latest baby, he leads up to the demise of each driver with an account of how they rated as racers. This involves a very great deal of what we have had before, although in Court’s scholarly style, with his estimations of these drivers’ proficiency. What disappointed me was that, if he must dwell on death, in only a few instances has he told us anything new about that aspect of his heroes’ departures. The book covers 80 or so drivers, from all over the world, so that to consult inquest reports on foreign deaths might hardly be possible. I concede that the author’s chapter headings and divisions are unique and ingenious, incidentally; they give the dates of births and deaths and cause of the latter. It is just that, having got used to Court’s classic style, I wanted much more. Why did Louis Zborowski crash at Monza in the 1924 Mercedes? The mystery remains unmet, the possibilities taken merely from old Press reports. There were questions relating to Mike Hawthorn’s sad road accident. After sifting through a most interesting comparison of Mike and Peter Collins, Castellotti and Musso, in which they are related to heroes from other fields and their places in racing somewhat disparaged, I found nothing to explain why Mike crashed until in another part of the book I came on Rob Walker’s valid explanation. Incidentally, Court thinks it regrettable that Mike “chose to go out riding on such a bleak and wintery day”. But surely it was an important business engagement in London that took him out in that freak wind and rain?

Yet this is a readable book, if you can cope with endless quotations, from other motoring writers, songs, psalms, fiction, poetry and wherever in the flowery style that is Court’s hallmark. Those driver assessments, how to spell their more obscure names, and many little cameos from their lives which were new to me, make it so. However, I found the non-motoring end pages heavy going, although I think it possible that John Buchan may have written The Courts of the Morning after seeing Zborowski race his Chitty-Bang-Bang at Brooklands. Moreover we must not blame Court for the book’s theme, which he was persuaded to pursue by Darryl Reach, of his publishers. But it seems he was in some hurry to comply. The chapter about Benoist was done before Court saw Motor Sport’s references, as he admits, the introductory line on Hawthorn refers back to pages 28/29 but there is no page 28 and page 29 is concerned only with Lockhart (?a GP driver) and Rosemeyer; in one place Court accepts Zborowski’s crew as importing loud caps from Palm Beach, only to call this “improbable” elsewhere (Why? Although Zborowski didn’t race in America until 1923, with the Bugatti, he had very firm associations with the USA). He confuses the Thomas Special “Babs” with the Leyland-Thomas, and in his Bibliography the famous S C H Davis becomes Mr David — but proof-reading has its pitfalls, as I well know… Nor is there much new in the picture sections, yet this book nevertheless fascinates and as the recession has reduced bookprices, you can have it, all 344 pages, for £20.

For this you get 19 parts, divided into “Heroes and Highlights”, “In Principle” (the early drivers), “A Famous Italian Quartet” (Campari, Borzacchini, Antonio Ascari and Varzi), “The Abruzzi Robber and The Holy Virgin” (Fagioli and Farina), “A Cheery Old Card, His Garibaldiness and Golden Boys”, “The Messrs Motor Racing” (Wilbur Shaw (?a GP driver) and Graham Hill), but you get the idea? and into 57 chapters. Clearly the work of a scholar, a sort of English Ken Purdy: maybe we lay chaps will profit from reading it.

Motor Racing Through the Fifties, by Peter Lewis. Naval & Military Press, £17.95

There is something of a fashion for a “selected highlights” presentation of motor racing history at the moment. This is a little different in that it comprises contemporary descriptions of a dozen great races from first hand — Lewis was The Guardian‘s racing correspondent at the time. No real surprises in the selection — probably the 12 most exciting or significant Grands Prix of the period, beginning with Hawthorn’s Rheims victory of 1953 and running through to the dawn of the rear-engined era at Monaco in 1959, via Connaught’s Syracuse surprise, Moss’s ’55 Mille Miglia, and Fangio at the Nurburgring two years later, amongst others.

Pencil drawings of the star drivers, plus maps and circuit descriptions round out the thorough black-and-white photographic coverage and make for a nicely-presented package. No revelations, but a useful personal collection of the best of a decade.

Vauxhalls, by Peter Hull. Shire Publications No 288, £1.95.

Those who know their Vauxhalls will have seen all the pictures in Shire’s little book previously: they are from the NMM at Beaulieu, except for the fine colour cover-shot of Nick Portway’s 30/98. Not all that much within about 30/98s, but Peter does give their best Brooklands’ lap-speed, of 114.23mph. GM Vauxhalls are well covered but Peter, while giving the Ten’s mpg as 38-42, omits to say this pioneered the use of wide plug gaps with lean carb jets. The book is wonderful value, anyway.

The Rolls-Royce Dart Pioneering Turboprop, by Roy Heathcote. Rolls—Royce Heritage Trust, £5.

Those of engineering bent should be glad to find this one among their presents. I am no engineer, but recognise from the pull-out diagrams, charts, drawings and photographs, and the authoritative text of this R-R Heritage Trust 104-page book, how much it will appeal to those of engineering and scientific interests. It is from a lecture given by the late author, who not only covers the development of this important engine but includes personal memories of what happened along the way. How the Trust manage to publish it at a modest £4 (£5 to non-members) is also a mystery to me. Copies are available from the Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust, PO Box 31, Derby DE24 8BJ, mentioning Motor Sport. It is No18 in their “Historical Series”.

Behind the Scenes in Motor Racing, by Anthony Howard. Partridge Press, £14.99.

It may sound like a kiddies’ picture book, but in fact this is a unique project which delivers exactly what it promises. Intermingled with the unique aspects of Formula One, Howard focusses in detail on F3, the seed-bed of driver talent. He scrutinises Dick Bennett’s consistently successful West Surrey Racing Team, and outlines the effort, detail and dedication which went into Mika Hakkinen’s championship win in 1990. He talks to the mechanics and the managers, truckies, designers and drivers, in F3 and F1, and devotes chapters to everything from Engines to Attitude, Sponsorship to Survival Cells. Slices of Grand Prix history and descriptions of testing and technology lead up to a climactic insider view of the race at which Hakkinen sealed his season, and effectively promoted himself to F1. Rich with diagrams, telemetry read-outs and tables, as well as good photographs, it answers many a question which writers close to the business might not think to explain, and thus will inform the newcomer as well as interesting the enthusiast. Excellent value.

Mitsubishi Classic Marathon 1992. Duke Marketing, £12.99

Despite a change of sponsor from Pirelli to Mitsubishi, the Classic Marathon remains the best-known of the competitive retro-rallies. This year’s battle is well captured as usual by the Hay-Fisher outfit in a 55minute video following the cars on their six-day thrash across Europe to Cortina, though decent camera-work is a little let down on our copy by some muffled sound.

Given the beautiful Alpine scenery which lines the route the film could hardly fail to be easy on the eye, with the foreground auto-action as a plus for old-car enthusiasts. The plot is simple -the MGB of Ron Gammons and Paul Easter gradually wears down the Minis which dominate the early stages — but the video quite rightly plays down the worthy (but dull) regularity sections in favour of the exciting uphill stuff such as the infamous Stelvio pass. Watching it, I was able to recall the virtual roadrace character of the early ones I competed in and marvel that we got away with it. But if the Marathon is a better behaved beast today, the cameraderie is unchanged and shows plainly here in the unending grins of the competitors. If you went on this event you’ll want the video; if like me you couldn’t be there, this is the next best thing.

The Prince & I, by Princess Ceril Birabongse. Veloce, £14.99

This is a book to interest those who study the story of the Royals and social history rather than motor racing, although because it unfolds life with “Bira”, the motor-racing Prince of Siam, we cannot ignore it. “Bira” was a very good racing driver, who had successes innumerable, especially in the pre-war days. So while this is largely a book about the romance between him and the Englishwoman Ceril whom he married, it has its motoring moments.

This is true of the telegrams Ceril would send from race venues to Prince Chula Chakrabongse. “Bira’s” cousin who managed their racing endeavours, for “Bira’s” wife was intelligent about the racing cars and the races. The journeys to events, “Bira’s” accomplished flying in his own aeroplanes, (taking off from the strip at their Cornish house) and his association with other great drivers of the times are the parts of motoring interest. It is also informative about the lifestyle of Siamese Royalty and the people they met, such as the Duchess of Kent, Noel Coward, Anthony Blunt, Guy Burgess, etc. It discloses much about Chula and “Bira” naturally, but it would be unfair on the author to expound on Chula’s fits of temper and drinking excesses or how he opposed Ceril, in the hopes of finding “Bira” a Siamese wife, or how unfaithful “Bira” was in the end towards this charming and capable Englishwoman before their divorce.

As in many such books, Ceril has no compunction about publishing love-letters written to her by “Bira” (Dumdum, as she called him), which I find distasteful. One also learns of “Bira’s” uncontrollable love of money and how he bought a Rolls-Royce for his honeymoon instead of furniture, as Chula intended.

I found it a sad book, for the fairytale world of royal courts, Buckingham palace garden parties and the like faded; but it is a worthy extension of Chula’s book Brought Up in England (Foulis, 1943). The 86 pictures are small but good and clear; of these 17 have a motor-racing content. The latter part of the index is useless and it was a waste to print it.

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