Atlantic crossing



When the USA was a long way away, American cars were a rare sight in European competition. Bill Boddy recalls two which made it to Brooklands and brought a flavour of Indianapolis to Surrey — but which didn’t quite live up to the hype

Between the wars, interest in motor racing increased as more people had cars. Brooklands, and later, Donington and other venues, were popular, but only a few enthusiasts were able to attend racing on the continent or in the USA. America had caused a sensation when Jimmy Murphy in a straight-eight 3-litre Duesenberg won the 1921 French Grand Prix; though aided by hydraulic four-wheel brakes, it was virtually a three-speed track-racing car by European standards.

Not only had a car from faraway America defeated the new Ballots of Ralph de Palma and Jules Goux, and Andre Boillot’s Talbot, but the Duesie of André Dubonnet was fourth. The favourites, those Ballots with four-speed gearboxes, had been outclassed. But it was 41 years before an American driver again won the French Grand Prix (Dan Gurney in a Porsche). Most English racegoers were content with the racing provided at Brooklands by fields of stripped sportscars, specials and outdated grand prix cars in handicap events, until Donington opened and the German teams were enticed here in 1937 and ’38.

In sportscar races, the occasional American car competed, such as the ‘Splendid’ Stutz in the Ulster TT, Studebakers and Stutz in the long-distance or duration events at Weybridge, and at Le Mans in 1928 the 4.9-litre Stutz of Brisson and Bloch frightened the Bentleys until Woolf Bamato and Bernard Rubin in a 4.5-litre beat it by 7.9 miles, with Chryslers third and fourth. A lone 3.9-litre sleeve-valve Willys Knight had appeared at this race in ’26, and Prince Nicholas of Romania had driven his big Model-J Duesenbergs there in ’33 and ’35, but these all retired. The TT at Ards had also entries of Model-A, B, and V8 Fords, and in Edwardian days Bedford Buicks had appeared at our only racetrack. Otherwise, American automobiles in competition were rare.

But from the ‘Brickyard’, news would filter through of slim single-seater cars of advanced concept suited to such a track, which took part in the great 500-mile race each year. Enormous crowds, some of whom had queued up for days to obtain admission, were a regular Indianapolis institution. It is true that the average speed of this ‘500’ did not reach that of the BRDC ‘500’ held at Brooklands from 1929 to ’36. Nevertheless, it sounded very appealing, this famous event run to 3-litre, 2-litre and 1.5-litre formulae from 1921-31.

But it was not so easy then to travel to America, or even to the Continent (although I believe Capt George Eyston went from England to the 1921 French GP at Le Mans in his GN cyclecar). So while most of us may have felt that the variety of the racing can at Brooklands and its country atmosphere were all we wanted, the mysterious myth of those Indy marathons remained in the background.

I felt that I would not have wanted to report them when, from 1941 to ’64, the winners at the distant Speedway were listed as Belond Exhaust Special, Leader Card Special, Bowes Seal-Fast Special, Noc-Out Hose Clamp Special, Wynn Friction-Proof Special, John Zink Special, K Paul Special and so on, until in 1965, Jimmy Clark won in a Lotus-Ford and Graham Hill did likewise in a Lola in 1966.

It took the Brickyard 24 years to exceed the winning average speed at Brooklands (and then only by 0.05mph), but we often had far larger cars. It was 25 years before the American race was faster with its 2-litre cars than was Dixon’s winning Riley; and with apologies if needed to dear old Freddie, his was perhaps the cruder car.

Harry Armenius Miller of Los Angeles, carburettor expert, began racing four-cylinder cars owing much, as did those of Sunbeam and Humber, to the Henry twin-cam GP Peugeots of 1912/13. Under the 1922 2-litre formula, the Miller 122 was outstanding. It had a straight-eight 1980cc engine with twin overhead camshafts operating two valves per cylinder, a five-bearing crankshaft and dry-sump lubrication, and used magneto instead of coil ignition. Twin-choke carburettors fed vertical polished cast-aluminium intake ducts, one for each cylinder, with long rampipes below them, a characteristic of Millers. A three-speed gearbox and four-wheel brakes were used. These, and later-type Millers, were virtually unbeaten on the board ovals and dirt tracks, and won Indy 12 times from 1923 to ’38.

Count Lou Zborowski, of Chitty Bang Bang fame, went to Indianapolis in 1923 with friends to run a team of five single-seater Bugattis in the ‘500’, but the outcome was a disaster, only one finishing. While in the US, the wealthy Count ordered a Miller 122 to be shipped to his estate in Kent. Back at Higham, the Count had another disappointment. No F1 secrets then! It was soon known that the Miller, in workshop grey, with a cramped two-seater body, had coil ignition, suggesting a very early 122. A lap of 120mph at 5000rpm had been expected, but the wrong gear ratios and too-small wheels and tyres reduced this to 102mph and 4000rpm. The Count was cross; Miller’s top engineer Riley J Brett came from the States to sort things out, staying at London’s Savoy Hotel. The August Brooklands’ entries were cancelled.

Zborowski’s ambition was to drive in a grand prix, for which purpose he had financed the building of the twin-cam Aston-Martins. He now put the Miller in for the 1923 Monza Grand Prix. Again it misbehaved, the oil pump failing, so that a conrod broke. Lou’s aged Mercedes truck brought it back in disgrace.

However, Col Clive Gallop, Zborowski’s engineer, and the two Martins, his mechanics, got it together for the last Brooklands meeting of 1923. The Miller, now appropriately painted white, won the Lightning Short Handicap easily at 93.57mph and was second in the ‘Long’ race, Zborowski sportingly pulling down to let Parry Thomas’ winning Leyland Eight pass, in spite of the engine going from dry sump to splash in the first race. At least the ‘right crowd’ had seen an American track car in action.

Before the season closed, the Miller was taken to the new Sitges track in Spain, for the so-called Spanish Grand Prix. The allegedly dangerous bankings suited the Miller, and Zborowski would have won from Divo in a GP Sunbeam if a tyre had not burst near the end, resulting in second place, 50sec in arrears, after the Count had set a brave fastest lap in 97.49mph. Busy with his fleet of racing cars, Zborowski ran the Miller only once in 1924, in the June 100mph Handicap, when it retired after a lap at 90.06mph.

Anxious to drive in a grand prix again, the Astons having been too slow and unreliable in 1922, Zborowski put the unsuitable Miller in for the ’24 French race at Lyon, with S C H Davis of The Autocar. They got nearly halfway before the bolts holding the front axle broke, but they avoided disaster. Sammy enjoyed it, writing: “Neither of us cared who was winning, providing the Miller would only go on and on for hour after hour over that wonderful course, with the purring of the exhaust behind and that ribbon of road, flanked by palisades in front…” But the Count had had quite enough of the Miller. Ironically, when some weeks later he furthered his grand prix ambition by racing a works Mercedes in the Italian GP, he crashed it and was killed.

Dudley Froy drove the Miller in 1926, but it did only a 76.5mph lap before expiring. Dan Higgin drove it at Southport, and then it left these shores for New Zealand. It now belongs to Swiss Karl Bloechle.

The next time an American car of this kind came to Brooklands was in 1934 after Whitney Straight, the talented young American racing driver, had bought a Type 91 Duesenberg, with an eye on the lap record. It was not strictly an Indycar, having been owned by the Scuderia Ferrari, perhaps as a foil to the GP Maseratis and T51 Bugattis, as the P3 Alfa Romeos were unavailable in ’33. It was prepared for Count Trossi to drive in that year’s Monza GP over the banked track, but it blew up. In 1934, Trossi had a very successful season in P3 Alfas, and the Duesenberg was unwanted.

It was a typical American car, with a 4376cc Clemons straight-eight fed from two Winfield carburettors, a three-speed gearbox and a narrow single-seater body. Straight had intended to run the Duesie in the 1934 BRDC ‘500’ with Trossi, but ‘Tito’ did not turn up. At Brooklands’ October meeting, Straight tried to better Cobb’s lap record of 140.93mph with the Napier Railton, but found the American car difficult to hold, an adverse wind not helping. His best lap was 138.15mph. It was then taken to Montlhéry to try for the world hour record, but Straight was unwell and it was left there. R L (Jack) Duller went to see it and bought it for £600.

At Brooklands he, too, found it a tricky beast, telling me that off the Big Bump the chassis twisted so much that it pinched his thighs.

Dick Seaman and saxophonist ‘Buddy’ Featherstonehaugh shared the car in the 1935 ‘500’, but the new tail fuel tank burst. By 1936, after R R Jackson had tuned the engine, 130mph laps were again possible. Duller scored two third places in handicap races, and Gwenda Stewart, already familiar with Millers, co-drove in the ‘500’; they finished but the clutch was unhappy. Huge B&D hydraulic and twin Hartford friction rear shock absorbers and a tail-cum-fuel tank were newly fitted. In the 1937 BRDC 500mkrace, Duller retired. A win at 122.28mph came in 1938, also a second and a third in a baulked, skilful finish in another handicap. On the Locke King 20-miler Jack’s best lap was 132.42mph. He ended 1939 with another second place.

During the war I had a call from Daniel Richmond, the Mini specialist (a splendid character who once locked my photographer in a shed) asking if I would like the Duesenberg, which was in one of his fields. I alerted Jenks, saying we must quickly get a trailer.

But he and Alan Southan beat me to it. The engine had gone, I think to Paul Emery for one of his Specials. DSJ thought of a Jaguar replacement. He liked his workshop as much as riding or driving his various bikes and cars, and set about making engine-bearers. However, he then got hold of the original engine; it was almost beyond repair, and in the end he presented this engine-less historic car to the Brooklands Museum.