Remembered for the wrong thing

The name Brabazon is often associated with an aircraft that no-one bought, but this pioneer had much to boast of

Lord Brabazon of Tara was a most remarkable man who had many interests and achieved many firsts in his long life. Born John Moore-Brabazon, at Cambridge he founded the first motor club with Lionel de Rothschild and during the holidays was a mechanic to Charles Rolls who remained a great motoring and balloonist friend.

After only one year at Cambridge in 1904 he went to Suresnes in Paris to work as an apprentice mechanic for Darraq under the eyes of Héméry and Wagner.

In 1907 he entered a Minerva for the first two races at Brooklands but in the first race, when half a lap ahead, one of the inlet valves broke and the engine caught fire. Later that year with the same car he won the Circuit des Ardennes, with Algy (Sir Algernon) Lee Guinness, Warwick Wright and Koolhoven.

In the spring of 1908 he was asked by Du Cros to drive an Austin in the French Grand Prix. The team was made up of Warwick Wright and Dario Resta, with Charlie Lane as his mechanic; he came 18th just in front of Resta.

While at Cambridge he also enjoyed, with Charlie Rolls, the new sport of ballooning and the two men commissioned the Short brothers to make them the first spherical balloon manufactured in England.

The English Aero Club was formed in 1901; Moore-Brabazon joined in 1903, was made a member of the Committee and in 1910 was issued with their No1 pilot’s certificate. Before Brooklands had an airfield he had experimented there with his Voisin biplane but shortly afterwards he took it to Paris where in 1908 he went solo. Then he took his Voisin, ‘The Bird of Passage’, to the first Aero Show held at Olympia in 1908 and it was because of the great interest shown in the Exhibition that the Daily Mail offered a prize for the first all-English machine that could fly a circular mile course. Brabazon won this, and in the same year took the Michelin prize for the longest distance flight in Britain, of 17 miles. He also strapped a piglet into a bucket and took it aloft, in order to prove that pigs can indeed fly.

In the First World War he joined the Army and was sent to St Omer in November 1914 to keep aeroplanes in mechanical order for other squadrons and to fit them with the new wireless-sets, before valves came in. He went on to aerial photography for the RFC and also designed and produced lenses for the cameras. He finished the war as a Lieutenant-Colonel.

After the war he became MP for Chatham between 1918 and 1929. In 1923 he was asked by Winston Churchill to become his Private Secretary in the Air Ministry, and Stanley Baldwin asked him to become Under-Secretary to the Minister of Transport. He resigned from Parliament in 1929 but by 1931 he was back as MP for Wallasey.

In 1934 he reported the Americas Cup Race for the Morning Post, the year Tommy Sopwith challenged Vanderbilt, the early aviator.

During the Second World War Brabazon became Minister of Transport, Privy Councillor and Minister of Aircraft Production but was forced to resign in 1942 because of an unpremeditated remark about the conflict between Germany and Russia, which would mean not so much focus on England and give us time to prepare for the final blow. He then became a Peer for the Conservative party, as Brabazon of Tara of Sandwich.

In 1943 a committee was set up under his chairmanship to investigate the requirements for British civil airliners. The best-known outcome was the Bristol Brabazon Type 167, an engineering masterpiece, but one which was to become rather a white elephant. An elegant passenger aeroplane designed to carry 100 people in luxury over transatlantic routes, it first flew in 1949, but would have proved economically unviable and airlines showed no interest. By 1953 the only one made had been scrapped. It was the biggest aeroplane ever built in Britain. However, two other proposals of the Brabazon committee would become the highly successful Bristol Britannia and the world’s first jet airliner, the De Havilland Comet.

On the July 6 1957, to celebrate the 50th anniversary of the first race meeting at Brooklands, a memorial was unveiled there by Lord Brabazon. In an emotional speech he described the scene as macabre, the unveiling of a tombstone over the rotting skeleton of one of the most imaginative products of the age and one of the wonders of the world. He stated that he was trying to voice the feelings of many friends of Brooklands. He questioned why Vickers’ and the Government’s expansion, while necessary, could not have been done on the other side of the track, and described Vickers’ expansion as creeping like uncontrolled ivy over everything. He regarded the memorial as the concrete evidence of a great company’s twinge of conscience, but did not entirely acquit them or the Government of blame, thanked them for the gathering and for putting up the great memorial which he had the greatest sorrow in unveiling. This speech came as a profound shock to them and for a time they closed ranks against the post-war motoring enthusiasts’ desire to visit the relics of the world’s first motor course. The memorial is still visible in the grounds of the Brooklands Museum.