Hard to picture a race mechanic getting national airtime today, but the BBC was young in 1935…
Something interesting popped into my mailbox recently – the script of a 1935 radio talk by Percy ‘Tommy’ Thomas, mechanic to indefatigable racer Earl Howe. As it was Tommy’s nephew Christopher Dawkins who sent it, his copy may even be the very script Tommy read from in front of one of those enormous black BBC microphones. Christopher’s grandfather was the Earl’s chauffeur; as a child he would visit Pitt’s Head Mews in Mayfair, home of the Howe stable, where “we were taught to be in awe of the mysterious ‘Lordy’ as he was known in the family,” though he adds that Howe was a kind and considerate employer who would let his staff use the smaller cars for visits.
Having previously worked at Brooklands for testy Sir Malcolm Campbell, Thomas was much happier when in 1929 the racing earl invited him to run his stable of racing and road cars. With wealth aplenty, Howe bought the finest machinery – Bugatti Types 43, 51, 57SC, 6C and 8C Alfa Romeos, road-going Isotta-Fraschinis and the delicate straight-eight Grand Prix Delage Howe took over from Campbell.
All these Tommy looked after in the mews – not forgetting the Austin 7 or Fiat Topolinos His Lordship used around town.
Mechanics still have a tough job, but it was a different kind of tough then, chasing off to events in lorries that panted to reach 45mph. Howe built one of the first dedicated transporters, a 3½-ton Commer with workshop facilities which ‘Tommy’ Thomas calls ‘The Baby’ and in his 15-minute Home Service broadcast he relates a trip to Strasbourg when a big end went. Howe’s other two mechanics, Sydney Maslin and Stan Holgate, rebuilt it at the roadside through a wet, cold night and still got to the track on time.
“That’s the sort of spirit that we mechanics have to be blessed with – and we’re rather proud of it too!” Thomas says. “We’ve often had to travel five hundred miles on end, and we’ve never once failed to be on time for a race.”
At Le Mans, he mentions starting at 10 at night to fit a set of eight new pistons before the next day’s 24-hour race; the job was done by 2am, after which ‘Tommy’ ran the engine in for four hours and 300 miles. The year was 1931, the car was an Alfa Romeo 8C 2.3, and Howe and ‘Tim’ Birkin went on to win the race in it. Thomas mildly describes that panic rebuild as “a bit of a job,” adding that though he got no sleep, Howe and Birkin “made it up to me by winning”.
Tommy’s tale of his first race as riding mechanic clears up a confusion I found writing recently about Malcolm Campbell’s Bugatti T43, which caught fire in the 1928 Ulster TT. Tommy was with Howe (then Viscount Curzon) in the sister car, and the various reports give different tales of Howe retiring after Campbell’s conflagration. Tommy says “…we saw, as we flashed by, Sir Malcolm’s car well alight. I guessed that the fire had been caused by petrol leaking from the tank on to the exhaust, which, when a racing engine is running slowly, gives out tongues of flame.
“As this was a sister car to ours I was naturally a bit worried. I decided the safest thing to do when we came in to refuel was to turn the engine off and let the car coast in. This probably did prevent a fire; because though we filled up all right, we’d only just started again when our petrol tank started leaking badly, and we had to drop out.”
Various sources say different things about Howe’s withdrawal, but if anyone should know, it’s the man on the car.
We find it hard to appreciate what a riding mechanic had to do, but Tommy describes a busy and demanding job, watching gauges, assessing tyres, noting brake pedal movement and most of all acting as a human rear-view mirror.
“One of our main duties is to keep a sharp look-out behind, and signal to the driver if another car wants to pass by thumping him on the shoulder – it’s no good trying to shout because what with the engine noise and the wind he couldn’t possibly hear a word. This calls for judgment and training. Though another car may have the right to pass, it’s no good risking disaster by thumping your driver on a fast and difficult bend. You’ve got to know what the other car is capable of, and what the driver is likely to do. Only experience can teach you. You’ve got to remember your driver’s got his hands full driving the car, and you’re there to help him all you can.”
Of course Tommy and his like also expected to handle on-the-road fixes, such as the 1930 Brooklands Double-12 when their Type 43 broke a hub. Sending Howe to the pits for a jack, Tommy says, “After working for three hours we’d fitted a new hub and wheel and carried on to win our class.”
When not on board Tommy ran the pit crew, and he recalls on the Ulster TT changing two wheels in 22sec – pretty impressive without power tools.Howe went racing all over Britain and the continent, including the Mille Miglia, memorably leading a trio of MG K3 Magnettes to a class victory in 1931 over the fancied Maseratis. In support Thomas drove His Lordship’s supercharged Mercedes-Benz, loaded with spares, round the route as chase car, matching the racing MG’s speed.
But back for the Mille Miglia three years on, Tommy says, “I had a nasty experience” when His Lordship lost control of their K3 on a muddy bend.
“I saw we’d got to hit a wall so I switched off the ignition, lamps and petrol pumps, and had time to brace myself firmly, with my head tucked low in the cockpit. The car slid along the wall and then took a telegraph pole head on. Lord Howe was knocked unconscious, but I was lucky enough to escape unhurt.”
Tommy manages to send the injured peer to hospital – “but I forgot to find out which hospital he’d been taken to. Not being able to talk the language it took me literally hours to find the right hospital. I visited a lot of wrong ones in Florence before I was able to find him.”
Their racing relationship was only ended by WWII, by which time the Earl was rightly known as the Grand Old Man of British racing. In ERAs, Maserati 8C 2900, Type 59 and one of those fearsome 4.9-litre T54 Bugattis he continued to enter seemingly any event going, from hillclimbs in the S Mercedes to Brighton speed trials to Grands Prix, winning the 1938 Grosvenor GP in ERA R8C, usually with Tommy Thomas by his side. As BRDC president Howe was a major figure in racing, tried to arrange a race in Richmond Park and even had the sinuous drive of his country home, Penn House, banked to make his own private hillclimb. Tommy could hardly have had a more petrol-headed employer or a more varied equipe. He closes with “We get enough excitement and thrills to make up for our normal routine work in the sheds” – a laconic summary of what looks to us a glorious era.
The art of motoring
Sharp-tongued critic with an aesthete’s view of cars, whether Bugattis or bangers
He may not have been an obvious Motor Sport character, but I was sorry to hear that art historian and broadcaster Brian Sewell had died. Outspoken on the subject of modern art, he was always good for a controversial quote, and whether you agreed or not I applauded him for his fearlessness in sniping at the closed ranks of the art establishment.
But I knew him as a car enthusiast, something which went far back before he was a public figure. A neighbour of mine, he would sometimes ring up to ask about an interesting car he’d seen at my door, and at a party he was delighted to meet other car people and talk in that prim, sibilant voice about Bugattis instead of Breugel. It was reading Dornford Yates novels that inspired his love of beautiful cars; he had always run old and interesting vehicles, often Daimlers, and latterly ran a 1980s Mercedes 560SEC coupé, which he drove in bare feet. In the 1960s he even used his Wolseley as a taxi to boost his income, and loved a long continental tour. He covered 250,000 miles in his Barker-bodied drophead Daimler, to Spain, Portugal, Sicily, braving Alps and Pyrénées without a thought.
Inevitably he took a refreshingly left-field view of motoring, talking about taking “the elegant line” through a bend and admitting to a liking for banger racing. As we lived within earshot of the hot-rods at Wimbledon, we had agreed that he would take me to watch the bangers and I’d take him to a VSCC race. Sadly that’s a date he won’t now make.
Stop, look and listen
Learning the theory shouldn’t only be to pass your driving test – it just might save your life
Most of us don’t read the Highway Code once we’ve passed our tests. You won’t be surprised to hear that statistic from DVSA, the Driver and Vehicle Standards Agency, but how about this: the Code has 50,000 followers on Twitter. DVSA is using social media to update drivers on changes and test their recall, and users reckon it’s doing their driving good.
In the past I’ve been teased by fellow motoring writers for supporting advanced driving courses like the IAM, but I don’t think you can ever learn too much. If it helps just once, it’s worth it.
I was so desperate to get on the road that by age 15 I knew the IAM and Police Roadcraft manuals backwards and had devoured Tom Topper’s jaunty Very Advanced Driving. And from the AA’s long defunct Driving magazine I learned something that may have saved my life: if you meet a foreign car head-on, his instinct will be to swerve to his right, so you should do the opposite.
A few years back, in a high-walled left-hander in Kent, I met a car on my side of the road. I had time to see the red digits of a Belgian number plate. I swerved to my right; so did he, and we passed left to left. You can never learn too much.