Raymond Mays CBE

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An Appreciation by The Editor

With the death last month of Raymond Mays, in his 81st year, the world of British motor-racing has lost one of its most staunch supporters, and someone entirely dedicated to the Sport — Ray might well have been called “Mr. Motor-Racing”, because he loved fast motoring in all its aspects and did enormously well at it and for it.

Born before the turn of the new century, Raymond Mays was perhaps encouraged by his motoring father, who had a 30/98 Vauxhall, to think in terms of fast driving, although it was intended that he go into the family wool business, conducted from the house at Bourne in Lincolnshire where at much midnight oil was later to be consumed, working with Amherst Villiers and Peter Berthon on Ray’s numerous racing cars, which were also tested along the local roads.

While still at Cambridge, after Oundle School and service in the Grenadier Guards, Mays acquired a Speed Model Hillman light-car which was tuned to be effective in the early post-war, public road speed events. From the commencement Mays insisted, as an inviolate rule, that his cars should always be as immaculate as was his own dress, in which there was a preference for light blue. The aluminium Hillman was called “Quicksilver” and it performed well enough to face up to the works Hillman “Mercury” driven by George Bedford. This was no mean feat of “hotting-up”, because the ordinary sports Hillmans were quicker in second than in top gear, and were flat-out at about 60. Mays’ car, however, eventually exceeded 80 m.p.h.

This was nothing to Mays’ Brescia Bugattis that followed, and which Villiers induced to run on alcohol fuel at engine speeds and power outputs that were regarded as sacrilege by other Bugatti racing men. It was with these two Bugattis that Mays took two great steps forward – he made f.t.d. at innumerable sprint contests and he thought of how to extract sponsorship for his two Bugattis, “Cordon Bleu” and “Cordon Rouge”. He also discovered that the game was risky, although later he seldom put a wheel wrong with growing experience but with the Brescias he lost a rear wheel at Caerphilly hill-climb and ran out of anchors at another sprint venue. Helped by Mumm’s champagne and the Whitehead f.w.b. company’s sponsorship, Ray turned his back on dull business and decided to race semi professionally. A supercharged AC gave S. F. Edge little return, for the boost was too much for its complicated and aged engine design, although Mays was seen at Brooklands with the canard he gained free accommodation at a leading West End hotel when setting up London racing headquarters. He tried some drives for the British Mercedes-Benz people, in four-and eightcylinder, 2-litre racing cars of that make and proved his bravery with the latter car on Brooklands, until convinced by Henry ingrate that it was too dangerous to continue with.

Villiers then began metamorphosis of a 3-litre TT Vauxhall for Mays, ending up with some 300 b.h.p.. which enabled Raymond to make fastest climbs at Shelsley Walsh in 1930, 1931, and 1933. He was also racing a white, low-chassis. 100 m.p.h., 4 1/2-litre Invicta at this tune, with sponsorship notably from India Tyres, a car with which he twice broke the Class C Brooklands Mountain-circuit lap-record, in 1931 and 1932. Then came the great breakthrough. Seeking ever more speed and acceleration, Mays and Peter Berthon, with Victor Riley’s blessing, thought up and produced the celebrated “White Riley”, supercharging this six-cylinder can with a Jamieson blower. This Riley emerged from Bourne a definite winner; it twice broke the Brooklands Mountain lap-record in Class F, putting this to 76.03 m.p.h. by 1934, etc. It was the technical integrity of this car that gave Mays the revolution, idea of forming ERA-English Racing Automobiles in order to have a British contender that could combat foreign superiority in pre-war voiturette racing. Humphrey Cook put up the money, Berthon coped with the engineering problems, and down at Brooklands Reid Railton of T & T’s designed, and had made, the simple chassis. The Bourne headquarters not only raced a team of ERA, it also sold these impressive supercharged single-seaters it would-be aces, in 1,100 cc., 1,300 cc. and 2,000 c.c. configurations. One early customer was Dick Seaman, although he soon found fault with the inability of the courageous little “factory” to prepare his car properly and went over to a Ramponi-revamped 1927 GP Delage, which was a great incentive to the ERA challenge.

For this patriotic ERA venture Mays was well-fitted. He had the business acumen to obtain the required support, in which his great personal charm (noticed not only by the ladies) undoubtedly helped. He had the aforesaid 100% enthusiasm for motor-racing. Yet at this difficult time, Ray was also to prove his great skill as a very capable racing driver, whether in brief sprints or in long-distance races. He was very fast, without bending the cars he drove. He was extremely precise, was always beautifully turned-out, and justifiably delighted if hw won. Space precludes a description of how often he did just that. Let me say, of his ERA years alone, he was right at the top. At Shelsley Walsh, where his later black, highly-boosted 2-litre Zoller-blown ERA R4D was a pre-war legend, as had his light-green ERAs been before that, Mays made f.t.d. at nine meetings, beaten in all that span only by Fane’s Frazer Nash. He left the record at 37.37 sec. After the war, at the age of 48, Ray showed that he had lost none of his skills. At Shelsley Walsh he made five more f.t.d. runs, putting the hill-record to 37.52 secs. He won the RAC Hill Climb Championship in 1947 and 1948. I remember the excitement of it – the word would go out that the black ERA was being started-up, and the starter would be alerted noun not to hold Nays for more than a moment on the line, lest the ERA’s plugs oil-up. Previously he would have inspected the condition of the starting area, and now he would blast away, to the shattering note of the exhaust, skilfully controlling the spinning of the twin tear tyres, changing up impeccably, on the Wilson box, the car’s steering-column cranked to his liking, incidentally, to set yet another f.t.d. or course-record. Not only at Shelsley Walsh, but at Brighton and elsewhere, was this absolutely-polished control of the cars, with the creation of which Mays was so closely associated, to be seen. They were great moments for anyone fortunate enough to be present. . . .

However, it was in his race victories that Raymond May, showed such true prowess. I can but list some of them here, a few of these races very close-fought indeed, as against Prince “Bira”, in another product of Bourne, for example. It is in his dark knitted helmet, wind-cheater, and spotless shin and blue tie, that I think ol Mays, forever flicking the steering-wheel before corners to catch the incipient skid – but he remained a force for younger dryers to contend with into the era of compulsory crash-hats. Mays won the Eifelrennen, was twice victor at Picardy, won at Albi, with Cook as co-driver, was first in the International Trophy race at Brooklands, won the Empire Trophy and Nuffield Trophy at Donington, won the Formula Libre race Phoenix Park and he twice won the coveted Brooklands’ Mountain Championship race. He also won the Campbell Trophy race at that Track and his “places” in the leading events are legion. At the Crystal Palace he won the Coronation Trophy and Crystal Palace Cup races. A racing driver, Mays had little interest in the Brooklands outer-circuit, but he will forever hold the absolute lap-records for the Brooklands Mountain and Campbell circuits, the former with a 1 1/2-litre ERA in 1936, at 84.31 m.p.h., the latter in the 2-litre ERA in 1939, at 77.79 m.p.h.

Mays drove other racing cars, such as a Talbot-Lago at Reims, and the Ferrari Thinwall Special. He then turned his attention to another enormous ambition ⎯ the creation of BRM ⎯ British Racing Motors ⎯ to try to put this country on the Grand Prix map. These were very trying years for Mays. Smoking cigarette after cigarette, he would attend the latest let-down of those fabulous but reluctant 1 1/2-litre V16 BRMs, with their highly-blown engines in which tiny pistons and a centrifugal supercharger had been insisted upon. Perhaps, to grasp the essential finance and other help, too many Industrial-chiefs were stirring up Mays’ soup: maybe Rolls-Royce alone should have been asked to design and develop the BRM V16 engine. Alas, the project didn’t get going until too late. But Mays, as ever, devoted all his time and attention to this great venture, until others took over, and even then he retained very close associations with it, and affection for it. It is said that so persuasive was Ray that he could arrive late at a Board Meeting of hard-boiled Business Executives and Heads-of-Industry, when they decided to throw-in the sponge so far as helping BRM was concerned, and almost immediately he would charm more finance out of them.

For these two patriotic endeavours ⎯ ERA/BRM ⎯ and his very fine racing career, but particularly for his enormous and undulled loved of motor-racing, will Raymond Mays be for ever remembered with affection, and not a little sympathy, by his army of friends and followers.

Raymond Mays may have been born just much too early, before high-pressure promotion and universal sponsorship that would have carried his inspired ideals forward. He ran a motor business in a mild way, specialising in tuning-equipment for Fords, and selling Rovers. He enjoyed fast long-distance driving on the road, before the war in Derby-built Bentleys, which he used for Continental travel to race venues and as practice-cars on arrival. He was a very good ambassador for the cars he used in this manner, many long articles about them appearing in the motoring papers, written for him by Dennis May when he was too busy to do them himself. This detailed analysis of his Bentleys and Rovers, up to his last Rover 3500, was another feature of Mays’ interest in good cars. That this tall, unchanging enthusiast, with the deep, even gruff, voice, who never uttered unnecessary platitudes but who knew absolutely what it was all about, will never again be seen is almost impossible to contemplate. All we can do now is to recapture the flavour of his busy, dedicated life by reading the many books in which he figures, and especially “Split Seconds”, ghosted for this great personality by Dennis May, with a foreword by C. A. N. May.

At the time of his death, Mays was Director of Racing for the Owen Organisation. Chairman and Managing Director of Raymond Mays and Partners Ltd., Managing Director of T. W. Mays and Sons Ltd. and Chairman of Mays Chemical, Manure Co. Ltd. —W.B.