Edward Mills remembers the vintage days

One December day I drove the Alfa Romeo to the quite delightful Oxfordshire village of Souldern, a quiet haven just off the busy A41 road, to chat with Edward Mills about the old motoring days. In 1923 he met, and worked with, Ernest Hatcher, “an unassuming man who was a superb mechanic”. In the local with friends Hatcher produced photographs of the days in the 1920s when he worked for Capt. (later Sir) Noel Macklin as Works Foreman, making the Eric-Campbell cars and later the Silver Hawks, at Cobham, but not then in the house Macklin bought later and where the Invicta was conceived. When the Silver Hawks were raced in France Hatcher rode as mechanic to Major C.M Harvey, who became the successful Alvis racing driver.

In July 1924 Mills was told that Macklin was about to launch a new venture, having bought “Glengariff” just off the Fairmile at Cobham, that of manufacturing a British steam car. Mills and Hatcher joined Macklin the following month. To form a basis, two steam cars had been imported from the USA, a Stanley and a Doble. The former was an ugly blue tourer with black mudguards, the latter an all-yellow four-seater with black mudguards and upholstery, rather like a Monza Hispano Suiza to look at. The Stanley had a poor performance, soon running out of steam pressure (it weighed some two tons), although smooth and quiet, and it took an effort to stop, as it had inferior external-contracting back-wheel brakes which were difficult to adjust -– “all rather Henry Ford” is how Mr Mills remembers it.

In contrast, the Doble was smooth, quiet, and didn’t run out of pressure even when doing fast laps at Brooklands --- which is how Mills had his baptism at the Track. A joy to drive, the Doble “seemed the Rolls-‘Royce of steam cars”. Sir Philip Lyle and Capt Oliver Lyle produced the finance and Oliver was happy to get his hands dirty working on the cars. However, in the end it was found impracticable to continue with the project and both cars were sold.

Towards the end of 1924 Mr Mills saw his first motor race, the JCC 200 Mile Race at Brooklands, in the company of Hatcher and Miss Violet Cordery, and well remembers how it was a Darracq walk-over. By 1925 he was working for Macklin on the first Invicta, assembling the Coventry-Climax engine and gearbox and Moss back axle in the Bayliss-Thomas chassis and taking it to Brooklands with a test body, and ballast weights which one could then borrow in the form of lead slabs from the BARC. The car had the good top-gear performance which Macklin was looking for and “it took the Test Hill with great gusto”.

Unfortunately the engine was exceedingly noisy, the trouble being with the timing chains. No cure was found, in spite of the leading chain specialists being consulted. So a change was made to the 2½-litre six-cylinder Hendry Meadows engine, soon to be used in a 3-litre and later in 4½-litre forms. This engine was more expensive but suitably smooth and quiet. Mills remembers taking one of the first Invicta chassis to the Hersham works of Gordon England, “a most charming man with that wonderful smile”, who put on it a lightweight body, the car being used by Violet Cordery who achieved useful publicity in sprints, sand-races etc.

All was not quite right with the production Invictas, because the Solex carburetter had an incurable flat-spot. Mr Mills recalls that, at the time, Major Anthony Lago arrived at the works in a 1924 ex-Targa Florio 3-litre 22/90 Alfa Romeo, skidding to rest in a shower of stones. He had just obtained the British rights to the LAP carburetter. After two of these had been fitted to the Invicta engine it ran splendidly, but there were supply problems, so in the end two SUs were sued, which cured both the flat-spot and the somewhat irritating induction roar of the Solex. Incidentally, Lago sold his Alfa Romeo to Agostino Lanfranchini, who raced it at Brooklands. Although the low axle ratio was not suited to the outer-circuit it did a best lap of 94.33 mph; today the car is raced by Chris Mann.

Mills remembers being called into Macklin’s office in 1925 and told “There’s a nice little job for you”. He was to take Trade number plates to Newhaven, and meet Douglas Hawkes who had driven the famous 300 hp Fiat “Mephistopheles” from Montlhéry, outside Paris, and was to bring it to the Invicta works. He was duly met, the plates strapped on, the dockers provided a push-start, and the then-holder of the LSR at 146 mph was driven along Brighton front and through the Sussex and Surrey lanes, to Cobham. A few days later Hawkes was given another push-start and the gigantic chain-drive Fiat was driven to Brooklands, in readiness for Eldridge’s highly exciting Match Race against Parry Thomas’ Leyland Thomas, which took place at a West Kent CC Meeting and which it lost by a narrow margin. Mills had hoped to passenger Eldridge in this dangerous race but Gedge went instead. . . .

The next “nice little job” was taking an Invicta, in which had been installed an Italian FAST engine, to Brooklands where, after doing a few warm-up laps, Mills was to present it to Parry Thomas at the “Hermitage”. It seems that Thomas had thought of using the engine for the forthcoming News of The World 100 Mile Handicap. However, after a few fast laps he thanked Mills “in his nice quiet Welsh voice” but said he thought it “a very woolly motor-car”. Later he range Macklin to confirm his verdict, and in the event he drove his 1½-litre four-cylinder Hooker-engined Thomas Special, winning at 98.23 mph.

In March 1926 Mills went to Monza as Invicta team driver with Violet Cordery and others for long-distance World and class records, and in July 1926 the same Invicta team went to Montlhéry for short-distance records. Later in the year the team was awarded the Dewar Trophy for both efforts. (See Motor Sport, October 1982).

Mills remembers days at Brooklands when Violet Cordery won several sprint races and an informal race there when he was allowed to drive an Essex belonging to a friend of Macklin’s, finishing third in it behind Howey’s Monza Hispano Suiza and Harry Moy in an Oakland, he being an ex-RFC pilot who ran Denham’s Garage at Esher. This was an introduction to Brooklands’ exponents like Le Champion, Dudley Watt, Philip Rampon and so on, and is how Mills came to help Felix Scriven tune his “No No Nanette" after its Hooker-Thomas engine had been installed. Mills rode with Scriven when they won the first race after many disappointments, Scriven being so delighted that it was champagne all round, for his wife, Mills, the mechanics, and all of them. Incidentally, Miss Cordery’s first visit to Monza ended when transmission trouble intervened and the Invicta had to be returned to England but the next record attack was notably successful.

Mills had met “the delightful Dr Benjafield”, riding with him on test at the Track in the Salmson. He recalls happy times when they would meet (in 1927) at Grosvenor Crescent Mews, where “Benjy” kept his road-equipped GP Bugatti, close by St George’s Hospital where he worked, and with four sparking plugs and plug spanner on his lap Mills would be driven very quickly to the Grand Hotel in Folkestone, where Benjafield’s fiancée was the manager’s daughter – they were married in due course. Then there were the satisfyingly fast return runs in the early morning, to the unforgettable scent of Castrol-R and the howl of the Bugatti’s gears. Or they might go to Dover, or to Hythe to ride on the narrow-gauge railway started by Zborowski and Howey. After Mills had left Invicta’s he decided, during a short holiday, to learn to fly. He was instructed at Brooklands by Captain Duncan Davis on Avro 504s. One day, as a reward for volunteering to help wash down an aeroplane, Duncan Davis took him in an Avro 504 to Southsea, where he was to tow an advertising banner for a local shop, over the town. They had only got as far as Hindhead when the engine began to run roughly. Davis put down safely in a field, cured the trouble, Mills swung the prop, and was picked up after Davis had made a couple of test circuits. They flew on to Southsea, went on to Gosport the next day, staying at the Queen’s Hotel, and then returned to Brooklands, Mills getting in some dual control on the way. Brooklands was a good place at which to learn “because it was easy to find the way back, the Track being a prominent landmark”.

Later, in 1928, Mills went as Sales Manager of Lago’s smart showrooms at 37 North Audley Street, selling Isotta-Fraschini and, after Malcolm Campbell had relinquished the agency, Itala cars. This gave Mills access to the Italian Embassy staff round the corner and he also met most of the great Italian restaurateurs, who loved fast cars. He once took a white Isotta to Buckingham Palace to show it to Prince George, and took Franco Masotti of Isotta-Fraschini to see the Boat Race and the Schneider Trophy Race at Calshott, meeting not only all the members of the Italian Macchi-Fiat team but the RAF High Speed Flight as well. It is interesting that Lago was persuaded to prepare an Isotta-Fraschini for the first BRDC 500 Mile Race of 1929, using a Short-chassis Spring model, once owned by Lord Curzon, later Earl Howe. They put a light body on it but tests showed that it was not sufficiently fast and did not hold the track properly, so the idea was abandoned.

Leaving Lago, Mills became a free-lance sports-car salesman, some exotic cars passing through his hands. In 1947 he joined Phil Paddon’s Rolls-Royce business and later formed his own Company, Knightsbridge Motors, specialising in the sale and repair of Phantom IIIs. I was shown some magnificent specimens, with famous owners, in Mr Mills’ photograph albums, and heard some fascinating stories relating to these and other cars; I expect the R-REC knows of this but, if not, they should persuade Edward Mills to show them. That he retains his love of good cars at the age of 78 is indicated by recent disposal of a BMW, replaced by an Alfasud Ti. --- WB