Out of the Past, February 1992
Reading the unpublished mss of a book written just after the last war by the late Ronnie Malcolm, I was reminded of what fun people had, not only in cars, but in the then carefree pursuit of private flying, in the days before Hitler changed most of that. A keen frequenter of Brooklands, Malcolm acquired the old racing ABC car which EC Gordon England had driven there, including in three JCC 200 Mile Races, for one of which he installed a Bristol “Cherub” light aeroplane engine, in order to lift it into the 1 1/2-litre class, although this, the smallest of the aero-engined Brooklands cars, was still giving away some 280cc.
Ronnie Malcolm raced this ABC, its airship-like two-seater body in black and white stripes, in handicap races at Weybridge in 1925. He was now using an air-cooled flat-twin power-unit of a full 1493cc (89 x 120mm). A contempory account says this was one of Granville Bradshaw’s ABC “Gnat” engines as used for unmanned flying targets during WW1 and for small aeroplanes like the Sopwith “Sparrow” and Grain “Kitten”. However, the dimensions do not fit in at all, nor do they for the family of ABC and Bristol light-plane power-units that followed. So the origin of Malcolm’s racing car engine remains a mystery.
The fact is that it gave sufficient speed (it could lap Brooklands at over 77mph) to net a third place at the Whitsun races, behind Dr Benjafield in his winning Salmson and Aldridge’s 12/50 Alvis. The plump, cheery Ronnie Malcolm was racing as a private competitor, being a junior clerk in the City, learning the family business. Early in 1927 he replaced motor-racing with private flying, after some friends and he had discovered that the flying clubs were being subsidised to train pilots. After a Dry Martini session in the Cocktail Bar of the Branksome Towers Hotel in Bournemouth, three letters with the requisite fees were posted to the London Aeroplane Club, which was giving flying lessons at Stag Lane, Edgware, where de Havilland aeroplanes were then made, in a couple of Cirrus-1 Moths.
At first Malcolm took his lessons at week-ends. But it seemed a good idea to put in some time in the air during the week. This was contrived by driving rapidly to Stag Lane four days a week, in a lunch hour extended by a little co-operation from the other clerks and making use of the delays involved by taking shipping documents to the Port of London Authority! Half-an-hour’s tuition could be enjoyed during one lunch “hour’… Soon it was time for the first solo flight. There is a splendid tale of how Malcolm had taken a girl-friend to a night club, her parents thinking they were at a dance at a private house, and finding his Instructor there, with another girl. The Instructor not wishing his wife to know of this gave Malcolm the chance of a little blackmail, and his first solo was duly arranged the next morning, before the weather broke.
The next hurdle was the A-licence test. All the Instructors being busy, Capt Geoffrey de Havilland himself agreed to observe it. Malcolm, being a heavy man, found that it took ages for the 60hp Cirrus-Moth to attain the stipulated height. He then set about returning to earth, for the deadstick landing within a prescribed area of ground.
He had noticed as he took-off that Capt de Havilland had gone into the workshops, so hoped his surreptitious throttle-openings for the final 100 feet or so of his descent and a couple of bumps on landing would go unseen! He duly got his licence but the Captain told him later that his performance had been observed, through the workshop windows. This may have been an example of de Havilland’s kind and understanding nature, but one imagines he had an interest in the Club which used his aeroplanes, and the more pupils who passed their test the better. . .
Soon after this, air-racing superceded motor racing. Ronnie Malcolm’s first visit to the Ensbury Park meetings at Bournemouth was done crammed into the front seat of a Club Moth with the golf-clubs and suitcase of the pilot who was flying it, none other than Sydney St Barbe, who coped admirably with the strong head wind, low cloud, and rain that had persisted all the way. But they were glad to be down! For the next meeting another Instructor flew Malcolm down, lunch being taken on the way, at Worthy Down, with some RAF friends. In the races, of the round-the-pylons variety, they had just taken off and were half-way round a turn when the engine cut out, almost over the Press building, at about 200 feet. The pilot was left facing two hangars and in the limited space between these and the Mess he glided in to hit the brick arch of the hangar wall. The Moth bounced off the tarmac, writing off its undercarriage, which came through the floor and hit Malcolm on the ankle. The aeroplane then hit the arch again, to fall to the ground and catch fire. Two RAF pilots got the occupants out. Both spent a pleasant week recovering in Bournemouth.
To advertise the Ensbury races machines were encouraged to fly along the sea-front to increase attendance in the afternoon. Malcolm was taken on one of these flights in an Avro 504K with 130hp Clerget rotary engine. Just as they had cleared a fence the engine began to cough and Ronnie was told to pump up fuel pressure with the handpump. When he stopped from exhaustion, the engine promptly stopped! Not only was his suit ruined by the castor oil blown back into the front cockpit but even when pumping hard, as they returned to the aerodrome, the Clerget began to fail just as the boundary fence had been cleared. Had they been over the sea a dip would have been inevitable.
On another occasion a well-known pilot had been unable to race his machine, a rare French SECM biplane with a 300hp Hispano Suiza V8 engine, due to a leaking radiator. After this had been dealt with, using soap and chewing-gum, Malcolm went with him in the side-by-side-seater cockpit, back to Hendon.
This Spad-like aeroplane had a poor take-off and a high landing speed. They only just cleared the boundary fence and then, over the New Forest, the pilot shouted to his passenger to turn on the oil tap behind the dash, which he had overlooked before take-off. It proved both stiff and inaccessible but by leaving the aeroplane to its own devices it was shifted at last. Over Hendon the pilot demonstrated a patent anti-stall device, a piston on the stick being supposed to push this out of the pilot’s hands if he moved it back too far. Of course, it failed to function, and the SCEM stalled and spun. It came out at the last moment, and the hard landing burst a tyre, the resultant swing bending the axle. As the owner was fed up with it and there were no spares, the aeroplane was left to rot in some far corner, this presumably being its last flight.
The pylon-racing at Endbury was full of incidents: the police had to intervene when an irate farmer shot at a Blackburn “Bluebird” with a 12-bore. The well-known Brooklands pilot Dudley Watt flew his old Hispano Suiza-engined SE5a, on one occasion having to exert such force to avert a collision at a turn that he stretched the aileron cables, and had to finish the race with sloppy controls. These Endsbury Park meetings were cancelled after an accident in which the passenger in a DH37a had been killed and later a collision between a Bluebird 1 and a Widgeon 111 killed both pilots; this ground, where the Hon C S Rolls had died flying in 1910, was closed and is now a housing estate.
Malcolm having decided on a flying career, he wanted his own aeroplane. His family put up the money and he bought from an RAF pilot a Boulton & Paul P9, delivered to Stag Lane. This ancient two-bay, two-seater biplane had a 90hp RAF V8 engine which blew oily mist over the occupants from its large 4-bladed propeller. It had no trimming device and was best flown from the front seat. It cost £200 and was, I believe, the only one of its kind, used from 1919 by the maker’s sales department. It could do 103mph but a heavy landing could bend the axle carrying the large wheels with high-pressure tyres, and a carburettor flat-spot made the take-off exciting. A morning would sometimes be wasted in trying to start it, traced eventually to a cracked cylinder. So the P9 was sold for what it cost to a keen chap who flew it to St Moritz for the winter sports, landing on a frozen lake. How it cleared the mountains en route remains a mystery and it is believed to have crashed into some fir trees and been left for firewood.
After this Malcolm joined the RAFVR, completing a training course on Renault-Avro 504Ks, Cirrus 11 Moths and DH9s and 9Js. One of the pilots knew the Duchess of Bedford and flew into her landing strip in Woburn Park, a trip involving difficult departures in the DH9Js, chased by wild animals, after she had met them in her aged Rolls-Royce. There is a story, possibly apocryphal, of a Bristol Fighter force-landing in the bisons’ enclosure. The pilot and navigator climbed a tree to safety and were rescued by a steam-roller, onto which they climbed while the bison, which later demolished the aeroplane, blistered their noses or the hot parts of the roller. .
Ronnie Malcolm now joined the Sales Staff of the DH Company, private flying having truly taken off. He had his own Cirrus 11 Moth (G-EBNC), later replaced by a new Gipsy 1 Moth (G-AAAI). The latter was eventually sold to Misr-Airwork in Cairo and when flying home from India by KLM, Malcolm broke his journey to borrow it for a visit to the Pyramids. During this time pub-crawls by air were popular! One such visit would be to the “Lambert Arms” on the Oxford road, the proprietor of which raced a 30/98 at Brooklands. Two fields were useable, one involving a low approach and a take-off over ‘phone wires, the other the opposite procedure. A river pub near Sutton Courtney was another attraction, but a haystack in the middle of the private owner’s field could be a hazard; one pilot taxi-ed into it while doing up his harness and, his propeller broken, had to be flown three-up in a Moth back to Stag Lane.
The “East Arms” on the Henley-Oxford road had a field calling for some skill, as it was on a slope and approached by a hill fringed with tall trees. You side-slipped in, but one pilot of a Simmonds Spartan left this too late and a lorry had to take the wreck home. The “White Hart” at Sonning had a good field three-quarters-of-a-mile away, used until its owner protested. The “Quarry Inn” on the Thames near Bourne End had an excellent field behind it, if you did not mind taking off beneath ‘phone-wires before climbing away, and coming in on a turning sideslip to avoid the hill to the West. A Moth once hit a cow there and had to return to Stag Lane with one wheel missing but the owner of a Mew Gull would do a last-minute swerve and finish up with the hotel wall four feet from his wing tip.
In those carefree days the owner of the “Fountain” at Bletchley on the A1 advertised a small field up the road and provided transport to and from it, but with little lift in the air three Moths, in clearing the high hedge, brushed the surrounding trees. The “Hinds Head” at Bray was also visited by air and if you use any of these hotels it might be worth a glance around, to see if any of these impromptu landing-grounds remain . . .
When war came Ronnie Malcolm flew with ATA, but that is another story. And if any readers find this aviation intrusion unpalatable, may I remind them that at one time MOTOR SPORT’S title page bore the slogan “Land-Air-Water”! – WB
As the number of 4WD Fords in use is ever increasing, I thought it opportune to relate to how the twin-cam 2-litre XR five-door hatchback I have been driving is faring. The significant thing is that there is nothing to report! Just as the previous XR 4WD Sierra with the 2.8-litre V6 engine notched up over 42,000 miles with not an iota of trouble, not as much as a blown lamp bulb, so this smaller-engined Sierra is proving equally reliable at 18,223 miles.
It went into a local Ford dealer’s for repairs, admittedly. But only because the woman driver of a little FSO pulled out from a lay-by without looking and clobbered us, an approaching car making it impossible for me to give her as much room as I wished to. “Oh”, was her response, “I have caused a few scratches”. Both the near-side doors had to be replaced, at a cost to the insurance firms involved of some £700. I lost the use of the car for nearly two weeks, during which time I was hired an Escort 1.6 LX, which had impossibly heavy manual steering and a noisy engine, at a cost of some £400. There was the waste of time and petrol going to a Main Ford Agent to have the repairs assessed and then the work done.
What I find so annoying is that a driver who causes such an unnecessary accident gets away completely scot-free, if the police are not involved, apart from perhaps losing his or her no-claims bonus. On the ‘knock-for-knock’ system, all our insurance premiums will presumably increase as a result of such carelessness. But the perpetrator does not even incur licence penalty-points, as others may do for exceeding a speed-limit by a few mph or for incidents in which bad luck, rather than bad driving, are the cause.
Ford service is good as a rule, so I was rather surprised that the Sierra was declared ready for collection before the damaged body rubbing-strips had been replaced (apparently the Main Dealer had forgotten to order them or else Ford had not sent them to him), one new door-seal was faulty, and the radio had not been re-coded.
The Ford’s mechanicals have been 100% trouble-free, oil consumption almost unbelievably moderate, and the performance and green-fuel economy perfectly satisfactory, by my present standards. In fact, my choice of future transport will be decidedly limited, because I must have four-wheel-drive, preferably on the convenient and fool-proof Ferguson system, ABS anti-lock anchorage, and a car no smaller than this accomodating and convenient Sierra.
Tyres have been a mild problem. The car was delivered on Uniroyal Rallyes, on which I understand testing and research of the Ford/Ferguson 4WD was carried out. Fine, until one of them developed a slow puncture, said to be caused by a rift in the sidewall. I sent it to Uniroyal for examination. One report said it had suffered damage at my hands, another that it was holding full pressure and would be returned for re-fitting to the car. It never materialised! Not liking to be without a spare, I settled for a Dunlop SP Sport D8 cover, the only make of the Sierra’s size the local NTS depot had in stock. The off-side rear Uniroyal is now below the new legal-minimum 1.6mm, so two new back tyres will be required, and new front tyres not all that long afterwards. The previous 4WD Fords have worn out their front tyres first; the Twin-cam Sierra’s o/s rear was illegal, the n/s rear down to 2mm, the n/s front to 4mm, the o/s front to 2mm. Summing-up – no complaints: full marks, Ford! W B