Chris Staniland Test Pilot, Racing Driver and Racing Motorcyclist
You surely remember C S Staniland? He made a very considerable impact on the motor racing scene in the 1920s and 1930s, as well as being Fairey Aviation’s top test-pilot. In these varied fields Christopher Stainbank Staniland operated with quiet reliable efficiency, knowing how to complete each task effectively, racing and flying in white-linen helmet and white overalls, the mark then of a pilot, professional or amateur.
Staniland left Tonbridge School in 1922 and joined the Royal Air Force, when he took up motorcycle racing. With his own Velocette, and later Notions, he achieved many wins and records from 1923 on, both solo and with a sidecar. He was accompanied by a youthful Charles Brackenbury, later to become a well-known competitor, and by George Pearce, who tuned his machines and later looked after the Bugattis of “the irrepressible Staniland”, as the spectators dubbed him.
By 1926 he had added car racing to his accomplished repertoire. In his first car race, at the 1926 BARC Easter Meeting, he was second in his 2-litre straight-eight Bugatti. He then won the Bugatti Handicap at 93.7mph at the Whitsun Meeting, although later the car proved troublesome, but he came third in a 100mph Long Handicap and, in spite of his motorcycle commitments, he took Class-E short-distance records.
Staniland was still an RAF Officer, and was to earn a great reputation as an acrobatic and display pilot. But he managed to fit in his recreation at Brooklands. In 1927, still recognised as a private competitor, he brought his Bugatti out again and lost a race by half-a-mile, to an aged Horstman. He did not use the car much after that, perhaps because he was in training for the RAF Display that summer. But there was a string of motorcycle record runs and one or two wins, and he finished 1927 by helping Spring and Jack Emerson on a Double-12-hour record run with a standard 490cc push-rod Norton, their way lit by the headlamps of a 2-litre Lagonda. The year closed with the BMCRC dinner at the Connaught Rooms, at which Staniland received his Gold Star for lapping Brooklands at over 100mph.
In 1928 Staniland was made a member of the RAF High-Speed Flight. But he did not let this interfere with his Brooklands motorcycle appearances, with more records, and race “firsts”, including three out of the four on Cup Day. But his performances with a 246cc Excelsior-JAP fitted with a streamlined sidecar will not be forgotten.
Unlike some motorcycle riders who switched to car racing, Staniland combined both. Thus in ’28, having changed over to a supercharged 1.5-litre Type 37A Bugatti, he immediately won a 100mph Short Handicap at the Easter Brooklands meeting, after a lap at 108.51mph. This led to a 12sec re-handicap, but the blue Bugatti won again. At Whitsun, the Bugatti lapped at 113.19mph yet was unplaced. Staniland then entered it for the JCC 200-mile Race, without success. By that August, he was well on form, his Bugatti winning the Lightning Short Handicap at 105.21mph from Kaye Don’s 2-litre Sunbeam, the Bugatti lapping at 112.93mph. It was becoming a habit; at the August 1928 BARC races Staniland won easily the “Lightning Long” handicap; then Don’s famous Sunbeam and the Bugatti met again at the Autumn meeting, Don having some exciting moments as he overtook Staniland while the latter was passing a Ballot. But in taking second place that day the Bugatti lapped at 121.47mph, a speed never beaten by a Type 37A.
When Victor Riley entered a team of Riley Nines for the first Ulster TT in 1928 he picked Staniland as one of his drivers, but the car retired with loss of oil, while both his team-mates, Sammy Davis and Clive Gallop, crashed.
But it was Brooklands racing which Chris mostly concentrated on. During the 1929 season he had another stab at a long-distance race but retired from the JCC’s Double-Twelve when a con-rod broke on his Riley. After a spot of bother with the Bugatti, Staniland used it to secure a very close third place from its rival the Sunbeam “Cub” in August, with just a fifth of a second between them. Otherwise, it was flying and motorcycle racing, with Staniland’s Excelsior cleaning up three races at the “Grand Prix” meeting as well as the 250cc Championship race.
Early in 1930 Staniland terminated his RAF short-service commission, leaving with the rank of Flt Lt to join the Fairey Aviation Company as their Chief Test Pilot at Harmondsworth aerodrome now London’s Heathrow! His skill as an aerobatic expert was of great benefit to Fairey’s at displays, apart from his ability to report on experimental aeroplanes. His white-overalled figure was often to be seen beside that of bowler-hatted, dark-suited Sir Richard Fairey, after test fights or at air displays. Staniland’s prowess at aerobatics became legendary he was I believe the only pilot prepared to do what became known as a terminal-velocity dive, when this was requested at a Belgian demonstration, and he did those memorable stunts on light aeroplanes, notably Simrnonds Spartans, at British Shows. It did not, however, prevent him from continuing to enjoy his motor racing.
By 1930 his four-cylinder Bugatti was flying. It won the opening race of the BARC season, lapping at 118.3mph to beat Birkin’s blower-4 1/2 single-seater Bentley over which it had a start of 13sec in six miles. After which the handicaps were against him, so at the August meeting he came up with an Amal-carburetted, linered-down Type 37A Bugatti of 1092cc. This foxed ‘Ebby’, although he still had the car on scratch, which did not stop it from overtaking nine others and winning the Cornwall Junior long Handicap, with a lap at 111.67mph. The ploy was soon rumbled, so the normal engine was used for the Autumn races, but the car retired, perhaps in disgust at these unusual changes to Molsheim mechanism. But in a mountain handicap the Bugatti went like smoke, to make fastest lap at 71.39mph, a record broken later by Campbell’s Dotage.
Serving RAF Officers could not spend all their time at Brooklands, but Staniland continued his motorcycle career, winning two Aggregate Cups for best class performances, Excelsior-mounted.
Staniland was seen less at the track in 1931, the Type 37A unplaced, but it ran in the Mountain Championship race. Staniland made up for this by sharing with the Earl of March the victorious MG Midget in the 1931 JCC Double-Twelve. In 1932 Staniland gave one of his amazing flying displays in a Fairey Firefly II(M) at the BRDC Empire Trophy Meeting, and shared Campbell’s 38/250hp Mercedes-Benz in the two-day 1932 JCC 1000 Miles race, lapping at 93mph and duelling for a time with a Talbot 105, but failed to finish. “CSS” was less active in 1932 but shared the fifth-place Riley with Malcolm Campbell in the BRDC “500”. With the expansion of the Air Force, Staniland’s test flying of Fairey’s military aeroplanes was occupying more of his time, and he was absent from the old Track in 1933, apart from sharing Malcolm Campbell’s newly-rebuilt V12 4-litre Sunbeam In the JCC International Trophy race. The big car led from the Hon Brian Lewis’ Monza Alfa Romeo until its pit-stop. Staniland then took over and gained valuable seconds per lap; but it did not last, the car retiring with a tooth out of the supercharger drive.
He returned in 1934 to drive TASO Mathieson’s GP Bugattis, as TASO was ill. The 2.3 gave “CSS” a second place in a Mountain race from Mays’ ERA which had had an 8sec start, the Bugatti lapping faster, at 77,15mph. The previous second place was in the 2-litre Bugatti, breaking the Mountain class-record at 72.62mph. Otherwise it proved unreliable, its retirements including the Empire Trophy race with axle failure when third.
Staniland drove the blue ex-Raymond Sommer 2.9 P3 Alfa Romeo in 1936. He ran it in the JCC International Trophy race. Although it was last to finish this tough 250-mile contest, as the exhaust manifold came adrift, it had averaged 83.83mph.
“CSS” was, however, concentrating on long races, and in the BRDC “500” shared, with W M Couper, Dr Roth’s allegedly dangerous Talbot 105 single-seater that its owner was said to have declined to drive. Staniland went first and his stint was soon over when a piston broke. The Alfa appeared again for the first Campbell circuit long-distance race, but when in third place weak brakes and clutch trouble put it out.
It looks as if “CSS” had time only for the classic races; in the BRDC “500” he took on the difficult Bimotore Alfa Romeo with its owner Arthur Dobson and lapped very fast. They finished sixth.
The finest display of Staniland’s track-craft came, though, in 1938, when handling the remarkable Multi-Union so-called because it was based on the 2.9 Alfa Romeo, with a GP Mercedes-Benz-like body and many mechanical refinements. It was entered by W C Devereax, and Staniland brought it out at the Dunlop Jubilee Meeting. With a lap at 133.88mph it won the first outer-circuit handicap at 127.77mph fast for a 3-litre car and then, although unplaced did a lap at 72.09mph in the Road Circuit race. That was but a beginning. At the closing Brooklands meeting this combination lapped at 141.49mph, equalling the pace of the 8-litre Barnato-Hassan, in winning the October Long Handicap at 133.26mph, before taking second place in the Mountain Championship. It finally, that day, improved to a lap at 73.52mph over the Campbell or Road circuit. Name me any other fast outer circuit car so adaptable… The Multi-Union ended the 1938 season by breaking short-distance class records at nearly 140mph and the Class B lap record at fully 141.45mph…
In the track’s final year, before war broke out, Chris Staniland was very much in the news. The silver Multi-Union was now extremely quick, having been considerably warmed up. Deveraux of High Duty Alloys remained sponsor and E B Emmott was now the entrant.
At the final race meeting that fateful August, Staniland was to make an attempt on the outright lap record, held by Cobb in the Napier-Railton at 143.44mph. In the Campbell circuit race beforehand Staniland in the Multi-Union II, as it was now named, was victim of its old trouble, stretched valves. It was thus scratched from its first outer-circuit engagement but so as not to disappoint the massed ranks of spectators it came out for the next one. Although very much off-song, it clocked a lap at 142.30mph before it was thought to have cracked a piston.
People will still say it would otherwise have broken Cobb’s record. However, “ifs” and “buts”, fascinating as they may be, have no real place in such situations. Nevertheless, Staniland showed his skill in this extremely fast car and you can, if you like, argue as to which was the more difficult to drive, the heavier Napier-Railton which, once out of line, might have been impossible to get back, or the lighter Multi-Union which could have gone out of control more quickly.
Although remembered as a Brooklands exponent, Staniland did his share of road racing. At Donington Park he took two third places and won a ten-lap race at record speed, from scratch, in TASO’s 2.3 Bugatti and later drove his P3 Alfa Romeo and the ex-Mays’ white Riley there, against other top drivers in the long-distance classics. Not that he had much luck, the monoposto Alfa Romeo cracking its differential casing in the 1936 Empire Trophy Race, where it was leading Seaman’s Maserati. In the “200” weak brakes were his undoing. But his Alfa-Romeo was third in a race which preceded the 1936 Nuffield Trophy event, and the Multi-Union made its debut at Donington in CSC’s care on Coronation Day in 1938.
He drove the same Type 51 Bugatti in the 1934 loM Mannin Moar race, but the gearbox layshaft broke on the very last lap. When Victor Riley entered for the Ulster TT in 1931 he again signed Staniland as one of his drivers, and was rewarded with fifth place overall and a class win for one of the four Nines. Either granted leave by Fairey’s or on holiday, “CSS” drove again for Riley’s in the 1932, 1933 and 1934 TTs, but his Nine had engine trouble in 1932. He then crashed the 1.5-litre Six at Quarry Corner, and had engine trouble again on the Riley Six that he drove in 1934.
There was also a Continental race that year, at Dieppe with the Bugatti (he finished third in the first heat and then retired in the final). Then, at Phoenix Park in 1938, the Multi-Union truly proved it was as versatile as its driver, when it won this road race at 97.45mph, beating the ERAs.
Presumably Staniland had little time for air racing, but he flew a Simmons Spartan in the 1929 King’s Cup race, and would have shared the famous DH88 Comet G-ACSS with Capt Hoperaft in the 1938 race had it not dug a wingtip in during practice the day before.
It is extremely difficult to do full justice to this skilled aviator and motor racing exponent in an article, but I hope this piece will ensure that Chris Staniland will be remembered as one of the best drivers of pre-war days.
As the war clouds thickened he test-flew important Fairey military aeroplanes, such as the Battle, Fulmar, Barracuda, Swordfish and Firefly. In peace time, when competition for orders was important, his flying at RAF and SBAC displays was highly commended after the latter occasion, in 1932, it was reported that Staniland’s exhibition of a Fairey Firefly III Fleet fighter “held the attention of the onlookers to greater benefit than the multi-Hawker display”. Sadly, he was killed on June 28, 1942, while flying a Firefly. WB