Riddle of the Mystery Fiat

In the stupendously readable autobiography (Adventure with Fate, Airlife, 1984, ISBN 906393 36 I) of the late Harald Penrose, OBE, C.Eng, RAFO, MRINA, who was the Westland test pilot among other aeronautical accomplishments, there is reference to ‘a dashing green Grand Prix Fiat racing car’.

It was owned by Major Laurence P Openshaw, who also had a ‘glittering twin-cylinder Brough Superior motorcycle’. Openshaw had taken a postwar MA degree at Cambridge, and had managed a marble factory in Italy. He had been the chief test pilot of the Admiralty’s Eastchurch Testing Establishment, and was later an RAF Reserve officer.

He took Penrose, then a student at Westland’s Yeovil factory, in various aeroplanes, one flight almost ending in disaster when the engine of the Widgeon 1 monoplane gave out. It was in the Fiat that they went from Yeovil to Andover in 1925 for Openshaw to collect the Westland Limousine biplane.

“We drove there in his big racing Fiat at what, to me, was an unbelievable 70mph, gales of wind thudding at my head and the big engine roaring.” In those 60 miles, they met only two other cars.

So what was this racing Fiat, which Openshaw worked on and drove?

I do not think it could have been one of the Fiats that contested the French GPs of 1906 (2nd), ’07 (1st) or ’12 (2nd), or we would have heard of it, although it does seem to have been driven sans windscreen and silencer. It could not have been the 10-litre overhead-camshaft Tipo S61 Fiat which was so well-known at Brooldands, because John Cobb was driving it there at the time.

I suspect it was a production touring car, of similar size and performance, perhaps a 9-litre Tipo 5 or a Tipo S61.

In May 1926, Lord Cunliffe’s Fiat S61 was delivering the Government newspaper during the General Strike, and afterwards its engine went into the Brooldands S61. It might, or might not, have been the ex-Openshaw car.

Kent Karslake, who at the time was contributing his evocative Sideslips and Veteran Types articles to Motor Sport, always thought that the Fiat which was doing so well at Weybridge was not a GP car but a touring Fiat made into a racing car, winning not the French GP but the lesser 1911 GP of the AC de France.

Major Openshaw continued as Westland’s test pilot and raced the company’s products until his Widgeon and Flt. Lt. Longton’s Blackburn Bluebird collided at the 1927 Boumemouth Whitsun Flying Display. Openshaw burned to death, and Longton was also killed.

I have been unable to establish whether the Etonian Laurence Openshaw, who raced a 986cc Zenith GraduaJAP motorcycle at Brooklands in 1913, and also in 1914 when, as Flt.Sub.Lt RN, he won his race was the same man as the famous test pilot. But the dates do tie up.

Penrose wrote many other readable books, including his painstaking and invaluable five-volume History of British Aviation. In Volume Three, he says of Major Openshaw: “In Italy, he participated in the Grand Prix with a Fiat racing car painted in the official British racing green, and which is now garaged in the aerodrome hangar (at Yeovil).”

What, Fiat folk, are we to make of that?