The British Le Mans

In order to sell more cars, manufacturers seek victory on the racetrack, preferably in a ‘prestige event. One of these is the Le Mans 24 hours; another such was the Essex Motor Club’s six hours of Brooklands. Bill Boddy explains

The French did it first. There’s absolutely no doubt about Le Mans being the first race in which strictly scrutinised sporting-type cars were submitted to a stern 24-hour contest intended to highlight their qualities — and their weaknesses. It had, in the beginning, to be undertaken for three years running before the outright winner would be proclaimed.

But in the 1920s, spectators from Britain were not numerous and the initial 1923 race was won by a Chenard-et-Walcker anyway. Even W Bentley, with his new 3-litre to publicise, only decided to go to watch the great French race at the very last moment, when reminded that John Duff was driving a Bentley; he tied for fourth, with a Bignan, and Clement made fastest lap. W O was impressed, to the extent of extending more help to Duff for the 1924 race, works driver Frank Clement again being co-driver. They won.

W O then ran two works Bentleys in 1925 but they retired, and Louis Coatalen had the satisfaction of seeing his 3-litre twin-cam Sunbeam come home second, behind a 3.5litre Lorraine-Dietrich, although Segrave’s Sunbeam retired. For the 1926 Le Mans race, W O ran a works team of two Speed Model 3-litres and a short-wheelbase Super Sports 3-litre, hoping to compensate for failure the previous year, but all three retired. Bentley must have felt frustrated and he looked for a way of possible redemption for his cars. He hoped to find it at Brooklands, where, on May 7, 1927, a British sportscar race was to be held.

By this time not only were cars in general use, for business and pleasure, but also by those who wanted to enjoy competition driving, at Brooklands in the MCC and other trials, and at the numerous speed trials and hill-climbs available to them. To meet this need many manufacturers had suitable cars in their catalogues. The 3-litre Bentley and 3-litre Sunbeam, the 30/98 Vauxhall (although General Motors was about to kill this one off), the 12/50 Alvis and Lea-Francis, the 2-litre Speed Model Lagonda, the dry-sump Bertelli Aston Martin, the GE Brooklands-model Austin 7, the chaindriven Frazer Nash, the 20/70 Crossley, the MGs, the side-valve Redwing and Brooklands-type Riley 9 and others were competing for sales with the strong foreign opposition by 1926/27. There were also a few small-output makes available in sports form, some of which were more sporty in bodywork than in power.

Racing provided the peak of good publicity if successful, an unfortunate setback if not. Le Mans was not yet being widely used by British car makers, only Bentley, Sunbeam and Austin (the last named Gordon England’s lone Seven on which he based his fabric-bodied GE production model) entering up to 1927. Now it was to Brooklands that W O turned.

The ambitious and daring Junior Car Club was running 200-mile races there for racing cars, but in 1926 it had also held its Three-Hour Production Car Race over the ‘200’ course with devised corners, won by a Salmson, from an Amilcar and another Salmson. But these races were for cars not exceeding 1.51itres. In 1927 the Essex MC organised its Six-Hour sportscar event. In January that year, Noel van Raalte had suggested such a race in a long letter to The Autocar, his ideas based largely on Le Mans practice but with some variations, and obviously to be held at Brooklands.

Van Raalte was rich; he owned Brownsea Island, had a fully-equipped workshop, had fun with racing cars while at Cambridge, and drove Rolls-Royces. W O was impressed when he called to take delivery of the first production Bentley, a coupe; but Stanley Sedgwick’s All the Pre-War Bentleys — As New (13DC/RR Ltd, 1976) shows him only as having car 400, in 1924. It would seem that S C H Davis, the magazine’s Sports Editor, was given the task of finding a club which would put on such a race. After many refusals, it was the Essex MC which agreed to do it, and its secretary, E J Bass, whose address was Chancery Lane, got busy.

The Autocar gave a cup for the winner, saying the race ‘would be better sport than any of the GPs’! This Club held Brooklands meetings from 1921 onwards, with more than two in a season up to ’28, in spite of the Track not being very convenient to reach for many of its members, with London intervening, whereas it was more so for the Surbiton MC, also active there.

However, May 7,1927 was fixed for this ambitious Six-Hour race. It was definitely for near-standard sportscars. They had to have two or four-seater bodies in the up-to-1500cc/over-1500cc classes, and be of virtually catalogue specification. The only permitted departures were, after some thought, raised compression ratio and stronger valve-springs, no doubt because these the scrutineer could not check, high-as well as low-pressure tyres for cam with wheel-rim sizes unable to take the newer tyres, and quick-action filler caps for the fuel tanks; 50/50 petrol/benzole was allowed. Engine tuning was supposed to represent what might be done by an enthusiastic owner; the organisers knew that onlookers prefer to see racing cars galloping rather than trotting, which completely standard cars might not provide. To comply with the rules, the streamline tail of the Excelsior had to be removed and the Lea-Francis two-seaters rushed to have their dickey-seat lids widened to full width.

Private entries were encouraged, The Autocar giving addresses where £5 132Ibs lead ballast blocks, helmets (compulsory), goggles and racing filler caps could be purchased. But it was manufacturers and trade who appreciated the race’s publicity value.

The sandbank S-bends were available as the JCC had put them in place for its Junior GP the week previously, but the course would use the Byfleet Banking and Railway Straight, taken anti-clockwise. Brooklands was closed for a week for practice. Cars had to be locked away the night before the race, but the proposal to exdude any which did not start on their starters afterwards was abandoned, as it would promote cold oil when the start maroon exploded. Tools and jacks had to be carried on the cars, starting handles were sealed, and only driver and passenger could work at the pits. It must have given scrutineer Hugh McConnell, who could spot a creeping crack in a Bugatti’s aluminium wheel, a lasting headache.

Alfa Romeo had hoped to send over 1500cc cars, but two-seater bodies could not be made in time; apparently only four-seaters existed in Italy. But the entry list comprised five Bentleys, five Salmsons, three Alvises, three Lea-Francis, two each of Amilcar, OM, and Austin 7, one each of Excelsior, Vauxhall, Austro-Daimler, Diatto, Lagonda, AC, side-valve Aston-Martin, Hampton and Senechal. The AC, Lagonda and Meeson’s 30/98 were saloons which, as hoods had to be raised for the 10 laps after a Le Mans-fashion `run and jump in’ start, then furled, had an initial advantage, but the odd excuse was made that afterwards they would suffer more from wind drag than the other cars when open.

The race was intended to be based on how far the class distances were exceeded, but Barnato put up a cup for the longest run which rather changed this, welcome as was the anticipated battle between the 3-litre Bentleys and the twin-cam 3litre Sunbeams.

Tattersell looked after the works Alvises, and David and Head (Casque, his keen office colleague) got the hood up eventually in 15sec, did a stop-to-start wheel change in 69sec, and even practised valvespring changes, using a magnet to pick up the cotters from a hot cylinder head.

Those present to assess the proficiency or otherwise of cars they might buy would presumably, if watching from 11am to 5pm, have noted that Balls’ Amilcar lost a lap not wanting to start and much later ran a big-end, as did the Excelsior when an oil pipe broke. One Lea-Francis retired with a faulty gearbox, another with big-end failure, as did Dreyfus’ Salmson, while the Lagonda holed a piston.

They may have noticed the privately entered Sunbeam beginning to run badly and Birkin’s Bentley losing third gear but finishing, the other three works Bentleys retiring with broken duralumin rockers. Segrave, just back from America after his 203mph LSR with the ‘1000 hp’ Sunbeam, was watched with interest until his Sunbeam pulled into the bay by the aeroplane sheds, apparently out of fuel. He reported this and was thus disqualified; one report says he was bored and stopped deliberately, and went off with his wife to watch outboard-motor boat racing in Southampton, seeing that George Duller in the other Sunbeam was almost certain to win and take Bamato’s cup intended for a Bentley! Before they really speeded up, the Bentleys and Duller’s Sunbeam took the first S-bend at about 27mph, the next at around 30mph.

Those whose pens were cheque-book poised ready to purchase a new sportscar perhaps consulted the race results:

First was Davis (Alvis), followed by Newman (Salmson), Dunfee (Salmson), Duller (Sunbeam), Harvey (Alvis), Dykes (Alvis), Hazlehurst (Salmson), Birkin (Bentley), Durlacher (Diatto) and Dingle (Austin 7). Davis, Newman, Duller, Durlacher and Dingle won their classes. There were no other finishers.

The winning Alvis had done wonderfully, being only 15.07 miles or 2.3mph behind Duller’s 3-litre Sunbeam, with no involuntary stops.

This must have overshadowed the JCC event, run that August as the Sporting Car Race, extended to four hours, and won by Harvey’s 12/50 Alvis. The Essex MC ran its Six-Hour Race again in 1928, won by Ramponi (Alfa Romeo), and in ’29, the BARC took over, the winner the Bentley of Bamato/Dunfee. But the adventurous JCC had eclipsed these with its DoubleTwelve-Hour races. The Alfa Romeo of Ramponi won this ultimate of English sportscar races in 1929, Bamato/Clement (Bentley) won the following year, and the Earl of March/Davis (A7) in 1931. Before that, Bentley dominated the Le Mans 24 Hours, an event which British enthusiasts were beginning to discover. So did spectators at such races buy cars of the kinds which were successful, and in what numbers, I wonder?