Not just a record-breaker

GET Eyston OBE, MC, was known as ‘The Record Man’, but deserves to be remembered also for his track racing

George Edward Thomas Eyston was born in 1897 at the Manor House in Brampton, Oxfordshire, the family dating back through the centuries to the East Hendred estate in Berkshire. Around 1910 the young Eyston had associations with an early aeroplane, with which he experimented with air-to-ground communication. Educated at Stoneyhurst, he joined the army as a private, then in 1915 took a commission in the Dorset Regiment. Later he transferred to the Royal Field Artillery and went out to France, becoming ADC to General Wellsley until he was wounded in 1917. He then served on the Staff until the Armistice, and was mentioned in dispatches and awarded the Military Cross.

In 1919 G E T went up to Trinity College, Cambridge. He became Captain of the First Trinity Boat Club. Having studied engineering he now joined the Marine Department of J Stone and Co and John Thornycrofts. He was to become a director of Castrol, and other important companies. For relaxation he enjoyed most sports including sculling, angling and deep-sea fishing. He was a yachtsman of Olympic skills. He was living then in London’s prestigious Grosvenor Place. His interest in motor racing probably stemmed from his drive in his GN to watch the 1921 French GP at Le Mans.

Eyston justifiably earned the title ‘Record Man’ for the enormous number he broke or set. It was a pouring wet day when I went to Brooklands in 1933 to see him demonstrate a Vanden Plas saloon powered by an 8.8-litre AEC diesel engine as used in London ’buses. In front of this unusual car George stood getting soaked before a sea of open umbrellas, having driven it at 104.86mph over 1km, 101.98mph for a mile, with a best run at 106mph, which beat the 100.75mph diesel speed of American C L Cummings.

I first met G E T in a lift and, curious as to what chassis had been used for this hybrid, I shyly ventured the question. “A Chrysler,” said the Great Man as we were getting out. Years later when I was taking some photographs to an expert copyist in a wild part of mid-Wales he recognised immediately the long-forgotten car. “How so?” “I worked at the LGOC bus depot when the engine was being installed…”

The diesel car achieved useful publicity, and by 1936 Eyston’s 9.2-litre Rolls-Royce V12 sleeve-valve Ricardo-engined ‘Flying Spray’ had the compression-ignition speed record up to just over 159mph on Daytona beach.

Such records were not then recognised, but George knew they soon would be, and in 1936-7 he and Bert Denly took long-distance diesel records at Montlhéry with the ‘Safety Special’ AEC of up to 24 hours (2329 miles) at 97.05mph, until a wheel fell off. He also showed that he could cope with street racing. In the 1933 Isle of Man Mannin Moar race in a Monza Alfa Romeo he finished third, and in the 1½-litre race in 1934 he took the same place for MG.

When as editor of Motor Sport I did interviews with famous racing drivers I got Castrol’s PR department to fix one with G E T. It was arranged for 11am and on the short road up to G E T’s house (since named Eyston Close) I found him sitting by the side of the road, in a position as if imagining that he was landing one of those big fish. “You must be WB,” he said and we were soon in his library talking cars. A longish time later Mrs Eyston knocked on the door to say a young man from Castrol had arrived. “We have started,” said Eyston. “Give him coffee and if he wants to stay to lunch he can.” When I was leaving Eyston called to the PR person, “I lent a Utah film to your company a year ago and it has not been returned; I need it this week.”

“I will see what I can do,” called back the young man. “No,” said G E T. “You will not see what you can do. You will return my film this week.” I rather liked that…

We had talked about the problems of driving the 73-litre (two Rolls-Royce engines), seven-ton, eight-wheeled ‘Thunderbolt’ in 1939 at 357.5mph etc, and the time in 1931 when his hour-record MG caught fire. He got out of the cramped cockpit and was taken to a Paris hospital by a Citroën driver on a long-duration run, so that when G E T’s frenzied crew came to search for him he had vanished.

His record cars were indeed versatile, varying from a modest Singer Ten saloon to the LSR monster. At Utah, USA, Eyston and John Cobb, while on friendly terms, were engaged almost daily in increasing one another’s speeds, Cobb with his 48-litre (two Napier Lion engines) 350.20mph 4WD Railton. Before I left Eyston’s house I enquired if he felt annoyed in not receiving a knighthood, like Segrave and Campbell. “No,” he replied. “The French knew my worth, and awarded me the Legion d’Honour.” He was also made a Knight of the Sovereign of Malta.

G E T had said, “you must come again and discuss my motor racing.” Sadly he died in 1979 before the proposed visit, so although there are no inside comments as I might have had, at least I can show that G E T was an accomplished racing driver as well as an established record breaker.

It started in 1922 when he was second in class at the Waterworks hillclimb to a GN, driving his Aston-Martin. In 1923 G E T began racing at Brooklands, with a twin-cam Aston-Martin, which gave him a win and a third place.That summer he was married (they had two daughters) and as his wife wanted him to give up car racing he put the twin-cam A-M engine in a boat called ‘Miss Olga’ for racing on the Thames, where competitors had to contend with river traffic.

G E T was back at Brooklands from ’26, with his brother Basil, both in twin-cam Aston-Martins. G E T won five BARC short handicaps, with one second and three third places in the Aston and a 1½-litre Bugatti. In one of these Basil was given a three-second start and placed second to G E T, both men in twin-cam B&M Aston-Martins. G E T’s skill was seen in the 1932 BRDC British Empire Trophy Final when he drove the 8-litre single-seater Panhard and John Cobb used the 10½-litre Delage. They fought a fierce duel, crossing the line in close company, Cobb just ahead. G E T accepted his defeat, but it was put to him that as the Panhard had been sent from Paris for publicity, he should protest on the grounds that he had been unintentionally baulked. This he did, and after a two-and-a-half-hour meeting he was awarded the race. Cobb, however, then took the case to the RAC, where the decision was reversed to make him the winner by a fifth of a second. Both drivers remained friends, G E T giving Cobb a celebratory dinner after.

Eyston led the 1929 BRDC 500-mile race in the improbable and ageing Sunbeam ‘Cub’ until a spring broke, shared Ivanowski’s Alfa Romeo in the JCC Double-12 of 1930, and was doing well in the 1932 500 in the MG ‘Magic Midget’ until a piston broke.

In the 1934 500 the back axle of the MG Magnette failed, and in the 1935 BRDC Empire Trophy race G E T retired. At Brooklands he also raced a 35B Bugatti and Stewart’s 1750 Alfa Romeo, and drove a Bugatti in the race for these cars. In ‘long’ races at Brooklands G E T won the 1934 BRDC British Empire Trophy race in an MG Magnette; told this, he said, “Good, it’s a hundred years since I won a race.”

However, his real merit was seen in Continental events, beginning at Boulogne in 1923 when his aged Aston-Martin finished third to Segrave in a Talbot and R C Morgan’s similar Aston-Martin, and he won the 1926 Voiturette GP there in a Bugatti. The greatest display of his ability was seen at the 1933 350-mile French GP with Campari (Maserati) winning by less than a minute from Etancelin (Alfa Romeo) in spite of a 1000-franc fine for a push start, with G E T a lap behind after a typically steady race in an over-geared Alfa Romeo. In 1927 he had been flagged off in the slow Halford Special but in 1931, with Birkin, he was fourth in a Maserati.

Le Mans in an Aston Martin with Bertelli and a Stutz with Watney were unsuccessful but in the 1928 Ards TT Eyston was third in class in a Lea-Francis, second in class in an Alfa Romeo in 1929, and in 1931, driving a Maserati, he finished fourth in class and he was second overall for Riley in the 410-mile race, as a change from record-breaking. At Montlhéry he was fourth in the 1927 GP de Ouverture in a Bugatti and third in the Formula Libre event, again in a Bugatti.

G E T was now looking after MG’s competition affairs and, records and racing apart, he organised the entry of three works 846cc PA- Type MG Midgets to be entered for Le Mans in 1935, to be driven by Joan Richmond/Mrs Simpson, Doreen Evans/Barbara Skinner, and Margaret Allan/Mrs Eaton. They drove as a team, being called “Uncle Eyston’s Young Ladies” or his “Dancing Daughters” by the media. They finished 24th, 25th and 26th, with only two Austin Sevens behind them.

Eyston seemed reluctant to stop; in July 1939 at Brooklands he drove the Embiricos streamlined Bentley Continental for an hour at 114mph, so consistently that eight laps were each timed at 115.02mph.G E T used a light aeroplane for a time but found it less useful for business trips than expected, but he had his private pilot’s licence at the age of 70 plus a seaplane licence (taken in a DH Tiger Moth on floats).

In WWII he did important work related to the Allied Landings and was awarded the OBE. His other awards included the 120mph badge in 1929 (Bugatti), the 130mph badge in 1932 (Panhard), a BRDC Gold Star, an ACACR gold medal, and in 1936 the Segrave Trophy.