The Cars of Sir Ralph Millais, Bt.

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Described to the Editor in a recent interview

Sir Ralph Millais, Bt., whose V12 4-litre Sunbeam “Tiger” and Type 59 3.3-litre G.P. Bugatti are a warmly appreciated feature of present-day V.S.C.C. race meetings, inherits his love of good motor cars from his father, who, before the 1914/18 war used to indulge in long runs in a 25 h.p. Clement Talbot tourer, driving himself and frequently camping beside the car. He thought nothing of leaving his home in Surrey at 4 a.m. and arriving in Perth in time for dinner. After the war the Talbot was replaced by a 23/60 Vauxhall, which is remembered as a very sound car, although his young son regretted that it was not a 30/98 . . .

The seed of motoring enthusiasm having been planted, Millais’ parents could hardly object when, aged 14 and at Marlborough, he became a motorcyclist, with a Levis two-stroke, later changed for a 16H Norton. Going up to Cambridge, Millais acquired his first car, an 8/18 Talbot, which he drove in the 1923 M.C.C. London-Exeter Trial, climbing all the hills successfully but being caught ahead of the dreary 20 m.p.h. schedule in a secret check. Craving something with rather more performance, the Talbot was replaced by a Grand Prix-model Salmson, “a delightful car,” with which a gold medal was won in the 1924 Land’s End Trial.

While he was still at Cambridge Millais bought a 200-Mile Race A.C. from E. L. Meeson, who was making a name at Brooklands with a 30/98 Vauxhall. This racing-bodied A.C., which had been driven by Kaye Don as well as by Meeson, had the s.v. Anzani engine, which was developing 58 b.h.p.; it ran on ordinary petrol and was capable of 96 m.p.h. and was used on the road sans mudguards or silencer, providing its owner with a lot of fun. He drove it in the 1926 Inter-Varsity Speed Trials (in which Ronnie Symondson, his friend since prep.-school days, made f.t.d. on a Brough-Superior) but ran off the course and burst a tyre.

Leaving England to attend to business abroad, Millais had to get rid of this fast A.C. in 1926, but, returning three years later, he bought a 3-litre twin-cam Sunbeam tourer, which he kept for three years. This was “a 90 m.p.h. car with a beautifully smooth engine, which gave an enormous amount of pleasure,” although it needed a set of new pistons and was hampered, like all its kind, by the long-wheelbase of its chassis. The Sunbeam was followed by a Type 38 Bugatti saloon, and Millais makes no bones about it“it was a bad car.” When it broke the crankshaft of its straight-8 engine climbing the mild acclivity between Haslemere and Hindhead he got Papworth, the Bugatti specialist, to collect it, taking in exchange a Type 44 Bugatti with a very sedate James Young touring body. Apart from one slight mechanical mishap, this proved to be as good as the previous Bugatti with its shortage of crankshaft bearings had been disastrous.

The year 1934 saw Millais in possession of a car he remembers with an affection equal to that he feels for Alfa Romeos. This was a 30/98 O.E. Vauxhall Velox, which had had but one previous owner, E. D. Abbott, the Farnham coachbuilder. Bought for £65, this was an 85 m.p.h. car with “the kidney-box f.w.b., which were not up to the very considerable performance.” Perhaps for this reason, it was not used for competition work; but it made frequent journeys to Brooklands, which Sir Ralph had first visited in his motorcycling days, where friends would be met and the Vauxhall driven on the Track in company with their cars. This 30/98 was so well liked and reliable that it was kept for twelve years.

Meanwhile, the Type 44 Bugatti having been disposed of, a Talbot 90 open 4-seater was acquired, remembered as capable of 80 m.p.h. and as “a very good car, with good brakes and road-holding, and somehow reminiscent of the 3-litre Sunbeam.” But it did get water in its sump . . . So, in 1936, the subject of this interview replaced it with a rare straight-8 Ballot Weymann saloon, which would have been better with a bigger engine but which was “an attractive car in its own manner,” but which unfortunately came to an unhappy end. Another French car took its place, in the form of the very interesting 4-litre sleeve-valve Le Mans-type Peugeot tourer, which Symondson had owned previously. With pointed tail behind the 4-seater metal body, straight-sided tyres, and l.h.d., this Peugeot had a remarkably long stride, cruising at 80 m.p.h. all day and being capable of a genuine 90 and it was also commendably dependable. It was pretty stark but Millais now regrets ever having parted with it.

However, he needed a car in London, where the traffic and this Peugeot didn’t mix well, so he bought another Type 44 Bugatti, this time with a fabric Saloon body, “a gentlemanly town-carriage, able to do just about 80 m.p.h.” This brings us up to the Second World War, during which Millais used the 30/98 on official duties, supplemented by various Austin Tens and Twelves and the like—”These old Austins always served well as plodders.”

It was in 1943 that Millais was in Slough when he saw, a 3-litre 2-seater Bentley with the 100 m.p.h. green-label radiator. Never a Bentley fanatic, he had this one because the price was right but found it a bit sluggish after the 30/98, which he still had, so sold it when the time was ripe. It was now that Alfa Romeos came into his motoring. life. Having a “noggin” with the late Charles Brackenbury, Millais was informed that a 6C and an 8C would soon be coming into Brackenbury’s garage outside Brooklands Track. Later, a run up the Portsmouth Road as far as Ripley proved to be an “absolutely terrific experience,” the blower whine, the music of the timing gears driving centrally the twin o.h. camshafts, the accurate wrist-movement steering and a maximum of around 105 m.p.h. rendering him an Alfa enthusiast from that moment on. That is why Millais became the owner of a 1934/35 8C Alfa Romeo Castonia d.h. coupé. The body was a bit rough so this was put right and in two years’ ownership this car gave virtually no trouble.

Eventually this SC was sold, but Millais regretted it and, while in Paris after the war, he saw another, also a d.h. coupé, drove it, experienced all the old thrills, and brought it into England; as it was on a triptyque it had, in the end, to go back to France. When this happened. Millais was consoled by finding a very stark O.E. 30/98 Vauxhall 2-seater, which he swopped for his Velox. It had modified front springing (which Symondson declared was rather dangerous) and an Hispano-Suiza f.w.b. front axle. Monaco Motors made it go and it tied with Symondson’s Allard coupé in a small speed hill-climb in the Midlands. For more civilised motoring at this time Millais had a Talbot 90 saloon, “very similar to the 4-seater and a very nice car.”

In 1949, for some reason, a straight-8 Packard saloon in very good order was run for a while, but it was too costly to be a practical proposition. Still in possession of the sporting 30/98, Millais saw an advertisement for an almost equally stark 8-litre Bentley 2/4-seater. Bought in Scarborough, this had an amateur-built body, and was very light. It consequently had “adequate brakes and was a very smooth-running top gear car, giving delightful high-speed cruising, and would do not far short of 100 m.p.h., and 10 m.p.g.” It was taken to Le Mans and used for some very pleasant runs to Scotland, “going like a gun.” This one also lasted for two years, until it was exchanged for the Sunbeams, “Tiger” and “Tigress,” in pieces, with a lot of spares. This article is really about Sir Ralph Millais’ road cars, but if I may digress for a moment, the “Tiger,” of Land Speed Record and Brooklands fame in the hands of Segrave, Don, etc., was painstakingly rebuilt for Millais by Jack Smith of Burwash, who had, and still has, a Type 51A Bugatti, and so knows about roller-bearing crankshafts. There was much trouble to be overcome, notably with porous cylinder blocks, and it was not until 14 years later, and after expensive but meticulous work by Hofmann & Burton, that the Sunbeam “Tiger” was again race-worthy—but that is another story, which Sir Ralph Millais told recently in the V.S.C.C. Bulletin.

Reverting to Millais’ road cars, in 1956 he had “a not outstanding” 4½-litre Lagonda, followed by a “jolly good” Lancia Austura saloon which gave a couple of years’ no-trouble service before expiring with a porous head. It was in 1955 that a locally-owned Model-J Duesenberg was acquired, which had been brought into this country originally by Clarence Hatrey. Very advanced for its time, with its 7-litre twin-cam straight-8 engine giving terrific torque, this 1929 Duesenberg was not a car with which to take liberties, its narrow track affecting the road-holding, and Millais did not regard it as his cup-of-tea. (It was described in detail in Motor Sport for April 1960.)

In 1959, passing Rob Walker’s garage in Dorking, Sir Ralph saw therein the car which, after his 30/98, was to become his favourite road car, namely the ex-Lord Howe 8C 2.3-litre Alfa Romeo which had made fastest lap at Le Mans in 1935. This car is too well known to need embellishment here. It was used by its new owner in V.S.C.C. competitions, being twice runner-up for the Pomeroy Trophy before it took this coveted award in 1965. Millais says modestly that it is ideal for this event, due to its long wheelbase. This beautiful Alfa Romeo, which Millais describes as “the best all-round car I’ve ever had,” was immune from mechanical anxieties, apart from burning out its clutch three times in the stress of making racing starts and blowing its head gasket a couple of times. It was maintained by Jack Smith and Patrick Wicks and was only sold recently to provide funds for the maintenance of the Sunbeam “Tiger” and the Type 59 Bugatti and another racing car Millais hopes soon to acquire and which should be every bit as much a high-performance thoroughbred as these two so-splendid pre-war racing cars.

Having referred to the ex-Howe, ex-Hindle  G.P. Bugatti which now shares with the “Tiger,” a specially built garage adjacent to Sir Ralph Millais’ Georgian residence in Kent, it is worth recalling that this Bugatti was exchanged by Doc. Taylor for Millais’ Monza Alfa Romeo. While he had the Le Mans Alfa Millais took the precaution of buying, as spares, a complete short-chassis 8C. When this was discovered to be a genuine Monza his friend Patrick Wicks set about completing it, after a correct radiator cowl, scuttle and petrol tank/tail had been located. This car was raced at Silverstone and Taylor, wanting a sprint and road car, preferred it to his fabulous Bugatti, so the exchange took place.

Words cannot do justice to a stable containing these two racing cars, the Sunbeam “Tiger” and the Type 59 Bugatti being surely the two most covetable vintage and historic racing cars one can visualise under the same roof? As I have said, it is expected that a third historic racing car will shortly go into the same garage, a car the performance and thoroughbred demeanour of which will not disgrace its illustrious stable-mates. This being the case, it is easy to understand Sir Ralph Millais’ indifference to ordinary cars; his road motoring is now done in a Rover 2000TC (which proved untiring on Italian autostrada when it was driven to Milan last summer and of which he and Lady Millais strongly approve supplemented by a Morris Mini Countryman.)

Millais is looking forward to an enjoyable season of vintage and historic racing this year and it is with respect tinged with envy that I recall his 1965 V.S.C.C. successes, when, apart from winning the Pomeroy Trophy outright with the Le Mans Alfa Romeo, he twice gained second class awards in the Alfa Romeo Trophy contest, and took the Itala Trophy (Sunbeam, Burton driving), the Seaman Vintage Trophy (Burton in the Sunbeam) and the Boulogne Trophy (Symondson in the Sunbeam). But as Ralph Millais says, these three latter events could not have been won without the cooperation and understanding of two first-class drivers whose thoughts were always to drive in sympathy with the “Tiger’s” limitations on Club circuits and at the same time demonstrate its very great power for the enjoyment of vintage racing enthusiasts.—W. B.