The racing memories of J. C. Byrom
Recalled in a recent interview with the Editor
Having reviewed Henry Longhurst’s entertaining book last month we obtained from him the present whereabouts of J. C. Byrom and set off in the latest MG-B to chat with him about the old racing days, at his country house near Shrewsbury.
The Byrom family did plenty of motoring, although their father knew nothing of cars, preferring horses. Jim Byrom was taught to drive by his brother Frank on a very fine 1921 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost Barker all-weather, a car ordered originally by his father in 1917, but which Rolls-Royce asked him to forgo, as the chassis laid down for him was required for an armoured car. This early driving experience, when he was aged 17, led the young Byrom, a few years later, to Gt. Portland Street in search of a Bugatti. He roamed “the street of cars” enquiring after the Molsheim product but drew a blank until in Euston Road, where he came upon a plain-bearing Type 35 GP Modifé outside a showroom.
The price was £265, which was rather more than the youthful enthusiast was able to pay. However, he returned to Gt. Portland Street and Sprosens told him they had a Bugatti for sale. The salesman made a telephone call and very soon the same Bugatti which had been at the other dealer’s premises in the Euston Road arrived outside! It was purchased for £240 and in due course driven back to Cambridge, where a telegram was received from his father worded: “Strongly advise against Bugatti”. Byrom’s eldest brother Rob vetted the car but hadn’t the heart to uphold the parental disfavour. When it was examined the original Bugatti set of tools was found intact and unused in a compartment beneath the seat pan, adjacent to a large battery which served the coil ignition. Subsequently, letters from Malcolm Campbell, then dealing in Bugattis, confirmed that it had probably only run a total of 1,000 miles.
The stable of cars at the Byrom home in Hollingworth, Cheshire, at this time included the 1921 Rolls-Royce, a Vauxhall landaulette, an E-type 30/98 Vauxhall which Byrom had driven at the age of 19, two years before he became a Bugatti owner, and Lewis Byrom’s Gordon England Brooklands-model Austin Seven.
In 1926 Jim Byrom had his first experience of competition motoring as passenger to his third brother Lewis at the Stalybridge speed trials, his other brothers competing in the 30/98.
Later, at Southport, Lewis raced the Austin and Jim Byrom drove his Bugatti, tuning being carried out in the home garage. Percy Stephenson’s similar four-speed Austin (with reverse omitted to make room for the other forward gear) often beat the Byrom car, mainly because of its reliability, so a Cozette compressor was acquired and the radiator moved forward and slightly inclined to accommodate it. The result was good acceleration by the standards of those days, but four crankshafts broke after a Laystall balanced crankshaft was installed. Incidentally, Percy Stephenson, now Sir Percy, who ran Hatton’s motor business, still has the cups he won at Southport.
The Byroms went to the 1928 Ulster TT and, greatly admiring the lines of Cushman’s f.w.d. Alvis which was placed second to Kaye Don’s Hyper Lea-Francis, modified their Austin to resemble it, changing the former cocked-up nose for a normal inclined radiator. On one occasion, a works lorry having brought the car to Southport, with the family chauffeur acting as mechanic, the flag fell for the Mile race, but, although a Press photograph was captioned “They’re off!”, Lewis Byrom remained where he was. The engine had seized solid. The chauffeur felt the radiator and announced it to be “As cool as a cucumber”. Alas, the enthusiastic equipe had omitted to fill it with water!
However, the Austin with its new body and lower radiator under false cowl “looked rather a nice little car and went very well”.
While Lewis Byrom was in America Jim was allowed to race both Bugatti and Austin at Southport, where the season began in January. In his very first race with the Bugatti he was delighted and astonished to overhaul and gain on Davenport’s famous GN, winning the straight Mile race. The Bugatti was brought out for the 20-Mile race, in which Kaye Don in the Sunbeam was a star attraction. Byrom treated both Don and the corners of the sand course with considerable respect, but the Type 35 went well and when Jevons’ Bugatti began to puff out black smoke, finally to retire, Byrom moved into second place. At the end of the race all the plugs were loose but he had judged the contents of the fuel tank almost too accurately and ran out of petrol on the way back to the paddock. On this occasion the Austin had sheared its supercharger drive in the first race so the chauffeur took it over to drive in a rather leisurely 20-mile event. The Austin was eventually able to beat Stephenson’s car in sprint races and the Bugatti won longer events in 1930.
The next venture was buying from Vernon Balls his road-equipped, plain-bearing ex-Phoenix Park and Six-Hour Race twin-cam Amilcar Six. The car was got ready for the 1931 JCC Double-Twelve. It was in rather a poor state and had a very heavy full-length undertray, which was changed for a light-alloy one. The engine seemed very complicated but it was duly stripped down and soon every individual nut was familiar.
The Amilcar was towed from Cheshire behind Rob Byrom’s Type 44 Bugatti coupé. The plan was to drive three-hour spells throughout the 24 hours, Lewis and Jim driving and Henry Longhurst and the American Bentley owner, Billy Fisk (of Fisk tyres) acting as riding mechanics. The equipe Byrom stayed at Oatlands Park Hotel, where the antics of a friend’s realistic clockwork mouse seriously alarmed the aged lady residents. The car was garaged at T & T’s, out on the aerodrome. It finished the first day’s racing and was proudly pushed to the official overnight car park. The only snag had been loss of a lamp when a badly-welded bracket collapsed. This was rushed to T & T’s and quickly welded by “Tiny”, who thereafter kept an eye on the Track as he toiled at his bench, to see whether “his” Amilcar was still circulating. Alas, for the second day’s racing oil pressure was reduced, using the pressure valve on the dash in an attempt to counteract oiling plugs. This was not effective as the pressure release valve on the inlet side of the lubrication system was at fault, so cutting down pressure that a rod came out. A travelling marshall on a motorcycle combination picked it up and handed it to the astonished driver!
Later, rebuilt, this red Amilcar was entered for outer circuit and Mountain races at Brooklands. When being driven to the Track for a 1931 race meeting, the clutch thrust ball-race seized and the back axle was very noisy. The Byroms drove to T & T’s on the Thursday evening and asked Ken Taylor if he would effect repairs. He was reluctant to do so until the brothers volunteered to work themselves, when he grew most co-operative, sending Jim Byrom post-haste to London in the De Soto roadster he owned at the time and which was the Amilcar’s tender car, to buy new parts. They toiled until the early hours of Friday morning. Later they were rewarded by beating Bartlett’s blown Salmson in the Nottingham Senior Short Handicap at the 1932 Whitsun Meeting, Lewis Byrom lapping 1 1/2 m.p.h. faster than the other French car, after a slower standing-start lap at 94.33 m.p.h.
Jim Byrom was down to drive in the subsequent Junior Mountain Handicap. The oil pressure dropped while waiting to start but Lewis told his brother to “go like mad” and risk the bang. He started 5 secs. before Featherstonhaugh’s blown 1 1/2-litre Alfa Romeo which was on scratch but after three laps, the best at 61.4 m.p.h., the bang came, as another rod was ejected… Featherstonhaugh went on to win.
After this Jim Byrom concentrated on flying with the Lancashire Aero Club and served during the war in the Fleet Air Arm.
The old bug bit again after the war and he bought a 1930 Type 35B Bugatti which was reputed to be a Bugatti team-car driven by “Williams”. (Capt. William Grover) and never raced in this country. It had a large radiator and twin fuel fillers on the tail. It was prepared at first by Charles Brackenbury, then by Louis Giron, and very ably indeed by young Dick Forsey after he had left Owen Finch’s Weybridge garage to join a small engineering works in London, from where he was able to come up to the Byrom Woollen Mill in Yorkshire to work on the Bugatti and attend all race meetings. This car gave Byrom much pleasure and some good racing. Amongst its successes in VSCC events it won the 1953 Seaman Vintage Trophy race at 68.59 m.p.h. and took the GP Itala Trophy in 1952, 1953 and 1955. There was also that great dual, ending with second place, with Rowley’s winning straight-eight Delage in the 1950 Seaman Trophies Race and a “third” in the 1951 GP Itala Trophy Race behind Hern’s Amilcar Six and Clutton’s V12 Delage. This successful career was continued by the late Jim Berry, who bought the Bugatti, and today it is one of Neil Corner’s favourite possessions.
Byrom ran the Bugatti in a Leinster Trophy Race, “a family party and enormous fun”, with the car towed to the course behind an accommodating Humber Super Snipe saloon, with the tyres and equipment on its roof. The driver admits to imprudently taking the engine to 5,500 r.p.m. instead of the customary 4,500/5,000 r.p.m. And the cylinder blocks lifted, when their frail holding-down studs broke… But they did win the Club Team Prize, Mike Hawthorn, Oscar Moore and Byrom forming the English team at the suggestion of some of the officials ten minutes before the start of the race. Happy days! Byrom still has the silver ash-tray to prove it, a valued possession.
Today Jim Byrom, young and spritely as ever, motors in a white 1750 Alfa Romeo GTV and remembers the old racing days with much nostalgia.—W. B.