Sir Alistair Miller, Mr Brooklands!
If you had to choose, who would you call “Mr Brooklands”? Parry Thomas, perhaps, who lived there and achieved many great successes with the Leylands and other cars of his own design and construction between 1922 and 1926? Or John Cobb, very much a Track specialist, who took the lap-record to 143.44 mph with the 24-litre Napier Railton? Or GP Harvey-Noble, one of the few surviving 130 mph badge-holders, who did so much high-speed testing and racing at Weybridge? Or would you opt for a driver from the early days, when fast lappery on a steeply-banked course was something new, and very difficult on cars which even then were capable of around 120 mph?
My vote goes to Captain AG Miller, later Sir Alistair Miller, Bt, who first raced motorcycles at Brooklands in 1912 and was still entering cars in 1939, when war stopped play.
His pre-1914 mounts were a big Matchless-JAP and a 493cc Martin-JAP, with the former he won a heat of an Old Public School Boy’s race, but Eton won the final. In the war Miller was a Second Lieutenant in the Irish Guards before transferring to the Royal Flying Corps and gaining his pilot’s certificate on a Maurice Farman at the CFS in 1915, having gone solo for just 3 hours 18 minutes. He later flew a BE2c from Farnborough to St Omer and, semi-invalided (his young brother had been killed at the front) spent the rest of the war on administrative duties.
After the Armistice he set up a motor business in partnership with Major HD Segrave and the two Lines brothers, acquiring from dealer Phil Paddon the two 1914 GP Opels which had remained in England after the final pre-war Brooklands meeting. Seagrave was anxious to become a professional racing driver and took on one of them, LG Hornsted the other. Miller too drove one occasionally at the Track and in speed-trials, as well as a racing Shelsley Crossley two-seater and a 350cc Martin-JAP.
In 1920 Miller was dealing in new Martin motorcycles and reconditioned ex-RFC 25/30hp Crossleys from a depot in Scrubbs Lane, Willesden. Segrave withdrew, deciding that he needed a Brescia Bugatti in order to impress Louis Coatalen (in whose Sunbeam Grand Prix team he was hoping for a place), and losing some £5000 of his capital, and in 1921 Miller persuaded the joint Managing Director of Wolseley Motors, AJ McCormack, to let him form a Wolseley Racing Department with headquarters at the Track, where he had sheds and lived at one time.
The little Wolseley Moths, supported by a larger Wolseley with alternative 2.0 and 2.7 engines, were very successful, but Miller still needed a really fast car for Lightning races, and mentioned this to the Prince of Wales when they met at a night-club. . .
The story is that HRH told AGM he could have an old Napier shooting-brake of which the King had grown tired and which was lying idle at Sandringham. After it had been turned into the fearsome monster Wolseley Viper, King George apparently enquired as to the whereabouts of his comfortable old Napier, and the Prince had to swear Miller to absolute secrecy!
Years later I tried to confirm this story through the Duke of Windsor’s secretary. The reply was that the Duke had no recollection of it, and anyway his father always used Daimlers; but the abdication crisis could have blunted his memory, and I would very much like to find out whether a Napier was ever delivered to the royal estate.
The Viper was built at Willesden and its body by R & B Radiators of Hammersmith. Miller ensured the desired speed by putting an Aries-built 11.7-litre V8 Hispano Suiza aero-engine into the aged Napier chassis and when a Crossley clutch refused to transmit the 200 or so horsepower a Hele-Shaw clutch was used.
The various Wolseleys were driven by others besides Miller, but his personal tally of race successes in 1922-23 was nine wins, five seconds and ten third places. His cars also broke many class records, including the coveted “double-twelve-hour”; they must have done at least 6000 Brooklands miles in pursuit of this alone. Someone said in Motor Sport “As the various ages of the earth are termed ‘ice’, ‘heat’, etc, so might one period of Brooklands activity become known as the Wolseley age. A silver coloured racer of this make periodically took lease of the course and rotated monotonously for hours on end in search of long-distance records. On asking an official ‘Much doing today?’ we could estimate to a nicety his reply. ‘No, but the Wolseley is going round’. It always was. I believe Mr Miller thought he was a planet.” There was plenty of publicity in all this, especially when Miller was fighting his divorce, the newspapers delighting in headlines like “Racing Driver in Girl-Bride Case”.
Miller was also a BMCRC committee member, and it was he who put up the 200-guineas Miller Cup for the winner of the 1921 500-Mile Race, which turned out to be Le Vack’s 998cc Indian, at 70.42 mph.
When the JCC held its first 200-Mile Race that year, the single-seater Wolseley “Moth” was ineligible, but for the 1922 event Miller prepared a two-seater Ten, like the production Brooklands-model sports Wolseleys he had instituted, and despite giving away more than 200cc he completed the course, at 66.2 mph. For the 1923 “200” he entrusted the Ten to George Newman and persuaded the taciturn SF Edge to let him have an Anzani AC; it was prepared late and retired.
That year Alvis had gained its great victory after both supercharged Fiats had retired, and for 1924 two special Alvises were built for the race. Respecting his track-craft, Miller was allowed to drive the winning 1923 12/50, and did not disgrace himself, finishing seventh at 89.28 mph, sandwiched between Halford and Harvey in the new cars. Meanwhile, he had brought to Brooklands Bloch’s twin-cam GP Bianchi, a very fast two-litre car which did 98.47 mph over the half-mile, giving him short-distance records in 1923 (when he had also co-driven for Parry Thomas with the Leyland Eight) and two wins and some more third places in 1924.
By now Kaye Don had taken over the Viper, and Miller let others run the AC having an ex-Zborowski twin-cam Aston-Martin for himself. He had sold Moth II to Woolf Barnato (who later owned Bentley Motors) and was now assisting CM Harvey in record-breaking attempts with a single-seater Alvis. When he drove Tankerville-Chamberlayne’s 41/2-litre 1914 GP Nazzaro in 1925 it caught fire, having allegedly been sabotaged in Miller’s own shed — more newspaper headlines!
In 1926 Miller took over one of the 5-litre Indianapolis-engined Sunbeams, and it just beat Don in the Viper by half a length in the Whitsun Gold Vase. The Lightning Short Handicap at the BARC Summer Meeting fell to Miller and the red Sunbeam, as did further wins in club races and some Class C standing-start records. For the “road-circuit” JCC 200-Mile Race Miller and Don shared one of the old four-cylinder Talbots, which didn’t last long, and another of his mounts that year was a neat racing 1100cc Donnet-Zedal.
After travelling to France to try to get a Voisin agency, Captain Miller brought to Brooklands a 4-litre sleeve-valve racing version in 1927. It was able to lap at over 100 mph, but misfiring ruined its potential and it went back home in disgrace. He also came up with a racing 3.4-litre Buick with twin-cam head, a car which has always puzzled me: Ken Kirton once put a Buick engine into a Straker-Squire chassis, but l am convinced this chassis was all-Buick, even down to its hydraulic contracting front brakes. Various new drivers had their Brooklands baptism on it before Miller’s own business at 2 St James’s Place, London SW1 (mainly selling used Rolls-Royces) advertised it for £450. Also for sale at the time were several Lombards, one of which (a black two-seater valued at £425) had carried Miller to first place in the 1928 August “75 Short”, lapping at over 84 mph.
More profitably, Miller, Clowes, the Hon D Fitzgerald and AGM’s head mechanic SC Cull went to Paris early in 1928 and bought the sprint cars Delage I and Delage Il (leaving the big V12 to T & T’s and John Cobb). Both gave serious trouble to begin with, and Miller advertised the twin-cam 5.9-litre Delage I for £650. But the six-cylinder push-rod ohv 5.1-litre Delage II was worked on by Cull at T Gardner & Sons in Highgate and served Miller well, winning the 1928 Gold Vase race and fmishing second to Don’s V12 Sunbeam in the “Lightning Short”. Delage I won a very fast August “100 Short” and two short races at a Surbiton Motor Club meeting, Miller up, and also a second for Clowes.
In the same year the versatile “Mr Brooklands” found an enormous red Benz, rumoured to have been von Hindenburg’s staff-car during the war and almost certainly the same 211/2-litre four-cylinder chain-drive car which Bruno Roberts had raced at Brooklands in 1920, standing behind a pub. By the time he had acquired it, I was in the habit of investing a shilling to enjoy visiting Brooklands on non-race days, and thus it was that I peered into Miller’s sheds and spotted this huge four-seater, which I did not recognise. I returned home and wrote asking what it was. I was unaware at the time that, presumably very soon afterwards, Miller had had a row with his wife and locked her and her maid in the sheds overnight! By the time the papers informed me of this it was too late to retrieve my letter, but the Captain was unabashed, replying: “Dear Master Boddy, the car you saw is a big 1914 Benz which I hope soon to race . . . ”
Race it he did, and with considerable success — often entered by Mrs Miller (nee Winifred Shutter)!
Also in 1928, Miller and Clowes took class records with a big GL sports Delage lent by the English concessionaire. At the closing meeting AGM twice started from scratch, to no avail, despite taking a black 36/220hp Mercedes-Benz round at 109.94 mph.
By 1929 Miller was more often entrant than driver, like a racehorse owner with a full stable — his “card” including a Bugatti for Ken Eggar. But he had cured Delage I of its problems, taking 200-mile records with it, and had evolved another outer-circuit car, a 40/50hp Napier with a shapely navy blue racing body and cowled radiator which had once been a landaulette owned by the Sir Otto Biet family and in which Miller lapped at better than 78 mph. The story was that Napier threatened him should he disclose the car’s make, so it was entered as an Auto Speed Special (Autospeed Ltd being the name of his former business); but when the car was offered for sale it became a 35/120hp Miller-Napier. . .
He took second place in a BARC race with the venerable Benz and drove a blown Lombard in the Six-Hour Sports-Car Race. Then, when passing a Henley-on-Thames showroom, he spotted the old Wolseley Moth II and, knowing it better than the salesman, bought it at an advantageous price. After racing it during 1929 he set his heart, for old times’ sake, on winning the Founders’ Gold Cup at the 1930 August Meeting — and he did just that, the ancient light-car lapping as fast as 83.28 mph in keeping Sammy Davis in the experimental blown Riley 9 at bay.
Miller’s next plan was to lead a British motor-racing expedition to South America in 1931 (to race at the new Buenos Aires autodrome), with Dudley Froy, Cyril Paul and HW Purdy, taking Austin, Riley, Talbot , Invicta and Sunbeam cars. There was even talk of a Land Speed record attempt, but nothing happened. However the Riley Company (as Alvis had done in 1924) did engage Miller, along with Malcolm Campbell and Whitcroft, to drive in the 1931 BRDC 500-Mile race, and at the age of 38 he finished fourth overall behind a Bentley, a Talbot and a supercharged MG, winning the 1100cc class at 92.83 mph.
At around this time you could have bought the Delage 1 for £250 (reduced from £750), the Lombard for £350, the Napier for £150, Moth II for £100, the V8 Viper for £25 and made an offer for the 200hp Benz—all ready to race. In fact, Miller ran the Napier again at the 1931 Autumn Meeting.
Sir Alastair Miller now had other interests, but he did not desert the Track , and at the very last meeting in 1939 he entered a 41/2-litre Lagonda.
It has been pointed out to me that Miller lapped slower in his cars than other drivers. Cyril Paul was certainly much quicker in the Benz, but only after it had been put into good order, and Miller was faster than either Clowes or Wallbank; with Delage I he was faster than Paul from the start (before it had been sorted), and only 0.31 mph slower than Froy; Don could get the Viper round more than 2 mph faster than its owner, but the latter was in turn faster than GN Norris; the 4.9 Sunbeams are difficult to compare. True, EL Bouts lapped 1.29 mph faster, having bought the old 4.9 Sunbeam for £240. But Miller was praised for his skill in handling this difficult car; he won 20-mile races on Southport sands with it, and used to drive it from London to Brooklands. He won his 120 mph badge in September 1928, with Delage!.
For me, he was “Mr Brooklands”. Who would you nominate? WB.