An identity problem

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Count Zborowski’s ‘Chitty-Bang-Bangs’ gave their name to a breed of aero-engined behemoths, which makes pinning down this mystery machine’s history difficult

Ever since I wrote that book about aeroengined racing cars and Roger Collings made me President of the Aero-Engine CC I have been regarded as an authority on such cars, which is scarcely the case. Graham Skillen of the Brooklands Society has sent me some interesting photographs which purport to be of such a car, but which I cannot identify. All that is known is that they came from the album of the late Mr RD Wickham, OBE, who died recently in his 90s. He had owned the car for a time and thought that Count Zborowski of Chitty-Bang-Bang fame had gone to France in 1919 and had there bought a new 14,000cc Clerget airship engine and brought it back to England (more likely had it sent?) and installed it in a 1914 Mercedes chassis.

But, the story goes, he found the car too slow at 114mph, and sold it to a wealthy friend who used it on the road for a time before laying it up in a barn. It so happened that when lunching with this gentleman, Mr Wickham was told to make an offer for the car. He said £5, which, to his surprise, was accepted. He found two friends to go shares at 33/4d each, and they put the car back on the road, until it was sold off “to some chaps in Selby”. Not much to go on! Mr Wickham, a farmer, lived at Brenchley, near Tonbridge, some way from Bridge where Zborowski’s cars were constructed at the Higham estate, but near enough for him to have heard rumours about the Chitty-Bang-Bangs.

Around this time any giant car was apt to be confused with them, and the myths may have confused Wickham. If his car had any Zborowski connotation it would surely have been built before Chitty I, which did lap Brooklands effectively at near enough 114mph. It was Chitty II which was slower and which was consigned by the Count to fast road runs and his Sahara adventure. If he was associated with the Wickham car, however, he might well have sold it to a friend to concentrate on the real Chittys…

So what was this unusual car that Wickham and his friends campaigned? Not a Chitty, although as I have said there was much confusion concerning them. In 1933 a letter in MOTOR SPORT claimed that a giant car at a garage in Durham was an 11.5-litre ohc Berliet, but this was quickly contradicted by the manager of the Efficiency Garage in Billingham-on-Tees, who dismissed the previous writer’s idea that a ‘Count de Boski’ had got “within a few mph of the speed record”, or that their car was a Berliet, claiming that it was Chitty I and that Zborowski had been killed in Chitty II. Impossible, because Chitty I was in London, Mr Hollis had Chitty II, and the Count had been killed in a Mercedes at Monza in 1924. Those Chitty myths, you see… But Mr Christian, the garage manager, said their car had been driven satisfactorily in London and all over the Yorkshire Moors, which sounds as if it might have been the Wickham beast. Perhaps it was, after all, a Berliet, which at least had that alleged French engine!

Even up to World War II Chitty myths were rife. Laurence Pomeroy, no less, confused the Benzengined ‘Scariscrow’ with them. This car’s owner, Sir ET Scarisbrick, had regarded it as too slow for Brooklands after the showing of Chitty I; it was later bought by an American enthusiast who was convinced it was a Chitty. The truth dawned later!

Two other cars may provide a solution to the Wickham puzzle. (Incidentally, the two Chittys had Maybach and Benz engines respectively, and the all-Mercedes Chitty Ill’s career does not fit the bill.) In Leo Villa’s book ‘The Record Breakers’ he tells of getting a job with Foresti, before becoming Malcolm and then Donald Campbell’s Chief Engineer, and says that at this time Zborowski had a six-cylinder in-line 250hp Hall-Scott aero-engine which he wanted to install in an Itala chassis. But after a test-run when the flywheel burst and carried away the brake pedal shaft, Foresti gave up and the car was towed, Villa steering, behind Zborowski’s chain-drive Mercedes (probably his Gordon Watney Ninety tourer) to Higham. It is stated that the Count already had Chitty I going, but it seems far more logical that by then he had abandoned the Itala-Hall-Scott project.

Now when the late Lord Donegal was writing his autobiography he wanted to include the monster motorcar with which he had fun while an undergraduate at Oxford. But he could not remember much about it, so he asked my advice. He thought he had gone to Brooklands to collect it, and that he might have owned the Higham Special, as the car was registered as an ‘HS’, but he wasn’t sure whether it had had a V8 or a V12 engine, which made identification difficult! The car could not have been the Zborowski Higham Special, which went direct to Parry-Thomas to become ‘Babs’. But if the ltala-Hall-Scott had been abandoned at Higham it might have been taken to Zborowski’s Brooklands sheds and sold from there. And then by 1933 have gone to the Billingham garage, sold from Selby in Yorkshire by the ‘chaps’ to whom Wickham had disposed of it, and being displayed at one time in the garage’s Leicester premises.

It is all surmise; another ‘qualifier’ may have been the Cooper-Clerget, constructed by Zborowski’s close friend Capt JH Cooper, who was killed in it during a practice run at Brooklands in 1921. That may have been the “French airship engine” recalled by Mr Wickham which was installed in its Mercedes chassis. (A brand-new V8 Clerget aero-engine was available in 1921 for £100.) I have surmised that the engine would have been installed in the 1908 GP Mercedes which Cooper had raced previously, which had a shorter wheelbase than that of the Wickham car. But Hartshorn Cooper’s brother, Major RF Cooper, had been racing an old Mercedes 90 at the track, so this may have been the chassis used. It’s possible that after the sad accident the car was rebuilt and sold, as the Coopers had by then both abandoned motor racing. However, Zborowski was the first to reach his dying friend and it is more likely that the Cooper-Clerget was taken back to Higham and buried in the rubbish-tip there; which we shall only find out if someone with the persuasion and determination which Owen Wyn-Owen needed in realising his ambition to disinterr Babs’ can be found to make another ‘dig’…

The pictures of the Wickham car show only one side, so one cannot deduce whether it had a vee or an in-line engine.

There is one other racing car to consider: the Sunbeam-Napier which crashed at Brooklands in 1926, killing the girl passenger. After the accident and inquest it was thought to have been left in a boat-yard near Chertsey, and when we lived in Hampshire I spent several evenings on my way home from the MOTOR SPORT offices, trying without success to locate it, on behalf of Kenneth Neve, who was on the lookout for an aero-engined car. But somehow I think it unlikely, for sentimental reasons, that it would have been sold on after causing so much grief.

The scent is growing cold! However, one has to remember that in the 1920s, with new aeroengines available for very modest sums of money at Government disposal depots, some special builders constructed cars so-engined for ordinary road fun. I remember seeing a picture of a Buick so-powered on a gossip page in The Motor in 1920 but have never been able to find it again. My friend the late Geoffrey Deason, who made some fine model cars, used to tell of a Rolls-Royce with a Rolls-Royce Eagle or Falcon engine at a Northumberland garage, and there were others. Indeed, in 1921 a firm in Streatham, London, was advertising cars with reconditioned Sunbeam Arab aero-engines. And someone was trying to sell a 75hp Mercedes as “suitable for a Chitty”. Confusion? I am not surprised!

That is as far as I can get. But if the photographs raise any memories, Mr Skillen and the Brooklands Society would be glad to hear of them, c/o MOTOR SPORT (at our new Teddington offices). Although the Wickham car can be seen to have a crude Brooklands-type silencer, it was never raced, although it was taken to the track where it did only 104mph. On the road it gave four or five mpg, a figure with which Roger Collings will be familiar… The unusual radiator filler cap may provide clues as to its true identity. The radiator cowl looks as if it might have been put on for a film session, to which there was reference, the trade plates may or may not indicate that it was off to Yorkshire, and the running-board was presumably fitted to prevent a passenger being burnt by the exhaust pipe. The cover behind it may conceal a final-drive sprocket; but I think not. The crudely inscribed ‘BANG!’ on the cowl may have been a joke, or may signify that the car was still thought to be one of the Chitty tribe. The wheels are shod with Michelin tyres of the period, and the knockoff hubs may also give someone a lead. I believe that Mr Wickham had the car around 1925.

That’s it! If anyone knows anything more, please write in. I have included a picture of the two chaps with whom the car was shared, as on Crimewatch but for less gruesome reasons, as someone may recognise them and hence remember the car. WB