He had just one full season of Motor racing. But what a season it was. Bill Boddy remembers the ‘Student Prince’ of thirties Motor Sport – A Le mans winner at 21
For a 21-year-old Englishman with very little experience of motor racing to hire a grand prix car at the last moment for an important 250-mile race, and win it, must surely be regarded as a notable achievement. That is exactly what Luis Fontes did at Brooklands in 1935, to the astonishment of the race-goers who had scarcely heard of him. Fontes had studied at the famous Loughborough Engineering College, now Loughborough University. While he was there he used as daily transport an MG Midget J4 (TV 8371), a quick car for its size, as it was the racing version of the famous MG Midget family, produced only in 1933. It must have been a very satisfactory, probably noisy, road car.
He decided to take up motor racing, but did not follow the usual practice, perhaps starting with a JCC or an MCC High-Speed Trial. Instead, by 1935, he ambitiously put in an entry for the JCC International Trophy Race, having ordered a new MG for this purpose from the works. This could have been a Q-type, but was more likely to have been one of the brandnew R-type MG Midgets with all-independent torsion-bar suspension.
George Eyston was in charge of a team of three for the IT race and, in spite of Sir Malcolm Campbell having only recently returned from his 276mph LSR at Utah, had persuaded him to share one of these new Midgets with Bill Everett Other well-known drivers had them in time but Fontes’ was not ready. He was disappointed, probably annoyed, as Dick Seaman was to be when he thought ERA was spending more time on the works ERAs than on his. But Lou was not to be defeated. What did he do?
He hired a Monza Alfa Romeo which John Cobb had for sale, John being too busy with record work at Utah with the Napier-Raihon to use it. This was the Alfa Romeo (C22111307) which Noel Rees, partner with Arthur Fox in the Fox & Nicholl car company off the Kingston Bypass, had purchased from Scuderia Ferrari in 1933. He had it brought over to England in a lorry with a couple of their mechanics from Milan to look after it. This enabled the Hon. Brian Lewis to win comfortably that year’s loM Mannin Moar road race — the first time a Monza Alfa Romeo had raced here.
Now young Fontes was its driver. An unknown. Tall, with dark-rimmed spectacles and driving his GP car in a golf jacket and scorning headgear, he looked just like the student he had so recently been. In fact, he had driven previously in the Ulster Ti’. In 1933, he had entered a supercharged 746cc MG Midget, but a broken conrod put it out before a lap was completed. EH.
Attracted by the low-chassis 4.5-litre Invicta, Fontes acquired one and put it in for the 1934 TT, not declaring a reserve driver. The engine expired after 22 of the 35 laps.
So Fontes could be regarded as a fairly inexperienced driver, especially of something as fast as a Monza. Its entry had been accepted so late that it carried No13 in the race, the first time ever at Brooklands, I think, but the ‘bad luck’ factor did not trouble the car’s new owner.
The JCC was again using the ingenious handicapping system of corners of differing severity at the Fork, except for the smaller cars, which had a straight run through. This year, four channels instead of three were used. The idea was to have a race in which, after the first lap, the leading car would be just that, whereas with credit laps or delayed-start handicapping, spectators were apt to lose track. It worked well enough, but involved faster cars frequently overtaking slower ones. And any who missed the allotted chicane was penalised.
The artificial IT course was quite demanding, as there was a bend before the Folk, as the cars came down the Finishing Straight, to slow them for the handicap channels. They also had to take the difficult right-hand corner off the Railway Straight into the Finishing Straight, after hitting top speed on the Byfleet banking.
Fontes took all of this in his stride, although opposition came from the experienced Dick Shutdeworth in his P3 monoposto Alfa Romeo, the redoubtable Freddie Dixon in a 2-litre Riley, Raymond Mays’ 2-litre ERA, other Monza Alfas, the MG Magnettes, a horde of MG Midgets, the works A7 team, and three 3.3-litre Type 59 GP Bugattis.
On Jubilee Day, 38 cars lined up before a crowd of 20,000. At 3pm they were off, Gino Rovere’s little Maserati heading the Midgets of Kenneth Evans and Everett. Then Cyril Paul (2.3 Bugatti) led from Mays, at over 90mph. But after 10 laps, Chris Staniland (2.3 Bugatti) was ahead, aided by those Fork ‘levellers’. Fontes was fourth and, by 20 laps, he was on Staniland’s tail. The Bugatti then broke its front axle.
Another 10 laps and Mays had passed Fontes, to lead at 88.23mph. The ERA was then in trouble and, after 40 laps, Fontes was heading the race, calmly leading the P3 Alfa. This situation held to 50 laps, Luis’ average up to 88.16mph.
Then came the pitstops. Shuttleworth was in for two minutes; Fontes, less experienced, for three. This gave the P3 its chance.
But Fontes was unruffled, and as Dick’s car began to lose pace, with 30 laps still to go, the race was his. At just after 6pm, Fontes took the chequered flag, to loud clapping. He had averaged 86.96 mph.
Even the fearless Dixon had realised that his Riley could not catch the flying Fontes and so took on more fuel to make sure of second. Shutdeworth was fifth, out of 12 finishers.
Fontes took a drink and a cigarette as Dixon congratulated him. He seemed quite unmoved, but not so at the party afterwards. There the South American side of his ancestry would take charge, transforming the serious student into the wildest man ever. Making whoopee gained a new height record.
A week after his Brooklands debut, Fontes took his black 4.5-litre Invicta up to Birkdale Sands, Southport and, stripped of road clobber, it was second in the 50-mile handicap, with four laps to make up on the winning 847cc MG. He could drive as well on sand as on concrete. His was the fastest average, 55.65mph. He was said to have handled the big car “superbly on the comers”, one of which was quite narrow.
His next venture was to drive the Monza Alfa in the 200-mile IoM Mannin Moar, a true road race over a bumpy, difficult course. He was no match for the Hon. Brian Lewis (3.3 Bugatti), who won for the third year in succession, but Fontes drove sensibly (unlike others), made no mistakes, and finished third, despite locking brakes. The 2.3-litre Alfa of Arthur Dobson and R S Wilkins’ 2.6-litre Alfa Romeo were unable to complete the race within the time limit.
The course had a four-mile lap, and houses lined some of it. I recall standing on the pavement and wondering what would happen if, say, an old lady who always crossed the road to post a letter at four o’clock, did so that afternoon!
A considerable honour was next accorded to Fontes. Arthur Fox, who had run the Talbots, and was now entering Lagondas in top races, asked him to drive as partner to Hindmarsh (a successful Talbot team driver) at Le Mans. Each driver had to take a four-hour stint, and a slow co-driver could badly alter a car’s chances. But the Fontes/Hindmarsh 4.5-litre had none of this and won the 1935 24 Hours, which brought this make into much the same prominence as earlier victories had the Bentley. Together they beat the Alfa Romeo of Dreyfus and Stoffel, having averaged 77.84mph for 1868 miles. Fontes now invested in a Squire. He lived in Reading, not far from the place where two enthusiasts were building these attractive new 1.5-litre twin-cam supercharged sportscars. Fontes must have decided they were a good proposition. He had a single-seater racing version built to his requirements. Its first racing engagement was the 250-mile BRDC Empire Trophy race over an artificial road course at Brooklands, but after only nine laps it ran a big-end.
The ‘up-and-coming driver’, who had in just one season ‘arrived’, next drove in the 150-mile Limerick handicap street race, one of those carefree-yet-serious events of the time. Fontes’ Alfa came through the field relentlessly to catch Pat Fairfield’s ERA and lead it over the line by a mere 7sec, at 64.9mph to the smaller car’s 61.29mph.
He continued his good form at Phoenix Park, the popular Dublin circuit. In a notably high speed 200-mile contest, his Monza Alfa had 14 laps to make up on the smallest car, a Morris Special. He once again showed his skill in carving through a mixed field. He could not catch the winner, Furey’s MG Magnette, which had averaged 69.94 mph, but took second place, 1min50sec in arrears, making fastest speed at 90.96mph, in spite of heavy rain. That he held “a terrific skid” at one corner was appreciated by a huge crowd, which had resulted in 100,000 cars being parked round the course.
The BRDC Outer Circuit Brooklands 500-mile Race was the next target He entered the racing Squire, facing opposition in the s/c 1.5-litre class from two Frazer Nashes and Ian Connell’s Vale Special. Fontes was one of the few who did not nominate a co-driver. But the Squire let him down early on, at 54 laps, after the fuel tank had been leaking.
Unfortunately, this capable young driver was involved in an accident which caused his driving licence to be withheld. So he resorted to aeroplane racing.
He had owned a DH 60 Gipsy Moth and used a special racing Miles Hawk M2L Speed Six with a 200hp Gipsy Six IF engine (G-ADGP). Miss Ruth Fontes, his sister, also competed, using an MU2 Miles Hawk Speed Six powered with a high-compression Gipsy Six R engine (G-ADOD).
They took part in races such as the 1935 King’s Cup. Luis was second in the 1935 Grosvenor Challenge Cup race, at 171mph, and fourth in the 1938 London-to-Isle of Man race, at 168.25 mph. He also competed in subsequent King Cup races.
He was killed in October 1940 after joining the Air Transport Auxiliary.