In the paddock of pioneers

Henry Knox was well-known behind the scenes in the early days of racing. Almost by chance. Graham Darling got to learn much of his story

In 1961, as a young engineer and a keen follower of motor racing, I left England for South Africa. I became a regular buyer of the local monthly magazine CAR and read with interest a historical article about Edwardian Vauxhalls. The next month CAR published a long letter from a Henry Knox pointing out errors in the article. It was apparent that Knox was writing from personal experience, starting one paragraph splendidly with: “I bought dear old Ferdy Porsche’s winning car…”

I wrote to Knox at the Railway Hotel, Wellington, a small town in the winelands behind Cape Town. Within a fortnight I received from him a long letter in spidery handwriting. This was the start of a remarkable correspondence which continued through ’62 and resumed for a while in ’65. His letters slowly revealed some facts about himself. My only other biographical source is one chapter in GRN Minchin’s Under my Bonnet which is practically written by Knox. Even the omniscient Bill Boddy confessed to me some years ago that he wished he knew more about him.

Henry Knox was a nephew of Lord Hugh Lonsdale, the sporting figure who instituted the Lonsdale Belt for boxing. He was born in 1886 or 1887, as in May 1962 he told me he was 75. As a senior boy at Harrow, he got an exeat to go to the 1903 Gordon Bennett race in Ireland. His headmaster wrote: “I regard it as useful education as H Knox is so clearly quite determined to launch himself on to this strange new craze of motor cars”. He often spent time with his mother at Dinard and St Malo in spring and summer, always wintering in Nice. It was here that he saw many of the early motor sprints and hillclimbs, including witnessing Count Zborowski’s fatal crash at La Turbie in 1903.

After going on to Cambridge, he set up in the motor business in the West End of London, specialising in sporting and racing cars. He knew and drove all the quality sporting cars of the era. His story of SF Edge and the 1908 grand prix Napiers captures the spirit of the trade: “…the Napiers did not run in the GP, but there was a lot behind it all. Edge had an interest in the Rudge-Whitworth detachable wire wheel… and was committed to use them on almost all the cars he sold. SF Edge and Co Ltd had world selling rights for Napier cars and he had more or less commissioned Napiers to build those four GP cars [one spare car]. They were actually not at all ready by raceday. Edge’s testers tried one car and reported that the car was delicate, but it was very fast indeed. I think SF saw that they would make very nice de luxe fast sportscars.

“Then Michelin Tyre Company, immensely powerful in the French motor industry, began to yell behind the scenes. They had a near monopoly with their detachable rims and argued that a detachable rim and tyre was a reasonable spare for a long race. But a wheel? ‘What next?’, they argued, ‘detachable engines?’ The ACF fell for it and banned detachable wheels (pro tem) that year. Edge made a virtue of it all, posing as an injured party, withdrew the Napiers and got on with getting them ready with proper coachwork, seats, lamps etc, and showed them at Olympia as de luxe sports jobs.

“I sold three of them, priced at £1750, a huge figure for any car then. I picked a fellow I knew of as a customer and cut the price a bit and did a trade-in (very, very rare in those early days) just because I knew he soon tired of any car and then would sell it cheap. So, as I wanted that Napier very much, but would not go to £1750 for it, I got this buyer to give me first refusal. And it all worked out just right: I had it for over two years. I sold a sister car to my friend and cousin HJD Astley. When we lunched together at the Savoy Grill we parked the two GP Napiers in the Savoy Court entrance and the lovely deep boom of their exhausts, like a deep organ note — no crackle or bang — fairly brought the spectators in. Once or twice bobbies had to chase them out.”

Knox estimated that he must have owned some 280 to 300 cars in all, buying, using and selling them in the way of business. An exception was his favourite car, a special Austro-Daimler. After he sold Ferdy Porsche’s 1910 Prince Henry Trial-winning chain-driven Austro-Daimler (to a Guards officer), he got Porsche to make him a shaft-driven production sportscar with a competition engine and gearbox: “That car I loved, petted, but drove hard for a very longtime. There was simply nothing on the market to tempt me away from her.”

Knox does not seem to have raced at all himself (though Boddy mentions a Henry Knox driving an Isotta-Fraschini in a 1909 Brooklands handicap race), but he drove great distances very fast all over Europe attending all the major events, particularly enjoying the Grands Prix de l’ACF at Dieppe in 1907, ’08 and ’12: “Certainly the Gordon Bennett races and all earlier GPs were not spectator races in the modern sense. But when a town like Dieppe bid the ACF quite a few thousand pounds to hold the GP there (as they did) they hoped for and got quite a flock of visitors for four or five days of GP ‘festivities’. Hotels full, casino and cafés going all night, the enclosure and grandstand at the pits sold out — it was a delightful gala period. Keen motorists from all over Europe and people in the industry flocked there. Visits to the various ‘équips‘ and the early dawn trials were exciting, and also I enjoyed myself going through the car-parks. Always a lot of ex-racing and sporting cars in private and trade hands. Kaiser-Preis and Targa Florio cars etc, hillclimb and sprint cars — they all came. I bought several rare and interesting cars that way. The standard of driving was really very high then —very few crashes.”

Knox became a director and major shareholder of ABC Motors, “the only firm with a real machine shop inside Brooklands”. They offered facilities to many racing teams and manufactured aeroengines and fast and advanced flat-twin 500cc motorbikes.

I wrote to him about the long correspondence that had taken place in MotorSport from 1960 about the merits of Granville Bradshaw’s designs for ABC. After Bradshaw had written a long self-promoting letter, other correspondents had attacked him, one saying that he was not so much a practical engineer as a poet. Knox replied to me at length, saying: “Re Bradshaw: he was quite a good engineer and very bright indeed, up to a point. One of his smaller engines, made for war purposes — inflating kite balloons and trench water-clearing pumps etc — on test for the Air Board officials clocked 10,500rpm, the first time a reciprocating prime mover ever passed 10,000rpm, they assured us. But some of Bradshaw’s ideas were far too wild; he was inclined to go off on them without enough thought, or methodically testing them out.”

Knox saw the writing on the wall and sold out of ABC at a profit. He set up his own high-precision workshop, developing new aircraft instruments. He clearly had an excellent network of contacts in the flying world including “my old friend the late CG Grey, founder-editor of The Aeroplane.”

He seems to have known everybody in the motoring world as well. He became godfather to Louis Coatalen’s son Herve in 1917. When the young Henry Segrave wanted to get into the Sunbeam team in 1919, Knox arranged a lunch at his London flat for Segrave to meet Coatalen. The latter “had been very nice, but pointed out that Segrave lacked experience with full GP-type cars.” Segrave leased a 1914 GP Opel from Phil Paddon — “a very dear old friend of mine” — and impressed Coatalen with his driving of it at Brooklands.

Almost all of Knox’s anecdotes date from before the 1920s. The only exception I know is his story in Minchin’s book of helping an anti-Nazi German escape from Germany in the early 1930s by buying his Mercedes-Benz and driving it across the border with one of its chassis cross-members stuffed with diamonds. After this his story is a blank.

Minchin tells us that Knox was already in South Africa before 1950, hut I know nothing of the circumstances. The Station Hotel of a very quiet, remote country town seems a far cry from his life in the first quarter of the century. However, he kept up a voluminous correspondence with historians seeking his knowledge of that era. He answered hundreds of questions for Lord Montagu’s books on the Gordon Bennett Races and CS Rolls. He sent a long list of corrections to the captions of the illustrations for Laurence Pomeroy Jnr’s The Grand Prix Car 1906-1939. He reviewed Kent Karslake’s Racing Voiturettes. As late as September ’65 he was still busy checking facts and “…trying to dig up from my home in England some old notebooks that cover my SF Edge and Napier days.”

He had not quite given up fast motoring. After writing about the inadequate shock absorbers on his 1908 Napier, he continued: “But one finds that even today. I got hold of a hotted-up Hudson Hornet not so long ago, and it was surprisingly fast, so I fitted big truck-type spring dampers and it made the car far nicer to handle.”

His letters to me often complained of poor health — some were written in bed. It is now more than 40 years since the last of them, and he must have passed away long ago. But Knox’s character shines in this extract which is worthy of Dornford Yates, that writer of adventure romances in that distant era.

Knox, writing of his engineering business during WWI, said: “Once we solved a particularly hard problem at 4.30am after quite 50 hours of test, error and test. So I took them all to the early-opening pub outside Covent Garden Market and we threw a real good party. Market porters joined us and we all bought great bunches of flowers wholesale and drank champagne after a huge breakfast of bacon, eggs and tip-top London sausages. And who should pitch up, coming off duty — there’d been a mild Zepp raid — but dear old Charles Jarrott [then a Lt Col in charge of RAF transport]. Being up all night CJ had probably called at the market to get flowers for a woman friend; maybe, as I did, to get a nice lot for a theatrical first night; we were both great theatregoers. And women as well as men just loved CJ; you couldn’t help it, he was such a grand bloke.”

That was Henry Knox — friend to the greats of the pioneer days.