Riding mechanics were remarkable men, until racing regulations banned them “with a great saving of life”. Stanley Mann, the Bentley authority and dealer, is a fount of terrific anecdotes, and one of the Bentley men he came to know well was Billy Rockell of subsequent Ramponi & Rockell fame, running the garage business with his ex-Scuderia Ferrari partner Giulio Ramponi just off Lancaster Gate in London. Billy had learned his craft at Thornycroft before joining Bentley Motors around 1922-23, building all the company’s Le Mans engines, 3-Litre, 4½-Litre and Speed Six. With Bentley in difficulty before its controversial acquisition by Rolls-Royce in 1931, Rockell joined Birkin & Couper at Welwyn, Sir Henry Birkin’s operation assembling the ‘Blower’ Bentleys.
Once Bentley was out of racing and ‘Tiger Tim’ had used up the Hon Dorothy Paget’s sponsorship funding, the baronet continued racing with an Alfa Romeo 8C-2300. Rockell developed great respect for Birkin, and Stan had known him a long, long time before he finally shared a defining tale about what this charismatic British racing hero was really like.
Billy was riding mechanic to Sir Henry when the Alfa’s engine lost power and stuttered onto seven cylinders, then six. Billy instantly recognised fuel starvation, and furiously re-pressured the tank via the cockpit pump. But glancing round he realised the filler cap had vibrated open, venting tank pressure. He craned round over the Alfa’s tail to close the cap, then returned to his pressure pump, and the engine picked up and sang as lustily as ever. But the cap vibrated open again so Billy sprawled over the car’s tail, to hold it shut.
With Sir Henry cornering hard, Billy could not wedge his legs securely, and on one right-hander he nearly slithered overboard only to feel Sir Henry’s left arm hooking him back. They raced on with Billy sprawled full length, hands over the fuel cap, Birkin steering one-handed, hanging on to his riding mechanic’s legs except when changing gear.
“After the race,” recalled Billy, “I said to Sir Henry ‘I want to thank you, sir, for hanging on to my legs like you did. You saved my life, sir.’ And with his stammer he sez, ‘Sah-sah-saved your life, Rockell? Dah-dah-don’t be so bah-bah-baluddy silly! The way your damned legs were thrashing around I was worried you’d smash my bah-bah-baluddy instruments!’ ”
Racing drivers. They haven’t changed.