An interview with the well-known pre-war amateur Bugatti driver
Continuing the enthralling pastime of tracking down and talking to pre-war racing personalities, I drove through Welsh mist to beyond Swansea the other day, to interview that enthusiastic Bugatti exponent A. H. L. Eccles at his country home on the Gower peninsula.
Asked what sparked off his interest in fast motor cars, Lindsay Eccles, looking very little older than he did when I watched him driving at Brooklands and Donington, but now minus his moustache, told me that his parents had a house, “Broadway”, between Laugharne and Pendine, in Carmarthenshire, so that he naturally used to watch the record-breaking attempts on the famous sands of men like Malcolm Campbell and Parry Thomas. This, he recalls, entailed standing about for hours before anything happened—just as it did when other small boys waited for a steam-roller to move or, in my case, for a Gloster Gamecock to emerge from its hangar at Kenley aerodrome. But these long delays before the excitement broke did not detract from Eccles’ enthusiasm when he became old enough to own a car, his first one being a Morris Fourteen.
Lindsay Eccles’ brother, the late Roy Eccles, who became very well-known for his exploits with a Frazer Nash possessing an abnormally high compression ratio and later, with an MG Magnette and, with his wife, the Lagonda Rapier-based supercharged single-seater Eccles Special, was likewise an enthusiast, who owned originally a Lea-Francis, which he drove in local speed events at Hundred House on a weight-handicap basis. Lindsay Eccles had his first taste of speed work when he competed in this car at Shelsley Walsh; he enjoyed the experience so much that he bought himself a low-chassis 4 1/2-litre Invicta.
This was in 1931, when about the only major speed events open to British competitors were Brooklands and the Shelsley Walsh hillclimbs. Eccles remembers that these impressive-to-look-at sports Invictas had a whippy chassis accentuated by their big slab petrol tanks, which made them liable to weave about, which his did up Shelsley, causing “moments” in the Esses! Nevertheless, Eccles was second in his class to Raymond Mays, who was driving a specially-prepared car of the same make and model, in 1931 and again in June, 1932, when his Invicta tied with C. M. Needham’s, and likewise at the second 1932 meeting. This whetted Eccles’ appetite for competitive motoring and he and his brother invested (a word which would have more meaning today!) in two second-hand Bugattis, Lindsay buying a 2-litre GP Modifée, Roy a Type 37.
This was the beginning of Lindsay Eccles’ racing career, during which he remained faithful to the Molsheim make, which is not difficult to understand, because, as I well recall, before the war the better Bugattis were not only the most technically-exciting and enjoyable cars available, but they would see off almost anything on the road, to the accompaniment of inimitable sounds and smells, whereas today, although the fascination hasn’t diminished one iota, the fastest of the breed might have difficulty keeping a Ferrari, Lamborghini or “E”-type Jaguar in sight. Eccles had his Bugattis prepared for racing and serviced by H. W. Papworth, whose premises, so enthralling to visit, were in Filmer Road, Fulham. As his racing engagements multiplied, with events at Donington, Southport, the loM and abroad, Papworth used to convey the appropriate Bugatti to the venue and supply mechanics, one of his boys being detailed to act as riding mechanic, this applying even in the dangerous Mannin Moar race through the streets of Douglas, when one of the lads would be provided with a crash-hat and told to get on with it. Eccles drove to Brooklands in the Invicta, one of his photographs showing it about to tow-start one of his Bugattis along the Finishing straight. Later he used a black and green Type 57 Bugatti saloon for the same purpose. For racing, Pratts-Ethyl petrol and Essolube oil were favoured, as old advertisements reminded me.
To talk of these pre-war races with Lindsay Eccles is to recapture the nostalgia of those days. He remarks that it was a trifle droll that he was classed as an amateur driver, when he paid Papworth to maintain his cars, which were finished in Eccles’ colours of black and green and kept in London or at Brooklands between races, whereas a driver owning a small garage would be a professional; letters in Eccles’ file reminded me that when drivers of his calibre were invited to take part in important races, such as the Brooklands Mountain Championship or a long-distance classic at Donington, by Percy Bradley and Fred Cramer, they were still expected to pay the 5 gns. entry fee!
I asked Eccles if he found such races exhausting. He said a long race in a Bugatti was rather tiring because the gearboxes tried to roast his ankles, so he put asbestos sheeting over those in the 2.3s. He didn’t train specifically for his races, apart from some running. Was it very expensive? “Well”, said Eccles, “if you ruined a full needle-roller crank on a Bugatti a new one had to be obtained from the factory….” It was, of course, all delightfully casual, in his day. When Turner rolled his four-speed Austin Seven at Donington, for instance, they picked him up, dusted him down, and he was ready to go racing again, except that two of the Austin’s wheels were buckled, which Turner overcame by replacing one with his own spare and the other with the spare from a spectator’s car.
In the IoM lady spectators were allowed to watch in a sort of VIP’s grandstand on the outside of a corner, separated from the sliding cars by not much more than a privet hedge, although the skids were accentuated by the loose surface at the edge of the road, and in the towns, signposts, traffic signals and other roadside impedimenta remained in place, often unprotected by sandbags, and it was said to have been debated whether or not the traffic-lights should be turned off during a race! At Donington cars were started three-abreast, regardless of the narrowness of the road and the fact that it was frequently covered with wet leaves from overhanging trees. Carefree days!
Lindsay Eccles wore a crash-hat but not all his fellow competitors did so—reversed caps, linen helmets and bare heads being quite common. His prudence was seen after his serious accident at Dieppe, when his Herbert Johnson headgear probably saved his life. Incidentally, the damaged helmet was displayed afterwards in the maker’s window in Bond Street, together with “Go!die” Gardner’s, he having also been saved in this way, but so many people were attracted that the police asked that these exhibits be removed. Incidentally, Eccles still has the X-ray report of the Wimpole Street specialist on the state of his broken bones and the bedside chart from the Kingston nursing home to which he was removed from a French hospital, on which well-wishers have recorded that the best cure would be more beer!
Eccles’ green 2-litre non-s/c. GP Bugatti was entered for the first time in the 1931 BARC June Inter-Club Meeting, at which it was beaten by half-a-length in the Racing Short Handicap by Jack Bartlett’s blown Salmson. This Bugatti could lap at over 105 m.p.h. For the 1932 season he had a black and green Type 37 Bugatti, in which he was third in a Mountain and an outer-circuit handicap at the Easter Brooklands Meeting and, at the Autumn BARC races, won the September Junior Mountain Handicap at 63.25 m.p.h. from Hamilton’s MG.
The following year Eccles invested in a blown 2.3 GP Bugatti, running this and the 1 1/2-litre at the Opening BARC Meeting. At Easter he concentrated on the bigger car and took a second on the outer-circuit, when he was beaten only by R. Morgan’s 4 1/2-litre Invicta, an old rival, after lapping at 108.74 m.p.h. At Whitsun he was back to the Type 37, which turned the tables on Morgan by winning the Cobham Lightning Short Handicap from the Invicta by some 30 yards, at 86.8 m.p.h., after a flying lap at 94.86 m.p.h.
The Welsh driver now turned his attention to road-racing, entering the ex-Craig 2.3-litre Bugatti for the Mannin Moar race in the Isle of Man, Papworth being responsible for getting the car there, although a friend who was with Port Sunlight sometimes contrived for an empty “Sunlight Soap” van to be available for this purpose. Incidentally, the New Imperial motorcycle team organised a signal system remote from the pits to assist Eccles in this race. Unfortunately, the gearbox played up, and then Eccles crashed at Playing Fields corner. This did not deter him, and at Donington that August he won both the 2 1/2-litre s/c., 3-litre and up-to-5-litre races with the 2.3 Bugatti, averaging 61.5 m.p.h. in the latter and setting a new lap record. The closing Brooklands Meeting of 1933 saw “Taso” Mathieson beat Eccles by two seconds in winning the Second Woking Lightning Mountain Handicap, both driving s/c. 2.3-litre Bugattis, and at Donington, before winter closed in, Eccles’ 2.3 finished second to Lord Howe’s 2.3 in a 20-lap Invitation Race and won the up-to-3-litres race at 60.17 m.p.h., his f.s. lap and s.s. 10-lap records unbeaten.
The 1934 season opened well for Lindsay Eccles, because he won the First Walton Lightning Mountain Handicap at the Opening Brooklands Meeting in his blown 2.3 Bugatti from scratch at 69.74 m.p.h. from Rayson’s blown Riley 9, and a sprint handicap at 98.36 m.p.h. from Oats’ Maserati. Then it was up to Donington, where he lapped at 61.23 m.p.h. winning the third race at 59.23 m.p.h. from Shuttleworth, both driving blown 2.3 Bugattis. Easter brought another victory, at Brooklands, when the Type 37 came home first in the Ripley Junior Short Handicap at 88.76 m.p.h., lapping at 97.27 m.p.h., and was second in the equivalent Long Handicap. Eccles then switched to his “first-string” 2.3 Bugatti and took the Third Ripley Mountain Handicap at 70.4 m.p.h. from Hamilton in Whitney Straight’s Maserati.
For the 1934 JCC International Trophy Race Eccles had a look at the ingenious handicap channels and decided to use a 2-litre crankshaft in the 2.3, as this class had a better chance and the modification wouldn’t greatly affect the Bugatti’s speed. He failed to finish, however.
At Donington in May, with the 2.3 back to its normal form, Eccles won a 10-lap handicap race from scratch at 61.8 m.p.h,, beating Cholmondeley-Tapper’s Type 37, but not before the latter had set a new lap record of 63.76 m.p.h. against Eccles’ former lap record—or could the time-keepers have been mistaken? The 2.3 finished second in the Whitsun Merrow Lightning Short Handicap at Weybridge behind Horton’s MG, after which Eccles won the Merrow Senior Long Handicap by 25 yards from Murton-Neale’s blower-4 1/2 Bentley, at 112.28 m.p.h., his best lap being at 118.58 m.p.h., a speed also achieved in the earlier race.
In the 1934 Mannin Moar race the 2.3 retired with back-axle trouble after 39 laps but was rushed back for the Southport beach races. However, they hadn’t realised that the drag of the sand would greatly increase petrol consumption and Eccles and others ran out of fuel when going well, as did Dixon who, however, had a sufficiently good lead to be able to refuel and go on to win. At Shelsley Walsh Eccles tied with Earl Howe for third place in the 3-litre racing class, their 2.3s being 3.6 sec. under Straight’s record time in the Maserati. The Empire Trophy Race found Eccles home in third place, after averaging 81.7 m.p.h., behind Eyston’s MG and Straight’s Maserati in this handicap event.
Eccles next venture was some Continental racing, at Dieppe, where, as already accounted, he crashed, at the Val Gosset downhill section, the Bugatti losing its radiator and front axle and cracking its block along the flange, so that the crankshaft was also wrecked. Yet Charlie Martin raced it on the same circuit two years later. Eccles had a bad time in hospital as another Bugatti driver, Gaupillat, had also crashed and was far more seriously injured, so got most of the attention.
This crash might have been expected to retard Eccles’ enthusiasm. Not a bit of it! At the Autumn Brooklands Meeting he entered a s/c 2-litre, a s/c 2.3 and the black and green roller-bearing, twin-Solex Type 37, finishing second in the latter in the Second Kingston Junior Long Handicap, getting round at 102.48 m.p.h. The 2-litre car was a non-runner but the 2.3 lapped at 118.86 m.p.h. before retiring.
Using the Type 37 Bugatti, Eccles opened the 1935 season by being placed third in the First New Haw Short Handicap. He also ran a Type 51A but it gave much trouble. Using a 2.3 at Donington in April, Eccles took a second place in a 25-mile race and then won the Invitation 25-mile event at 68.44 m.p.h., in the course of the afternoon first sharing a new lap record of 70.25 m.p.h. with Shuttleworth in the 2.9 monoposto Alfa Romeo and then improving this to 71.446 m.p.h. The final placings showed Charlie Martin’s 2.3 Bugatti to be first, Eccles tying for second place with Seaman’s ERA.
A most exciting episode comes next. Ettore Bugatti had announced that he would sell four of his 3.3-litre Type 59 Grand Prix cars to British drivers. Eccles went out to France, had a trial run amongst the hay carts on the roads around Molsheim, decided he liked the car, and flew home, advising Papworth to arrange delivery. At the 1935 Easter Brooklands Meeting, after finishing second to the Barnato-Hassan in the Senior Short Handicap in his Type 51A Bugatti, which lapped at 118.3 m.p.h., Eccles ran the beautiful wire-wheeled 3.3, thought to be the ex-Nuvolari car, in the British Mountain Handicap, driving very well, vide a contemporary report, but just failing to close on Dixon’s 1,808 c.c. Riley. However, on the outer-circuit the Type 59 lapped at 122.67 m.p.h. He says that although on a long straight the extra urge of the 3.3 over the 2.3 was impressive, the carburation was never really correct, so that the 2.3 was quicker up Shelsley Walsh.
The transmission was also a weak aspect of these expensive cars; as Eccles says “even when the Hon. Brian Lewis used Noel Rees’ 3.3, prepared at Molsheim, to win the IoM race, he finished with about one-and-a-half speeds in the gearbox”. Indeed, in the International Trophy race Eccles had the back axle seize, which caused the 3.3 to spin, resulting in some nasty moments for those following. He thinks perhaps the works cars were better endowed in this department. He says the de Ram shock absorbers, costing £140 a set, were very complex but excellent when working properly; de Ram himself came over to “tune” them.
Much work was done on these cars, which Howe, Lewis and Martin had also invested in, before the 1935 Mannin Moar race, but Eccles’ retired after 31 laps with a broken universal joint. Eccles reverted to a 2.3 for the BRDC British Empire Trophy Race, being second at half-distance and finishing in seventh place, at 76.92 m.p.h. In July the Type 59 contrived to win the Senior Handicap at 63.84 m.p.h. but it did no good at Dieppe, and although winning the 5-litre Racing Car Class at Shelsley Walsh later in the year, its time of 44.2 sec. does not compare favourably with that of the 2.3s. At the August BARC races Eccles relied on his blown 2.3, with which he won the Second August Mountain Handicap from scratch, at 73.64 m.p.h. At Brighton the 3.3 Bugatti just failed to beat the course record, taking the unlimited racing class at 78.95 m.p.h., to Shuttleworth’s Alfa Romeo’s speed of 79.36 m.p.h.
As a break from Bugattis he shared a supercharged single-seater Frazer Nash with his friend Folland, who raced as “Tim Davies”, in the 500-Mile Race, but recalls that the inlet manifolding upset the mixture, which was never the same in all four cylinders, and that the car was very stubborn about being pulled down the banking, when it would indulge in retaliatory nose dives. Eccles lapped at 128 m.p.h., his friend claimed an improbable 130 m.p.h. plus, but they went out after 29 laps with a broken timing chain, possibly caused by burnt valves allowing the camshaft to hunt.
Eccles’ Type 59 finished fifth in the 1936 British Empire Trophy Race at Donington but retired after 38 laps in the International Trophy, with the dreaded transmission failure. That was about the end of Lindsay Eccles’ motor racing, although he again won the 5-litre Class at Shelsley Walsh in the car (50.6 sec.) and ran the 51A and the 2.3 early in 1936, without much luck. Thereafter he was content to assist his brother with his highly-supercharged Eccles Special.
Before the close of this brief story of a six-year racing career, however, there is one most interesting fact to discuss, which many Bugatti historians appear to be unaware of. For the 1936 Brooklands Whitsun Meeting Eccles attempted to get more urge from his Type 59 by increasing the bore from 72 mm. to 72.5 mm., and the stroke from 100 mm. to 115 mm., increasing the swept volume from 3,255 c.c. to 3,798 c.c. The enlarged Bugatti failed to materialise but was sold subsequently to J. Lemon Burton, and T. A. Roberts later added road equipment, registering it as DBL 241 after the war. Eccles had earlier contemplated using the 3.3 engine without the supercharger, as Earl Howe did in a 500-Mile Race and the works did for sports car racing, but preferred this alternative means of increasing the power output.
Wales has produced but a few racing drivers. Undoubtedly the greatest was the late J. G. Parry Thomas, about whom I will have nothing detrimental said. But he was, nevertheless, a racing motorist, whereas Lindsay Eccles was a racing driver, preferring road events to track racing and able to thrust and parry with the best of them. Today, in retirement, he is a member of the Silverstone Club and is still a keen driver, running an Aston Martin, while his wife drives a Triumph Herald and his daughter an M.G.-B.—W. B.