Cars In Books, July 1976

I had expected to find references to motor racing in “Jack Of All Trades” by Jack Warner (W. H. Allen, 1975), because magazine articles had prepared me for the fact that the well-known stage and TV star had been associated with motoring as a test driver for Sizaite-Berwick and, under his real name of Jack Waters, had done some racing at Brooklands and elsewhere. It is true that, once you refer to anything as worth taking stock of, the instances multiply, and thus it is with references to Brooklands in ordinary books—they now seem endless!

In Warner’s autobiography we are treated to a chapter entitled “The Race-track—and Marriage”. But the cars start in the previous chapter, in which the author describes how his father acquired an old De Dion Bouton in 1914,used for trips out of East London to Epping Forest, etc. After an unsuccessful attempt to make this serve both for pleasure and business by using alternate bodies, it was changed for a Model-T Ford, part of the function of which was to earn 6p a mile taking bodies from hospitals to undertakers. This experience of cars made young Waters yearn to go into the Motor Trade, so his father took him to see Mr. F. W. Berwick at a garage in Balham. Here he worked alongside a fitter called Charlie Ward, who rose to be Chairman of Park Ward Ltd., the book tells us.

There is a rather improbable story about a Daimler starting itself without human aid, when its tumbler ignition-switch fell into the “on” position, and a pleasing account of refitting a slipped timing-chain on an Austin 20 without dismantling the engine. More interesting is confirmation that finance for the Sizaire-Rerwick venture came from Keiller’s marmalade, the garage at first getting a contract to service that firm’s vehicles. There is mention of a two-cylinder Lacre breakdown truck being used for salvage jobs as far distant from Balham, in SW London, as Brighton. In 1913 Waters went to France with Sidney Thomas to help with the new Sizaire-Berwick car, to be built at Courbevoie to designs prepared by Maurice Sizaire, whose brother, Georges, had driven in the Sizaire-Naudin team in early voiturette races. Maurice Sizaire lived with his family in the Rue des Entrepreneures in Paris.

Waters met the great Georges Boillot and was later engaged on driving production Sizaire-Berwick chassis from Paris to London. But the chassis and a Labourdette coupe-de-ville for the 1913 London Motto Show were in the care of Mr. Berwick and Georges Sizaire, much frenzied work being required when it was decided that a lower axle ratio was desirable, Waters taking the new crownwheel and pinion from Paris to Balham, where the fitting was done. Incidentally, he says that although the radiators of these pre-war cars were the same shape as those used by Rolls-Royce, the latter was not patented at that time, so no action could be taken—any continent from R-R experts?

There are stories of exciting drives to England on Sizaire-Berwieks and of testing them, a job shared with another racing driver., Lebouc, before the author of this entertaining book joined the RFC and drove a Crossley tender. After the war he returned to Sizaire-Berwick as Chief Experimental Engineer and Head Tester but was saddened by the changes he found, the chassis now too heavy and the radiator altered to appease Rolls-Royce, although the statement that it “had been tapered almost to a point” is exaggerated. It is interesting that the book states that enough materials had been ordered to build 1,000 post-war cars but that the Company went out of business after 250 had been completed, including three for Sir Robert McAlpine, to be used during the visit of the King and Queen to Cambridge to take them from the station to the new Cambridge Hospital, Waters being given the task of driving the Royal car. The book goes on to describe how an effort was made in 1923 to salvage the Company by fitting Sizaire-Berwick radiators and bodies to Austin 12 and Austin 20. chassis, causing one client at the Motor Show to remark that “I didn’t want a bloody Austin. I thought I was buying a Sizaire-Berwick”! Maurice Sizaire, we arc reminded, made a comeback with the Sizaire-Freres and lived to be 92.

The motor racing chapter opens with Waters joining the “firm next door” to S-B, namely Watkins and Doneaster, which distributed the AnsaIdo and in 1924 had been taken over by a Capt. Moore. There is an error, incidentally, in saying Percy Lambert was the first driver to lap Brooklands at 100 m.p.h.—he was the first to cover over 100 miles in one hour. Waters raced an Aston-Martin for the ballet-dancer, Miss Lister (who also drove it herself), with, he says, a riding mechanic called Charlie Dando. There are some amusing anecdotes in the book, but nothing that wasn’t known previously to those with a good knowledge of Brooklands, together with some about the various motor firms for whom Waters afterwards worked, following his spell as a salesman for Fada Radio (he sold six of these £20 vintage wireless sets). He mentions the thrill of driving a 36/220 Mercedes-Benz round the Track and of accompanying Sir Ronald Gunter in his 540K Show Model Mercedes-Benz on a Monte Carlo Rally—the book implies in 1934, but I think 1935 is intended.

Jack Warner refers to a back injury caused by “taking part in several races over 200 miles”, which I cannot trace, unless he means abroad, and although there are good pictures in his book of the “Royal” Sizaire-Berwick, the Aston-Martin at Brooklands being overtaken by a Wolseley Moth and the Aston-Martin “Razor Blade”, at a minor club meeting, and of the author in a wartime S-B and a 1914 TT Sunbeam (used for a Spanish hilIclimb in 1921 apparently), there is no reference in the text to Jack Warner racing Sunbeams. Of course, most people will read the book on account of the author’s part on TV as “Dixon of Dock Green”.

Immediately after reading “Jack Of All Trades” I found another book that has a complete chapter, or rather an entire section, devoted to motor racing. This is “Guilt Edged” by the larger-than-life Merlin Minshall (Bachman & Turner, 1975). My interest was drawn by the book’s dust-jacket blurb stating that the author had taken up motor racing “so successfully that his name was coupled with the pre-war greats, Bugatti, Wolf (sic) Barnato, Sir Malcolm Campbell” —which he may have been in a battery advertisement. We are told, indeed, that Merlin was presented by Mussolini himself with “the Foreign Challenge Trophy of the World’s longest car race . . .”

Kicking myself hard for never having heard of him, I read on. There is a long account, first of all, about how Minshall competed in the Monte Carlo Rally in a 1 1/2-litre Singer, accompanied by a girl who was unable to drive so that he drove the entire distance from Umea by himself, doing well but muffing a class-win in the final driving tests. All this adds up, because -he did this in 1935, being placed 4th in the 1,500-c.c. class, not 5th as he says (from a bad memory, not modesty, I suggest), and winning the Concours de Comfort. According to the present account he did this on Castrol R, nearly scumming to Chanel No. 5 en route, aided by “a large scale map of the whole route on a long strip of rollers which were driven by a sealed synchromesh off the transmission shaft” (as the route took four days and four nights to cover the contrivance must have been very large), “always a supply of hot food and drink gently simmering by making use of the exhaust manifold” (the mind and sense of smell boggles) . . . and “headlamps, also of my own invention, that turned with the steering” (as copied, Merlin notes, by Citroen 25 years later)— but the picture of the Singer gives no clue to this. After some comic-film incidents on the way, the Singer got to Monaco, where the driver baled out unnecessary items of equipment to reduce weight, filled up with dope fuel that had survived the long journey from England, and “fixed a special catalytic heater under the three SU carburettors to keep them warm for next day’s starting and speed test”.

The author then tells us that during the next 18 months he steadily built up a name in the world of motoring, so that “in the end my name became coupled with the greatest”. I confess I have shamefully overlooked this in all my years of race reporting —unless Merlin Minshall drove under another name? He claims to have been “a regular and successful competitor in many long-distance road races”—named as the Hungarian National Road Race, the Liege-Rome-Liege, the Monte Carlo Rally (with which I won’t argue), the Mille Miglia and Le Mans. This leads up to the World’s longest car race, for the Mussolini Gold Cup. It seems that Merlin was invited to drive in this great contest by the RACI, “partly because my name in those days already carried a certain cachet in the motoring world and also because an Italian friend of mine, Count Johnnie Lurani (whose name the author nevertheless cannot spell correctly), was one of the race organisers”. As described, with threats of disqualification for removing a thermos flask from his car, 400 starters (who left from Rome at midnight), overturned cars seen in the lights from 1,000-candle-power racing headlamps, flames, bodies all over the road, a competitor running bang into a screaming locomotive (resulting in more flames, yells, panic, blood and minced bodies), this must have been quite a race. I had just decided that it was a rally, when I read of pit-stops, with one languid mechanic apparently serving different drivers and intent on sabotaging our Merlin. So it was a race, apparently, with the author’s privately-entered Singer heating “most of the Italian entries and all the foreign ones,” Aston Martin, Frazer Nash, MG, and Riley official entries included. “This”, writes Minshall, “was how I came to be known as one of the ‘Ace’ British drivers of the late thirties and found myself being offered cars to drive at Le Mans and Brooklands and in the annual ‘slaughterhouse’ of the motoring world of those days, the notorious Mille Miglia.” About the latter, I can find no comment, however. In fact, this race must have been the 1934 Littorio Gold Cup, won by Pinctuda and Nardelli in a Lancia at 53.58 m.p.h., and I apologise for overlooking Minshall’s part in it. Apparently he refused all those offers of cars to race at Le Mans and Brooklands, arising from his part in it, for I can find no record of them…

He goes on to describe, in “Guilt Edged”, how he drove across the Sahara in an air-cooled vehicle, which the book-blurb calls a motorcycle, but which pictures prove to have been a Raleigh 3-wheeled van. Minshall is exceedingly rude about it, apart from saying it cost £105 new and had a top speed of some 33 m.p.h., and his efforts, and again incredible adventures, were of little avail as by the time he returned these 3-wheelers were no longer in production.—W.B.