A Student Graduates

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Of Spanish/South American origin, the late Luis Fontes is remembered for the prowess he displayed in one season of pre-war motor racing, and in particular for one remarkable success. He did not win his very first race, but he did triumph very convincingly in his first big one.

The Junior Car Club International Trophy race at Brooklands in May 1935 was described by one authoritative source as promising to be one of the most stirring events ever to be staged at the famous Weybridge Track. It was to be run on Jubilee Day over 100 laps (250 miles) of a circuit embracing the ingenious JCC four-channel chicanes at the Fork — there would be no other form of handicap so the first past the post would be the winner. Prize money was to total more than £1500, the winner’s share being the largest for any British event, and an entry of 45 vvas at tracted, which is worthy of note by those who say Brooklands drew too few runners.

Farina had entered a 4.1/2-litre Maserati, Shuttleworth had his monoposto P3 Alfa Romeo, and the Hon Brian Lewis, C E C Martin and Lindsay-Eccles the latest 3.3-litre Grand Prix Bugattis (to which The Autocar perhaps rashly attributed a speed of 180 mph). Against them in the four groups were Whitney Straight’s 2.6 Maserati, the 2.3 Monza Alfa Romeos and GP Bugattis, the ERAs of Mays, Cook and Rose-Richards, and an assortment of smaller cars which included Sir Herbert Austin’s works team of Sevens, various MGs (of whom Doreen Evans had the advantage, said one reporter, of weighing only 7st), Bugattis, Altas, Rileys, Rovere’s Maserati . . . and Luis Fontes with his MG Midget.

But the wealthy 21-year-old Fontes was becoming disheartened by his lack of success with this little car, and with his 4.1/2-litre Invicta, and on the eve of the International Trophy Race he decided something had to be done.

Noel Rees had brought the first 2.3 Monza Alfa Romeo into this country, for Brian Lewis to drive in the 1933 Mannin Moar race,which he had duly won. For the 1934 and 1935 races faster machines had been deemed necessary (Lewis won again in a P3 Alfa hired from Scuderia Ferrari and in a Bugatti T59 purchased from the factory), so John Cobb had taken over the Rees Monza Alfa. But Cobb’s heart was with the bigger outer-circuit cars, so Fontes was able to hire it from Thomson & Taylor’s, in whose workshops it was awaiting a new owner. He immediately entered the car for the Brooklands International Trophy, a race it had won in Lewis’ hands two years earlier.

Since the programme had already been compiled, he was asked to take No 13, which was unprecedented in British racing. The previously red car was also now painted green, which some might have thought doubly unlucky. Not for Fontes!

The course, with its handicap channels, had proved hard on the cars in practice: Brackenbury’s Bugatti cracked its valve-seats, Shuttleworth found his P3 Alfa difficult to control, Rose-Richards’ ERA broke a piston, the new Austins and MGs were not ready, and Farina’s big Maserati failed to appear. But there were still 37 cars at the 3pm start on a hot, cloudless Jubilee Day afternoon.

Cyril Paul led away in Eccles’ other Bugatti, chased hard by Mays’ 2-litre ERA, Staniland in TASO Mathieson’s Bugatti and Lewis in the 3.3 Bugatti (in which Lord Howe had a stake); but Paul had to retire with engine trouble as the pits became increasingly busy. Mays took over the lead, averaging 88 mph with Fontes in pursuit in his hired Alfa Romeo.

Eccles had a nasty moment when the back wheels of his black T59 Bugatti locked up (the torque tube having broken), Lewis’ sister-car threw a rod, and Eddie Hall was brought in and told to keep below the white line on the Byfleet Banking, which was not easy to do in his fast MG Magnette. Martin’s “new” Bugatti joined the other two in the dead-car park with engine and transmission maladies.

In his first big race in so fast a car, Fontes took a lead by half-distance which he was to maintain to the end. Despite a three-minute refuelling stop, he ran on unruffled to win at 86.96 mph from Freddie Dixon’s 2-litre Riley and Hall’s MG Magnette, in a race of a dozen placed finishers with only two more still running at the end.

He was reported to have driven splendidly, with a smooth cornering style reminiscent of Chiron. Motor Sport said: “Fontes gave the most delightful display of driving seen at Brooklands for many a long day. He handled the Alfa Romeo in a classic manner, gliding through the corners with no wrestling with the steering-wheel or blipping of the throttle . . . The 2.3 Monza Alfa is renowned for its perfect weight-distribution and Fontes made full use of this, in a way that has never been seen in this country before. He approached the top corner much faster than anyone else, very high on the banking, and eased down into the straight in an effortless, just discernable slide. Through the ‘S’ he was smooth and polished, and he took his ‘channel’ much faster than anyone else in his group, with the possible exception of Staniland. On every lap his technique was exactly the same, the weight of the car being changed from a slight slide one way to a precisely similar slide the other way, all accomplished by a nicely-timed lift of the throttle, followed by a steady power-slide out of the corner. . . There was no error of any sort. A new ace has arisen in our midst.”

Fontes clearly liked the Monza, did a deal with Cobb, and continued to use it to some effect for the remainder of the 1935 season, along with various other cars.

A week after his Brooklands success he took the Invicta to second place at Southport, but it was a three-year-old Alfa which he used to finish third in the Mannin Moar race behind two of the T59 Bugattis. Changing scenes again, he shared a 4.1/2-litre Lagonda with John Hindmarsh in the Le Mans 24-Hour race, and they won. He had to retire at County Down after setting fastest lap, but he won the Limerick Grand Prix and drove the Monza Alfa to second place in the Phoenix Park Trophy Handicap at 90.96 mph. He ordered a single-seater Squire for the BRDC 500-Mile race, but had no joy with it.

It was said that this tall, bespectacled man with brushed-back centrally-parted hair looked more like a student than a racing driver. S C H Davis wrote that after a race the student became transformed into the wildest of wild men, and took the art of “making whoopee” to new heights.

The next morning, Luis would have returned to his normal studious self, confounding his critics, but perhaps this insight explains why there was trouble: Fontes had his driving licence, and with it his competition hence, taken away soon after he had ordered a new 2.9-litre P3 Alfa Romeo from Italy.

His other love was flying. In 1935 he had a 200hp Miles Hawk Speed Six, but he crashed it near Durham during the King’s Cup Jubilee race. Ruth Fontes, who raced a similar plane in that race under the name “Miss R Slow” (perhaps as a gesture to the handicappers), must I think have been his sister. Sadly, Luis Fontes lost his life during the Second World War while flying with the RAF. WB

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