Recipe for speed
Bill Boddy recounts the story of the 1929 BRDC 500 — the contest that put the fire back in British racing’s belly
The British Racing Drivers Club was originally open only to those who, from personal participation, knew what taking part in motor racing entailed. Its committee had the brilliant but risky initiative of having, as its first important event, a 500-mile race at Brooklands. This was to be a no-holds-barred Outer Circuit event devoid of artificial comers — a contest of unadulterated speed. This at first met with some criticism because there were few precedents on which to judge what the outcome might be.
Brooklands had seen nothing of its kind, if one excepts two rather dull races for standard-type cars held before WWI broke out, and the admittedly equally ambitious Junior Car Club’s 200mile races of 1921-24, which were also run over the Outer Circuit until corners were introduced from ’25 on. But the JCC mini-marathons were confined to cars of an engine capacity not exceeding 1.5 litres; the BRDC was proposing to let loose — over the ageing Brooklands concrete — racing cars of any size and power. How many would stand up to the full race distance? Would sufficient entries be received? The BRDC replied rather ingeniously that its 500-mile race would be run right at the end of the season, so that those who wrecked their cars would have the entire winter in which to effect repairs!
All the obstacles were bypassed and the race became an enormous success, a big draw for spectators, perhaps because it was unique in the British racing calendar. In America the Indianapolis 500 was recognised as a fixture of worldwide interest and acclaim, held annually since 1911. From ’29, the ‘British’ 500 was to remain a leading attraction year after year, a fast and furious contest which famous drivers supported — and with a higher average speed than that of the Indy speedbowl.
The only previous experiment of this kind, never repeated, had been the 500-mile motorcycle race that the British Motor Cycle Racing Club held at Brooklands in July 1921. There were 64 starters, on bikes ranging from a 247cc Levis to an Indian, two Harley-Davidsons and a Matchless, each of 998cc. The race was won by was Bert Le Vack, probably the greatest of all Brooklands riders, who averaged 70.42mph on the big Indian.
Eight years later the BRDC was proposing to have a car race of the same character and distance. True believers were enthusiastic; Sammy Davis of The Autocar described this as “strictly speaking a ‘racing car’ event from beginning to end, and it ought to be both interesting and exciting”.
The regulations were drawn up by August for the race on October 12, 1929; the entry fee £20, with a £5 refund for any car attaining a speed of 80mph or over for a lap (later increased to 100mph). There had to be handicapping, so five groups of cars, of up-to-1100cc to over 5 litres, with no penalties for supercharged engines, were released at intervals. There was some grumbling about this as handicaps were said to be based on the speeds for 500-mile class records, and well-prepared record-breakers might go faster than cars competing in a long race. Davis said he favoured the 1.5-litre and up-to-5-litre runners, and wondered how stripped sportscars would fare against racing Bugattis; he predicted the winner as one of the 2-litre GP or 4-litre V12 Sunbeams.
The entries numbered 37, but non-starters included Harold Purdy’s Thomas Special, the Vauxhall Villiers, which Raymond Mays was preparing for sprints, Lago’s Isotta-Fraschini, and E L Bouts’ 4.9 Sunbeam. But what a free-and-easy race it was to be, with any number of wheels permitted if kept in the pits, four mechanics allowed to help a driver, any starting method permitted bar towing, while any component could be changed. But closed cars were barred.
The first prize was Humphrey Cook’s 150 sovereigns and the 100-guinea Wakefield Cup; second home got 100 sovs, the third finisher would receive Dunlop’s 50 sovs. The BARC Cup went to the finisher making fastest lap, and the first British car to finish earned Joseph Lucas’ 100 sovs. Pass & Joyce Ltd provided the Team Prize. For class winners and second placings there were awards presented by Henly’s, George Collins, Ferodo, Vacuum Oil, Vanden Plas, Brake Linings Ltd and Thom Motors, plus two silver cups presented anonymously.
Lord Howe, CBE, President of the newly formed BRDC, said: “There has been a growing tendency for races for sportscars, as different from a racing car. Pure speed is no longer the principal objective, and motor racing in its modem form is by no means the motor racing that we knew in years gone by. Racing cars built around a powerful engine rather than beneath a cumbersome body still exist; so do drivers to handle them; there are thousands of lovers of the sport who are worried lest racing as it used to be should pass from us forever. [Nothing dates! — WB.] It was these matters which the BRDC Committee considered when they decided that the club’s first race should be for racing cars unhampered by obstacles and corners. The first results of their efforts are evident from a fine entry, including some of the fastest cars ever built for track work.
‘The ‘500’ will undoubtedly be the fastest ever run over a long distance in England; the thrills of long-distance racing should be more evident than they have been for many years.”
How right he was. Whereas the Indianapolis 500 was visualised here as involving cars which all looked alike and had funny names, what could be more British than the line-up for this 1929 BRDC 500, ranging as it did from six Austin 7s, presumably bored-out to 749cc, to five Bentleys and the enormous aero-engined Mercedes of RAF Flying-Officers John Pole and John Noel? The latter car had been found abandoned in the Mercedes depot in Grosvenor Road, London. This was thought to be the ex-Count Zborowsld Chitty III with which Davis concurred, doubt having arisen because the Count had declared its 6cyl engine to be of 140x160mm (14,778cc) whereas Pole gave his car’s engine as 148x170mm (17,850cc) and now, for the 500, as 130x170mm (16,200cc).
The big 6.5-litre Bentley was having a stubby-tailed racing two-seater body made for it, Birkin’s supercharged 4.5-litre Bentley a very light fabric racing body, and the Sunbeams were being properly prepared. Variety was provided by Mrs Scott’s ‘Flatiron’ Thomas Special — driven by he who was to become her second husband — a stripped, four-seater 1750 Alfa Romeo and W B Scott’s grand prix Delage.
So, on that autumn Saturday in 1929, the first of five groups of cars were assembled on the Brooklands Finishing Straight, ready to go round to the Fork start, as required. This arrangement had its dangers, with very fast runners coming off the Byfleet Banking to rush past while the next group, still surrounded by people, was waiting to go. The only precaution was a solitary man with a flag, standing some way off. But the race was on and no-one was expected to back off, so if a car got out of control there could have been unfortunate consequences.
The unroofed, rather cramped, old ex-motorcycle pits below the Fork grandstand were used.
Something curious took place before the race started. Davis arrived early to report on it, only to be asked by a worried W O Bentley if he would drive the big Bentley as other drivers were not willing to do so; the car had won Le Mans and the BARC Six-Hour race. Woolf Barnato and Jack Dunfee had been nominated, but now there was disagreement. The Stewards had told W O that they would allow any reasonably experienced driver to take over, and Sammy agreed to drive. Clive Dunfee, brother of legendary ‘Bentley Boy’ Jack, had also agreed providing he had a co-driver. Davis had not had much experience of very fast Track cars, except from a few journalistic laps in the aged 350hp Sunbeam; nor had Dunfee, although his crimson 3-litre Austro-Daimler had gained innumerable seconds in BARC Short Handicaps, but had only lapped at slightly over 109mph. Sadly, he went over the banking in the 1932 ‘500’ and was killed, in the same Bentley, the notorious ‘Old Number One’.
So Davis started in the race, bareheaded and without practising. He was at first unable to find the external gearlever, mistook the heat dial for the oil gauge, found no handle on the tank-pressure pump, as there was electric fuel-feed, and the pit signals hadn’t been explained to him. And yet he and Clive had to lap at over 125mph!
The race, with 28 starters, went very well. At 10am the first group started; it would be over two hours before the two biggest cars were flagged to join in. Vernon Balls’ splendid little Amllcar Six stormed away and was in the lead at half-distance. Spero’s oddly streamlined Austin 7 gave chase until it slowed and Holbrook’s works s/c stripped orange Ulster A7 took its place, to average a wonderful 80.25mph for the entire distance. The Amilcar then broke a valve and the lead passed to GET Eyston in one of the old 2-litre GP Sunbeams, astonishingly well ahead of his handicap. It still led at three-quarter distance, at which point it broke a spring. The Cyril Paul/John Cobb 4-litre Sunbeam then took the lead until its frame broke and it had to be driven cautiously to finish.
One of the Lea-Francis team was out in the first hour, while Martin’s Riley 9 required much work to restore it. The Thomas Special had retired after a fire and transmission failure, Oats’ OM had trouble with its straight-8 engine, while the other 4-litre V12 Sunbeam of Kaye Don went out with a broken rear spring when Dudley Froy was driving. Jack Barclay, in the two-seater 4.5-litre Bentley, had a truly alarming series of gyrations, necessitating a change of three wheels, before the cool Frank Clement took over. He went on to win, challenged by the Big Six Bentley that kept flinging off its right-rear tyre tread, which stuck mighty blows to the right arms of Davis and Dunfee. Brother Jack’s Bentley was out after 221 miles, but Scott’s Delage did well to last for 370 miles before its engine objected.
Spero’s A7 eventually stopped for good and Sir Henry Birkin, after a very fast onslaught which got him up to second place, was delayed by oiled plugs. So much oil was lost that it almost prevented ‘Tim’ and Harcourt Wood from seeing. Their Bentley then set fire to its body fabric and retired. (This car, though, was to become Birkin’s famous lap record-holder.)
The finish of this unique race was very close. It went to the Clement/Barclay Bentley at 107.32mph; second was the Big Six Bentley of Davis/Dunfee at 109.40mph, Davis having set the fastest race lap of 126.09mph; third was the stricken Sunbeam of Paul/Cobb at 102.48mph. The winning Bentley was in action for 4hr 34min 59.4sec.
Others still running were the Alfa Romeo (96.74mph), Fiennes/Hon Brian Lewis in the four-seater Bentley (98.80mph), that A7 (80.25mph), Pellew’s Lea-Francis (89.19mph), Martin’s Speed Model Riley 9 (80.12mph) and Earl Howe in a Lea-Francis (88.38mph). The class winners were Austin, Lea-Francis, Alfa Romeo, the victorious Bentley and the 6.5-litre Bentley.
Jack Field’s Bugatti, the Mercedes and the Saunders Davies/Rose-Richards’ 1.5-litre Bugatti were flagged in. The giant Mercedes might have done better had Noel not asked Dunlop about its tyres and been told not to lap at over 100mph ; another ‘if or but’ of motor racing!
The BRDC 500 became one of the most important Brooklands races. It was won by some very famous drivers and cars, and for a long time it was faster than the Indianapolis 500.
The BRDC’s opening gambit paid off handsomely.