Bill Boddy

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The taxi that wasn’t…

From undertakers’ car to parade float to would-be taxi, WB’s Delaunay-Belleville enjoyed a varied life – even if it left him out in the cold

From Edwardian times this make, from the factory at Saint Denis by the Seine, were fine cars, regarded by many as equal to a Rolls-Royce, although the circular radiator I felt lacked dignity.

I found my 1926 15.9hp version in 1952 when taking a side road on my way to the Motor Sport offices. I saw a man in an undertakers up a ladder dusting a Rolls-Royce hearse and beside it was a rare vintage car. “A Delaunay-Belleville,” I said. How did you know that, he asked?

“It’s my job,” I replied. “Is it for sale?”

“It’s the Guv’nor’s, but he now has a modern car, so it might be.”

I called again and it was. I produced the £40 and the Guv’nor signed the receipt, with a quill pen. With my surname I felt I should ask if it had ever followed the mourners, but was reassured after being told that it had been used only for visits to wealthy clients, to arrange elaborate funerals.

So on the next sunny day I left my office early and collected my DB. I set off for Hampshire and home, prepared to chance a day without a tax disc but not without insurance. However, a short distance away were those brokers advertising cut-price cover. I drove to one and the man got out a book to check horsepower and informed me there was no such car as a DB. “There’s one outside,” I told him.

Armed with a month’s cover I was getting used to my new vintage car when I was stopped by two young policemen in a Panda car. Could they look at the engine, I was asked? Now instead of the bonnet sides lifting up, on a DB they fell outwards and could be lifted off. The release catch was incorporated in the radiator filler-cap. If I bungled it, the cops would suspect it was not my car. But all was well and they left, wishing me a happy journey. They must have seen the empty licence holder. Can you see this happening today?

The four-cylinder 2614cc 80x130mm overhead valve engine ran quietly, the four-wheel brakes were effective, and the radiator was impressive, and no longer circular! The interior of the Maythorn body was luxuriously endowed with high-quality leather seats, his and her companions, bevelled-glass roof light and so on. But the copious front compartment, though roofed, had no sidescreens, so while my family rode in comfort on rainy days, I got wet. I used the DB for driving to the office, for picnics, and to report on VSCC race meetings, etc. At Silverstone on one of the latter occasions I had parked well out of the way to the left of a right-hand corner. It was the day when the 10½-litre V12 Delage caught fire and Cecil Clutton was thrown from it as it went straight on into the ditch. Had he turned left it could have been the end of the Delage, DB, and perhaps the driver…

About this time a ceremony was held on the occasion of the end of London’s trams. Vintage and older cars were invited to follow the last one, occupied by a troupe of dancing girls. I took the DB but all the girls were invited to ride in John Bolster’s 1911 Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce and Sir John Briscoe’s racing Coupe de L’Auto Delage, with which I could not keep up. My only passenger in the back of the DB was the lady who managed the girls – not exactly what I had intended!

One of my daughters was at the time secretary to Innes Ireland, then Sports Editor of The Autocar. He had apparently insisted on having as his company car the latest Aston Martin, which was outside the budget for the rest of the editorial staff – but it was that or no job, said the GP driver. When they worked late Innes would take his secretary to Waterloo Station in the AM, and later, when he moved to Wales, he told me he did GP practising on the long run home, and I believe flew his aeroplane from his fields.

One day we decided to call on him. His wife said he had been in bed ill for some time – which surprised me as I thought racing drivers were never ill. He had a long chat with us until his phone rang. His wife said it was a TV or a film producer about what he would charge to hire them his Snowcat, and the invalid was out of bed in a flash…

I used to meet my daughter at Fleet Station, and if she was not on the first train I had half an hour to wait. One evening when this had happened, someone got into the back of the DB and told me to take him to a nearby hotel. At the hotel he asked what was the fare. “Nothing,” I told him. “This is a private car.” It had been an amusing way to pass the time.

When you live within a few miles of the Royal Military Academy and have daughters you can expect frequent visits from Sandhurst cadets. One was Hugo Leech, whose mother ran a ballet school in Camberley and his brother drew those accurate colour plates of cars for the Profile publications. Hugo wanted a Bentley but couldn’t afford one. But the DB had an overhead camshaft so appeared vaguely sporting, and its back compartment would be ideal for ‘sitting out dances’. I weakened and let him have it. I lost touch with him later but think he sold helicopters in the USA.

I sold the car partly because a problem had arisen. Tom Lush and I had found a 14-seater Reo coach in need of restoration, which we had driven home, but we were running out of shed space. The Delaunay-Belleville would have had to stand in the open except for a lady permanently confined to bed who lived in a big house opposite. My wife visited her for companionship. She asked what I did and the conversation turned to cars. Told of the DB’s plight she said her garage was empty and I could use it free of charge.

So the DB moved across the road into dry, secure storage. Until, that is, some builders came to do some house repairs; thinking the old car belonged to the old lady, they used it as theirs, smoking, removing the companions and the roof light glass for ashtrays and generally messing things up. This made me more willing to part with it.

I next encountered the Delaunay-Belleville in photographer Guy Griffith’s museum at Chipping Camden. Guy, apart from taking motor racing photographs and racing an historic Sunbeam, supplied props for TV, anything from a pogo stick to a white elephant. From that he put these effects into this museum.

The last I heard of my Delaunay-Belleville was years later when it was auctioned, the catalogue saying it was mine and that it was in “perfect” condition. For all I knew it might have rusted away.

The only thing I had to replace while I had it was the Autovac, and I found a replacement at a nearby breakers from what was then called a 16/60, the only difference being a less impressive radiator. I only knew of one other DB like mine, but with a two-seater body.

And the Reo? Lush liked buses and coaches, and once went alone on a trip round Britain by linking up the necessary bus routes, carefully noting the makes of all the vehicles he travelled on. I wish I still had his log. We did what we could with the Reo, but could not afford the cloth to replace the voluminous hood, so it too was passed on. Very many years later Tom spotted it at a Silverstone vintage race meeting, now in pristine condition. What an appropriate vehicle in which to go, vintage-style, to watch VSCC events.

*****

Delage history translated

David Burgess-Wise has completed the stupendous task of translating into English the great 2007 work of authors Daniel Cabart and Claude Rouxel, Delage – France’s Finest Car, and it is now available to those who at school spent their time thinking of cars instead of languages.

Its two volumes totalling 526 pages, backed up by 1000 photographs, cover the complete history of the racing cars and their achievements, and the story of Louis Delage and his production cars. The books are full of pictures of these fine cars, the majority with handsome coachwork, often offset by equally elegant ladies. This is the full record of this famous marque, so heavy that I thought I should need a crane to lift
it off the floor when it was delivered…

Published by Dalton Watson Fine Books, www.daltonwatson.com, ISBN 978 1 85443 219 3, £110

*****

Rolls-Royce Spey studies

The Rolls-Royce Heritage Trust has issued No10 of its Technical Series, in an enormous landscape style, a detailed study of the Rolls-Royce Spey engine by Michael Hartley, available from the Trust, PO Box 31, Derby, DE24 8BJ.

*****

Tee’s ten-capitals tour; you couldn’t match it today…

Michael Tee, one of the sons of Wesley Tee who owned Motor Sport from 1936 until his death in 1997, rang me the other day to remind me that it was 50 years since we went to Silverstone, he to photograph, me to report, our first British GP.

Michael was a very safe, very fast driver and an accomplished pilot, with radio licences and qualified to fly twin-engined aeroplanes.

I was never scared however quickly Michael drove; for instance in 1972 on a drive embracing 10 European capitals in 10 days, Michael did the 1789 miles in four days… My intention had been to make this a test of the new V12 Jaguar, but although their PR was a personal friend, he could not arrange this, so I asked another friend, BMW’s PR, who was delighted to lend us a
3.0 CLS BMW.

Michael drove 90 per cent of the journey as he was much the better driver, with me the ineffective navigator. One night we were speeding along at a three-figure pace when I noticed a Police VW Beetle in a lay-by. Its headlights went on and it pulled out to catch us. I did not know the top pace of such a car but Michael said he would increase the BMW’s speed by 10mph, and those headlamps soon faded away!

The screen wipers on my side of the BMW left mud on the glass so I could see nothing ahead; when Michael braked hard I would ask, “Was it a truck or a slower car?” Fear never arose. Nor did it on those fast times we might make, for example, in an E-type Jaguar, from Calais to Dover, on the way home from reporting a GP, delayed only by stopping three times to re-fuel.

I was also present when the aeroplane in which we were returning from Europe encountered fog and had to be diverted to Heathrow. So bad was it that the car sent to guide us off the runway could not find us. But Michael coped calmly and effectively. He also accomplished another ‘dead-stick’ landing when fuel ran out and he had to put down at the disused De Havilland aerodrome at Hatfield – again made safely, but with aeroplane and cameras impounded, unfortunately for The Autocar whose GP film they had asked Michael to take back, as being quicker than their cameraman could in his car!

So happy times and many thanks to MJT for being such a good companion on all our trips.

*****

The Third Reich and motor racing

There are several books about the mechanical aspects of the journalistically-called ‘Silver Arrow’ cars raced in Grands Prix from 1933 to the outbreak of WWII, and other books covering the races themselves, and now this book reveals the situation during Germany’s Nazi regime. It took its author 20 years of research; this English translation is the work of Angus McGeach. It reveals how important the racing drivers of his German cars were to Hitler, even to Hans von Stuck’s half-Jewish wife avoiding the Nazi prison camps, and these champions of the ‘Silver Arrows’ teams having direct access to Hitler himself.

In 1923 Hitler had a brand-new 10-30hp Benz, followed by a 16-50 Benz tourer, priced at 135,000,000,000,000 Marks (135 trillion!), due to runaway inflation. Almost a brief account of Nazism, they are all there, Goering, Himmler, Goebbels etc and, of course, Neubauer in the 392 9×6½in pages and 200 pictures, the latter mostly Nazi propaganda.

The cost of building the first cars and the discussions that arose, how young drivers to replace those killed were tested and, very interestingly, the fees paid to the successful ones, in various currencies, are described. Seaman, already from a wealthy family, is shown with his mother, Lillian Beattie Seaman, and water-skiing on his lake at his Bavarian estate, which racing paid for. But Seaman’s deliberate lukewarm Nazi salute after his victory for Mercedes-Benz in the 1938 German GP is not included.

So this nicely rounds off the motor racing history in that fearful yet fascinating pre-WWII regime, at a very modest price. I recommend those interested in the era of GPs with cars almost as fast as today’s F1 equivalents, but with far less scientific suspension and brakes, and raced over mostly hazardous road circuits, to read this important study of those pre-war days.

Published by Haynes, ISBN 978 1 884425 476 7, £25

*****

Capacity question

Historians may like to debate the true engine size of the pre-WWII Austin 7. When it made its appearance in 1922 it had been described in trade circles as having a four-cylinder power unit of 56x76mm bore and stroke, with a capacity of 747.5cc. Usually, however, this was rounded off to 747cc (the prototype’s capacity was 696cc), though race entries usually quoted the size as 749cc, without alteration of the bore/stroke, presumably in case an engine was over the expected capacity when it was required to be officially measured.

I have seen a remarkable entry for a Brooklands race, when the Austin’s driver is given as “Mr Tom Townsend”. Provision had been made in the 1906-7 BARC rules for race entries to be anonymous on payment of an additional two guineas, to cover parental or marital objections or business rules.

This 1929 entry was unusual, not only because Tom had declared a cylinder bore of 76mm, increasing the capacity to 776cc, but because the only BARC race for which he entered, the Light Car Handicap, was run over eight laps of Brooklands’ Outer Circuit instead of the normal two or three laps. This enlarged A7 was given a 5min 41sec start from Chris Staniland’s scratch supercharged 1½-litre Bugatti. The A7 managed the 22 miles at 66.39mph; Staniland won, averaging 112.17mph.

The original engine dimensions were retained for the first supercharged Sevens, including the works racers nicknamed the ‘Rubber Ducks’. Then there was the 900cc Big Seven.

But when in 1936 Sir Herbert Austin allowed Murray Jamieson to produce the twin-cam racing cars he used a bore/stroke of 60x65mm (744cc), on an engine designed for 12,000rpm but restricted to 8500.

So what was the real capacity of the famous A7 engine? Historians and budding mathematicians, heaven forbid, will not waste too much time over this… The Donington Museum is restoring a number of these splendid little racing cars.

*****

Cars in books – Noel Coward

In The Life of Noel Coward by Cole Lesley (Cape, 1976/77) Sir Noel, as he was by then, is described as having a Jaguar in 1953 of which he was very proud. However, following a complete and very expensive overhaul, it was used for a continental tour. There was a diversion to St Germain to have the hood fixed at the Jaguar factory, after which the back axle failed, necessitating a delay on the way to Italy. A new one arrived the next day. The journey was resumed but after an hour or so the engine emitted clouds of steam, the cooling fan having seized, and a water hose leaking. A local garage set them on their way to Geneva.

The Jaguar was repaired and managed to climb the demanding Stelvio Pass, but in the main street of Domodossola the gearbox refused to accept any gear, including reverse, blocking the traffic. The car was towed to a garage and a hired Lancia and driver took the party at high speed to Como. When the Jaguar was returned there was a slight knock in its engine. Jaguar enthusiasts may take heart as this was, perhaps, a used car.

Earlier in this fascinating biography there is mention of an Austin, the air conditioner of which was much appreciated in a tropical climate. Was this an Austin extra in those times?

*****

Gateway to history

One aspect of back issues of Motor Sport was ‘Fragments of Forgotten Makes’, a series which as Editor I ran from 1957 to 1993, starting with the Star, Cluley and Day-Leeds and concluding with Comet, Globe, Hermon, Itala, Léon-Bollée, Piccard-Pictet and Weller. The idea was to interview personalities who had owned, worked for, or knew about companies making now-rare cars, to provide information not available to other motor magazines. It was exceptionally interesting to me and led to some odd items, such as when I was told of a number of aeroplanes in WWI. I asked where these were tested and was told on the local common but as a gate wide enough for a car or truck would not be so for an aeroplane, two specially wide gates were erected. On my way home I drove to the common and those gates were still there, after some 35 or 40 years; I photographed them with Motor Sport’s Rolliflex camera. I hope they are still there.

*****

Cars, racing, girls…

Must I Grow Up! – a fraction of the eventful life of Freddie Giles – so far (ISBN 978 0 9558289 0 4) is a lively 328-page account of his motoring, racing, marriages, girls and sex. The book is available from Farmer Giles Publishing, The Courtyard, Meadows Works, Court Street, Trowbridge, Wilts BA14 8BR. It opens with a Motor Sport misprint recalled by Freddie in a naughty picture, to lead you on to his very full and wild life, notably farming, but with his competition racing in his Frazer Nash, etc.

*****

VSCC Rally

This year’s VSCC Measham Rally took in 12 time controls. The Measham Trophy was won by Edward Way’s 1937 Austin Ulster, navigated by Mark Groves. The Jeddere-Fisher trophy went to Barry Clarke/David Filsell (1929 A7 saloon), and the Novices awards went to Tim and Michael Brown (1930 Riley Nine). Two FN-BMWs and a 3½-litre Bentley took the team prize, as ‘the Three Bees’.