Conan Doyles’ motor racing

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Not the famous author but his two sons. Both were keen drivers and competed in a variety of arenas in the 1930s

Ithink Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, who wrote the Sherlock Holmes stories, came only once to Brooklands, in conjunction with that author’s tour of Europe, including Germany where they were asked to look out for anything military, it being in 1914.

Perhaps Brooklands was the finishing place as there was space for the cars and maybe lunch in the Clubhouse. I think Conan Doyle was a passenger in a large Benz tourer. But if the famous author never raced, his two sons Adrian and Denis did take up motor sport, and in rather a wild manner.

One of the Howey brothers who raced at Brooklands had bought the Count’s Chitty-Bang-Bang I, just before Zborowski had been killed in 1924 in a works Mercedes at the Italian GP, and he took it on a Scottish tour from which it emerged in need of an overhaul. The Conan Doyle boys bought Chitty in 1930 and had it put in better running order. They then drove it in the 1931 Inter-Varsity speed trials at Branches Park during that February where Adrian was third in the 1½-litre class in the famous Frazer Nash ‘The Slug’ behind two other Frazer Nashes. The Conan Doyles represented Cambridge.

In 1930 Adrian made FTD at the popular Lewes speed trials, a slightly uphill ¼-mile course, organised by the Kent and Sussex LCC. He was again driving ‘The Slug’ which overturned after finishing the timed run, although Adrian was only slightly bruised. At the May meeting, Denis also drove this car.

At the end of 1931 the Conan Doyles announced that they had formed a three-car team of Mercedes-Benz (presumably sports cars) to compete in the leading British and Continental races. The team manager was King Farlow. Nothing more was heard of this but in 1932 they drove a 36/220 Mercedes-Benz at Lewes, Reg No KP1813, a Kent number, whereas the Conan Doyle estate was in Sussex, so it was probably a used example. It won the unlimited sports car class for Denis (28.3sec).

Disaster came at the Inter-Varsity speed trials held by permission of Sir James Hill at his estate, Hexton Hall near Hitchin. In an Austro-Daimler Denis failed to stop as required and failed to take a bend which was not part of the course, and then stopped across the road. Not knowing this, Rothschild’s 38/250 Mercedes-Benz was on its way to FTD. He too could not stop until beyond the finish; he avoided the Austro-Daimler but not an age-old box hedge. The CUAC banned the Conan Doyles from membership as a result.

Years later I was in the area with a friend and we decided to look at the course. We obtained permission and were halfway along it when the head gardener told us we were trespassing. That awkwardness having been overcome, he told us proudly of the fine old box hedge he looked after and of how he never could eliminate a poor patch! It must have been as a result of that unfortunate accident.

In 1936 the two Conan Doyles competed at the Southport sand races with a stripped Mercedes-Benz SSK; they were fastest in the one-mile event for the big cars and Adrian finished fifth in the 50-mile Handicap race.

In the rain in the Irish Leinster road race Denis crashed in the Mercedes-Benz and Adrian abandoned his 1½-litre twin-camshaft Bugatti, running to the pits to check that his brother was alright. Serious misfiring of his Bugatti ruined Adrian’s chances in the Autumn Southport ‘100’, which ended the racing efforts of this sometimes wild pair.

In 1934 when I persuaded the proprietor of Brooklands Track and Air magazine to stage a small display of historic racing cars in the Brooklands paddock, the Conan Doyles let me borrow Chitty-Bang-Bang I, which Dick Nash kindly agreed to tow from London behind his Ford V8, with much tyre trouble on the giant car. The display also included Dick Nash’s 1912 Lorraine-Dietrich, Shuttleworth’s Paris-Madrid Dietrich and the 1903 Gordon Bennett Napier. After the display Chitty was left derelict on the aerodrome, the Conan Doyles hoping someone might buy the engine for a boat. They came to see the ancient giant in their sister’s Austin 7, but eventually the one-time highly exciting Brooklands racing car was removed and finally broken up.