Book reviews, June 1961, June 1961

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“Sir Henry Segrave,” by Cyril Posthumus. 227 pp. 81/2 in x 5 in. (BT Batsford Ltd., 4 Fitzhardinge Street, London W1. 21s.)

This it a scholarly biography of the late Sir Henry Segrave, who was Sunbeam’s leading driver in vintage times and at Tours in 1923 with the non-supercharged 2-litre 6-cylinder, the first British driver to win the classic French Grand Prix.

Posthumus writes an absorbing and well-written history of this great driver, which makes this book a saga of the vintage era. There are new facts about Segrave’s early life and of his career in the Army and RFC during the First World War. Thereafter fewer fresh facts emerge for the serious student of motor racing history, for if you have read Segrave’s own book “The Lure of Speed” and have access to the Autocars of his period, much that Posthumus has so painstakingly set down will not be new. This does not detract from the value of this book as a convenient source of reference to the life and achievements of a great driver. But this reviewer would have liked more details of Segrave’s early days at Brooklands with Opel and Bugatti cars apart from the fact that Segrave’s association with Alastair Miller cost him some £1,500 !—there is no mention of Ernie Line (still fit and well today, as an insurance assessor in Bristol and a keen Rover owner) who prepared the GP Opel, for instance.

The author deals in considerable and fascinating detail with de Hare Segrave’s races, particularly the 1923 French Grand Prix but we are not told the amusing story of how Paul Dutoit, who was Segrave’s efficient riding mechanic on this and other occasions (I met him only a short time ago, in his native Switzerland), left GN, where he was a tester, and came to be invited to join the STD concern, etc. One feels that perhaps Posthumus knew more than he cared to set down when he wrote, “Sir Henry Segrave,” largely with the help of Segrave’s wife and half-brother; consequently the book tends to emphasise Segrave’s virtues while making only casual reference to his weaknesses. Towards the end of his career Segrave remarked to Gilbert Frankau, the author, that “Life is pretty bloody,” yet although another of Segrave’s utterances to Frankau is quoted, this one is ignored and the reader is left with the impression that all was right in Segrave’s world, up to the end—his life with Doris Segrave, his business ventures (that included the post of Director and Sales Manager of Portland Cement, sponsoring the Segrave “Meteor” monoplane and the Hillman “Segrave” car, etc, his finances and his health. But were they ? This book doesn’t tell us. . . .

Segrave lost his life after breaking the Water Speed Record on Lake Windermere. About this some new material is provided, in the form of a “scoop” account by Michael Wilcocks, an engineer who was aboard, of what happened on “Miss England II’s” fatal run. But as to the cause of the accident the author accepts the Coroner’s verdict that the hull hit a floating object. This must be accepted as correct but it would have been interesting, after this passage of time, to have analysed the view expressed by a lady author, in a book, that in general had nothing to do with Motor-boating, that the accident arose through a defect in the hull, and the theory held by an engineer whose opinion should carry considerable weight, that the stern tube bearings were set up too tight, causing a propeller-shaft to seize and tear out of the hull. If Posthumus knows of these things, he remains silent. . . .

Apart from these omissions, this is a first-class life story of man of forceful personality who rose quickly to the highest rank of racing drivers and who was the first person to exceed 200 mph on land—at Daytona in 1927 with the remarkable 1,000-hp twin-engined Sunbeam now in the Montagu Motor Museum. All manner of forgotten items of Segrave’s packed career come to light—I had forgotten that the “Golden Arrow” (also in the Montagu Museum) made its Land Speed Record over a mile of sand lit by arc-lamps, for example—and this biography is skilfully written and presented, and complete with appendices of Segrave’s many successes, the history of the Segrave Trophy and a detailed index. In addition some new photographs have been found and reproduced, as well as many “old favourites,” and the text is embellished with line drawings from The Autocar and a picture of Brooklands Track from MotoR Sport’s archives.—WB.

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