Jack Dunfee's racing days
The editor lunches with a well-known "Bentley Boy" and Brooklands Outer-Circuit driver
"Jack and Clive Dunfee were the tall, good-looking sons of Col. Vickers Dunfee, C.B.E., a well-known figure in the City, where he was responsible for the creation of the City of London Police Reserve, and became its Commandant. . . . W. O. Bentley, in his Autobiography (Hutchinson, 1958).
I wanted to meet Jack Dunfee and talk about his motor-racing days, because he was a successful driver on the Brooklands outer-circuit, apart from being a "Bentley-boy"—a keen amateur competitor following, as it were, in the professional wheel tracks of Parry Thomas, one of my indelible heroes. A meeting was arranged after Mr. Dunfee had read my sorting-out of the 1924 GP Sunbeams, one of which he raced to very good effect. So one Monday we set off in a Ford Consul 3000 GT to drive to his beautiful manor house and farm in the Cotswolds, where many of the rooms contain paintings and photographs from Dunfee's motor-racing days.
Before I could ask him how his interest in motoring was kindled, Jack Dunfee had recounted it himself—how, during the First World War, he and his brother used to creep into their parents' motor-house and play about in the family Panhard-Levassor, jacked up "for the duration". Eventually they got the engine running and it's a wonder they didn't topple the old car off its war-time pedestal.
After the war Mrs. Dunfee had a sporting Straker-Squire two-seater and her sons acquired a series of motorcycles. Dunfee says this was good training for subsequent fast driving because, in the early 1920s there was so much dust on the roads that when riding in convoy it was advisable to be the leader of the column. One such occasion, he recalls, was when four motorcycle combinations set off for Dorset one Easter, the white cloud swirling about and behind them, so that one tried to get ahead of one's companions, if only in order to be able to see where one was going. . . .
The Dunfee parents did not encourage the boys to go to motor races, but this did not deter Jack and Clive from finding their way to Brooklands, where, watching as ordinary members of the crowd from the public's side of the railings, they were stirred by the performances of drivers of the calibre of Count Zborowski, Ernest Eldridge and Parry Thomas, etc.
Although not parentally encouraged, for at home to go to motor races was "not done", the seed was planted, by these youthful excursions on bicycle and by train, to the Track, and it wasn't long before Jack Dunfee bought his first car. Naturally, it had sporting pretensions, being a Calthorpe possessed of a round brass petrol tank in lieu of a tail, which he considered a very dashing car on the road. It was a great event for Dunfee when he entered the Calthorpe for a minor race—"first occasions are always tremendous", and he still remembers the faster exploits of Whale in a very slim red car of the same make.
Requiring a faster car, Dunfee invested in a Salmson. He feels to this day that these cars have earned too little credit for their splendid achievements at around this time—their successes in long-distance events, Goutte's 114-m.p.h. Brooklands lap, and their early adoption of supercharged, straight-eight engines for racing. So, like Dr. Benjafield, George Newman, O. Wilson-Jones, Capt. Hazlehurst and other British drivers, Jack Dunfee joined the Salmson clan. By Easter of 1925 he had a cream two-seater, with its blue chassis and wheels. In its first BARC race, the Private Competitors' Handicap on that Bank Holiday, it came home second to Purdy's well-known 12/50 Alvis, lapping at the excellent speed of 79-1/2 m.p.h. Then, to show this was no fluke, Dunfee won the 75-m.p.h. Long Handicap, the re-handicapped Salmson doing its flying-lap at over 80 m.p.h., to show Alf Depper's works Austin 7 and Purdy's Alvis its pointed tail.
Suitably impressed, Dunfee went over to the factory at Billancourt and invested in a San Sebastian Salmson, delivered unpainted, which later appeared in green, with a red body band.
At Easter he took a second place in his aluminium-hued Salmson and might have won the 75-m.p.h. Long Handicap had he not been so intent on battling with Jackson's 12/50 Alvis that both drivers failed to turn into the finishing straight, allowing Benjafield's blue Salmson to win. After this the handicap stiffened, this remarkable little French car being able to lap Brooklands at almost 90 m.p.h.
Dunfee began to embark on long races in the summer of 1925, finishing a most creditable fourth in the News of the World 100-Mile Handicap at the August Brooklands Meeting, beating the "works" Salmson driven by F. J. Clark. Armand Bovier was controlling his car from the pits and when he thought the tyres had had enough, would show his driver a wheel devoid of a cover. This he did to Dunfee, towards the end of the race, but the private-owner refused to stop, making a sign to Bovier which, all the world over, is recognised as meaning "get lost". Later, seeking a "works" drive, Dunfee confronted Bovier, who said "When I call you in, you go —". "Now you ask for a drive, I say —." It is significant that in this 100-Mile Race Dunfee was beaten only by Parry Thomas, Capt. Douglas and Woolf Barnato, in Thomas Special, Aston-Martin and Bentley cars, and that at the time, in his first racing season, he was level with Malcolm Campbell in the Hartford Cup competition, although no marks were awarded for Private Competitors' handicaps.
Denied a "works" drive, Dunfee continued to race his own Salmson; he had to scratch from the 200-Mile Race when the flywheel became loose on the crankshaft in practice, but finished third on Formula in the 1927 Essex MC Six Hours Sports Car Race. At the beginning of the 1926 season he had a very busy Easter Monday at Brooklands, driving the orange 2-litre Austro-Daimler belonging to J. P. Turner, who ran the car business of Thorne's of Great Portland Street and had bought the car from Mr. Luther of Beardmore's, in four races. Dunfee gained a second place, lapped at nearly 100 m.p.h., but retired from the last handicap. This car was to figure in one of Brooklands' dead-heats. It was probably Jack Dunfee's association with it that led his brother Clive to race a very handsome crimson 3-litre Targa Florio Austro-Daimler from 1927, bought from George Newman, but that is another story.
After this useful encounter with a faster car Dunfee continued to race a Salmson, painted blue, with a red bonnet. In these small cars he used to wear a seat-belt: The season wasn't particularly successful, Dunfee retiring from the 200-Mile Race, the second with artificial corners, due to carden-shaft trouble, but in the Evening News 100-Miles Handicap in August he improved on his 1925 performance in this long outer-circuit race, finishing second to Capt. Douglas' Type 37 Bugatti, with the "works" Salmson of Du Marnier and the "big names" nowhere.
Then Dunfee's father died and he was able to invest in an even faster car, thus sensibly furthering his racing career. This was a 1920 3-litre straight-eight Ballot, bought from Malcolm Campbell. Dunfee has always thought that it was the car in which Ralph de Palma finished second in that tough 1921 French GP at Le Mans which was won unexpectedly by Murphy's l.h.d. Duesenberg. At some time a rod had forcibly left the crankshaft but the Ballot factory had effected a watch-maker's repair of the rent, using innumerable copper rivets. By 1927 the Ballot was already regarded as a venerable car, with drip-feeds in the cockpit attending to the lubrication of its roller-bearing engine and two magnetos driven, Bugatti-fashion, from the rear ends of the twin overhead camshafts. Nevertheless, it served Dunfee well for six seasons at Brooklands, its appearance, tail cocked-up and able to contain the spare wheel, improved by aluminium discs on its back wheels. Eventually, in 1930, Dunfee got it round Brooklands at 113.77 m.p.h., or 6.37 m.p.h. faster than the best Campbell had done five years earlier, a tribute to Thomson & Taylor's, who maintained the Dunfees' racing cars.
This Ballot won five first, eight second and three third places in BARC races alone, and was subsequently owned by Miss Joan Richmond, A. S. Heal and M. Crowley-Milling.
In its very first race, painted blue with yellow wheels, the Ballot finished third, lapping at well over 103 m.p.h.. and coming out immediately afterwards, was second to Meeson's 30/98 Vauxhall, by which time it had completed three flying laps at exactly the same speed, proof that by now Jack Dunfee knew his way round Brooklands. Its first victory came at Whitsun 1927, when it vanquished the lavender and purple Vauxhall in the Lightning Long Handicap. Before the year was out the Ballot had been repainted blue, but the yellow wheels were retained. Its further successes included winning the Founders' Gold Cup race, in 1928, the old Ballot lapping consistently at around 110 m.p.h., now in green paintwork, and many others. It was able to lap at over 110 m.p.h. when eleven years old and its achievements are quite remarkable, especially as Dunfee was driving other cars as well, so that the old Ballot's later appearances were infrequent. On one occasion it lost a handicap duel with K. Don's GP Sunbeam but in a duel against a motorcycle, which Mr. Ebblewhite had requested during a BMCRC Meeting, Dunfee decided it would be nice to allow the two-wheeler to win, when, as he eased off, the rider opened up, making the Ballot look silly on that occasion. Although reasonably easy to drive and mainly reliable, the Ballot was a quick car for its age and it once came close to ramming Newman's Salmson when coming up on it on the Home banking. Incidentally, in spite of his regular attendance at Brooklands Dunfee got on very well with "Ebby", the famous handicapper—"the wonderful little man with his pipe and watches was very agreeable".
Graduating to ever faster cars, Jack Dunfee drove E. L. Bouts" 4.9-litre Indianapolis Sunbeam at the Track in 1928, "a real wicked devil of a car". It was tricky to drive, and both occupants had to hang on if they were not to be flung out over the bumps; the mechanic being provided with a strap for this purpose, and it went all over the place. By being sufficiently brave not to lift off for the entire circuit, Dunfee lapped in this ancient Sunbeam at 117.46 m.p.h., which was 3.75 m.p.h. faster than the car's owner took it round—indeed, Dunfee was appreciably quicker than all the many drivers timed by Ebby in these cars, Segrave, Campbell, Miller and Don among them.
Kaye Don had been exceedingly successful with his 2-litre GP Sunbeam "The Cub" (it is now in the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu') and when he suggested that Dunfee should have one, telling him the No. 1 car in which Dario Resta had been killed in 1924 was available, Jack agreed. He went to Sunbeam's racing department in Wolverhampton and found the Sunbeam completely stripped down. However, Bill Perkins had it reassembled and taken to Brooklands and it served Dunfee extremely well. He gained many successes with it and in the 1929 Gold Vase race his red Sunbeam and Don's sister car were flagged away together. Dunfee's standing-start lap was 0.62 m.p.h. slower than Don's, both bettering 101 m.p.h.. but his flying lap was 0.32 m.p.h. faster. Don iust getting ahead on the Railway straight to win by a narrow margin. Dunfee earned his 120-m.p.h. badge in this Sunbeam, with this 125.77-mph. lap. The car was, indeed, really fast, Dunfee reckoning to do around 137 to 138 m.p.h. down the straight when conditions were favourable.
In spite of its age and complex design it was quite reliable, but the brakes were no good. Dunfee used it to take Class E records; he always used Dunlop tyres but recalls an occasion when, raising his right arm to wipe his goggles, a chunk of tread flew off a back tyre and broke his arm. Towards the end of 1930 the Sunbeam was kept at Montlhéry, which gave Dunfee an excuse to visit Paris; and where it took more Class E records and then some in Class D, the engine having been enlarged for the purpose and Dudley Froy enlisted as co-driver. On these occasions Perkins was in attendance and Jack Scales was very helpful.
Pursuing his penchant for long-distance racing, Dunfee drove an Alfa Romeo in the 1929 JCC "Double-Twelve" but retired with stripped timing gears. He made up for this by sharing the winning "Old No, 1" Speed Six Bentley with Woolf Barnato in the BARC Six Hours Race, in which they averaged 75.88 m.p.h. The signal honour of being Barnato's co-driver arose because Birkin's allegiance was now with the blower-1/2s. Dunfee was also a member of Victor Riley's team of Brooklands Riley Nines in the first Phoenix Park Grand Prix, with Don and Eyston. They took a spare car with them and Dunfee finished seventh at 66.6 m.p.h.. behind Eyston but ahead of Don. He then shared the Hon. Richard Norton's original 4-1/2-litre Bentley "Old Mother Gun" in the first BRDC 500-Mile Race. Alas, an untrained mechanic muffed the pit-stop, putting in too little oil, and the engine blew-up.
Thus Jack Dunfee became one of Barnato's legendary "Bentley Boys", although he entered the GP Sunbeam with his brother Clive for the 1930 500-Mile Race, because by then Bentley Motors had ceased to race, but with no success, for a half-shaft broke and the rear wheel attached to it rolled across the Fork. At Le Mans in 1929 Dunfee was co-driver with Lt.-Cmdr. Glen Kidston in a 4-1/2-litre Bentley. They finished second to the victorious Speed Six, Kidston having flown Dunfee to Le Mans in a DH Moth.
Jack Dunfee was very interesting on the subject of driving the Bentley at Le Mans. It was comparatively easy to drive and not really fast, so that, in spite of the road camber and grit verges which had to be watched when overtaking, he considers that racing the Sunbeams and single-seater Bentleys at Brooklands was more dangerous. "It was enormous fun, however, although we were not paid to drive—there was absolutely no starting money."
For the 1931 500-Mile Race Dunfee shared "Old No. 1" Speed Six Bentley with Cyril Paul, the car being equipped with a single-seater body and tuned by Hassan. They had a marvellous victory, winning at a record average speed of 118.39 m.p.h. and lapping at 126.09 m.p.h.. In practice the car didn't seem fast enough to Dunfee, and he recalls W. O. Bentley driving round to the bay at Brooklands in which they had parked. The bonnet was opened by Hassan, W.O. gazed at the engine, then walked to the back of his resplendent 8-litre Bentley and got something out of the tool-kit. "Now", thought Jack, "we shall see some magic worked on the engine". Instead, W.O. checked the wheel-nuts of his own car for tightness and then, saying that he considered the car fast enough, drove off round the Track. . . .
The Bentley rebuilt by Walter Hassan, which had won the previous year's "500", was entered and driven by Dunfee in the 1932 BRDC British Empire Trophy Race. In the heat. Dunfee was second to Eyston at 121.17 m.p.h. In the Final he was running third behind the fiercely duelling Delage and Panhard-Levassor of Cobb and Eyston, when a rear tyre burst on the last lap, the Bentley skidding down the Byfleet banking. A Steward waved Dunfee off the Track, although the car could have crossed the line on the flat tyre, so he lost his third place. To compensate him, BRDC members presented Jack with a suitably-engraved silver cigarette case, which is one of his most treasured possessions. When the Bentley was examined by Hassan after the race its chassis was found to be broken in half on both sides and it was never used again.
Also in 1932 Dunfee drove Barnato's Speed Six single-seater in a short handicap and in the "500" he shared with his brother Clive (who had done a good deal of racing with the former Bentley team) the same single-seater, now with an 8-litre engine, "a of a car to drive". The result was tragic. After lapping at 127 m.p.h. and averaging 120 m.p.h. in spite of refuelling stops and tyre changes, Jack Dunfee handed over to his brother. Soon afterwards the Bentley went over the Members' banking when trying to pass Cobb's Talbot and Clive Dunfee, who was married to actress Jane Baxter, was killed instantly. Jack never raced again, devoting himself to fast boats so far as mechanised sport was concerned, his name also appearing often, as W. O. Bentley said, "on theatre programmes". Geoffrey Dunfee raced an MG at Donington, thus following in the path of his better-known brothers. He was killed flying night-fighters for the RAF.
I asked Jack about the cars he used for ordinary motoring. He bought from D.B.K.M. Shipwright the 2.7-litre SPA, which had been raced occasionally at Brooklands. It had a very beautiful aluminium Hawker body but "absolutely no performance, being gutless and also very heavy". There was a Boulogne Hispano-Suiza—"a marvellous car", his 30/98 Vauxhall coupé, and a Speed Six Bentley, in which Dunfee was in the habit of going to the Track from his home in London.
After the war he had a Mk. VI Bentley' then a Park Ward R-type Bentley Continental, off the Motor Show stand (only five were built), followed by two Jaguars, a 2.4 and then a 3.4. These obviously found favour as Dunfee next bought a 3.8-litre Jaguar E-type, a metallic car for which George Eyston was prevailed upon to supply Castrol oil which gave the aroma of the old "R". On one occasion, Dunfee recalls, someone followed him closely in London and, at the first red traffic lights, rushed from his car to say what memories the magic scent aroused! By now Dunfee was a Jaguar addict: he bought a 4.2 E-type but it was slower than the 3.8. He then had an XJ6 which he kept for three years. Today wishing to drive fast but not wanting to be conspicuous, he drives an Austin 1300 Countryman with "hot head" by grace of Downton Engineering. This has proved very satisfactory and enables the ex-Bentley Boy to get from his country house, where he keeps hunters to chase the fox with "The Heythrope 'Hounds", to his flat in Piccadilly in a surprisingly short space of time.
"But", reflected Jack Dunfee nostalgically, as we prepared to leave, "It's not as much fun as it was. Why, in the old days people actually liked being dusted up by a racing car, along the Seven Hills road to Brooklands, for example, as we frequently drove the cars on the road. . . ." – W.B.