Veteran Edwardian Vintage, June 1984

A section devoted to old car matters
Those forgotten Irish races

I am thinking of the sports-car races held at Phoenix Park, near Dublin, at the end of what we now term the vintage years. Many Irish enthusiasts may well object to my use of the term “forgotten races” for these well-supported and exciting events and point out that racing still takes place in Phoenix Park. I intend no criticism of these older contests, but compared to the recognition and frequent reference given to the RAC Ulster Tourist Trophy contests of 1928 to 1936, the Phoenix Park enterprise is, comparatively, a forgotten cause. The RAC TT, as a race for sports-cars, was a major breakthrough and was thus very much in the public eye when it was first run over the excellent Ards circuit outside Belfast in the summer of 1928. Races for cars with touring bodies and equipment were nothing new. Many and interesting were the variants on this theme, since the idea had seen fruition at Le Mans in 1923, about which, one day, someone will surely give as an erudite book. The theme came into being in England by 1927, with the Essex Motor Club’s Six-Hour race at Brooklands, from which was to stem such memorable contests as the Junior Car Club’s two-day “Double-Twelve-hour and one-day 1,000-mile events and lesser sports-car races on other days at Brooklands, and the popular “Boulogne Week” of different kinds of sporting contests, well supported by the British, had this “production-car” element. The Ulster TT was something different, more important, indeed rather breathtaking in its scope. It came at a period when cars had been accepted as a perfectly normal means of transport and when they had become inexpensive enough for many quite humble homes to possess one. The sports-car had also emerged and firmly established itself, and races to encourage the sales of these more-costly kinds of merchandise were of benefit to the Motor Industry. A Le Mans win was seen as an important accomplishment to firm sales, even if the pursuit of such victories does seem to have financially broken the very Company that was most successful in this field — Bentley. Be that as it may, and it was not then apparent, a great race for comparatively standard sports-cars, organised by the RAC, with generous prizes and the promise of enormous publicity, could only be a good thing. In 1928, following the good offices of tractor-millionaire-to-be Harry Ferguson, the then-Chairman of the Ulster AC, and Wallace McLeod, who wrote a motoring feature for the Belfast Newsletter, who are said to have discovered the magnificent Ards circuit and promoted interest in a race over it while they were at Brooklands in 1927, the RAC TT became an accomplished fact. The only improvement would have been to have such a full-scale road race in Britain, but that the Law did not and does not permit. However, Ireland was virtually peaceful in those days, it was not far to travel to (except for one unfortunate French racing driver who mistook the race for the loM one, last held in 1922, and took a boat to there instead of to Belfast), and under the good organisation of the Ulster AC, under the Presidency of the Rt Hon. J. Milne Barbour, DL, MP, the race attracted a big crowd of spectators and powerful Press support, the race being attended by His Grace the Duke of Abercorn, Governor of Northern Ireland, and Lord Craigavon, Prime Minister of Northern Ireland. I do not know whether the organisers of the similar races at Phoenix Park, about which we are here concerned, were inspired by the 1928 RAC TT but certainly they must have been enormously encouraged by it.

At this time of widespread monetary slump and distress, a Grand Prix for full-blooded racing cars was not viable; even the prestigious French GP had become a race for sports-cars by 1928, even if the winner was a Type 35C Bugatti thinly disguised as such. So, although the folk in Dublin who had the splendid idea of holding their own road race before the RAC ran its second Ulster TT decided to give their event the title of the Irish Grand Prix, it clearly had to be another sports / racing car contest. They must, however, have been much encouraged by the realisation that the previous year’s TT had received entries from Alvis, Amilcar, Austin, AustroDaimler, Bentley, Bugatti, FN, Frazer Nash, Gwynne, Lagonda, Marendaz Special, Mercedes-Benz, OM, Riley, Salmson, Stutz and Tracta. As at first conceived, the rules governing this Irish Grand Prix did not quite conform to those applying to the series of sports-car races then in being, but this was quickly changed, except that hoods and windscreens were not required in Dublin. It was then possible to relate the outcome to the results achieved in other long-distance contests between sports / racing cars of conforming type, even though the individual races had no other common connection. Thus, in 1928 the Essex MC Six-Hour Race had been won on handicap by Alfa Romeo, with a 4½-litre Bentley covering the greatest distance, a 4½-litre Bentley won Le Mans (Salmson the h’cap) while the TT had been won by Kaye Don’s supercharged 1½-litre Hyper Lea-Francis, with a 4½-litre Bentley putting up the fastest average speed. Then, in 1929, before the launch of the ambitious Irish Grand Prix, a 1½-litre Alfa Romeo won the JCC “Double Twelve” on handicap by the narrowest of margins from the 4½-litre Bentley which covered the greatest distance, the Brooklands’ Six-Hour Race (run now not by the Essex MC, which had been disbanded, but by the BARC itself) saw a Speed Six Bentley win on handicap and distance. At Le Mans, victory went to a Speed Six Bentley.

To digress, there is a rather amusing aside about this. In 1929 the controversy as to which was the World’s best car, which had raged in the then-many-paged correspondence pages of The Autocar in 1921/22, broke out again early in 1929 and a Mr Murdoch expressed as the opinion of himself and his friends that the order among “standard” cars should be Rolls-Royce, Daimler, Minerva, Sunbeam, Cadillac and Hispano Suiza, but that, of what he called “racing-type” cars, the correct order was Mercedes, Delage, Invicta, Stutz, Lagonda and Bentley. (With the full arrogance of youth —1 was then 15 — I, too, took part in this fascinating discussion, defending the 40/50 Rolls-Royce, the 36/220 Mercedes-Benz and the Hispano Suiza against criticism from other letter writers, although I had not then driven them, and backing as “easily the best sports-car” the 4½-litre Bentley).

Anyway, a person signing himself “Capût” and writing from London, EC4, took exception to Mr Murdoch’s remarks, suggesting that super sports cars, not racing types, should have been placed in his second list, and that in this case, who could deny that the Bentley, which had beaten Stutz, Mercedes and Lagonda in the 1928 TT and Stutz and Lagonda at Le Mans and Brooklands (other fine Bentley achievements were also quoted), was supreme? The interesting thing is that this was the nom-de-plume of the person who frequently rode as S. C. H. Davis’ mechanic in just the kind of races under discussion, and as he wrote from the same postal district as The Autocar then occupied, he must surely have been the same person, who was also on the publisher’s staff? Alas, had Capût had future vision he might not have written his letter, because, to anticipate this article, although Bentley were to win again at Le Mans, the first Irish GP went to Alfa Romeo, and that year’s TT to Caracciola’s SS Mercedes-Benz…

All of which added to the interest when the Royal Irish AC announced its Grand Pnx. A fine course had been found in the public Phoenix Park, about two miles from the centre of Dublin. Laid out in the eighteenth century, this Park embraced not only the Dublin Zoo but an Observatory, Civic Guard Depot, Army Barracks and the fine residences of former Governor-Generals and their Secretaries, whose statues also abounded. Soon, to the roar of the zoo animals was to be added the screech and scream of racing cars.

The Phoenix Park circuit could not compare with the Ards TT course in Ulster, which had a lap distance of 13⅔ miles and which was a true road circuit, a valued character which the Ulster Club was careful not to change even when widening parts of it in 1930/31, and which in places, like Newtownards and Comber, embraced the hazards found in a round-the-houses town-race. The layout of Phoenix Park made it necessary to restrict the Dublin course a lap-distance of just over 4½-miles (today only 2.12 miles), and the main straight of two miles and an overall width of 40 ft, from one end of the Park to the other, was not exactly of road-racing stature, no matter how hard a test of braking it would impose of cars able to wind up to very high speeds along it. However, the other leg of the circuit contained sweeping left and right-hand curves, was narrower and had two hairpins connecting this leg with the straight, the right-handed Mountjoy corner and Gough corner, the latter so-called because General Viscount Gough’s great statue marked it, the General sitting on his horse with his back to the racing, it must be said….

The fact that in the centre of the straight stood the enormous Phoenix Monument, erected in 1745 by the Earl of Chesterfield, in no way deterred the race organisers. They moved it to the roadside, where it was rebuilt — a fine Irish recognition of the importance of motor-racing, which, regrettably, does not exist in Britain, or at Weybridge! Not only had the Free State Government agreed to the removal of this monument, but it made itself responsible for the resurfacing of the roads and the erection of the pits and grandstand. (In contrast, all they did in Ulster was to remove, after the first race, a road side waterpump.) It was apparent that Dublin had the right ideas. The Dublin race was to be held over a month before the next (1929) TT. In fact, there were to be two separate races in Phoenix Park, one on the Friday for the Saorstat Cup, the other on the Saturday for the Eireann Cup, which was no doubt seen as a further spectator draw, and the best compromise when holding anything like this on a Sunday was unthinkable. The first race was to be for the under 1½-litre cars, the other for the larger cars, the overall order counting for the Irish Grand Prix. This, by design or coincidence, meant that the smaller cars would have to go like the Irish devil if they were to be well-placed in the GP. A distance of 300 miles was thought sufficient and more manageable for each race than the 410 miles of the TT, and first prizes of £1,000 were on offer for the winners of both the Phoenix Park races, compared to the first prize monies of £1,100, given by the Daily Mail and (the £100) by The Autocar, for the 1928 Ulster TT. So it looked good for this Dublin venture, and stories of anything between 250,000 and 500,000 spectators going to the TT (not that charges were extracted from all of them, by any means!) must have seemed a very good omen indeed.

When the entries came in, they were of good quality. Three Austin 7s and a lone Triumph Super Seven were to contest the 750 cc class, eight Rileys, four of them Mk IV models, one of them for Kaye Don, the rest Brooklands Speed Models, were up against single entries of BNC, Amilcar Six and Lombard, while the 1½-litre class was composed of four supercharged Alfa Romeos, four Lea-Francis, two Aston Martins, one from Bertelli himself, a 12/50 Alvis, and Marendaz’s Marendaz Special. As the Lea-Francis were the blown Hyper cars, one of which had won the TT, with Sammy Davis driving one of them, while the Alfa drivers included Ivanowski and Ramponi, a good race seemed assured.

It was not surprising to find Boris Ivanowski, a Russian emigre, running, for he had competed in British races for some time and was down to drive a 2-litre or 1,750 cc supercharged Alfa Romeo, so was able to take part in both days’ races. Excitement on the Saturday was assured by this Alfa, accompanied by two others, the big Thistlethwayte Mercedes-Benz, no fewer than five Bentleys, including Birkin’s new blower-4½ that had been tried out in the Six-Hour race, normal 4½-litres and Barnato’s Speed Six for Commander Glen Kidston, and three Type 43 Bugattis, one for Basil Eyston, one for Field and one for Captain Miller as substitute for Newman. To these were added a 19/100 Austro-Daimler, Sir Malcolm Campbell’s twin-cam three-litre Sunbeam with a Cozette blower, showing the flexibility of the rules, a lone OM in the absence of Oats’ entry, and a single two-litre Lagonda, G. E. T. Eyston’s Chrysler (the body of which did not comply) and a Du Pont. Thus was the scene set. Normal fuel was insisted upon, only six wheels were allocated per car, putting tyre wear at a high premium, and the class handicapping was on a distance-run basis, with a bonus for non-supercharged cars, the largest-engined cars being required to cover the full 301 miles. If the great Continental acts had yet to come to Phoenix Park, apart from Fronteras, a British-domiciled Italian, they had not done so for the 1928 TT either, apart from the Frenchman Vasena.

Good organisation and loudspeakers at the corners to keep the large crowds informed spoke well for the Irish Club’s initiative. Alas, it was something beyond its control that affected the race, after His Excellency the Governor-General, nudged by Ebby, had flagged the cars off, their drivers running to them in a Le Mans start. It was the hot sun of a glorious Dublin day that was the culprit — melting the road surface into almost a liquid and causing skids galore . . . However, skill was not to be denied and among wild gyrations at Mountioy, the Zoo turn and the return to the long straight, and after retirements and delays that embraced the little Triumph, Bertelli’s Aston with clutch slip, Ramponi led Ivanowski on the road but after 1½ hours Frazer-Nash’s non-blown Austin led Poppe’s blown Ulster Austin on handicap. Then, with Fronteras’ Alfa in dire trouble and Ramponi among those caught out by the melting road dressing, so that he shot between some trees and bumped over the grass before resuming the course, the leading A7 blew a gasket, which Nash cheerfully set about changing, allowing Poppe to lead, at the two hour mark.

But the larger-class cars were now in an unassailable position, closing up, with a terrific battle raging between the Alfas of Ramponi and Ivanowski, with Davis’ works Lea-Francis third. Gardner’s Amilcar retired because a shorted-out battery made the starter inoperative, which the rules required to be used after a pit-stop, the Dublin motor cycle champion had plug bothers on his Lea-Francis, hero of the TT Kaye Don had the gear lever pin shear on his Riley, the Rileys of Whitcroft (in an early Speed Model) and Jack Dunfee collided when the former slid at Gough corner, and then Ramponi, urged on by his pit, had a real skid at that place, going across the road and into the railings. That made the Lea-Francis drivers do all they could, but it was Ivanowski who won for Alfa Romeo, at 75.02 mph, by a second from S.C.H. Davis’ Lea-Francis (74.62 mph) with W.H. Green’s Lea-Francis third (73.50 mph) ahead of George Eyston’s Class F winning Riley. The Lea-Francis team — Davis, Green, Shaw — ran non-stop to take the Team Prize, the Riley team finished intact, and Poppe won Class H for Austin (61.70 mph). The Saturday race was equally exciting, Birkin using his blower 4½. Bentley to wear down Thistlethwayte’s Mercedes, until the German car blew its head gasket, and Kidston, driving the Speed Six Bentley magnificently, to make fastest average, at 79.8 mph, and finish second on handicap behind lvanowski’s Alfa Romeo, which managed 76.4 mph. Again, skids were frequent, Don’s Alfa going round and having to use the footpath to avoid another Alfa going in the right direction. Even Ivanowski went half-round and Kidston, like Ramponi on the previous day, left the road entirely and motored behind the trees on one lap. Campbell’s Sunbeam had clutch trouble, the Austro-Dainders boiled, Field’s and Eyston’s Bugattis caught fire as Type 43s were prone to do, Robins Bentley mis-fired at first, and Kidston hit a bank and a back wheel had to be changed, Sammy Davis saying the pit-work was “one of the best ever seen in racing”. The Bentley was thought to have won, being enthusiastically acclaimed in consequence, but, in fact, it was Ivanowski who had carried off both races for Alfa Romeo, and as the results of both decided the winner of the first Irish GP, it was the big ex-Officer of the Russian Imperial Guard, who had narrowly escaped with his life in the Revolution, they said, who scored. Birkin was third, ahead of the Bentleys of Wood and Cook, Benjafield’s Alfa splitting the Bentleys of Scott and Rubin, R. R. Jackson’s Lagonda next, Higgin last but winner of Class-D at 68.6 mph in the Austro-Daimler. In fact, in typical Irish fashion, Ivanowski was also third overall, as well as the outright winner!

In spite of the slippery road the race had obviously been a great success. It had 53 entries against 44 for that much-publicised first Ulster TT. Money had been lost, largely due to spectators getting into the Park without paying, but it was decided to resume in 1930, the circuit now properly resurfaced with non-skid Colfix for all except half the back-leg, so that the sand bags at Gough corner and elsewhere were not so essential, and better scoreboards were erected. The entry was down to 51 but Continental drivers had been attracted, Varzi and Campari joining Ivanowski for Alfa Romeo, Minioa and Ramponi having OMs, Chassagne being in the blower Bentley team, and the great Rudi Caracciola driving a Mercedes-Benz. This was especially exciting, as Rudi had won the previous year’s TT for Mercedes: moreover, the entry was 17 more than the RAC obtained for its race later in 1930, admittedly for two separate Dublin races.

A great two days it was. Victor Gillow, bouncing off the road when this was unavoidable, won the Saorstat Cup on the Friday in his Brooklands-model Riley 9, at 72.2 mph, from G. E. T. Eyston’s blown Alfa Romeo, “Archie” Frazer-Nash in the little blown Ulster Austin third, ahead of Don’s Alfa, another A7, and Ivanowski’s Alfa, the handicap applying, of course. Then in the big-car battle on the Saturday, again on Handicap, the crowds were treated to the spectacle of Caracciola with the SSK Mercedes-Benz taking on the might of the blower Bentley team, of Chassagne, Birkin and Harcourt Wood, two of which retired with lubrication problems. Birkin, although similarly troubled, was fourth. Caracciola averaged 85.88 mph in spite of some torrential rain, to win on aggregate, setting a fastest lap of 91.3 mph (compared to his race average of 72.82 mph and best lap of 77.80 mph in the longer, and wet, 1929 TT with the 38/250 SS four-seater Mercedes) having circulated Phoenix Park for nearly 3½ hours, including a 69 sec pit-stop to take on 28 gallons of fuel. Campari’s blown 1750 Alfa was second, beating Earl Howe’s Mercedes-Benz, while Campbell’s Mercedes-Benz came home after Birkin’s courageous blower Bentley, a Talbot next. Overall the placings were: Caracciola, Gillow and Campari, Mercedes netting the Wakefield Team Prize. (For a full account, see Anthony Blight’s book “Georges Roesch and the Invincible Talbot” — Grenville, 1970.)

Alas, the Irish Club lost nearly £1,500 on the 1930 race but, blaming this on a rail strike and the rain, it decided to hold the Irish GP again in 1931. On aggregate the winner was Norman Black’s MG Midget, at 64.76 mph, from Sir Henry Birkin’s blown 2.3 Alfa Romeo and Ron Horton’s MG Midget. After that the Irish GP lapsed, although racing, in a lesser key, returned to Phoenix Park in 1933. The race distance was down to 100 from 300 miles, but it produced illustrious winners in Mays (ERA) in 1937, When he averaged 102.9 mph in the Formulae Libre race, and Staniland, with the Multi-Union, running in the same category in 1939, when he won at 97.45 mph, from the ERAs of Rolt and Pollock. — W.B.