Mystery Picture

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Last month Motor Sport highlighted how to become a photograph collector. This reminded me of a racing-car picture the origins of which remain a mystery. Many years ago I was asked to write about a Brooklands’ subject for a long-since defunct motor magazine. This I duly did. The editor then informed me that funds to pay me were unavailable, so would I accept photographs in lieu?

I had an obsession with obtaining pictures of all the Brooklands’ outer-circuit racing cars between the wars but lacked one in particular. The car in question was the Sunbeam-Napier of 1926, that had unfortunately crashed in practice with tragic results. I thought that maybe no camera had ever been aimed at it, before the sad accident wrote it off. But I decided to ask, in payment for that article, if I could have its picture. I was so certain that none was ever taken that I had quite a shock, albeit a pleasant one, when a few posts later a fine photograph of it arrived.

It was obviously of the right racing car, as the Paddock bay behind it was so labelled. It was a fine portrait, with no other cars and only one person in sight. The mystery being who took it, and who indexed the film (or glass-plate negative), as I knew the editor who had sent it to me was too young to have been at Brooklands at the relevant time and that neither he, nor I, had any idea what the car would look like. The calm scene in which the ill-fated motor car had been photographed suggests a non-race day, as if the camera-man had gone about, like a Brighton-beach freelance, snapping the cars and selling their likenesses to their owners. Yet I never saw this happen at busy Brooklands, where most Paddock pictures had backgrounds of admirers surrounding successful and famous cars. So who took this obscure Sunbeam-Napier? I used its picture in my book about the aero-engined giants that were once an exciting aspect of the Weybridge scene without knowing the photographer’s name or how the editor who offered it to me was able to identify it.

Incidentally, writing of photographers, those who work at motor races are brave fellows. One of the more foolish is depicted here! The barrel was a marker at the Fork turn of the Brooklands’ Mountain circuit, so very much in the path of an out-of-control or under-steering competing car. The BARC was not amused! It was very strict and in this case complained to the stupid cameraman’s newspaper, implying no more passes, unless their staff possessed a modicum of common sense…

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