He is remembered as the man who pushed back boundaries of speed, but behind the record-breaker was a racer of distinction. Bill Boddy recalls a versatile and respected driver
Back in 1974 i had the pleasure of interviwing Capt GET Eyston for Motor Sport. He was the best known and most successful of all the recordbreakers, to the extent of three times taking the World Land Speed Record, to 375.3mph in 1938, with his 73-litre, 4500hp, three-axle, eight-wheeled ‘Thunderbolt’, at Utah. I respected George Eyston not only as a courageous and capable establisher of records with cars of all kinds but also as a qualified engineer, company director and a good all-round sportsman. He was also a family man and one of the most gentlemanly of pre-war racing drivers.
So it was something of a privilege when I drove down to Winchester, looking forward to meeting this great and respected personality. The interview lasted all morning, and I stayed for lunch. Eyston presumably liked my approach because, as I was leaving, he said “We have talked of my record-breaking, you must come again and talk about the motor racing I did.” Unfortunately he died before I could do this, so this piece is about the racing side of George’s life, to show that he was by no means just a `track-lapper’.
George Edward Thomas Eyston was a rather remarkable man. The Eystons went back hundreds of years, the family seat being at East Hendred in Berkshire, though Eyston was born at the manor house at Bampton, in Oxfordshire. Moving to Weybridge, Eyston saw Brooldands being built, but his first contact with motors was in an early chaindrive Daimler, a White steam car and the Beeston-Humbers. He also owned motorbikes, such as a 1909 Triumph and a Rudge which he raced at Brooklands, under an assumed name as he was only 16. After the war he competed twice in the Spa motorcycle GP on AJS machines. He was educated at Stoneyhurst but spent holidays fishing, hunting and sailing in Ireland and the Outer Hebrides. While serving an engineering apprenticeship in Southampton, he was also a pioneer wireless exponent.
Eyston enlisted in the Public Schools and Universities Battalion as a private, but after receiving a commission was posted to France early in 1915, where he became ADC to General Wellesley. Wounded in May 1917, Eyston was mentioned twice in Dispatches and received the Military Cross. In January 1919 he resumed his studies at Trinity College, Cambridge, gaining distinctions in engineering.
After joining the marine department of J Stone & Co he formed his own firm to produce and market his Powerplus superchargers. He took his pilot’s licence in 1917 and in later years used a D H Hornet Moth for visits to Montlhery etc. He was also a skilled open-sea yachtsman. He married in 1925 and had two daughters, and at the age of 70 he took his seaplane licence in a DH Moth with floats. He had been elected a Vice-President of the BRDC and became a Director of such companies as Wakefield Castrol, and Thomycroft.
Going in his GN to watch the 1921 French Grand Prix at Le Mans had directed his interests to motor-racing. In order to pursue his new-found hobby, the bespectacled Eyston called at the little Aston-Martin works in West Kensington in 1923 and bought two ex-Kensington Moir cars, the twin-cam GP Aston-Martin and the engineless streamlined track car. GET did remarkably well with these Aston-Martins in his first season at Brooldands, winning three races and taking three thirds, before taking the Grand Prix Aston-Martin to Calais for Boulogne Week, where he finished third in the Grand Prix, behind Segrave’s Talbot and Morgan’s AM. Using the twin-cam engine in this track car, he came fourth in the 1923 JCC 200 Mile Race, sharing fastest lap with Joyce’s AC, at 99.61mph. Not a bad opening!
During 1924 he exchanged cars for racing on the open waters of the boatrace course on the Thames, with the Grand Prix Aston Martin engine in his boat. In 1925 Eyston returned to the Track for the 200 Mile Race but his Aston-Martin had transmission trouble. In 1926 GET was more active on the Track, taking a second place with the side-valve Aston-Martin, then winning at 85.27mph from his brother Basil’s o h v Aston-Martin. (Basil Eyston raced there a number of times, but was involved in an accident at Phoenix Park in 1929, resulting in a fatality over which he was exonerated: but this may have put him off further participation). George had bought a 1.5-litre GP Bugatti, painted in blue and white horizontal stripes, which scored a second place on its first appearance. For the British Grand Prix at Brooklands a roller-bearing s v Anzani engine had been into the Aston-Martin fitted with one of Eyston’s vane-type Powerplus superchargers; it was too slow to achieve anything. Undaunted, GET ran his Bugatti in the 1926 200-Mile Race, only to have it eliminated on the first lap after Hawkes had run into it. However, before that it had been taken over to Boulogne, where it was first in the 1.5-litre race.
By 1927 Eyston had commenced what was to become a life of record-attacks, but at Brooldands he also raced, with the Halford Specials and d’Erlanger’s Bugatti, before winning the Gold Vase handicap in his Type 37A Bugatti, from Kaye Don’s Sunbeam. That Autumn he won again in his Bugatti, nearly caught by Duller’s 41/2 Bentley. Then, on scratch, lapping at over 116mph, he won again. In the 1927 200 Mile Race the Bugatti broke an exhaust valve after leading for ten laps, but at a Charity Meeting in November Eyston won the ‘100 Short’ race. He had also been to Boulogne again, finishing behind the Campbell and `Sabipa’ Bugattis, and had won on the sands at La Baule. In the British GP at Brooklands Eyston had shared a works Type 35A Bugatti with Sammy Davis but the supercharger seized up. George, knowing about such things, yelled to Davis to jump hard on the starting-handle, and the car did continue, but was flagged off. He also had a go at the big-time, driving the Halford Special, the only British car in the French Grand Prix at Montlhery which he knew so well, but it was too slow against the Delage team and was flagged off 12 laps short of the full distance. During 1927 he also had a shot at sand-racing, making FTD at Skegness in a 2.3 Bugatti (ss kilo: 72.2mph) and in his old s v AM, now fully streamlined, won a 50 mile Brooldands race at a creditable 86.17mph.
The successes continued in 1928, the T39 Bugatti second to Campbell’s Delage in the JCC’s Junior Grand Prix at the Track, and in the 200 Mile Race Basil shared it with his more famous brother, the pair netting second place, although no match for the Delage. Then, taking out the straight-eight OM that Autumn, GET won by half-a-mile and beat a re-handicap by winning again. He had also gone in for sportscars, sharing an Aston Martin with its designer Bertelli at Le Mans, which lasted until Bertelli was forced into a ditch and bent the backaxle. It was clear that Eyston was a first-class driver as well as a record-man, which he endorsed when he shared an Alfa Romeo with the ex-Russian Guardsman Boris Ivanowski in the 24-hour sports car race at Spa in 1929, as part of the works team, coming in second behind the great Benoist. He then made another visit to Le Mans, sharing one of the 5.3-litre DV32 Stutzes with Gordon Watney, but this challenge to Bentley supremacy ended at midnight, Eyston lying third, when the fuel tank split and caught fire.
Here we may digress to recall that Eyston had gone to Ireland, which he knew so well, for the first Ulster TT in 1928, as a member of the official Lea-Francis team which enjoyed outright victory by Kaye Don in one of the s/c Hyper 2-seaters. GET provided good back-up by finishing sixth overall and third in class, the only other L-F to finish. He was there again in 1929 with the official team of s/c 1500 Alfa Romeos, coming home fifth, the best of the Alfas after Campari’s second place behind the winning Mercedes-Benz. In 1931 he returned, now driving a blown 2.1-litre sports Maserati, with which he was fourth in his class. The following year he drove a works Riley 9, being second to Whitcroft’s Riley which won the TT outright He drove for Riley again in 1932, now in the 1.5litre Six, but had trouble and was flagged-off. Closely associated with MG by 1934, George had a Magnette in Ulster that year but he retired with engine trouble; however, Dodson won for the MG team of which Eyston was entrant and organiser. He had also been to Dublin in 1930 to finish second for Alfa Romeo in the Saorstat race, where his Bugatti had caught fire in 1929.
By 1930 Eyston had a 2.3 GP Bugatti and at the Easter Brooklands races he won the Gold Vase handicap, from the big Delage 1 and 2, gaining his 120mph badge (122.07mph). Sharing a 1750 Alfa Romeo with Ramponi he finished seventh in the BARC Six-Hour race, was eighth with Ivanowski in the ‘Double-12’ and was leading in the BRDC ‘500’ in the Sunbeam ‘Cub’ until a spring broke. To end his season he shared Stewart’s streamlined 1750 Alfa Romeo, lapping quickest in a Mountain race in which he was third and repeating this placing in an Outer-Circuit Lightning Handicap.
This is proof that he was as good on road circuits as on the tracks, confirmed in 1931 when he again became a Grand Prix driver, sharing Sir Henry Birkin’s 2.4-litre Maserati in the French classic, at Montlhery. They were, most commendably, fourth behind the Continental aces after some ten hours in torrid heat which may explain why Eyston was partially devoid of trousers when he climbed out at a pit-stop. GET was able, in between his many record bids, to appear again at Phoenix Park, Where his Maserati ran out of fuel while lying third. This left little time for racing at Weybridge, but he shared a 2 1/2-litre sports Maserati with Campari in the 1931 ‘Double-Twelve’, lapping at over ‘the ton’ until its back axle broke. He was awarded a BRDC Gold Star at the end of the season.
So to 1932, the year of that dramatic BRDC British Empire Trophy race in which Eyston in the Panhard duelled for 100 miles with Cobb’s 10.5-litre Delage, to lose by a fifth of a second. This race and the protests after it have been described in Motor sport and in my Brooklands Giants book.
George told me that the Panhard’s steering was set for straight sprint courses; I just wonder if this made Eyston ease off for a moment as he became tired through holding it on the bankings, so letting Cobb by? He tried desperately to re-pass, even to forcing the big car early off the Byfleet banking in the hope of passing the Delage on the inside at the Fork, to no avail. At Whitsun, at the opposite extreme, Eyston demonstrated the MG ‘Magic Midget’ with which he had set the Class-H mile record to 118.38mph on Pendine sands. At the meeting he raised the 750 c lap-record to 112.93mph. Some demonstration!
In the 1932 BRDC ‘500’ the bad luck that had so often dogged GET when he was leading this tough race returned, the MG ‘Midget’ with a 7000rpm Powerplus-blown engine breaking a piston when Bert Denley was doing his able stint.
Spending much time in France, Eyston entered for the French GP at Montlhery (again) and managed a splendid third place in a Monza Alfa Romeo, a lap behind Camparrs Maserati and Etancelin’s similar Alfa. But undoubtedly his greatest road-race performance was leading home, with Count Lurani as co-driver, the MG Magnette team, as fully described in April’sMotor Sport, all three MGs beating the 1100cc Maseratis.
In the 1933 International Trophy race the ‘Magic Midget’ inconsiderately shed a rear wheel, and in the ‘500’, which he had so often led, it was ahead of Dixon’s Riley, going splendidly, when after two hours it stopped, the sparks apparently missing; George walked over to the Aero Club and ordered lunch! He had better luck in the 1934 International Trophy, winning in the MG Magnette ‘Humbug’, with the road-racing body, in spite of stalling the engine when baulked at a corner, GET jumping out for a motorcycle-like push-and-jump-in restart. After he had been flagged the victor, he was asked why, and remarked “Well, I have been racing for about 100 years; it’s time I won something” But had luck struck again in that year’s BRDC ‘500’, when Wal Handley, GETs’s co-driver, crashed the MG after lapping very fast in the rain.
At the age of 52, Eyston was now devoting more time to his other speed pursuits, but he also organised the ‘All-girls’ PA MG team at Le Mans in 1935; they could not have had a nicer ‘sugar-daddy’ to guide them to finish in formation as intended. Before that he had been leader of the team of new R-type all-independently sprung MG Midgets in the IoM Mannin Beg. Having failed in the International Trophy they now did so again. Handley’s went first, then Eyston stopped, running all the way to his pit and back from the other side of the course to get spares, but to no avail, and finally Norman Black dropped out.
Eyston was awarded the OBE and the Segrave “Trophy, and he was a Knight of the Sovereign Order of Malta. He also gained a 130mph Brooklands badge in 1932 with the Panhard. This does not pretend to be a complete account. But I hope that it indicates that he who thrice broke the LSR, took the World’s hour-record four times, to 153.53mph, the 12 hours three times, to 163.39mph, the 24-hours twice, to 149.19rnph, the 48-hours record to 136.34 and the fastest pre-war diesel-car record to 158.67mph, was also not a had racing driver.