The grand old man of motor racing
Robust, skilled and wealthy, Lord Howe had the perfect racing start. Bill Boddy outlines the length and breadth of his career
The Rt Hon The Earl Francis Howe, PC, OBE, RD, VD — family motto “What Curzon Has, Curzon Holds” — became affectionately known as The Grand Old Man of Motor Racing when he continued his chosen sport long after most others would have given up. Name me anyone who drove in as many important races and events, in such a wide variety of top racing cars, over so many years! He began, as Viscount Curzon, with two 143 Bugattis, Left: Howe (linen cap) shares a glass with Dick Seaman after the ’36 Donington 200mile race one ex-Malcolm Campbell, in the 1928 Brooklands Essex 6-hours, but retired with ignition trouble. He then took both Bugattis over to the Ulster IT, practising with the older, but after just over 20 laps the fuel tank of the newer car split, causing a fire.
By 1929 he had attained the title of Earl Howe and, sharing a 143 with Callingham, the Shell rep, was 30 minutes away from finishing the JCC Double-12 race when a piston broke. He began to build up his stable of cars, purchasing a 36/220 open Mercedes-Benz, the lhd 38/250 S Mercedes with which Caracciola so magnificently won the 1929 TT in the rain, and a s/c 1750 Alfa Romeo. At Le Mans in 1929, however, Howe shared the Mrs Bruce 24-hour-record Bentley Ovvith Bernard Rubin, but it broke its magneto driveshaft. He then netted two ‘beauty’ awards with the smaller Merc and Bugatti, at the Brighton Rally. His Lordship was now a well-known figure on the racing scene, immaculately turned out with red carnation in his buttonhole, cap at a jaunty angle, a golf umbrella to match in the rain, smoking his special cigarettes through a long holder. For racing, a leather or linen helmet or a crash hat and large visor. All his cars were immaculate in his racing colours of blue and silver.
In the 1929 TT the Alfa finished 18th, and at Shelsley Walsh Howe won the unlimited sports and ring classes with the famous SS Mercedes.
So to 1930, when he drove a T43 Bugatti in the tragic JCC Double 12 (in which the Talbot crashed), running from the railway straight to his pit and returning with a bucketful of tools and a jack after a rear hub had broken up; in spite of other troubles he and Campbell were rewarded with a class win. Co-driving the Alfa Romeo with Callingham at Le Mans, he finished fifth behind the Bentleys and a F&N Talbot 90. For the TT Howe used the 38/250 Mercedes and was placed second in class.
That Howe was now a very competent driver was shown at Phoenix Park, where as a part of the Mercedes-Benz team he finished third, behind Caracciola’s Mercedes and Campari’s Alfa Romeo, at 81.3mph over this difficult road circuit in the wet. In 1930’s ‘500’ Howe shared the Talbot 90 single seater with his friend Brian Lewis, coming fourth.
On the road the Earl was a fast driver, with speeding charges relished by the newspapers. He was able to keep a full-time mechanic to look after his racing and road cars, the faithful ‘Tommy’ Thomas. There is a story of how Tommy’ was motoring with his master on the Continent when they stopped at a top hotel for lunch. Tommy’ waited outside, when out came a waiter saying “You are wanted inside, the soup is getting cold”. So they ate together, the Earl saying they could “have a good talk about cars…”
For 1931 Howe bought Campbell’s 1.5-litre GP Delage. Prepared by Thomas, it won the Gold Star Handicap by 2.8sec from Cobb’s 10.5-litre Delage and won again in the next race, Howe doing a lap at 127.05mph, a still-extant Class-F record. IV,
With Birkin and a 2.3 Touring-bodied Alfa, he won at Le Mans from Ivanowski’s 7-litre Mercedes, and at Monaco Howe had again mixed it with the works teams in yet another new car, a T51 Bugatti, until an oil-pipe broke. In the TT the Alfa left the course, flew into a field, and returned to the race via a convenient gate, but retired with damaged brakes. The fierce Delage clutch spoiled Howe’s start in the ‘Mountain’ Championship, but third place at Dieppe was fine compensation.
The 1932 season started with the sporting Earl acting as an Observer at the Easter Brooklands Meeting, before the Delage gave him a third place against far bigger cars in the British Empire Trophy race, and in the sad “500” his new 151 Bugatti, lapped at 126.09mph before the axle punctured its fuel tank. Meanwhile the Delage went to Avus for the voiturette race, the Earl pumping up fuel pressure for the 326 miles as the mechanical pump had failed; it came fourth. At Dieppe the six-year-old car was second among the 2-litre group, and Howe, first Englishman to try the Coppa Acerbo, finished first of the 1.5 cars. But at Monza he wrapped the Delage round a tree so that both axles almost met, but walked nonchalantly away more hard work for Thomas, now with Sidney Maslyn to help him.
At Le Mans Birkin again shared the 2.3 Alfa with Howe and it was leading when it retired. In the 1932 IT the Earl in his own Alfa won the class from Birkin’s Alfa. But perhaps Howe’s finest effort that year was fourth at Monaco in the new Bugatti, two laps down on the Monza Alfas of Nuvolari and Caracciola, and Fagioli’s Maserati. At Shelsley Walsh he was host to Jean Bugatti when he brought over the luckless 4WD Bugatti, and himself taking awards in the Mercedes and the T51.
He enjoyed his cars, even arriving at the House of Lords screen flat and in racing attire. He also had two Fiat 500s, in his racing colours of course, for commuting in town. At Penn House in Bucks he had some of the drive banked, and at a garden party there once lined up his fleet of cars and the Commer racing car transporter as one of the attractions. He eventually replaced the Mercs with a fine T57SC Bugatti coupe and a Railton and V12 Lagonda.
By 1933 the Delage had been resuscitated by buying Campbell’s second car and spares, and it was second behind two Bugattis at Avus. Over the terribly testing Nürburgring Howe fought a tremendous battle with Burgaller’s Bugatti, for 212 miles of the Eifel race, winning the class at 64.29mph. Now in his element among the Continental drivers, Howe managed fourth place in the 3-hour Dieppe contest. Before that he had run the Bugatti again at Monaco but the back axle broke after 48 of the 100 laps. The great Tazio Nuvolari came over to race Howe’s T51 Bugatti in the 1933 Mountain Championship but didn’t start – I wonder why?
This must have whetted Howe’s appetite for GP racing, and when Alfa Romeo refused to sell him a Monza for the 1934 season he purchased a 2.9 Maserati – a wide-chassis car to comply with the minimum body-width rule of 85cm.
For Howe the 1934 season opened at Monaco, where he ran the new Maserati, finishing well down after three disastrous plug-changes. Before April was out he drove the T51 in the ingenious JCC International Trophy event at Brooklands, netting the Team Prize with Rose-Richards and Esson-Scott Then it was out to Le Mans with Rose-Richards and the e 2.3 Alfa; but after leading they were stationary for an hour with no lights, and retired. As slight appeasement, the weekend before Howe’s Mercedes-Benz had again won the unlimited classes at Shelsley. At Whitsun the T51 triumphed in the BARC Gold Star race, Howe setting the class lap-record to 129.70mph, the car in green livery for the Marne GP, where it finished fifth behind the three Ferrari-team Alfas and Hamilton’s Maserati. The Earl then drove his Maserati at Dieppe and was third again in the two-hour final behind the Alfas of Etancelin and Lehoux.
Howe then raced in the 24-hour Targa Abruzzo with Rose-Richards, their Alfa Romeo winning the Campari Cup for greatest distance, 1506 miles at 62.7mph. Two weeks later he used the ‘two-in-one’ renewed Delage in the Swiss GP, in which the new Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Unions ran, and to which the Earl gave way in gentlemanly fashion. He was last, but the only British finisher. In the TT Howe drove a Talbot, second in class to Rose-Richards’ sister car, a hollow result because they were the only two left after Michael May’s Alvis had retired…
The indefatigable Earl even had a stab at the 1934 Italian GP with the Bugatti, doing 104 laps on his own, a tough proposition for any driver. The year ended with a third and a fourth at Donington with 2.3 Bugatti and Delage, and a third in the Mountain Handicap at Brooklands. But I suppose his finest effort was with the MG Magnette team which won the 1100cc class in the Mille Miglia.
After seven racing years, Lord Howe showed no inclination to give up. In 1935 he added one of the cast-off 3.3 T59 Bugattis to his stable, and also had one of the fierce 4.9 154 Bugattis. At Monaco the T59’s brakes played up and it crashed at the chicane, but was second in the Donington GP after a great tussle with Shuttleworth’s 2.9 Alfa Romeo. At Le Mans Howe excelled, with fastest lap in the 2.3 Alfa (86.75mph) before it retired with a holed piston, after leading. Driving a works T57 Bugatti he was a splendid third overall to Dixon’s Riley and Hall’s Bentley in the TT. In the 1935 ‘500’ with Lewis the non-sic T57 Bugatti from Molsheim was third. after fuel-feed delays.
For 1936 the noble Lord ‘went British’ for the French GP in an improbable Marendaz Special, with Wisdom, but finished 25th. The IT was better, fifth in a Fox & Nicholl 4½ Lagonda. For voiturette events Howe had borrowed Dr Benjafield’s ERA R6B. It lasted eight minutes in the IT race, breaking an oil pipe, but was sixth in the Nuffield Trophy race. The 1936 ‘500’ saw the Earl co-drive a rather sick 4½ Lagonda with his friend Lord Essendon to be, into third place, while the untiring Earl was seventh in the memorable German-dominated 1937 Donington GP in his new ERA R8B. But that year it had nearly ended. Fighting a very close Campbell Trophy race at Brooklands against Bira’s 2.9 Maserati, Howe crashed at Vicker’s bend, was thrown out of the ERA and was very badly injured.
The ERA served Howe well in 1938, being fourth at Berne and in the BRDC 192-mile race, third in the JCC ‘200’, second to Bira in its heat at Peronne, before the Zoller compressor blew up in the final, and it set a new 1½-litre Brighton course record in 23.83see. Howe also went out to South Africa and in R8B won the Grosvenor GP from Taruffi and Villoresi. At the track that season Howe did a BARC observed 1hr run in a V12 Lagonda saloon, covering 101.5 miles, including a wheel change.
In 1939, at the age of 56, Earl Howe went out to Africa again with his ERA rebuilt to C specification, to finish fifth at East London, but retired in the Grosvenor GP when an axle-shaft broke. In May he was at Brooklands for the JCC International Trophy race but when in third place in torrential rain he misjudged the hill bend on the Campbell circuit and crashed; this time he was unhurt.
Racing apart, Earl Howe was educated at Eton and Christ Church, Oxford, commanded the Howe battalion during WW1, and afterwards was ADC to King George V. For 11 years he was Conservative MP for Battersea South. He was the BRDC President, Chainnan of the RAC Competitions Committee, was on the BARC Committee, and held many more important positions in motoring organisations. He spoke on motoring in the Lords, including trying to get a road race in Richmond Park, chaired the annual Meeting of the Clubs, opened Rivers Fletcher’s first post-war event at Cockfosters with a Bugatti Type 57SC Atlantic coupe and generally served his sport extremely well. The Grand Old Man of Motor Racing. No question!