Salt Lake record breaker — Bill Boddy remembers Ab Jenkins, America’s Mormon long-distance recordman
David Abbot (Ab) Jenkins was highly respected in the USA as a long-distance record-breaker, both pre- and post-war, who set challenges for British drivers. A staunch Mormon, he was made Mayor of Salt Lake City. From bicycles the young carpenter, who was to develop his own building company, went on to motorcycles, such as a Yale and other powerful American makes, and by 1908 he had his own car, a two-cylinder Reo. In 1910 Ab rode his bike on the Utah Salt Flats at Bonneville and realised how hard and smooth the surface was.
During the following year two Americans drove a big Packard car on the Salt Flats, and in 1914 a barnstormer, Ernie Morass, brought his fleet of fast cars there. Teddy Tezlaff went for the LSR in one of the 2-1/2 -litre Blitzen Benzes; it was timed at 141.73 mph over a mile, but timing had been by waved flags and stopwatches so even the AAA refused to ratify this. Another Blitzen driver, when asked how such speed was achieved, said he waited for the tide to retreat and the measured distances would have contracted!
Ab soon had some town-to-town ‘records’ to his credit, such as New York to San Francisco in 76 hours in 1927, and in ’28 he set a 24-hour stock car record on the Atlantic City board track. This was followed by timed climbs of some 65 well-known hills with a stock Studebaker chosen by the AAA, including the severe Mount Mitchell, Shades Mountain and Giant’s Despair in Pennsylvania.
The Salt Flats had been inaccessible from Wendover, 125 miles distant, until the railway was brought across them. To mark the opening of the rail-link the Rotarians staged huge celebrations, and Jenkins was asked to race the train to Wendover for a $250 wager. In a big Studebaker he managed this over those very bad roads, throwing bags of flour out at the 15 crossings so that, if the train passengers saw them, they would know the car was ahead.
Realising what a good place the Salt Flats were for motor racing, Ab obtained permission from the AAA to use them and in 1932 he set a 24-hour record there with the new 12-cylinder Pierce-Arrow for its manufacturer, which was finding it slower than its six-cylinder cars.
A circular track 10 miles in diameter was measured and marked out by the Utah State Roads Commission, stakes marking the course, lit at night by oil flares. The car was a two-seater stripped of its mudguards. Jenkins drove for the full 24 hours, staying in the car for the entire run for a record 2710 miles, with a dozen refuelling pauses; he remarked that there was no plumbing equipment… The timekeepers sat at a table which was dangerously close to the course.
In 1933 Ab returned to the Salt Flats and established records up to 24 hours and 117.77mph, and in ’34 he was out again in a racing-bodied Pierce-Arrow Twelve with six carburettors instead of a single one, an outside exhaust pipe and raised compression ratio. Firestone tyres were used. Power output was said to have been increased by 60bhp over that of the ’32 car. It was sufficient to raise the World 24-hour record to 127.229mph.
By now Malcolm Campbell held the LSR in his 36-1/2-litre RollsRoyce-powered Bluebird, with a two-way mile averaging 272.46mph, which he set at America’s Daytona Beach. These speeds were, however, beginning to spell the limit of Daytona’s suitability for such record attempts. This venue had seen LSRs set there in the past seven years but it was no longer a safe prospect.
The magic 200mph had been broken in 1927 by Sir Henry Segrave in the twin aero-engined 44-litre Sunbeam at Daytona (203.39mph) but the length was now rather short; Segrave had gone into the sea when the Sunbeam’s brakes melted on a practice run. Lee Bible, Frank Lockhart and a photographer had been killed there after the former’s impossible triple-engined 36.9-litre Triplex and the famous American racing driver’s ambitious streamlined 3-litre Stutz Black Hawk had met disaster. The Triplex’s other driver, Ray Keech, had taken the LSR temporarily, at 203.55mph, in 1928, followed by Segrave’s 231.44mph in the Napier-engined 25.9-litre Golden Arrow.
Admittedly Fred Marriott had gone to Daytona with a Stanley steam car and made 121.57mph in 1906, and the American drivers Bob Burman and Barney Oldfield went with Blitzen Benzes in 1911 and ’14, but their runs were unofficial by AIACR (the FIA now) timing. These sands were convenient for US drivers, but Tommy Milton and Ralph de Palma went there only twice, setting unofficial LSRs, Milton’s Duesenberg claiming a shade over 156mph in 1920.
In the early days ordinary straight roads sufficed for speed records, the battles between Gaston Chasseloup Laubat and Camille Jenatzy in their electric racers taking place at Achères Park, St Germain, north of Paris, in 1898 and ’99. But the ultimate holder, Jenatzy, was only reaching around 66mph.
Subsequently the coveted LSR was contested along the Promenade des Anglais at Nice, at the Chartres-Bonyoval road, at Ablis-St Arnoult, and on a stretch outside Bruges. The Dourdan road saw 80mph on the record books, and Ostend also yielded suitable space, but the Hon Charles Rolls borrowed the long (downhill!) Clipstone Drive from the Duke of Portland; I found it in recent times and believe it was very much the pioneer UK speed course (84.09mph on a 70hp Mors, but improperly timed).
Henry Ford got over 90mph on the frozen lake St Clair in Michigan, close to Detroit’s motor-city, but W K Vanderbilt Jnr preferred Florida’s warmer Daytona beach as early as 1904. The Nice promenade was very bumpy for Rigolly’s skilled handling of his Gobron-Brillie but he achieved the magic and official ‘ton’ on the Ostend-Nieuport road (103.55mph) that year. Such a pace put mere roads out of bounds and those unable to go to Daytona resorted to Brooklands Track, apart from the tense duel at Arpajon, that very narrow tree-lined road near Montlhéry track, between René Thomas with the 10-1/2-litre V12 Delage and Ernest Eldridge in his primitive 21.7-litre aero-engined Fiat, the dogged English driver finally defeating the protesting Frenchman with a speed of 146mph.
I am quoting the old venues in the ever-optimistic hope that they may be discoverable by those who find interest in the heroic past.
As the LSR increased, somewhere other than Daytona was desperately sought. Campbell had by 1935 reached 276.82mph there and was seeking a better course to attempt 300mph. Before Daytona, Pendine sands in Wales had been the British saviour, but Parry Thomas had been killed there and Giulio Foresti thrown from Djelmo in 1927 after both cars had overturned, Thomas’s Babs at around 180mph.
As an alternative to Pendine, Henry Segrave took the 4-litre V12 Sunbeam to Southport sands, which was more convenient to Sunbeam’s Wolverhampton factory, and put the record to 125.33mph in 1926.
As for Brooklands, when Victor Hemery and the giant Benz tried in 1911 for the absolute speed record (the aeroplane record was then only 82.72mph) the opposite-directions rule, to avoid advantage from wind or gradient, was not in force. He opted to drive opposite laps from the Track’s normal ones, suggesting that he found getting onto and off the steep banking hard or even dangerous, and managed 129.95mph. When Hornsted in a similar car attempted to seize the LSR there he had to make runs in two directions and, familiar with the Benz as he was, his record was set at only 124.1mph. K Lee Guinness showed in 1922 that it could be done faster at Brooklands in the 350hp 18.3-litre Sunbeam but, sensibly, that was the last time anyone tried there.
Jenkins set about attacking long-distance records at high speeds, putting the World’s 24-hour figure to 127.23mph in 1934, and he also took stock-car records with a Cord and an Auburn. He also became the fastest on a farm tractor, doing 68mph over a mile on an Allis-Chalmers. Ab improved on his times with a supercharged Duesenberg SJ with Tony Gulotta until a bearing failed after 300 miles. The factory provided two engines but after using one the 2000 miles record was lost, with 40 miles to go, when the crankcase split.
These runs alerted English LSR contenders to the possibilities of using the 15-mile-long and 10-mile-wide Salt Lake, and enquiries were made by Campbell, George Eyston and John Cobb. There followed duels between Jenkins and George Eyston, Ab with Mormon Meteor II with a Curtiss Conqueror 25.3-litre aero-engine prepared by Lycoming, in a chassis from a Duesenberg, which beat an early Eyston 12-hour record with 152.84mph before a universal joint broke.
Such speeds were impossible on banked tracks and so across to the salt went Eyston and co-driver Bert Denly, with the 23-litre ‘Speed of the Wind’ and the diesel-engined ‘Flying Spray’. By 1937 Ab had 15 World records, the 24-hours at 157.27mph for 3774 miles, helped by Eddie Meyer; the English pair had three, including the 2000 miles at 163.75mph. For us war ended play but in 1940 Jenkins tackled more record runs with Mormon Meteor III, co-drivers Cliff Bergere and Babe Stapp, ending with 32 records.
In 1956, now aged 73, Jenkins set more 24-hour records for Pontiac.
The Salt Flats were not always smooth and rain storms could cause long delays but LSRs were obtained there from 1935 to ’47 by Campbell, when he realised his over-300mph goal in the re-streamlined 2300hp Bluebird, by Eyston in his 73-litre twin-R-R-engined Thunderbolt, and John Cobb in his twin-engined 53.8-litre Napier-Railton, Cobb having the last go, to 394.20mph, after which Bonneville was the venue for 11 successful American bids, ending with Gary Gabelich’s 622.40mph in the rocket-motivated The Blue Flame in 1970.
Ab Jenkins was a determined and brave recordman, and it was his series of duration runs that brought British LSR drivers to the famous Bonneville course, when they were desperate for somewhere to unleash their very quick cars.
Our man on the Continent
Last month the anniversary of how Sir Stirling Moss OBE, as he now is, won the stupendous 1955 Mille Miglia was fittingly recalled by his memories of that 1000-mile flat-out road race and the inclusion of a reprint of Motor Sport’s epic report by our own Denis Jenkinson, who navigated for Moss using the now-celebrated roller mapbox.
Back in 1939 when I was editor of Motor Sport I was made aware of DSJ’s dedication to speed and all modes of motorsport by a letter from him which we had published, describing how he had attended events by bicycle and had volunteered to work on someone’s Alta after another of our readers had asked for such help. It was Bob Cowell’s Alta on which the dedicated young Jenks toiled. He used to joke that he could claim to have driven on Brooklands Track because he had towed the Alta up the Finishing Straight behind Bob’s aged Singer saloon.
I must have met him first at the Track because, spooling on as I think you are supposed to say, I recognised him when I saw him after war had broken out and I was working at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough (originally the Royal Aircraft Factory, renamed when the RFC became the RAF).
I was lunching in 1941 at a café on the road between the station and the RAE and its aerodrome when I saw DSJ going past, on a racing bicycle, in shorts and shirt, presumably to be interviewed for a job, although not suited as anyone else would have been. ‘Good’, I thought, as he turned back, ‘another motoring enthusiast among us’. I waited, looking forward to a chat, but he never came in. It was the kind of café which served pie and chips or bacon and egg for 1/3d, sandwiches 6d each. Later I enquired why Jenks had not joined me. “Too expensive” was the reply…
He got the job, and we were to meet frequently to discuss past motor races, go on whatever petrol-scarce car rides were available and analyse all aspects of now historic grands prix. I relished Jenks’s unique talent, so told him that he must write for Motor Sport after the war was over. At first he demurred, telling me I was the writer, he was the engineer. But I invited him to my lodgings and he was soon telling me how to write… That is how Motor Sport acquired its inimitable and so widely acclaimed Continental Correspondent.
It did not happen for some time because DSJ was occupied racing his Norton motorbike in the smaller continental races, his English name and address standing out on race posters. So I went on reporting the GPs, with Michael Tee taking the photographs for LAT. There were some exciting moments in chartered aeroplanes… Then Jenks became sidecar passenger to World Champion Eric Oliver and was able to report car races as they travelled around Europe.
Thus began those unrivalled articles, detailed, accurate and sometimes critical, which fully justified my war-years assessment of Jenks. It was wonderful when he would visit my wife and I at season’s end and give us an account of what had really happened.
Admiring his sidecar acrobatics, the mechanics would invite DSJ into otherwise forbidden workshops, when he might ask what was the true reason for the retirement of a famous driver which had been hushed up. “Lift up that dust sheet,” he might be told and there would be a con-rod hanging out of a crankcase, or whatever…
It was some time before the unsuspecting mechanics realised that DSJ was a motoring writer!
He was now driving to races in cars such as an aged Fiat 1100, Lancia Aprilia, Porsche 356 and Jaguar E-types, in which I sometimes accompanied him. He also ‘phoned in GP results to the News Chronicle, and I would drive up to London from Fleet, Hampshire on a Sunday evening to receive them, leaving my 1934 Austin 7 on double-yellow lines outside the newspaper building, ignored by the police as I was working for the paper!
I was paid at union rates although I did not belong to any union; I was afraid to admit this, as had it been known the printing presses might cease and all Fleet Street come to a halt. What fun it was…
Death of a Brooklands racer
I was sorry to learn of the death in March of Arthur B Hyde. I recall seeing him at Brooklands in the ex-Earl Howe 8CM Maserati, which he had bought from TP Cholmondley-Tapper, a rather impressive car with which to commence a late racing career. Hyde had wealthy parents, both of whom died when he was about 21, so he was able to indulge in his chosen pastime until, poorly advised and not particularly clever with money, a fortune was lost (in much lesser circumstances I was similarly placed).
Hyde was at that time apprenticed to the Riley Motor Company, where he became a skilled fitter and knew how racing engines should be prepared. It is believed that he contemplated entering the Maserati for the 1937 Donington GP, but after practice runs decided he was too inexperienced to give the German cars a clear passage. He had sensibly also invested in a racing Riley 9.
At Brooklands in 1938 Hyde was third in the 2.9 Maserati in the Easter Campbell Circuit Handicap, and he then beat Prince Bira’s Class D record with a lap at 73.39mph. Using the Riley in 1939 he was third in a Brooklands ‘Mountain race’, third in an outer-circuit Handicap and also drove it at Crystal Palace. In the temperamental Maserati he finished in fourth place in the Road Championship and drove calmly to take third place at Donington Park in the British Empire Trophy Race. Excellent showings by an amateur driver of a difficult car, especially given that he had been badly injured in a bad accident on the 15th lap of the 1938 German GP in the Maserati, now repainted green.
After the war Hyde sold the racing cars and took up sailing, farmed for a while and then emigrated to America in 1962 to work on racing engines for Holman & Moody and Ford before retiring to live quietly with his second wife close to the Holman & Moody plant.
Dragging up history
I was interested to see that Simon Taylor, whose pages I always read and whose race commentaries I admire, last month recalled my dislike of dragsters, influenced by snide newspaper comments. Maybe! But after the Silverstone demonstrations of them in 1963 I did report a meeting at Church Lawford and wrote that “slingshots in their own sphere are a great sight and a fine technical achievement. More power to them!”
So not too critical? My reference to “more power” was not intended as sarcastic. Mickey Thompson doing 177mph at the end of a standing-start quarter-mile was impressive then, and speed and power increased incredibly soon afterwards.
I am very sorry to learn that Patricia Stocken has died. She was always associated with her Trojan and became the Trojan OC’s secretary, rally secretary and finally its chairperson. Her interest in these unusual but fascinating cars was aroused when Group Captain Arthur Scroggs, a friend of her father, Wing Commander Stocken, was invited to dinner.
Scroggs was a memorable character, an ex-RFC fighter pilot who arrived in grubby greatcoat with unpolished buttons. He invited the teenage girl to go on an MCC Land’s End Trial in his RK Trojan and then found for her a 1924 Utility Trojan which he overhauled, installing a Scroggs-tuned PB engine so that Patricia could herself take part in such events. From then on she became a regular competitor in MCC and VSCC events in the car which its makers insisted was cheaper than shoe leather.
Living with her parents in Gloucestershire, she worked for the RAF and the Conservative Party, which led to organising speakers at the Party’s HQ and becoming an agent under Mrs Thatcher.
On retirement she received an OBE and retired to live in Sutton with her dog and cats. She became keen on campanology and continued trials driving in her Trojan until she fell ill. Unassuming, quietly enjoying the company of TOC friends, she was a real enthusiast, now to be sadly missed by a large number of like-minded people.