Spottiswoode: a wild one

Memories of a fast, successful, but frequently over-enthusiastic regular at the Brooklands Track, and his red Type 35 Bugatti ​

With the proximity of the Brooklands Centenary celebrations in June it seems appropriate to remember a driver who was well known and successful there and at other speed venues. I have in mind Alexander Ninian Spottiswoode whom I used to see racing at the Track. 

I am enabled to write about him with the help of Mr Chris Jaques, who owns the Type 35 Bugatti which Spottiswoode then had, and who has met some of the driver’s relations. He has kindly provided me with much of this account.

Spottiswoode was born in 1908, educated at Marlborough and went to Trinity College, Cambridge. He was typical of the wealthy young men who competed for the fun of it. Having learned to fly he joined the Fleet Air Arm, serving in the aircraft carrier HMS Furious. He had an exceedingly narrow escape when he was swept off the top deck and was in a turbulent sea before being saved by a rope thrown from the escorting destroyer Watchman, after he had been in the water for 45 minutes. 

At the age of 22 Spottiswoode bought a four-cylinder 1½-litre Type 37 Bugatti and, in 1931, he naturally took it to Brooklands after he had won a race with it on Skegness Sands. 

H W Papworth, the well-known Bugatti expert, entered the ivory-painted Type 37 Bugatti but Spottiswoode non-started at the Easter Meeting. Amends were soon made in a sensational performance, when in his red eight-cylinder,
2-litre Type 35 Bugatti he won the Warwick Senior Long (nine miles) Handicap in a very convincing manner, with a standing-start lap at 87.68mph and his closing lap at 105.52mph, to lead home Eddie Hall’s 4½-litre Bentley and Penn-Hughes’ similar Bugatti.

In his next race at Whitsun, Spottiswoode was second to E L Meeson’s Vauxhall 30/98 with a lap at 113.19mph. The Bugatti retired from its next two engagements and it was unplaced in the Gold Star Handicap in spite of lapping at the previous speed. The Papworth-prepared Type 37 then non-started. In 1932 he tried driving in the Brooklands Mountain races with its two difficult corners per lap. He made fastest lap in the first but retired from both events.

In the JCC 100-lap International Trophy Race in 1934 the Bugatti was leading after 20 laps but it failed to finish.

In 1930 at Shelsley Walsh he was first in the racing car class (47.2sec) but he could be a wild driver; as stated in Austen May’s book, he was “tremendously hectic between the corners, running up one bank, bouncing off the other, tearing a huge piece of earth from the nearside again and slewing broad-side on to the course. Disaster seemed certain, and a man rushed into the road, presumably to rescue the driver. Spottiswoode straightened out, never saw him, and shot off up the hill in a great cloud of dust, only just missing the intruder who stumbled head-over-heels up the bank and out of the way.”

During these years the young driver had had many other successes at Shelsley Walsh, Lewes and at Skegness and in the Inter-Varsity speed trials at Branches Park, Chalfont St Peter, in 1936, where the Bugatti was only 0.67sec slower than W B Scott’s 1½-litre supercharged Delage, which made FTD, and Ewelme Downs, where the Bugatti overturned when it was all set for FTD. The Club records reported that he “should have made fastest time of the day. He was kept waiting on the line, however, and the famous Spottiswoode temperament became evident. When told to start he pulled his cap over his face and started with a vengeance. If he had managed to get round the top bend, he would have produced a staggering time. As it was he kept his foot hard down all the way. As he came into the bend he over-corrected, the tail swung round and hit the bank and the car turned over and came up on its wheels again. Alex’s trousers were mired, and his radiator and some of the body. Otherwise he was only shaken. It was a pity he threw his chances away in this way, as he would have certainly got fastest time.” Spottiswoode was well placed on most of these occasions but was sensational at Shelsley Walsh, hitting the bank but winning his class.

By May 1937 Spottiswoode was married and had joined Imperial Airways, which had just opened a direct mail service to Australia, using Short S23 Empire Class flying boats. These large aircraft had four Bristol Pegasus engines and a cruising speed of 160 knots.

On November 23/24, 1938 two mail flights left England for Alexandria, where crews were changed for the onward journey to Australia. Spottiswoode was the first officer on the ‘Calpurnia’ along with five crew. A number of refuelling stops were scheduled en route. The first stop was at Tiberias on the Sea of Galilee and the second scheduled at Lake Habbaniyeh, 60 miles west of Baghdad. However, this was not reached successfully, the plane coming down in the dark and a raging sandstorm in shallow water. Four died, including Spottiswoode. Aged 30, he left a widow and young daughter.

The GP Type 35 Bugatti unsupercharged straight-eight 2-litre (chassis 4809, engine 96) was one of only 11 delivered new to Colonel Sorel’s Brixton Road agency. Chassis 4809 was invoiced on July 23, 1926 and delivered from Molsheim on July 31, along with 4810, the British Grand Prix car, to Malcolm Campbell, who handled all racing and sports car sales for Sorel. It was registered YP 9453 in August of that year.

The first owner was Capt J F C Kruse of Sunningdale, Berks, for whom Amherst Villiers had made a little 625cc auxiliary engine to drive a supercharger on his Phantom Rolls-Royce. He was so pleased with this that he gave the Bugatti to Villiers.

With his new acquisition Villiers, being a close friend of Raymond Mays and already having successfully tuned Mays’ Brescia Bugatti ‘Cordon Rouge’, entered the car at various competitive events with Mays driving for him. Villiers himself raced the car at Southport.

In 1929 the car was acquired by Alex Spottiswoode. He sold it in 1935 to Hugh McFerran of Belfast who raced it in major events in Northern Ireland and Eire. It was re-registered CZ 9000 in June 1935 and the colour changed from red to blue in June 1936. It was sold again in January 1937 to Charles Neill of Belfast, a well-known Irish driver, who raced the car up to the war, before disposing of it in 1940 to Stanley Martin of Belfast, who was killed in a motorcycle accident in August 1942. The next owner was David Trowbridge of Essex who sold it in 1948 to Alan Haworth of Rochdale. His good friend Charles Moore, also of Rochdale, began his 38-year ownership of the car a year later; on his death in 1987 the car was sold to R Ruben who engaged Crosthwaite & Gardiner to restore it, before the car was shipped to America.

It was auctioned again in December 1991, fully restored, and eventually sold in 1993 to Chris Hutchings in the USA, who had wings and lamps fitted. He raced the car at the Lime Rock Festival in America.

The car returned to England in 2003 when Mr Jaques acquired it. He is endeavouring to have the original number plate reinstated. The Bugatti is still in original condition and has been raced in 2006 by Rob Newall at the Monaco Historique, where it qualified second in class but the magneto became detached near the end of official practice; at the Le Mans Legends, but the magneto failed; at the Silverstone BARC 500, finishing eighth; and at the Goodwood Revival, finishing 11th. The owner drives it on the road with great satisfaction and ran it in the Bugatti OC’s Irish Rally where it was recognised by several people from its time there in the 1930s and ’40s.