The Late Dario Resta—Speed King of America

An Account of This Great Driver’s Racing Career

We have been fortunate in obtaining this manuscript from a close relation of Dario Resta, who wrote it at our request.—Ed.

To-day speed and things mechanical are more or less inherent in the average boy. Fifty years ago, the age of speed was only just beginning to dawn, so it must have been essentially a pioneering spirit of adventure which brought forth the first batch of racing motorists.

Many were, of course, themselves designers of automobiles, not a few were amateur sportsmen of wealth and title, whilst those who made history were of that ilk who are born and not made. Boyhood or childhood background does not appear to have much “to do with the case.”

Anything less conducive to motor-racing than the childhood surroundings of Dario Resta can hardly be imagined. His parents came to England from Italy when Dario was two years of age, in 1886. His parents were not of the more usual type of Italian emigré who have settled around Soho in such large numbers, nor were they political refugees imbued with the spirit of Cavour or Garibaldi. They were in fact a family of culture and breeding, Resta Senior being a tall handsome man of striking appearance who had at one time been an officer in the Italian Cavalry; in fact they were the type of Italian with whom the average Englishman is unfamiliar.

The family originally settled in a large house where Queen’s Way tube station now stands and Father Resta set himself up as a studio photographer of some repute. In those days photography and photographers were more allied to pure art and in consequence young Dario Resta’s childhood was spent in a very bohemian and unmechanised atmosphere. Though of ample means, his parents seemed not to bother too much about education and Dario himself even less. Whilst still at St. John’s Wood College, however, his first and all-absorbing interest was a bicycle, which almost daily was taken to pieces and assembled with loving care. Soon young Resta was racing at the new Putney Velodrome, Crystal Palace and elsewhere, being a member of the Putney A.C. and the West Roads C.C. At the age of nineteen, after winning -a five mile scratch race, he was heralded as a likely British champion.

This was, of course, the beginning of his entry into the world of wheels and speed. In the meantime, the roller skating craze had smitten London and everyone of fashion was to be seen awheel at Holland Park or any of the other rinks which rapidly sprang up. Though most of London was content to career gracefully, if somewhat noisily, round and round to the Skater’s Waltz, or indulge in a few of the milder forms of figure skating, not so Dario Resta. Here was a new form of indulgence in the glory of speed, here the thrill of cornering at speed, of perfect judgment and correct timing. In but a very short time, a new graceful and daring instructor/demonstrator was captivating the hearts of many a simpering Edwardian Miss as she floundered awkwardly around Olympia or Holland Park. Contemporary reports and accounts reveal that these roller-skating instructors were indeed the recipients of a considerable amount of hero-worship and well they might have been, as an early photograph of Resta reveals a very streamline figure in black tights calculated to capture the heart of any maid brought up on Ouida.

Eventually to become amateur figure skating champion, it was on the rink that he first met F. R. Fry of chocolate fame, who sponsored much of his early racing.

Both cycling and skating, however, were but spare-time hobbies and it was in the offices of a wine-importer friend of his father’s that the future Grand Prix and track record driver was supposed to spend his working-day hours. It is not surprising„ therefore, that a young man so obviously bitten by the speed “bug” soon palled of office life and found a way for himself into the then almost new and uprising Motor Industry. His first steps towards his ultimate career were with Bailey’s of Cambridge Circus, where he soon learnt all there was to know about motor cars and, in particular, the driving of them. Later he formed a business of his own at 24 Haymarket as a consultant and advisory bureau on all matters appertaining to motoring, and was also agent for Metallurgique, Vinot, Mercédès, Arrol-Johnston, and later Overland cars.

One of his earliest and most prosperous customers was Mr. F. R. Fry to whom several types of Mercédès were sold.

With the advent of Brooklands and public interest in motor-racing, many wealthy sportsmen were investing in veritable studs of racing cars, sometimes driving themselves or, as in the case of Mr. Fry, nominating a driver. In fact, the early days of Brooklands appeared to possess an atmosphere much more akin to the “Sport of Kings” than in later years.

Dario Resta’s debut to motor-racing was in 1907 and his first bid for notoriety at Brooklands meeting of July 20th. Driving Mr. Fry’s 120-h.p. Mercédès in the Weybridge Stakes for the Montague Cup, he finished second to H. E. Hutton, also on a Mercédès. This Resta-Hutton duel, in fact, became quite a feature of many subsequent events. It would appear that there was no graduation period to motor-racing in those days, no working up, possibly from motor-cycles, through 500 or 750-c.c. racing cars, to the 1,000-c.c. classes and upwards to the big-litre types: it was, in fact, 120 h.p. or nothing.

The first Resta victory was on the August Bank Holiday of the same year when he won the Prix de la France event, (800 sovs.) on Mr. Fry’s 75.9-h.p. Mercédès. It is interesting to note that the weight of his Mercédès was given as 2,820 lb. and that for the 15¾ miles which the event constituted, the amount of fuel consumed was not to exceed 1.8 gallons.

Early in 1908 he succeeded in establishing his first of many subsequent world’s speed records. On April 10th new records were set up for the 50-mile and 90-h.p. (76-h.p. R.A.C. rating) classes by Dario Resta, again driving a Mercédès, the flying half-mile being covered in 18 min. 37.75 sec., at an average speed of 89.112 m.p.h.

Later in the year, on August 22nd, a similar set of records were established with a 60-h.p. Mercédès, speeds of 100.86 m.p.h. being obtained.

It would seem that even in those glamourous days, the British weather was just as, if not more, temperamental than it is to-day, for at the 1908 Easter Brooklands meeting snow fell and rendered the track somewhat tricky. These conditions were in fact responsible for the memorable Resta-Newton incident during the Navy and Army Stakes, when the latter’s Napier skidded down from the top of the track and struck Resta’s Mercédès. Both drivers, however, continued the race, Resta finishing second. At the conclusion of the race, the majority of the spokes on the Napier’s near-side Rudge Whitworth wire wheels were found to be missing or loose, whilst the off-side hub caps and several of the Continental Vinet detachable rim retaining bolts of the Mercédès had been sheared off. As a result of the accident a move was started, but not sustained, to ban detachable rims from cars racing at Brooklands: in any case, of course, detachable rims themselves died a natural death, for racing at any rate, shortly after this.

By now, despite his Italian parentage, Dario Resta had come to be accepted as one of Britain’s leading drivers and was indeed quite a public hero. Somehow his Christian. name had been converted to “Dolly,” mainly due to mis-spelling in the daily Press, whilst any personal incident, such as his summons by the Kingston magistrates for driving in Richmond Park at 20¾ m.p.h., was avidly reported upon. His arrest by the French police after his accident whilst practising for the 1908 Grand Prix has been mentioned in Motor Sport on several occasions. Though released in time to participate in this event, Resta did eventually have to return to Abbeville and serve a few days’ sentence in a French prison which, in view of their condition, was not a pleasant experience.

The Whitsun Bank Holiday Meeting of 1908 witnessed the first appearance of Great Britain’s hope for the Grand Prix, the now famous 58-h.p. Austins. The three Austins which appeared at Brooklands on that occasion, Nos. 2, 3 and 4, driven by Resta, Moore-Brabazon and Warwick-Wright, respectively, were in full G.P. trim and took part in a scratch race confined to these cars. In this event each driver was compelled to change two complete wheels during the race, presumably as a form of practice for the Grand Prix itself. With Mr. Fry’s son as his mechanic, Rests was the ultimate winner, having, as one report remarked, ” . . . oiled the joints well and cleaned the rims thoroughly . . .” which was typical of the thoroughness with which he always prepared his mounts.

Despite his two accidents preceding the Grand Prix, the effects of shock and a fractured arm, Dario Resta drove with considerable élan, and though the Austins were somewhat slower than the Mercédès, F.I.A.T.s, Brasiers, Bayard Clements and others of that ilk, they averaged a fairly consistent 60 m.p.h. throughout the race.

After his return from the Grand Prix and actually while awaiting results of the French police affair, a new series of records were set up for the 60-h.p. class on August 27th, again driving Mr. Fry’s Mercédès, a speed of 100.8 m.p.h. being obtained for the flying half-mile. This was subsequently raised to 102.20 m.p.h. by Newton on his Napier and again exceeded by Resta when he raised the figure to 103.625 m.p.h. on October 1st. Another important 1908 event, which is apt to be eclipsed by the Grand Prix was the Isle of Man T.T. of that year in which Dario Resta drove an Arrol-Johnston. The 1908 Arrol-Johnstons had a normal front radiator, whilst later models were fitted with the rear scuttle Renault-type of radiator.

During a greater part of 1909 Resta was away in America delivering Mercédès cars to a Mr. Wishart, at that time a wealthy American company promoter and inventor, and who was eventually become his father-in-law.

At the 1909 “End of the Season” meeting at Brooklands, however, Resta made an appearance on a somewhat unusual vehicle, known as the Lucas Valveless, with which he won the Junior Handicap and also a special relay race.

Business activities during 1910 and 1911 reduced his appearances at Brooklands and elsewhere, but once again driving an Arrol-Johnston he participated in the 1911 Coupe de L’Auto, finishing sixth. In November of that year he set up a new six-hour record at Brooklands, covering a distance of 303 miles 282 yards on an 11.9-h.p. Arrol-Johnston at an average speed of 50.52 m.p.h. The Arrol-Johnstons of 1911 having adopted the rear scuttle type of radiator and full-elliptic rear springs.

The year 1912 saw “Dolly” Resta’s return to road racing in earnest, and also the first real success of British team in any of the foreign classics.

It was, of course, in this year that the famous 3-litre Sunbeam team came into being. Driving Sunbeam No. 17 in the 1912 Grand Prix, Resta was faster than his team mates, Rigal, Medinger and Caillois, his fastest lap being 84.73 m.p.h., the lap-record being 101.67 m.p.h. set up by Bruce-Brown in a F.I.A.T. Resta’s final position was fourth and though due to misinformation as to the extent of his lead he lost the Coupe de L’Auto to Rigal, his slowing down to ensure the complete Sunbeam team finishing intact did make doubly sure that the Sunbeam team carried off the Grand Prix de Regularité. A noble sacrifice indeed.

These epic 1912 Sunbeams undoubtedly set a new standard for racing-car design and were, apart from their steel artillery-type wheels, quite up to date in appearance. Both driver and mechanic, at long last, actually sat in the car and not on it, whilst tanks and tail were faired off in a neat conical fairing.

In the Brooklands July meeting of that year, the three victorious Sunbeams were fêted and in a special sprint race for these cars, Dario Resta proved the winner. At the same meeting, driving a 41.9-h.p. Mercédès, he finished second to Malcolm Campbell on his 59.6-h.p. Darracq in the 100 m.p.h. Short Handicap.

Sunbeams, under the guidance of Mr. Coatalen, were now seriously tackling the many problems of further development. Already in the Grand Prix, Coatalen’s “no-differential” theory had been successfully demonstrated and by the establishment of a whole series of new record at Brooklands, Dario Resta, as chief Sunbeam test driver, was able to subject several new features of engine design to an extremely rigorous form of testing. On September 12th, 1912, driving a new type 30-h.p. twelve cylinder Sunbeam, Dario Resta raised the world’s 50-mile record to 93.75 m.p.h. This record having previously been held by the now somewhat obscure 60-h.p. six-cylinder Thames.

On September 17th, new 1-5-hour E Class and 50-400-mile E Class records were established with the 15.9-h.p. G.P.-type Sunbeams. Both cars were, for those days, considerably streamlined, both being fitted with nose fairings to the radiator.

In the French Grand Prix of 1913, despite a burst reserve oil tank, necessitating frequent stops for replenishment and for removal of oil from face and steering wheel, Resta managed to bring his Sunbeam into sixth place. Indeed it is surprising to note the number of International races in which he finished either fifth or sixth. Dario Resta’s superb driving in the 1913 Grand Prix and in particular his “corner jumping” technique on the differential-less Sunbeam, was applauded by both the daily and technical Press.

For 1913 the G.P. Sunbeams had their two artillery-type spare wheels mounted at the rear, in place of the side mounting of the previous year, whilst the tail fairing was dispensed with, revealing a large drum-like fuel tank. Quite an innovation was the fitting of a somewhat primitive, almost Heath-Robinson, form of engine temperature control, consisting of a roller blind on the radiator operated by a piece of cord. An interview with Resta after the race confirms that the noticeably easy starting and quick getaway of the Sunbeams was attributed to these shutters and, probably more likely, to the fact that the radiators were filled with hot water. The shutters were, it is stated, kept closed for the first two and a half laps.

It may be of interest to note that maximum r.p.m. of the 1913 G.P. Sunbeams was 3,000 r.p.m. and maximum speed about 103 m.p.h. and engine capacity 4,441 c.c.

The 1914 French Grand Prix again saw Dario Resta in his fated finishing place, fifth: first, second and third places going to Mercédès, and fourth place to a Peugeot, the latter incidentally being fitted with f.w.b. To Dario Resta, however, there fell the honour of establishing the fastest lap speed, the eighth, covering the 23½ miles in 20 minutes 41 seconds. His participation in the 1914 T.T. was confined to one lap. A popular favourite, both on account of his reputation and his showing during practice, it was hard luck indeed to be compelled to retire so early in the race due to the shearing of a big-end bolt, but the winning of the race by another member of the Sunbeam team, K. Lee Guinness, may have been some consolation.

At each of the principal Brooklands meetings for 1914, Dario Resta’s driving of the 12-cylinder Sunbeam was the outstanding event, and at the fateful August 4th meeting he won the Lightning Long Handicap at an average speed of 107 m.p.h., and attained a speed of 120 m.p.h. on the straight.

Shortly after this, Resta left England for America, his wife’s home, where he was soon to enter the most glamorous phase of his career. He had, in fact, promised to give up motor-racing and had intended to take up an executive position in motor engineering production which had been offered to him, but the call of speed was too great, and early in 1915 he made his bow to the American public. In but a very short while he was acclaimed Public Hero No. 1.

The frequent spells of bad luck which had dogged him on so many occasions on the Continent or at Brooklands were conspicuously absent during Resta’s extensive racing on the board tracks of America.

During 1915 he had his first big success when, driving a Peugeot at Chicago, he won the 500-Mile Race. Ironically enough, a Sunbeam driven by Porporato was second. His list of victories for that year included the Vanderbilt Cup, the Harkness Gold Trophy and the Chicago “100.” The latter race was the first ever to have been won at an average of over 100 m.p.h., Resta’s time being 38 min. 54.2 sec., though later, when winning the Harkness Gold Trophy, he lowered his time for the 100 miles to 50 min. 55.71 sec. In the famous Indianapolis “500,” however, he had to be content in 1915 with second place, being beaten by Ralph de Palma on a Mercédès. In this most gruelling track race he averaged 88.01 m.p.h. against de Palma’s 89.04 m.p.h. By the end of 1915 Resta had received the semi-official title of “Speed King of America.”

His success continued throughout 1916, culminating in his winning, this time, the Indianapolis “500” at an average of 83.26 m.p.h. His rival of the previous year, Ralph de Palma, finished second. Indeed, so close were the times of these two drivers that the track authorities arranged a special match race, to be run off in three heats of 10, 24 and 50 miles. Resta, on his faithful Peugeot, beat the Mercédès in each event and at the same time established new track records for 10, 24 and 50 miles.

Typical of the prize money offered at all American track events at that time, the winner of this special challenge event received £1,000. Big events such as the Indianapolis often produced a total purse of anything up to 30,000 dollars. Motor-racing in America, therefore, could be a very remunerative pastime, and in his first year Resta was accredited with winning some 45,000 dollars in prize money.

Technically uninteresting as American board track racing may seem to the true lovers of motor sport, it was apparently thrilling enough to draw crowds up to 100,000. It did, nevertheless, demand considerable skill of a very specialised nature and certainly considerable pluck, the steeply banked tracks being often only one mile in circumference.

Having reached the very pinnacle of American racing fame, Resta, partly at his wife’s insistence, decided to rest on his laurels and devote himself to a less spectacular side of the motor industry. It was not until 1923 that Resta once again returned to serious racing. Appearing out of the blue, as it were, he won the Grand Prix of Spain on the new track at Steges. Resta’s first re-appearance in England was at the Essex M.C. Hill-Climb at Kop early in 1924, when he put up second fastest time on a six-cylinder G.P.-type Sunbeam, and later in the Herts County and Aero Club Hill-Climb at Aston Clinton, he established a new record with a new type of 2-litre G.P. Sunbeam. These events, which to some extent re-introduced the pre-war road-racing Resta to the British public, showed that he was still indeed a master of his art, whether it be on road or track.

In the 1924 Grand Prix de l’Europe, bad luck, a possible foreshadow of his tragic end, forced him to retire on his 33rd lap.

Once again, a member of the Coatalen team, Resta was the obvious choice as driver for attacks on a series of new records at Brooklands.

September 3rd, 1924, was the day scheduled for attempts with the G.P. Sunbeam on all records up to 50 kilometres. For several days previously practising had taken place, the writer of this article, then a schoolboy of fourteen, on one memorable occasion occupying the mechanic’s seat. Starting off with school cap firmly in position, this unsuitable headgear was soon blown off in the 100-m.p.h. slipstream, which, joy of joys, meant another circuit: the whole story being received with considerable incredulity on return to school.

At last all was ready and Resta and his mechanic Perkins sped off on what was to prove poor Dario’s last turn at the wheel. Shortly after his fourth circuit, the Sunbeam entered the level straight at some 115 m.p.h. and almost simultaneously was seen to be out of control, and heading straight for the corrugated iron boundary fence. The ensuing pillar of smoke and gaping hole in the fence told its own tragic story. Brooklands officials who quickly rushed to the scene were amazed to find Perkins, the mechanic, alive and staggering across the smoking grass, but the end of the great Dario Resta must have been mercifully swift.

At the inquest it was concluded that a rear tyre was punctured by a security bolt, broken through impact with a bump in the track.

Truly “the deeds that men do live alter them,” for in the four circuits completed on September 3rd,1924, new records for the standing half-mile, standing kilometre, standing mile, flying half-mile, flying kilometre, flying mile, two miles and five miles at 66.35 m.p.h., 71.49 m.p.h., 83.04 m.p.h., 122.70 m.p.h., 112.18 m.p.h., 119.56 m.p.h., 115.29 m.p.h., and 114.23 m.p.h., respectively, were established by Dario Resta driving a 2-litre G.P. Sunbeam.