(Continued from the January Issue)
In searching for a key-word that summarises best the essential character of our fourth subject, in this short series of articles, it is difficult to prevent the word “faithfulness” springing to mind. To someone who has not been privileged to know, at first hand, Leo Villa’s relationship with the Campbell family, there is the difficulty of having to avoid being too sentimental about it, but it is nevertheless obvious to anyone who has seen Donald Campbell and Leo discussing some technical problem together, that there is no ordinary bond of affection between them. In these days of cheap and passing loyalties, such relationships do stand out as something from a past age, which, when they are gone, will leave this world infinitely the poorer. The writer particularly wanted to include Leo Villa in this series, as he is so typical of the great motor-racing deeds of the ‘twenties in the record-breaking sphere, a sphere that demanded, and still does demand, an altogether different approach. Although Leo has bad more than the normal share of straightforward racing, he would probably be the first to admit that he would be strange to the “weekend after weekend” rush that the modern Continental tour demands. But record-breaking, as we have said, and Land Speed Record breaking in particular, was different. Here months and months of patient work all culminated in a few moments of intense endeavour during which there was room for literally no mistake.
First the setting of the target, inevitably a higher one in terms of sheer speed than ever before attempted. Then the months of design work, probing the problems of wheelspin, stability and control, the comings and goings of the “No. 8 Hats,” and then the financial and commercial decision as to where and how the resulting motor car should be made. Special aero engine power units, often supplied with the official seals of secrecy still upon them, to be fitted and adapted, constant comings and goings from and to the many subcontractors, “chasing things along” to ensure the steady and unhurried growth of the project, often with a target date in mind, dictated by the seasonal condition of the beach or other natural course on which the attempt was to be made. The exquisite joy of “screwing together” all the bits with the sure knowledge that each is the very best that can be produced—it is given to few men to shine in this fascinating branch of human endeavour. Then there was the preparation for the journey to far-distant lands, the crates of spares, the companionship with the engine specialists, the tyre specialists and all the other members of the team of experts that always accompanied the car. Then came the trial runs at the selected venue, the knowledge (kept very, very quiet) as to whether there was a lot or nothing in hand, and finally, after nights spent working or sleeping at the car’s side, the attempt itself.
Glancing over some old books for “atmosphere” for this article, the writer came across British Sports and Sportsmen, published by Country Life, and in it a picture of Leo Villa having just unplugged the starter leads from “Bluebird” at Verneuk Pan in 1929. He is glancing up at Sir Malcolm, just before the “off,” and what is going through their minds in those last ghastly moments one can but conjecture.
Unfortunately, as this article is being written, Leo is busy at Samlesbury preparing the new boat for the Ullswater attempt, and it has not been possible to ask him for his impressions. Donald Campbell very kindly “deputised” for him, with his memory that his father used to say that at such moments Villa was “worth his weight in gold.”
That sort of experience was, and still is, Leo Villa’s many times over, and one cannot but envy him his memories looking back over those years of service with the Campbell family. In spite of all the “headaches” be envies himself too, and although “the Guv’nor” is now passed from human sight, much, if not all, of his spirit continues in Donald, with whom Villa now works just as closely and happily—but of that more anon.
Sir Malcolm himself has left us some record of Leo’s early years. He started his business career as a page-boy at Romano’s, where his father was the head wine-waiter, but he fell out with the other page-boys and the final crisis arose over the small matter of an inkpot that, under Leo’s pilotage, somehow emptied itself over the hall-porter’s head. Thus was proved again the unwisdom of fathers making their sons “go into the business” if the offspring really longs to play with motor cars. Accent on the “really.”
In Leo’s case it was very real, that longing, and through the kind offices of an uncle, he was placed on trial with Jules Foresti, who then handled the Gregoire agency. So successfully did young Leo go about the business of the motor cars he loved, that he was soon riding-mechanic to Foresti in the Targa Florio, and with no disrespect to Foresti’s driving, anyone who could stand that twice must have been jolly keen! After that he spent some time with Ballot, accompanying Foresti in many races, and finally came over to deliver two cars to Sir Malcolm and stayed with him, first on a seasonal and then on a full-time basis, and his activities flowed naturally from cars to motor boats when Sir Malcolm, and then Donald, pursued the latter aspect of speed.
Although today Leo is not young in terms of years, in spirit he still retains the same outlook as he did in his youth. When Donald first took to high speed on water, with very little prior experience (a brave thing to do by any standards), there were certain aspects of the handling of the old propeller-driven “Bluebird” that worried him above a certain speed. The boat did not behave as the experts had said it would, but Donald, modestly deferring to their greater knowledge of the subject, was at first prepared to think that his impressions were wrong, because you obviously can’t gain anything but fleeting impressions at “150 plus.” Nevertheless, as his experience grew, his confidence grew too, and he knew that his impressions were right and that something odd was happening; he voiced his views privately to Villa. At once Leo volunteered to go for a run with Donald to observe the instruments and feel the thing for himself, but as the boat was a single-seater he had perforce to be accommodated by removing the starboard inspection hatch. It cannot have been a comfortable ride. It was a very brave thing to do. It was “typically Villa.”
Oddly enough, as the writer was typing these words, Donald Campbell appeared on Television in “Sportsview,” and now it is public knowledge that another attempt is to be made. As a climax to Villa’s career and Donald’s pluck, may God be with their venture.
During the course of the preparations for this new attempt, the writer well recalls being shown photographs of some of the model tests, and Leo Villa’s beam of pride over the top of his spectacles at being on the job again. He also recalls seeing the wind tunnel being prepared up at Kensington, Donald in his shirt sleeves. refusing to break off even for a drink, so keen was he to press on with the job. If enthusiasm can bring that record back from America it’s here already, and of one thing we may be sure, that Leo will see that his “charge” is properly provided for on the preparation side.
There is something of the spirit of the New Elizabethan Age in this thing. Going back to motor cars, Leo’s experience, of course, stretches right back into the “golden age” of Grand Prix racing, into and through “the doldrums,” the sports-car revival of the late ‘twenties, and must be nearly unique, especially as during most of those years Sir Malcolm was able to provide himself with the best cars that were available to the private owner—Bugatti, Delage. Sunbeam and Mercedes, chiefly. Today, thanks to the Pomeroy writings, the Delage, in particular, is well known, but imagine the joy of “opening up” that classic engine for the first time outside the factory racing-shop ! Leo must look back over the subsequent history of that particular car with much fatherly pride, as it passed through the hands of Thomas, Ramponi and others. Verily, if he had time for pipe dreams they would be legion. Then, too, imagine the satisfaction of taking over a real “works” Mercedes for the T.T. in 1930, an honour that seems lost now, but remember that at that time Mercedes were right at the top of the tree in sports-car racing, and there was no “proper” G.P. racing in those days. (Incidentally, it is interesting that on this point most modern enthusiasts, if asked who was the first British driver to be asked to drive for Mercedes, would say Richard Seaman, but surely the answer is Raymond Mays?)
Most of the older readers of Motor Sport will be familiar with Sir Malcolm Campbell’s book “My Thirty Years of Speed,” but for the benefit of the post-war enthusiasts, the following brief quotation may set the scene for a typical pre-race period of those days for Leo Villa. Sir Malcolm writes, “When we were out on the circuit, his (Caracciola’s) Mercedes showed much greater pace. and I could not get near the lap times that he was able to put up. Villa and the mechanics worked all night after our first practice, trying to gain more speed, but when I took the car out the next morning, it was still so much slower than Caracciola’s that we grew desperate. I drove as hard as I was able, but the car was always many seconds behind the German driver’s times. Again we worked all night on the car, but there was no improvement when I turned out next morning, starting the last day of practice. After one lap I came in and picked up Villa, I wanted him to come round with me and watch the behaviour of the machine. This time I drove just as fast as I knew how to send the car over the circuit and, for the only time that I can remember, I deliberately took risks. While I knew that Caracciola had greater experience in road-racing, I could not believe that his superiority was as great as his lap speeds suggested. When I started with Villa, it was with the intention of proving either that the German driver was altogether more skilful, or that my machine was not so fast as the one he was using. After that ride, Villa admitted that he had been badly scared, for the first time that he had ever travelled with me. When we came in, the speed that we had recorded was still nowhere near Caracciola’s, so I asked him to take me round the course in my car. This he willingly did, and, sitting beside him. it seemed that his driving methods were very like my own. He assured me that the car was satisfactory, but suggested that its performance might be improved if a lower gear were fitted, and we carried out his suggestion … On Friday, the machines went before the officials for scrutineering and only then did the mystery become solved. All three Mercedes in the team were supercharged, and the scrutineers found that by some error, the German driver’s machine had a larger blower. …”
One is accustomed to drivers of racing cars facing risks with their eyes open, for it is part of their trade, and one is accustomed to mechanics whose job is the car and its preparation without risk of bodily harm, but one would be hard put to it to find a better example of someone prepared to do that and face the risks in the actual event than Leo Villa. Today, at 56, Leo is literally 56 years young, and in spite of being able to look back on a period over which the Land Speed Record rose from 150 m.p.h. odd, through stages to over 300 (and he may yet see the water record at over 200 m.p.h.), he, with all that wisdom which experience can command, would still tip an inkpot over the head of anyone who suggested that Donald Was “sticking his neck out,” or attempting something foolhardy that was not worth while.
May the armchair and the carpet slippers never claim such a man as Leo Villa, for of such stuff is history made.—” A. B. C.”