In 1926, fifty years ago, the Honourable Victor Bruce became the first British driver to win the Monte Carlo Rally, using a British AC car to do so. So it seems appropriate to publish an interview with him in this issue of Motor Sport that carries a report of the 1976 Monte Carlo Rally.
Mark you, there is practically nothing in common between the Monte Carlo Rally as it was before the war and up to the 1950s and as it is now. Today’s rally-boys would not deign to use the standard and sub-performance motor cars that regularly competed in the rally in the old days even for taking their mothers out to tea or running down to the local. And they would no doubt be aghast at the thousands of miles of ‘ordinary roads that decided the Rally in the days when it was won or lost on these road sections, using starting points from all over Europe and even from desperately cold places behind the Iron Curtain. Yet, despite the complete absence of fast forest-stages and the pedestrian kinds of cars that competed, this was THE great winter adventure for a great many people, half-a-century and more ago. Yet, although it was first held in 1911 and had been won by such makes as Turcat Mercy, Berliet, Bignon and Renault, it was not until 1926 that a British car scored an outright victory.
The Hon. Victor Bruce had taken part in the Monte in 1925, starting from Glasgow, when his AC won its class in the Mont des Mules speed hill-climb that followed the Rally. Inspired, he persuaded the organising club to recognise John o’ Groats as a starting point in 1926, thereby making the British route as competitive as those on the Continent, for in those far-away times the roads from our northernmost vantage point were difficult in the summer and in January were apt to he heavily snowed-up and almost impassable to ordinary drivers. This time the AC and its British driver beat every other entrant. Naturally, great interest was caused thereby and from then on the Monte Carlo Rally was on the map so far as British adventurers were concerned.
It was to learn more about the Hon. Victor Bruce’s victory that I set out, in a jolly and pleasing-to-drive Chevette GL, to visit him. The weather met the occasion with appropriate conditions, for snow was falling and ice was reported on the A3. When Bruce came out of the Army in 1919 he joined the AC Company at Thames Dillon as a professional competition-driver, a position he occupied until 1932. The factory was very close to Brooklands and AC cars were taken there for testing, were raced there, and established some very notable light-car records on the Track. Bruce was involved in much of this, and he also raced a side-valve Aston Martin and an Alvis on odd occasions. He drove ACs in the MCC long-distance trials and then had the idea of taking part in the Monte Carlo Rally, then little-known in England. In the regularity-test at the finish of the 1925 road-section the AC’s steering collapsed. However, the navigator rose to the occasion, and ran alongside the car, kicking the front wheels straight! The AC, as recounted, then did well in the hill-climb; it was a two-seater and proudly carried a big white GB flag on its radiator cap. Having discovered what was involved; Bruce took a six-cylinder AC two-seater on the 1926 Rally. I asked if it was specially prepared. “No,” he replied, “it was quite stand*, and taken out of stock. We carried snow-chains but they were seldom required.” Starting from John o’ Groats involved taking A. K. Stevenson, as the responsible official front the RSAC, Up with them from Glasgow, to enable him to flag the AC off! As a result, Stevenson became an enthusiastic participant in many Monte Carlo Rallies from then on. Bruce’s passenger in 1926 was W. J. Brunell, the well-known photographer, who afterwards compiled an immense pictorial record of the AC’s part in winning the event, which I was privileged to see. Most of the pictures are of completely snow-covered roads, With nothing but the car and its intrepid crew in sight. Yet they look like two country gentlemen taking a brief winter outing, Bruce clad in a neat overcoat and wearing plus-fours and a soft cap—in contrast to later years, when many competitors put on Sidcot suits, flying helmets and vast gauntlets, even in closed cars. The AC had a hood and side-curtains and was the model then selling for £450 and being made at the rate of 42 a week. No spares were carried, and there was no heater.
Mark you, victory nearly eluded Bruce, because the back-axle packed up between the end of the road-section and the start of the hill-climb. Fortunately, an Italian mechanic was located who had some Citroen parts lying about and he adapted a Citroen crown-wheel to mate with the AC’s worm-wheel, so the situation was saved. On the return to England S. F. Edge, who ran the AC concern, was furious, because he felt he could not claim a 100% AC achievement! I asked the Hon. Victor Bruce if these cars were reliable and how their worm-drive stood up. He replied that he regarded the Rolls-Royce and the AC as the two most reliable cars available, at this period.
The AC’s great victory was publicised here and from then on the Monte Carlo Rally became largely a British institution. Bruce and his first wife (he re-married in 1941) went again in 1927, with an AC Six saloon, and Mrs. Bruce won the Coupe des Dames and her class in the hill-climb, coming in sixth overall, from John o’ Groats. After which, to show that they liked motoring, the pair went off immediately on an RAC-observed tour of Italy, Spain, North Africa and back through France, a distance of 5,000 miles, during which the starter was operated 620 times and the screen-wiper was kept in use for a total of 12 hours. There was a delay at the frontier in Portugal, because the RAC had mistakenly issued the visa for Poland. . .
Robert Beer of the Sketch had accompanied them on the 1927 Rally and another marathon the Bruces undertook was to drive an AC to inaccessible Petsamo, in Finland. Previous to this there had been other stunts undertaken for AC, such as climbing the steps at CloveIly, in Devon, with standard cars, Bruce going up quite rapidly in an aluminium-bodied sports model, and ascending Snowdon, up the railway track, Bruce getting to the summit with an AC Six, Brownsort stopping at the top station with a four-cylinder AC. There were also many RAC-observed runs and then, in 1927, Bruce went to MontIhery and set up an endurance run of 15,000 miles in ten days. This time there was only partial works support and to economise on time-keepers’ fees they went in December, when the track was icebound. Yet after 12 hours the six-cylinder AC had averaged 79 m.p.h. Then the weather worsened and Bruce had the car roll over on top of him. The windscreen was shattered and the steering-column was pushed down some three inches. But after he had been extracted they continued, a great many World and class records being broken, with the AC finishing at lap speeds of up to 86 m.p.h. This splendid performance had by now been noticed at Thames Ditton and J. A. Joyce was hastily sent out to help with the driving. Bruce knew all the AC racing drivers—Brownsort, Noble, Kaye Don, Davis, Gillett and Joyce. He rates Joyce, who afterwards joined the Henly organisation, as the best of them. Extra earnings came from bonus money paid for successful record attacks, and Bruce once got a fee from the makers of a
well-known bedtime beverage, of which he actually had a strong dislike!
Another long-distance run he undertook was to drive a Jowett Kestrel saloon for 72 hours at Montlhery, non-stop, refuelling it at walking pace from a 100-gallon trailer it towed. He and his wife did that in 1933, for the Jowett brothers. They covered 2,772 miles, at an average of 38.54 m.p.h., and were greeted on their return by the Mayor and Mayoress of Bradford. In 1922 the Hon. Victor Bruce had been associated with Prof. A. M. Low in the building of an all-enclosed motorcycle with an in-line, air-cooled, fourcylinder, two-stroke engine, of which he still has the pattern for casting the cylinder assembly. Later he started a flight-refuelling scheme, based at Portsmouth, separate from that devised by Sir Alan Cobham, the “tanker” being a Bristol Fighter biplane. He then opened an experimental workshop at Feltham and after the war was ahead of his time with his Silent Transport Ltd., of Woking, which converted popular cars and commercial vehicles to electric propulsion. The idea was to defeat the ban on the “basic” petrol-ration. Bruce used an Opel saloon, which had a range of 40 miles, at a 30-m.p.h. cruising speed, the conversion costing about £350. This Opel was eventually sold to a neighbour, and it was thought proper to inform him that towards the end of its range it might come to an involuntary stop but, after a brief recuperation, would continue. “Not to worry”, was the retort, “I only want it to go to and from the local.”
Reverting to the Hon. Victor Bruce’s competition activities, he drove an AC Six in the 1927 Essex MC Six Hours Sports Car Race at Brooklands, coming in eighth—I was shown the finishing plaque. Contemporary reports say how well the AC ran. In fact, a valve had holed a piston and it completed much of the race on five cylinders, vibration being reduced providing a steady 80 m.p.h. was maintained. . . Bruce was still using an AC as his personal car in 1941. It was followed by a Rover, and today he has an Austin 1100. It is nice to be able to record that he received an invitation from Prince Rainier to attend a Monte Carlo celebration in 1961, but sad that ill-health prevented acceptance.—W.B.
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