S. C. H. Davis
With the death of S.C.H. Davis from a heart-attack at his home in Guildford, at the age of a day short of 94, the motoring world has lost one of its most friendly, popular and accomplished characters and motoring sport one of the greatest all-rounders of all time, apart from which Sammy (“Sammy” was the nickname that stuck and best suited him) Davis was a prolific motoring writer, illustrator and cartoonist.
Sydney Charles Houghton Davis was born in January, 1887 and went to Westminster School where he dreamed of becoming a racing driver, and in 1903 he joined the Slade Art-School. The new Motor Industry was seen as a stepping-stone to his motor-racing ambitions and in 1906 he was apprenticed to the Daimler Company at Coventry, where he was thrilled to be associated in however humble a capacity with the big Edwardian Daimler racing cars. Having worked as a draughtsman at “The Daimler”, Davis was able to go to The Automobile Engineer in 1912 as an illustrator. Its eccentric Editor encouraged him in his racing ambitions with visits abroad, in a friction-drive Pilot car, to watch the great Continental motor races.
During the First World War Davis served in the RNAS and, after being invalided out, was sent to assist his old motorcycling friend W.O. Bentley on development of the BR 1 and 2 rotary aero-engines. After the Armistice Sammy went back to The Autocar, to which he had been transferred by Iliffe’s before hostilities broke out, and he soon became that pioneer weekly journal’s Sports Editor. He first did all manner of tasks, including writing the first-ever road-test report of the then new 3-litre Bentley, which he found a not altogether satisfactory car at the time. From then on, this remarkable man, with a journalistic flair all of his own, achieved his long-founded ambitions in the competition field of motoring. He was to become closely associated with all facets of the game. He had a son, Colin, by his first wife, who also took up motor racing.
There were Sammy Davis’ record-breaking runs in AC and Aston-Martin cars at Brooklands, the three annual MCC reliability trials to compete in, in all manner of cars from primitive light-cars, to such unlikely ones as the low-slung “Brooklands” Riley Nine and long-wheelbase FWD Alvis. “S.C.H.D.” also made a name for himself in racing, driving for Bentley, Alvis, Riley, Lea-Francis, Sunbeam and Singer, at Le Mans, in the Ulster TTs, at Phoenix Park, and in the Shelsley Walsh hill-climbs, etc. His successes included second place at Le Mans in 1925, with Chassagne, in a stricken twin-cam 3-litre Sunbeam, a Formula-win in an Essex MC Six Hours Sports Car Race with a 12/50 Alvis, his great 1927 Le Mans victory, with Dr. Benjafield, in a 3-litre Bentley badly damaged in the now-legendary White House accident (after “Sammy” had lost the 1926 race within a few miles of winning), second place with the difficult 6 1/2-litre Bentley, a car taken over at very short notice, in the 1929 BRDC 500-Mile Race shared with Clive Dunfee and winning that race the following year in an Ulster Austin 7 shared with the Earl of March (now the Duke of Richmond and Gordon). In addition, Davis shared 4 1/2-litre and 6 1/2-litre Speed Six Bentleys in other races, netting more second places, as he did with a Lea-Francis in Ireland. Then, there being nothing pompous about Sammy, in between some racing engagements Davis once drove to and from the South of France, in winter, in an ordinary 1926 Austin 7 Chummy, to prove in The Autocar that the new race of baby cars could get there very inexpensively, if one couldn’t make the annual escape from England in the Blue Train or a Rolls-Royce. . . .
That was by no means all, because Sammy Davis returned to record-breaking with Austin 7 and, at Monthlery, with Gwenda Stewart’s fierce and temperamental Morgan 3-wheeler. He drove in short races at Brooklands, suffering a nasty crash there in 1931 with a low-chassis 4 1/2-litre Invicta, the subsequent spell in hospital giving Sammy his opportunity to write his first book, the now much-coveted autobiographical “Motor Racing”. He also took part in many Monte Carlo Rallies in cars such as “Double Six” Daimler, Armstrong Siddeley, Railton, Wolseley, Sunbeam Talbot and six-cylinder Daimler and the tough Alpine Trial with a Siddeley Special. He drove in Alan Hess’ team of Austin 16s after the war in a quick round-Europe dash (he was presented with his car afterwards, but The Autocar made him give it back), in 1950 he took a Mk. VI Bentley on the Rallye Gastronomique and as a Founder of the Veteran Car Club, took part in the Brighton Run in a very early 3 1/2 h.p. Benz and his famous 1897 Leon-Bollee tricar “Beelzebub”, once pushing the latter to the finish after an irreparable mechanical mishap, to the detriment of his leg injured in the Brooklands crash.
As well as that accident and the one at Le Mans, Sammy had another close call when his Singer broke a steering-connection and ended up on top of another of the Singer team cars, in the 1935 TT, throwing him onto the road. These innumerable competition appearances apart, Sammy tested racing cars for his paper that ranged from the tricky 350 h.p. V12 Sunbeam to R-type MG, MG Magnette, and Alta., etc. He knew everyone in the game and wrote with an impish sense of humour about them, put them into his cartoons, yet had time to serve on all manner of important committees, wielding a very important and Ambassadorial influence on the proper running of the Sport he loved. I doubt if an Obituary to him will recall all the important functions with which Sammy Davis was associated, they were so many and diverse. But I do know he attained his Brooklands Track Gold Star in 1930, along with Birkin and Kaye Don, and his BARC 120 m.p.h. badge in 1929, with the big Bentley. He held, of course, high office in many Clubs and organisations, whose members will sadly mourn his passing. He may not have been a Grand Prix driver, although he rode mechanic to Zborowski in the 1924 French GP at Lyons, in the dangerously-unsuitable 2-litre Miller, and drove a 1 1/2-litre s/c Bugatti in the 1927 British GP, after practising on 2-litre and 2.3-litre Bugattis.
In World War II Davis again served with distinction, and high rank, treating his personal Jeep as he had done his competition cars, which involved unfurling the correct flags as frontiers were crossed etc., for Sammy had a magnificent sense of occasion. He was quite fittingly the first British (REME) officer to enter Le Mans when it was liberated at the end of hostilities and there is a street there named after this remarkable and inimitable man — as Peter Garnier reminds us, Davis was then 56, he was Mentioned in Dispatches. Along the years Davis continued to work for The Autocar and to write many books on all manner of motoring subjects, including one on the life of John Cobb and another about girl-racing-drivers. He virtually invented expert pit-work, doing this for top teams after his retirement from racing, and he acted as an official on innumerable occasions at Brooklands and elsewhere. Sammy Davis was ever ready to help young people who wanted to race or to become motoring writers. He may appear, to those who were not fortunate enough to know him, to have reached senility — quite incorrect, for up to the time of his unhappy death he was painting, writing, and thinking continually about cars and motoring racing.
Along the years Davis’ road cars included his ABC “Grandpa”, a Bertelli Aston Martin, the 1 1/2-litre Invicta saloon given to him by Invicta’s following his 1931 accident and in recent days his much-loved Austin Healey Sprite, he and his wife Susie being 100% open-car advocates.
I will end by recalling the way Davis is remembered personally. As a boy I was frequently asking racing questions of The Autocar, thrilled to receive replies signed by a real racing driver — those magic initials “S.C.H.D.”; and I remember too how helpful his then-secretary was — she told me how, in his early days, Davis was so dedicated to being with racing cars that he appeared untidily dressed to office colleagues and she once just stopped this whimsical, pipe-smoking Sports Editor from going to some important function wearing only one trousers-spat . . . That was “Casque” of The Autocar, whom we all loved (his riding mechanic in sports-car races was “Caput” — Mr. Head of the editorial staff). I looked out for Sammy on every VCC Brighton Run, regarding him as my personal hero and only last year it was such a pleasure to sit opposite him and Susie at the Brooklands Society’s Re-Union lunch at the old Track. If I wasn’t myself, I can think of no-one I would rather have been. Sammy Davis was such a great all-rounder — “Bentley Boy”, journalist, rally-driver, writer and friend of so many in our world, with time also for strangers, and he knew the great pioneers, from Gabriel, and Jarrott onwards. Why, in those MCC trials alone he drove McKenzie, ABC, Deemster, Ruston-Hornsby, Palladium, 11 h.p. Riley, Waverley, Wolseley Ten, 12/25 Humber, 3-litre Invicta, Austin 7, and Lagonda, apart from the makes aforementioned, winning many Gold Medals, and before that Davis had driven a Cummicar and I think a Bedelia in Six Days Trials. How fascinating!
We are mourning as many of the old-timers these days, of whom Sammy Davis outlived almost all. His end was tragic, his wife Susan in hospital and a fire starting after his fall, which damaged his flat, a sad end, for a man so active all his days. Yet I am sure S.C.H.D. met even this cruel quirk of fate with a quiet smile and a mythological explanation. — W.B.
[A memorial service for S.C.H. Davis was held on February 25th at St. Paul’s Church, Wilton Place, Knightsbridge at which the address was given by His Grace the Duke of Richmond and Gordon.]