Veteran to classic: ERAs in Thailand

Tribute to Romulus

Readers of this magazine should not need much introduction to the racing career of the late Prince Birabongse, who died in 1986. He raced under the pseudonym of “B Bira”, and together with his cousin and sponsor Prince Chula Chakrabongse, he cut a considerable dash through European society as well as European race tracks.

During the mid-1930s Bira became a hero to the Siamese people. He was arguably the only international sportsman produced by his country, and the demand to see him was sufficient for his cousin to arrange a demonstration run in Bangkok. Bira’s favourite car, ERA 2RB (nicknamed Romulus), was shipped out to Bangkok and formed an exhibit in Prince Chula’s splendid riverside palace.

Siam (now Thailand) has always enjoyed close links with Britain. Its code of law, banking system, railways, military forces and police are all run on British principles, and the Thai people even drive on the left in right-hand drive cars. King Prajadhipok was the first monarch to have gone to Eton, and many of the royal family studied in Britain (including Prince Chula who went to Harrow in 1923). Some of the first cars in Thailand were shipped out at the order of the then Queen Mother, Queen Saowabha, whose great hobby was choosing vehicles for her family!

The present king of Thailand, Bhumibol, celebrated his 60th birthday on December 5 last year, and in his honour it was intended to have Romulus repeat history by having it drive him over the very route around Bangkok used by Bira 50 years earlier. Unfortunately the necessary army control could not be made available until January 9 this year, but a month’s delay did not deter anybody’s enthusiasm.

Romulus was not alone, for various other cars driven by Bira or associated with him were also present. The main instigators of this spectacle were Prince Chula’s daughter Narisa, who is also responsible for Romulus’ welfare, together with Bill Morris (he of the VSCC and ERA Hanuman fame). Ably assisted by John Ure, they assembled a substantial grid of bolides. These were flown to Bangkok courtesy of Thai Airways International (not all at once, I hasten to add)).

The line-up consisted of the following cars: ERA R5B (Remus), to be driven by Ludovic Lindsay; Hanuman with Bill Morris; the ex-Rolt Delage ERA for Tony Stephens; Lord Raglan’s Bugatti T51 (which had been exhibited by its sponsor the Montien Hotel) for his works driver Sir John Venables-Llewellyn; Rodney Felton’s Alfa Romeo (being run on its doughnut-like 16in wheels and tyres); an MG KN single-seater (a twin-cam headed 6-cylinder) for Roger Sweet; and the very venerable ex-Whitney Straight, ex-Bira Maserati 8CM No 3011, which was driven by its new owner Peter Giddings.

This last car was a cause for some concern, as it had previously suffered a terrible attack of “blower rot” whereby the supercharger casing was eaten away by the action of alcohol (methanol) on it. Giddings was hoping this had been fixed prior to leaving London!

Apart trom this British contingent, a complementary selection of cars was flown up from Australia. There was a trio of Bugatti GP cars — T51 driven by Max Lane, T35B for John Fitzpatrick and T35C for Stuart Saunders. Peter Brady had his ex-Bira MGK3, Lou Molina his rapid MGTB special and John Gold his BMW 328.

The enthusiastic Art Valdez brought his Bugatti T39 over. He was on beaded-edge tyres and the car looked very vintage — it had been in Australia for nearly sixty years!

The Royal Thai Army very kindly hosted a lunch for everybody, and then all the cars were driven out to the open square for the sprint. They lined up under a statue of King Chulalongkom (Narisa’s great grandfather) whilst Romulus was warmed up for the opening run round the course.

At last racing cars were heard in Bangkok as the timed sprint started. There was plenty of noise and smells as they went off in pairs; or at least they tried to — the starter got in the way of the lights!

Felton seemed to know what was required, and got it right on both his runs. Lindsay did a couple of quick runs, as did Bill Morris, but Llewellyn was very quick on his first try, and could not see the lights on his second! Lanes T51 looked and sounded great, and so did the Valdez T39, even though it had caught fire in front of the royal stand and given the occupants a close-up of what drivers fear the most.

During the 1937 demonstration Prince Chula had hosted a ball at his palace on the river, and Narisa did exactly the same thing, in the same place, after the sprint. Romulus, Hanuman and 3011 were all on show in a special army-built pagoda which was lit up and looking very peaceful!

Although the White Mouse cars were painted “Bira blue” initially, the yellow wheels and chassis which were added created the Thai national racing colours. Yellow and blue were, therefore, the theme for this ball. The ladies all made a considerable effort to sport yellow and blue dresses, and there was a preponderance of blue bow ties for the men—some of which even had little white mice insignia on them!

This was a lavish affair with fireworks, five-star food and drink, and an excellent display of Thai dancers including “Hanuman” in national dress. This latter dancer was very pleased to meet the real ERA’s driver on the dance floor!

The Press turn out was quite amazing, and the sprint was televised live throughout the nation! The Sunday newspapers also gave the event plenty of coverage, with pictures of “Romulus” very prominent. Mind you that is hardly surprising, as this car is considered more of a spirit than a machine in this predominantly Buddhist country.

Sunday evening saw a gathering of all the cars and drivers as guests at the British Embassy. It was quite a sight, with a statue of Queen Victoria in the foreground and the American and Italian Ambassadors mixing in the crowd. Even the local Pravda representative turned up and let on about one or two old cars he knows of in Russia The Australian Ambassador put on a drinks party in the same vein the following night , and the final evening in Bangkok was spent on