Veteran to classic -- Count Trossi

Flying Count

Followers of Grand Prix racing will know that Count Felice Trossi was a successful driver of 8C, Monza, and P3 monoposto Alfa Romeos and of Maserati cars before the Nazi war and a successful driver in the Tipo 158 Alfa Romeo team after peace had broken out. As an engineer Trossi built the ill-fated, but advanced, 16-cylinder radial-engined FWD Trossi Special GP car in 1935. His other loves included speed-boats and flying.

The latter interest is the subject of some notes given to me by the late Philip Gordon-Marshall. He recalls that Count Trossi had a DH Leopard Moth which he wrecked when trying to land on a short jetty at Genoa, where he was attending an official function of some sort, as there was no suitable aerodrome nearby. Undeterred, Trossi teamed up with his friend Gino Rovere, the Maserati exponent, and together they bought a Gipsy Major-engined Miles Whitney Straight side-by-side two-seater, G-AFCN, painted in Italian red, from Whitney Straight, with whom Trossi had fought a duel in the 1934 Vichy GP, his monoposto Alfa Romeo beating the American’s Maserati by five seconds.

Whitney Straight was encouraging flying clubs and building up an aeroplane business, with which Gordon-Marshall was associated; Straight, of course, went on to become Deputy Chairman of BOAC. The Trossi/Rovere aeroplane was used in Italy on a carnet, to circumnavigate import restrictions prevailing at that time. G-M used to fly it between England and Italy for them. He recalled flying the new aeroplane on December 17th, 1937, with Trossi as co-pilot, from Heston, heading for Lausanne, in foul weather. With the Count peering out of an open window and shouting instructions, they managed to reach Le Bourget and spent the night in Paris (Trossi was a marvellous and generous host). Next morning they tried to get to Lausanne but visibility deteriorated and for nearly three hours they navigated as best they could, Trossi naming railway stations seen from zero height. He was optimistic they were making progress but in the end, sans radio, they were obliged to return to Le Bourget, landing in extremely limited visibility. They were summonsed to the Control Tower to explain such rash conduct. So, with much laughter, Trossi rushed off, to avoid the interview, saying he would meet G-M later, in Paris.

The weather failed to improve, so the aeroplane was left at Le Bourget, the Count boarding a train for Italy, G-M getting back to England by train and boat. The following February Rovere, whose great ambition was to beat Trossi at motor racing, was in England and he and G-M flew to Le Bourget in a Lockheed Electra to collect the Miles Whitney Straight and fly it to Italy. They had a pleasant flight to Nice, landing at Lyons on the way, G-M letting Rovere navigate without helping him, to make him concentrate and learn. He was an inexperienced but very keen pilot. At Nice they were met by Rovere’s wife, who had driven from Turin in a new Lancia Aprilia. G-M was allowed to borrow this to visit friends at Beaulieu. Next day they flew to Turin via Genoa, where G-M gave flights to Rovere’s friends before they continued to Masazza, where they met Count Trossi, who lived in a splendid palace at Biella. G-M then flew back to Turin, following the autostrada (along which Trossi had once cruised at over 100 mph in his Alfa Romeo while G-M flew a hundred feet behind in the Miles Whitney Straight, getting a lead for Milan). This time it was home by the Rome express to Paris and an Imperial Airways Short Scylla to Croydon.

Gordon-Marshall also recalled the attractive office suite at 30 Conduit Street, W1, with a pleasant little drinking club beneath, from where the Hon Brian Lewis (Lord Essendon) ran his pre-war aviation interests, Tim Rose-Richards, the Earl of March and John Cobb among the visitors. He remembers Trossi and Rovere (who also raced here, and who was living with his wife and daughter at Bordighera when G-M last saw him) as “great friends and joyous company.”

Alas, Rovere was imprisoned by the Italians during the war, until released by the Allies, and Trossi died of cancer in a Milan clinic in 1949. The Miles Whitney Straight was impressed in October 1939 and scrapped in 1943.

Another facet of those days which G-M recalled was occasionally flying the blackpainted DH Gipsy Moth-2 owned by Selfridge’s, which had the discreet legend on its sides “Selfridge’s Aviation Bureau,” that store maintaining a small department devoted to private flying at their Oxford Street branch. Gordon Selfridge, Jnr was an enthusiastic pilot and part of Brian Lewis’s aviation business, but this Moth was usually flown by aerobatic expert Christopher Clarkson, at flying displays; it was equipped for inverted flying. Gordon Marshall was found dead in his drive beside his well-liked VW Beetle in a snowstorm some years ago. The end of an era, one might say. — WB