Humfrey Symons - motoring adventurer

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He was the ‘Times’ motoring correspondent when his eye for PR and a nose for a challenge began to enlarge his horizons. Bill Boddy follows the trail of a journalist with a wanderlust.

That gentleman journalist, the late Humfrey E Symons, tall, balding, smartly dressed, could certainly be termed a motor-adventurer. He was Sports Editor of The Motor and had a part in other motor journals before becoming Motoring Correspondent to The Times in 1933. It opened many doors to strenuous competition and eventful publicity undertakings.

Apart from any fun and games Symons had in minor events, the first real adventures began in 1929, when he, Leo Cuzons and J A Joyce took a Sunbeam Twenty on the epic winter Monte Carlo Rally, which started from obscure places in Europe. This lavishly equipped car started from John O’Groats.

Ice and snow were so bad that the 319 miles to Glasgow took 11 hours, Folkstone 23. By Paris they were ahead of the Northern European competitors. A meal was grabbed at Maxim’s, scruffy and unshaven among the dinner jackets. After three nights, they were the only ones from JOG to reach the finish on time.

In 1930 Symons went with Andy Noland and Major Johnstone, again in a Sunbeam. It was easier this year but in fog near Lyon the screen refused to open and Symons got lost in a farmyard. They made it eventually. It was a good year for Britain; Symons was first in the `Confore class, Pass its GP d’Honneur, and Donald Healey’s Triumph Super Seven was best-placed British car (seventh).

The next year Symons crewed with Bertie Browning and Lionel Martin, again from JoG. Snow and gales greeted them after the ‘off’. It was hard going, but they made it.

In 1932 Symons went from Umea, 100 miles south of the Arctic Circle . His 20hp Sunbeam was rigged out to try for the `Confore prize, which meant first finishing the road rally on time. Humfrey had shared a Talbot in the Alpine Trial with Ganard, so they paired up again. I recall Symons, then writing car instruction books as a side-task, being at Brooldands, calmness personified as he plied this dull task while waiting for a call to say whether or not the Alpine was ‘on’. I would have been a bundle of nerves. Not Humfrey. “Yes, it’s on”, he said as he went to drive to get the car.

First, there was the distance to Umea; they reached Stockholm, 325 miles, in a day, over ice to dine with Lord de Clifford. More ditchings, then Umea was reached in twilight on the third day. Symons scribbled his story for The Motor in his bedroom while Garrard prepared the Talbot. It started at 3.45am, long after Chiron’s 4.9 Bugatti had left. The Sunbeam soon lost Clifford’s Lagonda, able to do 50mph on ice on its Dunlop Trackgrips’. After adventures, a chain breaking loose a headlamp, a leaking radiator and fun-loving ‘Bummer’ Scott as one of the crew, they made it, winning the the GP de Confort Invited to dine with Earl Howe, Symons slept through the meal!

For 1933, a Sunbeam Speed 20 was used, readied at short notice and allegedly with a specially-made pillarless saloon body. Racing-driver Penn-Hughes was co-driver, George Hill an effective mechanic. Starting from Bucharest, it was so cold at Falkenau “the radiator water froze as it touched the ground”; nightly draining being necessary as pre-war anti freeze was distrusted. Apparently the oil was so congealed the engine could not be cranked.

It was snow without end and the gearbox seized. They transferred to the Jassy start but 21 miles out a snowdrift broke the differential. The car was, with difficulty, railed home, Symons taking the Orient Express to Monte Carlo to do The Motor’s report.

So it went on. In ’34 it was decided to recce the longest, hardest route, from Athens, which earned most marks. So de Clifford, Symons, and Jack Ridley set off in a 4.1/2-litre Lagonda tourer. An unseen kerb-stone ripped off the petrol tank and later logs damaged the sump. Finally, a trench and snow in Yugoslavia sent them home by train, the car freighted for £8 on the Orient Express.

For the actual rally, Symons thought Athens too much of a gamble and went from Bucharest in a Terraplane saloon, with skis for its front wheels. The car was damaged in a traffic accident going out but was rebuilt, only to retire after the diff broke up. In 1935 he tried a supercharged N-type MG Magnette, but was placed only 96th after the steering failed.

For 1936 Wolseleys, produced a Super Six. From Athens it lost not a mark, and took top prize and in the Confort contest. Symons also did the RAC Rally from 1933-38, as well as many others, but it was even before this that the real adventures began. Because in 1934, able with his Times associations to undertake impressive publicity runs, Symons took a new Morris 10/4 on a marathon. His companion was Leslie Seyd, a well-known competition amateur with anything from Ulster A7 to 2.3 Bugatti. Symons circled Eros in Piccadilly Circus as the prelude to the adventure, when Seyd, unbriefed, asked “Where are we going?” “To Timbuctoo” replied Humfrey…

It was a 5000-mile return trip, mostly over the Sahara, with long diggings-out The outward run was scheduled for 100 hours but was completed in 89, for the 2835 miles, with stops for photography. Symons said the sump was drained at 1792 miles, using a quart of oil, and the Sahara crossing was done without water replenishment. The little Morris was standard except for a ten-gallon under-bonnet fuel tank, ditto water tank, detachable planks instead of running boards and two wire and bamboo ladders, for climbing out of soft sand. They had air and water thermometers, an Ekco radio, two spades, a compass and a barometer.

On the best day 553 miles were accomplished, a 35.6mph running average; on others they crawled at 8mph and got very lost, although by then fuel dumps for the trans-Sahara buses and airline markers existed. Timbuctoo was reached in seven days, the Series II Morris suffering only a cracked rubber radiator connection, a bent track-rod, and two broken lamp bulbs. The first puncture was on the return route.

Later that year Symons drove a Morris 25 from England to Kano in Nigeria in a week, showing this big saloon, the least expensive of its kind at £280 for the deluxe version, could halve the time by train and boat and equal the fastest airline while reducing the rail fare of £200 to under £90. Three up, the Morris weighed 3.5 tons. It was fuelled by Shell, used Duckham’s oil at 3000mpg, and put nearly 500 miles in each day, in spite of again getting lost in the desert and ploughing through the sand, from which it often had to be dug out. Little water was consumed, petrol used at 12-15 mpg. Rocks and sand were frequent hazards, rope ladders then being utilised. An extra 20-gallon petrol tank and 15 gallon water container occupied the boot, and the back seat was replaced by a single seat for luggage space. When the Morris returned on New Year’s Day 1936 The Autocar’s H S Linfield scooped a test with it.

By 1937 Symons had another idea. He decided to prove that apart from the Rolls-Royce Phantom III being excellent for pottering in posh places, it could take more serious motoring, So he drove one from England to Nairobi. The journey was accomplished, the tyres said to be almost unmarked, only a pint of water needed at the end of the desert crossing. But I believe that when the Royce returned to Derby and was stripped down, the engine was full of sand, the tyres worn out, and evidence suggested that, all told, much topping-up of coolant had been necessary.

Symons’ most difficult task was attempting to break the London-Cape Town record with an 18/85hp Wolseley, in 1939. He took Bertie Browning, who had so sportingly stood down from the 1934 Monte Carlo Rally when, snow being sparse, Lord de Clifford wanted fast drivers to keep his 4.1/2-litre Lagonda at close to its maximum speed on dry going, and felt that neither Browning nor Tom Moore, the then owner of Motor Sport, were quite up to this. For a time neither gave way to the ploy of bringing race driver Charles Brackenbury out on the Orient Express, Moore no doubt thinking of his report for his paper, but in the end Bertie gave way and returned home, the Lagonda having room only for three.

All went well on the Cape run until Browning lost the car on a narrow bridge over the river Gada between Tapili and Niagara. It broke through the crude wooden fence and dived thirty feet into the crocodile-infested water. Symons, who was sleeping, awoke to find the car on its side, almost submerged. He got out through a window and pulled Browning out, holding his hand as they swam ashore. Browning practically had an instant nervous breakdown. The Wolseley was retrieved and repaired and continued. But it was the end of the record attempts. It had covered 10,300 miles in 31 days, 22 hours. This was described as the last of the sensational pre-war drives.

During the war Symons spent some time in the dangerous calling of spotter on observation balloons. Sadly, he was lost on the return from Dunkirk.

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