When a Belfast entrepreneur proposed a new venue for a British street race, sportscar makers saw an opportunity to boost sales. Bill Boddy profiles the first ARDS tourist trophy
If the Brooklands sportscar races, from three to 24 hours gave a useful yardstick for those thinking of buying a car of this kind, how much more so did the series of TT races in Ireland, from 1928 to 1936, as well as representing exceedingly good sport for spectators and drivers? Of these, the first race seems the most memorable…
It was the idea of Harry Ferguson, an enthusiast running a Gordon England Brooklands Super Sports Austin 7, who started a garage business in Belfast and became a multi-millionaire after winning a legal fight with Ford over tractor patents. He later introduced the Ferguson four-wheel-drive system, involving chain drive and fluid couplings, which was totally reliable, as I know from personal experience.
I remember how the two latter projects were introduced to the Press. We were summonsed to attend, with gumboots, very early one morning at Ferguson’s vast estate outside Stow-on-the-Wold, the imposing boundary walls of which I used to pass on my drives from Wales to the Motor Sport offices in London. First, we had a puerile lecture on the advantages of 4WD, at which Maurice Smith, Editor of The Autocar, fell asleep. Ferguson woke him up with a slap of his pointer — ‘Bang goes a good report in that magazine’, I thought. After lunch, we assembled to see the 4WD Ferguson climb successfully a steep, watered bank in the mansion grounds. Invited to try this in our own cars, everyone failed until a VW Beetle with a trailer in tow went up and over the top! Displeased, Ferguson yelled even more loudly at racing driver Major Tony Rolt, who was in charge and who was to develop the Ferguson 4WD system so effectively.
That was the modest chap who, as Chairman of the Ulster AC, helped to get the TT revived for sportscars. Irish enthusiasm made it possible to close public roads in Ulster. Ferguson and Wallace McLeod, motoring correspondent for a Belfast paper, went in 1927 to Brooklands to rustle up driver support, and the RAC agreed to the race.
I have no idea which of Europe’s road circuits might be voted the best, but a truly wonderful one was used for this astonishing TT. It had a 13.6-mile lap, to be covered 30 times. At the start, on a long straight on the Belfast-Newtownards road, was a huge grandstand (reserved seats 35/-), the pits and a big scoreboard opposite. Then in 300yds the sharp Quarry corner, followed by lesser bends, led to Bradshaw’s Brae, a difficult section of seven bends in half a mile. A straight passing under a railway bridge took the drivers into Newtownards, through a narrow gap in the buildings, followed by a difficult right-hand turn before the Town Hall, and exit by a very narrow street across Conway Square.
Now came the fastest part, the straight over a level-crossing into Comber, where care had to be used to avoid running into the buildings in the square, notably the vulnerable butcher’s shop on the first of two right-angle turns, before another narrow street led drivers out of the town to a four-mile twisty, undulating run under narrow Ballystockart railway bridge to Dundonald, and back to the home straight. A genuine road circuit!
Not much work was needed to prepare it — a few telegraph poles moved back, the road surface improved, the level-crossing made smoother. Seven warning boards were put up before the trickier corners, bridges erected, and six telephone links provided, as well as flag marshals. The race brought in much business, spectators estimated at between 25,000 and 500,000!
The roads were closed for practice from 5.30-7.30am on Wednesday and Thursday
prior to Saturday’s race on August 18, 1928, the RAC forbidding practice at other times, to little effect. The historic Tourist Trophy would go to the winner, together with £1000 from the Daily Mail, which also gave class awards, as did The Autocar and The Motor. Castrol gave its Trophy and the SMM&T the Team award.
The cars were to be virtually catalogue models, with just a few restrictions on the engines, and extra oil tanks, pressure fuel-feed and racing tyres were allowed. The bigger cars had to have four-seater bodies, ballasted for four occupants (264lbs), the 1.5-litre cars as threeseaters (132lbs), and all had to carry a passenger. The usual class handicaps were used, seven places in all, from up to 750cc to 8000cc, with no concession for non-supercharged engines. Thus the A7 had 68.3 miles less to do than cars of over 3 litres. Bonnets had to be orange, red, green, yellow, blue, black and white, respectively. A Le Mans start with crews running across the road to their cars was to be used, and the first two laps would be with hoods erect.
Enthusiasm was intense, and manufacturers saw this as good publicity. A record entry of 56 cars came in, reduced to 44 starters (there were 33 at Le Mans). Lea-Francis, Alvis, Lagonda and Riley ran works teams, the last named with five cars, four from the main Company, one from the Riley Engine Co. They were Brooklands-type Speed Models, bodywork altered to comply with race rules, driven by Percy and Ernest Maclure, Sammy Davis, Chris Staniland and Clive Gallop. The three Lagondas were non-s/c Speed Models entered by General Metcalfe, to be driven by Baron d’Erlanger, Major Haynes and Eddie Hall. Alvis had entered the new four-cylinder front-wheel-drive cars, for Major CM Harvey, Leon Cushman and G A Willday. The privately-entered FWD Alvises were those of Urquhart Dykes, who with his wife normally raced 12/50s, and Harold Purdy. Lea-Francis put in five s/c Hypers for Kaye Don, George Eyston, S H Newsome, R M V Sutton and W H Green.
As the day approached, the atmosphere quickened — rain in practice had caused Cook’s Bentley and Thistlethwayte’s 36/220 Mercedes to crash, the Gwynne to go off-course, and a Riley and the FN to ditch.
The Autocar had arranged to send out masses of progress telegrams all over Britain during the race, and had (correctly) prophesied the winner. Practice began modestly; Viscount Curzon’s Type 43 Bugatti was quick but the Ford tourer less so, at 49.5mph. Anyone who had not brought 5gal refuelling chums gave local milkmen a nice profit.
After the Duke of Abercorn, Governor of Northern Ireland, had arrived, `Ebby’, no less, dropped his red flag at noon on that dry August day and 88 men ran to their cars. Eric Burt should have been off first as his ‘Nash had a saloon body, but it refused to fire up for a fearfully long time. First away were the two Bentleys. Two laps, and the pitstops to furl hoods began, with much heavy braking and minor panics. The order then settled down, the smaller cars ahead on handicap. Already Plunket-Greene’s Frazer Nash had stopped, also the Merc for the first of two plug changes. Campbell’s Bugatti was dramatically completely burnt out at the pitstop. The Barnes’ Austin 7 was soon caught by the Rileys, and already an Alvis/Lea-Francis duel had begun.
The course was quick to take its toll. Clive Gallop’s Riley went through the Comber hedge and spun head-on into a telegraph pole. The Merc used the Dundonald escape road. Viscount Curzon’s Bugatti succumbed to fuel starvation, and nine laps saw the Belgian FN out with valve faults. Cyril Paul’s Alvis had an argument with a barrier at Comber but drove on. A local rain shower caused Harvey (Alvis) and Newsome (LeaFrancis) to crash, and Davis’s Riley ditched in avoiding them. Nobel’s Riley also crashed and broke its back axle, and much time was again lost by the Mercedes when co-driver Kindell ditched it. The Ards course was not easy!
The little Amilcar Six led for a while, but after 20 laps was third, Kaye Don’s Lea-Francis leading from Purdy’s Alvis, Mason’s Austro-Daimler fourth. Five laps on, Cushman’s Alvis was 40sec behind Don, after nearly five hours of stem racing. From then on these two popular sportscars fought a calculated duel, the Alvis gaining, but low on fuel and unable to use all its speed in case of running dry — which it did 300 yards after the race finish. Don drove a copybook race without relief, for six hours on this difficult circuit, to win by just 13sec, an amazingly small margin in such a long contest.
The Duke of Abercom awarded Don the TT Trophy, and he was soon swamped by autograph hunters. Ferguson had watched from a humble grandstand seat. Leon Cushman’s Alvis was third, from the Austro-Daimlers of Mason and Paul. Mason had never lifted the bonnet of the third-placed Austro-Daimler. Sir Henry Birkin’s Bentley was fifth, after making fastest average speed, 65.76mph ; Don’s average was 64.06mph, excellent for a 1.5-litre car. The class winners were K Peacock’s Riley 9, the Lea-Francis, Oats’ OM, Mason’s AustroDaimler and Birkin’s Bentley. Only 12 finished, some were flagged off, and crashes eliminated eight cars, only Dykes being a casualty, injured when his Alvis overturned.
The TT was thoroughly successful and a gauge for anyone wondering which sportscar they should invest in, having perhaps mistrusted the results of Brooklands’ marathons run over a wide course, and with many expert drivers. The TT must, surely, have sold some Hyper ‘leaFs’, and confirmed Alvis’s faith in FWD.
The crashes proved little, unless thought to indicate poor road-holding, but what of the mechanical mayhem? It was disappointing that all the Lagondas had trouble with the rockers of their underheadcam overhead-valve gear. The Gwyrme’s clutch slipped, the Tracta’s engine gave up, one Riley blew a gasket, two had back-axle failure, a fourth caught fire, and another lost its oil. The FN had valve disaster and Purdy’s Alvis broke a piston after 28 laps.
Aldy’s Nash had a piston collapse, the Plunket-Greene/ Bagshawe and Parry Nashes both had transmission problems, and after 20 laps, the Ford retired, on three cylinders, while the Bugattis both had fuel leaks.
The OM winning the 2-litre class may have opened some purses, a Riley showed up favourably by winning the 1100cc class, and the Bentleys beat the privately owned Mercedes, and were 1-2 in their class. The three Austro-Daimlers took the team prize (— I have often wondered why the 19/100hp Austro-Daimler was not more popular here). All of which should have attracted the attention of some prospective purchasers — surely the main commercial excuse for manufacturers to indulge in this expensive, but exciting sport.