A swift half of a career

Charles Martin was one of Britain’s talented amateur racer of the thirties. He perhaps had the ability to become professional but that wouldn’t have been Charlie, Brendan Lynch explains

The little terrier had a reputation. The animal was a drunk, there was no doubt about it. Every time his holiday minders took him out for a walk in Kensington, he pulled a sharp left at Peel Street — and headed straight into the sherry bar of The Windsor Castle.

The real culprit was, of course, the person more regularly found at the other end of his lead. While lunchtime salesmen loosened their ties and house-painters studied filling pints like birthday children, few savoured his pre-lunch half of bitter as much as Charles Martin. And if he was in reminiscent mood, the leisurely hum of exterior traffic would quickly give way to tales of revving engines, screaming superchargers, skidding tyres and a maelstorm of action from a much less mundane era of Bugattis, Alfa Romeos and Bentleys.

Charlie was synonymous with that halcyon 1930s period, part of a set of privileged Englishmen who raced privately entered grand prix cars cars at all sorts of circuits, from Donington Park to the Isle of Man, from Avus to Bmo. “It was a good time to have driven, when racing was still a great sport,” explained Charlie. “We took our chances, and some of us got killed. But we all had one bloody good time!”

It was always a fun pastime to him, but in a very short space of time he became one of Britain’s best drivers — and attracted interest from the mighty Silver Arrows. I was lucky enough to meet the vigorous, fast-talking Charles in his favourite public house some time before he passed away six years ago. His happiest memory was his unexpected and richly rewarded Voiturette success at Avus in 1937.

“As part of their efforts to cement the Axis relationship, the Germans designed a special trophy for the race, which was certain to be a walkover for Maserati,” he related. “But, sadly for the hosts, my ERA never missed a beat and I outpaced the Maseratis of [Franco] Cortese, [Enrico] Plate and [Edoardo] Teagno to win at 119mph. Goebbels’ representative was politely complimentary, but he was plainly not as amused as I was. That was a memorable experience: I was far away from home and it was a great moment when! saw the Union Jack being hoisted up the flagpole, particularly in the midst of all that Nazi regalia.”

Charles received a rapturous reception from the 380,000 crowd for what was the crowning glory of his action packed five-year racing career. “I also received a wad of notes which we ate and drank our way through in the three days before we departed — and still had some left over to stuff the tyres with!”

Brought up in Abergavenny in south Wales, Charlie’s primary interest was boating. His fascination for speed was kindled while on holiday in London, when he was allowed to sit in one of Malcolm Campbell’s grand prix Bugattis in St James’s. A short time later he enjoyed a hairy trip in a Brescia Bugatti. After further exhilarating experiences with road cars, he made his speed debut, aged 20, at the Southport sand races in 1932.

“By this stage the family was getting concerned about me. I’d failed to get into the army, failed to get into Oxford University — but I’d never wanted either. Instead, I served a brief apprenticeship with the Austin Motor Company.

“I finished second at Southport. But, more importantly, the racing was as exciting as I hoped it would be. I thought, ‘This is the thing for me’. I was immediately hooked. Not on the sand, though, which was terrible. It just got everywhere — in your teeth, up your nose and down your back. And what it did to the machinery didn’t bear thinking about.”

Charles campaigned the Southport Austin in various trials before replacing it with a chain-driven Frazer Nash. This made an undignified debut at a trial in Buxton. “On the way there all the chains came off and, after spending the night in a barn, I arrived in Buxton in reverse! I still managed to compete but, with only two gears functioning, I left the venue as I had arrived — trophy-less.

“My family took pity on me and bought me an MG, in which I finished fourth in my first track race, at Donington in May 1933. This so impressed an MG representative that he invited me to take part in the Brooklands Relay race which we won easily. This in turn led to MG providing a special engine which took me to second place in the BRDC 500-mile race. I knew the engine would be a great help but I was really surprised to do so well.”

It was then that Charlie decided to put a lot of effort into his racing. After another second place at Donington, he replaced the MG with a Bugatti Type 35 and then, at the beginning of 1935, he went down to Molsheim to buy one of the previous year’s Type 59 grand prix cars: “I had some hairy moments as I drove it back in racing trim in the pouring rain exploring every ditch and culvert as I dodged slower cars, and many horses and carts.”

The new car provided Charles with another second place – to Brian Lewis in the IOM Mannin Moar race – and after a sixth place in the Marne Grand Prix, he went on to dominate the inaugural Donington Grand Prix. “I still kick myself every time I remember that event,” he confessed. “After three hours of racing, I was well clear of Richard Shuttleworth and Earl Howe, when I was called in for what was an unnecessary pitstop. That upset my rhythm, and I spun at McLeans. It took me so long to restart that the others got by and I couldn’t catch them again. I finished third. Donington was one of my favourite circuits, and I was really upset.”

Five decades after the event, Charles also bitterly regretted a similar mishap at Pau in 1936, when he was driving his ‘new’ ex-Scuderia Ferrari Alfa Tipo B: “I think I could have won but I spun the bloody car in the rain and Philippe Etancelin took it.” Impetuosity also led to Charles rolling the Alfa at the Nürburgring. But he made up for this by winning the Nuffield Trophy race at Donington in ERA R9B. He also took excellent second places behind Richard Seaman and Jean-Pierre Wimille in the Donington and Deauville grands prix.

“Deauville was a terrifying experience,” he said of the seaside course. “I only arrived at 11 o’clock the night before the race and I had no practice. In the race, I just followed the bunch around and, as the other drivers had problems, I made quick progress.”

But the highlight of Charles’ 1936 campaign was his Brooklands BRDC 500 win in a Riley shared with the irrepressible Freddie Dixon: “That was a race to remember. Freddie had little interest in comfort and that bloody Riley was the most uncomfortable car I ever raced. But it went like nobody’s business

and we won easily at over 116 mph. I was black and blue all over afterwards.”

Charles particularly enjoyed racing in Ireland, where he had spent some of his childhood with his stepfather in Kilkenny: “On the Continent there was always a great atmosphere, but nowhere did I find anything to match the enthusiasm of the Irish. It was all so easy and relaxed. We used to take the cars to the Cork Grand Prix in racing trim no problems about licences, number plates, tax or anything like that.

“Another thing which impressed me was the eagerness of the local driven. There wasn’t much money around, but some of the drivers had cobbled together some very fine cars. I’d never seen so many ‘specials’ in my life. But they went like hell, lasted the distance and gave the drivers of better cars a run for their money.

“I think the only time I saw anyone upset was when I’d damaged a big-end and, to run-in the new one, I drove around the countryside for over 150 miles. I came around a corner and found the road blocked by a herd of cows. The owner was not too happy with the effect my car was having so close to milking time!

“The Cork circuit was absolutely top class. Its long straight was just right for the faster cars, and I got the old Alfa wound up there. It was a bit scary in the 1936 race because of a high wind; I had to aim for the gaps and gates while anticipating the gale which usually carried me back across the road all at about 130mph! But I managed to set fastest lap and finish third on handicap.”

As well as his 1937 Avus success and yet another second place, at Albi, Charles also excelled in that year’s Czechoslovakian Voiturette Grand Prix. “Everyone raves about the Nürburgring but, believe me, the original Brno was a much more difficult place. It was four miles longer than the ‘Ring. Out at its back end it was extraordinary one long hillclimb, going up and down for miles, with many dangerous drops. It took a lot of learning. But I got to know it well and I flew in the race until the very last lap, when the plugs oiled up and Luigi Villoresi [Maserati 6CM] got by.”

Despite these successes, however, this season would be Martin’s last.

“I decided to retire and concentrate on my boating. The racing was expensive and you had to win a lot of races to survive financially. There was no sponsorship like there is now, and it was far too expensive for a private owner. The only way to progress was through a works drive, and after Auto Union had the good sense to pick Christian Kautz instead of me following a test at Monza, I packed it in.”

Charles preferred to race single-seaters, but he also competed at Le Mans, each time finishing in the top four: “Our MG Magnette was barely moving in the 1934 race. We had a very high top gear and it wouldn’t pull the skin off a rice pudding. Roy Eales and I just kept plodding on, and as everyone dropped out, we were fourth at 67mph. No-one was as surprised as we were.

“The following year I drove an Aston Martin to third place with my great pal, Charlie Brackenbury. But again it was no real dice. Just three hours on, three hours off, just driving around.”

Apart from his bum-numbing Brooklands experience with the ascetic Dixon, Charles enjoyed all his cars: “The Bugattis were beautiful machines. The Alfa certainly lapped well though you had to be very careful, as it had a delicate back end. But the ERA was the best value, a marvellous car in which you could have great confidence. It was easy to drive after the Alfa.”

Charles made many friends, too: “Dick Seaman and I were very close. I was a witness at his wedding and my son was called after him. Dick was his own man and didn’t suffer fools gladly. He was colossally strong and very competent in everything he did. He learned to ski in an incredibly short time. He owed that Mercedes drive to a very good manager named Birch, who knew the racing scene inside out. As a driver, Dick was a perfectionist and totally dedicated. He drove around the ‘Ring every day until he knew the place like the back of his hand. I was heartbroken when he died. When the war started, his widow Erica came to stay with us, before she emigrated to the USA.

“Of the other Mercedes drivers, Hermann Lang was a very nice chap. Rudi Caracciola was a bit distant and very tied up with his wife, who kept the times and had a great interest in the racing. Louis Chiron was a good friend of mine and I used to go skiing with him. I believe his racing was subsidised by a very rich woman!

“Auto Union’s Bernd Rosemeyer was a brilliant driver and, I think, the best man in that car – even better than Tazio Nuvolari – as he had never driven any other machine.

“But of all the drivers I competed against, I think Nuvolari was the most exciting. He used to talk to the car, you know – and even pat it like a horse. And all the time he would be going in every direction but the right one! And the way he drove in the Ards TT, without ever having seen either the circuit or the MG Magmette… he was bloody magical. I don’t think you will ever see his like again.

“It was a bit risky in those days. Pat Fairfield, a very nice man, copped it, and poor Marcel Lehoux was killed in an ERA near me at Deauville, when Guiseppe Farina and he collided.”

And the ‘excitement’ wasn’t confined to the tracks in those days: “I flew a lot with [Richard] Shuttleworth, who sadly died in a training plane accident during the war. I remember landing with him in the dark at Nice one night… we managed it, I don’t know how. He was always game for a challenge.

“We also indulged in a bit of smuggling now and then. We would bring in crankshafts, wheels and other Bugatti bits and pieces from Molsheim. After dropping them off at a small landing strip, Dick would take the plane up to a great height and dive down on Brooldands, before landing nearby. ‘Just back from Le Touquet’, he would tell the Customs men. Eventually, of course, they rumbled him and he was lucky to escape with just a big fine.”

Charles didn’t think too much of the modem grand prix scene: “Formula One? I don’t understand it. There’s far too much money, politics and jealousy. The races are much too short. They only race for an hour-and-a-half; we drove for three or four hours. Instead of risking trees and stone walls, they have vast run-off areas. And one shower of rain and they’re all off the track.” The war scuppered Charles’ plans to sail around the world. But it didn’t inhibit his adventurous spirit. After action at Dunkirk, he found additional excitement in ferrying undeclared passengers to night rendezvous in occupied France. As with his fellow racers Williams and Robert Benoist, many of these selfless characters failed to survive. Charlie did, and was awarded a DSC and the American Legion of Honor for his courageous efforts.

Charles spent his final years with his wife Joy in Notting Hill Gate, and died in 1998 at the age of 85. His speed proclivities still manifested them

selves as he scorched around the local streets on his bicycle. Until he was 75, the man who swept off the Avus banking to confound Goebbels and co would flash down Camden Hill at 30mph. “The bike is absolutely great, you know,” he enthused. “Fantastic exercise, easy to park – and just the ticket for passing all those slow drivers!”

After a long absence, I recently revisited The Windsor Castle. Tippling quietly behind the braying suits, I met a surviving elder. His eyes lit up when I mentioned Charles Martin. “Ah, the man who raced the ERA and who gave his dog such a bad name,” he laughed.

Charles Martin had a reputation.