[The first article of this series to be contributed by a member of the fair sex—Eileen (Ellison) Lane, the well-known racing driver. —Ed.]
MY family have always been keen motorists, and it was natural that I should follow the tradition. My father and mother have both had numerous cars, amongst others seven Sunbeams one after the other.
My first car was an old “Bull-nose” Morris which I got in 1930 and on which I learned to drive to the danger of the local population. It was a typical Morris, save that it made a noise peculiar to itself. I can only describe it by saying that it sang like a canary. What the cause of this was I never found out as the innards of a car were a mystery to me in those days. I never went farther than 5 miles from my home to Cambridge and back, and I very much doubt whether the car could have managed longer journeys as the old thing was rather out of breath. I eventually got rid of it for £5 and purchased an open 2-seater Lea Francis. This car was promptly nicknamed “The Yellow Peril” owing to its colour and my driving! I was tremendously proud of it, but, alas! pride came before a fall, and one day when looking to make sure an acquaintance had seen me and my lovely car, I rammed the back of a bus. I was ignominiously towed back home.
“The Peril” was sold for another Lea Francis, a 1932 Sportsman’s Coupe, and it was in this that I saw my first “dicing” at the Cambridge Speed Trials. I had my Alsatian in the back and the noise so upset her that she tore down all the upholstery. An undergraduate bought the car and I purchased a Lancia “Lambda.”
This was an open 4-seater, long-chassis job in flaming red. I took it down to the Cambridge Assizes to show my father, but as soon as he came out and saw it he turned straight round and went inside again. I spent a bit of time working on this car and took the engine down and gave it a “decoke.” I also renewed the timing wheels and the valves, but apart from this there was nothing much to be done on it. I also modified the wings, hood and windscreen to make the thing look less boxlike, and then set out for the Continent with two friends on board. We camped all over France, Italy, Germany and Switzerland, and while in Italy visited Monza. We arrived within a mile or so of the track, having had a bit of an argument with the Milan police through going down a one-way street instead of up it, to find an enormous crowd of cars and people everywhere. We eventually managed to get in by the simple expedient of driving in and out of the trees which lined the road, thereby making ourselves most unpopular with the more orthodox drivers of the other cars, who put their hands on their horn-buttons and kept them there. The uproar can be imagined.
In Switzerland we went up the Stelvio, but the Lancia decided it was a bit too much for it and we had to get out and push.
Later, between Grindelwald and Interlaken we were nearly premature in starting a war with Germany, when a worthy Hun started hurling stones at the car, which was throwing up a tremendous amount of dust.
When we got home I went to see J. H. Bartlett and purchased a 1½-litre Type 37 Bugatti for £150. This was the unblown G.P. model and was painted white. It had full touring equipment and was the first car jointly owned by T. P. Cholmondley Tapper and myself. We motored many miles in this car with three up, the third unfortunate being perched on a cushion on the edge of the cockpit. We took the car over to Ireland for the T.T., and it was here that we were first bitten by the bug (no pun intended!) and decided to try our hand at racing.
The car was entered for several races at Brooklands. Cholmondley Tapper drove in most of these, but I remember I entered for a Ladies’ Race and got awful wheel wobble, which frightened me silly. We learned quite a lot about the innards of a Bugatti and got down to hotting it up. Martlett pistons were installed, raising the compression ratio, and special connecting rods were fitted. Two Solex carburetters replaced the original Zenith, and the car was once more entered for various races at Brooklands and Donington and for speed trials and hill-climbs. It gained several awards including a First in the Duchess of York’s Trophy race. We never had a moment’s trouble, for the Bugatti was amazingly reliable. I attribute this to the way we looked after it, never flogging it and always keeping the engine speed down to about 4,000 r.p.m. Peak speed was supposed to be about 4,500 r.p.m.
As there didn’t seem to be much scope for any real racing in England we turned our thoughts to the Continent. We went over the car thoroughly, had it repainted its native blue, and set out towing with the old Lancia. We entered for various events, including the Klausen and Grosslockner hill-climbs, where I got a Third and the Ladies’ Cup in both events, and we also ran in the Swiss Grand Prix. In the latter event we had the only unblown car in the race but Cholmondley Tapper brought it in seventh after a wonderful drive. At the Kesselberg he had the embarrassing experience of driving up at about 40 m.p.h. in the Lancia surrounded by Ferrari Alfas and such like. I should, perhaps, explain that I used to take it in turns to drive the Bugatti in these events, Tapper driving the Lancia and vice versa.
We went to the Nurburg Ring before turning for home, when we met trouble at the border. The Germans only allowed 10 marks to be taken out of the country, but we had a secret place under the floorboards of the Lancia and managed to get our starting and prize-money, amounting to several hundreds of marks, home successfully. We had some bad moments, however, while the Teutonic Customs officers looked suspiciously round the cars knowing full well we had just come from Nurburg.
We got home at last and sold the Lancia to get a Type 40 Bugatti. We also obtained a supercharger and converted the Type 37 to a Type 37A, reverting to one carburetter and low compression pistons and fitting large-type brake-drums. We set out again for the Continent, the Type 40 towing the 37A on a trailer. The record run was from Albi to the Grosslockner, a distance of 1,500 miles—not bad for a 12-h.p. 4-seater loaded with luggage and spares itself. We entered the latter car as well in the Sports-Car class for fun and to get more starting money; Cholmondley Tapper drove it and suffered from petrol feed trouble both during practice and in the event itself, with the result that he got to know a certain official at one of the corners quite well, since he invariably petered out at the same spot. It caused everybody endless amusement. At the prize-giving afterwards I managed to drop my prizes at the feet of Prince Starhemberg as he presented them to me. It felt rather like the sort of thing you see on the pictures.
We finished up at Freiburg for the Hill Climb Championships, and here again the prize giving had its humorous moments. Huhnlein rose to speak amidst much “heiling,” only to be interrupted by two small boys blowing raspberries at him from a balcony. This was too much for the English and Italians present, who all roared with laughter. The poor Huns, however, couldn’t see the funny side.
We came home via Molsheim, where we met “le Patron” himself. He was keenly interested in the car’s successes and practically gave us a new Bugatti. After another Swiss Grand Prix and a trip to South Africa both cars were sold and L. M. Ballamy fitted the Type 37A with some kind of i.f.s. to the order of R. B. Lakin, who was never able to drive it. So ended, as far as we were concerned, the career of a wonderful little car. “Molsheim Magic” is the only way to put it; the car never gave us any trouble, was in fact amazingly reliable, and paid its way through two seasons racing at home and abroad.
In 1937, after our return from South Africa, we obtained Earl Howe’s 2.9-litre G.P. Maserati and had a very posh trailer made for it. The car came from Italy and nothing was ever done to it as it, too, was very reliable. It used to start up like an ordinary touring car.
I remember two particular experiences we had with this car. The first was when the trailer caught fire on the way to Deauville and we had to smother the car in sand as there was no water at hand. By working all night we got it going for practice, only to have a burst tyre which slewed the car into the kerb and damaged a brake drum. We got to the starting-line the next day, but were forbidden to start owing to a complaint that the brakes were unsafe. The thought of losing the starting money appalled us, as we needed the cash, but after much pleading the authorities very kindly coughed up. After a lone drive to Cologne Airport to fetch spares from Italy we finished up at Nurburg once more. Here we were up against Mercedes and Auto-Unions, but Cholmondley Tapper got the car home near the top of the double figures.
The second experience was the glorious lap in the Donington G.P. in 1937 when Cholmondley Tapper led the whole field, Mercedes and all, until the Maserati decided it couldn’t stay on the road any longer at that speed and came limping in to the pits with the front axle a mere shadow of its former self.
The car was sold at the end of the season after doing some good times at Shelsley Walsh and elsewhere. A grand car, but a bit of a brute to handle at speed, as it had the nasty habit of “wandering” quite it bit.
From the G.P. “Maser” I went to the other extreme and bought a 1936 model Ford V8. It was a drop-head 2-seater and for some unknown reason was always referred to as “Henry.”
“Henry” was, in my opinion, the best Ford ever produced. He was fast, absolutely trouble-free and did 50,000 miles all over the Continent. I had the engine changed at 25,000 miles.
When I sold this car I got another one of the same make but a later model, and it wasn’t a patch on old “Henry.” I did 35,000 miles in it then got rid of it.
About this time my brother got a Lancia Aprilia and waxed very enthusiastic over it. We got another Lambda for something to mess about with, but we never really got down to it and sold it almost at once. I then got a Lancia Aprilia for myself and I consider it one of the most outstanding cars ever produced. A 12-h.p. full 5-seater saloon, it will beat up many so-called sports cars. I have still got this car and it has given me wonderful service since the war on A.R.P. duties day and night in all weathers. It is a 1937 model, and that year the couplings on the back axle were a weak point. I have had these changed for the modified 1938 type but, apart from this, I have never spent anything on repairs. Pool petrol does not seem to affect the performance and it is still good for 80 m.p.h. after 45,000 miles
That completes my cars to date, save for a works 4½-litre Lagonda, loaned to me for a time, which I entered in the R.A.C. Rally in 1935. If anybody knows of a 1,750 c.c. Alfa Romeo for sale I should very much like to give it a good home.