The Cars Of Colonel Sir Leonerd Ropner, Bt.
Described to the Editor during a recent interview
Those who frequented Brooklands track in the 1920s will recall Major Ropner, M.C., M.P., as a particularly successful driver of the 30/98 Vauxhall “Silver Arrow” during the seasons 1923/25. I recently had the pleasure of meeting Col. Sir Leonard Ropner, Bt., M.C., T.D., D.L., at the family estate at Thorp Perrow in Yorkshire. Not only is Col. Sir Leonard Ropner prepared to talk about his Brooklands racing days but it is nice to know that he has retained all the many trophies that he won on those occasions, although as silver has become a popular acquisition to all house-breakers, the cups are seldom seen, being deposited in a Bank.
Sir Leonard Ropner’s father can be numbered amongst the almost-pioneer motorists, his first car being a 1902 10/12 Gladiator, in which he did a lot of motoring, notably from Hartlepool where the family then lived, to the Lake District, etc. His son therefore grew up with motor cars and in any case thinks that if it is one’s instinct to be a motorist, a motorist one will be! The family cars ranged through a series of Napiers, which Sir Leonard remembers, used to boil without much provocation, this causing his mother to jump out in alarm on one occasion, as so much steam was emitted that she thought the car was on fire. His father’s 45-h.p. Napier landaulette was in use up to the outbreak of war, after which the family went over to Rolls-Royce cars. In 1913 Sir Leonard had an 8-h.p. B.A.T. motorcycle, of which he has very happy memories, being of the opinion that there is nothing to beat a high-powered motorcycle on good roads on a fine day. Incidentally he vividly remembers the first occasion on which he drove a car at 40 m.p.h.! Driving licences were then obtainable at the age of 14 and 40 m.p.h. was achieved on the Gladiator—downhill!
On the eve of his 21st birthday in 1916, he bought from a dealer in London a Targa Florio Fiat. Unfortunately, this was never a reliable car and on this occasion it broke down at Hitchin and had to be brought on to Hartlepool by train, which was not a very auspicious way to celebrate such an important birthday. This Fiat was used during the War until Sir Leonard went to France in command of a battery of 6 in. howitzers.
Because of the first world war Sir Leonard did not go to Cambridge until 1919. Mobility as an undergraduate was ensured by the purchase of a small war-time Clement-Talbot two-seater. By 1923 he required something faster, and as the OE 30/98 Vauxhall was the current exciting new model, he ordered one of these cars, specifying that Vauxhall should deliver it with a B.A.R.C. Certificate confirming that it had lapped Brooklands at over 100 m.p.h. This the Luton Company was able to do but afterwards the idea proved to be double-edged, because Ebblewhite, who fixed the handicaps, knew in advance the capabilities of this car when Ropner raced it at the Track. He designed a very handsome two-seater polished aluminium racing body for it, with the radiator cowled in, and named the car “The Silver Arrow”, which was emphasised by the long, pivoted arrow carried on the radiator filler-cap. (Those who went to Harrow School, as Sir Leonard had done, will see the significance of this name when they recall old school songs.) Although Sir Leonard had not yet been to Brooklands he was determined to enjoy the sport of amateur motor racing which the B.A.R.C. offered. 30/98 Vauxhalls were being raced at the time by such enthusiasts as Major Coe, whose beautiful “Vixen” overturned at the 1925 B.A.R.C. Whitsun Meeting, Major Gunter, E. L. Meeson, and others. Nevertheless, Sir Leonard’s 30/98 proved the fastest of its kind on the Track during the 1923 and 1924 seasons, as the accompanying table shows, although he makes no claim to understanding the engineering aspect of racing cars, all tuning being left to Vauxhall Motors. In his second race, Sir Leonard finished behind Malcolm Campbell’s 7.6-litre Grand Prix Peugeot, and he believes that inexperience caused him to lift his foot at the end of the Finishing straight, otherwise he could have won this event.
That was in the 100-m.p.h. Short Handicap at the 1923 Easter Meeting, Ropner having already finished third in his first race, the Private Competitors’ Handicap. Later in the afternoon Ropner and the “Silver Arrow” took another second place, in the 100-m.p.h. Long Handicap. That season he also took a second place behind F. C. Clement’s single-seater 3-litre Bentley in the Lightning Short Handicap at the Summer B.A.R.C. Meeting and at the August Bank Holiday races came in a very close second in the 100-m.p.h. Short Handicap to the “Razor Blade” Aston Martin and then won the 100-m.p.h. Long Handicap at 74½ m.p.h., beating the Leyland-Thomas and Clement’s Bentley. The 1924 season’s successes included three second places, the Vauxhall being beaten in one race by Dr. J. D. Benjafield’s 3-litre Bentley which started from the same mark, but which was a special works-prepared two-seater, and one third place. Major Ropner got to Brooklands only for the Summer Meeting in 1925, so far as B.A.R.C. races were concerned, but this proved thoroughly worthwhile. The “Silver Arrow” commenced by winning the 100-m.p.h. Short Handicap at 92.95 m.p.h. and then, in spite of a re-handicap of five seconds, pulled off the 90-m.p.h. Short Handicap from Turner’s Austro-Daimler by half-a-length, at 93.2 m.p.h. in one of the closest finishes seen at the Track, Cushman’s Crossley being close up in third place. In all this Brooklands racing Ropner never gave a thought to the danger aspect and thoroughly enjoyed notching up good performances. He put in a great many laps at over 100 m.p.h. and, as the accompanying table shows, was the most successful 30/98 exponent during the three seasons in which he was competing, the “Silver Arrow,” although one of the early series of OE cars, being the fastest of its era, with the sole exception of Meeson’s later-series car.
Apart from its very successful Brooklands career, the Vauxhall “Silver Arrow” was used in a number of those public roads sprints which were such a feature of the sporting scene in the 1920s. Sir Leonard says critically that he once held the Sutton Bank hill-climb record, but only for about quarter of a minute, as the next car proved faster than the Vauxhall! He did, however, will two classes at the 1923 Saltburn Sands speed trials, beating the E-type 30/98s of Humphrey Cook and C. P. Dorman, the “Silver Arrow” covering the s.s. kilometre in 37.4 sec. and the f.s. kilometre in 23.2 sec. He also made f.t.d. at the Legs Cross hill-climb in the same year, this being a comparatively minor public-road event held in Durham. He also won a hill-climb at Wynyard the following year. In addition, he did extensive Continental touring in the Vauxhall, for which purpose it was equipped with shapely mudguards and aero-screens. It proved as reliable for this purpose as it had when used as a racing car, except that racing plugs were apt to oil-up under the more gentle conditions of road motoring. In fact this Vauxhall was for three years Sir Leonard’s sole means of road transport; as he was a Member of Parliament it made frequent excursions from Yorkshire to London, being seen on occasions in Palace Yard, Westminster, and was also, of course, driven to and from Weybridge.
At the time Sir Leonard Ropner was a Member of Parliament for the Sedgefield district of Durham, and frequently took his constituents as riding mechanics in the Vauxhall. This was only one aspect of the friendliness of these people, many of them miners, and one wonders today how many M.P.s can say that they take an active part in motor sport with one or other of their constituents beside them?
Much as Sir Leonard enjoyed his motor racing, his family pondered on the dangers of this sport and persuaded him to give it up in 1926, so the Vauxhall was sold. Its unique radiator mascot was stolen on the very day the car was disposed of.
Being at this time unmarried, Sir Leonard decided that he could afford to invest in a Rolls-Royce. In 1925 his father had bought a new Silver Ghost. His son was therefore delighted, when ordering a new model in 1926, to discover that he was the owner of one of the first of the New Phantoms, Rolls-Royce giving so little warning of the introduction of a replacement model for the long-established Silver Ghost, that his father placed his just too soon! Park Ward were commissioned to build a special open sporting four-seater body, which Ropner designed, on this chassis, this being the first one they had made with a concealed hood. This hood proved completely trouble-free but rattled horribly when up, and still does! Over the years this P.I Rolls-Royce proved a remarkably trouble-free motor car. It is still in Sir Leonard Ropner’s ownership and when, in 1957, his son did his National Service he took the Phantom I to Germany with him, because his father knew that he would drive faster than was wise, and felt that a heavy substantial car would be the most suitable one for him to use. . . .
Apart from various “bread-and-butter” cars, most of which are now forgotten but which numbered Ford Consul, Ford Zephyr, etc., Sir Leonard had no other car except this P.I Rolls-Royce until he bought a used Phantom III Rolls-Royce. This proved to have the unmodified tappets and “made a bloody awful noise.” It was soon disposed of, in favour of a 1956 Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud I. This Rolls-Royce, like the Park Ward-bodied Phantom I, is still in service and has, in fact, covered nearly 100,000 miles without the cylinder head having been lifted. Its, owner accepts the fact that the present-day Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow is an altogether quieter, quicker car, with lighter power-steering, and when Rolls-Royce are able to supply one he will probably take it as a replacement for the Silver Cloud I which has given him such good service.
Apart from the two Rolls-Royces, Lady Ropner’s Rover 2000, and Sir Leonard’s son’s Porsche 911S, it is interesting that the old family Napier of 1908, after standing unused in the garage for many years, was recently brought out of retirement and given a new lease of life. a nephew of Ropner’s driving it in local veteran-car rallies.
I asked Sir Leonard whether, apart from his many years of enjoyable motoring, he had ever had a liking for aeroplanes. He replied that he learned to fly at Heston after the Second World War, on Avro Cadets, his idea being that he would be able to use a private aeroplane to attend political meetings. Unfortunately, light aeroplanes are dependent on good weather for getting to their destinations and the idea proved impracticable. Apart from having such excellent examples of pre- and post-war Rolls-Royces, and the Edwardian Napier, Col. Sir Leonard Ropner, Bt., has a great affection for an early Land-Rover which he uses on his estate; he refused to pension off this “maid-of-all-work” when it was about to be part-exchanged for a new Land-Rover. Incidentally, it was only very recently that his father’s 1925 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost, which late in life was fitted with a shootingbrake body, was disposed of, to a well-known Rolls-Royce vendor.