Rob Walker’s 314-litre Delahaye
THE DISTINCTIVE blue and white colours of R. R. C. Walker have been connected with motor racing since the early 1950s when Tony Rolt raced ERA/Delage and 2-litre Connaught for his team. Stirling Moss won both the 1960 and ’61 Monaco Grand Prix races in an out-dated Lotus 18 and Siffert won the
1968 British Grand Prix in a very up-to-date Lotus-Cosworth 49. Walker himself was an enthusiastic competitor in the immediate preWar years, agreeing to stop circuit racing when he married, although still taking part in sprints and hill-climbs once the hostilities were over. Being an insatiable enthusiast, Walker derived most of his pleasure from then on by entering his cars for a variety of other drivers, content to gain satisfaction from watching others competing. But Walker’s other great source of pleasure has come from a variety of interesting and exotic road cars, including a brace of Mercedes-Benz 300SL Gull-Wing coupes, several Ferraris including a Dino, Porsche 911 models and a 6.3-litre Mercedes V8 saloon amongst many others. Over the years many cars have come and gone, but he still retains an immaculate workshop at Dorking where his precious straight-eight i-litre Delage is maintained in splendour along with his 1936 3i-litre Delahaye, a car which he originally acquired in 1938 and which has enjoyed a “chequeted” career involving Rob re-acquiring it again on two separate occasions! Although Rob is no longer involved in sponsoring any Formula One team or driver, he still appears regularly at all the World Championship Grand Prix races, and he recently invited us to visit his workshop and take a drive in the Delahaye. Having been in the fortunate financial position of being able to indulge much of his fancy when it comes to acquiring exotic road machinery, Rob’s attitude to our driving the Delahaye was extremely refreshing. Whilst the car is immaculately
prepared and clearly has been the subject of a great deal of expense, Rob simply waved us off with a cheery “Well, you’d better get out and drive the thing if you’re going to write about it” in the same way as lesser mortals might loan you a Mini for the afternoon! However, before describing how this 39-year-old sports/ racing car behaved on the crowded roads of 1975, we attempted, with D.S.J.’s assistance, to unravel its fascinating history.
It appears that DUV 870 first arrived in Britain for the 1936 Tourist Trophy on the Ards circuit near Belfast where it was driven by English private owner T. G. Clarke, who apparently bought the car direct from the factory. There was a total of six Delahayes entered for the race for Robert Brunet/ Charlie Martin, who finished eighth; George Field; Rene Le Begue/N. Mahe; Laurie Schell (father of the BRM and Vanwall driver Harry); Marcel Mongin and Clarke who retired after 22 laps with ignition trouble. Prior to his retirement, Clarke established a new outright lap record at 84.06 m.p.h., although this was later beaten by Le Begue with a lap of 85.52 m.p.h., this standing for ever as the 1936 TT proved to be the last race run on the Ards circuit.
In 1936 Tom Clarke and Maurice Faulkner finished 10th in the Donington Grand Prix, this being the Delahay’e’s only notable result that year, and in 1937 the car was purchased by Prince Chula’s “White Mouse Stable” for Bira to drive. The Siamese Prince raced the Delahaye in the Pau Grand Prix, held that year for sports cars, although he retired after only six laps. Bira did not race the car again until the Donington 12-hour race for stripped production sports cars. Sharing the driving with Southampton Riley agent Hector Dobbs (a Donington expert with a special 2-litre Riley) Bira won the race easily although he was denied a double victory at the Derbyshire circuit when the car gave trouble in practice for the RAC Tourist Trophy later in the year and Bira drove a works BMW 328 instead. In the BRDC 500-Kilometre race at Brooklands, lapping at 118 m.p.h., with a fastest lap of 126.09 m.p.h., he lost time owing to fuel spilling over him at a pit stop and battery acid burning his arm. Chula sold the car back to Delahaye agent Count Heydon at the end of the season and the Count entered it for a variety of drivers during the 1938 season. Arthur Dobson drove it in the JCC International Trophy race at Brooklands and then the Delahaye’s movements become just a little bit confusing. John Willing hired it from
Count Heydon and drove it to fifth place in the Antwerp Grand Prix for sports cars behind a gaggle of similar cars, Mrs. E. M. Thomas borrowed it for a Ladies’ Race at Crystal Palace, and then Ron Jarvis shared the driving with Willing in the Three Hour Production Sports Car Race on the Campbell Road Circuit at Brooklands, winning the race quite easily. On this occasion hoods had to be erected before the start and furled at flag-fall, so the car was fitted with a full-width screen and the scrutineers insisted that the rather sparse rear wings were extended forward, presumably feeling this turned the sports/ racing Delahaye into a rather more gentile production car for the occasion. Later that same year we find that Charlie Dodson drove it, for Count Heydon, in the BRDC’s 50-mile Outer Circuit race and finished fifth, later competing in the 50-mile Campbell Circuit Road Race and the Dunlop Jubilee Cup Handicap at the Dunlop 50th Jubilee Anniversary Meeting the same year. There are records showing Dodson subsequently finishing third in a Campbell Circuit handicap race at the BARC Autumn Meeting and that seems to be all the racing that DUV 870 did during 1938.
At the end of the season Count Heydon cleaned up the Delahaye and put it up for sale in his Park Lane showrooms. It was in these showrooms that the young Rob Walker, supposedly studying for his finals at Cambridge but finding himself somehow strolling down Park Lane, first saw the blue sportsracing car. The marque Delahaye was not new to him for, on his 21st birthday, his mother had given him a drophead coupe Delahaye which was previously owned by the wife of Minister of Transport Hore-Belisha. This first Delahaye had served to acquaint Rob with the possibilities offered by the Cotal electrically-operated epicyclic gearbox which the French firm fitted to many of its touring cars at the time. With four speeds in reverse as well as forward, Walker contrived to turn his drophead coupe over just as he was selecting 4th gear in reverse! Fortunately this Delahaye was a sturdy machine and suffered little harm as a result of this escapade. The sight of the sleek blue Delahaye, which had a four-speed crash gearbox, unlike its touring counterparts, in the showroom proved a great temptation to the enthusiastic Walker. Inquiring about its price his heart sunk when he heard it would cost him £400, a full £40
more than the annual allowance provided by his family whilst he was studying at Cambridge. Then the salesman introduced him to the intricacies of “hire purchase” and, within a few minutes, he was signing forms and taking possession of his smart new machine. Incidentally, he kept the drophead coupe Delahaye as well.
Walker started the 1939 season with an entry at the Inter-Varsity Speed Trials at Syston Park, driving the Delahaye into second place in the over-3-litre sports-car class and third in the all-comers sports class behind Ian Connell’s 4-litre Talbot-Darracq and A. F. P. Pane’s BMW 328. Warming to the idea of competitive driving, the next stop was the Brooklands Easter BARC meeting, where Rob finished third in a six-mile event on the Mountain circuit behind Wilkie Wilkinson’s MG and Reg Parnell’s BHW, and in the First Easter Road Handicap where W.B. reported in MOTOR SPORT: “. . . Walker’s ex-Bira Delahaye fell out. . . .”
Arthur Dobson had another outing in the car at the BARC Whitsun meeting at Brooklands, in an event trying to find the fastest road-equipped sports car. He finished second in a race on the Campbell Road Circuit behind Hugh Hunter’s 2.9-litre supercharged Mille Miglia Alfa Romeo and the Alfa Romeo retired in the Mountain Circuit race, leaving Dobson an easy winner. Walker himself scored a second victory in the car that day by winning a handicap on the Mountain Circuit at 68.15 m.p.h. After loaning the car back to Bira for a “one-off” race at Crystal Palace, which Bira won, the Delahaye was taken to Le Mans where Walker and Ian Connell finished in 8th place at an average speed of 78.1 m.p.h. The car was fitted with a Cotal gearbox for this occasion, the small switch on the dashboard being more convenient for Walker to operate with the badly-cut finger on his left hand. A four-speed crash box would have proved painful for 24 hours. But by this time the clouds of War were gathering on the horizon and the French classic proved to be the last race the car took part in for exactly ten years. During the War years Rob was an officer at the Fleet Air Arm base at Yeovilton in Somerset, his off-duty transport being one of the popular little Fiat Topolinos, and the Delahaye had very little use under the prevailing conditions of fuel stringency. By the time racing got going again after the War, Rob
had become a married man and promised his wife that he would not compete in circuit races any more, although he was allowed to drive in sprints and hill-climbs, so he turned his hand to the role of entrant, a role in which he was to become famous in the years that followed.
The Delahaye’s first post-War race was at Le Mans in 1949 where Tony RoIt and Guy Jason-Henry were recruited to drive, but Rob ruefully recalls that they retired at 3.30 a.m. on the Sunday morning. “I was something of a novice entrant at the time,” Walker remarks, “because I realised during the race that I had not changed the bearings since it ran at Le Mans ten years earlier!” A visit to Cornminges later in the summer for the French Grand Prix (held for sports cars that year) enabled Rob to see the new Lago-Talbot for the first time, the impression of this car prompting him to rebuild DUV 870 in a “modern” idiom. With a streamlined “bird cage” front end covering the radiator and a faired-in head-rest, Walker followed the pattern set by many of his contemporaries at the time of trying to “up-date” pre-War sports cars in an effort to ensure that they would stand more chance of getting entries in important races even though they were really out-dated. Whether the modifications improved the Delahaye’s looks or not is really a matter of personal opinion. As the promise he made to his wife meant that he couldn’t compete in circuit races, he sold a half-share in the Delahaye to a friend who raced it at Club meetings at Goodwood and took it abroad for several races in 1950. Unfortunately one of these trips ended in embarrassment for the friend when he was apprehended by the Customs at Newhaven, the Delahaye was stripped down and 3,000 Swiss watches were found neatly stowed in a “dummy” fuel tank. A prolonged court case resulted and Rob eventually found himself obliged to buy his own car back from the Customs and Excise authorities who had confiscated it along with its cargo of contraband! Walker eventually sold the Delahaye to Dan Margulies who raced it in National Club events before it found its way into the collection of Major Thompson in Scotland. Over the years Major Thompson amassed quite a collection of exotic cars, adding his own modifications including “skimpy” bicycletype front mudguards to many of the machines in place of their original equipment. The Delahaye received a non-standard radiator
ROB WALKER’S Mr-LITRE DELAHAY E Continued from page 506.
from a touring coupe, but eventually the collection was put up for auction in 1970 with the proceeds of sale being donated to that very worthy charity, the Lifeboat Institution.
Anxious to buy back DUV 870, Walker paid £5,000 for the Delahaye without actually seeing it, only to have a bad shock in store when the much-abused car arrived at Dorking. It really was in a deplorable condition, having apparently lain waterlogged for many years, and the body was completely ruined. Rob recalls that he and his mechanic John Chisman decanted the rotting body into the river, but detail examination of the DeLahaye’s mechanical components revealed everything to be intact even though the effect of its prolonged immersion in water had hardly been beneficial!
It took John Chisman eight months to restore the Delahaye to its “original” condition, his task invaluably assisted by a detailed model of the car made by Henri Baigent which Rob had originally commissioned just after the War. Unfortunately the mass of photographs, many of them irreplaceable, in Rob’s racing albums had been destroyed when his entire racing workshop was burnt down in March 1968, destroying the remains of Siffert’s Lotus 49 which had been crashed in practice for the Race of Champions. With painstaking care the body was reassembled with an original-styled radiator (fractionally too narrow we think) and the tail section devoid of its unoriginal streamlined head fairing. A drive round the Surrey countryside was clearly high on our list of priorities and, once Rob had explained the technique to be used With the Coral box to the writer (who, incidentally, had never driven with a preselector or crash gearbox before), we set off carefully. Once the car is under way the Cotal gearbox does away with the necessity of
depressing the clutch every time you want to change gear, although we found it advisable to ease off the accelerator pedal slightly. A brief depression of the starter button bought the six-cylinder 84 x 107 mm., 3,557-c.c. motor rasping into life with a distinctive flat bark and rorty exhaust note which turned heads all round our impromptu “test route”. The writer found it necessary to discard his shoes and winter coat in order to squeeze his bulk behind the huge flat steering wheel, but once this apparently impossible task had been accomplished he was surprised to find how acceptable the driving position turned out to be for a short run. Then my mind mentally flicked back to the fact that Walker and Ian Connell had averaged almost 80 m.p.h. at Le Mans some thirty-six years ago and reflected on just how fortunate the modern racing driver really is, snugly encased in his specially tailored cockpit with all the controls laid out neatly to hand. I can only say that I’m not unduly surprised that there were so many races of short duration held at Brooklands before the War because the Delahaye left me fairly invigorated, if not exactly exhausted, after something over 20 miles. Once on the Dorking bypass there wasn’t much time available to consult the huge circular rev.-counter in the centre of the dashboard, although the engine seemed to develop most of its urge between 2,500 and 3,000 r.p.m. The steering seemed pleasantly sensitive and, while its high gearing made turning in confined spaces quite a problem, it was certainly by no means harsh, and the Cotal gearbox at least allowed me to enjoy driving the Delahaye without wondering whether I’d be left stranded in the middle of a roundabout without any gears. For a novice it was exhilarating to lean out from behind the aero-screen on fast corners and watch the offside front tyre and transverse leaf-spring doing their work, and I was intrigued to notice the apertures in the front mudguards which
had covers over them. It was only later that I realised that these covered-up holes were cut just before the 1939 Le Mans race and used by the drivers to keep an eye on how the front tyres were lasting out.
John Chisman had previously explained that one could easily break adhesion with the Delabaye’s rear wheels, sliding round slow roundabouts in second gear proving no problem, but I declined to attempt such a stunt with Rob’s precious possession. On one particular twisty section I was tempted to “stick my foot in” just a little bit, but a brush with a patch of’ damp tarmac suggested that the Delahaye’s 18 cwt. might be a little quick to get away from me tempered my enthusiasm and with Rob’s advice “You’ll never get her back again if you lose her in the wet” ringing in my ears, I eased back to a more dignified pace. In traffic the Delahaye tended to come to the boil quite quickly but by opening the cooling slats on the bonnet top and giving it a quick burst on an opening stretch, the temperature gauge’s needle finally dropped back to a respectable level.
In its original trim its six-cylinder push-rod engine developed 145 b.h.p. and was quite capable of 120 m.p.h. fitted with an appropriate rear axle ratio. In all respects the Delahaye has been restored to an immaculate condition, as befits a car belonging to Walker’s collection, although one or two details, Pm told, have become “non-original developments” over the years. The car is scrupulously maintained by John Chisman and, unlike some collectors’ pieces which are nice to look at but reluctant to stir into life, the Delahaye can be fired up at a moment’s notice. We spent over two hours happily driving round the Surrey countryside, testing and photographing the car, leaving Rob back at his base not worried in the least as to what might be happening to his piece of motoring history. With a slight feeling of relief, we returned DUV 870 to Dorking where it joined the immaculate 1i-litre Delage and the 1949 Ferrari V12 in which Luigi Chinetti and Lord Selsdon won at Le Mans that year. Although Rob’s modest garage in Dorking houses his personal collection of vintage cars, maintained exclusively by Chisman, Walker still lends his name to the Rob Walker Group which is responsible for Fiat, Alfa Romeo, Lancia, Mercedes and Volvo distribution in Dorset, Wiltshire and Somerset, as well as the immaculate preparation of his own road cars. The 1949 Ferrari is being painstakingly rebuilt for Anthony Bamford to its original specifica tion by Chisman so we were unable to hear its Maranello V12 in action. But Rob simply
insisted that we waited a few extra minutes while John primed and fired up the supercharged Delage for a quick sample of its cacophonous crackle. I felt my head almost throbbing with the vibration as Walker opened the throttle with a delighted look of enthusiasm on his face. For one who had never been so close to a supercharged engine before particularly in such a confined space, it was quite an experience. As the crackling died away and the exhaust fumes gradually dispersed, Walker turned to us and smiled: “In the old days it only took five minutes of this before the telephone started to ring!” I left Dorking fairly confident I knew what he meant.—A.H.