The motor racing of Antony Powys-Lybbe
Recalled in a recent interview with the Editor
I had long regarded Antony Powys-Lybbe as the personification of the amateur racing driver who was notable for many successes with those distinguished Monza and monoposto Alfa Romeos. The other day he kindly entertained me at his house in Hertfordshire so that we could recall the days when he was an active participant in the sport. Asked what turned his interests in a motoring direction, he confessed that his father, one of a famous family which can be traced back to estates in Ludlow in 1250, had kept cars, including such exciting machinery as a Sixty Mercedes and a venerable 1908 Berliet landaulette that continued in service up to 1922. But Antony Powys-Lybbe, who was five when Europe was plunged into hostilities, says such family transport had very little influence on him, although he was taken to Brooklands in the 1920s.
It was after he had entered the Army and had time to spare that he took up competition motoring as a pastime. His first vehicle had been a Morgan three-wheeler. This was followed by a Morris Minor and a Swift Ten. The latter was used for his first essay at cornpetition work. Stationed at Catterick, he went in for a Richmond & DMCC event. As everyone else was on motorcycles, the Swift was given an award, as the only car competitor! His appetite whetted, Powys-Lybbe took his late father's 20/60 Vauxhall saloon (the General Motors model) through an MCC London-Edinburgh Trial.
Powys-Lybbe bought a new 12/60 Alvis, in 1931. By 1932 Powys-Lybbe had decided to use the Alvis for racing. Wishing to continue driving in trials, he acquired a 1912 Talbot 12 CT for £25, a car Malcolm Campbell had used for hill-climbs. It was endowed with a light body and headlamps set close together, as on later racing Talbots, and was introduced to the SODC at their Night Trial, with Hubert Hardy as passenger. The pre-war Talbot did very well, winning the 1933 Hess Challenge Cup in the Night Trial but was later destroyed in an accident. It was replaced by an OE 30/98 Vauxhall, bought for £24 and in poor condition, so that it was continually running bearings. There is a fine picture of it in one of his photograph albums (kept, incidentally, by his enthusiastic sister), ascending a typical trials hill with the May brothers in the back, adding weight over the driving wheels. There is insufficient space here to deal with all Powys-Lybbe's competition exploits, but the Talbot and the Vauxhall were used for various events, the former, which was "faster than a 3-litre Bentley", even doing an Experts' Trial, climbing Litton Slack and other famous hills.
Powys-Lybbe had tasted speed work in 1931, when he ran his Alvis in the MCC One Hour High Speed Trial at Brooklands, etc. It was then a "very ugly" high-radiator car. With a 12/50 big-port head and short-stroke crankshaft it was gradually developed into a very useful competition car. Its owner contrived dry-sump lubrication by bolting a second oil-pump beneath the original one, driving it by an extended shaft, and he tuned it in various other ways. He was friendly with Michael and Toby Max', who were also drastic tuners of Alvis machinery.
The Alvis had been taken through the 1933 Land's End Trial, in which it overturned when its driver dozed off for a moment. Much allnight toil had it racing at Brooklands on the Easter Monday. It had now been given an aluminium duck's-back body, purchased for £2. At the Whitsun Meeting its driver was already using his later well-known wide sweep round the Fork hairpin in Mountain races, but there exists photographic evidence that he missed a marker-tub on one lap by less than a hairsbreadth! The Alvis was taken to the first Donington car meeting, carrying a passenger, who was bare-headed like the driver (no insistence on protective clothing then!) and it came second to a Frazer Nash in its heat. Later the car was lowered, and fitted with a handsome pointed-tail body and under-shield. In order to meet the new low lines a radiator, with the original "inverted-triangle" badge, from a scrapped 11/22 h.p. Alvis, was used. In this form the car was a close second to an MG Magna at the 1933 Stanley Cup Meeting at Brooklands. The following year, in this form, the Alvis won a 5-lap handicap from Percival's Frazer Nash and Doreen Evans' MG, averaging 81.24 m.p.h. in spite of coasting over the line with a dead engine, after the timing-gears had stripped. Its best lap was at 88.15 m.p.h. It was all a great social occasion in those days and Powys-Lybbe's friends had urged him over the line to pull off this rather dramatic victory. . . The Alvis was again run at Donington that year, while at Brooklands it lapped at 90.22 m.p.h. in the 1935 First August Short Handicap, but was unplaced.
In 1932 Powys-Lybbe had ordered an ex-Team Talbot 105 from Fox & Nichol but when he looked at it there did not seem to be many racing features left on it, although he was informed that it had special brake drums. So he went off to see Georges Roesch, at Barlby Grove, who told him that he "would be looked after". However, it seemed prudent to cancel the order and the agents raised no objection. For 1934 a Silver Eagle Alvis four-seater was acquired. It was a 1929 model costing about £100. It did well in the SODC Spring Trial, gaining a Premier Award, and was then tuned by its owner for racing; he did all the work himself, except for specialised machining, etc. Before this he had continued to run the smaller Alvis at Donington, often going up alone, towing one Alvis with the other, on a self-steering bar. On one such occasion the car being towed came off the bar and ran into a thorn-hedge. It was undamaged, so was rehitched and Powys-Lybbe proceeded, not realising that the hedge had suffered. However, someone had taken the number of the towing car and he received an irate letter from the owner of the hawthorns. He Called on the gentleman concerned, who was soon appeased by the promise (fulfilled) of the loan of "Extracts from the Diaries of Caroline Lybbe Powys", by then out of print. ... The Silver Eagle was also run in the CUAC speed-trials, driven by Michael May. The 12/50-engined "1 1/2-seater" Alvis was still being raced in 1935, Powys-Lybbe winning a Mountain Handicap with it at the Whitsun Brooklands Meeting, and it still appeared occasionally at Donington. The Silver Eagle Alvis was run in the Ulster TT in 1934 and 1935,a more ambitious undertaking, the Brooklands tuner, Robin Jackson, now breathing on the engine, and the lighter body off May's 2-litre Alvis being fitted. Although the car Was not exactly standard, haying a Speed 20 cylinder block and head by 1935, the Scrutineer, flugh P. McConnell, passed it without comment, probably knowing it was unlikely to finish "in the money". It retired, in fact, on both occasions, but lapped at over 77 m.p.h. in the 1935 race. In TT trim this car won its class at the Shelsley Walsh hill-climb, helped no doubt because its owner had worked out how to obtain closer ratios than were in a normal close-ratio SE gearbox.
Apart from racing, the subject of this interview had taken part in one trial or another almost every weekend, with greater or lesser success, in ears of varying suitability. He took part in events run by Clubs large and small„ including his own local Sporting Owner Drivers' Club, in cars which included the four-and six-cylinder Alvises, a standard-wheelbase 5th Series Lancia Lambda, the OE 30/98 Vauxhall and the aforesaid 1912 Talbot.
Already Powys-Lybbe had gained much experience and he now decided that the time had come to try motor racing with a real car. He is a modest man, addicted to attributing any success that came his way to luck, or the misfortune of others. He was, in fact, a driver of great intelligence, having no affinity with those who took cars off the line brutally, cornered on ridiculous "lines", and/Or punished their brakes into corners. He had a high opinion not only of Nuvolari, but of such British drivers as Whitney Straight and Dick Seaman, etc. To emulate them as far as his skill allowed, he purchased the 2.3-litre Monza Alfa Romeo that had been used with success by such famous drivers as the Hon. Brian Lewis, John Cobb and Luis Fontes. It was the car with Which Fontes had won the JCC International Trophy race, having hired it because his MG was unready, the car carrying No. 13 and its driver never having driven this kind of car before. Powys-Lybbe entrusted it to T & Ts and it used to be taken to distant races by train, accommodated literally in a fruit or similar van.
With this Monza Alfa Romeo Powys-Lybbe had to learn to drive all over again and at first found the Monza very uncomfortable, the ride being so hard, especially when the fuel tank was nearly empty, so that it was inadvisable to eat for three hours before a race. After the British Empire Trophy at Donington, a tiring 300-mile race, his hands were badly blistered and thereafter he -wore gloves, and he learned to take a light grip on the steering wheel, flexing his wrists and forearms instead of moving the biceps up and down, when cornering. Although drivers sat close to the wheel in those days. Powys-Lybbe took more armstretch than many. The Alfa Romeo, like a Bugatti, had very light Steering, which it paid to treat lightly.
This Monza proved an extremely reliable Car. Indeed, the engine Was only overhauled after four seasons. But, it was very sensitive indeed to climate. With alcohol fuel the carburation had to be carefully adjusted to weather conditions and even then, if it was fine and warm on one part of a circuit but damp and Cooler elsewhere, the engine would misfire quite badly through over-richness, whenever it ran into the sunshine, as happened at Cork. One had always to guard against running lean and having a small hole appear in a piston
crown, though no valve had touched it. Melted, of course!
With this Alfa Romeo, owned today by the Hon. Patrick Lindsay, Powys-Lybbe had some good racing. He was fifth in the 1936 British Empire Trophy Race at Donington, had transmission trouble in the "200", but was running at the finish of that year's Donington GP. In Ireland the car and driver excelled. Second to Tongue's ERA in the Cork GP, finishing ahead of a monoposto Alfa Romeo on handicap, Powys-Lybbe then won the 150-mile County Down Trophy handicap, set ting a lap record of 86.66 m.p.h. and averaging 84.36 m.p.h. The previous lap record was at 82.87 m.p.h. by Fontes in 1935, in the same car. Powys-Lybbe saved time by not slowing for hump-hacked bridges but a cracked side member was discovered not long afterwards. So he Says Fontes deserved the greater credit— for discretion!
In 1937 the Alfa Romeo was third in the Campbell Trophy Race at Brooklands, behind two Maseratis, and at Cork, partly in pouring rain, that suited Powys-Lybbe, he was second to an MG on handicap, having lapped in the rain seven m.p.h. faster than Charlie Martin, who was driving a 2.9-litre monoposto Alfa Romeo. He then went to Portugal for the Vila Real GP, in company with Rayson and his 4C Maserati. He was urged to make a go of it but was content to drive sensibly in the aged car and when Rayson and several Others retired, Powys-Lybbe came in a comfortable second. That is how he modestly puts it, but there is no doubt that he Was now a very formidable opponent. . .
He found the light steering of the Monza good in the wet and liked to take the widest possible line on corners, exactly cutting the apex—this once caused him to be called before the Brooklands Clerk-of-the-Course for going too high, as the Observers thought, on the Members' banking corner on the Mountain course. The fuel for the Monza's engine was mixed by Pratt's (Esso) in Milk churns and these short Irish races did not call for pit-Work. T & Ts sent a mechanic out with the car, usually Bob Redding, Who was an excellent engine fitter, who had built up the engine of Lord Howe's 1 1/2-litre Delage and those of many famous cars, including the Napier Lion engines in Cobb's LSR car, under Ken Taylor's supervision, of course. in Portugal, though, Powys-Lybbe had to mix the fuel himself, in four carboys, Toby May helping. Dunlop Mac looked after tyres, but free ones were never provided. At first there was a small discount off the price, rising to 50% after Powys-Lybbe had started to win races. Incidentally, Powys-Lybbe joined the Brooklands Aero Club in 1937, not because he was an aviator, but because it was less expensive than the BARC and you could see all the races after having gained admission to the Aero-drome. Also, "you got a better lunch"!
The Alvis four-seater had continued to gain places at Brooklands in 1936 and 1937, along with the Alfa Romeo, the Monza lapping at 122.97 m.p.h. In 1937 Lybbe shared the ex Campbell 4-litre V12 Sunbeam with Brackenbury, in the BRDC 500-Mile Race. It was his first experience of a pre-selector gearbox. The engine was very smooth and the ride very comfortable hut 3rd gear slipped, and there were no brakes to speak of. Brackenbury took the first stint and, when he came in, wiped the rim of the steering wheel for his co driver, which Lybbe thought rather nice. He soon found this was because the engine was flinging out so much oil that goggles and glasses had to be discarded and pit-signals could not be read, so that when told to ease-off, he went faster, tucking in behind the Bimotore Alfa Romeo. In the end they were placed fourth, Powys-Lybbe having lapped at 132.8 m.p.h.
In 1937 he bought in Milan that Plate-modified 1 1/2-litre straight-eight Talbot-Darracq, thinking it would be useful for voiturette racing, like the Delage of Earl Howe, and later of Dick Seaman. But it was an error of judgement and although it was brought to England by LEP Transport and was raced once or twice, it was soon sold. The Plate chassis was too high and narrow and was "no use at all".
After the war he bought the ex-Raph, ex-Jill Thomas 2.9-litre monoposto Alfa Romeo from T & Ts. At Curragh in 1949 they had to work all night replacing a burnt-out piston. This meant that after "Benny" Benstead had sent his driver to bed this T & T fitter removed the block and changed the piston on his own. It was wet for this Wakefield Trophy Race and after Walker's ERA and Watson's Alta had gone up the escape road at the first corner and Salvadori's Maserati had crashed at the same place and caught fire, all Powys-Lybbe had to do—or so he says—was to keep ahead of Fotheringham-Parker's 6C Maserati. He won, at 71.82 m.p.h. In 1950 he won the Ulster Trophy and the racing-car class in the Leinster Trophy from scratch, but retired in the Wakefield Trophy.
Powys-Lybbe says this 2.9 Alfa Romeo was just as reliable as his 2.3. Legend says that bottom gear would break up if used for anything but starting. This was quite untrue, but the secret was sensible handling, just as, when he had complained to Cobb about juddery brakes on the 2.3, he was told they were not intended to be slammed on while the driver was looking for an escape road! The 2.9 Alfa still had its pre-war engine bearings in 1954 and it also had its pre-war brake linings! The gearbox, as has been said, gave no trouble. It was a faulty magneto that caused it to retire from the only VSCC race, at Silverstone, for which Powys-Lybbe entered it.
I think he found those Irish road races the best fun, regardless of tramlines and the proximity of lamp-posts, stone walls and spectators! He would go over accompanied by some of his young sons and enjoy himself;
He found this mixed road-racing quite safe, "because the flag-marshals were so good and the Irish drivers, even of slow Ford Specials and the like, knew what it was all about." It was there that, wearing glasses and with his cap invariably back-to-front, Powys-Lybbe was known as the "school-masteez. This has caused some of us to assume this to have been his profession, but, in fact, his addiction is to music, not academics. (He brushes off his charter of electrical engineering.) There is a picture of him, with this typical head-gear, being presented to the Prime Minister of N. Ireland, after winning there. "I suppose I should have taken my cap off," comments the aristocratic Powys-Lybbe, with a twinkle in his eye. . . .
Incidentally, the 2.9 Alfa Romeo was sometimes taken to races in T& T's ex-Straight Dodge furniture-van. This gave rise to the rumour on one occasion that Powys-Lybbe didn't have anything but the racing car, because after winning in Ireland he went the 30 miles to the prize-giving party by bus. In fact, it was customary to leave the van in Liverpool and drive the monoposto from the docks to the circuit, to which the Irish police raised no objection. But, of course, this left Powys-Lybbe without road transport after dark!
The subject of this interview is, as I have said, very modest. He has described his racing to me as "such a non-career", saying it took him 22 years to learn a glimmering of the technique, "bit by bit, chance by chance, and then it was too late." He found that the zest had gone. Winning came to give him little pleasure and it even seemed to be a bit vulgar and pointless, and he never went to a race again.
But the interest in cars remains. Before the war, there was a 1900 two-cylinder Fiat, bought for £10 from Cecil Burney, ex-Ken Kirton of Honiton, and driven in VCC Brighton Runs, Stafford-East being a passenger on one of these. And even the monoposto Alfa Romeo was largely worked on by its owner, in the home barn, although the Plate-Talbot's engine had been rebuilt by Ken Taylor.
I asked what other road-cars Powys-Lybbe had owned, apart from those already discussed. "I gave my wife a Fiat 500 in 1937 as a wedding-present," he said, "and it was used as our only car for some years after the war." It made an appropriate tender-car to the veteran Fiat on Brighton Runs. Before that he had enjoyed using twin-cam 3-litre Sunbeams. He bought his second for £16 and after Bob Redding, the T & T fitter, had done the engine, it ran for 50,000 miles without so much as requiring the valve-clearances re-set. A late 1927 model with the big steering-box and servo brakes, it was "a lovely car", with splendid steering. It towed the racers and another of these Sunbeams was kept for spares. Then, when stationed in Ireland during the war, he ran it too long without an oil-change and a piston picked-up. Years later he was told by an Irishman, who seemed very pleased with himself, that the Sunbeam engine had been repaired and put into a Talbot chassis, probably a 14/45. "Luckily, I was speechless," comments Powys-Lybbe! After the war, with a growing family and the monoposto Alfa Romeo to tow, Powys-Lybbe invested in a dependable 1930 Austin Twenty 7-seater limousine.
Having had experience of Staff Buicks during the war, a later towing-car was his 1935 straight-eight of this make, which also had nice steering. It cost about £100 and was sold for £10, nine years later. Then, in the 1960s, Powys-Lybbe bought a Mk. VI Bentley standard-steel saloon and this he still has. At the time of my visit it was dismantled, right down to the chassis, and its owner was painstakingly re-assembling it, after every worn part had been, or is about to be, replaced, doing as much of the work as possible himself. Meanwhile, transport is provided by a little Peugeot 304 saloon, although the under-bonnet inaccessibility of its front-wheel-drive layout is not to the liking of this exacting amateur engineer/ex-racing driver.—W.B.