Boulogne 55 Years Ago

Later this month the VSCC intends to pay a visit to Boulogne, to try to recapture the atmosphere of the Speed Weeks which were well-supported by the British in the vintage years, B. S. Marshall winning in 1924 and 1925 in his Brescia Bugatti, George Eyston in 1926 with a GP Bugatti; and Malcolm Campbell in a GP Bugatti; and Malcolm Campbell in a GP Bugatti in 1927. To whet the appetite I asked R. Dallas-Brett, OBE, a solicitor who founded the Cinque Ports Flying Club and who learnt to fly there in a DH Moth in 1928, and who wrote a two volume “History of British Aviation 1908 – 1914”, to write about the 1923 meeting, which he attended as a boy. – Ed).

I was introduced to motor racing on August Bank holiday in 1911 holiday in 1911 when my uncle took me to Brooklands in his Royal Enfield sidecar outfit on my eleventh birthday. In those days the Brooklands Automobile Racing Club still aped the horse race courses, bookmakers were plentiful in the enclosures and many of the drivers and their riding mechanics dressed up in their owners’ racing colours, like jockeys. I was impressed, I remember, by the crew of a vast Mercedes bedecked in sky blue silk shirts and caps plentifully sprinkled with scarlet stars.

The chief protagonists then were Percy Lambert, who drove a Talbot for the Earl of Shrewsbury, and one Hancock, the works driver for Vauxhall, both of whom lapped Brooklands in their single seaters at over 100 m.p.h. This was exciting, but did not last long as the programme consisted of a series of short sprint races, the longest being only 8 ½ miles and they were always run on a handicap owing to the great disparity in speed between the fastest and the slowest competitors, some of whom were hard put to it to lap at over 70 m.p.h.

Although these short sprints were no doubt great fun for the drivers they did little to sustain the interest of the spectators and, after a few visits, I longed to witness a proper long-distance road race such as were held on the Continent.

The Great War intervened, but when peace came and motor racing was eventually resumed I had a chance, at long last, to realise my ambition. In 1923 my father moved to Folkestone, only an hour and a half from Boulogne-sur-Mer by boat, and we decided to cross over for Boulogne Week and see the real thing.

One cold sense the excitement in the town as soon as the boar glided alongside the quay. The wide road by the harbour, outside the Christol-Bristol hotel, where we stayed, was a favourite promenade for the racing cars and their enthusiastic supporters and the air throbbed with the sound of open exhausts whilst the night life seethed around the Brasserie Liegeoise till dawn. Saturday was reserved for the Grand Prix des Voiturettes for racing cars up to 1,500 c.c., whilst on Sunday the main event was the race for the Coupe Georges Boillot, named after the great Peugeot driver of pre-war days, which was for big touring cars.

Both races were run over 12 laps of the Circuit du Boulonnais which consisted of no less than 23 miles of tortuous, narrow, though and mainly unfenced country roads with one long straight stretch along a section of a Route Nationale; the total length of each race being 276 miles. The Tribunes and the pits were situated about half a mile above the hairpin corner at St. Martin where the cars turned right handed away from Boulogne towards the village of Devres.


The Grand Prix de Boulogne-sur-Mer

My father and I boarded our taxi at about 7 a.m. on Saturday, 1st September 1923 and were driven through the city and up the steep cobbled hill to St. Martin and thence up the course itself to the enclosure opposite the Tribunes whence one could see everything that went on in the pits, just across the narrow road, and watch the huge lap scoreboard.

Some of the racing cars were already at their pits, their mechanics making last minute inspections and adjustments, whilst others were arriving form their hidden lairs, weaving through the traffic with growling exhausts. About an hour later the road was closed, the taxis and private cars dispersed, and one could see the competitors clearly. The most impressive were the team of three Talbot-Darracqs to be driven by H.O.D. Segrave, who had already won the French Grand Prix on a Sunbeam, Kennelm Lee Guinness and Albert Divo. The cars were immaculate, as were their drivers and riding mechanics who wore white linen overalls and racing helmets, the whole equipe giving the impression of quiet efficiency, in marked contrast to some of their competitors who were still working frenziedly on their cars in the pits.

Other entrants in the 1 ½ -litre class were two Aston Martins, one driven by G. E. T. Eyston and the other owned privately by Mrs. Agnew, who rode as mechanic with her driver Morgan, and a number of Bugattis, one of which had been prepared in England and was driven by B. S. Marshall. Another team which attracted much attention was that of three neat Salmsons in the 1,100 c.c. class, which also gave the impression of quiet professional efficiency.

The system of allocating starting positions in accordance with practice lap times had not been thought of then. Indeed it seemed that no practice lap times had been recorded officially, although rumours were plentiful. Instead the cars were sent off in pairs at a few seconds interval, the larger cars first, followed by the 1,100 c.c. class. Each pair advanced slowly to the line as soon as the pair in front had been dispatched, and awaited the starter’s flag, which went up and down very smartly.

Lee Guinness had drawn pole position and went off with Vandenbosche (Bugatti) and Segrave and Divo started together as the third pair, but Lee Guinness did not hold his advantage for long as he was forced to retire on his second lap and poor Divo had the bad luck to break down on his penultimate lap whilst running second to Segrave, who had by then outdistanced all the rest of the field and eventually won comfortably in 4 hr. 8 min. 45.8 sec. at an average speed of 67.3 m.p.h.

The most astonishing performance of the day, however, was put up by Robert Benoist, who led the team of little Salmsons, and who finished second, only 18 min. behind Segrave’s Talbot, thus beating all the other cars in both classes. The two Aston Martins of Mrs. Agnew and G. E. T. Eyston finished third and fourth overall.

The Coupe Georges Boillot

The next day, Sunday, was the big day; the day of the cigognes as it turned out. When my father and I arrived very early at the Tribunes they were sitting there waiting; four silver storks with necks outstretched and down swept wings springing form the massive radiator caps of four Hispano-Suizas. The great cars rested quietly in two pairs at the head of the field, their long flanks gleaming in highly polished French blue enamel, each guarded by its riding mechanic; there was no fuss, excitement or bother. They were clearly absolutely ready to take on all comers.

The other competitors included a 3-litre Bentley driven by Kensington Moir and teams from Chenard et Walcker, Peugeot, Bignan and Bugatti. The Bugattis included a 2 litre Grand Prix straight eight with a tank-like body, which was distinctly out of place in a race supposedly confined to touring cars, but in France such rules were often bent, especially in favour of French cars. As it happened this Bugatti was itself badly bent when its driver, de L’Espees, hit a pile of stones on his 8th lap.

The Hispanos, with their 5 litre engines, were dispatched first, followed in descending power classification by the remaining pairs and when they had all roared away down the straight hill to the St. Martin hairpin, a hush descended over the crowd for about a quarter of an hour whilst the cars battled it out around the long first lap. The French authorities had stationed a trumpeter on the outside of the left hand bend above the pits, from which vantage point he could see up the course for about a mile to the village of Baincthun, and he blew one blast as each car came into his view.

The first blast of the trumpet was followed quickly by two more and one could hear a distant rumbling on the wind. A minute later three Hispanos swept round the fast left hander and headed down towards St. Martin past the Tribunes in close line-ahead formation, each driver holding down the button of his piercing horn to blast any lesser creatures out of his way and they surged past in a crescent of fierce sound, exceeding 100 m.p.h. It was enormously impressive. There was an appreciable pause before the trumpeter signalled the approach of a struggling mass of slower cars, but it was seen that one Hispano was missing already. With such a long course the intervals between the passage of the cars became longer as the race wore on and any competitors dropped out. One could pass the time, however, by walking over the fields to Baincthun where one could see the local villagers, clad in smocks and berets and armed with stop watches, sitting outside their doors on the unguarded pavement keeping the elaborate lap charts. Alternatively one could essay the hazardous passage down the narrow footpath alongside the fast straight to St. Martin hairpin, protected only by a flimsy post and wire fence. The road here was rough and narrow and was bisected at one point by a disused tramway which caused the cars to snake in a menacing manner as they braked hard for the corner. It was an exciting spot, but no place to linger.

The Hispano Suiza team lost two of their cars early on, those driven by the veteran Jean Chassagne and by Masse, in their first and second laps respectively, but the two survivors driven by Garnier and Boyriven swept on relentlessly to finish first and second in 3 hr. 55 min 48.4 sec. and 4 hr. 21 min. 26 sec. respectively, the winner averaging 71 m.p.h.; but even this was not fast enough to defeat the handicappers.

The winner of the Boillot Cup, was a 3-litre Chenard et Walcker driven by Pisart who finished third overall in 4 hr. 46 min. 47 sec., whilst fourth overall came Morillon in a 4½-litre Peugeot. Kensington Moir suffered many misfortunes, mostly tyre trouble, but managed to bring his 3 litre Bentley home in 6th place in 5 hr. 20 min. 50 sec., nearly an hour and a half behind the winning Hispano. Such was the severity of this race that only seven cars finished out of 24 starters.

In those days the circuit was not closed immediately after the winner had crossed the line and it was quite common for one or two cars to be struggling to finish two or three hours after the laurel wreath had been draped around the winner’s neck and the champagne had been opened.

I often wonder how the modern stars, the Laudas, Hunts and Andrettis of this world, would fare if they were called upon to drive for five or six hours round a 23 mile lap on narrow bumpy roads, on thin high pressure tyres, on surfaces so rough that their radiators and their 

faces had to be protected from the flying stones by wire screens. This, of course, is like wondering what would have happened if Ali (The Greatest) had met Joe Louis (the Brown Bomber), both at their prime. I don’t pretend to know the answer, but there is no doubt that there were Giants in those days.

V-E-V Miscellany – Last February, according to a local newspaper report, kindly sent to us by a reader, only three cars out of 20 or 30 in an auction-sale at Gainsthorpe, near Louth, were sold and an SS-Jaguar went for £380. Among the vast collection of spare parts which were disposed of were a Rolls-Royce front axle (£8) and an Edwardian De Dion Bouton engine. The racing Alta once owned by Jack Bartlett is now in Canada, where it went in 1947. A sports two-seater body was put on it but around 1957 it was rebuilt to original single-seater form by E.D. Arnold of British Columbia, for a client. A few years later he bought the car back and is now engaged in a further restoration, which will involve a new chassis frame, although engine, axles, gearbox and body are original. Any pre-war photographs or drawings of this car would be helpful to the rebuild, and can be forwarded. Which reminds us that the Alta Register, whose Secretary is G. Fleming, 16, Queen Elizabeth Walk, Wallington, Surrey, is very happy to announce that The Rt. Hon. The Earl Howe, CBE, DL, JP, has elected to become their Patron, after an approach by A. F. Rivers-Fletcher. The Register caters for enthusiasts for Alta. HMW-Alta, Cooper-Alta and Alta-engined Connaught cars.

Lord Montagu of Beaulieu drove his replica-bodied 1931 blower- 4 ½ Le Mans” (Townsend) Bentley in the Australian International Sydney to Brisbane Veteran and Vintage Rally. Andrew McKay, referring back to our article about driving a modern Sunbeam to the Glasgow Motor Show over the route used by so many Sunbeam-mounted motoring journalists in the past, reminds us that the “Profile” on the Bull-Nose Morris contains a photograph of Castle Court Square in Carlisle during an early 1920s MCC London-Edinburgh Trial, with the “County & Station Hotel” on the left, the Citadel Station in the background, and a taxi-rank in the foreground that has since disappeared. Our correspondent says that hotel hardly changed until the demise of the Carlisle & District State Management Scheme, when it was modernised internally. So, as he says, when it was modernised internally. So, as he says, in this case, ironically, the hotel lost its individuality after it had ceased to be State-controlled whereas the Morris car lost its individuality after the Company that made it became State-owned. Incidentally, this hotel featured in “The Pallisers”. Our correspondent is looking for a pre-1930 Morris tourer to restore and if anyone has such a car, or knows of one that is available, letters can be forwarded. The STD Register will hold its annual pilgrimage to the home of the Sunbeam, Wolverhampton, on July 1st and 2nd and will hold its Sandhurst Driving Tests on September 16th. This year’s Rallye Renault will be held on May 21st, at Weston Park, Shifnal, Shropshire. Details from: A. R. Ronald, Public Relations Department, Renault Ltd., Western Avenue, London, W3 0RZ. In 1930 Capt. Guy Fife Earl of Bruton Street, London, W1 purchased a new Rolls-Royce and, disliking its mascot, gave this to his chauffeur, Hyde. Mrs. Hyde still has this mascot and would like to dispose of it for a reasonable sum, preferably to the present owner of the ex-Capt. Fife Earl car. We have informed the R-R EC so the mascot may already have changed hands, but in case the car still exists but the owner is not a member of that Club, we are inserting this announcement, replies to which can be forwarded to the person acting for Mrs Hyde. Erwin Tragatsch write to point out that it was Dudley Froy who drove that special-bodied Brooklands-model Riley Nine to victory in the 1,100 c.c. class of the 1931 German Grand Prix at the Nürburgring, not Rupert Riley as stated in recent article on these cars, the Riley’s reliability standing it in good stead, says Tragatsch, against the supercharged Amilcar Sixes. The Motor Sport report of the time was correct but we were misled in this instance by a photograph showing Rupert Riley in the car. Apparently Froy drove the car by road from Coventry to Germany and back, thus endorsing its aforesaid reliability.

According to the Bean CC Magazine, two old motoring landmarks in Surrey have gone, the “Hut Hotel” at Wisley on the Portsmouth Road, which was a popular rendezvous for the Cycle-car Club and other motoring organisations, following on the tradition of the bicycling clubs, and the ABC factory at Hersham, which so many of us passed en route for Brooklands. Toby Gurd has become Bean Registrar, instead of David Hales. To mark the end of Cheshire County Council’s ninety years as a licensing authority (the responsibility for vehicle licensing having been transferred to Swansea t the end of March, although excise licences can still be renewed at Chester’s local vehicle-licensing office), a display was held, the centre of attraction being the 1896 Benz which carries the first  Cheshire Reg. No. M1 and which, owned by the late Lord Egerton of Tatton, is normally exhibited in the Servant’s Hall at Tatton Park, Knutsford. Rather than be depressed by the turn of events, Cheshire CC has also issued an amusing and informative book about their licensing activities from 1888 to 1978, which many motoring historians will wish to acquire – see “Book Reviews” in this issue for further details. (The Reg. No. M1, by the way, was issued originally to Lord Egerton’s 24 h.p. Darracq, on December 14th, 1903 and was transferred to his 3½ h.p. Benz, variously dated 1896/87, in 1924).

A reader, Mr. Ridgers of Poole, has sent us an interesting link with the past in the form of details of Pearson’s Self-Fitting Piston, for which S. Pearson, Motor Engineer, of Leigh-on-Sea, had applied for a patent, early in 1934. His idea was a piston in two halves, with an expanding ring above and another below the gudgeon-pin, so that these would expand and hold the piston walls against the cylinder. At a time when frequent re-bores, excessive oil-consumption, and loss of compression were commonplace, such ideas were acceptable but, as our correspondent says, it seems that this one was doomed to failure as the piston would have opened out in one direction only. The Manchester Evening News has been recalling the past with a series called “Life of a Salesman”, in which many references to pre-war motoring occur, the salesman, Myer Castle, learning to drive a 7 cwt. ford Model-T van in the IoM in 1921 and later becoming a Ford salesman in Manchester, until the firm he was with closed its branch when the “T” gave place to the new Model-A. Castle then joined Syd Abrams in Howeard Street, Manchester, in 1926 (the premises still stand) with just three cars for sale, 1921 Hillman and Citroen (£65 each), and an AC (£175). The story continues with his sales career – it should be read by anyone who can get hold of it and I am grateful to the reader who sent in the cuttings. Incidentally, Castle mentions George Pemberton, the auctioneer, who raced his 30/98 Vauxhall at Southport and bet a friend it would go up the steps of one of the big hotels . . . In connection with the “Beating the Bounds” ceremony at Chailey, Sussex on May 28th, the support of historic vehicles is enlisted, details from B. Farrow, Durrants, S. Chailey, E. Sussex. – W.B.

Brooklands’ Pubs

We got a bit muddled recently about some of the hotels in the region of the old Brooklands Motor Course. When I wrote up the VSCC Driving Tests at Brooklands in the March issue, I referred to the “Mit & Spike”, which is what the racing fraternity often called the “Hand & Spear”. In the article last month about Ron Horton I said that he sometimes stayed at the “Ship Hotel”, when racing his MGs at Brooklands. Unfortunately the locations of these well-known hotels were transposed. The “Hand & Spear” is, of course, close to the Station at Weybridge, not in Byfleet, and the “Ship” is down in Weybridge town, again not in Byfleet. The former was very much the place where the motorcyclists, members of the BMRC – “Bemsee” – used to drink and although it is not so full of racing pictures as formally, it is where the Brooklands Society now has a meeting place, notably after Track-clearing sessions. There used to be great fun-and-games there before the war, if the racing fraternity were in a happy mood. The “Ship” was more sedate, but in an alley-way beside it was a man who made many of the Brooklands’ silencers which were compulsory from 1924 onwards. Another popular meeting place was the “Blue Anchor” in Byfleet, all these hotels still being in existence and the “Hand & Spear” not having changed much since Robert Louis Stevenson stayed there to write “Treasure Island”. Brooklands had its own restaurants and I believe it was on the balcony of the one attached to the Clubhouse that the great character “Bummer” Scott was once de-bagged in the friendliest possible way and his trousers flung over board. Unfortunately the “Army & Navy” van, which had been replenishing the Brooklands Clubhouse, was passing at the time, on its way back to London, probably a solid-tyred Guy, or somesuch. The trousers landed on its roof and those present were rewarded with the memorable sight of “Bummer” rushing after the van in his underpants to retrieve them, before it entered the tunnel and picked up speed –W.B.