Though fated not to become a household name, Pat Fairfield was much admired by his peers; Andrew Embleton recalls a genial and popular driver
Although Patrick Greenway Fairfield was born in England, on November 26th 1907, he emigrated to South Africa at the age of 15, with his sister Molly and their mother. The family had a large citrus estate at White River, a small town in the Transvaal Lowveld, near the Kruger National Park, and it was decided that Patrick should be equipped with a suitable degree in order to manage the farm. However, on leaving school he was secretly delighted to be refused admission to Cambridge because of his mediocre exam results. He had developed a burning desire to go motor racing.
Reluctantly he set off to England and a “crammer” in Eastbourne, and later went up to Cambridge where he subsequently met his future wife Jean Beckett. He returned with Jean to Capetown, and they were married soon after. The Fairfields settled in White River where Pat assumed the life of a farmer. His daughter Sally was born in November 1932 — a great moment in his life. However, he still yearned to try his hand at motor racing, and eventually persuaded his mother to help finance a venture in Europe. In 1933 the Fairfield family left for England.
Pat joined up with another young hopeful, Cyril Paul, to work under Freddie Dixon in his garages in Middlesborough and Brooklands. He built up a Riley Special, went racing, and soon was tagged with the name “Skidder” Fairfield. Dixon persisted with his training and it was not long before his pupil was driving with his head as well as his plentiful store of courage. In his first year he managed a 13th place overall in the Ards T T and a third in class.
From his Riley background Pat was conversant with ERA technology, and approached Mays to buy a car. In April 1935 he took delivery of a gleaming white ERA at a list price of £1500, the first to be sold to a private owner. It was number R4A, fitted with an 1100cc engine which Pat felt was more appropriate for a beginner like himself.
Early races for R4A included the JCC International Trophy and Donington 1500cc race, but in both the ERA retired with engine failure.
His first success came in the Mannin Beg race on May 29. After refusing to start, the white car eventually rocketed away and was lying third behind Mays and Dixon for most of the race until he finally overtook the other ERA and the crowd looked forward to the battle between master Dixon and his pupil. Dixon had to refuel, and Pat took the flag to give ERA its first win of the 1935 season.
The BRDC British Empire Trophy race saw him sixth, outclassed by bigger machines and plagued by oiled plugs caused by the very slow artificial corners which had been introduced. The Nuffield Trophy followed at Donington where he won and made fastest lap despite the tremendous heat.
At about this time Pat first met the young Prince Birabongse who expressed interest in the ERA. In later years Bira’s wife, Princess Cent Birabongse, was to remember the occasion well. In a letter to the author she wrote, “It was Bira’s great admiration for Pat and his brilliant driving of the white ERA which made him quite determined to have an ERA of his own. Bira was delivered car number R2B, better’ known as “Romulus”, a 1500cc car fitted with a 100mm Murray Jamieson blower. As a result of their friendship Pat was invited to join the “White Mouse” team for the Tourist Trophy, but their Aston Martin broke an oil pipe after only two laps, and they retired.
The teams then crossed to Dieppe. Wuyts and Evans looked after the Bira and Seaman cars and Frank Lee was loaned to Fairfield. With the little 1100cc motor Pat set fastest time for the voitureltes but had no chance against the works 1500cc cars and the experience of Howe (Delage), Veyron (Bugatti) and the large field of Maseratis. Two hours after the start he took the chequered flag and the trophy from Mlle Benoist. Veyron was second and Humphrey Cook third. This success was followed by a quick trip to Limerick where he came second to Louis Fontes in an Alfa, and finally a win at the Brooklands Record Holder’s Handicap on October 19, 1935.
The Fairfield family returned home for Pat to enter the South African Grand Prix on the first of January 1936, held on the Prince George circuit outside East London. Jean-Pierre Wimille was there with Robert Aumaitre attending his 3.3-litre Bugatti. Many of the British contingent attended, including Howe, Eileen Ellison, Cholmondely Tapper, Shuttleworth and Austin and Arthur Dobson. It was a handicap event, and Nuvolari’s cousin, the flamboyant Dr Mario Massacurati of Cape Town, won the race with Pat in third.
Back in England he entered the British Empire Trophy race at Donington on April 4. The event was won by Seaman using a borrowed 2.9 Maserati; Pat came in second with R4A, now using the larger 1500cc motor. But the first real clash of 1936 was the Prince Rainier Cup in Monaco on April 11, where the rivals included Lehoux, Tenni, Villoresi, and Zehender. In practice Pat was third fastest, but the race started badly for him after a multiple crash initiated by Bianco; Pat had to spin his car to avoid the mêlée in front of him. He was push-started as his crankhandle was bent, and he continued to finish in fourth place, only to be disqualified. Bira won, and presented Pat with a silver pencil as a memento.
Raymond Mays had been impressed with Pat’s Progress and invited him to join the works team. On the Isle of Man he finished fourth, his car now painted green as an official works entry. Then it was back to the continent for the Picardie Grand Prix, in which he secured pole position in the final, next to Count Trossi’s Maserati. A huge battle ensued with Seaman, Trossi, Bira and himself. The race was to be remembered for some of the best voiturette duels ever seen. Pat was in the lead right up to the end, when under pressure from Bira he clipped a bank and the Siamese slipped through to win.
The Nuffield Trophy was a disappointment as loss of oil pressure caused an early retirement for but at Albi in France he set second fastest time in the Grand Prix de Albigeois, only to be let down by his gearbox in the race. A week later, on July 19, Pat’s team-mate Marcel Lehoux was killed in a collision with Farina’s Alfa at Deauville.
After Albi the cars were stripped and tested by Pat and Howe at Brooklands before setting out for Switzerland and the Prix de Berne. This was the first time the works cars appeared in black paint, as a result it was said of Mays’ superstition about green. Pat bettered the lap record by eight seconds, but his ERA blew up trying to stay with Seaman’s Delage.
Again at the JCC 200-Mile race at Donington he shattered the 1500cc and unlimited lap record, but blew up on lap 41 of the race. He began to be very concerned about the preparation of the works cars. There was a short visit to the Tourist Trophy races where he finished fourth on the works Lagonda, and then the ERA team left for America and the Vanderbilt Cup on October 12, 1936. It was a memorable trip for Pat: 45 cars were entered, with Mauri Rose hot favourite to win. Enzo Ferrari had sent his trio of Nuvolari, Brivio and Farina, while Sommer had another Alfa. Nuvolari led from the start and was never overtaken. Wimille finished second, followed by Brivio and Sommer. Pat was credited with fifth place, but some subsequent records seem to doubt this. The author has extensive correspondence with Rodney Walkerley on the subject, but there is not space here to debate it.
After New York it was back to South Africa for the Grand Prix, which had the Auto-Unions of Rosemeyer and Von Delius on the entry list. Apart from the Germans, there were Seaman and the Delage, Taruffi and a Maserati plus Reusch on an Alfa. Rosemeyer enthralled the crowd with a lap at 115mph, but the big cars were shredding tyres, and Pat won on handicap from Howe and Cyril Paul, after repurchasing his old 1100cc engine at a premium! The Grosvenor Grand Prix followed on January 16. In the shadow of Table Mountain, von Delius on an Auto Union won, with team-mate Bernd Rosemeyer second. Pat finished fourth on handicap behind Howe in R8B, The Rand Grand Prix on January 30, 1937, was held on a new circuit near Johannesburg, and gave Pat another victory, and a further win in Cape Town where he beat Taruffi, who was using Howe’s R8B, crowned the season for him.
When the teams returned to England, Howe gave a dinner at the Savoy to celebrate Pat’s success, attended by all the leading racing fraternity.
In his first race back in England for the 1937 season, he drove the new R12C and was rewarded with a fourth place in the British Empire Trophy at Donington, putting him in the lead for the coveted BRDC Gold Star. In the same race Mays drove R4C with its Zoller supercharger set to blow at 40psi. The Coronation Trophy was next, marking the opening of the Crystal Palace circuit, in which he again drove R12C, which later gained fame as “Hanuman” with Bira. He won the heat and the final with ease from Mays and Dobson.
At about this time his family suggested that he should retire from racing, but he was deeply committed to his career and replied “I don’t know why you worry so much about my getting hurt or killed. There is going to be a war, and if I don’t get killed driving I shall probably get killed fighting, and I should rather die doing something I love than be killed doing something I loathe, and I should loathe to have to kill.”
In the RAC Light Car race on the Isle of Man Pat finished third behind Bira and Mays, and it was in this race that Chula’s tactical approach began to demonstrate that motor racing was not all driving.
Next was the Campbell Trophy at Brooklands, but Mays blew the number one car up in practice, and the remaining car was beset with brake trouble. The projected Maserati/ERA duel failed to materialise in the Nuffield Trophy at Donington Park, but though the crowds were not disappointed, Pat’s large following of admirers could not know that this was to be his last race in England.
It was fitting that he should be remembered for the way he rocketed through the sylvan setting with no other driver near him. The chequered flag fell for the last time on the man who had done so much to make ERA history. Following him home were Mays and Arthur Dobson. There were great things forecast for him, and his family told of a visitor from Stuttgart.
With 48 points towards the BRDC Gold Star, Pat was well in the lead for the coveted award. Raymond Mays and Bira were in second and third place.
Pat had not intended to enter the Le Mans race of 1937, but when Murray, who had entered a BMW 328, was let down by his co-driver, he asked Pat to fill the gap. With some reluctance he accepted. All the great names were there, and some 58 cars came under the starter on that fateful afternoon of June 21. As the flag dropped, Raymond Sommer took the lead with 24 hours of gruelling driving ahead. But after only eight laps, tragedy struck. Rene Kippeurt came flying through White House corner in a rather unsteady Bugatti attempting to overtake Roth’s slower BMW. Kippeurt slid wildly and was thrown into the road. Trying to avoid the body in the road, Roth swerved through a hedge. Pat arrived in the melee of gyrating cars braking hard, but he could not avoid colliding with the Bugatti and was shunted hard by Tremoulet from behind. Raph arrived, and seeing Trernoulet beneath his wrecked car, chose to hit the trees, then Forrestier, unable to find a gap, ploughed into the middle of the tangle.
Pat was thrown clear, and was seen standing in the middle of the road completely dazed. Kippeurt was dead. Moments later Fairfield dropped to his knees in apparent agony. He was removed unconscious to the hospital, accompanied in the ambulance by Rodney Walkerley’s wife to act as interpreter.
Pat never regained consciousness, and after lingering a while, died when peritonitis set in. David Venables, in his book The Racing Fifteen Hundreds, states, “His death was a cruel blow to the ERA team and was also a cruel loss to British racing.” The whole motoring world received the news in stunned silence. Patrick Fairfield, with his good looks, genial temperament and great driving skill, was gone from the circuits of the world. He was buried in Greatness Park Cemetery at Sevenoaks, Kent, far from the haunting shriek of the supercharged cars he loved.
Tributes poured in. Sammy Davis recorded that; “Pat was one of the cheeriest sportsmen who ever handled the wheel of a racing car.” Richard Seaman wrote in a letter; “It is awfully sad about Pat’s death, especially as the crash was in no way his fault. He was one of the few English drivers who was really a good driver and a sportsman.”
At the Vanderbilt Cup the meeting was preceded by a tribute to the memory of Fairfield who had been so popular there. Howe wrote that, “Pat was one of the finest and nicest people I ever met in racing and he was a great personal friend of mine.” In his book Split Seconds, Raymond Mays said, “in all my life I had not known a finer or more sporting team companion than Pat, and his death was a heavy blow to me.”
Pat’s great friend Prince Bira said, “With our hearts sinking we felt we had lost a good friend in the motoring world. Somehow I did not get used to the idea of not seeing that broad smile of Pat’s at various races and I missed him a great deal.”
In a letter to the author, Rodney Walkerley — “Grand Vitesse” of The Motor — remembered, “He was a most popular driver. Always smiling quietly, quiet-spoken, never ruffled that I know of.”
In recent years Princess Ceril Birabongse recalled, “Pat was a good-looking racing driver. To me he always seemed cheerful and calm, even when things were going wrong for him as they often do in racing — cars breaking down, trouble in practice — and I never saw him to be nervy or angry as I saw in other drivers.”
The British Racing Drivers’ Club commissioned Prince Bira to execute a memorial to Pat. This took the form of a bronze bas relief mounted under a leaping Springbok, showing Pat head and shoulders, with goggles around his neck: carved in stone were his major successes from around the world. The memorial was erected at Donington, and unveiled from beneath the Union Jack and the South African flag. Princess Ceril remembers that, “It was July the 9th and all the drivers and quite a few spectators stood around, and it was very moving as Pat had been extremely popular.”
During Donington’s post-war wilderness years the memorial was moved to Silverstone, but in recent times it returned to a site near Starkey’s Bridge at Donington the scene of Pat Fairfield’s last race, and his last victory.