Flat chat with Sammy Davis

Le Mans winner, editor and raconteur, 93-year-old Sammy Davis had plenty of tales to tell. Brendan Lynch was his audience

Sammy Davis saw Queens Victoria and Elizabeth II, The Titanic and Concorde, Charles Jarrott and James Hunt and survived two World Wars (that claimed his brothers and father). Yet at the age of 93 he had the energy of a teenager, the recall of a computer and an opinion on everything. His quizzical eyes sparkled and his only complaint was: “The engine is fine, but the chassis is starting to give [me] a bit of bother!”

It was 1980, and he was living happily in a small Guildford apartment with his wonderful companion, wife Susie. Despite writing numerous books and editing The Autocar (for 32 years!), this Brooklands and Le Mans winner had profited only modestly from his exploits. His apartment’s only source of warmth was a paraffin heater which he regularly refuelled in between oil painting and feeding the birds that often tapped on his first-floor window.

Following the heart attack that killed him the day before his 94th birthday, that same heater set fire to the flat. It was a sad end for such an accomplished and eternally youthful man.

It was during an Australian cruise that his parents first noted Sammy’s presence. The ‘bump’ was born at 68, Philbeach Gardens, London on January 9, 1887, and it was christened Sydney Charles Houghton Davis.

“My father was a wonderful horseman,” recalled SCH. “And my mother was a pioneer cyclist. But then my father became very enthusiastic about the new cars. And then an uncle who owned a Benz let me steer it on the Finchley Road just before 1900. Three years later, my father took me to Versailles to see the start of the Paris-Madrid: so many cars, such excitement, such speed. That was when I decided I wanted to be a racing driver.

“I knew of Jarrott, of course, and saw [Leslie] Porter in the Wolseley which he later crashed. Those Wolseleys were wonderful cars. They were the forerunner of the modern racer: very low and with some considerable effort at streamlining. Old ‘Pa’ Austin would have it that the right engine would be horizontal and insisted on making the Wolseley engines that way. But he did not take into account that the ordinary person didn’t want a car that was different to the others: all the famous makes had engines that were vertical… And the public didn’t want chain-drive either. They wanted a better car of the type they understood. That said, I still think that had ‘Pa’ had more money, and a chance to develop his own ideas, he would have built a great machine. If you look at the results of the early races, the Wolseleys were faster than the Napiers — and more reliable.”

Shortly after the Paris-Madrid — and little dreaming that he would one day race there — SCH went to Dublin for the Gordon Bennett Cup.

“I wasn’t supposed to be there, and I didn’t see as much as I would have liked. The race was the cat’s whiskers for the enthusiastic Irish. But no-one worried about which rule of the road applied, the Irish or the Continental one. When [Camille] Jenatzy came up to overtake [Percy] Owen’s Winton, it kept to the left side of the road. Jenatzy considered this entirely wrong and, when he eventually got by, shook his fist and yelled abuse at Owen in French!

Jenatzy’s appearance fitted the popular notion of the Devil: thin, big nose, hollow cheeks, red beard. He was wildly excitable, too. Whereas other people went around the corners with a skid or two, he was all over the place. The road was full ofJenatzys!

“At the age of 17,1 played truant in order to see the RAC inspection of Britain’s 1904 Gordon Bennett cars. I was walking down Piccadilly when I saw four men pushing one of the Darracqs built by Weirs of Glasgow from drawings sent over by the French. The men were delighted when I started to push with them and in we went to the garage. Edge and Jarrott were there. They knew immediately that I wasn’t one of the team but they were very nice to me. I think they rather enjoyed my impertinence in getting in there.

“In 1906, I cycled with a friend to France to see the first grand prix at Le Mans. It was very interesting as all the firms sent entries. Racing was not so much a sport as a business! Unlike the Gordon Bennett, for which a country could only send three cars, you now got to see all the best cars and drivers. That grand prix was a terrific race. [Ferenc] Szisz won, but my favourite was the second-placed man, [Felice] Nazarro, who was extraordinarily good.

“Léon Théry was another man whom I admired very much in those days. He was the opposite of Jenatzy: no sensations, no skids, just absolute mechanical accuracy. He’d reappear right on time, whereas the pace of other drivers always varied. It was no surprise that he won the 1904 and 1905 Gordon Bennett races, as well as the French Eliminating Trials.”

Sammy attended Slade Art School before earning his first crust as as apprentice with Daimler. While there he helped construct cars for the Herkomer Trophy races. “The trouble was we couldn’t test them,” Sammy explained. “We made it up to the local head of the police and were allowed one run on the perfectly straight Warwick road, provided we disappeared like lightning before the phone started to ring with complaints. That was a major handicap in those days. With the speed limit and no circuit, the brakes, gears and engine were not tested enough to do anything in a real race.

“And that was the great significance, from 1907 on, of Brooklands. Except, of course, that Brooklands was mainly a speed course and didn’t test the brakes and gears, which the French could do every day on an actual road circuit. I far preferred road circuits and didn’t find Brooklands interesting. In the early days, if you were doing 80 or 90mph, you were going very fast, but there was nothing to do — you just went round and round.

“Later on that all changed. As the cars got faster, they were more restricted by the design of the circuit and it provided the effect of a road race. One had to be jolly careful in getting onto the banking and off it again.

“I had raced motorcycles, but my first motor race came as a result of knowing S F Edge, for whose AC team I drove at Brooklands in the Junior Car Club’s first 200 Mile race in 1921. Brooklands was not a suitable venue for such a long race and our cars were only ready at the last minute. After a quarter of the distance, a valve went in one cylinder. In the pits, I told Edge: ‘Valve or no valve, we’re going to finish!’ And on we went, long after all the others had finished.”

It was his famous 1927 Le Mans success (at the age of 40) that enshrined Sammy in the pantheon of motor racing legends. That was the year, of course, of Bentley’s multiple pile-up at the White House.

“The drama of the accident was in the pits, not in the crash itself,” insisted Sammy. “It was team management which invariably won races. People always ask if I was frightened. How can you get frightened in one-hundredth of a second? My chief concern was that one might never be asked to drive again!”

The accident took place just as darkness fell. A French car spun, half-blocked the road and was in turn hit by a Schneider and the Bentleys of [Leslie] Callingham and [George] Duller.

“One approached downhill — and very fast. I was behind Duller when I came around the blind right-hander to find the road absolutely blocked. The peculiar thing is that, as I approached, I saw white specks on the road. l eased off a little because the objects reminded me of chestnut wood I had seen scattered during a 1924 French Grand Prix accident. But I still hit the wreckage at speed. My immediate concern was for my team-mates, — but I also thought of my racing future, especially because the previous year I had crashed out with a brake problem after being ordered to go flat out for a possible second place.

“I eventually managed to retrieve the car and staggered back to the pits. The car’s right-hand side was badly affected: mudguard and running board crumpled, headlamp gone, frame bent and axle pushed back. It was very difficult to drive at first, but the biggest problem was the absence of the right-hand headlamp, because all the corners were right-handers!

“But the amazing thing is that ‘Benjy’ [his co-driver, Dudley Benjafield] and I got accustomed to the new handling, although the steering was funny and the brakes came on one, four, three, two. As we plodded along, we discovered that we were going much faster than we thought possible. We had no idea of winning. Just to finish would have been a great relief. And then I got the ‘Flat Out!’ signal. ‘In this thing? That’s asking for trouble,’! thought. But faster we went and gradually the leading Aries cars began to drop out.

“Benjy had the last driving spell. But suddenly, with a few laps left, he pulled into the pits and jumped out of the car.! was smoking my pipe and didn’t know what was going on. ‘You had all the trouble with the crash, you will finish the race,’ he said. And let me tell you, after the previous year’s experience, those were the most nervous laps of any race I ever drove.

“We’d both worried about the steering but then we forgot about it. But do you know, a few months ago, a mechanic wrote in a story something which gave me the creeps — half a century after the event. When they got the car to the works, they discovered that one of the ball-joints was cracked half-through. It makes one wonder what we’d have done if we’d known at the time.”

SCH’s biggest Brooklands success was his victory in the 1930 500 Mile race in the little supercharged Austin that he shared with Lord March.

“That car was astoundingly rapid for its size. Before the race a Socialist paper had written: So-called Lords and Misters Will Run at Brooklands Today. After Freddie and I won, they wrote: So-called Earl and Minion Win Race. Freddie laughed at this and later gave me a delightful souvenir, a plaque that showed the Austin and upon which he’d had inscribed: To my minion.

“Brooklands was also the scene of my worst accident. I reluctantly agreed to drive an Invicta in a Mountain circuit race. It was raining and the car felt tricky on the first lap. It then rained even more and, when I went up onto the banking,! found that the car wanted full lock to keep going straight. Like lightning, the tail came down again and, with the very low-geared steering, I couldn’t get the wheel over in time.I was headed for railings, behind which were a lot of spectators. I pulled on the handbrake to make the damn thing spin, but it never moved an inch. By working like hell, I managed to miss the railings and the looming telegraph pole. But the hawser which anchored the pole to the track got behind the right wheel — and over I went. My right leg was shattered, but the surgeon did a capital job: though my foot is a little ‘off course’, the leg works perfectly and is the same length as the other.”

Sammy admired many drivers, but had a real soft pot for Tazio Nuvolari…

“I liked him immensely. I raced against him in the TT’, and there was something about the way he drove, about the whole atmosphere around him. Unlike the other drivers, he was full of fun. He would look around and wave to you!

“I always liked [Robert] Benoist, too. We had great fun once at Le Mans. We were both going too fast for the turn at the beginning of the town, so we had to go right into the town, around a memorial and back out, during which we expressed our opinions of each other’s talents with various rude gestures! We had some rows but we made up when sitting in the cafés during practice.

“As well as being such a superb driver John Cobb was also a very nice man. I remember being with him in the Riley TT team and we came around a fast corner to find that he had crashed. He was uninjured, but we were very worried about his mechanic Paddy, who was crawling around on all fours. We learned later that he was looking for his dentures, which he never recovered!

“Another driver I liked immensely was Sir Algemon Guinness. There was nothing he wouldn’t do. He tried to drive through the doors of an Isle of Man hotel once with three ornamental ladies on the bonnet. Once, he moved a kilometre post nearer to its companion to help a French record-breaker.”

Snow was falling when I set out from London for Sammy’s funeral at Brookwood cemetery on Friday, January 16, 1981. Though the conditions worsened,! managed to keep my campervan pointing in the right direction until I reached the cemetery. At which point it slewed one way and then the other. Finally it stopped broadside — inches from a pristine Bentley. How Sammy would have chuckled.