A breath of French air

The Anglo-French Boulogne confrontations of the 1920s provided lots of variety, plenty of excitement and a tantalising glimpse of the European scene. By Bill Boddy

Between the two world wars, motor racing became a popular sport. At first, however, not many British enthusiasts could afford to attend overseas events to see mad racing, which was banned on the English mainland. But Boulogne, just across the Channel, offered them less costly, easier visits and the annual Motor Weeks there became very popular. Top-class racing drivers such as Henry Segrave, Malcolm Campbell, George Eyston, Andre Boillot, Albert Divo, Kenelm Lee Guinness, John Duff and Parry Thomas took part. These Boulogne affairs were encouraged by a remarkable Englishman, Frank Pickett, whose influence and financial assistance enabled the AC du Nord to close the roads, build pedestrian barriers and put up grandstands. His vast wealth derived from persuading the French government to allow him to accumulate, as scrap metal, wartime shells from the Calais-Marck dumps. Many of the shells were still lethal until defused so he was allowed a private army to protect his stock from theft, on safety grounds! Pickett was a friend of Capt Archie Frazer-Nash and Ron Godfrey of GN fame, and he acquired a racing Akela GN which he entered for the 1922 and '24 JCC 200-Mile races at Brooldands, nominating his chauffeur Ringwood, a capable racer, for the latter event

The Speed Weeks began seriously in 1921, gaining momentum as the British Brooklands and sprint exponents joined in. The course for the races had a lap distance of 23 miles. The long straight of the closed Boulogne-St Omer road was followed by a right-hander and a shorter straight towards Desvres, then a right-handed loop leading to another long stretch past the stands near the difficult St Martin hairpin.

At the first Speed Week in July, the opening day was devoted to a 3km flying-start speed trial, a 1krn standing-start run and a 600-metre, undulating, tree-flanked hillclimb from a standing start, the best performance over the three tests to count. Jules Goux's 4.9-litre straight-eight Ballot won, while Voisins were first and second in the touring class, a Vauxhall third.

The Georges Boillot Cup occupied Saturday, and a 232-mile race for light cars was held on Sunday. Frazer-Nash made fastest lap in the latter race before a big-end failed in the engine from `Mowgli' in his GN. French GNs finished 1-2-4 in this four-hour Cyclecar GP, at 50mph. The elegant Hispano-Suiza of André Dubonnet collected the Georges Boillot Cup, at 65mph, a success the marque repeated the following year with Paul Bablot

By 1923, the appeal of this ambitious Franco-British event had sunk in, and Coatalen entered his team of new "Invincible" 1.5-litre Talbots to be driven by Segrave, Divo and Lee Guinness, challenged by Eyston's Aston-Martin and Mrs Agnew's Aston-Martin driven by Robert Morgan, she as passenger. Segrave and Divo led the early stages of this 278-mile race, running in close company until Divo's car lost its magneto drive. Guinness also retired, and so Segrave scored another victory, at 67.5mph, from Morgan and Eyston, and the Bugattis of Boulogne garage owner René Dely and B S Marshall, who had much tyre trouble. Robert Benoist and Bueno were 1-2 in works Salmsons in the 1100cc class, ahead of the GNs, entered as Frazer Nashes, of Pickett's chauffeur E Ringwood, Frazer-Nash and Leon Cushman, the British trio winning the Pickett Cup for the best team performance.

Parry Thomas's Leyland set FTD in the sprints, bettering by 0.2sec Victor Rigal's time in the Panhard-Levassor, but he had changed to smaller rear wheels after the third run, saying he wished to save the tyres, of a size already difficult to obtain, for Brooklands. This, though, was against the rules, so Rigal protested and Thomas was disqualified. The marshals had reminded him of the ruling, and so the protest appeared justified. Also, the lower gear ratio provided by the smaller wheels would have been beneficial in the standing-start kilometre and hillclimb.

By 1924, the Speed Week was in full swing, spectators from Britain having no need for passports for the two days of the races. Opening with the sprints, the aggregate best time was that of J A Joyce in the lightweight AC, including the 1-in-12 hillclimb just outside Boulogne up a road bordered by houses and flanked by tramlines, ending with a gradual bend. The sprints were held over the steeply cambered 3km road with a 1-in-14 downhill section. When Thomas's run in the big Leyland was announced, the more timid onlookers took to the ditches! Indeed, his speed was not far short of 130mph, winning at 127.57mph from Major Coe's 30/98 Vauxhall.

The weather changed drastically for the Light Car GP de Boulogne on Saturday. The winner, Marshall in his 200-Mile Race FVVB Brescia Bugatti, was covered in mud, his mechanic changing his goggles every four laps of the 225 miles. Eyston had made fastest lap in the Aston Martin and might have won had he not had to swerve into a ditch when another driver, pulling over to let him pass, hit a pile of grass-hidden stones which threw him broadside into Eyston's path. The latter's AM hit a telegraph pole and was out.

Marshall averaged 54.38mph and drove an impeccable race in awful conditions, safeguarding against his previous year's tyre troubles by running his Engleberts at 361b/sq in and having five security bolts for each one. Presented with a cup, flowers and traditional Boulogne fish, he gave the flowers to a local hospital and put the fish on the town's war memorial. There were just two other finishers: the almost dead-heating, Pickett Cup-winning Sénéchals of Dely and Robert Sénéchal.

The weather was even worse for the 325-mile Georges Boillot Cup handicap race on Sunday over the same circuit, the start delayed until 10am. The racing-bodied Chenard-Walckers of René Leonard and Sénéchal were 1-2, the winning speed 62.10mph. The Chenards had a start of 53min over Major Coe's 30/98 Vauxhall on scratch.

It was all going more or less like clockwork by 1925. The Essex MC had co-operated by getting more British drivers to go over and take part. But the mechanic in Henry Matthys' Bignan was killed when he jumped out of the car when it caught fire at 90mph. A pedestrian had caused Matthys to brake so hard that the propshaft came adrift and burst the petrol tank -- but he stopped the car safely.

The Georges Boillot Cup was a victory for the popular Frenchman André Lagache. His oddly streamlined Le Mans 1096cc Chenard-Walcker averaged 63.57mph to beat Robert Laly's 3-litre Aries, with third place going to CM Harvey, the well-known Alvis works driver, in his own 12/50 four-seater that was outwardly prepared for racing only by a bonnet strap, fold-flat windscreen and a tonneau over the back seats. With two laps to complete, Harvey stopped for petrol, oil and water, which allowed the second Chenard-Walcker to go past.

Marshall again won the Boulogne Light Car race, run under much better conditions than in 1924, using the same Bugatti, with flared front mudguards and no rear ones. He averaged 64.24mph, almost l0mph faster than in the wet race of the previous year, to prevail in a strenuous battle against Clive Gallop in Tom Thistlethwayte's chain-drive Frazer Nash. In fact, and rather interestingly, the 'Nash was heavier than the Bugatti and so should have been in the Light Car class, the French car in the Voiturette division. But in the excitement the crowd would not have bothered about this. Gallop, who was driving a rather wild race, set the record lap at 68mph, but Marshall was more consistent and took the win. Third went to Morgan, this time driving one of Parry Thomas's Thomas Specials.

This so-called Boulogne Light Car & Voiturette GP was confined to two classes: cars weighing not more than 650kg and cars weighing not more than 500kg. Sénéchal, who had finished second to Marshall in the 500kg class -- Gallop's Frazer Nash being in the larger class -- lodged a protest, stating that the winning Bugatti should be disqualified for being overweight for the 500kg class. The officials had the car taken under guard into Boulogne and weighed -- and it was found to be legal. As the best times of all the Sénéchal drivers -- Sénéchal , André Pisart, Michel Doré, Littin and Dely -- took longer by appreciable margins than those of Marshall and Morgan, the protest was unworthy of Sénéchal , as many of his friends observed. But I am surprised that the Marshall Bugatti was lighter than a Frazer Nash; could the latter have been somehow made heavier than normal to avoid running against Bugatti opposition? The Pickett Cup went to the Frazer Nashes of Gallop, Ringwood and Nash himself.

Sénéchal had been very angry when flagged in, only to find that a tyre was coming off a bent rim which could have involved him in a serious accident, after which his gearbox broke. Of the other Sénéchals, Pisart's steering column collapsed and the rest had engine troubles.

Frazer-Nash had beaded-edge tyres which came off both front wheels, whereas Gallop was on modern Dunlops. Boris Ivanowski drove a SCAP-engined Buc.

It was at this meeting that Thomas skidded while practising on the wet road and the big Leyland-Thomas went backwards into a tree. It was so badly damaged that he had to build a replacement for his future racing. A French truck took away the wreck, which may suggest that Thomas had driven the Leyland to Dover.

In 1926, Eyston put aside record-breaking to win the Light Car GP after running non-stop in a straight-eight GP Bugatti, at 64.14mph. Opposition was not great but Ivy Cummings' four-cylinder Bugatti had led Eyston until it went into a ditch after two opposite brakes seized and the front axle was bent. Ivanowski's Ratier had oil pump trouble and seized up.

The Georges Boillot race was a Chenard-Walcker walkover, Lagache winning at 65.60mph for the 372 miles, from Leonard and Manso De Zuniga in the enveloping-body 1092cc cars.

Alas, a sadness pervaded the meeting. R B ('Dick') Howey had been killed when his 4.9-litre Ballot had cornered very fast in the sprint and hit a tree. An ex-Etonian Coldstream Guards Officer, he was a successful Brooklands entrant. It was rumoured that when he was on guard duty at the barracks of Buckingham Palace he would park the Ballot there and afterwards motor away for practice at the Track. On the steamer home the Ballot was dropped into the sea. His was a wealthy family. When Dick's brother Capt. J E P Howey joined forces with Zborowski to build the Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch 15in-gauge railway, expense was not an obstruction: the Howeys owned a slice of Melbourne; Zborowski's mother was an Astor and they owned much of the middle of New York! The railway is now a public line and enthusiasts might visit it in respect of these two racing drivers.

At Brooklands, 25 days before his death, R B Howey had driven in three races, winning one of them (best lap 121.18mph). His brother had been racing the ex-Zborowslti 14.7-litre aero-engined White Mercedes and a Bugatti, but did not race again after his brother's accident.

As a result of the tragedy, the 6km hillclimb was cancelled, but in practice Segrave had beaten Thomas's 7.2-litre Leyland Thomas by 20.2sec, his V12 LSR Sunbeam averaging an astonishing 141.164mph. Segrave said afterwards that he never once lifted his foot off the accelerator over the undulating road and that it was the first time he had been frightened while driving a racing car.

Le Touquet had joined in by 1927, the sprints being held there. But Boulogne now had an international atmosphere, as many continental drivers had entered. The Light Car race was a great battle between the Bugattis of Malcolm Campbell, `Sabipa' and Eyston. They finished in that order, a wet race but enjoyed by the keener onlookers. 'Sabipa' might have won had a slipping clutch not delayed him. To his immense annoyance he had no tommy-bar to tighten it — until Eyston's mechanics provided one. Campbell averaged 67.24mph for the slippery 279 miles, which put Prince Ghika's Bugatti twice in a ditch. The supercharged 6C Amikars were not as impressive as expected, but Duray's beat the Salmsons of George Casse and Pierre Goutte.

The Georges Boillot race, still a sportscar handicap, was neatly dominated by Laly in a 3-litre Lorraine-Dietrich (68.76mph), handicap by practice times giving George Newman's Salmson second, Edouard Brisson's Lorraine-Dietrich third, heavy rain again falling.

Tragedy struck again in 1928, when Talcoure crashed his Bugatti at some 130mph out of La Capelle on the hillclimb and killed two brothers. The bonnet flew off another Bugatti, injuring a woman spectator.

A new 279-mile Boulogne National Trophy was won by Campbell's GP Delage (78mph) from Cauther's Bugatti and José Scaron's Amilcar, and Ivanowski (Alfa Romeo) took the Georges Boillot race at 72.52mph from André Rousseau's Salmson and Attilio Marinoni's Alfa Romeo. That was the end of the Speed Weeks. They are not quite forgotten, though. Since 1978 (May 30 this year) VSCC members have ridden the circuit on bicycles, the older the better, passing the Georges Boillot memorial and the war memorial towering above St Martin's hairpin.