The greatest consulting detective and the Grand Prix Austins

Sherlock Holmes remains the greatest fictional detective of them all, quoted frequently, even in a Times leader, in spite of the fascinating efforts of that Belgian crime-investigator and those others who flit across the TV screens.

When Holmes’s creator Sir Arthur Conan Doyle died, his sons did not want Holmes stories to continue. But this lasted for a short time only and now pastiches appear in books and other media. I am against this, yet I unwittingly wrote the first one for Motor Sport in 1950, asking the great detective to help with the identity of Austin’s GP cars after their only race. This involved Holmes turning up at Kings Cross Station in a shabby raincoat and carrying trade-plates, so that Dr Watson did not at first recognise him. He was going to investigate where one of the cars was, while Watson visited the Tax Office to check ownerships.

Austin had built two chain-drive and two shaft-drive cars for the 477-mile 1908 French GP, the drivers being the Italian ace Dario Resta, Wright, Moore-Brabazon and Hands. With six-cylinder 9635cc engines they were not impressive among the 48 entries, the bulk of these having power-units of between 12 and 13 litres, and including Benz, Mercedes (the winner), Fiat and Itala etc.

In practice Resta hit a cart and then had another accident for which he was imprisoned, Austin bailing him out just in time for scrutineering. His shaft-drive car could not be repaired in time to race so he drove a chain-drive one. Hands was a non-starter through no fault of his own. In the punishing 477-mile race Warwick Wright’s engine lasted for only four of the 10 laps, but Moore-Brabazon was 19th in spite of his Austin misfiring and Resta 20th after two stops for medical attention to his eyes. The winner from 48 starters was Lautenschlager for Mercedes, at 69.05mph after nearly seven hours driving. The Brooklands spectators were able to see three of the GP Austins at the May 1909 meeting when a tyre-changing contest was staged, which Resta won, as they were probably not thought fit for a fast race.

After this the Austins were sold; the problem for motoring historians was to whom and which car was which. For instance, Mr Evans in Worcester had one until his death in 1929 and Sir Francis Hickman Bacon, Bt, had another. Austins kept another, which was driven by Lord Brabazon to the unveiling of Vickers-Armstrong’s Memorial to Brooklands from 1907 to 1939. His speech was expected to praise, but he described the memorial as a tombstone, Brooklands having been ruined by the aviation industry! (I obtained a copy of this brave announcement for Motor Sport.)

When Watson got back to 221b Baker Street Holmes told him that although not very interested, as he had never owned a car (although Watson had a Model-T Ford), he had solved the problem. Watson, meanwhile, had had no help from the Tax Office…