Three in a row - a Delage achivement
This is a recall of a satisfactory piece of motor racing history, which it is nice to remember when much is in disarray and Damon Hill in trouble.
The driver it concerns is R J B (Dick) Seaman, the car his remarkable 1927 straight-eight 1½-litre Delage. The year? 1936. Seaman, having served his racing apprenticeship, as it were, with an MG Magnette in the longer races that were the ones that really mattered to him, decided to buy an ERA, as many drivers were doing, and truly set about the voiturette events during the 1935 season. At this time, when Grand Prix or Formula One was open to cars of all sizes but with a weight restriction of 750kg (weighed, for some reason which does not immediately occur to me, without road wheels) and with what were token two-seater bodies, as the minimum stipulated width was 85cm, voiturette races had an importance of their own and were not to be disregarded or looked down upon.
So the enthusiastic and talented young driver, not long out of University, and with wealthy parents able to buy him whatever sort of racing car he fancied, providing such were available, obtained a 1½-litre ERA from Bourne. It was built, as these cars then were, for Seaman personally, and he would pay visits to the works to see its progress. The money for it (£1,800) had come from Dicks mother; Mr Beattie-Seaman was against his only son continuing to race cars and the shock of this was thought to be responsible for his death
broken. The ERA (RJB) was painted black with silver wheels, Seaman’s colours, and was ready by April 1935. It had been arranged that ERA Limited would service the car, supplying the racing fuel, sparking plugs and racing tyres, and providing transport, with Dick picking up the bills. It seemed a good and sensible arrangement, but after a good opening in a minor race at Donington Park the black ERA had been taken to Chimay for the under-2-litres section of the GP de Frontieres, where it retired with a piston, and locking brakes twisted the front axle of the ERA at the Kesselberg hill-climb.
There had been disappointment, too, at the Nurburgring, where Seaman was leading the works ERAs when he was obliged to stop for more oil, and finished fourth, in a race he felt he should have won. He was then a non-starter in the Nuffield Trophy Race after an unsatisfactory practice period with the car not running properly, and when he was pressing Raymond Mays hard at Dieppe the black ERA again retired, with a sheared supercharger drive, after setting a new lap-record. Understandably. Seaman was becoming impatient over the failures of his new car. The works cars driven by Raymond Mays and Humphrey Cook were having troubles of their own. Before the Nuffield Trophy Race Seaman had requested that his ERA be put into good order, and that a new engine be provided. However, trying the car out afterwards at Donington Park, the brakes played up, again twisting the front axle, and lack of oil-pressure resulted in big-end failure.
This decided Seaman to look after the ERA himself, and he wrote a firm but polite letter to ERA Ltd, published in Speed, which Motor Sport later absorbed, saying that he felt the Bourne works was too occupied with the team cars to look after his car effectively. He set up premises in the Mews behind his mother’s town house in Ennismore Gardens, Kensington (other racing cars have been kept in this area — a plaque, perhaps?), putting “Jock” Finlayson in charge as his mechanic, and Birch as his Manager. Up to this time Seaman had been flying his DH Gipsy Moth to and from races but he decided that the weather could abort some flights, so he now used instead a Ford V8, provided with i f s by Leslie Ballamy. He had declined an offer from ERA Ltd of a Bedford lorry, using instead an ex-Whitney Straight Dodge, in black livery.
The change worked out well. It is significant it was after this that Seaman his best results. At the hill-climb the ERA was 12sec behind Tardini in a 2.9-litre Then he won comfortably at from Bianco’s Maserati and the Steinberg’s Bugatti and then won Grand Prix de Berne, from another ERA owner, Prince Bira, with Howe’s Delage — note — third, ahead of the opposition; Mays in a works ERA had retired with low oil pressure.
After this Dick Seaman scored a quite remarkable hill-climb victory at Freiberg, his ERA winning the voiturette class and being second overall, his time of 8min 24sec being a mere second slower than that of the outright victor, Hans von Stuck, the Bergmeister, with the 4.3-litre short-chassis Auto-Union hill-climb car! This magnificent achievement was followed, after a nasty practice accident, by an easy victory at Masaryk, the ERA beating two Bugattis driven by Veyron and Sojka, Seaman leading all the way. Thus a “hat-trick”, but not the one with which this article is concerned. That concluded Seaman’s 1935 season. It had been confirmation of Dick’s prowess and natural ability, outstanding for a comparatively inexperienced driver competing in Continental road-races.
Faced with a continuing motor-racing career, Seaman considered that the ERA was not fast enough to compete against the forthcoming foreign 1½-litre cars, and full GP racing was outside the scope of amateur and partly-professional drivers. So he sought a new car for 1936. There was speculation as to what it would be — one of the latest Maseratis, or a new ERA or other Continental car, presumably. When Seaman announced that he had consulted Giulio Ramponi and was going to take his advice and purchase Lord Howe’s 1927 Delage, eyebrows went up. “He is a misguided optimist”, seemed to be the usual response, but some just said “He is mad…”
Seaman himself had been dubious, but Ramponi had convinced him and the deal was done, Howe having an ERA on order so that he eventually agreed to let the old Delage go. In 1927 these Delage GP cars (the Grand Prix formula then was for 1½-litre cars with a minimum weight of 700kg) with their expensive and complicated Lory-designed straight-eight twin-cam supercharged engines had cost £100,000 each to race. But they had been invincible and had taken the World Championship of Manufacturers, driven by such “greats” as Robert Benoist, Louis Wagner and the keen Senechal. But could a car cope with the opposition nine years later? The full details of what Ramponi did to the old car have been recounted in contemporary reports. Suffice it to say that he reduced the car’s weight by about 250Ib by replacing the ENV pre-selector gearbox used by Howe for a 5-speed one from a 1925 2-litre V12 GP Delage and fitting alloy wheels, a light fuel-tank, etc. By re-setting the valve timing (it was said, I believe, that it took some three weeks to properly achieve the correct shimmed clearances of the tappets) and increasing the s/c boost by 4½Ib/sq he obtained a power output of 185bhp at 7500rpm from the 12lbsupercharged 750kg racing car, whereas a B-type ERA was giving about 180bhp at 6500rpm, and weighed 738kg. The fuel capacity was increased so that this modified Delage, in spite of doing only about 9mpg, could run non-stop through races in which the ERAs would have to refuel — a foretaste of the more economical 4½-litre Ferraris beating the highly-boosted Alfettas after the war, although in this pre-war situation both engines were super charged.
It was with this brave move that Seaman faced the 1936 racing season cocking-a-snoot, if you like, at the ERAs. The black and silver Delage made debut at a minor Donington Park where the cynics were confounded, as the out-dated car beat Bira’s ERA in a 25-mile handicap and then led a five-lap 1½-litre scratch Race, from the ERAs of Peter Walker and Reggie Tongue, and Rayson’s Maserati. This promising start was endorsed when the Delage was run in the RAC 200-mile International Light Car Race in the loM. Earl Howe gave Seaman a great challenge but the Delage got past his blue ERA after four laps and went on, non-stop, to win at 69.76mph for the three-hour contest, vanquishing the ERAs of Bira and Cyril Paul, not to mention seven more ERAs, including the four-car works team, of which Raymond Mays had back-axle failure, Lehoux smote the sandbags and Howe had fuel-feed problems. Seaman had driven a wonderful race, never ruffled, always pacing himself, a second ahead of the nearest challenger until Bira moved up to second place, when he speeded up in response to pit-signals. A 1927 Delage beating nine ERAs — the press loved it.
In the next two races there were problems, unconnected with the Delage. The International Eifelrennen voiturette race at the Nurburgring saw Count Trossi’s latest ifs six-cylinder Maserati beating Seaman by two seconds in practice, yet after a mile the Delage was leading. Presumably too conscious of the great pressure, Seaman uncharacteristically went off the road in the Adenauer Forest, with no damage to man or machine but losing too much time to continue. Trossi won. The heat (literally) was on, for a return round between the works Maseratis and ERAs a week later at the Picardie GP. In the 90-mile qualifying heat Howe and Mays led for ERA but not for long. Both developed trouble, and the Delage ran on to win easily. Alas, in the race itself Seaman made an error he admitted to, a crash that caused retirement.
This caused Dick to non-start at Albi, but for the Coppa Ciano at Liverno Ramponi had installed the engine from the Delage Howe had wrapped round a Monza tree and for which Giulio claimed 195bhp. The fuel air-pump proved faulty, dropping the Delage to sixth place after it had led for the first three laps. But the Coppa Acerbo turned out to be another apparently effortless Seaman-style race. He was fastest over the kilometre at 130mph, compared to 125mph for Bira’s ERA, the aged Delage Winning at 77.1 mph, nearly 39½ seconds ahead of Trossi’s Maserati, with Hans Reusch’s Maserati third. Then came Berne. Here the Delage had to meet the now-black-hued works ERAs of Mays and Fairfield (an early ERA customer for an I 100cc car), and four ERA privateers, Bira, Embiricos, Earl Howe and Tongue, as well as the fast Maseratis, but in private hands also, the previous defeat by the Delage being said to have frightened off the works team. The new B-type ERAs were quick, but Seaman equalled Fairfield’s practice time. Mays’s ERA was not on form and the grid front row was occupied by the Delage and the ERAs of Fairfield and Bira. The Delage outpaced all the ERAs, set a new lap record (91.22mph), then was able to ease up, a Seaman tactic, to win at 87.86mph, after a drive of almost 1½ hours.
There remained the revived JCC 200 Mile Race, now at Donington Park. Many were astonished that Seaman decided to drive his victorious Delage instead of borrowing Harry Rose’s 2.9-litre Maserati for this scratch event, 1½-litre cars being elegible for their own prize. But so confident was Dick in the Ramponi-prepared Delage that he raced against these considerable odds. Previous races had been almost entirely out of reach of the average British spectator but now here was an opportunity to watch a celebrated British driver and his remarkable “lone-make” car. It was to be Seaman’s great “hat-trick”, one of the outstanding ones in motor racing history.
Spectators began to arrive early anticipating an interesting race: I got there from London, in a Ford, by 9am. It appeared that Seaman had set himself a hard task, maybe an impossible one. He had to contend with the Tipo-B monoposto Alfa Romeos of Charlie Martin, Austin Dobson and Chris Staniland, and other cars outside the Delage’s class, such as older Alfas and Bugattis. And not only was the Delage more ancient than the rest of the field but it had scarcly received any attention since its last four races. Then there were the ERAs, the car which Dick had foresaken, but would be glad to beat. The works team of Mays, Fairfield and Earl Howe was backed by the private owners Prince Bira, Whitehead, Scribbans, Briault/Kenneth Evans, and the fast-driving Arthur Dobson.
There was encouragement for the ERA contingent when Fairfield set fastest practice lap. In fact, in the race the bigger cars were pathetic. Martin’s Alfa Romeo did not start, and the only over 1500cc car to finish within the time limit, in fourth place, before the remaining runners were flagged off, was the 2.9 litre Maserati of T P Cholmondeley-Tapper. Run in hot sunshine, the “200” became in fact a battle between the Delage and Howe in a works ERA. His Lordship drove like one possessed, as well he might with the honour of Bourne on his shoulders, in pursuing the car that had shown up the British make so often that season. After ten of the 77 laps Howe and Bira were following Seaman but Bira knew his engine was suspect after Berne and had no intention of using maximum revs. At the 15-lap mark Howe overtook the Delage. But Seaman, knowing the ERA would have to refuel, drove at his own pace, unhurried. Bira eventually retired with engine trouble, after his fuel stop and a leaking tank. Fairfield thus took third position a long way back. But the race had only one centre of interest. Would the Delage pass Howe and keep going? The ERA took 39 sec to replenish on lap 50, when it had had a lead of 8.4 sec. But as we are reminded by today’s F1 TV commentators, the time lost in coming in and accelerating out have to be added. If one reckoned this as 20 sec for the ERA, it then had over 50 seconds to make up on the Delage, while Howe would also have to find time and a place to overtake. Aware of this, from pit-signals he saw but never acknowledged, Dick paced himself, rather as Prost used to do in more recent races, speeding up just sufficiently to keep ahead. Never making a mistake, he won by 52 sec, having averaged 69.28mph (2hr 50min 14.6sec) on this scorching afternoon, just as he intended.
The ERA of Briault/Evans was a poor third, ahead of Tapper’s big Maserati. It was another wonderful performance by the Ramponi-prepared Delage and its skilled driver. Dick drove straight into the car park dirty but happy. He soon left the circuit; as he drove home he would hardly have been human had he not felt a warm glow of satisfaction at this memorable “hat-trick”, having backed Ramponi and the Delage instead of Berthon and ERA. Indeed, Mays’ Zoller-s/c ERA had been flagged off after 72 laps after drenching the cockpit in oil, three other ERAs had retired with broken pistons, and Fairfield’s ERA had lasted only 41 laps before its engine gave out. Austin Dobson had a narrow escape when a front hub broke up and detached the wheel from the P3 Alfa Romeo, and the rest of the big cars were equally pathetic, even Staniland’s 2.9-litre Alfa Romeo being unable to equal the pace of the Delage, being flagged off after 73 laps. So R J B Seaman won both prizes, a total of £350 (for a £15 entry-fee) and the huge Andre Gold Cup. Plus, of course, the Trade bonuses; the Delage used Esso petrol and oil, Hepolite pistons, Lockheed hydraulic brakes, Ferodo brake linings, a Bosch magneto and Hartford shock-absorbers. It had been, Seaman said later, his most enjoyable race of 1936, because it was a matter of tactics, proof that he truly understood the game, apart from being a fine driver of an unique car.