Victory & Albert

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From WWI pilot to riding mechanic to Grand Prix and Targa Florio winner, Albert Divo was always willing to accept a challenge, says Bill Boddy

I suppose most people have some regrets. Mine include never having the money to race even modest cars at Brooklands, nor having the skills (or patience) to work on cars, so that Special-building was out of my orbit. A minor regret is that having met Divo, I had no time in which to talk much with him or to try to get him to reminisce.

It happened this way. Since forming the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq Register in 1950, my wife and I had run it on a voluntary basis, the main event being the annual Wolverhampton Rally, where Sunbeam cars had been made. Among the Sunbeam ex-employees were the racing mechanics Bill Perkins and Frank Bill, and also many staff of the old Sunbeam Motor Car Co.

Georges Roesch, the Talbot designer, had been no stranger at our events. This led us to try to persuade Louis Coatalen, chief engineer and a keen supporter of motor racing, to come to the 1959 weekend. Unfortunately doctor’s orders prevented this, so he sent Albert Divo from France instead. Alas, with so much to do in helping my wife run the event and its subsidiary happenings, I had little time with our guest-of-honour. He was probably bored by all the Coatalen Sunbeams and Roesch Talbots on display.

He did take some rides in a 1913 and in a vintage Sunbeam, and Anthony Heal interpreted his after-dinner speech at the Town Hall, where the Mayor and Mayoress presided. Divo would have had a reminder of active days of racing by one of the Coupe de L’Auto Sunbeams from the National Motor Museum.

Born near Paris in 1895, when there were very few `autocars’ in use, Divo went to work at a motor works and was given the task of ministering to racing motor boats at Monte Carlo. When war came he apparently joined the French Air Force and became a pilot. He then turned to motor racing, and became the riding-mechanic to René Thomas in Sunbeam and Talbot-Darracq cars, a useful apprenticeship to becoming a driver himself. After Louis Coatalen, an avid believer in –  and enthusiast for – racing, sacked Thomas for disobeying a stipulated finishing order, Divo took his place.

He showed his calibre in 1922, when he finished second in the difficult 226-mile Isle of Man International 1500 race to Sir Algernon Lee Guinness, with the unbeatable Talbot-Darracqs, and achieved the same placing from K L Guinness in the International Voiturette race over 375 miles at Le Mans that year. He was in the Sunbeam team for the 1923 French GP at Tours, with Segrave and Lee Guinness, so he was thrown in at the deep end.

The 2-litre six-cylinder cars had been designed by the ex-Fiat engineer Vincenzo Bertarione, whom Coatalen had poached from the Italian company, so they were apt to be referred to as ‘the green-painted Fiats’, although they were not absolutely identical. It is a reflection on how in those days top race cars had a reasonable affinity with ordinary ones, the Sunbeams being driven from Wolverhampton to Tours, just as the supercharged Fiats were driven from Turin over the Alps.

That 1923 French GP was a dramatic race. Divo was third behind the two leading Fiats of Salamano and Giaccone after 17 of the 35 laps, already proving his aptitude. Segrave was delayed by initial clutch slip, which later cured itself when a pedal retaining bracket broke. Indeed, Divo might have won his first important race, for although the Fiat Tipo 805s were faster than the non-s/c Sunbeams with their Fiat Tipo 804 features, Bordino and Giaccone retired on laps seven and 18 respectively.

Salamano, however, had built up a considerable lead when his Fiat stopped away from the pits on lap 33, out of petrol. A pantomime ensued as his mechanic Ferretti ran 1.5km to get some, and was replaced by another to take a can to the car; but this was disallowed by race officials, as was the loan of a bicycle to the exhausted Ferretti.

Divo led for three laps, but was in second when Coatalen, thinking that the Fiat would win despite Segrave in a rejuvenated Sunbeam, forced him to make a pitstop. But Divo jammed the fuel filler cap and had to resort to putting petrol in the 2-gallon reserve tank, driving the final five laps with a stop of 4min on each. Segrave thus saw second place within his grasp again; and then Salamano stopped.

So after six-and-a-half hours Segrave won the French Grand Prix, the first British driver in a British car to do so. It transpired that Salamano’s car had, like the other two Fiats, had its Wittig blower damaged by road grit. Divo thus finished an honourable second, 20min 6.2sec behind Segrave, in spite of those stops of 39min for refuelling; a Bugatti came third.

Nearly four months later Divo again proved that he could hold his own, at the banked Sitges track in Spain, when he won in a GP Sunbeam after racing for almost 250 miles over this tricky course, at 97mph; Zborowski’s more suitable Miller lost by 50sec after a tyre burst.

Divo followed this up by winning the International Voiturette race of 257 miles at Le Mans from Moriceau (another riding mechanic-turned-driver) and the 321-mile Grand Prix de Penya Rhin, driving one of the ‘invincible’ Talbot-Darracqs. These cars had been shipped to Spain as an excuse, because after Fiat won the JCC 200 in 1921 and ’22, Coatalen feared their new 1.5-litre machines would prove his cars were not invincible.

In fact, although they proved quite the fastest in practice and Salamano and Campbell were expected to win comfortably, both these Fiats retired early in the race.

Great secrecy was maintained after this debacle, bonnets not opened, and when, in the 1950s, I was at Fiat’s Turin Museum and asked the curator what had happened, he said no Fiats had ever raced in England. By asking for the Museum’s 1923 volume of The Autocar on the shelves behind us, I was able to prove this to be wrong and show how the two Fiats had retired at almost the same time.

In the end, it took Motor Sport to obtain something from Fiat’s racing department, resolving that Salamano and Campbell apparently did not race one another, exceeding the 4000rpm cold-oil rev-limit, and discussing whether Wittig vane-type or Roots superchargers were used at Brooklands, where neither would be damaged by stones.

For the 1924 season, Divo joined Delage, as Thomas had done. His first task for the firm seems to have been to compete in continental hill-climbs in the purpose-built Delage cars — the pushrod ohv 5.1-litre, the twin-cam 5.9-litre and the famous LSR 10.5-litre V12. (In 1928/29, all three of these Delages came here, the first two having been purchased from the Delage factory by Sir Alastair Miller, Bt, the big car by John Cobb. They were all sufficiently fast at Brooklands to cause the ‘right crowd and no crowding’ to crowd the rails.)

At Montlhéry in 1925, he won a match race at 125.5mph and set the lap record to 136.3mph in the 10.5-litre Delage, and to raise funds for a widow of a deceased driver gave a demonstration in the 5.9-litre Delage. In 1932, he took Class D records, with Louis Chiron, of up to three hours, his f.s. mile at 131.22mph.

It is not possible to know if the grands prix were run to a pre-arranged finishing order. (Why shouldn’t a manufacturer safeguard his expensive cars thus, instead of letting the drivers race one another, into possible retirement?) Anyway, in a 2-litre GP Delage, not yet supercharged, Divo was second to Giuseppe Campari’s Alfa Romeo in the 1924 European GP at Lyons and fourth at San Sebastian.

In 1925, he shared the winning Delage with Benoist in the French GP after the P2 Alfa Romeos had been respectfully withdrawn following Antonio Ascari’s fatal accident. That was at Montlhéry over the banking/road circuit. In drizzling rain Divo had set the lap record (80.3mph) on the slippery track before the supercharger expired and he shared Benoist’s car, a race of nearly eight-and-a-half hours. He then won at San Sebastian, heading a Delage 1-2-3.

After this he returned to the STD organisation, one of his attributes being his ability to adapt to different cars — and team orders. The project was to race the new supercharged straight-eight 1.5-litre Talbots; they were underdeveloped and ineffective, but Divo did come to Brooklands in 1926, finishing second behind Segrave in the JCC 200-Mile Race. Lent to Delage, he was third to Benoist and Bourlier in the 1927 British GP, also at Brooklands. He came again to England in 1935 to drive a 2-litre Hotchkiss in the BRDC 500-Mile Brooklands race.

When the financially pressed Louis Delage gave up GP racing, and Talbot did likewise, Divo signed up with Ettore Bugatti in 1928. Given a good car, Divo was able to compete at the top level, which he proved by winning the Targa Florio. Here was a new challenge, a race of 336 miles over mountainous terrain, where a driver could look down and see a competitor on a winding climb below him. Benoist was due to drive the lead Bugatti, but Divo replaced him at the last moment, and knew very little about the punishing Medium Madonie circuit in Sicily.

All the way, the Type 35B Bugatti was very hard pressed by Campari’s Alfa Romeo, and by Chiron and — for a time — Madame Junek in their Bugattis. But he won, at 56.6mph, after an exhausting 7hr 21min drive.

And Divo did it again in 1929 for Bugatti, at 46.2mph.

In the 1929 French GP, Divo’s Bugatti was fourth. Ettore entered four Type 43s for that year’s Ards TT, but one non-started and Divo, Williams and Conelli were too slow and were flagged off. At Spa-Francorchamps, his Bugatti was third in the fuel-rationed European GP.

Two years later at Monaco, the engine of Divo’s Type 51 let him down. At Le Mans the team was withdrawn after a burst tyre caused Rost’s Type 50 to crash, killing a spectator.

Divo then contested the 1931 French GP with Bouriat in one of the new Type 51 twin-cam Bugattis; they were given seventh place, although they were not running at the end.

In 1932, Divo was second at Mont Ventoux in a T53 4WD Bugatti, which was a hard car to tame. Back at Monaco, Divo broke a wheel and was ninth.

He then retired until 1936, when he again drove Talbots, for Tony Lago. By this time he was thought rather too old to be competitive, but he quickly disabused his critics of this view once the T150C Talbots and later V12 Delahayes were working properly. In fact, in the Montlhéry French GP of 1936, he shared a Delahaye with Girod (12th), came home third in the 1937 French Grand Prix and was second to Wimille’s Bugatti in the Marne GP, his cap back-to-front like Etancelin.

In 1938, he shared a Delahaye at Le Mans with Comotti, but the gearbox broke up.

Divo’s last competition was a sprint in 1949. He then went to work for Latil, the truck and tractor firm. After WWII, he had a garage in Paris, where he died in 1966.