Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

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Count Z’s evil plans

Known for his racy life, 1920s racer Louis Zborowski has now been implicated in a dastardly plot

If you were making a silent thriller about an evil count tying the heroine to a railway line, you’d ideally want a real count and a real railway. Step forward Count Louis Zborowski, who in 1924 built a railway round his home – and then made a melodrama around it. 

This has only recently come to light, thanks to Tim Jones, a senior lecturer at Canterbury Christ Church University. While researching amateur cine film in the Canterbury area he made contact with Helen Jarrett, who had 72 rolls of 16mm film taken by her grandfather Sydney Bligh. Jones already knew Bligh was a keen amateur film maker who made newsreels of the area in the 1920s and ’30s, so this was a treasure trove. After immersing himself in hours of Bligh’s fascinating local reportage, he came to the last two canisters. “I left them to the end because they said ‘Count Drama’ and it didn’t mean anything to me,” Jones says. “But as soon as I saw some 15in-gauge railway I knew it had to be Zborowski’s lost track.” 

I’ve read a fair amount about the flamboyant millionaire and racer who, when not funding Aston Martin’s 1923 Grand Prix efforts, built the various aero-engined Chittys that so
captivated Bill Boddy, but one subject intrigued me – his garden railway. ‘Garden’ undersells it: it ran for a mile through the extensive grounds of Higham, his Kent stately home, built to 15in gauge and more than capable of hauling real passengers. He and his model railway enthusiast friend Captain JET Howey schemed a complete miniature express railway, but Zborowski’s line came to a sudden stop. It had been running less than a year when in 1924 the count died in a crash while racing a works Mercedes at Monza, and no one had ever seen photos of it. Until now. 

Those last two film canisters turned out to contain fascinating unseen film of the railway and its magnificent quarter -scale Bassett-Lowke 4-4-2 express locomotive – but unexpectedly it was in the form of a spoof silent thriller made by the count and fellow racer Clive Gallop.

“People who remember say they weren’t making a whole film, just trying to replicate favourite scenes from period films,” says Jones. “There is a rough plot through the first reel, though the second is just disjointed scenes. The count and Gallop play baddies chasing a girl’s treasure map. He blocks the railway with his car, knocks out the driver, kidnaps the girl and takes her to the house. The driver rescues her, there’s a car chase [between a Rolls 40/50 and a Napier 40/50] and then a fight on the train in which the girl hits Zborowski with a shovel. We’ve identified the girl as Pixi Marix, who was cited in Zborowski’s divorce case.”

Tim’s discovery is a find on several levels. It’s unique pictorial evidence of the railway, showing that it crossed the main drive (scene of one of the hold-ups) and ran in a U or even a circle round the house. As the loco was delivered in spring 1924 and Zborowski died in October that year, the dating is clear. The track, said to have been recovered from WWI trench railways in France, was removed soon after Zborowski’s death and became part of the Romney, Hythe and Dymchurch railway, where Howey finally realised their dream of a working miniature railway. The loco, renamed ‘Count Louis’, survives in private hands.

Cinematically, Tim’s find is extremely early: “16mm film was only released in 1923 and the first camera, the Cine-Kodak A, which is probably what the Count used, was the price of a Ford car. Bligh was a radio pioneer with an electrical shop, and it’s said he installed electricity at Higham. But since his own films only start in 1927, my best guess
is that he filmed the scenes with the Count’s camera.” 

Known for his flashy lifestyle and riotous parties at Higham, Zborowski was still only 29 when he died, and clearly doesn’t mind hamming it up in the film. “Later on the baddies plant ‘dynamite’ in a chicken shed,” Tim explains. “Zborowski was known for blowing things up – apparently he would bury charges in his flowerbeds and trigger them when visitors rang.” Eventually the treasure is ‘dug up’ from a drain in front of the Higham garages, where the count worked on his cars, including the Higham Special, which in the hands of Parry Thomas later became Babs. 

Higham was briefly open to the public in the late 1990s and I went down to see where the Chittys were born. After going round the house (I liked it a lot – one of those compact, ‘liveable’ stately homes) I set off to find the stables where the legendary cars had been assembled – only to be firmly shooed away by one of the eccentric lady owners who were then trying to restore it. No mention of WB or the magazine would sway her and I was sent packing like a boy caught scrumping apples. Thus I have seen the doors behind which the flamboyant racer worked on his monster machines – but no further. Higham is now a private house and not open to visitors.

Zborowski‘s short but eventful life earned a good deal of gossip column coverage, but this glimpse into his private life adds a new angle to a fascinating character. Who would have though that film research would turn up such a gem?

Britain’s first GP 

Brooklands celebrates 90 years since the Grand Prix circus first hit these shores​

A quick run down to Brooklands in August, where the Museum celebrated 90 years since the first Grand Prix in Britain. Technically it was the RAC GP, but it was a world championship round, which the Donington events were not. Remarkably, among the ‘grid’ of cars that Museum director Allan Winn marshalled into place on the banking were two cars which, when Ebby Ebblewhite dropped his red flag in 1926, actually sprinted off along the Track’s bumpy concrete – the Museum’s own straight-eight Delage 15-S-8 and the Halford Special, which Frank Halford piloted in the race until a prop joint broke. 

Looking low and sleek and a decade ahead of its opposition, the Delage was there too in ’26 – but was it the one Louis Wagner, despite roasted feet, steered across the line to victory after Senechal had performed spectacular broadsides in it, or Benoist/Dubonnet’s car that finished third, slightly on fire, or the one Wagner had abandoned when it broke? 

Just as the drivers swapped seats, the cars have swapped parts in the 90 years since. But it was a remarkable thing to have a pair of the front-runners nine decades on. There was also the Count Czaikowski Bugatti T51 to remind us that Malcolm Campbell split the Delages with his Bugatti 39A, and the Indianapolis Duesenberg that ran in the 1933 Monza GP. Sadly the rumoured Talbot 700, the other marque which looked a likely victor before all its cars broke down, did not arrive so Henry Segrave’s 1921 GP Sunbeam had to stand in to remind us that he got one of the knee-high, streamlined Talbots into the lead – briefly.

In the busy paddock a row of modern(ish) F1 cars from Williams, McLaren and Mercedes looked like spacecraft beside Vieux Charles III, the 1912 Grand Prix Lorraine-Dietrich, and Lorne Jacobs’ recreation of the 1927 Napier-Campbell Blue Bird, which barked flame at passers by. Not so the Marker Bentley, which wanted a tow start when its starter button – from a Spitfire aircraft! – failed as the demo runs got going, before Test Hill runs entertained the big crowd.

Among an impressive group of Sunbeams, Talbots and hyphenated brethren stood Goldie Garner’s Talbot 75/90 and Ian Polson’s part-built recreation of the Percy Lambert 100-miles-in-the-hour single-seater Talbot. He reckons the engine should run later this year. 

So a busy day with plenty to boast about. And intriguing to think that the Track had already been active for almost 20 years when those international racing heroes arrived,
90 long years back.