A memory of the late Dick Seaman

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by Patrick Greene

There is an old saying that no man is a hero to his valet and this might apply equally, or more so, to his racing mechanic. However, Jimmy Burge, who acted in the latter capacity to Dick Seaman during the early part of his racing career, rather gives the lie to this adage. Burge assisted Seaman with his Riley, M.G. Magna and Bugatti cars before being released from his place of employment to become Dick’s full-time mechanic at the start of the 1934 season after Seaman acquired the ex-Whitney Straight M.G. Magnette. They used a 2-litre Lagonda which towed, not without occasional protest, a trailer, the thought of which causes Jim to wake in the night even now. Fitted with an old Bentley steering box adapted as a winch to heave the M.G. aboard, this trailer had high-pressure tyres with a penchant for leaving the rims and wandering off into the surrounding countryside. In spite of these shortcomings, it saw plenty of service and took a lot of punishment, as did the much overworked Lagonda.

The combined efforts of Seaman, Burge and Robin Jackson’s Brooklands depot persuaded the Magnette to run on all six cylinders as it had seldom done before and it won the 1,100-c.c. class at the Inter-Varsity Speed Trials, retired from the British Empire Trophy Race at Brooklands, and again retired at Albi, after being ” cooked ” on the starting line in attempting to obey the instructions of a blundering starting official who seemed unable to make up his mind. After a distorted cylinder head and other damage resulting from the Albi fiasco had been dealt with in Milan, they pushed on to Pescara for the Coppa Acerbo, regarding which race Burge has an anecdote to relate.

It appears that Seaman and he had an argument on the starting line as to whether or not the tap on the spare oil tank should be left open, the sump level being maintained by float and valve. Seaman was worried lest, if the tap were left “on “, No. 6 cylinder should start misfiring again as a result of excess oil. His mechanic maintained that, since the M.G. had sufficient tankage to complete the course without refuelling, it would be a pity to have to stop for oil and argued that, anyway, it was better to oil-up and still have the engine in one piece than to wreck the engine through oil starvation. Seaman quite saw Jim’s point of view but insisted that the tap be turned “off,” and since he was “the Guv’nor,” Jim had to obey —with a dextrous twist of the wrist which left the tap just where it was, in the ” on ” position! He records that the sound of the M.G. running on all six cylinders each time it passed the pits was the sweetest music he ever heard but it was with a certain diffidence that he approached Seaman to confess his little deceit, after their natural elation at running into third place had died down. Another driver might have “blown up” but Seaman, he says, was very understanding and decent about the whole matter and, what is more, gave instructions that the tap was always to be left “on” in future. From Pescara they returned to Milan for routine maintenance and then loaded up the trailer for the journey to Berne. High up in the Swiss Alps the overworked Lagonda cried “Enough,” and so they decided to unload the Magnette, which Seaman would drive to Airolo, leaving Burge to follow with the Lagonda and trailer. They had some difficulty in getting the M.G. started and, once going, Seaman didn’t dare to stop, but Burge says it was grand to hear the bark of the exhaust echoing back through the mountains as Seaman went on his way. When the last sound of the M.G. had died away, he loaded up the spares, water cans and fuel bidons in the trailer and surveyed the landscape, the chief feature of which was an ugly-looking hairpin farther up. This, he recalls, he could only negotiate by broadsiding the trailer with his heart in his mouth, but he completed the journey without further incident.

His next nightmare was the trip through the Simplon Tunnel with the trailer, complete with Magnette once more, stowed on a flat railway truck without any sides. Every crashing noise he heard made him wonder whether it was the outfit falling off on to the permanent way, but they reached the other end with everything but their nerves intact.

After staying the night at Lucerne, they pressed on to Berne where, a couple of days later, Seaman piloted the M.G. to victory in the Prix de Berne, he and Burge showing their satisfaction at the result by embracing in true Latin fashion when Seaman pulled into the pits at the end of the race. This un-English behaviour seems to have rather shaken the Swiss, but Burge says they were quite oblivious of their surroundings and couldn’t have cared less. It was unfortunate that Seaman’s joy at winning should be marred later in the day when H. C. Hamilton, whom be so much admired, lost his life after going out of control and hitting a tree in one of Whitney Straight’s Maseratis. Since Seaman was staying behind to attend to the arrangements for Hamilton’s funeral, Burge had to take the outfit back to England by himself and it proved to be an arduous journey. All official papers were made out in Seaman’s name and it was necessary to explain why Seaman was not with him, besides juggling with the rate of exchange of Swiss francs into French and so forth in what he describes as a mixture of Cockney and bad French. In addition, he suffered the odd puncture or two, those diabolical high-pressure tyres on the trailer finally leaving the wheels one after the other. He finished the run to Compiegne on the rims, which did them no good at all, necessitating a welding job on his arrival there.

To cap it all, when he had seen the outfit safely stowed aboard the boat for England and was able to relax, he ordered roast lamb and two veg, as he hadn’t had any food for some time but, alas, Father Neptune was being a bit restless that day . . . ! However, he delivered the Magnette to Jackson’s Brooklands depot and then left for a well-earned holiday, during which the outfit was shipped back to France, where new wheels and tyres were fitted to the trailer.

His holiday ended, Burge was sent for to go to Avignon with a load of spares and, on his arrival, found that the Lagonda had been involved in an accident and was in the bands of the local garage, having a new radiator fitted and the steering repaired. The new radiator turned out to be a huge contraption intended for a French lorry and the Lagonda bonnet just rested on top of this and was tied down with string! However, the large radiator cured the previous boiling trouble and Burge drove Lagonda and trailer without trouble to Milan, where Seaman awaited his coming. Their next trip, to Brno, via Brescia and Vienna for the Masaryk G.P., was marred by trailer trouble—a broken axle on this occasion—but they got there, and Seaman finished fifth in the race. This was on a Sunday and Seaman then announced that he was to run in the Nuffield Trophy at Donington on the following Saturday! And so off they went again, with the M.G. now towed behind a 12-h.p. F.I.A.T. Burge rode in the M.G. in the pouring rain with no wings or hood, much to the concern of Seaman, who repeatedly offered to change places. However, his mechanic insisted on sticking it out, and they made their way to Boulogne, via Prague, Nuremberg, Heidelberg, Saarbrucken and Rheims, finally arriving in England at 6 a.m. on the Friday, Seaman still seemingly very little tired, though Burge fell asleep at the wheel of the Dodge van, which had taken over the transport of the Magnette at Folkestone, and nearly went off the road. Seaman further proved his stamina when, after nearly a week’s gruelling journey over a thousand miles with little sleep, he took the Magnette into second place behind Raymond Mays in the Donington race on the Saturday.

The last race of the 1934 season was one at Brooklands in which the M.G. just about staggered home, being very tired after its strenuous season on the Continent. Seaman had never much use for Brooklands, as he said the shortness of the track made things rather boring. Burge was needed back at his old job and did little work for Seaman in 1935. He did, however, collect Seaman’s new E.R.A. from the Bourne Works and deliver it in preparation for its first continental race, the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay, in which Seaman led after two laps but retired on the third with piston trouble, to his evident disappointment. He had had the consolation of having broken the lap-record by a good margin before his retirement, but once again suffered bad luck in his next race, the Eifelrennen at the Nurburg Ring, when he could only manage fourth place, through having to stop for oil.

Apart from later assisting Giulio Ramponi with the transformation of Earl Howe’s 1+-litre Delage, with which Seaman scored so many notable successes, Burge’s racing association with this great driver was over. Seaman had asked him in 1934 whether he would care to sign a five-year contract as his mechanic, but Burge had declined. He thinks it was just as well that he did, for he suspects that when Seaman joined the Mercedes-Benz team, the Germans would not have cared to have a British mechanic in their midst!

Burge attributes Dick Seaman’s success to his phenomenal patience and ability to remain unruffled by the many disappointments and hard luck which beset the best of racing motorists from time to time. In addition he was well liked by everyone and was a “good mixer.” All in all, Jim Burge looks back with pride and pleasure on his association with Seaman and asks that the help he has given me in writing this account be allowed to stand as his tribute to a driver for whom it was a pleasure to work.

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