An interview with Capt. G.E.T. Eyston

The Editor Asks the World’s Most Prolific and Successful Record-Breaker Some Questions and Gets Some Very Interesting Answers

A book would be needed to detail all the racing and record-breaking achievements accomplished by Capt. George Eyston, OBE, MC, between 1923 and 1939. But the other day I was privileged to ask this astonishing man – Le Recordman to the denizens of Montlhery – some questions relating to his career, during which he must have spent more hours and covered more miles in racing-car cockpits than any other driver. I have pleasure in passing on his answers to those readers who share my love of pre-war racing.

One tends to think of Eyston as a record breaker, and in this field he had some great successes, such as being the first driver to exceed 100 m.p.h., 100 in the hour, and 120 m.p.h. with a 750-c.c. car, the famous MG “Magic Midget”, breaking the Land Speed Record three times, the World’s hour record on four occasions, the 12-hour thrice, and the 24- and 48-hour records twice, as well as setting up some significant diesel records, the fastest at nearly 160 m.p.h. But Eyston also did a good deal of motor racing, after racing a motorcycle at Brooklands under an assumed name before the 1914/18 war. He also rode twice after the war in the Belgian Motorcycle GP, and after owning a touring GN which he drove to the 1921 French GP at Le Mans and buying a Coupe de L’Auto Sunbeam and a racing Vauxhall, began racing seriously with Aston-Martin and Bugatti cars. A melted CB plug – the only time a plug had melted on him – cost Eyston the chance of winning the 1923 JCC 200-Mile Race for Lionel Martin. His Bugattis were looked after by Papworth – “It was an eye-opener, but luckily spares were less expensive then!” – and he won the 1926 Boulogne Grand Prix, with the ex-Costantini 1 1/2-litre and the 1927 La Baule GP with a 2.3. He was second to Campbell’s Delage in the 1928 200-Mile Race and third in a Formule Libre race at Montlhery.

In later times Eyston drove Alfa Romeos at Spa (second with Ivanowski), in the 1932 TT (second), at Phoenix Park (second), and in the Double-Twelve. He shared Birkin’s Maserati in the 1931 French GP, the seat collapsing, so that a side-member rubbed away his trousers. He has also raced the Halford Special, OM, Riley, Lea-Francis and Sunbeam cars. But it was mainly his record breaking that we discussed.

I asked Eyston how he became so prolific a record-man. He said that Ernest Eldridge was responsible. Eldridge realised that there was better publicity than in racing, because records lasted longer and could be advertised over a greater period of time. To anyone intent on making a business of speed this was a persuasive argument. Eldridge had been racing a Miller on American board tracks, where he “frightened himself to death”, but was more famous for his LSR with the 300-h.p Fiat, on the road at Arpajon. He brought the Miller to Mondlhery and its three-piece, bolted-up front axle broke. The car somersaulted and Eldridge lost an eye. When he recovered he suggested that Eyston should drive and he should engineer their record bids. (When later poor Eldridge died of pneumonia, he was on his own.)

At this time T & Ts of Brooklands had been trying to make a saloon Riley 9 set up a 24-hour Class G record. They took the car to Montlhery, Railton and Thomson driving, and when the car overturned they summoned the Press to the track, pointed out that ice had caused the calamity, and went home. In fact, the crankshaft had broken. Eyston persuaded T & T to prepare the car differently, Eldridge designing a special balanced crankshaft. Their chaps drove the car to Paris and it went on and on, taking the 48-hour record with no trouble, the mechanics finding they had nothing to do. That was in 1929/30. The following year, although Eyston had begun his work with the MG, they used a Speed Model Riley 9 for record attacks. Percy Riley was jealous of his engine and refused to allow the Eldridge crank to be used. The standard crank, with which vibration was so severe that it was felt through the steering column, broke, causing the car to go out of control and slide backwards up the Montlhery banking and down onto the infield. Victor Riley was so afraid further attempts would result in a fatality that he ordered the Eldridge crank to be fitted, and many records were successfully captured, with this and a Phoenix Park Riley with a four-pipe exhaust system. The crank was retained for production cars.

George drove a great variety of cars on record runs and I asked whether the slower ones were as specially prepared as the others. “Yes”, he replied. The Singer Ten saloon, for instance, with which he averaged 50.7 m.p.h. for 24 hours in wind and a gale at the Paris track in 1931. He told me they worked on this car themselves, at Singer’s Coventry factory, and he remembered an amusing story in connection with a five-and-half days’ run. Eyston had a business appointment with Sir William Morris and did not think it politic to postpone this on account of breaking records with a Singer! So he left Paris, travelled to Cowley, and returned while the run was in progress, leaving some of the driving to Brewster, the motorcyclist. On his return to Montlhery he listened to hear if the car was still circulating. It was. But soon there was an almighty cacophony, and sparks you could see even in daylight. The prop-shaft had come adrift at the front and dug into the track, holeing the fuel tank, etc. “That”, says George, “was that!”

At the French track Eyston did a great deal of record work with the better Continental cars. I asked him about this. The Hotchkiss with which he took innumerable records, including the World’s 48-hour with a 2-litre engine, became possible because of a happy association with W. D. Marchant, the racing motorcyclist. Hotchkiss was run by a pleasant Englishman, Mr. Ainsworth, and as Marchant had just given up his work on Motosacoche’s TT machines Eyston, having signed a contract to build a record car for the Company, put him in charge. Marchant lived in Paris while he built up the very handsome single-seater, which was run with both open and closed cockpits. The fuel tank was mounted pannier-fashion to balance the car on the banking (an idea later used on Eyston’s “Speed of the Wind”, which also lapped fast on a circular course. The Hotchkiss was enormously successful. All through the Company was most helpful, even to getting electric lights set up round the track for night lappery. It was through Marchant that Eyston met another motorcycle racer, W. C. Handley, who drove M.G. and other cars for him.

Perhaps the car George likes to remember best is the 8-litre single-seater sleeve-valve Panhard-Levassor. He did not really like big track cars but this one took the coveted hour record for him on two occasions. It was built for the speed-trials at Ostend, where the head of the Panhard Company was interested in real estate, and it had a wooden body, later replaced by a metal one. Eldridge knew the car existed and they asked if they could borrow it. The steering, set up for a straight course, had excessive castor, quite unsuited to a banked track. But Panhard point blank refused to have it altered. It was a case of take the car, or leave it.

Eyston took it, but had to go into training in order to stand up to the ordeal of grappling with it for an hour at over 130 m.p.h. The factory got quite enthusiastic, but apart from being difficult to handle, there were snags. After the first successful hour run, Eyston went out again the next year. On the second occasion, after 20 minutes, a piece of loose concrete burst a back tyre. As there was no differential and “no brakes to speak of”, he was lucky to get away with it. Then the engine began to rumble and refuse to pull and Eyston came in thinking something was amiss inside. It was a broken magneto coupling, that had affected the timing. A new one had to be made. Then a front shock-absorber arm broke. Worse, a con.-rod gave way and came out through the crankcase. They had to wait six weeks before the works had another 8-litre engine ready. But they made it, at over 131 m.p.h. At that time Eyston was in bed in Paris with ‘flu. The car being ready and the wind having dropped, he left his sick-bay in the afternoon and faced the tough and difficult task of taming the big car for the sixty-minute run. When he came in, possessor of the World’s hour record, all Marchant could say was, “You look like death warmed up!”

I also heard the true story of the 1932 British Empire Trophy Race at Brooklands, awarded to Eyston after he had finished second in the Panhard, a fifth of a second behind John Cobb’s 104-litre Delage, but later given back to Cobb. In the heat Cobb took things easily. Eyston was not used to going so quickly round Brooklands in such a difficult car and he was concerned about the tyres, which later showed the canvas – “not very nice”. But in the Final he was “going along fine”. The old Panhard had a high axle-ratio and had to be kept wound up, whereas Cobb could rely on some acceleration from the Delage. Kaye Don was in the Panhard pit and he signalled George to ease off, to save the tyres. This allowed Cobb to take the lead. Eyston expected to be able to re-pass on the Home banking but here Cobb eased off and he couldn’t get by. He finished in a photo-finish, a close second, and Don urged Eyston to enter a Protest. Panhard would want the car to win but George was not happy, saying, “No, let it go”. But Don, Eyston having agreed, instituted proceedings. The BRDC Stewards upheld the Protest but Cobb put in a counter-Protest, and brought along the KC Ewen Montagu to the hearing. He was given the race and it ended amicably.

Incidentally, the Panhard, which still exists, had no auxiliary oil pump to humour its sleeves. It was shipped from Newhaven to Dieppe and brought to Brooklands on a lorry. After its splendid hour record it did a lap of honour at Le Mans.

Eyston performed some excellent work for Delage. This came about because Kaye Don knew S. Smith & Co., the London concessionaires. They obtained a factory car – “a very nice car”– a 4-litre straight-eight Delage. But two attempts on the 24-hour record had to be made. It would average over 117 m.p.h. but on one occasion the seat “shorted” the battery and set alight the oil that had accumulated in the undertray. When Eyston came in the mechanics filled the bonnet and doused the innocent engine with fire-extinguisher fluid, which turned out to be no help at all!

Naturally we spoke about the AEC-diesel-engined saloon, which eventually exceeded 120 m.p.h. It had a Chrysler Imperial Chassis which had been given to Eldridge for making a record car, but hadn’t been used. (Although Ernest did take some records with an outwardly ordinary Chrysler two-seater.) The engine was an untuned ‘bus unit, on loan. It was thought that a closed body would be useful during long-distance record runs, and a black fabric one was constructed. I remember how we Press chaps envied George the protection it afforded when we went to Brooklands on a pouring wet day for the purpose of breaking the existing Diesel record held by America! The engine was too heavy for the chassis and eventually a front wheel came off when Bert Denly was driving it. A side-member also broke in halves when Eyston was six hours short of a 24-hour record. But the car finished. After the war it wasn’t wanted, so George accepted a fiver for the chassis and it has since disappeared.

At the time of this car’s pioneer c.i. records G. E. T. Eyston had an interesting association with Chrysler. He went to Detroit and designed for them a special saloon body with a flowing vertical front grille and a ridge along the roof, falling to a knife-edge tail. It was finished in the same red paint as “Speed of the Wind”, with upholstery to match. Before the Olympia Show the Press were sent telegrams by G.E.T. inviting them to a Hunt breakfast, with the waiters in correct hunting garb, etc. They were convinced George was about to announce a new record car. But when the curtains were drawn back, there was the Eyston Chrysler saloon. It could have been a great success, if the war had not intervened.

Little Bert Denly took part in many of Eyston’s exploits and even drove the Hotchkiss and the 130-m.p.h. MG Midget alone on some of them. I enquired how they had met.”Oh”, said George, “I was doing some tyre tests for Avon with a Bugatti at Brooklands and was getting fed up with the rough ride I was having. Bert was a noted motorcycle rider and there he was, just looking on. So I told him to get in and drive the thing.” They have been good friends ever since. They were of such different stature that the driving seat usually had to be changed when one driver took over from the other.

I ventured to ask Eyston about the Powerplus supercharger fitted to the Birkin blower 4 1/2 single-seater Bentley for its Brooklands lap record attempt. It is alleged to have been no good, so that the Villiers blower was re-fitted. But Eyston says he did not want the engine to seize-up and involve Birkin in a crash (his wife was a friend of Lady Dorothy Paget) so instead of the usual Powerplus vane-type supercharger he designed a Roots-type, leaving me wondering whether, in fact, the Bentley’s lap-record was made with this, which historians have mistaken for the Villiers?

I asked why front-wheel-drive was used for “Speed of the Wind”, Eyston’s very successful record car, which had a 21-litre Rolls-Royce Kestrel aero-engine and was also used with an ex-Air Ministry 19-litre Ricardo diesel engine. Eyston said he had seen Citroens being tested for day after day, round and round Montlhery, and felt that f.w.d. was right for running on a circular course, as at Utah. Both engines were used at Utah, being changed out there, the c.i.-engined set-up being named the “Flying Spray”. In petrol form the car took the hour record at over 162 m.p.h. A nose vane helped when lapping the 10-mile circle of salt at 160 m.p.h. The Kestrel engine had a special bottom-end made at Rolls-Royce, to enable it to be installed in the car, with re-positioned oil-pumps, etc., and the gearbox was an adapted Armstrong Siddeley tank unit. R-R were so impressed that they offered Eyston a job at Derby.

He politely refused this but was able to borrow two Rolls-Royce R-type aero-engines for his LSR “Thunderbolt”, although not the Merlins he had hoped for. (With the latter 400 m.p.h. might have been possible.) He told me he tried to unite these two V12s to run as a 24-cylinder engine in the LSR job, but the torsional vibration was so acute that the clutches were torn up, and had to be redesigned by Offenhauser, while the car was at Utah, with Eyston’s draughtsman supervising. Later it was found that the solution would have been revised ignition timing. The clutches had dogs to prevent slip – I remember suggesting this in The Autocar for LSR cars when I was 15.

G.E.T. could not afford lightweight aircraft workmanship, which is why the “Thunderbolt”, built by Bean Industries, was so heavy. It had deep side-members from which the engines were hung. In its revised form coil instead of transverse leaf-spring suspension saved a ton, at a cost to George of a dollar a pound! The multiple wheels (eight tyres) were used to humour Dunlop, as they reduced the loading per tyre. (The tyres, 7.00 x 31, weighed 211 lb. with the wheels and did 2,800 r.p.m.) This great 73-litre, 4,700-h.p. car was extended without anxiety by Eyston with no preliminary trials. It took the LSR at 312.2 m.p.h., then at 345 m.p.h., in 1937, and with a closed nose at 357.5 m.p.h. in 1938. To off-set the dangerous effects of possible exhaust gases from the special lightweight exhause manifolds of “Thunderbolt”, and the fumes from its disc brake linings, in the closed cockpit used in 1938, Eyston wore a respirator. Even this was untried and as he set its air intake tap half-way he had no idea whether this would blow the mask from his face or fail to provide him with enough air. Unfortunately “Thunderbolt” was burnt out in New Zealand during the war and “Speed of the Wind” was destroyed by an enemy bomb, also during the war, when stored in the works which Eyston used in Willesden, close to Delaunay’s, where the AEC and this car were built.

It is interesting that “Thunderbolt” helped to pioneer disc brakes, although G.E.T. says they were used on German tramcars one hundred years earlier! They were designed by Eyston and made by Ferodo, who, like Castrol and Dunlop, helped Eyston materially. They were “quite effective” on this enormously heavy and ultra-fast car from 180 m.p.h. They had movable and fixed components, with the disc Ferodo-lined on each side, and were inboard at the front, applied by lots of Lockheed hydraulic cylinders. The rotation aiding cooling. Parachutes for cars were not then thought of and the car’s air brakes only worked at high speed, losing their efficiency as speed dropped off. As Utah had a railroad one end, a bog at the other, George had good reason for wanting his 7-ton, 360-m.p.h. projectile to pull up. . . . There was so little interest in disc brakes that after the war Ferodo asked permission to tear up the joint patent.

I have long had the greatest admiration for Capt. G. E. T. Eyston but our conversation re-emphasised what a remarkable man he is. One day I may try to work out how many hours and miles he has occupied a race track. Suffice it to say he got his 120-m.p.h. BARC badge in 1929, the BRDC Gold Star in 1931, his 130-m.p.h. Brooklands badge in 1932. He was awarded the Segrave Trophy in 1936. I consider he should have been Knighted (his OBE was a war-time recognition). But George waves aside any such suggestion – anyway, he is very pleased with that rare distinction, being a Chevalier of the Legion of Honour. He is also a Sovereign Knight of Malta.

He took his pilot’s licence in 1917 and used a DH Moth at one time for getting to the North of England, when the roads were very slow. At 70 he took his seaplane licence! Asked which record he was most proud of, Eyston says the World’s hour, a greater challenge even than doing over two-miles-a-minute on 750 c.c. or thrice breaking the LSR.

He has driven so many cars that space prevents me from recalling them all. There was a GP Sunbeam, shared with Paul Dutoit, Segrave’s old mechanic, that lost a back wheel complete with half-shaft, which causes Eyston to wonder whether this was what killed Dario Resta in 1924, and not a burst tyre. He also drove Don’s 4.9 Bugatti on the Brooklands Mountain Circuit, tricky because of its heavy engine, and with its back axle not liking 200 miles at over 122 m.p.h. So many cars, since he began record attacks with a Bugatti at Brooklands with Capt. J. C. Douglas in 1926, and with his own 2.3 Bugatti at Montlhery the following year! Montlhery was far smoother, so after 1933 Eyston deserted Weybridge from the record angle, although he drove that 114.6 miles in the hour with the Continental Bentley there in 1939.

Questioned about road cars, George was impressed with the Mille Miglia MG, remembers his XK150 Jaguar as a compact, accelerative, “very practical” car, and recalls his two-seater 3 1/2-litre Derby-Bentley, which had a special body with room behind for the bits he transported for his record cars and in which he covered an “immense mileage”.

Today, a keen fisherman with some record catches to his credit (“Good old Hampshire”), he also enjoys shooting. He has an Alfa Romeo Giulietta “for fun”, runs a 1963 Ford Cortina estate on his fishing expeditions, also a Land-Rover with a special body, while his family have an 1100 MG four-door saloon and another BL 1100 as a hack. “Oh”, he puts in as an afterthought, “and I have an Opel, kept in Ireland”. Motoring must be in his blood, but it has been skilful driving that has kept him out of serious trouble in a long and exceedingly active high-speed career – except in 1931 when he broke the Class-H hour record for MG at over 100 m.p.h., another “first”, and, going on to do an extra lap of Montlhery because no one had flagged him in, a piston collapsed, the very hot oil went on fire, and George had to bale out, which did put him in hospital for a while. From this evolved his famous asbestos overalls.

It says a lot for G.E.T.’s driving ability and sensible approach to his chosen calling that he survived so much excitement with so little harm. There were plenty of difficult situations, though. There were ice and fog and rain and night running to contend with. There was the time he took records with a Riley Six when Montlhery was being repaired and the car had to pass close to a gaping hole on each lap. With another Riley, doing records at night, an unlit motorcycle pursuing the same task was a hazard, until George made its rider tie a torch on the back. And the runs on “Thunderbolt” were highly experimental, from the viewpoint of tyres, brakes and mechanical components.

Apart from fast cars, George Eyston did a lot of sculling, as Captain of the 1st Trinity Boat Club while he was at Cambridge, reached high standards as a yachtsman, experimented with radio in a Deperdussin monoplane in 1912, has enjoyed a ride on the footplate of the “Bristolian”, raced motor-boats for a year in 1925, and played a prominent part in both World Wars. He was responsible for the Powerplus supercharger, a vane-type compressor which was an answer to the then popular Roots blower, even 40 years ago a Wankel-type compressor, and was a Director of several Companies, including Castrol Ltd. A versatile fellow! – W.B.