The Brooklands Miller

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The heading applies, not to the single-seater Miller that appeared at this year’s Brooklands Re-union, which seems to be a post-war replica or rebuild judging by its dating, but to the Miller which Count Louis Zborowski imported in 1923, to which interesting reference is made by Griffith Borgeson in his new Bugatti book (see “Book Reviews”), he being one of the best “automotive-detectives” to sit before a typewriter.

Borgeson reminds us that the five aristocrats who ventured to Indianapolis 58 years ago to drive a team of Type 30 monoposto Bugattis in the classic 500-Mile Race were very disillusioned when they found how slow the French cars were against the better American track racers. The young Count Zborowski was one of these drivers and Borgeson tells of how he became friendly with Fred Moskovics of Stutz who was acting as host to the European team and who, according to Borgeson, had narrowly escaped disaster in the fatal run in Zborowski’s father’s Mercedes at La Turbie hill-climb in 1903, he having gone to Monte Carlo with the Count to act as riding mechanic but had changed places at the last moment when Baron de Pollange, a friend of the Count, asked for the ride; Moskovics had not realised that the youthful Louis who had come to America was the son of Eliot Zborowski.

Finding his Indianapolis Bugatti not quick enough in the practice runs before the 500-mile grind, Zborowski ordered a Miller for the European GP at Monza. Harry Miller, says Borgeson, rang his Los Angeles plant immediately, so that work could be started on Zborowski’s car and the necessary two-seater body and crude front brakes fitted. It is said that the Count announced three days after arriving at the Speedway, and eight days before he was due to race the Bugatti there (it retired after little more than 100 miles, with a broken con-rod), that he would probably go out to see the new Los Angeles track while his car was being built and that he might run it in the November Thanksgiving Day race (I am not sure which track this was; an earlier reference of Borgeson’s says the Los Angeles Motordrome dated back to 1910 and that Moskovics. new Culver City track didn’t open until 1924. I suspect that Zborowski discovered this and didn’t go; he was back at Brooklands by the summer).

The Miller, however, was duly shipped to England. In those days when you could only get to America by sea, Indianapolis and the rest of the racing circus there was a closed-shop to most Britishers. They were apt to think of it as taking place over speed bowls amid a stench of petrol fumes and grease, the drivers dare-devil cowboys, the whole thing very far removed from the tranquil country estate atmosphere of Brooklands, where gentlemen drivers pursued the gentle sport of handicap racing in a fascinating variety of rather charming motor cars, many of them of reassuring antiquity. The “movies” had enhanced this impression of American motor-racing, even though there was another four years to run before sponsorship took hold of Indy and names such as Perfect Circle, Jynx, Elgin Piston Pin, Boyle Valve and Nickle Plate Specials came into being to divorce still further the USA scene from European reality. But if Yankee speedways seemed lurid and not quite trustworthy, the speeds of the USA racing cars were known to be high, as the advent of the Zborowski Miller must have provided the “right crowd” who frequented Brooklands with keen, if restrained, excitement.  I am glad to have the opportunity to say a bit more about this because, although I devote quite a lot of space to this in my Brooklands History (Grenville, 1981 — same address as Motor Sport), I did not quite do the car justice.

The grey-painted, slim, Type 122, 2-litre twin-cam Miller was due to race at the BARC August Meeting (of 1923) but it non-started. A pity, because the usually cautious handicappers had deemed it no faster than a 11/2-litre Aston-Martin or a 30/98 Vauxhall in one engagement. Soon after this meeting was over Zborowski was down at the Track, testing both his new American possession and the 27-litre Higharn-Special that he had also withdrawn from the racing a few days before. If you read page 105 of the aforesaid Brooklands book you will see that there was cause for general dissatisfaction. The 2-litre straight-eight American marvel was well short of its expected 120 mph top-speed and there were other untoward occurrences, one of which smacks, if not of sabotage, then of gross carelessness on someone’s part — unless the Count’s mercurial, fun-loving friends had got at the engine. . . The comment in The Autocar at the time, written I expect by the Count’s close friend SCH Davis, implies at best an excuse for future poor showing by the import, at worst that Zborowski may have been thinking in terms of compensation. I quote: “It is obvious that there is something curious in the conditions in America, if this car is anything to judge by; and if it does not run at what is regarded as the correct speed, either American timing is incorrect — which seems most improbable — or the measured distances may be inaccurate. Alternatively, there may be something in the effect of the atmosphere, though men with experience of racing in both countries state definitely that it is not necessary to change the jet-setting for America petrol or conditions, and that the cars taken over from this side of the Atlantic do not seem any faster than the data provided by Brooklands would suggest.”

Clearly, Zborowski was puzzled. Nor did the presence of no less a person than Riley Brett, Miller’s head mechanic or engineer, help, but it does seem as if an early engine had been installed in Lou’s chassis. Jimmy Murphy, the champion American driver, had travelled to France with Brett on the way to the Monza GP and one wonders whether Brett was summoned to Brooklands by an irate Zborowski (I have heard that he stayed in a London hotel, not at Higham, which may bear this out, or it may simply have been that he was looking after Miller business in the Capital, one task being to travel down to Brooklands to see how a customer’s car was getting on). Murphy had expressed a desire to see Brooklands but I never heard that he got there.

Disillusioned as he must have been, Zborowski dispatched the Miller to Monza in the care of his friend and consulting-engineer, Capt (later Lt-Col) Clive Gallop, in the pre-1914-type Mercedes lorry (of which Motor Sport has, I think, reproduced the only published photograph), an incredible journey, especially as I believe it was then on solid tyres, not its later giant balloon pneumatics.

The other two Millers to run at Monza were in the hands of Murphy and the wealthy Argentinian, de Algaza. The latter, like Zborowski, had, after the Indianapolis Bugatti fiasco (he stopped after only ten laps with a broken con-rod) placed an order with Harry Miller, but for two cars, according to Borgcson. One of these (I presume), with Murphy’s car, had been shipped to Genoa. I reason that Murphy and Brett had travelled via France in preference to going direct to Italy on a tramp-steamer: those who have knowledge of the shipping-lines at that time may care to comment. Incidentally, it is easy to see why the Miller was important to Zborowski. It wasn’t until late in 1924 that he was invited into the works Mercedes GP team with the saddest of results. He had invested in Aston-Martin to promote his road-racing interests, after his sensational Brooklands appearances with Chitty-Bang-Bang, etc, and needed a 2-litre car for GP events. Perhaps he remembered Segrave having to prove to Coatalen his ability to race before he would be given the place in the Sunbeam team; the Count had nothing to prove as a track driver. But how would Mercedes rate his Brooklands career? Moreover one supposes that he saw the Miller as a useful 120 mph Brooklands car, at a time when the fastest lap he had done there had been 115.29 mph in the ageing 4.9-litre Ballot. So Monza was important to Zborowski. Akin to a semi-track contest, Zborowsi was somewhat behind Murphy initially but there have been occasions when works cars have had the edge over those of the same make owned by private entrants! First the Count was delayed by plug trouble, then the Miller’s oil-pump gave out (although Borgeson has told us that, compared to a Duesenberg’s, these were “refined and compact”) and not surprisingly a con-rod broke soon afterwards. Algaza was still running at the end, but he did only 70 laps to the full 80 achieved by Murphy, who was third, but no match for the supercharged Fiats.

Just over three weeks later Zborowski had the Miller home in England and at last the Brooklands crowd had a chance to see this intriguing, now white car, with its eight vertical air-intake pipes for the Miller carburetters protruding in a business-like manner below the crankcase; that is, those who went down to Weybridge for the Essex MC Meeting on September 29th. The Miller’s lubrication system was still giving trouble, the sump refusing to scavenge properly (one wonders who had rebuilt the engine?) but the car was beautifully finished and was the favourite for the Lightning Short Handicap. The engine was running well and Zborowski caught Mrs Menzies’ 1912 GP Peugeot on the Railway-straight, to win at 93.57 mph. He came out again for the “Lightning Long”, a race which gave the onlookers a true thrill, with one of the most exciting, bunched finishes seen at the Track. Slow until it warmed-up, the Miller then overhauled the field, holding up Parry Thomas’ scratch Leyland Eight in the process, until Zborowski got clear and pulled down from his high place along the Byfieet banking to let the Welshman through. Eight closely-spaced cars roared over the line, Thomas winning at 100 mph, the Miller second, Brocklebank’s 1913 GP Peugeot third. Zborowski’s fastest lap was at 109.46 mph.

The Miller seems to have vindicated itself. Zborowski had clearly expected a speed of something like 120 mph, and must have been near that, in this race. At Indianapolis in 1923 Milton’s winning HSC Miller qualified at 1081/2 mph, and that was about the norm for the Type 122 at this stage of its development. Emphasising the long journeyings, Zborowski was then off again to Spain, to race the Miller at the new Sitges banked-track, after driving the Aston-Martin into second place at Penya Rhin.

Only four cars contested the 2-litre Sitges race, and Gallop was permitted to run the Aston as a make-weight. The Miller ding-donged all the way with Divo’s GP Sunbeam until a tyre gave out, and Zborowski was still only 50 sec behind at the finish, averaging some 97 mph for the 2481/2 miles. Presumably the long-suffering lorry was used again and if so, as there was room in it only for the Miller, the smaller car was probably driven the whole way!

The car never went so well again. Lou tried it unsuccessfully at the 1924 Whitsun Brooklands Meeting, but retired after a 90 mph standing-lap. He then took it to Lyons for the French GP, again in the venerable Mercedes lorry, and had great fun, with Sammy Davis as his passenger, until the steering and front axle bolts broke up. After Zborowski’s death H Wright took the Miller on, Dudley Frey “up” on one occasion, but suffered non-starts, and another rod through the crankcase. It finally left this country for a new career in Australia and is rumoured to have changed hands again recently. — WB.

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