Lagonda at Le Mans

As time goes by there are more and more opportunities to indulge in nostalgic commemorative “jollies” or “raids” as the Frazer Nash owners call them. It was the Frazer Nash section of the VSCC that organised one of the first of the big one-­make “raids” when they journeyed to the Dolomites and northern Italy to relive the great days of the “chain-gang” in the Alpine Trials of 1932/3/4. This was in 1969 and was not a specific time landmark, it was simply an excuse for a trip to Italy. Since then “jollies” and “raids” have caught on as being a way to use old cars in collective security and any excuse is made for setting off to commemorate something from the past. Many of these gatherings are closely connected with an event or a particular happening, and whjle some are a bit over ­organised and used as commercial advertising fodder, others are private and personal. No matter what old car you own you don’t need to look very far for an excuse for a “jolly”. In California they call them “boondoggles”, a delighfully meaningless word that somehow sums up a happy trip with an old car to celebrate something entirely personal and inconsequental.

However, some “jollies” are very important and significant, and one of the most memorable that I have been on was in 1978 to Northern Ireland, to celebrate the 50th Anniversary of the first Tourist Trophy to be held on the magnificent Ards circuit to the east of Belfast. That great Talbot enthusiast, Anthony Blight, sportingly let me join his team of Fox & Nicholl Talbots and I had a marvellous week in Ulster with GO54. That was a commemorative run that brought tears of emotion to many eyes. As a Frazer Nash-BMW enthusiast I had a lot of pleasure organising a small private gathering last year to commemorate to the very day, fifty years since AFN Ltd signed the contract to import BMW cars into Great Britain under the agreed name of Frazer Nash-BMW. Next year will be an excuse for a “jolly” for the Type 328 BMW, to celebrate fifty years since the first prototype car won the 2-litre class at the Eifelrennen on the old Nurburgring. 

Fifty years is a good round figure on which to base a “jolly”, so that over the years there has been a continual flow of motor racing happenings to celebrate. Some of the long established makes are now celebrating 75th anniversaries, and this year the British celebrated 100 years of the motor car, though the French did it last year and the Germans-are doing it next year, but 50th anniversaries are more easy to pin-point. At Le Mans it is possible to celebrate something every year, and 1985 was no exception. lt was a year not be missed by Lagonda enthusiasts, for a Lagonda won Le Mans in 1935, exactly fifty years ago.

The Lagonda Club organised a major “jolly” to Le Mans to commemorate the make’s only victory at the Sarthe. Bentley, Jaguar, Ferrari and Porsche enthusiasts will probably smile, recalling their numerous victories in the 24 Hour race, but if they want to celebrate they have the problem of which particular year to choose. In the Lagonda Club there was no such problem, 1935 was the year that John Hindmarsh, the Hawker test-pilot, and young Louis Fontes, drove a special 41/2-litre Lagonda to victory, so 1985 had to be the year. Peter Whenman and Alec Downie of the Lagonda Club organised a 10-day trip around Northern France for some 25 Lagonda cars, ranging from early 21/2-litres to late V12’s, including naturally enough, a lot of 41/2- litre Meadows-engined cars that owed much to the Fox & Nicholl racing 41/2-litres. This “jolly” ended up at Le Mans for this year’s 24 Hour race and the actual car that won in 1935, now owned by David Johnson, was there to take part in a parade round the circuit before the race began. This particular car was one of three that were built by Fox & Nicholl in 1934, and on this special occasion the other two cars were there as “maids of honour”, though one of them had actually taken part in the 1935 race and finished 13th.

These special Fox & Nicholl Lagondas were built in the summer of 1934 in co­operation with the Lagonda factory, specifically to take part in the Tourist Trophy on the Ards circuit in September 1934. Arthur Fox was a great motor racing enthusiast who today would be called a “sponsor”, and his garage and tuning establishment on the Kingston-By-Pass was where the cars were prepared. They were built on the short chassis as used for Lagonda’s 31/2-litre sports cars, with special 41/2-litre Meadows 6 cylinder engines squeezed in, and one of the photos accompanying this article shows the three cars outside the Fox & Nicholl premises in August 1934, shortly before they left for Liverpool to take the boat to Northern Ireland. They were registered in Kingston­-upon-Thames and given the consecutive numbers of BPK 201, BPK 202 and BPK 203.

In the Tourist Trophy they finished 4th, 5th and 8th, driven respectively by the Hon Brian Lewis, John Hindmarsh and John Cobb. The following year BPK 203 was sold to Dr Benjafield and BPK 202 was entered for Le Mans for Hindmarsh and Fontes while BPK 201 was kept in store. In the official entry list for the 1935 Le Mans race there is only one 41/2-litre Lagonda entered, with the racing number 4. The other Lagonda entry is for a 2-litre, with the racing number 14, the entries having to be in very early in the season. By the time scrutineering began Arthur Fox and Lagonda changed the second entry to a 41/2-litre Lagonda to be driven by Dr Benjafield and Sir Ronald Gunter; and thpugh the entry was now in the unlimited class the car retained its 2-litre class number 11. This was BPK 203.

The aforementioned photo of the three cars outside the Kingston-By-pass works has erroneously been described as the 1935 Lagonda team for Le Mans, whereas it is a 1934 photo and the “team” did not go to Le Mans in 1935, only BPK 202 went, with BPK 203 as a private entry. The records of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest have no reference to this late change of entry and the official club book still insists that car number 14 was a 2-litre, even though photograph’s clearly show it to be BPK 203!

While Hindmarsh and Fontes were winning the, 24 hour race, not without a good slice of luck, for the opposing Delahaye team made a nonsense of its lap chart, and the Lagonda’s engine was very low on oil, the second car was holding fourth place when · gearbox trouble intervened. With only top gear available Benjafield and Gunter struggled round for the last few hours at greatly reduced speed and gradually dropped back to 13th place by the finish, but at least they kept going for the whole 24 hours.

These Fox & Nicholl Lagondas only made one more racing appearance and that was for the 1935 Tourist Trophy, again held on the Ards circuit. Hindmarsh drove the Le Mans winning car, to finish 7th and Charlie Dodson drove BPK 201 to finish 8th. The third car was not entered. After that these two cars were also sold off into private hands and remarkably, all three are alive and well today and are in constant use. Last year the owners, together with a handful of Lagonda club members celebrated the 50th birthday of the three cars, gathering at the old Lagonda factory in Staines and then driving to the site of the old Fox & Nicholl garage on the Kingston-By-pass. This was done as near to the date of the 1934 photograph as could be ascertained, we may have been a day out one way or the other, but it was a very pleasant little private party enjoyed by those present and it was the first time the three cars had stood side-by-side since Fox & Nicholl disposed of them. BPK 201 spent a lot of time in the USA, BPK 202 has never left the UK and BPK 203 spent a long time in Southern Ireland. Now they are all back home again and still in remarkably original condition, retaining their original registration numbers, car/chassis numbers and engine numbers. A number of copies of these cars have been made, using later 41/2- litre Lagonda components, but there were only three Fox & Nicholl TT Le Mans Lagondas and they are all still with us, their whole fifty years of existence well documented, with no “grey areas” that encourage spurious claims to be made for fakes. – DSJ.