Getting it right

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Those who find recollections of the past boring are apt to remind us that Henry Ford said “History is Bunk”. But that is taking the great man’s quotation out of context. What Ford meant was that looking back could be a brake on development, although that overlooks the fact that, so often, valuable lessons in many fields can be assimilated from what has gone before. Anyway, did not Henry Ford pride himself on the splendid Dearborn Museum, devoted to all aspects of history, not just automotive exhibits?

I hold the firm view that ownership of a veteran, vintage or classic car is enhanced by delving into its history, and I believe few would dispute this. In that case, distortions of such evidence as exists are to be deplored. All writers tend to drop the occasional clanger: I am no exception, maybe making more of these resounding slips than others. But having said that, I try to correct such dingers, as they say, “in the interests of history”. Sounds pompous, but is surely the correct way to go? Thus I get disturbed when others who commit clangers seem not to care and make no attempt at corrections.

To air one thing which bothers me, will someone please inform me when Dame Barbara Cartland raced a motor-car at Brooklands Track? The Brooklands Museum has a Barbara Cartland room in the Paddock Clubhouse and an announcement in The Track Record, magazine of the Brooklands Club, which is a Museum associate, says “Brooklands Museum is the perfect setting for a romantic wedding reception. Dame Barbara Cartland, who once raced at Brooklands (my italics) remembers its special magic”. There is a great deal being published now about the Dame, a new book and newspaper serials, so it seems an appropriate time to research her motorracing.

I have done what I can. I have checked the membership lists of the BARC from 1913 to 1939. No reference to Cartland. In 1927 Barbara became engaged to Alexander McCorquodale, son of the millionaire printer of postal orders, and achieved her house in Mayfair and her own Rolls-Royce. (I quote from the newspapers.) Did she race under her married name? No sign of her husband being a BARC member or of his wife racing as Mrs McCorquodale. I have no reason to doubt that Barbara Cartland went frequently to Brooklands, with the “Bentley boys” and other celebrities, as did HRH the Duke of York and others, to watch the practice and the racing. She may have competed among the large fields in those ICC and MCC High-Speed Trials, or in the minor races which accompanied them. But that is scarcely being “a Brooklands racing driver”, is it? I have yet to find a reference to this anyway. But the various MG Car Clubs and especially the MG Triple Register are well versed in MG history, and as I seem to remember an MG Magnette in the foyer of the Brooklands Museum being quoted as the MG, or the type of MG, raced by Dame Barbara Cartland, perhaps they can help me?

I can tell you what Barbara Cartland did do. In 1931 she persuaded nine Society girls to assemble at Brooklands and take part in an impromptu ladies’ race, each driving an MG Midget, either her own or presumably borrowed from the MG Car Company. Barbara Cartland announced this to show that women were equal as drivers to men, and she had the reporters and newsreel cameras present. The thing turned into a farce, with the inexperienced girls weaving about, passing in front of one another and generally behaving dangerously. Indeed, so farcicial and potentially dangerous was this frolic that letters soon appeared in the motor-papers asking why the BARC had permitted such fooling about; others dismissed it with sarcastic responses and the Hon Mrs Chetwynd, who was said to have been second, wrote to say that she had never seen a more shattering exhibition of bad driving and felt she had been lucky to come out of it alive.

She assumed that those who lent Barbara Cartland the MGs had been “led up the garden path”, as she had. As Mrs Chetwynd was an experienced trials and rally driver who had competed at Brooklands since 1929, setting up a 12-hour class record at 82.98 mph with a Lea-Francis and completing the LCC Relay GP in an MG Midget, for instance, before the Cartland demonstration, and the following year had won a WASA race in the Lea-Francis at 76.73 mph, she knew what she was talking about. . . Whether Barbara Cartland drove in her fake-race I do not know — she would then have been 30 and may have been too busy organising and publicing it — but if she did, is this what gives her the claim to having raced at Brooklands?

Barbara Cartland’s desire to prove that women could drive (and race) as well as men not only misfired but was quite unnecessary. The ladies first raced at the Track in 1908, when Miss Muriel Thompson (Austin) beat Miss Christobel Ellis (Arrol Johnston), and in the 1920s quite a number of girls competed in non-BARC club races. The first BARC Ladies’ Race was held in 1928, won by Miss Maconochie’s Salmson at 82.45 mph. By 1933 the BARC let them loose over the two-corner “Mountain” circuit, the first such Ladies’ handicap being a victory for Rita Don (Riley 9), it is said helped by Freddie Dixon, who went with her and apparently opened the hand-throttle as she was braking for the corners! It wasn’t long before the BARC allowed the girls to race with the men in their Brooklands races.

So why not a Kay Petre (see page 1098), Elsie Wisdom, Gwenda Stewart (she lapped fastest, at 135.95 mph), Jill Thomas, Margaret Allen or a Muriel Thompson room in the Clubhouse? That apart, I have been unhappy about other matters. It was nice not long ago to see Brooklands remembered in a BBC2 “One Foot in the Past” programme. Until that is, the Cartland race was given newsreel-coverage and it was stated, as it had been in a weekly motor-journal, that “100 mph was first attained by man at Brooklands”. Apart from the fact that before the Track was opened in the summer of 1907 Grand Prix cars had been doing “the ton” — Gerald Rose in his great book A Record of Motor Racing recalls “. . the tremendous rush and roar of the 1908 Clement Bayards coming down the straight at Dieppe at 100 mph”, and they were by no means the first GP Cup to do this pace — the LSR had been set to 103.55 mph by Rigolly in a Gobron-Brillie in July 1904. When I asked the BBC programme producer, Emma Worster, about this she was emphatic that she was right, confirmed “from two sources and I have no reason to doubt either”. She sent me the Brooklands Museum Guide with the speed ringed — but what she had overlooked was that this was for Percy Lambert’s first 100-in-the-hour in 1913, a very different thing from the first time 100 mph had been achieved! She even told me the newsreel shot she used confirmed that 100 mph was done first at the Track. But the newsreel was of Lambert’s one-hour record, of 103.84 mph!

As a producer of clangers myself (but which I try to correct) may I wind up by saying I have always thought that individuals and clubs can be excused for errors but that museums should be as accurate as possible. So I was sorry to see, in the aforesaid issue of The Track Record, edited by Rebbeca Wilkes before she left, l am told, for America, an advertisment for a museum photograph of “the first accident at Brooklands” — those firsts again! The picture is captioned “H C Tryon, the winner of the first race at Brooklands on 12 October 1907, involved in the first accident on 2 January 1908. . .”. Well, if one must have an obsession with accidents, Vincent Herman had been fatally injured when his Minerva overturned at the September 1907 meeting, and before Huntley Walker had gone backwards over the top of the Members’ banking, in his 100 hp Darracq. So Tryon’s was not the Track’s first mishap.

Also, I have seen a fine painting of Cobb’s 10 1/2-litre V12 Delage duelling with Eyston’s 8-litre Panhard high on the Brooklands’ banking, captioned as a scene from a BRDC 500 Mile Race. But the only time this Panhard was raced at the Track was in the 1932 British Empire Trophy Race.

Another little slip-up occurs on a leaflet advertising a fine Cuneo painting of Birkin and Cobb racing at Brooklands, which can be bought from the Museum. It is signed by five pre-war Brooklands drivers, including C T Delaney. But the latter is said to have raced Alvis cars, where as it is well-known that he was a Lea-Francis exponent, not only racing these cars at the Track before the war, but continuing to do so today. Indeed, as recently as the last VSCC Donington Park Meeting he won a 5-lap handicap in one of his Hyper Lea-Francis, having overcome the magneto problem which had hampered him at VSCC Silverstone the week-end before, when, however, Delaney was fourth. The Independent reported recently that I have a reputation for pointing out factual mistakes. Well, if you think me an interfering old b——-, so be it. But you must agree that it is good to get things right? W.B.

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