Whitney Straight - Racing Driver

I find it astonishing that, whereas books have been written about so many racing drivers, from those of the pioneer days, through the interim periods, to the present day, nothing has appeared, so far as I can recollect, about Whitney Straight, or Earl Howe’ for that matter. So, although it is scarcely possible to do full justice to any driver in a magazine article, the young American driver was sufficiently accomplished not to be overlooked. He was equally accomplished in his Royal Air Force career and as a successful business executive. But I assume it is about his motor racing that you prefer to hear…

Whitney Willard Straight, strikingly good-looking and a millionaire from parental endowments, came to England in 1926, when he was 13, with his mother, who had married an Englishman. They lived at Dartington Hall, South Devon. He continued his education at Trinity College, Cambridge. Straight had not shown much interest in cars or motor racing before this, but he showed good taste by buying a new Alvis Silver Eagle tourer at the age of 17, and had not long been in College before he acquired a Riley Nine. With this he made his first appearance in a competition event, at Shelsley Walsh in July 1931, in the class for sports cars of up to 1100cc, in the Amateur category. Although inexperienced, Straight was third, in a time of 60.1sec, compared to 56.6sec by the class winner and 57.0sec by the second-place car, all Rileys. Dick Seaman was also at Trinity at this time and was competing with yet another Riley, but apparently took 78.1 sec. Straight and Seaman became close friends.

Straight also took his Riley to Weybridge, where the Brooklands model Nine, already in the black paintwork which he was to adopt for most of his cars, and tuned, it was said, with the help of the chauffeur, ran in the Autumn 1931 Cumberland Junior Short Handicap race, finishing third, after lapping at a respectable 84.68mph. Then, looking for something faster, Straight obtained a 2-litre non-s/c GP Bugatti and at the 1932 Easter Brooklands Meeting used it to good effect, dead-heating with W K Faulkner’s stripped Type 43 Bugatti in the Norfolk Lightning Mountain Handicap. Straight went faster, having started 30 seconds behind his rival, and he lapped at 68.38mph. But this was not quite what Straight wanted, so he bought the ex-Birkin 1931 2½-litre Maserati, a car Clive Gallop had collected from the factory for Sir Henry. With it he met Earl Howe, in his Monaco Type 51 GP 2.3 Bugatti, in the Whitsun Nottingham Lightning Mountain Handicap, and driving rather wildly, broke Birkin’s lap record with the same car by 0.55sec, leaving it at 75.76mph. Howe, on a neater run, with more powerful brakes, equalled this on his last lap, and, rather better acquainted with the circuit with its Fork hairpin and difficult climbing, banking turn at the opposite end of the 1.17-mile lap, won by a mere tenth of a second. One of the most exciting Mountain races ever, said Motor Sport, won according to our reporter, by eight yards! Straight had, in fact, broken the class lap record twice, because he had bettered Birkin’s time in practice as well as during the race.

In May that year Straight booked the Mountain circuit for a stab at improving on his lap record on the clear track and got this up to 78.0mph. He was no doubt assessing the car’s capability and trying out the best lines to take at the corners. This paid off, for when Straight resumed racing in 1933, he was second in the First Addlestone Mountain Handicap at the Easter Meeting, improving his lap record to 78.29mph. He then won the second of these Mountain circuit races, although put back to an “owes 5 sec” handicap. He used his own methods, taking the top corner very wide, even raising a cloud dust from the grass verge in the first race, which enabled him to run high up the Members’ Banking and overtake others in a swoop down to the Fork. He won this second race by 1.8sec, from Cummings’s Maserati.

The young American, at 21, now felt ready for a long-distance race and put the black Maserati in for the ICC International Trophy, a 100-lap event in which handicaps were obviated by using channel-turns at the Fork for different classes. I remember the occasion, dramatised because Straight flew down from Cambridge to Brooklands after sitting an exam that morning. He also had a smart 1931 8-litre Bentley Gurney Nutting coupe. His chauffeur Dewdney would be in the pits to hand out refreshments or fresh driving-gloves to his master, Straight flinging away a used pair if they had become slippery or worn… I do not know whether, as at Oxford, cars were denied to first-year undergraduates at Cambridge, but if so, the aeroplane and a chauffeur-driven car may have been the young millionaire’s answer.

The Maserati set off at speed, long yellow flames ripping from the fan-tail as its driver lifted off for the corners. Alas, Straight was too exuberant on this occasion, having lapped the entire field of 27 other cars in the first three-quarters of an hour. He was spinning the back wheels out of every corner, to the detriment of the tyres, to set a lap record for the unusual course of 92.70mph. No-one in his pit appeared to show him a “slower” signal and after an hour was up the Maserati came in. It went out again, but it soon stopped with differential failure. The boost pressure had been increased to give some 200bhp, which was too much for the hard-tried back axle…

The next move was to employ T&Ts, the engineering firm on the Brooklands aerodrome, to fit a Wilson pre-selector gearbox to the 2½-litre Maserati. At the Whitsun BARC races the car was unplaced in a Mountain Handicap, and when Straight tried it in the “Gold Star” outer-circuit race he found it unsuited to such racing after two laps at 119.43mph. It wasn’t until the closing meeting of the 1933 season that Straight was again successful. He had a s/c K3 MG Magnette (black, with silver wheels, of course) with which he lapped at 104.63mph in the Woking Senior Short Handicap without being placed. But he then won the incident-packed Mountain Championship in the Maserati, after Campbell’s Sunbeam had hit a Bugatti that had spun at the top bend and had blocked the track, so that warning flags were waved. This confused Piero Taruffi, who was driving Howe’s Type 51 Bugatti in lieu of Tazio Nuvolari (who had practiced but left, perhaps not liking the “mickey mouse” Mountain circuit). As Taruffi slowed, and later came to a stop to avoid Mays’s Riley which was in trouble and stationary, Straight swept past, to win by two seconds from the unfortunate Italian. Taruffi had driven like fury after these incidents, tying with Straight for fastest lap at 77.43mph, and was the token victor. But Straight had shown he could out-drive many top drivers, in this scratch contest, in a car not easy to control.

In the MG he then took second place in the Oxford & Cambridge Mountain Handicap, beaten only by Mays’s ERA, although the smaller car had a mere five seconds’ start. Finally, for that day. Straight took another second place in the Woking Senior Mountain Handicap, wiping out 7½ seconds of Freddie Dixon’s 25-second advantage in the Riley, the MG setting a new Class G lap record of 70.67mph.

Straight went to Shelsley Walsh again in 1933 and, without much experience of the hill, beat Mays to the course record, the “gleaming black and chromium” Maserati, with twin back wheels, clocking 41.2sec. He now began to drive in continental races. At Albi he was second behind Braillard’s Bugatti, after breaking the course record. He won the 1100cc class of the Coppa Acerbo in the MG, ahead of four small Maseratis. Before this, he had come in second in the Swedish Summer GP in Bernard Rubin’s 2.6-litre Alfa Romeo, behind Antonio Brivio’s Alfa Romeo, having flown himself and his mechanic, Berk Harris, to Pescara in his own aeroplane.

Before going to Sweden, Straight had spent some time in a London nursing home, having burnt his feet on the new gearbox in the Maser. Prior to the GP de la Marne. Straight practised for a week, sometimes on unclosed roads, being rewarded with fourth place behind the Alfa Romeos of Philippe Etancelin, Jean-Pierre Wimille and Raymond Sommer, in spite of a slipping top-gear band in the Maserati’s gearbox. The car was now painted green. Fuel mix problems slowed the Maserati in the Gran Premio de Monza, Straight a disappointing 11th behind Earl Howe’s Bugatti. A marvellous end to the 1933 season was secured at the Mont Ventoux hillclimb, when the 2½-litre Maserati broke the record with a time of 14m 31.6sec, taking no less than 40 seconds off Rudi Caracciola’s previous figure in a Tipo B Alfa Romeo, which the experts had said was impossible. Back from this fine drive, Straight made FTD in the wet at the Brighton Speed Trials, in 25.4sec, just beating Howe in his Bugatti and Oliver Bertram in the old 10½-litre Delage, who tied for second place. Apart from another triumph for the Maserati, Straight had the pleasure of seeing his fiancée, Miss Peggy Altham, take the 1100cc racing car class in his MG Magnette, in 31.8sec. Incidentally, she must have been well taught, because she had taken a third place from scratch in a Ladies’ Mountain Handicap at Brooklands in the MG, doing three consecutive laps at 65.61 mph. Straight had hoped to compete at Donington Park, opened that year, but had to send a telegram saying the MG and Maserati could not be there.

Had there been a Drivers’ Championship in 1933 Motor Sport estimated that Straight would have tied with Guy Moll and Count Czaykowski for eighth place, from 58 other drivers, and been first in a Mountain Circuit Championship, had there been one. Incidentally, Charles Brackenbury had gone out to Mont Ventoux with Straight and, for a bit of a lark, drove his cumbersome 8-litre Bentley in the unlimited sports car class, which he won in a time of 19m.0.4sec!

Straight had enjoyed his motor racing so much that he decided not to remain at Cambridge for his third year but to take up racing more professionally, making it pay for itself if possible, a reflection on the acumen that was to take him to prominence in the business world later on. He moved to London and, because of the inability of Alfa Romeo to supply the Tipo B monoposto cars to private owners, ordered three of the latest 2.9-litre 240bhp 8CM Maseratis from Bologna, as had others, Earl Howe included. Whitney Straight Ltd. was formed in December at Bush House, Aldwych. Giulio Ramponi was appointed head mechanic and three trucks were obtained to transport the racing cars. Hugh Hamilton and jazz saxophonist R E L Featherstonhaugh were to be two of the team’s drivers (Straight, too, was fond of jazz). Unfortunately, Hamilton was killed when his Maserati left the road and collided with a tree on the last lap of the 1934 Swiss GP. Others who were to drive for Straight were Cyril Paul, Marcel Lehoux, Sommer and Seaman. Straight also acquired the 1932 4-litre straight-8 ex-Scuderia Ferrari Duesenberg for outer-circuit racing, a car now owned by Denis Jenkinson and an exhibit in the Brooklands Museum. The bodywork of the Maseratis was altered to Straight’s requirements, with a distinctive radiator cowl, and the cars were painted white and blue, the American racing colours.

Still using the old 2½-litre Maserati, Straight set fastest lap in a Mountain Handicap at the Easter 1934 Brooklands races but was unplaced. Then Hamilton, in the same car, lapped faster, at 78.0mph, to take second place in the Third Ripley Mountain Handicap. But the American was more intent on long-distance races, especially those on the continent. The season opened well for Straight, when he won the JCC International Trophy Race at 89.62mph, keeping just ahead of Brian Lewis in the other 2.9 Maserati, as it was important to conserve the monoposto Maser’s tyres. Indeed, after winning by a mere four seconds, a tread detached itself from the o/s front tyre.

Then at Montreux Straight was fourth, Hamilton fifth. Straight was in third place at Casablanca when a tyre burst. Back once more to Shelsley Walsh with the Maserati, he again broke the record, leaving it at 40.0sec. In the 1934 BRDC British Empire Trophy Race at Brooklands, the Maserati was second to Eyston’s MG Magnette, which had slipped past while Straight was in the pits, with Ramponi working furiously to cure a fuel feed malady. But Straight’s 82.45mph was the highest average race speed. He missed Dieppe because the Maserati could not be made ready in time and Hamilton was engaged at Albi. In a different field Straight broke the Class-D fs kilometre and mile records, at 136.98 and 135.49mph, showing skill in handling the lightweight car. But going for s/s figures, a con-rod objected to the acceleration, and broke. Hence, no Dieppe… But at Albi, “Hammy” in one of the team Maseratis was second to Featherstonhaugh’s Maser, after going onto seven cylinders, and Sommer, in Straight’s other Maserati entry, set fastest lap and came home fourth. Seaman, in the Straight-entered MG in the 1500cc race, stalled on the line, being fined for 100 francs for a push-start (nothing new!) and the engine was overheating seriously.

Straight was in good form at the Vichy GP. He won his heat from Lehoux, Rene Dreyfus and Howe, and won the GP by five seconds from Count Trossi’s Ferrari-entered monoposto Alfa Romeo, the finish so exciting that the spectators invaded the course (nothing new!). At Nice, Straight made a rare mistake and retired with a damaged front axle. In July 1934, the American went to Montlhery with the Duesenberg to try to beat Hans von Stuck’s hour record (135mph, for Auto-Union), but illness intervened. But both he and Hamilton went to the Klausen hill climb, where the MG was first, at class-record speed, and the Maserati third behind Caracciola and Stuck in the unlimited class. The Maserati, from the third row at the start, retired in the Coppa Acerbo, where Hamilton Ikon his class in the MG. At Berne came the tragic accident to Hamilton, which may have influenced Straight in giving up racing.

Before that, Straight had shown meteoric form in the Comminges GP, leading from the front row, until Gofredo Zehender challenged. Both Maseratis refuelled at the same time and Zehender got away first (nothing new!), going on to finish second, Straight third, with Luigi Comotti winning after a magnificent drive for the Ferrari stable, in an Alfa Romeo. Then to Mont Ventoux again, where Straight was second-fastest this time up the 21km hill (13m.58.8sec), vanquished only by the I 6-cylinder Auto-Union of Stuck, who was 20.2s quicker. He then achieved a very fast class record climb with the MG Magnette. And in the full-scale Italian GP in the 2.9 Maserati, he finished the course in this very trying race, without a co-driver. On a clear track, with single back wheels, the Maserati put the Brooklands Mountain lap record up to 79.18mph, going into the top bend at some 125mph.

To round off the 1934 season the Maserati won the Mountain Championship race at 78.29mph, even Mays in the 2-litre ERA being 200 yards in arrears, Straight breaking the record again (80.0mph). The Maser was now black, with silver wheels. It went on to win the Record Holders’ Mountain Handicap, and Straight also made a rare appearance in the red Duesenberg in an attempt on the outer-circuit lap record but found the car, with its rather flexible chassis, difficult in the gusty wind, its best lap at 138.15mph, sufficient to make it, for all time, the fourth fastest Brooklands car. At the final Donington meeting of 1934 the Maserati won the Donington Park Trophy Race at 67.09mph, and in the wet at Shelsley Walsh that September the twin-rear-tyred black Maserati was 0.2s slower than Mays.

But the real finale was still to come. The Maserati and a Railton for Straight’s young brother had been entered for the East African GP and Straight went out there with Seaman in a DH84 Dragon, which Whitney flew from Heston to East London, won the race at 91.43mph, with the Railton third, Seaman fifth in the MG. The next day they flew to Jo’burg, then to view the Victoria Falls, and back to Heston. After this, Straight abandoned motor racing for his aviation interests. He had a stake in several municipal airports and launched the Straight Corporation which purchased 10 DH87Bs for use by his chain of flying clubs. He had also ordered a Hendy Heck to be built for him, which it was hoped would do I75mph, and land at 45mph, and thus outfly the Heinkel He64.

One wonders whether, had he not forsaken motor racing. Straight would have become as famous as his friend Dick Seaman, whose career is well told in Prince Chula’s 382-page book “Dick Seaman”. Seaman, after “graduation” with MG Magnettes, bought an ERA, and when this proved unsatisfactory, did well with the Ramponire-juvenated 10-year-old Delage and larger cars, finally to drive for Mercedes-Benz from 1937…

During the war Straight achieved high rank, as Air Commodore Sir Whitney Willard Straight, CBE, MC, DFC. Afterwards he turned his attention to commerce, becoming head of British Overseas Airways Corporation and joining Rolls-Royce PLC at Derby in 1955, as Chairman. He died in 1979.