First Sightings

Before the television age, the first chance British enthusiasts had to see the Grand Prix cars was at Brooklands, often long after their GP career was over. Bill Boddy recalls them

In the days before TV coverage of motor racing, the first opportunity for enthusiasts to actually see Grand Prix cars in action was usually at Brooklands, except for the very few who went abroad. Anyway, GP racing tended to produce new cars br each event Thus those who attended the 1912 French GP had the first sighting of the revolutionary twin-ohc Peugeots, one of which won that race and, in smaller form, dominated the 1913 event and took the Indy 500 by storm three times between 1913 and 1919. Then came the Mercedes, which by preparation and a five-car team to break the Peugeots, came 1,2,3 at Lyons in the 1914 GP, another debut of completely new racing cars.

After their main purpose, such cars came to England in remarkable numbers, due to Brooldands providing interested buyers. Even prior to the 1914 holocaust, such prime racers had arrived for this purpose. Indeed the two 1914 GP Opels stayed here while war raged, after their driver fled to Germany, so that those who had been to Wcybridge before that saw them in action afterwards, one driven by Segrave in his impressive racing baptism. Before that, Captain C E Wallace, advertising manager of The Autocar, had got hold of a 1914 GP Picard-Pictet and drove it in the 1919 Southend speed trials, its scuttle bent after an encounter with a cow en mute. Before having a coupe body put on it Wallace had made a model of it in GP trim. Otherwise it was Post-Armistice Brooldands for a look at GP cars.

Malcolm Campbell had bought back from France one of 1912 15-litre GP Lorraine-Dietrichs, which ran at the rain-washed 1920 re-opening meeting, the start of a long and meritorious career, and at Whitsun Major Sampson took second in a 1914 GP Alda. By June Campbell had one of the actual 7.6-litre Peugeots, victorious in the 1912 GP, for the Weybridge crowds to drool over, and see him win. That summer Count Zborowski produced one of the Mercedes from that race on the eve of the war, which went very well until a bent valve put it second to the aforesaid Lorraine.

During the war one of these 4 1/2-litre Mercedes had been impounded and rushed to Derby for Rolls Royce to study its water-jacket and oh-camshaft valve gear. It was afterwards reassembled, and it is said Royce insisted on paying fees for any German patents he had infringed on his aero-engines. During the 1920 season regular Brooklands habitues would have seen Jean Chassagne get three seconds in one day, from scratch, in a 4.9-litre Indianapolis Ballot entered by Ernest Ballot himself, an historic if not a pre-1915 car, and Bentley fancier Barlow appeared with one of the 1914 TT team Humbers, the other two also ending up on the track a little later, driven by Philip Rampon and C D Wallbank.

These Humbers being British were not quite in the same category as imported GP or TT cars, their designer FT Burgess having aided WO Bentley in copying one for his 3-litre Bentley chassis. The Straker-Squire which the famous naturalist Mortimer Batten used after the war as his normal car, never entertained the Brooklands spectators in a race, although it was another ex-racing car of note. Built in Edmonton, London, as one of the team br the 1914 loM TT, Witchell came in fourth after a long delay fixing a broken petrol pipe, in that race when the Sunbeam triumphed. It gave the Highland owner reliability over 100,000 miles, after which a full overhaul cost only £27. It could out-perform most modern sportscars of the size and larger, doing 72mph on its 3.5:1 top gear at 22-25 mpg. In TT trim it had been capable of 87 to 90mph. Stolen during WW1 and found abandoned in a wood, Mortimer Batten sold it in 1924, when he was using as its tender car a Chummy Austin 7.

Apart from seeing by-now-historic GP and IT cats for the first time, the “right crowd” at Brooklands could enjoy first sightings of the new cars in 1921. At Easter Count Zborowski and his wild entourage bought out the 23-litre Chitty-Bang-Bang, which Won its very first race, and the next one, missed its third engagement because of its broken petrol pipe but taking a second place before the afternoon ended. His 1914 GP Mercedes won twice, a faint reminder of Lautenschlager’s victory seven years previously.

In contrast, when they had their first sight of the 350hp V12 Sunbeam from Wolverhampton, it failed Q n the start-line with a broken second gear, just as In 1922 Thomas’ Leyland Eight, attracting much attention as the advanced car dubbed ‘The Lion of Olympia’ at the 1920 Motor Show, failed to leave the line with a slipping clutch shades of the V16 BRM’s broken half-shaft decades later at Silverstone but Lee Guinness drove in his next race without second gear, and Thomas went on to win more Brooklands honours than anyone of his time.

From 1922, one of the 1913 5.6-litre Peugeots which CG Btocklebank had acquired was another important Brooklands Car from the past. Toop borrowed it and went over the top of the Byfleet banking in 1924 and killed himself, in a race where the car’s owner had, at the very last moment, decided not to go with him, to lighten the Peugeot. In that year Tommy Hann raced ‘Handy Andy’, his disguise for an almost original 1911 Coupe de l’Auto Delage with horizontal valves.

How these cars came to this country is a subject for speculation. But when the wily Louis Coatalen wanted to win the 1914 loM TT he was loaned one of the successful Coupe de l’Auto Peugeots and had it driven into his drawing room, where it was dismantled, drawn, then reassembled. It is possible the car, like the two GP Opels, stayed in this country, enabling Brocklebank to obtain it. The Sunbeam copied from it won the TT for K Lee Guinness.

But where did the 1914 GP Nazzaro come from, which made its debut at the track in 1922 and was later raced by Sir Alastair Miller, Bt? After it suffered a mild fire before a 1925 race, he complained that this was the result of sabotage in his trackside shed.

Another Grand Prix car which the public never saw race at the Track was a side-valve 1913 Excelsior, which the Palmer Company used for tyre testing. It was rescued by WM Couper, who went so very well at Brooklands in the Roesch Talbot 105 BHG 23, but the BARC ban on the older cars, when it had become fearful of the accidents resulting from metal fatigue, stopped this, and the car was scrapped.

Another pre-war French GP car which never raced at Brooklands was the 1914 twin-cam Nagent with which Esser had finished sixth in that last great road race before the First World War. It was in regular use by a Glasgow owner in the 1920s.

However, I hope others besides myself were excited to discover that JS Spencer had bought out one of the legendary 1908 Napier Grand Prix cars for a few races at the track in 1925, and managed a third place, with a lap at over 80mph. The 11-litre British GP car soon vanished after a brief appearance in the dimmer light of Surrey, long after Acton had hoped for them to perform well at Dieppe. But while its obviously Edwardian-minded owner was racing it again postwar at Weybridge, another of those unfortunate, and until then forgotten, Napiers was to be found parked in the Paddocks.

Even in the ’07-’14 period of Brooklands those who watched racing saw some important GP cars in action, but spectators were perhaps less knowledgeable then. For instance, Gordon Watney imported big Mercedes from the French road-race years of 1906, ’07 and ’08, one of which disintegrated in a honific accident at the 1908 August Meeting, killing the riding mechanic Burke. Watley himself raced what he alleged was the famous Sixty Mercedes on which Jenatzy had won the 1903 Gordon Bennett race in Ireland, but if this was the same car it had been considerably disguised by extensive alterations.

Many other GP cars made their appearance at these pre war WW1 BARC meetings. FT Burgess won with the TT Humber he had designed at the last such happening just before the war broke out that August; when 15 years later, Wallhank did this again in another of thew cars it was said Burgess was in tears, saying he’d waited so long to see his brain-child win – but he either had a short memory or this was just journalistic hype.

Reverting to the post-war days, while the crowds were „sometimes thrilled by the appearance,of aged giants from the past, such as the Fiat ‘Mephistopheles’ which Bentley racer John Duff had discovered in a Fulham mews garage, and the 1910 10-litre Fiat he had also raced in the 1920’s, these were not cars of which the cognoscenti liked to have their first sightings.

Thus it was rather an event when such cars, including Coupe de l’Auto Sunbeams and the GP Vauxhalls, were released in Brooklands handicaps in company with track specials, home-built racers and stripped sportscars. That was what Brooklands was partly about. I refuse to subscribe to the theory that road-racing was more appealing; the two kinds of racing are poles apart and both have their individual allure. By 1926, with the RAC Grand Prix at Brooklands, modem road-racing cars began to appear. And where else could you see in action the 1927 200mph twin-engined LSR Sunbeam, which in heavy rain the celebrated Segrave himself demonstrated on one engine, even getting it a hit sideways, which he would never have wished to do at Daytona. Or watched Captain Malcolm Campbell (not yet knighted) in 1928, 1933 and 1935, intrigue you in his ‘Bluebird’ monsters that had broken the LSR, including the unusual sight of the 276mph, 36.5 litre 2300hp Rolls-Royce-engined one rounding the Members banking like any other racer? But such demos, while undoubtedly crowd-pullers, cost Campbell the treads of the special LSR Dunlop tyres as he accelerated gently on the Weybridge concrete.

To round off these memories of classic first appearances, there was the Alfa Romeo Bimotore Two were built, one of 5.8, the other of 6.4-litres In 1935 Nuvolari got the 6.3 to do 200mph, but in GPs they ate their back tyres. Nuvolari was fourth in Tripoli, Chiron second at Avus before Milan gave up. The chance to see one of these Alfas here in 1935 came when Austin Dobson bought the 5.8 version. It was deemed such an attraction that when it was posted a non-starter the BARC put “Bimotore will not appear” notices on the gates, fearing demands for the return of ticket money It recovered from its problems before the 1937 BRDC ‘500’, Staniland taking sixth at 119.2mph. It also broke the outdated Class-B Mountain lap-record. Dobson then bought a Maserati and the Bimotore was bought by the Hon Peter Aitkin who cannibalised the rare car to form the single engined Alfa-Aitken. However, Toni Wheatcroft later reconstructed this into a working version of the Bimotore.