Man among princes

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Eric Dymock

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Fora pre-war privateer, buying an E.R.A. was the fastest way to success. But as Eric Dymock shows with the aid of Reggie Tongue’s diaries, owning one did not necessarily put you in the Bourne in-crowd

The winter of 1935-1936 was a busy time for ERA. Privateer successes had made the foursquare voiturette the car to have, and the Bourne firm took on extra staff and extended its workshop to cope with a rush of new orders. Prince Chula, planning a busy season for his cousin Prince Bu, decided one ERA was not going to be enough, and had two. Others were made for Dr Benjafield, Peter Whitehead, Earl Howe, Arthur Dobson and Denis Scribbans — and for a young Mancunian who, at 23 years of age, had two seasons of motor racing behind him.

Reggie Tongue had only been 21 when he drove in his first proper race, the Le Mans 24 Hours. Now, just 18 months later, the undergraduate was climbing into a competitive single-seater.

Reginald Ellis Tongue’s mother died when he was young. He was still at Sedbergh School when he lost his father, so resolved to study medicine. But his heart was more in the Oxford University Motor Drivers’ Club, which he resuscitated. He replaced his first car, a Brooklands Riley Nine, with an Aston Martin Speed Model to compete in the 1933 Alpine Rally and thereafter punctuated his studies with amateur trials and speed events.

Fired with racing ambition, Reggie bought his friend Dick Seaman’s K3 MG Magnette for the 1934 season. WE ‘Wilkie’ Wilkinson at the Evans family’s Bellevue Garage looked after it, but Tongue concluded to Seaman had had the best out of the car and soon purchased one of the underdeveloped MG R-types. This technically novel racer had a backbone chassis, and all-too-independent front and rear suspension. It was not a success and Reggie quickly sold it.

In 1934 and ’35, however, he had been impressed with the ERA. A few were to be sold to private owners and he was worried that he might not be regarded as suitable. ERA was, however, delighted to take his money. An ERA cost about the same as a new Bentley: the 1100cc was £1150, 1500cc £1170, and the 2-litre £1850. But Whitney Straight and Dick Seaman had shown that a good car could earn starting money and prize money on the Continent, and Tongue persuaded his trustees to part with the funds. He wrote gleefully in his diary: “The ERA was a thoroughbred out-and-out racing car. In February, I went to Bourne to see Peter Berthon, to be told the one I had ordered would not be ready until the second week in April, which was disappointing. Raymond Mays and Humphrey Cook wanted me to have a sprint engine as well; I decided on the special differential to help getaways.” At the beginning of May 1936, however, he found the engine was not yet assembled and R11B was a month late. It had engines 5017 and 5019; one installed in the car and one spare.

It was a constant source of irritation to Mays that Tongue did not want ERA Ltd to look after his car. “I did not like the way Dick Seaman had been dealt with over R1B, so I had lunch with Ken Taylor over at the Brooklands Aero Club and told him I wanted to bring the ERA to him. Thomson and Taylor had made the chassis, so it seemed reasonable to give them the responsibility of tuning it, and provide race mechanics. It brought me close to Ken Taylor, K J Thomson and Reid Railton, and I became one of their best customers. As a means of keeping a check on the amount of money I was spending and, in a way get some °fit back, I took a keen interest in the firm, whose finances were often precarious.” In due course he became a director of T&T.

Reggie could not wait to get his hands on the ERA, gaining a second and two third places in a series of five-lap races at Donington in May 1936. Its next outing, in Ireland at the Cork 200-mile race, exceeded his wildest dreams.

Bira’s ERA was the chief rival and he and Tongue passed and repassed,never more than a couple of seconds between them. When CEC Martin’s Alfa Romeo threw oil all over Reggie’s visor, he discarded it and pulled up his goggles, but they broke; so he finished the race with no protection. The duel with Bira was decided in his favour when the prince retired with a broken fuel pipe.

Tongue came to understand Dick Seaman’s disillusionment with ERA when both engines sheared their supercharger drives, and suffered persistent lubrication problems. On the Brooklands Outer Circuit, the sump filled up and the oil tank emptied, which took a lot of putting right. Cracked cylinder heads were very common, due to difficulties in obtaining the correct mixture, particularly when using unfamiliar fuels abroad.

After a race at Peronne, Reggie went to the French Grand Prix with Seaman, the Dobsons, Cyril Paul and Pat Fairfield. The 1936 event, held at Montlhery, was a sportscar race, following 1935’s clean sweep by Auto Union and Mercedes-Benz. Chicanes, ostensibly for safety but really to slow down the German cars, had not worked, and the French press saw the German whitewash as a national humiliation, a repetition of which was not to be contemplated. And so the Automobile Club de France loyally decided, “in the interests of French industry”, to run the grand prix for sportscars with regulations like Le Mans. Entries were invited from manufacturers to run in three classes, 750cc-2000cc, 2000cc-4000cc and Unlimited, thus ensuring Bugatti, Delahaye, and Talbot a home victory.

Pat Fairfield was a member of the Riley team and went off on a binge in Paris with Tommy Wisdom. Fairfield returned in a “borrowed” taxi, whereupon the Riley team manager sacked him and asked Tongue to drive in the grand prix instead.

Reggie took just six laps to accustom himself to the 1.5-litre car and, sharing with Arthur Dobson, finished fourth in class and 17th overall.

Tongue’s ERA set-up was thoroughly professional, and although still strictly speaking an amateur, his van carried advertisements, he was paid for writing in The Autocar and received sponsorship from suppliers of oil, petrol, sparking plugs and other accessories. There was no profit The money merely bridged the gap between what he could afford, and what he had to spend to remain competitive.

He was sensitive to the fact that ERA appeared to treat its drivers differently according to how much the individuals concerned spent and their success, as his diaries make dear: “After [the Peronne race] I had some champagne with the man who kindly lent me his garage and then went back to dinner at St Quentin with the Dobsons and Cyril Paul. Bira and Chula were having dinner with Mays, Peter Berthon, and Humphrey Cook and his wife over on another table. Although we all played billiards together later, you could not help but get the feeling that there was an inner and an outer ERA clique.” The patronage of the royal Siamese was deeply resented.

Tongue returned to the Continent in 1937 with slightly less success than in 1936, his best place third at Turin in April, before he turned up at the picturesque sun-drenched Pescara circuit on the Adriatic coast.

Pescara’s triangular course of 15.27miles (25.58km) corkscrewed into the mountains, where even its most ardent advocates had to concede that it was not safe. Nuvolari held the lap record in an Alfa Romeo. The mountain section climbed through Spoltore and Capelle before the downhill helter-skelter back to the seafront at Montesilvano.

Since 1930, a race for voiturettes had taken place as a curtain-raiser to the grand prix, the Coppa Acerbo, a race named in honour of one of the Fascist regime’s heroes, Captain Tito Acerbo. Reggie hoped his ERA might repeat Richard Seaman’s wins of 1935 (ERA) and 1936 (Delage).

Mussolini wanted Italy to have a class of cadet racing drivers. The regulars regarded them as thoroughly dangerous although, as they usually started at the back of the grid, they were generally well out of the way. But on this occasion Reggie had had trouble with his car and started among the backmarkers, and the race had barely got under way when Pasquino Ermini, in a Maserati, crashed into a marker stone. The car ran out of control into the crowd. Three women and a Blackshirt militiaman lost their lives on the spot, Ermini was badly hurt, and five of the 20 injured spectators died later. Reggie was in the thick of the accident another car somersaulted over his and although uninjured he was badly shaken at the sight of the multiple pile-up.

Italy in 1937 was a totalitarian state, and the police were not beyond applying popular, perhaps rough, and not always authorised justice. As soon as Reggie got back to the pits, Tony Birch, Dick Seaman’s manager, told him the crash was being blamed on him: “They think you have been taking drugs.” The Spanish Civil War was at its height, Hider and Mussolini were leading a right-wing revolution in Europe, and ill-feeling against outsiders like the British was easy to incite. Reggie had to take Birch seriously.

“I slowly realised what had happened. Before a long race I regularly took orange juice with Glucodin for stamina and energy. Somebody had seen me, and Glucodin being a white powder, they thought the worst It was perfectly legitimate, but once I knew the finger of suspicion was pointing at me, I could not sit back and do nothing. It would have been ludicrous to allow the Italians to blame me when it was not my fault. I was a victim of the accident, not the creator.”

He cleared his name and brought home a special trophy, a large heavy and imposing bronze statuette.

“It had obviously been wrenched off a plinth and was inscribed with the names of previous winners. I did not look at it very carefully until I got it back to the hotel. It was a female form with wings outstretched, a little like the Spirit of Ecstasy on the radiator of a Rolls-Royce. I thought it might be Minerva. She was standing with her feet on a globe held in a large hand, apparently modelled on Mussolini’s, and the globe was supposed to represent the world.

“It was full of Fascist symbolism, but when I looked at the relief round the base, it read, ‘Ii Gran Premio Motocyclisto’. It was the prize for the winner of the motorcycle grand prix, and obviously not a trophy that was ever given away. It was supposed to be awarded in perpetuity. Anyway, I took it It was obviously valuable and I thought I deserved it!”

In 1939 Tongue competed in a 4CL Maserati and had hopes of a drive in a 158 Alfa via his Thomson and Taylor connections. (The Brooldands firm at one time held the Alfa Romeo concession for Britain and the Empire.)But he never got his chance.

He went off to America with John Cobb as part of the T&T Land Speed Record team, returning hurriedly on the eve of war. As a member of the Oxford University Air Squadron, and pilot of his own Leopard Moth, he was a Royal Air Force reservist, and flew Hurricanes during the Battle of Britain. He had the unenviable task of instilling RAF discipline into one of the American Eagle volunteer squadrons, and his name is inscribed on the memorial in Grosvenor Square.He used to claim as an unusual distinction, having his name on a war memorial without having been killed. He ended the war with distinction as a Rolls-Royce test pilot at Hucknall.

After 1945, Reggie Tongue’s connections with motor racing were confined to the trackside. He pursued country and fanning interests although, as a leading member of Mid-Cheshire Car Club, he was instrumental in putting Oulton Park on the map.

He died in 1991 at the age of 79.

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