The Isle of Man man
When the semi-independent island in the Irish Sea decided to hold road races, one man showed himself the master of the hazard-strewn street course
Since 1924 motor racing of any kind had been banned from all public roads in Britain, but there were some places where it was still legal – on seaside promenades or stretches of beach the property of local councils. Or, of course, in Ireland and the Isle of Man.
It was in the latter place that a true street circuit was used for the Mannin Moar races of 1933, ’34 and ’35. This was a race for Formula Libre cars. Those of up to 1½ litres were confined to the Mannin Beg event.
So those who had not seen Continental races now had the excitement of watching the top Grand Prix cars in action in a true road race. The race, run by the RAC, was over 50 laps of a 4.6-mile circuit, shortened to 3.7 miles for the last two years. It took in the streets of Douglas, the promenade being the fastest section, on which 115mph was possible before the drivers (and riding mechanics for the last time in Europe) turned onto the bumpy roads of the town, lined with houses, the lap being completed at Onchan hairpin.
How the residents were persuaded to have the race was astonishing. Practice took place from 5-7am, the races at 10am, when all the residents, and their cars, were trapped. Somehow all was resolved, but I wondered about a deaf old lady who might go out after lunch to post her letters in the post-box which was one of the more dangerous hazards of the circuit, along with the telephone poles and lamp posts, etc.
Motor Sport had to be there! We went by air in a Percival Proctor, G-AHGA, flown by Capt Oliver Holmes who had returned from the Indian Army and for whom I had worked as his unpaid motoring writer for his magazine Brooklands – Track and Air.
I was by then editing Motor Sport and my boss Mr W J Tee came with us. On the outward flight we were supposed to circle the Speke control tower for our registration letters to be recorded. Holmes complied at first but as there was no-one in the tower he moved in closer and closer until our wing was almost touching the window. Once arrived there were horse-drawn trams in contrast to the racing cars, and I remember the wonderful journey back to Croydon on that summer evening with the peaceful English countryside unfolding below, cars merely insignificant distant dots.
The person determined to win all three Mannin Moar races was Noel Rees, with his nominated driver the Hon Brian Lewis (the future Lord Essendon).
For the first race Lewis had the 2.3-litre Monza Alfa Romeo with which he had won the International Trophy race at Brooklands. Opposition came from George Eyston, Kaye Don with a stripped sports Alfa, five Type 51 Bugattis, and a sports Invicta. Eyston was the leader until Lewis took over and won at 64.23mph, Rose-Richards’ Bugatti second, Eyston third. Apparently the winning Alfa had consumed 50 gallons of fuel.
The following year Rees was determined to win again and as there were no 2.6-litre Scuderia Ferrari monoposto Alfa Romeos in this country and he was not allowed to buy one, he decided he would hire one. It was insisted that two works mechanics must also come, to ensure that the car behaved properly. There were their travel and hotel bills, transport charges and presumably insurance. The Scuderia also wanted half the prize money, and there was no starting money. What do you think that cost? I wish I knew.
Brian Lewis was again the driver. Whether he felt confident one knows not; he was up against four of the new 3.3-litre Type 51 Bugattis, driven by Staniland, Rose-Richards, Lindsay Eccles and Dick Shuttleworth, Freddie Dixon and Cyril Paul in fast non-supercharged Rileys, and four Monza Alfa Romeos for Charley Dodson, Kaye Don, A P Hamilton and Vasco Samiero.
But it worked for Rees. Lewis led from start to finish, to win at 75.34mph; Dixon was second, 44sec in arrears, Samiero third. The hired Alfa Romeo was not quite as race-ready as it should have been: third gear became useless after a few laps, Lewis having to coast round the hairpin in neutral.
With the latest Alfa Romeo unavailable, British drivers bought the latest 3.3-litre Type 59 Bugattis for the 1935 season. These proved less new than expected at Brooklands. But Rees used one for the 1935 Mannin Moar, Lewis again driving, to make a hat-trick finish at 75.37mph, winning from Charley Martin’s similar Bugatti and Lou Fontes in the Monza Alfa which had won in 1933 and had been second in 1934.
For those who may wish to look for and perhaps drive round the course in its shortened form, it ran from the Promenade to Broadway and York Road, Bray Hill and along Glencrutchery Road to Onchan hairpin.
Grands Prix at Donington – a different world
So Silverstone may not be a Grand Prix circuit in a few years’ time. It seemed to have been more than adequate for this year’s British GP, but there may be things I missed as regrettably I wasn’t there.
But may I venture to think that today’s F1 drivers have an easier task than those I watched competing all through the 250-mile Donington GPs of 1937 and 1938, Rosemeyer winning the first at 82.85mph and Nuvolari the second at 80.49mph, both with difficult to handle Auto Unions after drives of over three hours on this hazardous course. Anyone who scoffs at those average speeds cannot have seen Donington as it then was!
Try please not to misunderstand me. I share the admiration of present-day followers of these rule-ridden races for today’s F1 drivers (and MotoGP riders, especially in the rain!). But I think that those pre-war drivers had a more difficult art to display than our modern aces. Those 1937/38 cars were quite fast – say 170mph as against 200-plus now. But if this influences you, you never saw, I suggest, the circuits they raced on. It may or may not be imagination that at Monaco a Bugatti driver’s gloved right-hand would be bare and bleeding from changing gear by the end of the race, but I did observe the sheer fatigue and torn, grubby overalls of Rosemeyer after he had won the 1937 Donington GP.
The pre-war GP cars had brakes which would hardly be acceptable on modern road cars, tyres which were equally unscientific, the drivers had to change gear by lever, and there were no guardian angels in the pits to give them advice, nor communication miracles to entice defective components to behave themselves.
Races lasted far longer then than the under two hours of today. Current top drivers look about as fresh at the end as at the start of a race, they trip easily onto the podium if successful and play happily with the champagne bottles. Accidents are guarded against by clever devices, whereas fatalities were sometimes a sad aspect in older times.
It is said that Donington will require much revision and may not be ready by 2010. But why cannot today’s F1 cars and drivers cope with Donington as it is, which was adequate for Tom Wheatcroft’s ambition of holding the 1993 European Grand Prix there? But don’t disturb me. I shall soon wake up…
A bob for the Blackshirts
The Max Mosley affair (no comment, to avoid litigation) has resulted in my recollecting an amusing pre-war incident. I had two friends, Donald and Duncan Robinson, who lived in Esher. I think their father was a banker. They had a 3-litre Bentley saloon and a Brescia Bugatti which they ran in speed events. They kindly took me on several of these events – I remember Dancer’s End with its rough surface and hairpin bend, and Alan Hess, owner of Speed magazine, overturning the borrowed Bugatti and breaking an arm. I was volunteered to get in the battered car for the journey home.
It so happened that the boys’ father also had a radio business – it ran to a very early TV set, a useful inducement for taking girlfriends to watch the then novelty.
The ‘Blackshirts’ organisation of Sir Oswald Mosley had used the Robinsons’ firm to fit loud-speakers to its Bedford vans. One day Duncan, the younger brother, set off in one of these vans to ensure that the loud-speaker equipment would withstand road driving. It so happened that his route took him by London’s Albert Hall at the very moment when the great upset at a Blackshirt meeting there was at its worst, with angry crowds fighting outside.
Into this crowd arrived Duncan in the van decked with Fascist symbols. The crowd sought to overturn it and the police told Duncan to quickly drive away. “But what about the people in front of me?” he asked, with his usual stutter. “Never mind them just drive!” shouted the police.
I think it may have been the orders the radio shop had from Mosley which induced Mrs Robinson to join the Nazi-minded organisation; this led to her asking me at dinner one night to join. “It only costs a shilling,” she said. It was a lonely time in my life, the family was very hospitable; how could I refuse? I have since wondered whether I should explain this to MI5…
After the war I lost touch with the brothers, until one day the elder brother called on us unexpectedly in a smart Alvis Speed Twenty and asked whether I would second his application to join the VSCC. I believe he had done important work on radar research during the war; can anyone tell me more?
An amusing episode occurred when the racing season had ended and the Brescia was returned to its garage. There was apparently some discussion as to whether it was worth doing any more work on it, which Mrs R must have heard. So when a keen young man new to the district called to ask if he might see the car Mrs R said “you can have it”.
The delighted caller thanked her and soon towed the Bugatti away. The winter over, the brothers decided they could instill a bit more performance into their car – but when they opened its garage door it had vanished. Later the new owner, told of the mistake, decently returned it, and they were able to run it again, notably at the 1933 Bugatti OC Lewes speed trials , winning the 1½-litre sports car class.
New life for tea rooms
So many business premises have been erected on the Brooklands site that much of its 1939 appearance has gone. So it is good to learn that the buildings at the top of the Members Hill (above), used after WWI as a restaurant and tea rooms, are to be restored by AC Heritage as a factory to build new AC cars and restore historic ACs, and for displays relating to the many race successes and records achieved by the Thames Ditton cars at the Track in the early 1920s. Details on www.acheritage.co.uk.
As a boy, not wanting to miss any of the racing, I never had a meal in the even-then historic structures. But one very hot day I asked if I could have a glass of water, for which I was charged a penny.
The Official Biography of Jack Sears, by Graham Gauld
This is a very complete account of the life of the son of Stanley Sears, whose collection of antique cars, from a 1903 Mors to three Phantom Rolls-Royces, including the 1914 TT Sunbeam and 1914 GP Opel, were kept and used competitively by Jack after his father’s death. The fine pictures of these cars will appeal to those of like enthusiasm.
But the bulk is about the life of Jack and his amateur racing and rallying career, uplifted with pictures most of them large enough to truly capture the action.
A detailed table covers all Jack’s events from 1950-65. A rare picture shows him receiving an award at, I believe, Goodwood from HM the Queen.
Jack Sears drove a wide variety of cars, became British Saloon Car Champion, dabbled with F2, raced Cobras here and in the USA, and organised the London-Sydney Marathon. David Sears, Jack’s son, followed his father into racing.
The book concludes with the observation that “Unfortunately there is no room in motor racing today for the gentlemanly way of racing that Jack Sears epitomised”. A view perhaps enhanced by Sears, who was brought up in the family home, the majestic Collingtree Grange, and educated at Charterhouse, and whose home for more than 50 years was Uphill Grange in Norfolk.
Published by Veloce, ISBN 978-1-845-84584-151-5, price £24.99.