[In which R. Dallas Brett, OBE, contributes to a popular series; his experiences include owning a new £100 Carden and the famous racing Aston Martin “Bunny”. -ED]
My father bought his first car in 1902. The story goes that my mother kept a large flock of hens which were a source of endless trouble, irritation and expense to my father, who was constantly called upon to build new hen houses, nesting-boxes and wire-enclosures, recapture runaway hens, give them food and water, and nurture the chickens. One day he said he would buy a motor car, on condition that the hens were liquidated; he could not, he said, afford either the time or the money to look after both.
My mother agreed, the hens were disposed of, and my father went up to London and bought a chauffeur’s hat with a shiny peak, which was de rigueur for amateur drivers in those days, and a two-cylinder Georges-Richard Brasier. Its number was P173: the one hundred and seventy-third car to be registered in Surrey. This car lasted until 1906, from age two to age six in my life, and my memory of it is naturally a trifle vague. I do r’ecall, however, that it was almost square, that is it was not much longer than it was wide, and it was painted red. There were two narrow bucket seats in front and a tonneau behind which was eritered by means of iron carriagesteps leading up to a door opening out to the rear. Passengers in the tonneau faced each other across the car. Far below the driver’s feet was a small square box containing the engine, on the front of which was a radiator, resembling a nest of furry caterpillars. In front of the steering column was a varnished oak box containing a trembler coil which chattered like a swarm of crickets when the engine was running.
This car was extremely dangerous on account of its very short wheelbase and very high centre of gravity. At the mere sight of a wet tramline it would start spinning like a top, completely out of control. However, I cannot recall that my father ever had any serious accident with it, chiefly because, I think, he soon realised that it Was madness to drive it in wet weather on wood paving or cobbles, or on tramlines at any time, so its outings were reserved for fine weather, and he kept to the ordinary grit roads as far as possible. Moreover, it would not do more than about 20 m.p.h. on the level, which was the legal speed-limit then.
The most striking feature of the car was its canopy. This consisted of an oblong roof of beige linen with a frill all round the edge stretched over a framework of brass rods which dropped into sockets at the sides of the vehicle. The rods were of solid brass about 1 in. in diameter and it took four strong men to lift it, one for each rod. My father rigged a tackle to a beam across the garage roof with which the canopy could be hauled up in fine weather. Should it rain whilst one was out in the car it was necessary to return home at once and re-enter the garage ‘ in order to re-ship the canopy. Not that this would keep one dry, because even a gentle shower would soon form a lake in the top, which would then descend in more concentrated form into the tonneau through the seams in the material. Moreover, not even the main roads were tarred in those days, so that in dry weather every car was followed by an immense cloud of dust and the canopy created a powerful suction which brought this dust cloud swirling into the tonneau and deposited it on the faces, necks and clothing of the occupants. However, the canopy undoubtedly added some distinction to the appearance of the vehicle.
Underneath the engine was a large tin tray about 9 in. deep, suspended from the frame by leather straps, which was designed to catch the oil which dripped copiously from the machinery above. One day we set off from Egham to visit my mother’s family in Nuneaton, passing through a flock of hens on the way. When we arrived and my father stopped the engine, the resultant beautiful silence was broken by an outburst of furious cackling from beneath the car, and we saw the head and neck of a once white Leghorn protruding from the tray. My father got down on his hands and knees and helped the wretched bird out and it was caught after a short chase by my grandmother’s gardener, who promptly wrung its oily neck. This brutal incident made a lasting impression on me when I was five years old.
In 1906 there was much talk about the rival merits of the Beeston Humber and the Coventry Humber. My uncles in Nuneaton naturally supported the Coventry model against the one made in Nottinghamshire, it being an irrefutable fact that good motor cars could be built only in Coventry. So my father sold the Georges Richard and his canopy and bought a brand-new Coventry Humber. This was a splendid car. It was dark Brunswick green and all the fittings were nickel-plated instead of bare brass. On either side of the handsome radiator was a round Dietz acetylene headlamp, the glass of which was divided into vertical strips, to provide for expansion, so that these lamps looked like miniature searchlights. The gas was generated in a plated box with a domed top which stood on the offside running-board at the foot of the broad front mudguard. A pair of plated oil lamps flanked the windscreen, which resembled a shop-window with a frame of polished teak about 4 in. wide. One stepped up into the front compartment through a door about 9 in. high on the near side; there was a similar door on the off-side, but this was obstructed by the Stepney wheel which stood on the runningboard. The running-boards and the floor of the front compartment were paved, as it were, with ribbed aluminium sheet, which gave the impression of an engine room, and sitting behind the single-spoked steering wheel ,the thick rim of which was bound with leather, looking down on the big rounded bonnet and the gleaming radiator and headlamps, and the row of burnished brass oil-feeds with their glass windows arranged on the scuttle, one felt that one really was in charge of some vital machinery. If anything got in the way one had orily to squeeze the rubber bulb at one’s right hand to send a melodious boom down the long flexible plated tube to the horn beneath the offside headlamp.
The two bucket chairs in the front and the wide sofa across the back of the car, which could seat three without embarrassment, were luxuriously upholstered in dark green leather. The rear compartment was entered through wide doors on each side and it was possible to walk up into either the front or rear compartment and turn before sitting down. Some protection from the weather was afforded by a “Cape cart hood” which folded down and lay untidily across the back of the car when not in use. Two strong men were needed to erect it, because the front portion had to be disengaged from the fastenings and carried forward by a man on each side of the car to sockets on either side of the front seats. The hood then projected forward over the top of the huge windscreen and was held down by long leather straps to fastenings, on either, side of the radiator. There were no side curtains, and, of course, no windscreen wipers, so the driver’s right arm was usually soaked in bad weather.
My father kept this Humber until 1916; from age six to 16 in my life, and I learned to drive it in 1912, when I was 12 years old.
The drive at our house led down a gentle slope from the entrance gates, past the flank of the house, round a sharp left-hand bend and thence along a level stretch to the garage. It was possible to let the car roll down this slope in neutral and acquire sufficient momentum to take the bend at the bottom and trickle on towards the garage doors. First I learned to do this without engine, my father sitting beside me with one hand on the wheel; it was tricky because woe betide us if we touched the trimmed grass edges which were my mother’s pride and joy; but I soon learned the correct line on which to take the Humber through the corner. When I had mastered that trick my father took me out to some secluded road, unfrequented by policemen, and initiated me into the art of changing gear. The Humber had a sweet change. The tall lever outside the car at one’s right hand worked only backwards and forwards; there was no gate. From neutral one pulled it back to reverse, then forward through neutral to first, second and top. At first I was only allowed to go up to number two; then back into neutral and start again. Starting from rest was often difficult because of the leather cone clutch in the vast flywheel, which needed constant attention. Sometimes it would slip, when a special gripping compound was smeared on the leather, after which it became very fierce, when it was necessary to oil it; and it would soon start slipping again. One never knew exactly what was going to happen when one eased one’.s foot back on the pedal.
I have many happy memories of this imposing Humber; of the gratifying degree of envy aroused in my schoolmates when my parents came to take me out in it; even some quite senior boys, who would normally disdain to speak to me, would ask me questions about it; and of long journeys to Cornwall to visit my uncle Lyde at Liskeard, where he kept a brassbound Swift and a chauffeur called Stevens who was its devoted slave. Stevens made derogatory remarks about Humbers, and one day when he was washing the Swift I seized the hose and turned it on him. He forgave me, but not so my uncle Lyde, who gave me a very harsh talk out of his great black beard.
One of the most memorable incidents in the life of the Humber occurred in Guildford. My father had pulled up at the top of the High Street, just above a costermonger’s barrow piled high with oranges. When he came to pull out, the Humber’s front hub touched the outside wheel of the barrow, which promptly collapsed. Several hundred juicy oranges started off down the High Street, which was cobbled in those days. The cobbles set them bouncing and by the time some of them reached the bottom of the hill they were flying clear over cars, horses and carts and ducking pedestrians. Some smacked straight into vehicles and burst like bombs; everything seemed to be yellow and smelled like a school treat. My father and I and everyone else who escaped the bombardment were helpless with laughter-except the unfortunate proprietor of the barrow, whose language was fortunately beyond my comprehension in those days.
After delivering his opinion of my father, our ancestors, and my father’s method of driving, the costermonger got down to business. “That will cost you thirty” quid guv’nor,” he said. “There’s all my stock gone and me barrer smashed up.” My father said, “Nonsense, the whole lot is not worth a fiver and your axle must have been in a rotten state to collapse like that. I only just touched it. Anyway, I have not got thirty pounds.” He fumbled through his pockets and collected ten golden sovereigns, a vast sum in those days. “Here,” he said, “you take these and get your barrow mended and buy yourself some more oranges.” The costermonger hesitated a moment, eyeing the gold, then put out his hand. “All right, guv’nor”, he said, “it’s a bargain. Shake on it.” They shook.hands and my father leaped into the Humber and drove rapidly down the hill, looking with innocent curiosity at the citizens who were busy wiping smashed oranges off their persons and property.
Immediately after the war, in 1919 I think, my father ordered a new 15.9-h.p. Humber chassis from Coventry and went and fetched it himself in a snowstorm, sitting on the bare chassis on the proverbial sugar box. He did this because he had heard that the delivery drivers used to flog the new engines in order to speed up their jobs, and he believed in running in gently. He then delivered the chassis to a firm of coachbuilders in London, in which the Russian revolutionary Ketensky (or was it Krassin?) was a partner. These people constructed an enormously heavy cabriolet body for the car. It was painted pale yellow and upholstered in beige Bedford cord, and had ashtrays and lights galore, and those braided slings at the back in which you were supposed to rest your weary wrists. Unfortunately the body was so heavy that the great woolly engine was quite unable to cope with it. The seating was very soft and tlle driver, sank so,far down into it that it was difficult for him to see over the high dashboard. The collapsible hood was so difficult to lower and erect that after one blasphemous experiment it was left permanently shut; so it might just as well have had a tin roof after all, which would not have leaked so much.
This car cost my father £1,500, about four times as much as its illustrious Edwardian ancestor, and it was certainly not worth it; but it looked imposing and my father kept it for many years.
It was in 1916 that I acquired my first motorcycle, and it would be impossible to imagine a more unsuitable mount for a boy of 16, who had never ridden a motorcycle before. It was actually a Senior, TT machine which was alleged to have formed part of the Premier Company’s team in the 1914 race in the Isle of Man. The 500-c.c. side-valve engine drove the back wheel direct, by means of a belt. There was no gearbox, but the outer flange of the driving pulley could be adjusted to alter the gear ratio if one had the time and inclination to take it to pieces. There was no clutch either, and of course, no kick-starter. I saw this uncouth monster advertised for sale at a house in Ealing and went over by train to see it. The owner brought it out and roared up and down past his house at a very impressive speed. I said I would buy it if he would deliver it at my house. He said, “Well, I’ll take you there on the pillion, now.” I handed over £37 10s. and said “all right, let’s go.” It was then that; I began to see the limitations of this machine. The only way to start it was for the rider to run with it, holding the exhaust-valve lifter lifted, and when he thought he had attained enough speed, to drop the lever and jump for the saddle. If all went well the thing would start with a bang and gain momentum rapidly; that was one of us on, The prospective passenger had a harder task, because he had to run alongside, keeping clear of the rider until he had reached the saddle and until it was evident that he was not going to fall off and that the engine was going to keep on going. At that precise moment of time, and before the speed became too great, the passenger closed with the machine, put his hands on the rider’s shoulders and leapt onto the pillion. This consisted of a flabby cushion strapped onto an iron framework designed for carrying Parcels, and the unfortunate passenger had to endure the buffetings of this knobbly grid in his tender parts whilst, holding his legs up off the road because there were no footrests for him.
I managed to mount at the second attempt, but the agony of holding my long legs up off the ground necessitated six stops, and six more starts, before we reached Egham, where I arrived in such a state that I could barely stand, and had no desire to sit. However, I had bought this thing and was not going to give up. So, as soon as I had recovered, I went out to do battle with it. The vendor had prudently departed very smartly to catch a train back to Ealing, leaving me with only perfunctory instructions about how to ride my purchase, which was propped on its stand in the drive, looking baleful. First I sat in the saddle, which was luxurious compared with the cushion on the back, and leaned down to take the great wide downswept handlebars, which seemed so utterly different from the neat narrow bars of my pedal cycle. I experimented with the various levers, the exhaust-valve lifter on the left, the hand brake on the right, and the throttle and air controls near the right thumb, the magneto’s advance and retard by the left thumb. I felt for the foot brake and tried it, I did not like the idea of the running jumping start so, in trepidation, I wheeled the machine out of the gate and set it facing down Egham Hill. I sat astride it and noted that the compression held it if I released the exhaust lifter and braced both feet on the ground. I flooded the carburetter, set the throttle, air and magneto controls at what I guessed to be the right settings, took a firm grip of the exhaust lifter, pushed off, and put my feet up on the footrests. When we had gathered speed I let go the exhaust lifter and was rewarded with a mighty bang, followed by a series of loud pops, and we were off. Somehow I navigated Egham High Street without hitting anything and came eventually to the fork leading to Pooley Green and quieter territory. I swung off to the right and ventured to open the throttle a trifle. The machine galloped off eagerly down the lane between the green hedges, making a terrific bark from its open exhaust pipe. It was then that I saw the train coming and knew that the gates at Pooley Green ‘Crossing round the corner would be shut. I throttled back hurriedly, overdid it, opened up again, and began to panic. I could not find the brake pedal and it was clearly impossible to let go of the throttle in order to grip the handbrake. The gates were very close and in desperation I shut the throttle, grabbed the exhaust lifter, and plunged into the ditch. I was unhurt and the machine appeared to be intact, But I was faced with starting again. This time there was no hill to help me and I knew I had to jump for it. I made it at the third attempt and set off homewards. Once again I got through the High Street without incident, but then I was faced with Egham Hill. I opened the throttle, but too gently, and the machine stalled as soon as she felt the gradient; . one had to rush her at hills. I had had enough for one day and I pushed my purchase home ignominiously.
In the end, by lowering the gear ratio to make her more tractable, I mastered this machine, and even defeated the petrol shortage by making her run on paraffin. I fitted a little auxiliary tank for petrol, which was used only for starting, after which I switched over to the paraffin. This eventually proved too much for the high-compression engine, and one day, whilst rushing the hill out of the tunnel under the track at Brooklands, there was a considerable explosion and a jagged piece of hot metal flew out of the top of the cylinder, hit the frame under the tank, and ricocheted into my left knee, leaving a painful hole. To make matters worse a friend on another motorcycle offered to tow me to Weybridge. We fixed a rope to my handlebars, he then started with a jerk and pulled me over in the road, scraping my damaged knee, my other leg, and both my hands as well. That was the end of the Premier; she was a big, raw-boned, bad-tempered thing, and I have no pleasant recollections of her at all, but she taught me some lessons ; if only how to falloff a motor bike without suffering any serious injury.
My next mount was very different. She was a 500-c.c. single-cylinder Rover which displayed all the quiet elegance one associates with this famous marque. She was beautifully finished in black and red and silver and had a most comfortable riding posItIon, the handlebars curving gently in a horizontal plane from the low steering head, so that -one’s wrists were straight, the knuckles facing forward. Fat padded leather knee-grips gave a sense of security and the great nickel-plated exhaust pipe produced a mellow boom. She was heavier than the Premier, but steered beautifully, even at low speeds.
This machine also was driven directly by belt, there being no gearbox or clutch, which necessitated a jump-start; but whereas in order to lower the gear ratio on the Premier it ‘was necessary to undo the lock-nuts on the driving pulley, the Rover had a Phillipson pulley. This device had a brass drum on the outside with a brake pad operated by a lever on the handle bars, and the theory was that when the drum was braked the outer flange of the pulley opened out, thus permitting the belt to settle further into the groove, and lower the gear ratio. There were two main defects, first that the brake did not exert sufficient force, so that it was necessary to put one’s foot on the revolving drum, which caused rapid wear on one’s near-side shoe, and secondly, that if one did succeed in opening up the pulley the belt went sloppy and lost all adhesion, whereupon the engine would race and the machine would stop. When one released the pressure on the drum the pulley would grip the belt suddenly and usually break it; after which one spent a quiet half-hour at the roadside drilling the belt and fitting a new link.
After I was demobilised I wanted a car, and my parents made the acquaintance of a strange genius named Carden who was about 6 ft. 5 in. tall and had been concerned in the invention of the first tanks. He was building an extraordinary cyclecar in an improvised factory at Ascot. This machine had a wooden framework covered with plywood. At the front was a pair of motorcycle wheels and there was a twin-cylinder two-stroke engine attached tp the back axle which incorporated a gearbox with two forward speeds, but no reverse gear. The controls were operated by wire cables which were led through sheaves on the site of the body in accordance with aircraft practice; in the centre of the cockpit was a large pedal which operated a kick-starter. I bought this vehicle new for £100 unpainted, and painted it myself, a bright emerald green with black mudguards, in a shed in the garden. I fitted a pair of small Dietz headlamps and the big acetylene generator off the old Humber which was still in our garage, and an enormous steering wheel about 2 ft. in diameter, and painted the name “Scarab” on the bonnet, because I thought that the vehicle resembled an Egyptian beetle.
This car went well enough with one up for short distances, but on a long journey with two up and luggage strapped on the back, the two-stroke engine would run very hot. It was air cooled, of course, and did not receive enough draught in its hole under the back of the body, so that the power would gradually evaporate, forcing one to stop for a quarter of an hour or so to let it cool down, and then start off again. One amusing feature was that the engine would run equally well, or badly, in either direction, and there was no means of knowing which way it would choose to revolve when one kicked the starting pedal. I remember showing it to a friend and his young nephew, who was standing behind the car. When I kicked the starter, engaged bottom gear waved goodbye to my audience, and let in the clutch, it jumped smartly backwards and knocked the boy down. Fortunately he was unharmed, but this idiosyncrasy added to the interest of driving in traffic, because if the engine stopped in a traffic block, which it often did, one never knew which way one would go , when one restarted.
I soon got tired of “Scarab” and decided to revert to motorcycling. I bought a secondhand Lea-Francis with a Swiss MAG vee-twin engine. This was a handsome machine; the tank was black with a dark red panel and I fitted up a pair of copper exhaust pipes which ran together from a point below the engine up to the back of the carrier behind the back wheel. I kept ‘these pipes highly polished and the machine looked and sounded like an organ. It had a two-speed gearbox driven by a chain from ‘the engine, whence the drive was by another chain to the back wheel. I kept “Frances” for about a year and did a considerable mileage on her, but her performance was low and the little twin-cylinder engine gave me a good deal of trouble. I found I could not compete with the more robust mounts of my friends, and she was not a comfortable machine to ride as the steering was bad, owing, I think, to an excessively long wheelbase. This was the heyday of the AJS. Howard Davies had won the Junior TT and then proceeded to win the Senior race on the same 350 c.c. machine; a feat never performed before, or, I believe, since. About this time I met Jack Denby, who was the agent in Bournemouth for AJS, and I bought one of the magic 350s. This was a small machine, too small for me really, but it packed a big punch, and looked elegant in its black-and-gold finish. Moreover, it had a beautiful three-speed gearbox and chain drive throughout, and steered so well that it could be,ridden hands-off at quite low speeds.
I joined the Bournemouth and District MCC and entered the AJS for their speed trials at Canford Park. I had a good look at the road, which I did not like. It was dry but the surface was loose and sandy especially at the edges, and it was very narrow. The course was a little over half a mile and reasonably straight, but there was a right-hand bend just after the start and a gentle left-hander shortly before the finish. The run off at the end seemed to me very short and finished in a farmyard with buildings all round it. I marked down a large soft dung heap in one corner as the point to aim at in case of trouble. Competitors rode in pairs from a standing start, and I was drawn to ride first against Leo’ on his big 500-c.c. Sunbeam. I was put in pole position, which gave me the inside berth on the first right-hand bend, but the outside position on the left-hand bend near the finish, where we would be going fast, so I determined to try to get clear away at the start and cross over into Leo’s water as it were, thus forcing him to take the outside of the left-hander if J:!e tried to pass me.
When the time came I push-started,the AJS, declutched, put her into neutral, pulled her back to the line, climbed aboard, engaged bottom gear and held the clutch, blipping the throttle with my right index finger. I had taken off the silencer and tail-pipe, of course, leaving only a semicircle of 2-in.-diameter copper pipe which emitted a deep-throated bellow which was most inspiring. I could not hear Leo’s Sunbeam alongside me at all, and I was gratified to see several spectators standing by with their fingers in their ears.
As the, starter’s flag went up I dug my toes into the ground, and as it fell I pushed with all my might, let in the clutch with a jerk and slammed the throttle open. The back wheel spun for a moment, but a kick with the right foot straightened things up, and we were off. Just before reaching maximum revs in second I glanced over my left shoulder and was gratified to see that Leo’s Sunbeam was well astern so I changed into top, swung over to the left-hand side of the road, and settled down to it. The AJS was rock steady but that left-hand bend looked very sharp as I came up to it flat out. I dared not look round again to see where Leo was for fear of unsettling the machine on the loose surface. Somehow we got round the bend, and, as I could not see or hear the pursuing Sunbeam, I cut out a few yards before the finishing line and started braking gently. Leo flashed past me just after I had crossed the line.
In the next heat I was beaten by about 20 yards by my friend Harold on a 500-c.c. Norton, which had much more authority than Leo’s Sunbeam, but at the end of the day I was surprised to learn that my new AJS had won two medals for me in my first competition.
My next car was a French light-car made by the well-known racing driver Robert Senechal, who was connected with the old established marque of Chenard et Walcker. It had a narrow, high-sided body with a long tail, painted French racing blue, the passenger’s seat being slightly behind the drivers, thus allowing their shoulders to overlap. The little 1,100-c.c. engine was the smoothest I have ever known. I bought this beautiful little car from a big garage in Folkestone. They told me that it had belonged to a local racing driver named Thistlewaite, who had sold it because the propeller shaft broke, but they had fitted a heavier gauge shaft, and I was assured that this could not happen again. I discovered later that when the shaft broke the car had leaped over a low stone wall on the road between Hythe and Sandgate and thrown Thistlewaite into a nursery garden.
One day I had lunch with a friend of mine, the local brewer, at Faversham, and after lunch we drove on towards Gravesend, where there was a long wide stretch of new arterial road on a gently falling gradient. Lindars said “Let’s see what she will do.” “Right,” I said, putting my foot hard down. The little engine wound up like a turbine until the speedometer showed over 70 m.p.h., when I became conscious of a deep vibration. As I eased my foot up there was a rythmic banging below my seat and fragments of the floorboards and pieces of the battery shot up between my legs and whistled over my head. I touched the brake but the Senechal swerved violently and headed for a large tree; so I desisted and concentrated on trying to keep her in the middle of the wide road. I was conscious that somehow my seat was no longer supporting me and I had to take my weight on the steering wheel, which made things more difficult. Lindars was sinking out of sight beside me, clutching the side of the car with both hands and shouting “What’s up?” It took some time before we rolled to a standstill. I climbed out with difficulty as my seat and all the floorboards were gone and Lindars had to be helped out of the hole in which he was jammed. Behind us the road was strewn with pieces of motor car for as , far as we could see. The long propshaft had pulled out the fibre universal joints at each end and formed a bend in the middle like the throw of a crankshaft. It was this loop which had thrashed around and destroyed the battery and the floorboards, and had operated on Lindars’ bottom like an infuriated schoolmaster. It was a long time before he could sit down without wincing. The car was taken to Rochester and repaired, but I never drove it again. I sold it to a clergyman.
By far the most distinguished motor car I have owned was the famous Aston-Martin, “Bunny”. In her time “Bunny” held no less than 17 records, ten of them World’s records, and she finished 2nd in the 1922 JCC 200-Mile Race at Brooklands, in most dramatic circumstances.
I had watched this race, in which “Bunny” was pitted against the team of Talbot-Darracqs, which was then virtually unbeatable in Europe, and a host of British cars, including Alvis, Marlborough, Horstmann, and others. The three Talbot-Darracqs were driven by H. O. D. Segrave, K. Lee Guinness, and the French driver Chassagne, and they took the lead from the start in that order and began lapping steadily a good 10 sec. faster per lap than the rest of the field. Chassagne went over the Byfleet banking and towards the end of the race Segrave began to have engine trouble and came into his pit for several short stops. Lee Guinness was thus ahead, and G. C. Stead in “Bunny”, who was leading the rest of the field, took over second place and began to draw away steadily. With about ten laps to go Segrave overcame his troubles and settled down to try and overtake “Bunny”, lapping at a tremendous pace, much faster than Lee Guinness, who was taking things easily under firm control from his pit. It was touch and go whether or not Segrave could catch Stead before the finish. I stood behind the AstonMartin pit, where a tense argument was in progress between Lionel Martin and his wife. They had calculated that “Bunny” might just last the course without refuelling, but the pace had been hot and Lionel Martin thought that the proper course was to call Stead in to refuel. This would certainly let Segrave into second place again, but “Bunny” had a sufficient lead over the rest of the field to be sure of taking the third prize. Mrs. Martin wanted to gamble on the fuel lasting out and on Stead being able to stave off the flying Segrave for the few remaining laps. If the gamble failed and the fuel ran out on the far side of the Track there was no hope of any prize at all. Mrs. Martin won the argument, and the red flag was hung out for Stead. He acknowledged it next time round, but his riding mechanic pointed over his shoulder at the big round petrol tank behind him; and was seen to be working furiously on the hand pump on the dashboard. Nevertheless, the red flag remained out. It made little difference to “Bunny’s” speed, because she had been running all out, lapping at about 87 m.p.h. for a long time previously. Segrave was now lapping at just over 100 m.p.h., and gaining visibly. With three laps to go Segrave passed “Bunny” high on the banking, but he had to lap Stead once more to beat him. Lee Guinness finished first, almost unnoticed in the tension of the battle for second place. The Aston-Martin people climbed onto the tin roof of their pit and followed “Bunny’s” progress all round the Track with field glasses; when Stead passed the pit they craned their ears to detect the slightest falter in her exhaust note. The mechanic was pumping desperately…
“Bunny” entered her last lap as Segrave went onto the Byfleet banking at the end of the Railway straight with a lap and a half to go; _ the tension was almost unbearable, but it was clear at last that if “Bunny” kept going she would stave off the Talbot-Darracq. It was when Stead was corning off the banking just before the Fork that it happened. “Bunny” spluttered, coughed, and fell silent as Stead slipped her into neutral and dived down off the banking onto the inner edge of the track. She rolled on intermirnibly, slowing visibly, whilst high on the banking behind her Segrave tore on towards the line. “Bunny” rolled silently over the line at about 30 m.p;h. with the Talbot-Darracq about fifty yards away behind her doing well over 100 m.p.h., and Stead took second place with a dead engine and not a _ drop of petrol in the tank. [This is interesting as although it was obvious that the car was short of fuel after its non-stop run, no Press or other report states, to my knowledge, that “Bunny” finished the race with a dead engine. Stead averaged 86.33 m.p.h. to Guinness’ 88.06 m.p.h. and Segrave’s 86.55 m.p.h. -Ed:] Stead received a tremendous ovation, but it was Mr. and Mrs. Martin who needed the champagne most.
After the collapse of the Senechal I was looking round for another sports car when I spotted “Bunny” in the showrooms of the well-known Bugatti driver, B. S. Marshall. She had retired from racing and Bertie Marshall had fitted her with a comfortable two-seater body, finished in milk-chocolate colour with red leather upholstery, red mudguards and wheels, and a red wire radiator screen. She was irresistible, so I bought her and painted her name in large red letters on her bonnet. The side-valve engine was a trifle soft but she would still do 75 m.p.h. comfortably in touring trim, and she produced a beautiful mellow note from the outside exhaust pipe which ran down the near-side of the car. Enthusiasts recognised her wherever she went and would come and ask after her welfare.
I raced her once; at the Race Hill, Lewes, but this was not a success. I intended to drive by myself and was actually on the starting-line when an official pointed out that the rules required me to take a passenger. A bystander offered, very sportingly, to ride with me and I showed him hurriedly how to operate the petrol pressure pump which was on the lefthand side of the dashboard. There was a knack in this, which he had no time to master, .and halfway up the course “Bunny” spluttered. and slowed up, starved offuel again.
The end was tragic. I was going one night from Folkestone to Dover with a schoolmaster friend called Edwards. We had roared up the Dover Hill out of Folkestone in grand style and were running along the cliff top at Capelle Ferne, when we plunged without warning into a bank of low cloud. In those days there was a very sharp S bend where the road circumnavigated a place where the cliff had fallen out and as we entered the fog bank I caught a glimpse of the warning sign and realised that we were travelling much too fast to take the sharp left-hand corner. “Bunny” had no front wheel brakes, but I did what I could with what we had and when I saw the stone wall which guarded the inside of the corner I swung the wheel hard over to the left, in the hope that the tail would break away anJ that we would slide through the S backwards. Instead, we broadsided across the road into the grass bank on the outside of the bend, which we hit with a thick thud.
We clambered out and struck matches to survey the damage, as the lights had gone out. We saw at once that both the off-side wheels were crumpled up and that a crane would be needed to get her home. We were unhurt, except that I had a badly bruised right hip, but poor “Bunny” had twisted her massive frame out of shape. She was rebuilt at enormous expense during the next six months, but when I drove her again I found that she had lost the beautiful steering and road-holding characteristics which had made her such a delight to drive; so I decided to sell her. I do not know what happened to her after that. [There is some evidence that she may have been broken-up by a Bradford Garage early in 1936 – Ed]
Apart from a 1 1/2-litre Series VA MG which I bought after the last war and whih was arguably the most comfortable car I have ever driven, and certainly the most pleasant to drive, my motoring record has been undestinguished since the demise of “Bunny”. It includes family cars such as a 14h.p 6 cylinder Standard, a 12 h.p. Vauxhall, a Ford Prefect, a Mini, a Morris 1100 and my seven-year-old Morris 1300 which will still cruise at 70 m.p.h. for as long as you wish without complaint; at 77 years of age I wish no more.
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