Chauffeur's Corner

Driving for the Countess Zborowska

The motor-racing career of the legendary Count Louis Vorow Zborowski is well documented. Less is known of the life at Higham, the great house at Bridge, near Canterbury, where in the first half of the 1920S this wealthy Polish immigrant maintained his fleet of exciting motor cars. Consequently, when Nick Georgano, Head Librarian at the National Motor Museum, told me he had located the ·chauffeur who drove for Countess Zborowska, I was immediately interested, to the point of taking a long drive, over the interesting route Leominster, Worcester, Stratford-on-Avon, Banbury, Brackley and Blisworth, to interview Mr. Ben Mills. I used a Peugeot, which, I felt, had slight connotations with Col. Clive Gallop, Count Zborowski’s friend and engineer, who had served his time with the ancient French Company of Peugeot Freres before the First World War… 

Without detailed instructions you would never find Mr. Mills’ delightful cottage, tucked right away as it is in the Northamptonshire countryside. I found him to be a youthful 77-year-old, with an untarnished memory and photographs of almost every person and happening he recalled, His story is remarkably interesting. Before that first World War he lived with his parents on the great estate of Novington Manor, near Lewes in Sussex, where his father was in service. The local doctor, after extracting a tooth for the boy, said he would like him to work at menial tasks in his house, This led to looking after the horses and, when the doctor turned to motors, that gentleman used to slide over from the driving-seat and let the boy drive. Thus, although under driving-licence age, Mills became the Doctor’s chauffeur. The first car was a Flanders-Studebaker two-seater, prone to break axle-shafts because the roller-races wore through them, He went later to London with his employer to take delivery of a Gregoire which a parson had owned, for which Harrington’s of Brighton made a bulbous sporting new body. 

One day just after the Armistice, while still in this happy employment, some housecguests called Isaacs, who were staying at the estate, decided to go out to tea in their 40/50 Cunard-bodied Napier. It refused to start, although Mills and his father pushed it right down the long drive. It had to be towed back up to the house by a team of horses. The lad later looked the engine over and got it going. This so impressed one of the guests, a Mr. Willy Fox, that he asked Mills’ father if the lad would go to London to drive for him. This was an opportunity not to be ignored, especially as, the wages went up from 5/- to 30/- a week. Mills was first sent to Derby to take the RollsRoyce Chauffeurs’ Course, as his new employer had a 1911 Rolls-Royce. To his dismay, this was sold while he was away, as these cars were then commanding very high prices, as they do again today. So he had instead to drive a 1914 Austin landaulet followed by a 25-h.p. Lancia. The family lived at 12, Stratton Street, then a cul-desac, and on arriving there Mills was sent out with a man “on the box” to acquaint him with the complexities of London. A Siddeley-Deasy tourer or a Hudson Super Six saloon, belonging to the family firm, the Leeds Forge Co., were used by Mr. Fox when grouse shooting in Yorkshire.

When this employment ended Mills put an advertisement in the Morning Post and received a reply on behalf of the ‘ Countess Zborowska, perhaps because when in town she stayed at the Piccadilly Hotel, garaging her cars in Jermyn Street, and his address was near-by. His references (he still has them) being satisfactory, after – an interview at the hotel he received a telegram (which he also has) asking him back to the hotel to discuss livery and wages. This commenced Mills’ association with life at the Zborowski mansion in Kent. The Countess’ car was a very smart and unusual Knight sleeve-valve Mercedes saloon. In spite of its staid bodywork built by Bligh Bros. of Canterbury it had those typical external exhaust pipes emerging coyly from the near-side of its bonnet. This was of polished aluminium and what with this, and the brasswork and the wire-spoked wheels, Mills had a difficult task to keep the car clean. It looked like a 1924 model but was probably the first Mercedes available after the war, probably with a pre-1914 engine. This never gave trouble. It had a leather belt driving the fuel feed air-pump and even this never needed replacing.

Down at Higham Mills encountered Sydney, Bill and Len Martin (the last-named Zborowski’s riding mechanic), Harold Easton (who went to Bentley Motors after the Count’s death), young Maslin, the Cooper brothers, and, of course, Capt. (later Col.) Clive Gallop. But he was essentially the Countess’ driver, so he saw little of Zborowski, who mostly drove himself. But Mills remembers the 160 h.p. Mercedes aero-engine which used to drive the house lighting-plant” its exhaust manifold used to get absolutely white hot!” – and unwrapping the big radiator for the Higham-Special, after this had arrived from Delaney-Gallay, He had his first aeroplane flight with Dr. Reid, from Bekesbourne, “the Count’s aerodrome”, From the snapshot it seems to have been a BE2, He remembers being scared of getting pinched for noise when driving the Indianapolis Bugatti up to London, as it “had quite a tap” (George Duller raced it at Brooklands), but enjoyed opening the cut-out on the Hispano-Suiza on Continental roads.

Mr. Mills had gone to Higham in 1922, to find the Count immersed in the motor racing that was eventually to kill him, and his house being admmistered-to by his butler, Mr. Lee. In 1923 the Countess (she was the former actress, Violet Lester) went to live in London, and Mills then drove her on many long Continental tours. For instance, they would go to Cannes, Genoa, into Italy to Milan, etc. and Mr. Mills recalls driving on the first autostrada from Milan to Como. Prior to this Countess Zborowska had a villa at Roquebrune, near Monte Carlo, where Mills brother was allowed to spend his holiday, a great privilege in 1921. Here Mr. Lee would strike a very English note in those essentially French surroundings.

The Mercedes was replaced by a 1921 Silver Ghost, followed by the beautiful 37.2-h.p. Hispano-Suiza (FN 7403) which, had been ordered before the Count’s fatal accident at Monza. It had a decked touring body by Bligh Bros. of Canterbury and is now in the Doune Motor Museum in Scotland. There was also the Count’s V12 Packard, prone to boil; and later the Countess had a 20/60 Sunbeam with heavy saloon coachwork – “rather a mediocre car but it did everything we wanted”, including a trip to Biarritz – and then came her Phantom I Rolls-Royce with Victor Broome body and disc wheels (UU 6929), and another P.I Rolls-Royce Hooper Sedanca de Ville. She also kept a 1921 40/50 Rolls-Royce in Monte Carlo. It was in the Silver Ghost that, soon after the Count had been killed, the Countess went to Monza to see the actual place on the Lesmo Corner where his GP 2-litre Mercedes had crashed….

Although she never much enjoyed driving and did very little of it, the Countess Zborowska had other interesting cars, encouraged, in this by her friend Tommy Thislethwayte, who owned and raced 36/ 220 Mercedes-Benz. These numbered an Alfa Romeo coupe and an open Lancia Lambda, registered in France, so that Mills had to take out a Continental driving licence in order to drive it. It was this friendship that turned the Countess’ attention to the sea, and she owned two yachts, one named Grey Mist, the other, which followed, being Cynava. They were very happy times for Mills. He was allowed to borrow the Phantom I for picnics with the maids and other servants and when the Countess went for a long cruise he was given the choice of staying in Cannes, assisting the engineers on the yacht, or returning to his London chauffeur’s flat. As he was courting the girl who became his wife and she was a Londoner, he returned home. Not only that, but when the Countess went to America she took Mills with her as her driver. The crossings were made on the Berengaria and Majestic and someone was instructed to show Mills the layout of New York before he drove the new Packard that had been arranged for the Countess’ use by the Zborowski agents. It was presumably sold afterwards.

It was a great life. All the chauffeurs and maids one had known would be met again abroad, remembers Mr. Mills, as they did the Riviera haunts of the very-wealthy or went up to Alexandria, or took the Countess for “the cure” at Baden Baden. Once, when Mills was not required any longer abroad while the Countess went to Egypt in Grey Mist, Lord Inverclyde’s valet arranged for him to drive his Lordship’s P.I Rolls-Royce back to Mount Street from Cannes, where it was delivered clean and serviced, thanks being duly received from its owner … On one occasion while Countess Zborowska was away Mills drove some American friends of hers in their l.h.d. straight-eight Minerva coupe de ville. 

Mills remembers driving the 1924 Hispano Suiza chassis down from London to Canterbury for its body to be fitted. Before she married Comdr. Singer in 1930 and went to reside in America, the Countess owned a Speed Six Bentley , with Mulliner Weymann saloon body, trunk and leather-covered spare wheel behind, a car used mostly in the Southampton area.

Mr. Mills’ next job was with Lady Bessie Watson of Sulhampsted House, near Reading. She also had a town house at 36, South Street, Park Lane and she wintered in Cannes, at the Beau Site Hotel. Mills now had in his care a P.II Rolls-Royce (GK 6758), and an Austin 16. Her ladyship played golf and bridge but never went to the casino, when abroad.

During the war the subject of this interview was at Theale, where Sir Norman Watson had had his private aerodrome. Mills became a No. I Tiger Moth rigger, etc. Occasionally, after the war, he would drive Lady Hood to London in a Wolseley belonging to the garage at Theale (“she was highly amused to have a chauffeur after a long spell , of rationing”) and he then joined Handley Page at Cricklewood, in the Perspex shop, when they were building Hastings and Hercules.

He resumed chauffeuring with Mr. A. E. Abrahams, driving a P.1. Rolls-Royce and a 20/25 Rolls-Royce. The journey from Hampstead to Kenton on a motorcycle was a snag, so a change was made when his old friend George Bowler, who was running a hire-car business in Mount Street, mentioned that Major (later Sir) Reginald Macdonald Buchanan, was looking for a head chauffeur. At the interview Mills asked what cars he would be driving. “The garage is full of ’em; no idea what they are!”, he was told. And it was so – eleven cars, including Alvis, Buick, Wolseley 12, Standard Vanguard, as well as Bedford and Ford staff-buses, etc., with an under-chauffeur to help out. There was also an Austin Sheerline, used by the Major, who was a member of the Jockey Club, to go to Newmarket, etc. when he was alone. Most of the driving, however, was done on a Rolls-Royce Silver Wraith (NON 844). The work was heavy with responsibility and eventually caused ill-health, so Mr. Mills wisely decided to look to other pursuits. His old driving days are recalled vividly however, not only his many photograph-albums but by his R-R cap-badge, inscribed with his name, his framed R-R Certificate presented to him after driving and maintaining one Rolls-Royce for more than 46,000 miles, and his many driving licences, all endorsement-free…. He has owned motorcycles, from long-stroke Sunbeam to P & M Panther. His first car was a 10/23 Z10 Talbot saloon (“too much plate glass”) and there were Morris, Standard, etc. in between, down to the Renault R10 he still uses. Altogether, this was a most interesting glance-back on a way of life which we shall, alas, never see again. – W.B.

V-E-V Miscellany – A reader in Bristol who has a 1926 Austin 7 Chummy which is in need of extensive renovations to the bodywork is thinking of turning it into a replica of the modified Austin Chummy which Masters and Metchim raced at Le Mans in 1933/34 (Motor Sport, May 1950) which is an excellent idea, if sufficient data can be procured. What do Rolls-Royce historians know about a statement issued by Muscular Dystrophy Group of Great Britain to the effect that at its Goodwood Rally last July the “nonagenarian actress”- their description Cathleen Nesbitt was “one of the first people ever to ride in one of the original Rolls-Royce cars, actually chauffeured by Mr. Rolls himself?” Our dictionary says that nonagenarian is someone 90 years old, so the lady, who was still appearing at the Chichester Theatre this year, presumably had this illustrious ride at the age of about 16. A reader has sent us a copy of a description of the Asquith car, from the pages of The Radial Times, the defunct house-journal of the present company, Staveley Machine Tools Ltd. A picture shows the prototype Asquith, with a De Dion Bouton engine, a home-made chassis, and a body from an old-time carriage. This was circa 1902, and instead of making cars the company decided to concentrate on Asquith drills. The car had transmission by open and crossed belts and a countershaft, but later a two-speed gearbox was substituted. The body was a four-seater, the petrol tank was a big burnished copper cylinder on the front of the scuttle, exceptionally large gas headlamps were fitted for this period, and the radiator was comprised of spiral tubes. The first experimental journey was said to have been from Halifax, to Morecambe, the 60 miles occupying eight hours, due to excessive belt slip, cured by looking for sand and applying it to the luckless belts.

In connection with their 75th Anniversary, Vauxhall Motors Ltd. has reminded us that one of the four-cylinder, shaft-drive Vauxhall motorcycles, made at Luton in 1924, still exists in the Isle of Man. Six were built, all prototypes. The in-line, air-cooled, four-cylinder 931-c.c engine drove to an intregral clutch and gearbox, the clutch was foot-operated, and the petrol tank incorporated the Vauxhall scollops. The existing example was discovered in 1951 and the remains rebuilt with the aid of blue-prints supplied by Vauxhall’s Engineering Department, so effectively that an award was won in a vintage rally in 1959. Old Motor has published an article by P.J. Wallace doubting the wisdom of attempting to restore Brooklands Track, his argument being that Brooklands was a way of life, which can never be recreated. That, one supposes applies to any museum project, but we can see what is implied. Some spares for Rover Ten and Rover Twelve cars are for sale in Buckinghamshire, buyer to collect, including a 12-volt dynamo. Enquiries can be forwarded. William Harker tells us, in connection with last month’s reference to visitors to the 1935 German Grand Prix, that in fact he was not there, but that he did attend with the late Oliver Bertram the 1924 French Grand Prix at Montlhery when Chiron’s Alfa Romeo vanquished the might of Germany. He adds that the Ford aeroplane that he hired for the visit stranded the party in Paris… -W.B.

A Buick Conundrum

The earlier American cars were not infrequently converted for racing. Among the alterations carried out for this purpose might be the substitution of over-head for side-by-side valves, perhaps even multiple valves, operated by pushrods, an overhead camshaft, or even twin o.h. camshafts. Such conversions were not uncommon on the Modd-T Ford, for instance.

But what of the aluminium. two-section Buick with which Fh./Lt. E. R. C. (“Tiny”) Scholefield, the then-Vickers Chief-Test-Pilot, who was entered for a joke as “Professor Scholefield”, made a spasmodic and not particularly successful appearance in an unimportant race at Brooklands, that Mecca of Lost-Causes, during the 1928 season? It was under the patronage of Sir Alastair Miller, Bt., who was apt to spring such surprises on us, and Clowes usually drove the car. He won two Surbiton Handicaps with it. This particular car had a vintage Buick radiator later cowled, those contracting front-wheel-brakes that were typical of this make (and very effective, I recall, from my first experience of FWB in a Buick landaulette of this era), and cantilever rear springing. The engine was a six-cylinder with a bore and stroke of 79.4 x I14.3 mm (3,395 c.c.) so this was presumably a 20/ 60-h.p” model.

The significant thing is that it had. twin-overhead- camshafts, whereas the production Buick, lively though it was, used pushrod valvegear. There is a clue in the fact that in 1927 H. H. Hagens had entered the car, If this was the same person who designed Anzani engines, perhaps he wanted to tryout a twin-cam design and used a Buick engine for the experiment? The versatile Miller took this Buick over and on one of the rare occasions when it functioned properly it lapped at over 95 m.p .h. There is no doubt about the twin-cam engine because when Miller advertised the Buick for sale in 1928 from his St. James’ Place premises, in London’s fashionable West End, for £450, one of the attractions was its “2 special overhead camshafts”. I also saw it myself; for sale at another emporium, in 1930, when it was road-equipped, the price down to £375·

Although special Fords ran at Indianapolis I do not recollect any Buick entries there, so this special version probably originated in this country and, remembering Eldridge’s twin-cam Anzani-engined Eldridge Specials of this period, it seems that the Miller Buick may have had a whiff of Anzani about it. Perhaps some knowledgeable reader can tett us -more’ about the car and what became of it?- W.B.

V-E-V Odds & Ends

Mr. Easthope of Sheffield would like to know what happened before I949 to the 1936 TA MG Midget that he has repurchased, as the local taxation office has been unable to turn up any information about BAK 822. At one time our correspondent raced this car with some success but when rediscovered it was in a sorry state; but restoration is now nearing completion. Letters can be forwarded . The Standard Register Trust is hoping to recruit still more members and to discover more missing Standard cars, although it picked up about 60 new members from the mention in Motor Sport of its Syon Park Rally. The Membership Secretary is Mrs. N. Richardson, Holmside, Hambledon Road, Denmead, Nr. Portsmouth, Hampshire and other enquiries should go to M. Alderson, 36, Northfields Road, W. Acton, London, W3 ONW. Mr. Mark Shore of S. Godstone has sent us a copy of an article in the July issue of The Railway  Magazine relating to how the locomotive “Mallard” achieved a record speed of 126 m.p.h. in 1938, the interesting point from our aspect being that the streamlining of the prototype locomotive is said to have been based on that of the streamlined Type 57S Bugatti used for record-breaking in 1936, including capturing the hour record at over 1 35 m.p.h., because “Sir (then Mr.) Nigel Gresley, the great LNER Chief Engineer was friendly with Ettore Bugatti”. The article itself is extremely interesting and refers to the author, “a dedicated follower of motor racing”, P. T. W. Remnant, going round Rrooklands in one of the team-Bentleys at some 107 m.p.h. – but he thought a footplate ride on a Pacific more exciting….

The VSCC of America’s Journal for last July contained a long article by J. S. S. Sherman of Pennsylvania, who has been a keen reader of Motor Sport since 1958, about Hispano Suiza history. We note with satisfaction that he agrees with us in the controversy as to whether Ernest Henry did, or did not, steal Hispano Suiza twin-cam engine drawings and sell these to Peugeot, the article concluding: “Top marks to Boddy, Borgeson, and Automobile Quarterly, and a rap on the knuckles for Sedgwick, Setright, Montagu, Georgano, et al. A reader who is re­building a 1928 Tracta would welcome help, as his car lacks a body, magneto and carburettor and he wants to know how these should be. Another reader is researching the history of the private-car bodybuilding activities of Hall Lewis & Co., who were well-known in the late 1920s as builders of ‘bus bodies at Abbey Road, Park Royal, London and who apparently made a considerable number of car bodies on Minerva, Lancia, Rolls-Royce, Bianchi, Hispano Suiza, Lanchester and OM chassis, etc. It appears that their Works Manager was Mr. W. J. Shawycn, who had been in charge of the body-shops at Sizaire-Berwick’s, also at Park Royal and that the Company built ‘bus bodies for another firm in that area, Curtis, which business was the impetus of the Lancia public-service vehicle chassis, etc. Letters can be forwarded to this and to other seekers of historic information. From another reader comes a cutting from the Lancashire Evening Telegraph about a meeting of the Clitheroe MCC at Brungerley Bridge in 1926. An accompanying photograph depicts 13 solo motorcycles, three combinations, and two cars lined up. The makes of most of the motorcycles are quoted, one sidecar outfit being a Martinsyde, but of the cars one is a bull-nose Morris, the other is wrongly described as a 30- h.p. Vauxhall; it looks more like an Albert light­car. Other pictures show Edward Pye’s new Morris-Oxford saloon on the forecourt of Rolland Proctor’s garage in 1934 or 1935. This garage was at the top of Sawlcy Brow hill, on which a hump halfway up necessitated rapid changes of gear on most cars in those days, resulting in many broken half-shafts. Spares for almost every make were carried and the garage did a rousing business until a by-pass to Whalley closed the notorious hill. There is also a publicity-picture of the Wellgate Motors’ Armstrong Siddeley, an early Thirty or Eighteen, towing-in a badly-crashed vehicle. Incidentally, the pictures were taken with a Zeiss Ikon Ninimum Palmos 5 x 4 Press camera, bought on the day war broke out, in 1914, and still in existence. We are indebted to Mr. W. H. Jones of Wiltshire for his interesting cutting. Eoin Young has discovered that motoring books, like old cars, have, alas, become what he describes as “a gilt-edged hobby, blue-chip· books being an investment, collector’s items”, and he has joined up with Charles Mortimer to exploit this market. The latter quotes Pomeroy’s “Grand Prix Car” as now worth more than £85 and S. F. Edge’s reminiscences (listed as first-published in 1912 but surely a post-war work of St. John Nixon) as selling for £25. Well, well! The ACOC’s magazine Action for last May contained an interesting article about the vintage six-cylinder AC Aceca owned by I’. M. Rambaut, a car that had a notable competition career, revolving round the AC raced by Victor Bruce and A. j. Mollart; the Club has reprinted the instruction book for the 16-h.p. six-cylinder ACs, which sold originally for 1/-.

For the record, it was in 1927, not in 1928, that Dudley hoy won the Surbiton 50-mile race in a Wolseley “Moth”. In the latter year he repeated this success in the 4-1/2-litre-engined streamlined 3-litre ex-Barnato Bentley, at 115.55 m.p.h., lapping at over 120 m.p.h. in only his second season ·at the Track. – W.B.


Vintage cars at the Royal Welsh

A vintage car display was part of the Royal Welsh Show at Ruilth Wells, put on by the Rhayader MC, which ensured proper protection for the exhibits, in a big marquee. The only Edwardian was Reg Worthing’s well-known 1913 Model-T Ford tourer, trailed there, with his caravan following behind his faithful Volvo. Rest of the vintage was falk’s red Type 40 Bugatti, claiming an original oil-pump and Autovac fuel-feed, together with the nebulous distinction of being the fastest Type 40 time up Prescott. There were nice examples of rosette-winning bull-nose Morris-Cowley, and Singer .Junior, the latter backed by a 1932 two-owner Singer Nine saloon. A 1924 11.9 Lagonda two-seater displayed its many plaques, Falk had put in his AC-engined Frazer Nash, the Automobile Palace an over-brassed Austin 12 saloon and a nice Chummy Austin, and Dolphin’s 1938 Austin Io saloon won a rosette. The worst car I have ever seen at such a show was a terrible 1933 Austin 7 Special posing as a Swallow, which it in no way resembled. The cars were backed up by many motorcycles.

The Ford Motor Company had its 75th Anniversary Show, which embraced 1944 Fordson tractor, 1928 and 1931 Model-A saloons, two Model-Ts, a 1937 3-wheeled Fordson Tug, and Prefect, Popular and Consul models to titillate the memories of the older Welsh farmers. Contrast was provided by the 1977 Safari Rally-winning Escort RS 1800 and a James Hunt Marlborough McLaren (F1) Ford-powered racer. – W.B.