Three-legged races

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The Isle of Man is world famous for its motorbike TT, but it has hosted several car events too, as Bill Boddy explains

The RAC, as the governing body in control of motor competition events in this country, as well as a premier organisation whose purpose was to look after the interests of ordinary road-going car-users, had held a sufficient number of important race fixtures to justify its full title before the mid-1930s.

It had run the TT car races in the IoM from 1905 to ’08, producing winning makes of Arrol-Johnston, Rolls-Royce, Rover, Beeston-Humber and Hutton.

The Club was invited to do so again by Lord Raglan, Lt Governor of the island, after he had seen how the motorcycle TT on the famous Mountain Circuit had enhanced business for hotels and boarding houses. Car races would add to such fiscal gains. So it was with this in mind that the IoM TT car races resumed in 1914 (over two days and 600 miles) and in ’22 (326 miles for the big cars, 226.5 miles for the 1500s), the victors being Kenelm Lee Guinness (Sunbeam), Jean Chassagne (Sunbeam) and Sir Algernon Guinness (Talbot-Darracq).

There was then a break until the RAC grands prix were started over an artificial Brooklands road course in 1926 and ’27, dull dominations by the straight-eight Delage cars, unless the presence of famous drivers like Robert Sénéchal (winner in ’26), Robert Benoist (winner in ’27), Ernest Bourlier and Albert Divo (Talbot), or the astonishing sight of the Delage drivers putting their feet in bowls of cold water after roastings from exhaust pipes that ran too close to the cockpits in ’26, was entertaining enough!

After the Delage team had retreated to other races, it was six years before the RAC promoted another big fixture. So when the IoM authorities requested a contest on their territory, the RAC must have responded readily. If the bikers’ famous 38-mile Mountain Course was no longer deemed suitable for cars, the town of Douglas should reap rich rewards.

Nowadays the Monaco GP is the only true street-race remaining, with hazards not to be tolerated elsewhere. The 1933 IoM races were street affairs in no uncertain terms; the corners in the tight 4.6-mile circuit were many and acute, and the race distance was 230 miles, for both the small cars in the Mannin Beg and the big ones in the Mannin Moar.

The handicapping couldn’t have been simpler — in the Beg, 1.5-litre cars had to be non-supercharged but the smaller ones were allowed blowers; with hindsight, this seemed to favour the by-then highly developed s/c 1100cc entries and be hard on the 750s. The Moar, for cars over 1.5 litres, was Formula Libre. Racing mechanics were compulsory for possibly the last time in Europe.

The RAC had, however, misjudged the views of IoM residents and visitors. The former complained of noise and inconvenience, while the latter tended to be incensed by the impediment to their freedom. One can see how frustrating it must have been to find the Promenade closed or to have to leave your hotel or digs before 09.30, and that the sea roads were out of bounds. And July was perhaps the worst time for this to happen. TG Moore, the owner of Motor Sport, was a considerable IoM landowner and a bit of a racing driver, and he may have had some sway in appeasements being made.

Spectators in the high building at Villa Marina had a good view of the start and pits. The cars then took several sharp corners through Douglas town, onto the straight towards Onchan hairpin. It was a test of acceleration and braking rather than speed, although the Mannin Moar cars did 120mph along the Promenade. Hazards around the course had sparse protection and the posts beside the road at the start none at all.

Mannin Beg took place on Wednesday July 12. Freddie Dixon’s Riley was to do battle with six s/c MG Magnettes, four s/c Midgets, Victor Gillow’s Riley, the Sullivan Special and Moore’s Frazer Nash.

The race opened with a hectic duel between the Magnettes of Kaye Don and Hughie Hamilton, Crabtree’s MG Midget third, while behind Dixon and George Eyston awaited their chance. But Eyston retired with a broken driveshaft. UJ problems then stopped Dixon, until he resumed, going faster than before. Moore went out and Crabtree’s fine run ended when he ran into the Onchan sandbags, damaging his MG’s blower. The Don/Hamilton duel continued until, after setting fastest lap at 58.93mph, ‘Hammy’ retired with axle failure. The course was taking its toll and Dixon’s strategy paid off; he went on to win at 54.41mph, the only other finisher being D K Mansell’s MG Midget.

So what would happen in the Mannin Moar?

The Hon Brian Lewis, in the first Monza Alfa that had been seen in this country, had ranged against him the Bugattis of Tim Rose Richards (T51), Dick Shuttleworth, Tim Fotheringham, TASO Mathieson and Lindsay Eccles, while Bob Lace was in a stripped 4.5-litre Invicta. Lewis was quickest in practice (64.4mph), and Fotheringham pranged his Bugatti but RR Jackson repaired it with spares brought by air from Brooklands and Sheffield.

Ebby dropped the loM flag and they roared away into what became a three-car contest between Lewis, Rose Richards (until his Bugatti lost third gear and began to misfire) and Eyston, who was coping with fading brakes in his Monza Alfa Romeo. The pitstops also made a difference: Lewis was away after 30sec, 20 gallons of fuel taken on and the shock absorbers adjusted; Rose Richards’ stop took 37sec for 15 gallons of fuel; Eyston was in for 40sec for 20 gallons and shock absorber attention.

Lewis was signalled to ease up after Rose Richards’ challenge had faded, and he won at 64.23mph; the Bugatti was second at 63.61mph, Eyston third.

Shuttleworth, with Charles Brackenbury as his co-driver, had gearchange problems and demolished five pits as he came in! Lace lost the Invicta going down Summer Hill and felled a telegraph pole, sending wires all over the road.

The 1933 return to the island could be counted a success, apart from public apathy. Both races had been very efficiently run by the RAC. Car owners Noel Rees and Arthur Fox took away a trophy each and £200, Lewis the RAC Trophy, Rose Richards £150 and Eyston £100.

The RAC ran these races again in 1934 in spite of a lack of public interest, the big grandstand only three-quarters full. The course was shortened to a lap of 3.7 miles, but incorporated all the street hazards — kerbs to damage tyres, rough patches that threw cars into the air, and unprotected items such as the traffic lights at Bray hairpin and the letter box at the fork at York Road. The dates were May 30 and June 1, practice on two days between 5 and 7am, and the race reduced to 183 miles.

The Beg entries included Dixon’s Riley team, up against many s/c MG Magnettes, Eyston’s record car with shorter road-race body, Hamilton and Ron Horton in offset single-seaters, and Charlie Dodson and Norman Black in lightweight normal-bodied Magnettes. Lewis had Fox’s racing-bodied Singer. The Jameson and the 1100cc ERA for Humphrey Cook were absent. Don had crashed on a public-road test run and his riding mechanic Frank Taylor had received fatal injuries.

Dixon’s Riley was chased by five Magnettes led by Eyston. The latter set fastest lap at 64.4mph, but a fuel stop delayed him. Dixon intended to go non-stop, and he would have won had his spare fuel tank not leaked; he walked back. Black’s Magnette won at 70.99mph, from Dodson, in pain from smashed goggles, and Eyston.

The Moar was rendered very interesting because Rees, knowing that Scuderia Ferrari wasn’t selling any of the then-new P3 monoposto Alfa Romeos, decided, at great expense, to hire one from the team, for Lewis to drive. It duly arrived with two mechanics, one of whom, Galcardi, had been Nuvolari’s mechanic when the great driver had raced in Ireland. The car was that driven by Archille Varzi in the Monaco GP. For all of this Rees not only had to pay, but Ferrari took half of any prize money! So Lewis had to win!

Lined up against Lewis were Dixon’s Riley, bored out to 1808cc, Rose Richards’ Type 51 Bugatti, the Bugattis of Chris Staniland, Eccles and Shuttleworth, and the 2.3-litre Monza Alfas of Dodson, Hamilton and Portuguese driver Vasio Sameiro. Raymond Mays had entered the prototype 1.5-litre ERA, but it handled so dangerously, which he got Rose Richards to confirm, that although Reid Railton was sent for, the new wonder-car was withdrawn.

In spite of having only second and top gears for most of the race (hire cars can be like that), and the Promenade being so bumpy that he had to keep the P3 down to 135mph, there were no other problems for Lewis. He found the Alfa easy to control and docile, even at 10mph in second gear, and so it proved a straightforward race for him, from the front row of the grid with Dixon, both having lapped at over 80mph in practice. Rose Richards was the only real challenger, with Dodson third. Staniland retired when his Bugatti broke a layshaft; Rose Richards ditto with a useless water pump. That gave Dixon second, with a lap just faster than Lewis’s best, but Freddie was 44sec in arrears. Hamilton’s Alfa ran over its own exhaust pipe and went out.

Only six cars were left after 20 laps and then Dixon’s Riley stopped. Freddie walked to his pit, returned with tools, removed the sump, saw the state of the bearings and walked back. Lewis then did two fastest laps, driving very consistently. The Shuttleworth Bugatti broke a conrod, as did Sameiro’s Alfa, after he had driven well in this, his first road race. Back axle trouble had stopped Eccles’ Bugatti.

So only three cars were left in this destroying race, the P3 taking the flag after 2hr 25min 41sec, recording an average of 75.34mph. Four minutes later Dodson’s Monza Alfa Romeo took second, but Cyril Paul only just got one of the Dixon 1.8-litre Rileys home within the time limit.

The RAC used the same arrangement for 1935, but with the race distance now 202 miles.

The 27-year-old South African Pat Fairfield had bought an 1100cc ERA, not for parsimonious reasons, for there was little difference in price between the 1.5-litre and 2-litre Bourne products, but because it might have a better chance of winning if not up against larger cars. This paid off handsomely in the last of the Mannin Beg races. Fairfield won in such a tough contest that only one other car finished, Dixon’s non-s/c 1486cc Riley. Eddie Hall’s MG Magnette and Baird’s MG Midget had been flagged off as outside the time limit. The other nine had retired. Mays’ 1100cc ERA had led, then developed engine trouble; the new R-type MG Midgets had universal joint failures.

And so to the Mannin Moar.

With the desirable monoposto Alfa Romeos now unavailable, some of the British amateurs turned to Maseratis and, when Ettore Bugatti was ready to sell, the elegant Type 59 3.3-litre GP cars; Charlie Martin, Eccles, Earl Howe and Lewis all bought them. These cars gave trouble at first, but two of them were sufficiently reliable to give first and second places to Lewis and Martin, both very accomplished drivers, in Douglas. A stone had hit Lewis between the eyes and drawn blood, but that didn’t stop him; indeed, to convincingly round off his IoM hat-trick he made fastest lap (78.10mph) and took home the Wakefield Cup.

Luis Fontes brought a Monza home third, the number 13 still showing on its radiator, a reminder of how this inexperienced enthusiast had hired the ex-Rees car from Thomson & Taylor.

Dodson’s and Wilkins’ Alfa Romeos were flagged off and Eccles’ Type 59 Bugatti gave up with transmission trouble. Cook’s ERA retired when its oil scavenge pump got tired, Shuttleworth’s Bugatti was sidelined by a sick gearbox, Rose Richards’ Maserati stopped because of a useless transmission, while accidents eliminated Hamilton’s Alfa Romeo and the Hon Jock Leith’s Bugatti.

The RAC went to Douglas in 1936 for its 1.5-litre 94-mile scratch race — when Dick Seaman in his 10-year-old Delage, rebuilt by Giulio Ramponi, made a mickey of the ERAs — but ERA scored a 1-2-3 in ’37 thanks to ‘Bira’, Mays and Fairfield.

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