Joker in the Pack

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Charles Brackenbury was not only a skilful amateur racer he was also not averse to the odd practical jape, as Bill Boddy remembers

While flying in a De Havilland Dragon to a motor race with Jenks, the chap in the seat behind us leant over and, with his cigarette-lighter, tried to set fire to DSJ’s beard. It could only be that inveterate prankster, Charles-the-Brack.

Brackenbury’s interest in motor cycling and motoring was encouraged by his friend Chris Staniland, remembered as the smartly overalled star performer on bikes and cars at Brooklands, and for flying prowess until his sad fatal last flight. To be near the Track, Brackenbury’s family moved south to Pyrford. I am glad to know that Brackenbury’s son Ian frequently went there with his father to watch the racing, and is a member of the Brooklands Society.

After WWII, Brackenbury bought the large garage and filling station on the Track side of what was then Byfleet Road, now Brooklands Road. It was later bought by Tony Brooks after his grand prix days were over. Jenks told me that Tony had asked him what that long strip of concrete was which he could see from a garage window. It was the Byfleet Banking. Tony had admittedly never raced there — or was he pulling a Jenkinson leg?

In the 1930s, motor racing became a frequent pastime of Charles’s, at first in borrowed cars. It was an accepted sight for race-goers to the Surrey Track to see Brackenbury at full pace, bare-headed, sleeves rolled up, frequently beating the handicap A V Ebblewhite had imposed on him.

Charles began modestly at the 1929 BARC Whit Monday Meeting by borrowing J B Johnson’s supercharged 1087cc BNC, one of those sporting small French cars, this one appropriately in light blue livery, for a go in the 47th 75mph Long Handicap. He was disappointed, because the car was a nonstarter. It then misbehaved again, failing to complete the first lap of the 90mph Long Handicap. Charles had only to be patient At the Summer BARC races, he and the BNC finished third in the 90mph Long Handicap, behind A V Wilkinson’s straight-eight 1.5-litre OM and W Y Craig in a Type 37 Bugatti. Brack’s best lap was at 91.22mph, fast for an 1100. He avoided a re-handicap and pushed his lap speed up to 92.74mph in the President’s Gold Plate event, but was unplaced.

Obviously, Brackenbury liked motor racing, because for the 1930 Easter Brooklands Meeting he was driving a black Type 37 Bugatti, with which he won convincingly the Essex Short Handicap from Victor Horsman’s little Triumph, to which he had given a start of a minute, and the scratch Craig Bugatti driven by P W Thorogood, his best lap at 95.78mph. Ebby couldn’t have this and put 24sec on the Bugatti’s handicap for the Long race, but Charles went faster (best lap 97.08mph) to finish third. He was then absent until the 1930 Autumn Meeting. He was at first unlucky, the Bugatti retiring after a dismally slow lap in the Middlesex Junior Short Handicap. Or was he conserving his handicap? In the Long race the Bug and the Brack lapped at 96.15mph without besting Ebby. Charles was now ready for long-distance racing and, with a slipper on one foot due to a boil, his Bugatti finished within schedule in the 1930 BRDC 500 Mile Race.

In 1931, in its first race, the Warwick Senior Short Handicap, the Bugatti retired, but in the equivalent ‘Long’ race the Brack won, making the quickest lap of the race (102.27mph). At Whitsun, in a red car which presumably was the same Bugatti, he did not appear — perhaps the paint hadn’t dried — but he was back in August, lap speed up to 104.82mph, but carrying a very heavy handicap. No doubt disheartened, he did not race again that year.

By now Brackenbury had become friendly with Charles Mortimer, another typical Brooklands character who rode many very fast bikes before switching to cars, including the ex-John Cobb 4-litre V12 Sunbeam.

The Brack and Charles Mortimer were involved in the aforementioned practical jokes, aided and abetted at times by Freddie Dixon. If I told you of some of these I doubt if you would believe me. So let’s just try; Brackenbury, being told a restaurant was out of pheasant, rushed off, bought a stuffed one in a cage, and returned, to take it to the chef and demand that it be cooked. The Brack was present at Donington when the Mercedes team was there for the grand prix, and surely it cannot be a coincidence that when the great racing manager Herr Neubauer started up his Mercedes-Benz there was a loud explosion and black smoke pouring from the bonnet louvres? And wasn’t it Brack who, driving through Weybridge and seeing a car ahead of him which he thought was a friend’s, decided that it would be fun to give it a nudge or two, only to find it was owned by a policeman unknown to him. It was, I believe, when he and Mortimer each had a Fiat 500 and there was a high pile of snow on the Track Finishing Straight, that Brack suggested that on their way home he and Mortimer should race one another to this inviting obstacle and go through it; what they did not know was that the snow obscured a tractor. Result: two very bent Topolinos.

Brackenbury’s 1.5-litre Bugatti, after playing up at first, served him very well throughout the 1932 Brooklands season, winning at Easter the Norfolk Senior Long Handicap with a lap at 103.11mph, which he improved at the Whitsun Bank Holiday to 105.07mph and, in August, winning the Herefordshire Lightning Short Handicap, the rather wonderful Type 37 doing 105.54mph on its fastest lap, whilst those who liked a bet were rushing to the Totalisers. It was the way to enjoy oneself, driving in one race per meeting, with time to meet friends and have a good time before and afterwards.

The following year he crashed the Bugatti in the Mannin Moar, but won the Gold Star race by 10.2sec from Oliver Bertram in the 10.5-litre V12 Delage, which was set to start lmin 55sec after it Brackenbury lapped at 106.42mph.

Brackenbury was now ready for longer races. He drove an MG in the 1933 BRDC 500-miler and an MG Midget in the 1934 JCC International Trophy, coming home 14th but by no means last

By this time the ability of this cheerful driver had been noted and he was seen to be capable of driving for ‘works’ teams. In June 1934, he went over to France to share Lord de Clifford’s special Lagonda Rapier at Le Mans. They finished in 16th place. In the same year Freddie Dixon took him on as reserve driver of his 1.5-litre Riley in the 500-mile race and in the arduous 478-mile TT over the Ards circuit in Ulster. It failed to come to the stardine in Ireland, but Charles was also on hand to aid the drivers of the two Riley Nines, Cyril Paul taking one car, Pat Fairfield the other, which was 12th and third in its class. Goodness knows what they got up to out of the cars.

After the 1935 BARC Whitsun Meeting at Brooklands, where Charles won the Gold Star Handicap with a supercharged 2.3-litre straight-eight Bugatti, Martin and Brack were off to Le Mans again, driving for the Aston Martin team. The result put both drivers in the professional class, even if they did not recognise this. They were third, with 1805.4 miles run in the 24 hours, behind only the winning 4.5-litre Lagonda and a 2.3 Alfa Romeo. The Bertelli-type 1.5-litre Ulster Aston Martin took the Biennial Cup.

In the 1935 Ards TT, Brackenbury endorsed his place in the Aston Martin team. Of A C Bertelli’s four entries in this pure road race, Charlie Martin retired when an oil pipe broke, The Brack was fourth overall and second in class to the Dixon/Wal Handley Riley, with team-mate C Penn-Hughes fifth and third in class, while the fourth car, handled by stockbroker T E Rose-Richards managed 11th. French strikes cancelled Le Mans in ’36; in ’37, Charles shared a 4.5-litre Lagonda with Hindmarsh, but it retired. In the ’37 JCC International Trophy Race over 100 laps of the Campbell Circuit, Brackenbury drove Charles Mortimer’s Alfa Romeo, but soon it had only top gear and the brakes had gone.

For the BRDC ‘500’ he brought the difficult 4-litre V12 Sunbeam home in third place with Anthony Powys-Lybbe, at 120.2mph. In 1938 it was back to Brooklands, with a 2-litre supercharged straight-eight Bugatti entered by A P Watson in which Brackenbury, whether he knew the car or not, gained a good first place in the Whitsun Short Handicap.

He tried the Bowler-Hofinan Special in August, went back to Watson’s Bugatti, then it was down for the Dunlop Jubilee Meeting of longer races for better prizes. Sadly, Watson’s Bugatti wouldn’t start — but there was still the October Meeting. The Brack got round at 127.05mph after a good standingstart lap, but it was too well-known to Ebby to score.

At Donington, he had driven an Alfa Romeo in the 1937 British Empire Trophy 204-mile race and ERA R7B in the 200-mile Race.

The war clouds were now gathering, but at 1939’s Le Mans, Brackenbury was given the task of driving one of the two 4.4-litre V12 Lagondas with Charlie Dodson, the other entrusted by W O Bentley to Lords Selsdon and Waleran. W O thought these cars insufficiently developed for the 24-hour endurance test but he agreed to allow it if a sensible average speed was adopted. To their credit his drivers observed this and finished third and fourth, in the above order, behind only the winning 3.3-litre Bugatti of Wimille/Veyron and a 3-litre Delage. The first Lagonda covered 2006.68 miles to the winner’s 2008.54 miles.

For the final, forever, Brooldands Meeting, these impressive multi-cylindered cars were stripped for Outer Circuit work and Brackenbury lapped at 127.70mph to win from Selsdon at 120.01mph. I was impressed by the still not fully developed saloon which I drove during the war with the Battle of Britain raging overhead. Before the Track closed, Brack had lapped at 125.14mph in another Watson Bugatti, this time an eight-cylinder s/c 2-litre. That was that.

After the war, Brackenbury returned to Le Mans in 1949 at the wheel of a 2.5-litre Aston Martin C-type, shared with Leslie Johnson, but it lost all its water. That year he had been placed third in the Spa 24-hour race in an Aston Martin, again with Johnson. In 1950, Brack was at Le Mans again, with Reg Parnell this time, to finish an excellent sixth in an Aston Martin DB2. What a wonderful racing career, and with all the fun as well.

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