WB miscellany, September 2005

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Racing partnerships

Seeing the ecstatic joy Mr and Mrs Briggs shared at Brooklands in 1936 after the distaff side had won by a very narrow margin made me think of other married couples who raced. Mrs Briggs had started 54sec before Harvey-Noble in a supercharged 2-litre Bugatti and finished 4.6sec ahead, after doing a fastest lap of 101.23mph — very respectable for a privately-entered Brooklands-type Riley Nine. The bearded Mr Briggs used it to take third place in another race, tactfully lapping at exactly the same speed as his wife!  And she, starting with Follett’s 2.7-litre Alvis, then took a second place by just three-fifths of a second from it.

By this time other married couples had achieved some notable Track performances, like Tommy and Elsie Wisdom and W B Scott and Jill in a variety of fast cars, Mrs Scott gaining her 120mph badge in 1928 with a GP Sunbeam but her husband not until 1930 with their GP Delage. Jill Scott set a ladies’ lap record, broken by Elsie Wisdom in the Leyland Thomas and then by Kay Petre in a Bugatti, until it was left for all time at 135.95mph in 1935 by Gwenda Stewart. Her brave exploits in cars ranged from 100mph three-wheeler Morgan to Derby Miller and Derby Maserati. Gwenda was famous at Montlhéry as well as at Weybridge.

When I met him the Hon Victor Bruce was modest about the successes he and Mrs Bruce had had, mostly in AC cars but with a Silver Eagle Alvis in the 1930 Double-12 Hour race, until his wife went shopping in Selfridges, saw a Blackburn Bluebird light aeroplane for sale, bought it, and gallantly flew it round the world, which took her nearly five months. The Hon A D Chetwynd and Mrs Chetwynd raced Lea-Francises effectively, while Mrs Duller, up to about 1925, raced with an Amilcar and, of course, jockey George Duller was very famous in all manner of cars.

Roy and Marjorie Eccles were prominent drivers, he with Frazer Nash, MG and Rapier Special and Mrs E with the latter, and Bill and Ruth Urquhart Dykes, the noted private-owner Alvis exponents, specialised in long-distance events, notably their combined 12-Hour Class record in 1928 at over 83mph in their well-used 12/50 Alvis.

In France Hugh and Colleen Eaton, the Eccles and the Wisdoms competed at Le Mans, and Mme Junek, heroine of the Targa Florio in her Bugatti, had a husband who also raced. It was his fatal racing accident which brought her career to a close, but his appearances have not been reported in the British Press.

After the war, family appearances in fixtures run by the VSCC and by similar organisations attracted more husband and wife participation, which is still evident today. One of the most successful in VSCC events was Peter Binns — who postwar took the Lycett Trophy for best aggregate performances in 1951, ’53-55 and ’58 — in ’51 made best show in the Measham Rally in his ’26 OM, and in ’53 won at Bisley in his ex-Jacot E/OE 30/98 Vauxhall, which also did well when raced. Mrs Binns started racing with a Riley Sprite in 1949. When Mr Binns came to see me recently he was modest about all this but talked of the many cars he had owned, and still has. He now competes in continental rallies in his Ford, with ace navigator David Thirlby.

I shall never forget a remarkable incident. I was standing at a VSCC meeting on a straight on the old Silverstone circuit, where a hump obscured the drivers’ sightline for a moment. I was wearing a track pass, but a marshal riding a BMW motorcycle came up to me and told me I was in a dangerous place. I replied that I knew what I was doing and intended to remain. I enquired how many races the rider had seen and he said only one.

He then noticed that his bike was minus a footrest and went off  up the middle of the course, looking for it. I heard the race start and in a short time over the brow came the Binns, in their Rileys. Miraculously they passed the bike, one on each side, at full speed. As the shaken rider, who had now returned to the verge, came past me I said wasn’t I in a safer place than he had just occupied? He did not reply.

I await reprimands for omissions but I shall plead space restrictions.

***

Levers left, right and centre

Why, I wonder, was the gear lever placed on the right on the majority of British vintage luxury cars? Could it have been because it was thought that those most likely to purchase such cars regarded things mechanical as a chauffeur’s preserve and so it would have been unseemly for levers to be seen sticking up in a car’s front compartment? Even though the back of such cars had ample space for three passengers there was usually space for two more on occasional foldaway perches. Relegated as a boy to such a seat in a 1920 Austin 20, I was faintly perturbed to discover that when erected these had only one anchorage.

Or was it because the majority of English people are right-handed and it was felt that the sometimes difficult task of changing gears was better done with a right hand? Surely it was not to prevent a paid driver having an excuse for letting his left hand stray onto the knee of a maid riding ‘up front’. For whatever reason, most of the makers of motor carriages for the nobility and gentry, as David Scott-Moncrieff would say, were willing to incur the cost of the extra shaft to the offside gear lever, and its slight extra weight, even though this often rendered easy access to the driver’s seat difficult. Daimler was an exception, having a central gear lever even on its majestic Double-Sixes, as did Jensen.

When Henry Royce’s new R-R Twenty model was introduced in 1922 as a companion model to the 40/50s, its central gear lever and three-speed gearbox came in for so much criticism that he soon changed to right-hand controls and four forward speeds.

Yet central brake and gear levers were common on the Continent on top cars like the Hispano-Suiza, Isotta-Fraschini, and others, which was logical with left-hand steering, although nearside control levers could have been possible if any of the above-suggested reasons had been thought necessary. Bugatti instead favoured right-hand drive.

On American automobiles central levers were almost universal, and obvious with their left-hand steering. Has anyone serious views on this aspect of design?

***

It all began with tyreless ABC

It is not unusual to remember one’s first car. I am no exception but promise not to mention mine too often! The 1922 ABC should have cost me £5 but I was so excited I gave the breaker six quid by mistake — never mind, he had said when I first saw it without tyres that if I came back in a week he would have some put on, with no increase in price.

 I kept this scruffy but prized possession in a big garage in Tooting High Road, and one day they came out with a wooden aeroplane-like cooling fan which the ABC lacked, but 15 shillings I thought too much. Among the collection of motor bits I have accumulated is another wooden fan: I think it may be from an early model of one of those wonderful Lancia Lambdas, a clapped-out 1926 sixth-series (with the later metal fans) version of which gave me much pleasure during the war, even if it lacked power in its old age and up mild main road hills was disappointingly sedate, reminding me of the pace of the Lancia ‘bus which had plied the Waddesdon-Aylesbury route around 1930.

***

When racing resumed in the air

The six-car Indy F1 race will, I fear, be long remembered as the Michelin fiasco. But I can think of a race with only seven finishers (and four non-starters, one banned from starting because its engine was owned by the government). It was attended by H M The Queen, who signed the visitors’ book informally standing up, and presented prizes given by the Daily Mail (£500) and by Shell. The race was won at 129.34mph after 1hr 28min.

What is more, it took place less than a year after WWI had ended, whereas Brooklands did not reopen until April 1920, to a poor season, and the first post-war French GP was not held until July 1921, rather putting motor racing in the shade.

The race, also attended by the Princess Royal and many dignitaries, was the Aerial Derby of June 26 1919, flown over two laps from Hendon and back over Kempton Park, Epsom, West Thurrock, Epping and Dartford, a total of 190 miles. The winner was Capt G Gathergood in a DH Airco 4R with 450hp Napier Lion engine. Next round the pylon was Lt R Nisbet, piloting a Martinsyde F4 with R-R Falcon engine, and third was M D Manton in another Airco with a Rolls-Royce Eagle engine. The handicap was won at 70mph by Capt E A Hammersley in the jolly little Avro Baby, powered by a 1909 35hp Green motor. There were forced landings but no casualties in this Victory Derby celebrating that the war really was over.

***

Lost Pleasure of the open road

It is only those of a certain age who show no surprise, when looking at pictures of the 1920s, at how free motoring was then. Cars are depicted in completely empty backgrounds, not only in the villages but in country towns. It took more time then to set up cameras, but the cars being photographed are seen parked on what would now be thought an indiscreet place, on blindish corners, for example, where in later times the cameraman would be moved on, perhaps with a pending parking fine, and the dreaded double-yellow lines were to follow.

It was indeed an age of pleasure motoring in those long ago 1920s. Hazards which drivers might then encounter were confined to steam traction engines or waggons taking on water from stream, river or, in towns, from approved stop-cocks, horse-drawn drays and, on holiday routes, the widely criticised middle-of-the-road char-a-bancs, hard to overtake, their inebriated occupants likely to sling empty bottles in your path. There could be dangers, too, from straying livestock and open, casually signed railway crossings.

Otherwise, car ownership was the means of enjoying pleasant carefree drives (punctures apart) in open cars amid the scents and sounds of the countryside, at perhaps double the then not seriously observed 20mph speed limit. Driving implied not only safely controlling a car, mastering a ‘crash’ gearbox and two-wheel brakes, but also taking correctly an intended route, with maps perhaps, but none of today’s unsightly, enormous direction signs. Indeed, any such signs were unwelcome;  The Autocar  ran a campaign, suitably illustrated, against the ‘Yellow Peril’, those circular AA signs naming villages. Now such ugly discs must be collectors’ items, though I used to see a couple in Wales not all that long ago.

The so-called open cars, from which the occupants had that fresh air and those country scents which added to the joys of motoring, soon diminished in numbers. Study Brooklands photographs and it is evident that even then spectators came mostly in saloons. Gone almost were the days when motor owners might have more than one car, an open one for fun excursions, a closed one for more formal journeys, as did a relative of mine who had successively a 10.4 Citroën, a Chevrolet, and then two Overland tourers, but kept an Austin 20 Mayfair laundalette for serious occasions. If it rained the chauffeur simply erected the celluloid sidescreens on the tourers. I can remember how a run of about 10 miles from Sully to Penarth was along narrow country lanes, the horn sounded at the many blind crossroads, although if you were in a hurry there was a tollroad from Penarth to Cardiff.

In those long-gone days it was a time when sportscars such as the Vauxhall 30/98 which ‘Cassandra’, the Daily Mirror’s  famous columnist, recollected in 1961 as providing “fast and furious fun”, to which “WO Bentley’s majestic green monsters would civilly reply” and “which dreaded nought except for one of Monsieur Ettore’s wonder cars from the engineering cathedral at Molsheim”.

‘Cass’ remembered the most obscure makes and, believe it or not, he had owned a chain-drive Frazer Nash, his “Fighting Temeraire, of which a motor magazine said it would be difficult to find a faster point-to-point vehicle”. He wrote of the Stutz Bearcat that “nobody could be respectable in that”, and remarked that “the Minerva could look a Rolls straight in the eye” and much more… All in a daily newspaper, bless him!

It was a time of public-road speed-trials and hillclimbs, illegal but accepted, until a friend of Raymond Mays in a Brescia Bugatti had the accident involving a stubborn spectator at Kop in 1924 and it came to an abrupt end. When I listed these enjoyable events of 1919-1924 in  Motor Sport  they took two pages of small type, and T R Nicholson’s book Sprint  lists 212 main events for the period in its appendix, not including lesser ones and those held in Ireland and the Isle of Man.

In those days of the ‘open road’, and into the mid 1930s, before Bank Holidays, the weekly motor magazines would suggest nice drives to their readers, once asking staff writers for their favourites, including Sammy Davis, The Autocar’s  sports editor and racing driver, for his.

‘Vagrant’ would discuss outings with his wife and her Pekinese ‘Mr Parker’ to be undertaken first in their Wolseley and then in their Railton saloon ‘Blackbird’; cissy stuff, but suited to those times. When owner drivers went for picnics on hot days they would cover their tyres with rugs to protect them, and then discuss, in the letters pages of the motor papers, which tyres, oils and petrols were suitable, which no longer happens.

I had a taste of it as a schoolboy passenger in the cars listed above over the quiet country roads of South Wales. But when I had my first car, a £5 ABC in 1938, the freedom was beginning to diminish, and soon congestion and restrictions had taken over, leading steadily to the road conditions now prevailing.

***

Two-Jags Jenks

It is interesting that both of the two E-type Jaguars which Denis Jenkinson used for his long journeys when he was reporting continental races for Motor Sport  have survived and been restored to good order.

One is a fixed-head coupé FPL 680C, so is the first car that DSJ had, his second E-type being a drop-head version. Although both were company cars I do not remember a staff member of Motor Sport  having the coupé, so presumably it was sold on to someone outside the firm. The present owner would like to hear from previous owners.

It is astonishing but true that when he tired of his second E-type Jenks left it to rot in the bushes outside his Hampshire cottage. When he terminated his employment with Motor Sport, the magazine’s proprietor wanted the return of what had been a company car. He sent a truck to Crondall to collect it. But by then the car was so rotten that the truck driver found he could push a finger through the rusted body panels and said that if he tried to load it the thing would fall to pieces.

Not to be defeated, Motor Sport’s  owner somehow managed to get the wreck to London. It was then fully restored, I imagine with a new bodyshell, and advertised for sale as the car used by our famous Continental Correspondent. For the last couple of years it has been enjoyed by a Belgian dealer who is prepared to part with it for £43,000.

***

The Mini marvel

Much has been written about Turkish-born Alec Issigonis CBE, FRS who, without proper engineering training, has been described as one of the greatest car designers Britain has produced, because of the Morris Minor 1000 and the Mini.

But the story of this remarkable man has had to wait for Jonathan Woods’s Alec lssigonis  (Breedon. ISBN 185983 4 49 3. £19.99). I found it a ‘can’t put down’ account, with recollections from Ronald Barker, Charles Bulmer, Paul Frère, Spen King, Viscount Linley, Sir Stirling Moss, Alex Moulton, who created the rubber suspensions for Issigonis, and other friends of Alec’s no longer with us. History made easy to read, with a chapter on the Alvis interlude and foreword by Karl Ludvigsen. Outstanding, amusing, complete.

***

Blitzen at Goodwood

It was good that DaimlerChrysler had its Blitzen Benz running at the Goodwood Festival. It must be the one in which John Duff went over the top of the Brooklands banking in 1922, resulting in criticism from Horace Barlow, the flamboyant regular driver of the 21-1/2-litre monster. Duff was defended by several famous drivers, the correspondence published in Haynes’ book on the giant Brooklands cars.

After the accident the Benz was acquired by the Mercedes Museum in Stuttgart and refurbished. It is the car with which Hornsted had taken the LSR in 1914 at 124mph. Before his crash Duff had lapped the Weybridge track at 114.4mph.

After Goodwood the car was displayed in the foyer of the RAC Club in Pall Mall, and I assume it will form one of DaimlerChrysler’s Brooklands exhibits.

***

Speed needn’t kill…

‘Speed kills’ is a much-used slogan in the prevailing war on road-users. Yet we know that speed under the right circumstances is not dangerous.

PC Mark Milton was timed at 159mph in a police patrol car on the deserted M54. That he was acquitted by Ludlow Magistrates’ Court endorses that such speed need not be dangerous. Judge Morgan heard that the PC had done 120mph in a 60 zone but accepted that on the 159 stint he was familiarising himself with his new car. It was emphasised that Milton was trained in advanced driving. The Judge commented that he “found it ironic that the case had been brought by the very people who purchase cars that go at this speed and who paid for the defendant to be taught to drive at such speeds”.

So safe speed was exonerated. I am left wondering whether training to chase criminals might be better taught on winding roads or at race circuits than on a motorway. TV films of such chases seem to me to prove how dangerous they can be. Indeed, one innocent member of the public was killed when her car was swiped by a crime-chasing police car.

So while it was excellent to find a sensible judge accepting that speed is safe under certain circumstances, will this annoy those convicted of exceeding limits by a few mph after being caught by the miserable money-earning cameras?

PC Milton was backed by two police officers who did not accept his speed as dangerous. Unlike Rospa, which, of course, was shocked by it. The fact is that speed in the right circumstances has now been legally accepted. So those who can afford these ultra-quick cars can buy them with clear consciences, but should perhaps be discreet about when and where they extend them.

***

Obituaries

I was profoundly shocked to hear that Jack J A Williamson had died, at the age of 92. He will always be remembered as the restorer of the 1923 10-1/2-litre Delage after Cecil Clutton had crashed it when it caught fire during a race, and it was Jack who looked after and raced both it and the 1908 GP Itala after Clutton was not there to continue winning with these exciting cars, as did Jack’s son ‘Jonty’ in later times. Equally well known and successful was Jack’s 3 / 4-1/2 Bentley, driven in the true spirit of a typical vintage car enthusiast. To Jack’s wife Babs and to his son go our sincere condolences.

Another remarkable character, William Dale, has passed away. aged 85. He owned various vintage Bentleys, such as the No19  3-litre which he kept for 35 years, and an open 6-1/2-litre. He was responsible for the memorial at Silverstone to L C Mackenzie, creator of many memorable vintage Bentleys, especially Forrest Lycett’s wonderful 8-litre. Dale was chairman of the Scottish Region of the BDC. Our sympathies to his wife Rosemary and his band of traditional jazz players.

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