A dramatic retirement
Pity the Brooklands bookies after this 1923 contest, when both the favourites retired with unexplained maladies
There have been many such occurrences along the years, but the retirement I recall as being singularly dramatic occurred in the Junior Car Club’s 200-mile contest of 1923. This was the first outstanding event to be held at Brooklands after WWI with entries from top racing teams with leading drivers, the 1921 race won by Segrave and 1922 by K Lee Guinness, both with Talbot-Darracqs, respectively at 88.82mph and 88.06mph. They were absent in 1923 but, more exciting, Fiat entered two of their latest supercharged cars, Malcolm Campbell to drive one of them with his great knowledge of Brooklands and hopefully to be noticed by those about to buy a new car, and their team driver Carlo Salamano the other. Whether prompted from Wembley or Turin, this was an official Fiat entry of their fast racing cars, which were expected to be far quicker than the rest of the runners.
Most of the spectators must have had their eyes on these Fiats. But drama was soon to follow. On lap 11 of this 73-lap outer-circuit event Salamano’s car stopped on the very outside of the Track, opposite the starting line, his Fiat presumably seized up, so that Salamano could not move it. How it was retrieved with the race in progress was never reported. Then the drama intensified as Campbell’s Fiat came into its pit on lap 12. He began to get out, shouting “Finished”, but was told to try again. He revved the engine but it was obviously useless. Had the two Fiats been opened up too soon, before the oil was warm, or did their drivers over-rev them to 4200rpm, or were the axle ratios too low for track racing? Their bonnets were shut and they were quickly moved away, the retirements never explained.
C M Harvey went on to win at the very impressive speed of 93.29mph in an Alvis based very largely on the recently introduced sports 12/50 sports car which was to become one of the most desirable cars then, and still is.
Long afterwards I was at Fiat’s wonderful Centro Historico museum in Turin and I asked its curator if he would tell me, in confidence if necessary, the reason for those dramatic 1923 retirements. To my surprise he declared that Fiat had never raced officially in England. However, there was a library attached to the Museum and I took down The Autocar for 1923 from the shelf and showed him the 200-mile race report. He said nothing.
Bleriot forges a European union – a century ago
One hundred years ago, on July 25, 1909, the first successful Channel crossing was made by air, Louis Bleriot having won the Daily Mail’s £1000 prize. These adventures were no doubt regarded by most people as mad young men with their ridiculous flying machines. It wasn’t that easy. Monsieur Latham had failed in two attempts, the second because his engine stopped when he was within sight of Dover.
It was Monsieur Louis Bleriot who managed the first crossing successfully in his Bleriot No11 monoplane with a 25hp three-cylinder Anzani radial engine. He was faster than the destroyer Escopette which was intended to escort him, with Madame Bleriot on board. He was lost for a while (he had no compass) and so he flew straight on until the cliffs of Dover appeared. Not seeing the flag signal of Le Matin he put down in Northfall meadow near Dover Castle, after flying 31 miles at about 45mph at 150-300 feet, having left Barraques at 4.20 and landing at 5.20 French time. Marconi Wireless sent messages of the flight to Dover.
The landing broke the Bleriot’s propeller and damaged part of the fuselage. The only person to see Bleriot land was a policeman, PC Standford, who had never before seen an aeroplane. Thus the large assembly of people waiting to greet Bleriot had to hasten to find him.
He was taken to the Savoy Hotel for a celebratory dinner presided over by Lord Northcliffe, who sat with Bleriot in an open car on the way from the station. The Hon C S Rolls, who was killed in a flying accident the following year, was also present. As the famous pilot had no evening clothes – he was still wearing a cork jacket and overalls, nor had Madame Bleriot packed any, he had to be provided with suitable attire by a titled guest who held the Legion d’Honneur. During dinner a telegram from France informed Bleriot that he was also to be given this distinction.
Bleriot was booked to return to France that night and had to leave early to catch the last train and boat home. The now famous aeroplane was quickly put on display at Selfridges’ department store in Oxford Street. Various other lunches and dinners were held to celebrate this historic flight, such as the one by the Bleriot Lamp Company at the Ritz.
Disappearing into the sunset
The news that Haynes is publishing a complete history of the 750 Motor Club which I started reminds me of an amusing day at the Club’s first trial. It was in Kent and I was then living in London and wanted to compete with my Austin Seven Chummy, but the dynamo was not charging and I had only one battery.
I set off alone and tackled some of the hills. Late in the day there was a brake test on a steep downhill road when we had to halt between two closely placed lines. My aged Seven was unable to stop and it was getting dark so the astonished marshals had the unexpected sight of their Founder failing to stop at the test – or at all. I just waved goodbye and turned right and out of sight, as that was the way home and I was fearful that the battery would fail to light the car’s lamps long before reaching London. In fact it expired a few yards from where I kept the Austin and it was easy to push it there. Later the aged Chummy was given a four-speed A7 gearbox installed by my ever-helpful friend Tom Lush, not by the ugly method of moving the radiator forward and extending the bonnet but by shortening the propeller shaft.
Whereas I had previously incurred the dislike of racing drivers after racing at the Crystal Palace circuit because my A7 wouldn’t take the steep exit slope without a push and so delayed their massive transporters, I was now able to leave without stopping traffic. The modification had also converted this vintage Chummy into a not too bad trials car.
Free and easy days at the Track
Where has all the freedom gone? In the 1920s my war-widowed mother and her sister wanted a trip to the country and hired a white Armstrong-Siddeley 14 saloon with a young driver. I suggested that the Surrey countryside was nice around Weybridge – and there was Brooklands Track!
I suggested a drive round it, the driver was willing, so we paid the 10/- fee. The driver was told to keep close to the left and if he needed to stop only to do so in one of the bays. Also never, ever to turn round but always to keep to the anti-clockwise direction. Alas, within a few yards the Armstrong-Siddeley had a puncture and the driver had to stop in the nearest bay. Practice was in full swing. But suppose the ladies had crossed the Track to pick flowers or that I had gone too far out photographing the racing cars with my folding Kodak, successor to a Box Brownie. (The Rolleiflex came years later and was too big for the cubbyholes of many test cars.) Back to that day in the country: we survived. Where has all the freedom gone?
I was very honoured recently to receive the Tom Wheatcroft Lifetime Achievement Award for contributions to motor racing. Former recipients are Murray Walker OBE, Prof Sid Watkins OBE, Jean Todt, Bernie Ecclestone, Prof Jurgen Hubbert, Sir Stirling Moss OBE and Sir Frank Williams OBE.
A group of steam car owners has joined the National Steam Car Association, affiliated to the National Traction Engine Trust. Details from Sally Ann Dod, on 07970 721876. This reminds me of when I went on the annual London-Brighton Veteran Car Run on a 1900 Serpollet steam car, which on the way used eight gallons of heating fuel and 35 gallons of water…