Extract from the Brabazon Story - On the Ground
By Lord Brabazon of
Tara G.B.E., M.C., P.C. - Published by William Heinemann - 1956
By Lord Brabazon of Tara G.B.E., M.C., P.C. - Published by William Heinemann - 1956
Harrow - Parents - Cambridge - Apprenticeship to motoring - France - Tara - Charlie Rolls - Racing - The Circuit des Ardennes of 1907 - Austin - Warwick Wright - I meet my wife
ONE day in 1900, when I was a schoolboy at Harrow, I heard that the entrants in the great 1000 miles motor trials were to pass by. I deliberately cut school in order to walk over and see, in a cloud of dust which somewhat spoiled the sight, those heroic figures on their fascinating machines. I can see them now and could name them all if they passed by me again. I don't know why the advent of the motorcar excited me so much as a small boy, but I do know that I thought and dreamed of little else.
I was rewarded for this adventure of cutting school, which later I could not justify before my Housemaster - with five hundred lines in Greek. What astonishes me now is that I did not put up a better case to justify my mutinous action. But I was very young; and although I was very fond of my Housemaster, H. 0. D. Davidson, I was also very frightened of him. What effect, I wonder, would it have had upon him if I had addressed him as I could now? I should probably have been sent up to the Headmaster and swiped for impertinence. I was probably wiser than I know. But this disaster and believe me it seemed at the time a disaster of the first magnitude - taught me a lesson I have never forgotten. If you ever intend to break a rule or regulation, never ask first if you can do it. Break it. If you ask first you are practically committing two offences instead of one.
I saw my first accident at Harrow. I was coming back from the station after a visit by my parents when to my joy I saw a motor wagonette coming down Grove Hill. The driver, one Sewell, put his brakes on too quickly and the spokes ripped right out of the wheels and the car capsized, right beside me, killing the driver and knocking the four other occupants about very badly. People were afraid to come near as they thought the car would blow up - a characteristic that motors were supposed to possess in those days. You can guess with what pride it was that I turned off the burners of the ignition and stopped the engine.
This accident impressed all the boys very much, myself included, and most of them took the view that motors were very dangerous and that it was silly to drive them. I very bravely stuck up for them, but was frowned on as being rather a half-wit for not seeing the light in the obvious way.
I gave a lecture on motorcars before the school scientific society and only wish I had a transcript of that lecture now. It is a treasure lost to the world. But I do remember one thing about it even now, and that was trying to explain the function and working of a differential. If anyone ever asks you this question, turn the conversation instantly or you will land yourself in a veritable bog of difficulty, however well you know the answer. If you don't believe me, try explaining this bit of mechanism to the inquisitive modern child, whose baffling questions ("Which do you like best, Mummy Thursday or chocolate?") always leave me with mouth agape and eternal in my admiration for the mothers who daily face hundreds of such conundrums.
While on the subject of parents I must mention my father. He went out as a cadet to the East India Company and spent thirty years in India. He married late and I was not born till he was sixty. So it will be apparent that although I was devoted to him all my life he could not really share in any of my activities, or indeed in the hopes and probabilities of the changing world.
His mother lived in Seville Street, near Lowndes Square, and every Sunday the family paid court to her. She was a most remarkable woman who ruled like a queen over her children and grandchildren. I remember that one day, before the whole gathering, she presented my father with a copybook and told him to fill it by the following week. He was seventy-two at the time, and although his handwriting was execrable - even worse than mine, which is saying a lot - I had grave doubts whether this expedient would be efficacious.
My father, like most of his generation, did not 'hold' with motor cars - whatever that may mean; but one day when he was eighty he asked me to drive him down to see Bushey Park on Chestnut Sunday. He had loved it in the past and wished to see it again.
This was a tremendous honour. I had the loan of a fourteen h.p. Renault two-seater. We were living in Cranley Gardens at the time, and off we went down the Fulham Road. We hadn't gone a quarter of a mile when a hansom cab pulled across the road from behind a bus which was overtaking something, straight across my path to go down a side turning. With an adroitness, which I still admire, I swerved, crouched under the horse's head as it loomed above me, drove between a lamp-post and the railings of a house and eventually got back on the road again. An interval of five minutes passed during which we drove on. Then my father turned to me and said:
"Ivon *, will there be many incidents like that? Frankly, I find them very alarming."
'Alarming' - a lovely word. Frankly, I go hot and cold as I think of the incident today.
Having neglected to learn Greek, but wishing nevertheless to go to Cambridge, I had to go to a crammer for a term.* In my family, although not christened so, I have always been Ivon. There I had my first motor-bicycle. I never loved anything so much. And the models I tried! The Werner with its motor near the handlebars, which was nearly impossible to ride on a skiddy road; the Singer that had its motor inside the back wheel, a triumph of ingenuity, not unlike the Cyclemaster of today. I knew them all. The Singer I shall never forget, for I broke its only control, which emerged from the back axle, as I was mounting outside Haywards Heath Station. I was already mounted and could do nothing but sail away through the town towards what appeared to be certain death. However, I made for the nearest hill and, slowing by the brakes through the traffic, managed to stop her. But I lost about a stone in pure fear.
A singular thing happened when I went up to Cambridge. I had learnt half the Greek books very thoroughly by heart so as to know at least that part really well. I entered for the Matriculation and the 'Little Go'. To my horror there was not a single question from my half of the book in the Matriculation and I sent up a blank paper. In the 'Little Go', however, I was all right. Now the 'Little Go' was harder than the Matriculation and if you passed it you got excused the other. The result was that by the same post my astonished parents received two letters, one of which said that as I had failed the Matriculation I could not go up, while the other said that as I had passed the 'Little Go' I need not take the Matriculation. All very confusing for them, poor lambs.
I loved Cambridge, but I never meant to be there for more than a year. I studied engineering under Sir James Ewing but can't say I ever came in touch with him. However, we started the first motor club: Lionel de Rothschild was up at the same time and used to take me out in a car called a 'New Orleans'. It was absolute bliss. I am sure, and I know, that Lionel did many kinder actions than this in his life; but he never gave greater pleasure to anyone, because it was not possible.
To this day I am not sure if I did the right thing in leaving Cambridge so soon. A degree in science would have been an advantage all my life, but I was so keen to get into the motor world that I arranged with my friend, Colonel Rawlinson, the great polo player, who was a director of Darracq's, to go into their works at Suresnes in Paris.
Here I turned up at seven in the morning and worked all day in wooden sabots at the bench. Very uncomfortable they were on the hard concrete, but warm; but one was not very mobile. They had no apprentices at Darracq's and could not make me out at all. It did not matter what they made me do, however - it was all a joy. For one solid week I did nothing but put tyres on new cars. Gosh! Levering those beaded - edge tyres over the rims! I can assure you that what I did not know about putting tyres on was not worth knowing.
The French workmen were exceedingly kind to me. The English were not very popular at that time - 1904 - but at no time were they anything but helpful and considerate. Never was a political question raised, though as I lunched and fed with them every day at the local restaurant there was plenty of opportunity to 'get at' me.
Eventually I got into the racing sheds. Engines were not tested on the bench: the car was assembled, jacked up and run in the shops. I had charge of twenty and occasionally had to change speed, race the engine and then get it ticking over, and so on. Hemery, the great racing driver, was in charge, and when one day I had a six-cylinder that would keep missing in one cylinder I reported it to him and told him everything I had done to put it right. He listened attentively, took the main jet out, opened it a tiny bit with a reamer, and - all was well. A masterly diagnosis. I had the most profound respect for Hemery - not only as a wonderful driver but also as one of the supreme racing mechanics.
Darracq made superb racing cars. I was put under the care of Wagner, one of the fastest daredevil drivers who ever handled a wheel. I bottle-washed for him - willingly, too, for to me he was a hero.
One day he signed to me to get up on one of the cars and off we went. I sat, of course, on the floor on a piece of sacking, as was correct for a mechanic. I don't know whether it occurred to him to frighten me, but I shall never forget the gyrations he made that car perform - including two complete turns in the dust. But I had such complete trust in him that the more extraordinary the gyrations he performed the happier I was - except for the appallingly uncomfortable seat. But these were the days of improvisation; if something occurred you had to do your best with whatever was available. So when we came to a village I signalled Wagner to stop. I had spied in a baker's shop some of those French loaves that measure about four feet. I bought two, stuffed them into my sack, and thereby made a tolerable cushion. Wagner was delighted and showed it round on our return. We were friends for life.
There was a business side to these happy days in Paris too. I discovered that the second-hand price for Renaults was very high in Paris and low in England, whereas the price of second-hand Panhards was high in London, cheap in Paris. I arranged with a friend that he should buy Renaults in England and ship them across while I would at the same time ship him a Panhard. This was my weekend amusement, and it was very profitable as well as being pure joy driving so many different cars.
But I also got into trouble with my driving, and it came about this way.
I was saying good-night to a very old friend I had taken home when a gendarme accosted me in the politest way and informed me:
(1) That I had driven too fast;
(2) That I had not stopped when told to (I had seen nothing);
(3) That I had not a permis to drive; and (4) that I had no plaque d'identite on the car. Monsieur would be summoned.
Monsieur was indeed summoned. On the day I should have appeared, however, I had to go to England, so I got a lawyer to look after my case. I don't know what he said or did, but on my return I was informed I had been fined 250 francs and been given two days of prison. Boiling with fury at this savage sentence I naturally appealed. Nothing happened for a month or two, then I was bidden attend the court. I had had rather a beefy evening the night before and was so late up I had to go without breakfast; but on arrival I found a case going on in which a type of crime passionel was being decided and everyone was a bit on edge. However, eventually my case came on. The court was most impressive, and the three judges in black robes looked rather like inquisitors. I was asked to explain. I did. One of the judges asked if I was English. This does not sound funny, nor is it a compliment to my French, but after the former rather tense trial the whole court rocked with laughter - to the great annoyance of the judges.
I got a very severe lecture, my fine was increased to 500 francs and the two days in prison stood. I felt very down - hearted. Two days in prison with no breakfast was a poor lookout. I tried to press 500 francs into the hands of various people, but it seemed to be no one's business to receive it. I waited to be taken to the cells, but again no one took the smallest interest in me. Thinking it best to have a meal, I left and went to my digs. Days passed. I imagined every policeman I saw was about to arrest me, but nothing happened. Weeks went by and eventually I left Paris and moved to London. There I received a slip one day telling me to present myself on a certain day to pay my fine and do two days in prison. I wrote back to say I really couldn't come over to Paris just to do two days of prison, but thought I might be in Paris in the autumn, when I would come along. Another chit arrived - "Present yourself on October 1st". I replied that I could not guarantee the date. This time a letter came telling me to ask for a pardon. This I did, but my letter was returned - I had asked the wrong man. I was told whom to address and tried again. To this day I have had no answer, but the fact remains that I have never paid my fine nor done my two days in prison.
At that time in Paris my father was sending me an allowance which I duly expended on extravagant living at the beginning of the month, with the result that during the last few days of the month I had very little to subsist on. However, I found that chestnuts as a food can be extremely nourishing and extraordinarily cheap, and I have spent many days in Paris with no other food. It is surprising that I still look upon chestnuts with favour.
I had one great piece of fortune. One Sunday I was in the Elysee Palace Hotel when I met an American who had been at Harrow with me. He was living in Paris with a lot of other young men of wealth from America, and he insisted that I go to the races at Auteuil. I could ill afford this luxury, but went. In the first race there was a horse called Tara and I put my modest ten francs on this horse - which won at one hundred and fifty to one. At the end of the day I had made f150! With wisdom far beyond my age I entertained my friend and all his friends to a tremendous party that night. It was money well spent, for I was entertained many times afterward by them and gathered round me a lot of dear friends; and it all came about because of that horse called Tara - which I feel is sufficient justification here to say something of my ancestral home.
Tara Hall, on the slopes of Tara Hill in County Meath - about seventeen miles north of Dublin - came into our family through a granddaughter of the Seventh Earl of Meath, one Barbara, who married a Moore. The name Brabazon was added to Moore by Sign Manual and leave granted to bear the Brabazon arms.
My grandfather let the Hall on one of those curious Irish leases in which no term of years was named but the lives of two people were mentioned, and as long as they lived the lease ran on. My father was unable to trace whether these two people were alive or dead, so he practically had to buy the place back. On the death of my father my elder brother lived there. Then the Irish Government claimed the land under the Irish Land Act. As my brother had no children it was arranged that although most of the land was taken I should come in as incoming tenant, with about sixty acres round the house. I then became the owner. Actually I did this because I thought my brother wanted to live there, but no sooner had I done it than he decided to quit Ireland. The place then became uninhabited and soon uninhabitable. I later sold it and the house was pulled down, thus saving rates.
What am I to say of Tara? No place is so rich in legends. The fashion now is to discount everything as myth – mainly because no newspaper files can be found to substantiate happenings of two thousand years ago. But let me enumerate some of Tara's claims. First of all, it was the place where the Irish Kings were crowned; and it was to this hill that the sacred stone of destiny was brought from Israel by Jeremiah, and it remained there a thousand years until taken to Scotland. Jeremiah brought with him Tamar, one of the two daughters of Hezekiah, the last King of Israel, after Nebuchadnezzar had slain the King's two sons and then put out his eyes. Tamar married the King of Ireland, Hereman, and it was through this marriage and the migration of the King of Ireland to Scotland that our present royal family can claim to be descended from the royal house of David.
There is also the legend that the Ark of the Covenant was brought away from Judaea by Jeremiah, as it was not in the catalogue of spoils taken by Nebuchadnezzar, which is strange. But it would have been awkward luggage and may have been hidden in the hills around Jerusalem.
People are very sceptical today of anything that cannot be proved by actual relics, but they forget that over two thousand years much digging and pillaging must have taken place before such activities became respectable under the name of archaeology.
Tara Hall was not really very old as a house, but it was on the site where much Irish history has been made.
To get back to Paris in the early days of this century. I must tell you a story about something that happened in the Elysee Palace Hotel, which was the great hotel of the time. I used to wander in there on Sundays and have tea and got to know the second head-waiters quite well, and have often met them again in later life in the most distinguished hotels in the world. They are now my good friends.
One day I was there playing billiards. An American challenged me and we had a game. He asked me if I was doing anything that night and on hearing that I wasn't suggested that we might dine together. We went to the great Maxime's, which at that time was very different from what it is now, for there were many lovely ladies waiting to be entertained by anyone who should so wish. My friend took a sudden and violent liking for one of these ladies and asked me if I had any money on me. I said I had a thousand francs and he asked me if I would lend it to him - which I did. Now, this may not sound like very much today, but in those days a thousand francs was ^40, and for me it was meant to last for a long time. However, I liked the man and lent him the money, and both of us conversed with this lovely creature he'd set his heart on, and then I went home.
I never saw the man again, and I told myself I'd been a fool and had a confidence trick played on me.
However, in the back of my mind I did not believe this; I had a feeling that something had happened. When Sunday came I went again to the hotel. Somebody came up to me and tapped me on the shoulder and asked me if I often came there. I said I did and was then asked if I had met a man, who was described, and whether he had taken money off me. This was a rather difficult question, for the man questioning me was obviously a detective, and I didn't want to get my American friend into trouble even though he had perhaps swindled me; so I was very cagey about answering, but admitted that I had dined with him at Maxime's. Then I sought advice from a great friend of mine in the hotel, a man named De Kempt, who looked after the billiard room. I told him what had happened and he confirmed that my questioner certainly was a private detective and that I had better tell him everything. Bowing to this advice, I found the detective again and told him everything, including the fact that I had lent the American the thousand francs; but, I insisted, I did not want any action taken in the matter. Thereupon the detective produced a thousand francs and gave it to me.
The explanation was this: when my friend, whose name was Calhoun, got back to the hotel that previous Sunday he had discovered an urgent summons to return to America waiting for him and had had to leave the very next day. He was worried about the money and, not seeing how to repay it - for he did not know where I lived - had employed the private detective to trace me at the hotel and give me back my money. I was never able to thank him, for I did not see him again; but I was pleased that I had not misjudged his character.
Motor-racing was the great ambition of my life in these days and I never missed an opportunity of driving a car in a race.
While at Cambridge I had spent my holidays as a mechanic to Charles Rolls, who became my greatest friend, and whose association with the great Royce carried their two names throughout the world as exemplifying all that was best in automobile engineering.
Although Charlie failed to be chosen as representative in the English team for the Gordon-Bennett race in Ireland in 1903, we took a Mors car over there to race in the various speed trials they were to have up and down the country in conjunction with the great race.
This car had cylinders like tubs: 185 mm. by 150-mm. stroke sounds rather frightening. On present-day rating that would be something like 130 h.p. and thirteen and a hall litres. I suppose it gave about no h.p., but it was very slow turning and had a low-tension magneto in which you had to set the timing by hitting the make-and-break tappet in the engine with a hammer. She was streamlined by the standards of those days and could do about ninety. The best show we put up was to win a trial at Castlewellan in County Down, where in order to keep the wheels well down on the ground and to prevent wheel-slip I arranged to sit right aft and hold on with ropes. The roads were bumpy, and before we had gone a mile I bumped right through the back tank - which held a reserve of water for cooling the radiator. I shall never forget the rest of that run, for most of the time I was sitting in boiling water, hanging on for dear life!
Charlie Rolls was the strangest of men and one of the most lovable. He was tall and rather thin, and his eyes stood out of their sockets rather more than is normal. He was rather fond of a Norfolk jacket - a thing you seldom see nowadays - and always wore a very high, stiff, white collar. He'd look a bit odd today, but at that time this kit was in no way absurd. While motoring he would turn his cap back to front.
He was greatly imaginative, almost prophetic, possessing a very sound knowledge of mechanics. He was of course a very good driver, and early inculcated in me the maxim that the first thing a driver had to do in a race was to concentrate on getting the car home. Nothing else was so important as to finish. Wise words, and no one was better at carrying out his own advice than Charlie Rolls. He had a wonderful sympathy with machinery - 'hands' I suppose one would call it in horsey language.
Away from his own subjects he never tried to take part in a conversation, but he had many subjects and was clever at turning the conversation along his chosen line. He did not suffer fools gladly and his sense of humour was rather crude - rather like that of the Japanese, who roar with laughter when someone trips over a carpet and nearly breaks his neck. Subtleties and sly digs passed right over him, and he was always a bit aloof, for he was not a good mixer; but to his real friends, who were few, he was a good companion if you were both interested in the same thing. Incidentally, he was a snob too: the way he used his superb powers of salesmanship to float early Rolls-Royce cars on the aristocracy of England left every other firm an 'also ran'.
Hives, the present head of Rolls Royce, once worked for him in a garage - which, incidentally, is still owned by the firm - in Lillie Road, Earls Court. I also worked in that same garage often, and I sometimes wonder what Rolls's reaction would have been if I had told him that one day Hives and I would become Peers of the Realm.
Really, Charlie Rolls's only serious fault - if it can be called that - was extreme parsimony. He simply hated spending money. I remember coming back one day from Paris after seeing one of the early shows. He was travelling second-class and his friends urged him to join them in the first-class. He refused in a chaffing way, then they said they would pay the difference. Would you believe it? - he accepted, and we all had to cough up in proportion. I need hardly say that he was better off than any of us.
When in Ireland racing the Mors we often slept under the car on the road, under the pretext that there was no accommodation. True, there was no first-class accommodation, but certainly better than that. It was just an excuse to avoid an hotel bill. It didn't worry me, I could sleep, then as now, anywhere, but the droppings of oil and dirt from a racing car during the night do not improve one's early morning appearance.
His lack of consideration for his friends was extraordinary. Remember, I was never paid a sixpence for working for him - in fact I paid my own expenses to the last farthing. And I loved it. To give an example: a friend asked him in Ireland if he would mind his 'man' (me!) sending a telegram for him. "Certainly," said Charlie. Off I trudged in the hot sun for two miles, to be rewarded with sixpence. That night at a ceremonial dinner I had the luck to sit next to this man, who was in. fact quite a pleasant cove. As we parted I said, "Next time you get Charlie to send me two miles on a hot walk to send your telegram, now I know you, I shall do it for nothing." It was a bit cruel, but he deserved it.
During the Gordon-Bennett race in Ireland we had the big Mors for speed trials only; Charlie was not in the race. But of course he got into all the swagger enclosures. Never did he think of me. Something had to be done about it. I went wherever I wished whenever I wished by the very simple ruse of wearing overalls and carrying a pail of water. Only once was I challenged. What was I doing with that pail of water? "Governor," I replied, "it may be to put out a fire or it may be to drink, but they want it." A little friendly abuse and I was in.
When displeased, Charlie indulged in heavy abusive sarcasm. It was so crude as to amuse me. Rather like a Clydesdale trying to be kittenish. Even at that early age, in a wise-cracking argument of abuse, I could have given him a stone and a furlong, but I would not have hurt him for anything.
On our way back from Wales one day in a big Panhard, dark came on and we had to light the lamps. Neither of us had a match to light the oil-lamps at the side or the acetylene head-lights. We looked pretty good fools, and I got such a telling off that for ever afterwards I have endeavoured to carry fire in one way or another. However, motoring was in those days very dependent on improvisation. I told him to stop the engine, then I got some cotton waste, undid a sparking-plug, switched on and turned the engine. The spark did the trick: we had a fire. Charlie was delighted. I might have performed a miracle of conjuring, he chortled so with delight. We got to London late, for we'd come all the way from Wales and had had to cope with all the troubles of early cars. I lived in Cranley Gardens, he at South Lodge. It would have been a quarter of a mile out of his way to take me home; but he didn't - I had to take a cab from High Street, Kensington!
He always appealed to me, though I was younger by several years, as a rather lonely figure who had been starved of real love. He was my hero. I would not have hurt him for anything in the world. I took it all and grinned, for I loved the man.
His imaginative vision on mechanical things was arresting. On all subjects he had ideas. He had original views on diet, eating the strangest things and refusing the ordinary. He once advanced the theory to me that if you eat only things that are wholly digestible you can live quite happily and healthily in a permanent state of constipation. What the advantage was I cannot now remember, but I suppose it is theoretically true.
As a member of the Motor Volunteers Charlie was once asked to take the Duke of Connaught out to a review or some such thing, starting, I remember, from Folkestone. I was to accompany them as mechanic and chauffeur. I rallied round, complete with yachting cap as worn in those days. The car was a small two-cylinder four-seater, which was new to me. He explained that it was a car he had had built with a friend and that he thought very highly of it. It struck me as quite a sweet little thing, but it was very difficult to change speeds quietly.
This was the first Rolls Royce. Years afterwards, when in Sidgreaves's office in the Rolls works at Derby, I saw at the end of the room an immense photograph of Charlie driving this car with the Duke at his side and, holding the starting handle, a fierce-looking ruffian. I asked Sidgreaves if he knew who it was. He didn't, and I somewhat surprised him by telling him it was me.
S. F. Edge, who at that time was a representative of the makers of that grand car the Napier, did most to popularise the advent of the six-cylinder engine, and after he had done it Rolls made practically nothing else and swept the board. Charlie won the Tourist Trophy race, however, on a Rolls with a four-cylinder engine.
It is sad to think of the great cars that have made history and of which the modern generation has never even heard. There was first of all the great Mors, which used to win most of the early races, including the great Paris-Madrid; then the Napier that first won for England the Gordon-Bennett race; then the C.G.V. and the Richard-Brasier that had such a wonderful run of success with Thery at the wheel.
The French were the great pioneers in motor-racing and the cars best known were, in the heavy class, Panhard, Mors and Dietrich; in the light class, Darracq and Renault. Marcel and Louis used to drive the latter, always winning everything in the light car class. In the heavies, however, there was always the German competitor known as the Daimler, Mr. Jellenic being the agent for this car. He called the car after his daughter Mercedes, and the name has stuck to it ever since. It was always ahead in design, and among the things that were introduced before anybody else thought of them were the honeycomb radiator, the gate change-speed, and the metal clutch. The whole of motor racing in the early days was indeed a struggle between the French school and the Mercedes.
When I was in Paris I persuaded Mors to lend me a car for the speed trials at Brighton, and this was the first time I ever drove a really big car myself. I must say I did not have much success, for my car suffered from a most curious air-lock which took me and my French mechanic a long time to correct. I also raced this car at the speed trials at Blackpool. She was a brute to start; we had to put an enormous box-spanner on the starting handle so that the two of us could get hold of it to wind. At the start of one of the races she backfired as we were winding and lifted us up and pushed us both very firmly into the crowd. My mechanic raced this car afterwards and held the five kilometre record at a speed of about ninety five m.p.h. For many years.
The early rules of racing were rather curious: one was that without water or petrol your car must weigh under 1,000 kilos, and into that you could cram anything you liked. Later the formula changed, but that was the original rule for the big classes and it had a very remarkable effect upon design, keeping everything light and encouraging the study of metallurgy in order to get power without weight. As one looks at modern engines one wonders why it was that one could not have thought of these things thirty years ago. But such engines were impossible, for there were no metals that would allow you to build such a thing and make it work.
Much of the advance in car design was due to racing in the early days. The racing car of one year became the touring car of the next, and that went on for many years until they were too expensive and high powered for the ordinary man. But there is still a great similarity in the design of cars. Even today many of them have the same kind of suspension that our grandfathers used in the dogcart. This side of cars has never been studied because of the early advent of the pneumatic tyre, but if the pneumatic tyre had come twenty years later suspension would have been studied very assiduously. It is only in recent times that such things as independent springing have been introduced.
There is one story of Panhard, which must be recorded. When he produced his first three and a half h.p. car he was rather ashamed of the change speed, which was indeed a copy of the change-speed of a lathe. He dismissed this with the famous words ^C'est brusque et brutal, mais ga marchef" It was indeed part of the motor-car that one would think would have been changed earlier than any other, but strangely enough it exists in eighty per cent of the cars built today.
Through the kindness of the Minerva Company of Antwerp, Mr. Citroen and Mr. De Yong asked me to drive a racing car constructed by them. The car was an odd one with a four-cylinder engine of eight litres; its maximum speed was about ninety-three m.p.h., and it had an enormous flywheel and clutch - so big in fact that it required an expert to change speed.
Mr. Locke King, with an imagination many years ahead of his time, and at great personal expense, had built the great Brooklands track, and with my Minerva I entered for the first two races on the first day. It was a tremendous occasion. The great Lord Lonsdale, with others, paraded round the track to start with, before we got down to real racing. My Minerva was pitted in the first race against more powerful cars, but the second one was a much easier proposition.
I got off in the first race very satisfactorily and found myself leading the field comfortably, but instead of driving quietly and just holding my lead I rather foolishly went ahead as hard as I could, with the result that I found myself half a lap - and that is a long way at Brooklands - ahead of anybody. Then suddenly, to my horror, one of the inlet valves broke and the engine caught fire. I had the presence of mind to turn the petrol off - just as I had that day at Harrow when I saw the wagonette capsize on Grove Hill and ran to help. I could already feel the intense heat seeping through to my legs. I jumped out and raised the bonnet with my gloved hands. The metal was already burning hot, and brilliant flames leapt up from the engine with an angry roar.
I was forced to stand by helplessly in the singeing heat and watch the fire burn itself out. There was nothing else to be done. There I was, on the other side of the track, absolutely broken down and unable to patch things up in time for the second race. It really was a tragedy, for on the first day at Brooklands the prizes were enormous - there wasn't one under £1,000 - and this first race was in my pocket. And if I could have won the first race I certainly could have won the second. However, I suppose I mustn't complain, because the fault that came out from this particular race - that is, a certain weakness in the inlet-valve arrangement of the car was put right, and putting it right enabled me later to win the great Circuit des Ardennes; and I must say that I would rather have won an international road race than any speed trial at Brooklands. So although it was a disappointment it was in the end for the best.
Although racing in many speed trials, I think the first time I took the wheel in a big road race was in the Kaiser Preis, the race held at Hamburg in 1907. This was for cars of eight-litres capacity and I was again on a Belgian Minerva. There were so many competitors we had to divide the race into two heats and a final. The whole of Germany was there - the Kaiser, the Crown Prince, everyone. We started at daybreak in the pouring rain, the cars being separated by intervals of two minutes. The rain poured down in a grey curtain and the surface of the road was oiled glass. Of course one had no windscreen in those days, and the rain just beat at you with the speed of your travel. You wore goggles which didn't help much, but which were necessary if you weren't to be blinded by the rain - and I remember mine were a special pair made of metal with very fine slits cut in them through which I had fair, but far from perfect, visibility. The standard kit for motoring when wholly exposed to the weather was what was called a "Poncho". This consisted of a sort of mackintosh bag, with of course two sleeves, but your head came through a hole in a rubber inset at the top. If the rubber round your neck did not throttle you, it kept the rain out, - altogether a stuffy horrible garment, but it was the standard kit of the time. Crowds on the road were a hazard. Always they would surge forward after a car had passed to see it disappear regardless of the fact that another might be just behind, chasing it. I remember passing the car being driven by Burton - this was a Lorner-Porsche - up a hill; then, coming to a long zigzag hill down into the valley, I was red-flagged, which meant that somebody was trying to pass me. To my consternation, I saw rushing down the hill after me in a most dangerous way—Burton's car. He slipped off the road at one of the hairpin corners and his car went rolling down the hill like a matchbox. I was terribly upset because I thought that disaster had overtaken him. However, I had to plug along; and as the road ran along the side of a river, and the river was very winding, it was most difficult to know whether the blind corners were severe or could be taken at speed. One of these corners had always deceived me to such an extent that one day while doing a practice drive I had stopped to slosh some white paint on the sides so that I should recognise it. I soon got on the track of an Argos—a German car painted white—but he would not let me pass. I was getting very annoyed, when suddenly the white splosh on the rocks flashed by. I put on every brake I had, but the driver of the Argos evidently did not know the corner. Off the road he went and fell about fifty feet plumb into the river. I staggered on, saying to myself that this really was too much, having four people killed in the first twenty minutes. However, I continued round the two circuits, and as I passed these particular spots on the second time round I saw all four people sitting at the side of the road smoking cigarettes! And with not a bruise between them.
I qualified for the final round on the second day, but unfortunately my engine seized up, due to a cock at the bottom of the sump being left open, which early put me out of the running. The race was won by Nazarro in a Fiat—a make that was designed by a genius and was a formidable opponent in all races around this time. They had three drivers who were superb—Nazarro, Lancia and Wagner; as good a three as,
I suppose, have ever driven a car. Lancia and Wagner used to start the speed so that everybody else would be broken up, then Nazarro would quietly come in and win. It is a long time since the Circuit des Ardennes of 1907, which I won, but I think I could recognise every pebble on the course, although I have never been round it since. I have always wanted to go again but have never succeeded in doing so.
Our team was: Algy (afterwards Sir Algernon) Lee Guinness, Warwick Wright, Koolhoven the Dutchman and myself. A cheery and very competent crowd of which I am now the only survivor.
The Circuit was about fifty miles. Circuits for motor races are only a few miles long today for the reason that it is impossible to keep the course safe and clear if it is very large. Certainly in the short circuit one sees the cars many times, but on the other hand it becomes impossible after a short time, without watching the board, to tell who is leading. With a long circuit, generally speaking, whoever arrived first at each lap was ahead.
Bastogne, very well known now because of the Second World War, is a sleepy little town, but it has a certain charm. Our practice took place at dawn. We waited just until we could drive without lights, then off we went, doing about four circuits before breakfast, i.e., about 230 miles. I was also driving in the touring-car race, and one day an old friend of mine, Pryce Harrison, arrived. He was to drive a Weigal car, but it had not yet arrived, and he asked me to show him the course. I said gladly that I would, and packed him into the touring car together with my chauffeur and Warwick Wright. It was a wet morning and a bit slippery. The car would do about seventy, and the course at that hour just after dawn was meant to be clear. But suddenly, as I rounded a bend in an avenue, I found myself faced with a road full of cows. Something had to be done, and done quickly. There were two animals straight ahead. I braked hard, swerved and hit the first animal with the right side of the car, swerved back and hit the second with the left side ofthe car. That over, I met the general mass by skidding sideways and butting the lot broadside on. We were still upright, but in a veritable shambles. The bag was eight cows dead, five killed and three had to be slaughtered on the spot. I always consider that an all-time record.
When I recounted that story to Jenatzy later on in the day he discounted the danger of the whole episode with the scathing words, "Ah, les vaches, elles sont si ilastiques!" Maybe, but you don't notice it when you meet them at sixty miles an hour.
To come back to Bastogne. After breakfast, the practice over, there was little to do and we started playing what at Harrow was known as 'Yarder' cricket. Everybody bowls with his own ball and whoever gets the batsman out goes in. The local inhabitants viewed this version of our national game with much disdain. However, some of the young and more daring started to join in. It was a little difficult to instruct them in the difference between bowling and throwing, and in fact we finally allowed throwing as it was too difficult to stop. We did make it a rigid rule, though, that the ball must be soft. It sounds ridiculous, but the game swept the town. Everyone joined in, first the youths and finally even the policeman, who became a good cricketer. After a time there was a queue of twenty-five people waiting to bowl!
The race itself was devoid of incident of any sort, either of accident or danger. The course was roughly three-cornered; two of the sides were fairly straight and the third was hilly with a good many turns. We did not start all together as is the modern custom; instead there was an interval of two minutes between each driver. The chief trouble during the race was of course tyres. We did not change wheels in those days, but actually changed the rims we had what were called detachable rims, and I think I changed eleven tyres in that race.
I still have a picture of Lee Guinness on the last lap by the side of the road putting on a tyre. Now, to put on a tyre you had to use a handle to screw the nuts on, and I was very interested because I could not remember after I passed him whether he was turning the nuts on or whether he was turning them off. It meant a great difference to me, because he had started after me and must have been ahead of me at the time. If he was tightening them up it meant that he was still ahead of me. If he was loosening them it looked as if I was probably ahead of him.
Another incident I recall was a struggle I had with Baron de Caters, a great Belgian sportsman and a very good friend of mine. He was driving a Belgian car, a Germain. In one of the laps, I think we had to do seven laps of about fifty miles each, we both passed the Tribunal absolutely abreast; then we went on and of course sometimes I was ahead and sometimes he was, according to how gradients suited our gearing and that sort of thing. But after the fifty miles we passed the finishing line during the next lap absolutely abreast again, so that we were given the identical time for the round. I think spectators thought we had been abreast the whole way round the circuit.
When I had completed the course I did not know that I had won. I knew I had done pretty well, because one gets signs from the pits as one passes the line, but after finishing I was directed to the weighing enclosure, where there were a lot of people and different cars kept arriving, but nobody quite knew who had won. I well remember sitting there rather anxiously but still rather proud of having done well, when Mr. De Yong, who was the boss of the Minerva Company, rushed up to me and kissed me on both cheeks and said I had won this gruelling race by twenty seconds, a near thing.
After winning the Circuit des Ardennes I was on top of the world from the point of view of racing drivers, and I was asked by many manufacturers to drive for them. I wanted to drive a British car, so when Edge asked me whether I would drive a Napier in the Grand Prix next year I consented.
Edge, though, was a most astonishing controversialist, and all the autumn of that year he was corresponding in the papers about the desirability of being allowed to change wheels instead of tyres on rims, which was then against the rules. He had, I think, the best car existing at the time, a big six-cylinder Napier, which had been tried out at Brooklands and was a formidable affair. Edge discovered, alas, that owing to the harsh things he had said in the correspondence the French Automobile Club were going to refuse his entry; so he never entered, and I was left without any car at all. Then I got a wire from Du Cros asking me if I would drive an Austin.
I cannot for the life of me recall exactly when or how I first met Herbert Austin. I think it was probably in 1903 when I was over there in connection with those eliminating trials I have already spoken of. The Wolseley firm had produced some low-lying green reptilian monsters with chains rushing about in all directions in their innards. Anyhow, I remember Charlie Rolls was eliminated although he did his damnedest on one of them, and if I remember aright the only one to be chosen to compete in the Gordon Bennett was that driven by Charles Jarrott. Austin, of course, had produced them.
He was rather older than I was and a big gun in the world. I was nineteen and dancing attendance on Charlie Rolls, but although now it seems great insolence I never addressed him by any other name but Pa, and I was Brab to him all his life. I don't know why I was instantly attracted to him, his dark clothes and bowler hat, his brusqueness and inability to suffer fools gladly, his directness, and the patent fact that stood out that he was a mechanic, nothing more nor less. All these characteristics probably endeared him to me. Then he became a Peer of the Realm and a great industrialist; but for me he always remained the lovable, enduring and curious character in charge of the cars. I always ragged him; but I don't think many others did. I don't think it would have paid to do so if you were in his employ.
At first he was astonished, then I think he realised it was because I was so fond of him that I teased him. Anyhow, I always made him laugh; not very easy sometimes, but as we both got older I am sure he kept a soft corner in his heart for me, for he had no more loyal admirer or friend.
I am sure Austin was right to get away from the Wolseley Company and start on his own, but it is curious how in the fullness of time the marque has returned to the folds of the company as it exists today. I never thought his products were breathtaking: rather, sound engineering jobs but not very exciting. But there appeared on the market in France a tiny car which gained some popularity, called the Baby Peugeot. Whether this inspired Austin or not will never now be known, but the Austin Seven was just a miracle car. It was entirely due to him, I am convinced, that it swept a world which was hungry for such a vehicle.
The Austin car I met in the spring of 1908 was not really a racing car at all, but a very fast tourer. The team consisted of myself, Warwick Wright and De Resta, and we used to practise near Dieppe at a place called Eu. We did 250 miles every morning before breakfast, but we weren't allowed on the course, which was very tiresome.
De Resta wrecked three cars, which annoyed Austin very much; for we had only five in all.
I remember very well the last accident De Resta had. We went along on our morning chase, separated by about a quarter of a mile, when, going round a bend, I met a dogcart with no driver. I smelt trouble. When I got round the corner I saw nothing in front of me; but there were two Frenchmen gesticulating and the car was turned upside down in a ditch. I stopped to investigate, and out of the mud emerged De Resta and his mechanic, entirely unhurt but extremely annoyed. As we were near the village the usual crowd sprang from nowhere, including the local gendarme. Being able to speak French I soothed everybody as much as possible; but while we were all celebrating our luck in the local estaminet Austin appeared, perfectly furious about the accident, and blaming everyone, including, for some obscure reason, the gendarme. The result of all this stirring up of trouble was that poor De Resta was eventually charged with dangerous driving, and had to go over and serve a month in prison after he had driven in the race. And it all need never have happened if Austin had not appeared on the scene in a rage.
In the Tourist Trophy race in 1907 I had gone as chauffeur to Warwick Wright, a good friend of mine, and without exception the most amusing companion I have ever had. I had driven the car he was competing in to second place in a race in Belgium called the Coupe de Liederkerke, and was not happy in leaving it altogether to others; and I always had the greatest confidence in Warwick's driving. No one was more cheery or competent to take charge of a car, and we spent a good deal of time practising on the course.
It was one of those races where you were given a certain amount of fuel and had to get home with it. One day as we were going fairly fast down a winding road on the course in the Isle of Man we failed to take the bend and just scraped the wall on the far side. I said to Warwick, "The wheel's not round," at which he got exceedingly annoyed. I was sitting on the floor of the car and could see the road wheel had not come round for the turn. He was under the impression that I was referring to the steering wheel! Anyway, there we left it and went on. The course climbs a great hill and then comes down a gentle slope where one really does the knots. To our horror, just when we were really going all out we quite gently went off the road and on to the hillside. The experience was a novel and exciting one, the uncontrollable drift towards what might well be a ditch or chasm or some other cause of certain death was for a second or so completely fascinating.
Actually at this point there was nothing more dangerous than a mild hillside—though without Warwick's skill in handling the car we could easily have upset. Warwick kept the car on all fours with great skill, and it was only after this that he understood our different terminology. The pin in the steering column had sheared and consequently the road wheels were not swivelling when the steering wheel was turned. It is as well to be explicit on these occasions: we had a near squeak. Anyway, it didn't really matter from the point of view of the race, for we could never have got home on the miserable amount of petrol they gave us.
The best mechanic I ever had was dear Charlie Lane, who is now the genial host of an hotel at Liphook. He was every bit as good a driver, and better, than I was, and the only one I would ever allow for a moment to drive the car allotted to me. He came with me in that Grand Prix of 1908 in which I was driving the Austin which, as I have said, was not fast enough for the class we were in. I suppose about ninety was our best top. The roads had been made dust-proof, and then the cars were allowed to circulate on them, with the result that the dust got into one's eyes and gave one hell.
Off we went, seventeenth on the list. We hadn't gone more than about ten miles when Willy Poege on a Mercedes came past us, a good thirty miles an hour faster. I got cut over the head with a stone thrown up off the road and Lane got his goggles smashed. Very enjoyable in the first five minutes! We really had a dreadful day. We repaired thirteen tyres and took the carburettor down seven times, for in some mysterious way water had got into it. On one of the straights I met one of the other Austins and we raced abreast for over ten miles. An extraordinary thing to do. Lane was never anything but cheery and bubbling with amusement the whole time, but towards the end of that very tiring drive of 480 miles we were almost blind. The tar had got into our eyes and we were in great pain and could scarcely see to drive. We were seized by attendants and rushed to hospital, where we found all our competitors in the same plight, some of them in great distress and writhing on the ground. However, we very soon got over it and felt no bad effects. With all our trouble, we had managed to average fifty-seven miles an hour and finish seventeenth, first of our team, which was not so bad. I always remember it as a pretty grim day apart from our minor troubles, for there was the tragedy of Cissac, in a Panhard. He had passed me, going about thirty miles an hour faster than I was, when he swerved off the road about a hundred yards ahead and went smack into a tree, killing himself and his mechanic instantly.
The race of mechanics is a strange one. Having been through it all, I know that as long as you learn a course together all is well and you feel no alarm; but take someone who is not familiar with the road as a passenger and let him be driven by a driver who does know it, and it will nearly kill him with fear. When I was practising for the Kaiser Preis, Warwick Wright asked me if I would take him round the course. This I proceeded to do, but on the far side he asked me to stop and said that he would rather get out and walk, as he could not stand it. Of course he thought that every blind corner was a dangerous one, while I knew them all; but I was unaware of the mental agony he was going through until he stopped me in the last stages of distress. I suppose it was even worse for him as he was such a very competent driver.
I remember a small Frenchman who was a very good and well-known mechanic. On the floor where he sat was a great knobbly parcel upon which, for some reason, he always delighted to sit. It was so mysterious that one day I had the temerity to ask him why he chose such an uncomfortable cushion to which he replied that it was the jack, and the most important thing for a mechanic was to know exactly where the jack was. He must certainly have been aware of its whereabouts! Strange creatures, but a fine race of men.
I had to take a racing car once from Antwerp to Hamburg. As I spoke English and French only I asked for a mechanic who could speak German. I was given a cove who had the remarkable and unusual gift of being able to hold a sparking-plug without getting shocked by it. Off we started on this somewhat long journey; then we lost our way and speech became necessary. Judge of my astonishment when I found that he could speak Flemish and German but no English or French. Four languages between us and not a word understandable! I am glad to record that the absurdity of it all struck him as well as me, and although we were not able to converse we had some good laughs. I tried to tell him that with his immunity from electric shocks he had a big future in a homicidal career in America, but alas he didn't understand a word.
There was, incidentally, a small golf course at Homburg where no hole is over fifty yards. The custodian knew I was a driver and stalked me one day to let off this remark, which it must have taken him some time to prepare. He said, "I opine that the Italians will succeed in this course as they negotiate the curves with accuracy coupled with precision." And he was right of course, for Nazarro did win it.
From what I have written about the early motor-car it will be obvious that it was first of all a complex engineering proposition. From there it shifted to a sport. There it remained a long time and it is on that side of it that I have dwelt, for to me it was the most interesting time. I don't say that today sport does not go on, far from it: it does, and nothing is more interesting than the great races that take place both here and abroad. But many years ago to go out in a motorcar at all was an adventure and a form of sport. If one broke down, someone, if there was anyone who passed in another car, would never think of going on till the trouble had been fixed or had given you a lift. In fact it was an understood thing with early motorists that they were a community rather disliked by the horsey element and had to stick together.
That has all passed. I well remember the triumph we thought we had reached when horse and mechanical traffic were equal in numbers. Today, motoring is to most people nothing but transportation. As long as the car plugs along and gets home it does its job that is all that is asked of it. One can see that in the host of small cars with no performance, as such, at all, which give every satisfaction to their owners. Mass production has put the enjoyment of mechanical transport into the hands of millions and it is well that it should be so, but to those who appreciate a real thoroughbred there is still joy in motoring apart from transportation.
The idea that motoring is the sport of the rich has never got away from the official mind. Whitehall still thinks in these terms. They still think that to bully the motorist is popular with a great number of voters. Taxes have been piled upon them in a way that is nothing short of intolerable, and although at one time these taxes went into a separate fund, they were soon jumped on by the Treasury and scooped up into the general Exchequer funds.
What is so sad about the whole policy adopted by successive Governments is the complete lack of imagination. We may laugh at our grandfathers with their side-whiskers and funny top hats, but they did at least have imagination. They constructed railways in every direction, whether they were wanted or not. Now we have lost all that spirit of progressiveness and cannot build a footpath in any direction. The result is that we have developed the motorcar as well as any other country so far as popularising it among the people is concerned; but we have left a series of roads completely unsuitable for cars to run on. And then the Ministry of Transport has the intolerable effrontery very often to put the blame for the appalling number of accidents on the shoulders of the motorist. It is often upon officialdom and the lack of imagination in the Treasury that the blood of so many victims rests, and it is high time that the point was driven home.
There are no longer two classes of citizens, motorists and pedestrians. We are one at one time and the other at another; and whether we are in a bus or on foot we demand such state facilities as are necessary to modern locomotion.
The idea that you should tax motorists off the road as there are too many and the number of accidents is due to them, is a very mistaken view but one that is growing in some official minds. Road transport lies at the basis of health and of cheap commodities and it is an entirely false policy to try to hinder its development. If road and rail could be made to co-operate it would be better for us all. There are a lot of hauls that go on the road that are legitimately those that should go by rail. Similarly, there is an enormous amount of passenger traffic of a suburban type that the railways should take off the roads, and would, if they were up-to-date and had electrified their lines to deal with the traffic. The Southern Railway, once the standard British joke, has given itself by electrification a suburban load to carry that will never be taken from it again by any road competition, and so it could be elsewhere.
To have grown up at the same time as the motorcar was lucky; but for me very especially. For it was through motoring that I met my future wife.
Hilda Krabbe was born in the Argentine, though she is English of Danish extraction. Her father I never met, for he had died at the early age of fifty. I always regret this, because although rather severe in outlook he must have been one of the most up-to-date and progressive men alive. In his estancia at La Coline he installed electric light, the telephone, and all the wonders that rushed upon the world, before anyone else. Hilda inherited these traits; and before I knew her she had a ten h.p. Panhard and drove it herself—complete with huge hat, anti-dust veil, etc. Through her brother I found out she wanted a twenty h.p. Renault. I had a chassis I had bought in France to sell in England, and we first met over the complicated business of deciding on the type of body for it, the colour, shape and upholstery and all the exciting things possible with a new car in the days before mass production. We have now been married forty-nine years and I still rank her a very good driver. Never, with her knowledge and experience, does she ever back-seat-drive, and I would never dare to do the same to her.
As I look back on life there are some things that quite astound me. That I should have found favour in her eyes is one, but that at the age of twenty-three I should have shown such wisdom as to ask her to face the great adventures of life hand in hand with me is almost a miracle.
So I count the early days of motoring particularly wonderful on all counts. Never could there have been a more interesting time. It brought about many changes socially, but still more in thought. Fifty years ago the conversation of the bulk of the jeunesse dor’e, or of any youth assembled together, was of hocks and spavins. Today it is of blown bugs and V.P. props. To me it has been a privilege to have been one of the first to be "weaned on petrol and fed on nuts". It was a good diet and I have enjoyed it, not only in connection with motoring but also flying.