Oxford vs. Cambridge in the air

Please forgive the anachronism – the song came six years after these events – but throughout writing this piece, The Varsity Drag has been tootling through the old grey matter. It needs to be exorcised, so press play and read on…

And so back we go to 1921, when a large number of undergraduates had previously served in the armed forces – particularly during the last climactic year of the Great War. After surviving such excitements, the prospect of peacetime was a trifle drab – especially for the former airmen whose time had been spent fighting the German Imperial Air Service at up to four miles above the earth.

Undoubtedly the excitement and comradeship of war coloured how these young men felt about studying the Classics and preparing for life in boardrooms, the Bar or the diplomatic service. In an effort to restore some of their former glories, therefore, an Oxford student and erstwhile test pilot, A.R. Boeree, decided to organise a University Air Race to rival the long-standing Boat Race as an outlet for the rivalry between the dark blue scholars of Oxford and their pale blue counterparts at Cambridge.

To join either of the teams, the requirement was to have more than 1,000 hours logged as a pilot. In total six pilots from each university signed up to take part, of whom three would race and three would be held in reserve. Meanwhile the Varsity Air Race was incorporated within the programme of the 1921 Aerial Derby at Hendon, with the Royal Aero Club providing the students with sufficient funds to hire eight decommissioned S E.5a fighters for the event.

The going rate to buy an airworthy war surplus S.E.5a was around £5 at the time. Although they were only hired, the university colours were applied to the aircraft – dark blue for Oxford and pale blue for Cambridge. A prize fund of £400 was also established – most of which came from Shell, which also provided the fuel.

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Oxford University pilots watch their Cambridge counterparts in action – note that the aircraft has been completely repainted

From the few available photographs it appears that one of the Oxford aircraft was completely repainted in dark blue and had white walls painted on its tyres. Another Oxford aircraft had almost the whole of the top wing painted blue aside from the centre section and the fuselage from the cockpit backwards was also freshly painted in the same shade.

The Cambridge squad would appear to have spent less time on the appearance of its aircraft – splashing light blue on the nose, tail and wheels but leaving the rest of their S.E.5s in their wartime olive brown and cream livery. Instead, the Cambridge pilots focused rather more on practising their tactics for the race.

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A pastel of one of the Cambridge S.E.5as ‘borrowed’ from Nigel Hamlin Wright – all rights his

A shortened version of the main Aerial Derby course was chosen, measuring around 43 miles and running in a triangle from Hendon to Epping and Hertford and back. Three laps of the course was the decided length of the race.

Race day was Saturday 16 June and it delivered scorching hot conditions and a near-cloudless sky. The six competing aircraft were lined up at 2.30 p.m. with Oxford represented by Boeree (Oriel College), Pring (New) and Hurley (Keeble) while Cambridge had Francis (Caius), Philcox (Caius) and Muir (St. Catherine’s).

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The full course of the 1921 Aerial Derby, from which the Varsity runners used only the 4th and 5th Turning Points

The Oxford trio took an early lead by thundering off at tree-top height, while the Cambridge contingent climbed as hard as they could to find cooler air where the 220 hp Wolseley Viper engines would produce more get-up-and-go. The early running was made by Pring’s machine for Oxford but soon Cambridge’s tactic of going for height paid off and Philcox took the lead halfway round the second lap.

On the final lap, Pring’s Wolseley Viper began to struggle and he was eventually forced to find a suitable field near Epping after the fault with his ignition proved terminal. The result was 1-2-3 for Cambridge with Hurley fourth and Boeree, whose idea the race was, coming home last.

It was widely hoped that the University Air Race would become an annual fixture to rival the Boat Race as a social fixture for the two great universities. Sadly, Oxford was never as keen as Cambridge on aviation in the first place and, with Boeree departing, the idea was shelved.

Within 18 months, all of the S.E.5a aircraft would be scrapped and the whole affair lost in the mists of time. Of rather more success was the Varsity Speed Trials for students with a passion for fast motoring. In due course, this latter event would see the likes of future Grand Prix star Dick Seaman take part, continuing the heady spirit in which the Air Race had been created.

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