Where now for the Tourist Trophy?

The announcement that Silverstone – and therefore the UK – will be missing from the FIA World Endurance Championship calendar from now on is not a surprise. There has been much hoo-ha on social media about it from British ‘fans’ – although it’s quite likely that more people have taken the trouble to post their outrage than ever bought a ticket.

Of rather more pith and moment is the fact that at present the Royal Automobile Club’s Tourist Trophy has no home – and there is no obvious candidate to replace it. But why, after so many decades, is top flight sports car racing abandoning the UK?

In 2011, the S&G worked on behalf of the Automobile Club de l’Ouest to promote the event. A phone call in mid-July basically said that there was a budget to promote the race, which was in mid-September, and as everyone in France takes August off would we mind awfully doing what we could to sell some tickets.

58f387b165450

The Tourist Trophy has been awarded to the winners of the Silverstone 6 Hours in recent years

It was the dream brief: a client who gives you a budget first and asks questions later. It was quite possibly the most fun that will ever be had in this working life.

Local radio stations from the Solent to the Black Country ran adverts that used Steve McQueen’s movie Le Mans as the theme, with a heartbeat getting faster and engines bursting into life while a sonorous voice spoke in wonder about the world’s most advanced sports-prototypes and the elegant GT cars, Audis, Peugeots, Aston Martins, Porsches, Corvettes and Ferraris.

Every station that took the ads got pairs – sometimes several pairs – of VIP hospitality tickets to use as competition prizes. So did any local newspapers that we advertised in, which from memory was about a dozen from Herefordshire to Suffolk and Watford to Uttoxeter.

On the PR front, we realised that it was the 35th anniversary of the first Silverstone 6 Hours race, and got the winner of that inaugural race, John Fitzpatrick, to describe his giant-killing act alongside Tom Walkinshaw in a home-brewed BMW against the might of the BMW and Porsche works teams. We also got Desiré Wilson to talk to the press about being the first and only lady racer to win the event.

298789_10150357768121002_4624720_n

The girls of the Silverstone 6 Hours with Dunsfold’s P-51D

There was a media day at Silverstone where home favourite Allan McNish took journalists round the track in a race-prepared Audi R8 GT car. Among the victims we sorted out for the day was BBC Radio 2 Drive Time sportscaster Matt Williams, who did a brilliant piece for roughly five million listeners which basically involved him asking questions in a panicked scream and Nishy laughing like a drain in reply.

Northampton railway station was completely wrapped to look like the grid at Le Mans (a little tribute to how our Bahraini friends promote their Grand Prix so well), and at every station between Euston and Birmingham there was advertising to be found on the platforms.

Finally, we found some of the finest-looking promo girls in Britain, dressed them in replicas of the iconic and much-lamented Hawaiian Tropic girls’ outfit and sallied forth to as many other motoring events as we could – armed with a barrel-load of flyers with unique 10% discount codes. At Dunsfold Wings & Wheels we took along one of Trackspeed’s Porsche GT3s and a Gulf Aston Martin DBR1/2, at Chelsea Autolegends we had the Aston and the Strakka Racing HRD that slotted in to the Le Mans-themed main display, and the ACO came and did a press conference.

303578_10150363112671002_4558659_n

On the lawns of the Royal Hospital at Chelsea alongside a few billions’ worth of classics

303018_10150363114361002_3855509_n

If in doubt, grab a Chelsea Pensioner.

Because enthusiasts of motor racing tend to like having models of the cars in some shape of form, we did a deal with the now sadly defunct Modelzone company to put posters in the windows of their 46 shops across the country and for each shop to have a prize draw for a pair of hospitality tickets. They also ran a competition on their website and to their email distribution list to win the opportunity to wave the flag that starts the race.

We had branding all over Autosport.com, a competition to do the grid walk on Pistonheads and yet more competition prizes of hospitality. As a final offer, we contacted the marque clubs of every brand with cars taking part in the event and offered them display parking on the infield with a sliding scale of up to 50% off the ticket price, the more cars (and therefore people) that came with them.

As a final treat to reward the hordes of people that we hoped would be coming, we got the distributor of SCX slot cars to set up a tent with a massive track in it and plenty of Audis and Peugeots to race. We got John Fitzpatrick and Desiré Wilson to come along and do autograph sessions. We got Porsche 956 chassis 001, the 1982 Group C class winner and founder of 12 years of success for Porsche, together with a BMW CSL representing the inaugural 6 Hours and a Porsche 935.

All of this was done in six weeks from a standing start. All of this was done on a total budget that would scarcely pay for a tatty second-hand Porsche. All of this reached an audience of millions and we sold… something like 8,000 tickets. It was raining at Silverstone and there is seldom a more desolate part of the world on a soggy September day than the old airfield, especially when one is wandering round looking at the fruits of one’s labours and seeing not one soul between Copse and Stowe other than the ever-hearty marshals.

With heavy hearts we reported in to the ACO folks, expecting to be informed that we’d never work in this town again. They were… coq-au-hoop! Refreshed from their month in Provence, they couldn’t believe that they’d sold around 15% more tickets than the previous year with a campaign that lasted six weeks instead of three months.

It’s Silverstone, they said, with suitably Gallic shrugs. Everything costs too much because they have to fund the Grand Prix. The Wing stood empty above the paddock because it was too big and infeasibly priced, so all the hospitality had to be done in the old units on the old start/finish straight and guests had to be bussed the mile in between lunch and the working area.

1374742.main_image

We even had a page in The Sun – although the cars were notably absent…

The only location that could be found for the marque clubs, slot car track and historic racing cars display was exactly half-way between the two paddocks, meaning that few people bothered to get off their buses and brave the rain to come and have a look. As it was, neither the tent for the historic cars or the security person to look after them had shown up, so we had to send the Porsche 956 back to its owner and keep the BMW and 935 outside while a short-notice tent was found to house them.

When the S&G returned to the event in 2014, it was the first round of the new season and there had been much excitement on social media about the return of Porsche and all the rest of the pre-season chatter. There had been a photo call with the cars in central London but very little in the press had resulted from it, there were no adverts to speak of and no campaign of the sort that we’d done but the weather was uncommonly pleasant on the Saturday.

af862bc298db4e189fb8e10c4764a314

Le Mans brings fans together from around the world – especially the UK

There was still barely a soul in the public areas around much of the circuit. If more tickets were sold the difference was marginal. Yet at Le Mans one can barely walk a step without falling over roaming families, all eagerly discussing the race in every accent and dialect of the British Isles. Chuck a rock into the crowd at Le Mans and you’re far more likely to be told to ‘eff off’ than you are to ‘va te faire foutre’.

So now the ACO has decided to abandon its crusade to give British fans a treat on home soil. It’s not possible (as so many of them have wished) to return to Brands Hatch because the circuit isn’t to modern endurance standards – and anyway the 1000km races there in their 1980s heyday were fairly processional because there’s no room for overtaking.

People remember those races so fondly because there were big crowds, in part due to the presence of Jaguar and Porsche’s great ace Derek Bell as national heroes… and also in part because everyone buying a ticket to the Grand Prix at Brands got a free ticket to the 1000km. Sometimes, nostalgia ain’t what it used to be.

tumblr_oqf6os6NvG1s0rjbno1_500

Brands Hatch had a packed house for Group C sports cars in the 1980s

So, a chapter closes and all that remains to be said is what the future holds for the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy, the world’s longest-serving motor sport prize? It’s only warranted a small mention in the World Endurance Championship arena, but this grand old prize was awarded to the winner of the Silverstone 6 Hours.

In 112 years it’s been awarded at a sports car race 29 times, GT races 11 times, to races for Grand Prix cars three times and for touring cars 25 times. Perhaps Alan Gow and TOCA might like to use it for a non-championship touring car all-comers race as they did 20 years ago? Or maybe the thriving British GT series should take it on? Undoubtedly there will be a lobby for reinstating Britain’s round of Formula E and using it for this purpose… it’s the in thing to do these days, after all.

Perhaps the most pragmatic suggestion is to permanently base the TT at Goodwood, where the current tribute race for 1960s GT cars can be restored to full glory. After all, there are few events in Britain that attract a similar size of crowd, and the prestige of winning it is enormous amongst a group of drivers and owners who actually care about its heritage and history.

At present, the longest-standing prize in motor racing history, a trophy that unites C.S. Rolls, Tazio Nuvolari, Sir Stirling Moss and Alain Menu is rootless. Steps must be taken fast to ensure that this grand old prize remains fixed to the greatest motor sport occasion on the calendar, the most stylish, the most glamorous and the most relevant – because if we lose our sense of identity at this moment of crisis for motor sport in Britain then we might as well all pack up and go home.

Advertisements

Beyond the British Grand Prix

This week’s announcement that the British Grand Prix is to cease in 2019 is not a surprise. Although it was the first country in the world to build a permanent circuit for motor racing, Great Britain has had a dysfunctional relationship with the sport right from the outset.

In the 1890s, the advent of internal combustion caught the imagination of brilliant engineers in continental Europe and North America – but not so Britain, whose Empire was built using iron, steam and the old school tie.

Johnny Foreigner’s preoccupation with noisy, unreliable new inventions became the subject of amusement in polite society.

While all but a few British folk scoffed, however, it was through competition that Johnny Foreigner refined motor cars and achieved the dream of powered flight.

IMG_8516.jpg

Passions were aroused on the continent: eyebrows were raised in Britain

The great city-to-city motor races at the turn of the century inspired engineers to travel further and faster, tearing off into the distance while British motoring was pegged back to walking pace – literally, with the legal requirement for a man with a red flag to walk 60 yards ahead of ‘horseless carriages’, lest they scare the horses or interfere with the good order of the railways.

It took the legal test case lodged by Farnham engineer John Henry Knight in 1895 to release British motorists from this constraint. He successfully triggered the Locomotives on Highways Act of 1896, which increased the speed limit for “light locomotives” under 3 tonnes to 14 mph.

To celebrate this boundless new freedom, the ‘Emancipation Run’ was organized for motorists to drive from Whitehall to Brighton – an occasion later commemorated through the Royal Automobile Club’s annual London to Brighton Veteran Car Run. While the 33 intrepid Britons tiptoed down to the coast, however, the Panhard et Levassor of Émile Mayade scampered the 1710 km from Paris to Marseille and back to win the biggest race of the year.

red-flag-two

Good order was enforced upon British motorists – with a flag

A few of the more enterprising British motor companies, such as Arrol-Johnson, Wolseley and Napier, began to dip a toe in the water of the European events. They soon discovered that there was much to learn not only about car design but also ancillaries such as tyres and spark plugs if they were to compete.

Thankfully, some were determined to learn, improve and win.

In 1902, the British-built Napier of Selwyn Edge triumphed in the Gordon Bennett Cup, winning the honour of hosting the race in 1903. The birth of British motor sport did not greatly interest the nation or its politicians, however, who grudgingly permitted roads to be closed in the wilds of County Kildare for the occasion.

gb4

Britain belatedly came to the party – but soon mastered the art of motor racing

A year later, the Isle of Man was selected to become the new home of motor racing in Britain. The Gordon Bennett qualification race of 1904 gave rise to the Royal Automobile Club Tourist Trophy in 1905, the world’s longest-running motor race whose place on today’s FIA World Endurance Championship calendar warrants not a mention in the press.

The Isle of Man was and remains a mystical place to go racing but the rest of the British Isles were still subject to a blanket 20 mph speed limit.

The British motor industry needed somewhere to drive fast and it found a benefactor in the form of Hugh Locke King who, egged on by the likes of Napier and its great showman Selwyn Edge, constructed the Brooklands motor circuit – the first permanent track in the world – and almost ruined himself in the process.

It was only after World War 1 that Brooklands became a success. Many young Englishmen – particularly the aviators – found that excitement and esprit de corps in the face of danger had become addictive. Racing around the great white bowl near Weybridge offered them blissful release from the hum-drum world of peacetime, and the ‘right crowd’ flocked to witness the thrills and spills.

Brooklands was the crucible from which sprang the Bentley Boys, John Cobb, Malcolm Campbell and the first gilded generation of British racing motorists. Le Mans was conquered and Grands Prix were won. A decade later, these pioneers celebrated the rise of a second generation, including Dick Seaman and A.F.P. Fane, who punched above their weight in small but potent cars from Riley, MG and ERA.

The ambitious Fred Craner turned leafy Donington Park from a provincial motorcycling track into an amphitheatre for the Silver Arrows; hillclimbs and sprints flourished and the Tourist Trophy grew in stature to rival the Targa Florio and Le Mans 24 Hours in status.

tim_birkin_in_the_birkin-bentley_at_brookland-_brooklands_museum_original_-_1500x1090_-800x582

Brooklands, Bentley and Birkin – landmarks in British racing

Despite all this success, despite the fervour that surrounded motor racing as a spectator sport and despite the quality of engineering that had gone into every component of the cars, there was little recognition.

The Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders, the body charged with promoting the interests of the UK automotive industry at home and abroad, prohibited the British manufacturers from bringing their racing cars to the Motor Show because it believed that they were ‘vulgar and irrelevant’.

Only in the aftermath of World War 2, when the next generation of racers flourished and British motor racing sat at the top table of the sport worldwide, did the entire nation take notice.

The defining moment came at Silverstone in 1950, when His Majesty George VI and Queen Elizabeth led a quarter of a million people to Silverstone for the Grand Prix d’Europe, the first ever round of the FIA Formula 1 World Championship. Motor racing hit the tabloids and the elitism of Brooklands was replaced with the grassroots movement from which produced raw young talent both at the wheel and at the drawing board.

The workmanlike bomber training airfield at Silverstone hosted its first Grand Prix in 1948. Meanwhile on the south coast the Westhampnett fighter station at Goodwood provided a more convivial atmosphere for the old ‘right crowd and no crowding’ set to party on in the grand old manner.

They were joined by more former airfield venues – from Boreham to Croft. The parkland circuits followed – Oulton, Cadwell, Brands Hatch – and Aintree set out its stall as the ‘Goodwood of the North’ with its blast around the fabled Grand National racecourse.

For the next 30 years, British motor sport expanded into a bona fide industry – and a successful one at that. Even the press took notice – The Sun, The Mirror, The Daily Mail, The Daily Express, The Daily Telegraph and The Times were all sponsors of races and teams in all categories. Right through to the 1980s, they reflected the public’s passion and sold the sport with vigour.

1955-le-mans

The triumph (and tragedy) of motor racing folklore: Hawthorn and Jaguar in action

When the British Grand Prix’s financial troubles began, the industry in this country was still riding high in strength and depth, interest and involvement across the board. British teams not only dominated the Formula 1 world but also every international discipline.

Moreover, pretty much every Indycar, F3000, F3 and junior category chassis was designed and built in Britain by Lola, Reynard, March, Ralt and Van Diemen. Meanwhile, young drivers from around the world had to come and compete in Britain if they wanted to make a name for themselves – driving the reputations of the specialist teams who ran their cars.

 

Yet over the past 20 years, most of that thriving industry has been burnt as fuel in order to keep the British Grand Prix shunting along towards the buffers. We watched it happen. Some of us reported on it happening and warned of the outcomes… but many did not.

The prevailing attitude of “I’m all right, Jack” has indeed meant that the seven UK-based Formula 1 teams have prospered – although all but one is now under foreign ownership and remain here only for as long as it is financially and logistically beneficial to do so.

In the meantime, pretty well every major manufacturer team outside Formula 1 has migrated to Germany – and that includes the Japanese and the Koreans. The notional ‘motorsport valley’ that is claimed to nestle half way up the M40, from where it pumps billions to the British economy, hasn’t existed in any meaningful sense for years. Brilliant businesses are there – but in many ways to their detriment.

4a10e8_4c81e8201531400a93da0b497065a368~mv2

Britain is one big ‘motorsport valley’, apparently

In 2013, a rescue plan was put forward by the Welsh government. It was a dedicated hub for the high-tech motor sport sector in a Tier 1 Enterprise Zone where their utilities would be subsidised, salaries funded up to 50% and every wind tunnel and laboratory would be built for them.

Such a stiff resistance was put up by the British Grand Prix lobby and the ‘motorsport valley’ brigade that the only issue upon which press and the public could fixate was the Circuit of Wales, adjoining the technology hub. What was the point of building a circuit when there was Silverstone? Who would travel to Wales for the British Grand Prix?

The fact that the Circuit of Wales was never designed for Formula 1 did not matter. Nobody wanted to understand what the project was about and now the idea has died. The proponents of the ‘motorsport valley’ myth believe this to have been a victory – but they are deluded.

If you want to buy a single-seater or sports car chassis these days, you don’t call ‘motorsport valley’. Most likely it will be a Tatuus or Mygale from France or an Italian Dallara.

Formular-E

parc_ferme

Fleets of one-make series cars are now built overseas

Young British drivers, if they really want to get ahead, must plan to hop out of their karts and straight into European championships if they are to stand a hope of getting noticed – increasing their annual budgets by up to 50% and reducing the strength and depth of the talent pool by a similar factor.

And of course the well of talented young foreign drivers following in the footsteps of Piquet, Senna, Häkkinen and Magnussen has dried up completely, seeing teams close down for the want of talent and funding to employ them.

The Scarf & Goggles celebrates the ripping yarns of earlier eras, but it exists in the here and now. The spirit and the achievements of those times have been betrayed many times over in the name of preserving the unworkable British Grand Prix and, as a result, the ‘motorsport valley’ myth.

Perhaps the final, belated loss of the Grand Prix will be the jolt that knocks a bit of sense into people. Facts must be faced and plans must be made. We hope that, finally, they might at least be valid ones.

We still have the Tourist Trophy. We still have the Isle of Man. Goodwood is thriving. The British touring cars are still wowing people and nobody holds better rallies, rallycross or short track races.

The landscape is changing but the most valuable bit of real estate in any sport – that of historic racing and our motor sport heritage – keeps going from strength-to-strength. Plan for the worst and hope for the best. This is not the end.

 

Heineken and the classics

Crikey! In terms of bringing some excitement and prestige back to modern Formula 1, Heineken’s ‘groundbreaking’ announcement fell flatter than a witch’s proverbial, did it not? Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo’s involvement was non-existent and James Bond never showed up.

Instead, the waiting world was promised that Heineken will deliver ‘innovative content’ to online consumers – which is what anyone who delivers online advertising promises. The S&G would love to see someone offering ‘derivative content’ because, as a policy, that would be truly groundbreaking.

Pienoismallit ja ruokia 181

Apparently watching ‘content’ can be an agreeable experience

Heineken has pledged to create promotional pushes in cities in the weeks before races (as several of the races already do), shop floor campaigns in bars, cafes and supermarkets around the world (as several sponsors already do), worldwide ticket promotions and competitions (as many sponsors already do), and social media campaigns to engage the ‘millennials’ of the online generation (as all sponsors attempt to do).

So what’s the point? Heineken is already positioned as the aspirational brand of choice among lager drinkers: the BMW of beers. What it wants to do is reinforce this image among the markets of Asia and the Middle East by using Formula 1’s ubiquity in these ’emerging markets’.

As a serious bonus from the Heineken deal, however, it appears to have played a key role in ensuring that Monza remains on the Grand Prix racing calendar. By ‘key role’ we do of course mean ‘bank roll’. No wonder Bernie looked so chirpy as he clutched his bottle of lager in Montreal.

nuvolari-alfa-monza-gp-1932

The roll of honour at Monza is an elite group – long may it remain

 

What this means is that Formula 1 may yet retain the one venue that has not been completely neutered by the passage of time.

Despite the silly run-off on the Parabolica, Monza remains a truly, regally, magnificently scary anachronism among the modern Grand Prix venues. Yes, it has chicanes but the difference between the guys who are vying for a seat among the legends of the sport and the guys who are paying for a seat anywhere from the third row of the grid backwards can never be more pronounced than it is beneath the trees of the Villa Reale.

And on that note, the S&G will join 007 in toasting the hope that Monza will continue to offer Formula 1 its annual reality check for many, many seasons to come. For now, however, the time has come to up sticks and head to another wonderful and terrifying venue of enormous historical significance – the Circuit de la Sarthe.

Watch this space for some ‘content’ from the greatest motor race in the world – and for starters, here is a bit of testing at Monza with the chicanes removed. You will seldom see such might!

Heineken brings out the big guns

Today in Montreal we shall see a great conspiracy unveiled like the maniacal plan of a James Bond villain – or in this case Bernie Ecclestone, for whom comparisons with a caricatured criminal mastermind are an occupational hazard.

The ingredients are all in place and one thing which can confidently be expected is that Heineken will announce the role it will play in Formula 1 from 2017 onwards – for the announcement will be the opening act of this year’s Canadian Grand Prix.

But there are also many fine old brands familiar to S&G regulars that are bobbing about on Bernie’s duck pond and about to form a nice neat row. For the time being, however, they’re doing a very good job of keeping themselves out of the spotlight until it’s time for the ‘big reveal’.

Heineken likes to present itself as a premium product. It conjures this image through an association with rugby and an 18-year partnership with the James Bond movie franchise. To this portfolio it will also be adding Formula 1.

heineken_1

The art of product placement: James Bond is offered a Heineken

At this point the conspiracy kicks in – and it’s a belter. As protagonists we have two of the marques favoured by Ian Fleming – namely Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo – we also have TAG Heuer watches and, to cap it all, we have ‘Ernst Stavro’ Mateschitz, the reclusive mastermind behind Red Bull who may or may not sit around in his alpine lodge stroking a white cat.

There is a degree of consensus that Heineken will be shovelling hundreds of millions of dollars into Bernie’s retirement fund and using its savvy at creating upmarket online adverts (that’s ‘content’ to those in the trade), to underline the message that its beer is sipped by men of wealth and taste.

Formula 1 is wilfully rubbish at ‘content’, so having someone else do it and pay handsomely for the privilege looks like another of Bernie’s brilliant deals.

But while hanging some banners on the Hangar Straight and Curva Grande is nice, and putting your logo in the corner of all F1’s youtube clips has a value, there is nothing quite like having your branding on the car that crosses the line first. Just ask Red Bull.

frwl011

(Not) seen inside the Red Bull headquarters, yesterday.

The Austrian energy drink firm currently owns the commercial rights to the FIA World Rally Championship, drawing viewers onto Red Bull’s TV channels and websites while also selling footage to broadcasters the world over. Its logo can be seen on inflatable gantries and mud-spattered hoardings along the route but just in case that’s all a bit subtle Red Bull is also the sponsor of Volkswagen Motorsport, which wins everything.

So does this mean that Heineken is following suit and sponsoring the winning team? No… but there is a link to one particular motor manufacturer and James Bond affiliated brand that is currently dabbling in Grand Prix racing: Aston Martin.

Team_Aston_Martin_at_the_1922_French_Grand_Prix

Aston Martin made its name in motor sport – here at the 1922 Grand Prix

This year, the Red Bull Racing F1 team (them again!) joined forces with Aston in an ‘innovation partnership’ (a phrase beloved of those who create ‘content’). What Aston brings to the party is a bit of a mystery as Red Bull’s engines are made by Renault and funded by the TAG Heuer watch company, resulting in a pair of Red Bull TAG Heuers on the grid which are innovatively partnered with Newport Pagnell’s finest.

Presumably it all makes sense to someone out there.

Meanwhile our fellow WordPress dweller, F1 insider and all-round decent egg Joe Saward was presented with a 007 baseball cap by Aston Martin and instructed to wear it in Montreal this weekend. So we have the trinity of Heineken, Aston Martin and James Bond uniting in a city full of beautiful women during a Formula 1 weekend and Joe’s clearly invited to the party.

All of this is intriguing enough but then we also have another S&G regular – and James Bond icon – barrelling into the frame: Alfa Romeo.

8d664e2707df493d3357908d4909b998

Nuvolari raced Alfas with Ferrari badges. Now the situation is reversed.

Alfa is of course under the Fiat Chrysler banner and a close relation of Ferrari, which ran the elder firm’s racing programme from 1933-38. Sporting success has been a bit thin on the ground since 1951 (touring cars aside), but Alfa remains the romantic’s alternative to German executive cars and it has also provided many of the vehicles in which James Bond blows up villainous henchmen in recent films.

Now, however, Fiat and Ferrari CEO Sergio Marchionne has said that he wants Alfa Romeo back at the sharp end of motorsport. He came close to negotiating a deal with Red Bull to run Alfa Romeo-branded Ferrari engines last year and the Alfa badge is now resplendent upon the flanks of Ferrari’s Formula 1 cars.

Marchionne’s eagerness to bring Alfa back to Formula 1 could also be helpful for ‘Enrst Stavro’ Mateschitz, who not only owns the World Rally Championship, a broadcast network and a Formula 1 team with TAG Heuer branded Renault engines but also Scuderia Toro Rosso – a second Formula 1 team which, having formerly been Minardi, is based at Faenza, a stone’s throw from Maranello.

It seems that Mateschitz feels that two Formula 1 teams might be a little excessive in the current economic climate and is keen to sell his Italian stable at the right price. To Aston Martin? To Alfa Romeo? To Heineken? To Joe Saward? It’s a mystery worthy of Fleming’s finest.

And then, for the final layer on this cake of conundrums, we have James Bond himself. A new film is in the offing and there may well be a new actor playing the hero of the franchise because Daniel Craig has grown jaded with blowing up Alfa Romeos full of henchmen, rolling around with luxuriously upholstered Latin women and crashing Aston Martins. He wants to spend more time at home with the missus… and when the lady in question is Rachel Weisz it’s an understandable argument.

Quantum_Of_Solace3-e1411011622279

Aston Martin and Alfa Romeo have been 007 mainstays of late

The last four Bond films were a cycle and a fresh start beckons. Something called a Tom Higgledypiggledy is apparently the hot tip for the job, having starred in an adaptation of a spy novel by John le Carré which involved him rolling around in a bathroom with a beautiful woman. There is also a new James Bond novel which features a fictitious 1957 Formula 1 season… an idea that the S&G once suggested in no uncertain terms to the Bond estate. The swine.

So where does all of this leave us? Heineken is making an announcement, Aston Martin has handed out the invites, Red Bull is everywhere and Alfa Romeo wants in. Perhaps a new James Bond will be announced and the new movie will feature him in a Heineken green Red Bull-Aston Martin blowing up henchmen one at a time in a fleet of Minardi-Alfas.

The plot is a bit convoluted and could do with a decent script editor but the good news for S&G regulars is that one way or another two of the most valued marques in motor sport history could yet be preparing their return to the fray – and we’ll all raise a bottle of Heineken to that.

Cheers!

 

Revelling in Indy’s big anniversary

At the climax of the month of May we arrive at a time to celebrate the fertility of the earth, for lambs to gambol beneath bright scudding clouds and for Indianapolis to become the focal point of the civilized world. This year’s Memorial Day marks the 100th running of the Indianapolis 500 and it is a thing of splendour to see Americans mark such an occasion with their inimitable panache.

The anniversary has resulted in anticipated crowd of around 400,000 – which is wildly up on recent seasons. This level of expectation in turn is causing some apprehension, not least among veterans such as Bobby Unser, who worry about whether the level of interest in a marquee day for America as will be seen this Memorial Day can be sustained. Others are predicting a brilliant race and the restoration of IndyCar racing as a whole.

Indy-500-jockeying-begins-with-qualifying

Colourful, distinctive and unique: the 100th Indy 500 beckons

Certainly there will not be another global motor sport event with quite the same razzmatazz. The Grand Prix at Monaco has its place, of course, but in the modern world it’s all just a little bit queasy. Too many Russians on rented yachts, too many b-list pop stars warbling with Eddie Jordan on drums. Too much glitz and too little substance.

If you want a celebration of what motor racing has always been about then Go West, young man, Go West.

Even in their current state of eye-popping aerodynamics, fairground bumpers and paranoid paraphernalia to ward off injury, Indycars look mean and purposeful. Colours are sharper. Logos are brighter. And none of the cars from the imperious might of Team Penske to the clunkiest non-qualifier could be mistaken for anything other than an all-American phenomenon.

DannySullivan1988

There’s always been a bit more dazzle and a soupcon of razzle

In the Eighties, the S&G was intoxicated by the speed and liveries such as the shimmering gold and chrome of Miller or the blistering Pennzoil yellow. There were also celebrations for Roberto Guerrero’s successes in America, after knowing him as a hard-trying and extremely courteous youngster among the Silverstone set.

Delving deeper into Indianapolis is to bathe in a unique folklore that never fails to inspire or to turn up the most incredible facts or personalities – not least, of course, Eddie Rickenbacker.

1988-CAR-2

Super-fast Guerrero made his mark at Indy after struggling in Europe

The first race ever held at Indianapolis wasn’t the 500 – which was first staged in 1911 – it was a motorcycle race won by Erwin George ‘Cannonball’ Baker on 14 August 1909. Construction of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway had been inspired by the world’s first permanent circuit at Brooklands in Surrey and thus a banked oval was chosen as the layout – although larger, flatter and effectively oblong.

It wasn’t the design of Indianapolis that caused problems in the early days, but rather the track surface, which was formed of ‘asphaltum oil’ and crushed limestone which had a nasty habit of dissolving people’s tyres. Before the first winter fell, the corrosive surface was buried beneath 3.2 million paving bricks, each weighing 9.5 pounds.

‘Cannonball’ Baker is also buried at Indianapolis: at the Crown Hill Cemetery on West 38th St. A long distance expert on two wheels and four, Baker’s spaciality was setting speed records from San Diego to New York – indeed the ‘Cannonball Run’ was named after him. Unlike many of those interred around Indianapolis, however, it was old age that claimed him.

13INDYCARweb5-master675

The spectacle of Indianapolis remains constant through the eras

Sharing space near ‘Cannonball’ Baker (together with the four founders of the Indy 500 and many other Indy 500 winners, drivers, mechanics and car owners) at the Crown Hill Cemetary, for example, is Wilbur Brink.

As a 12-year-old in 1931, Wilbur was playing in his front yard at 2316 Georgetown Road when, on lap 162, defending 500 champion Billy Arnold crashed in Turn 4. A stray wheel bounded across the road, struck Wilbur Brink and killed him outright – inspiring the song by Swedish pop band Norma: Bad Luck for Wilbur Brink.

That is the shade but it is 20 years since a fatality at Indianapolis and there is plenty more light than dark. It is the glitter on the faces hewn into the Borg-Warner Trophy – the easy smile that brackets the hard work and risk that is entailed when racing at Indianapolis.

Borg-Warner

The Borg-Warner Trophy is the single most impressive award in motor sport.

Of all the cars and eras that have passed at this great venue, among the most competitive and enduring must be the 1920s and the battle for supremacy between the supercharged straight-8 engines of Duesenberg and Miller. From the car that scored America’s first great victory overseas to the revolution in bespoke oval racing cars that followed, there is a steel-jawed brilliance in every aspect of the era.

After learning much from the great pre-1914 engines of Peugeot and Mercedes, which had also dominated at Indianapolis, the Duesenberg brothers, August and Frederik, returned the compliment by winning the 1921 Grand Prix in France. The Duesie’s straight-eight engine with single overhead camshaft was a masterpiece that triggered the development of home-grown sporting success in America.

Jimmy_Murphy_at_the_1921_French_Grand_Prix_(3)

Duesenberg went Grand Prix racing – and won

Having returned victorious from Europe the previous year, Duesenberg approached the 1922 Indy 500 with no small amount of confidence – although the race was in fact to mark the ascent of a new star. Harry Miller’s carburetors had been known as the best in the USA for some time and now he had designed a complete straight-eight with twin overhead camshafts and four valves per cylinder to the Duesie’s three.

The Miller also used a unique fuel blended by Shell that mixed benzol with gasoline to minimize knocking and allow for a significantly higher compression ratio. Duesenberg’s star driver, the Grand Prix winning Jimmy Murphy, tried out Miller’s engine and immediately had one fitted in his Duesenberg.

From that moment on, adding the 1922 Indy 500 to his Grand Prix title from the previous year became a formality.

Murphy-1922-IndyWinner

Same car: different engine. Murphy’s Duesie is the only Grand Prix and Indy winner

In 1923 the cars became more streamlined, by virtue of making riding mechanics optional. This was because engine capacity was reduced to a mere 122 cu. in. (2 litres). Miller had meanwhile progressed from making engines to becoming a complete constructor in his own right, with the lightweight and spindly model 122 ‘convertible’ – so named because it could easily be adapted to many engine types.

It was with one of Miller’s new cars that Tommy Milton won the 1923 Indy 500, becoming the first man to win the Indy 500 twice. His Stutz-entered Miller crossed the line ahead of another Miller driven by Harry Hartz that was called the ‘Cliff Durant Special’, which was one of six cars entered by the heir to General Motors.

Duesenberg’s brief tenure at the summit of American motor sport had come to a very abrupt end – indeed, nobody but Miller won a major American event throughout the 1923 season. The Duesenberg brothers, August and Frederik, spent the winter putting the finishing touches to their response to Miller’s wonder-car: a centrifugal supercharger.

The ‘blown’ Duesenberg may have lacked grace compared to the Miller but it certainly had grunt. Muscle held sway in the business of going fast and turning left and the ‘blown’ Duesie with its signature howl was a revelation. The 1924 Indianapolis 500 delivered victory for Duesenberg team leader Joe Boyer, who took over the car of Lora Corum after his own car ran into mechanical trouble.

Before the end of the year Miller was reclaiming chunks of lost ground with a supercharger of his own – although the loss of Joe Boyer, killed in a race at Altoona, was a heavy blow. Having successfully supercharging his cars, Harry Miller wanted to find a new edge over the Duesenberg brothers for 1925. It came in the form of front wheel drive.

12310520_10206872232917192_8170363662024880307_n

Original winner – the 1911 Marmon Wasp – beside a front-drive Miller in 1924

For years, American racing cars had been reliant on the same technology and layout that was used by the Europeans to go road racing yet the disciplines could not have been more different. European Grands Prix happened primarily on closed public roads, with changes in camber and elevation and corners that swept, jinked and plunged in both directions.

In contrast, American racetracks were exclusively ovals. Indianapolis presided over a national racing network of smaller tracks that were formed either from dirt or wooden boards like an oversized velodrome.

Harry Miller opted to listen to the ideas of Riley Brett, a young mechanic who worked on Jimmy Murphy’s car. Brett insisted that for driving on ovals, a special front-wheel-drive car would be perfect because it would eliminate the extra weight of a long driveshaft to the back wheels and it would allow the car to sit significantly lower to the ground, greatly improving its high speed cornering.

The concept was radical. In Europe, negotiating so many turns and angles and cambers in every direction, it would have been a disaster. Yet for American racing, Harry Miller believed that the idea had merit.

The man who was supposed to drive the new car, Jimmy Murphy, was killed in a fluke accident while racing on dirt at Syracuse but Miller continued with the front-wheel-drive concept. It was ready for Indianapolis.

Only 22 cars lined up on Memorial Day for the 1925 race but this would go down in history as one of the great Indy 500s. Although the field included no fewer than 16 Millers, of which just one was of the front-drive design, Duesenberg’s new star Pete de Paolo made the early running in his yellow ‘Banana Wagon’.

The Duesie stayed out in front for 50 laps and such were the strides being made by the manufacturers that, for the first time in Indianapolis 500 history, the race was averaging more than 100 mph despite successive cuts in engine size.

1573a_lg

Pete de Paolo and the Duesenberg ‘Banana Wagon’

When de Paolo pitted to have his hands bound – they were being ripped to shreds by the steering wheel – sending Norman Batten out in the ‘Banana Wagon’ until he had recovered. The Millers of Earl Cooper and Ralph Hepburn ran together at the front with the yellow Duesenberg in third, began battling with the Miller of Harry Hartz. Hepburn had to pit and Cooper had a tyre blow out, sending him bouncing off the outside wall (but not into retirement – these were sturdy machines!), meanwhile the front-drive Miller of Phil Shafer moved up into the lead.

The little low-slung car was proving easier on both its fuel and tyres than the traditional rear-drive cars and Shafer was driving out of his skin. He managed to pass 350 miles without a pit stop and built enough of a cushion to pit for tyres and retain the lead.

The front-drive car ploughed on but Shafer was by now tiring – the front-drive was something of a brute to its occupants – and Pete de Paolo was back in the ‘banana wagon’ and closing in fast. The Miller team elected to call Shafer in to switch over to another driver, Benny Hill. The call came too late for Hill’s fresh eyes and arms to make much difference: Pete de Paolo would win the Indy 500 for Duesenberg at an average of 105 mph.

The front-drive Miller had shown its worth, however. After breaking the 100mph barrier in 1925, the rules were tightened once again for 1926 with a maximum engine size of 91.5 cu. in. Harry Miller responded by increasing the pressure of his superchargers and increasing the compression ratio – meaning that his little 1.5 litre engine was pumping out nearly 300 bhp.

1924_Miller_122FWD1-1000x600

Small but mighty: Miller’s front-drive masterpiece

At the 1926 Indy 500 it was an all-Miller show and another remarkable race. In practice a new kid, 23-year-old reserve driver Frank Lockhart, was kicking around Gasoline Alley and offered to take Benny Hill’s car out for a test run after the mechanics had finished working on it. Hill agreed and the team was stunned to see the car putting in its fastest times to date with Lockhart cornering on full opposite lock, foot on the floor.

Harry Miller gave Lockhart a ride in one of the older rear-driven cars. He set an unofficial qualifying record of 120.918 mph but his official time was only good enough for 20th spot on the grid. No matter – he was fifth by the end of the third lap and was soon in the battle for the lead. That was when the rain came.

Despite two downpours the race ended with Lockhart sliding imperiously to Victory Lane in front of the front-drive cars. It was to be the last race of this era of innovation in the battle between Miller and Duesenberg. Spiralling costs and falling entries meant that the rules were relaxed for 1927 allowing ‘stock block’ V8 engines into play. The front-drive Miller would finally win the Indy 500 but only in 1930, when the Great Depression was biting hardest.

FrankLockhardt1926

Frank Lockhart crowned the high-tech era of the 1920s with victory aged 23

Nevertheless, the power struggles of the 1920s and the heroic drivers who competed in the era did much to cement the reputation of the Indy 500 across America and around the world. Their influence resonates throughout American motor sport to this day, making the 100th running of this astonishing race all the more significant.

Hispano-Suiza: kings of engineering

As the 19th Century drew to a close, the automobile was a thing of wonder that preoccupied many brilliant minds in Europe and North America. Among those who saw an opportunity was a Spanish artillery captain named Emilio de la Cuadra. He began to work primarily on electric-powered machinery using batteries from a Swiss engineer based in Barcelona, Carlos Vellino. It was very soon clear, however, that electric cars had issues in terms of range and practicality that did not afflict their internal combustion-powered rivals.

As a result of this, de la Cuadra began looking into a gasoline-electric hybrid solution. The problem was that the batteries were unwieldy and the engines were poor, leading Vellino to engage a fellow countryman – a watchmaker who had turned his attentions towards internal combustion, by the name of Marc Birkigt.

la_cuadra

La Cuadra developed a hybrid operating like a 21st Century car

The first engine that Birkigt produced for the La Cuadra motor company was a hybrid, with an electric motor whose charge was maintained by a single-cylinder internal combustion unit. At its unveiling the car broke down, however, which was a mortal blow to the company. With de la Cuadra and Vellino’s coffers empty, their creditors moved in for the kill during 1901.

The company ended up in the ownership of one J. Castro – of whom little is known, barring his good sense in retaining Birkigt, despite the failure of his hybrid. With de la Cuadra out of the picture a new name was required for the business, and to reflect its Spanish-Swiss heritage the name Hispano-Suiza was settled upon.

Birkigt built a four-cylinder internal combustion-powered car that worked very well but, in J. Castro’s efforts to make money, the company priced its products out of reach. By 1904, the business had run aground once again.

Castro_1904

J. Castro tried and failed – but gave Hispano-Suiza its name

Birkigt then reached into his own pocket to save Hispano-Suiza, while attracting investment from a successful industrialist called Don Damian Mateu. Two new Hispano-Suiza cars were revealed at the 1906 Paris Motor Salon – both effectively the Castro-era four-cylinder models of 3.8 and 7.4 litres respectively. The young King Alfonso XIII ordered the first of many Hispano-Suiza models that he would come to own and additional funds were raised by selling off shares in 500 peseta chunks.

Suddenly Hispano-Suiza was moving fast. Patents on the four-cylinder cars were sold to companies in Switzerland and Italy, while opulent six-cylinder models were readied in 1907. The company grew as fast as its reputation and range of products, with a talented young Italian engineer by the name of Paolo Zuccarelli joining Birkigt’s technical team from the minor marque of Florentia.

Zuccarelli pushed on with the development of small capacity ‘voiturette’ cars and with nudging Hispano-Suiza into the greatest shop window of them all: motor sport.

Zuccarelli_Boulogne_2

Paolo Zuccarelli became the leading light for Hispano-Suiza in motor sport

The factory built cars, called the 45CR, featured 2.4-litre engines developing 45 horsepower from what was then the standard configuration of a ‘T-head’ sidevalve with intake valves are on one side of the engine block and the exhaust valves on the other. The cars made their debut at the 1909 Copa Catalunya, with Zuccarelli driving the lead entry and an Italian mechanic named Ravelli alongside him. Two more cars were entered for Louis Pilleverdier / Castanera and Louis Derny / Reus.

The race was over 13 laps of a course of closed roads measuring 28 km and the Hispano-Suiza entry was impeccably turned out under Birkigt’s watchful eye and with Isidoro de Salazar, the company marketing manager, in tow. Pilleverdier finished fourth but the other two cars both retired with broken crankshafts – not before Zuccarelli had led a significant portion of the race, however.

1911_HispanoSuiza_45CR15-45CVTypeAlphonseXIIIVoiturette_2208ci_65HP_4Cylinder

The Hispano-Suiza 45CR – a racing car par excellence

A few weeks later the Hispanos returned to action in the Coupe des Voiturettes in Boulogne, in which the trio finished fifth, sixth and seventh. The team grew in experience and confidence through successive races into 1910, with the main competition coming from the French entries of Libor, designed by a brilliant young engineer called Ernest Henry, and the Lion-Peugeot of the Frères Peugeot company.

The latter team relied heavily on a brilliant Italian driver by the name of Giosue Giuppone. At the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto, all three of the major teams – Libor, Peugeot and Hispano-Suiza – used 3.0-litre four-cylinder T-head engines and were very evenly matched. Giuppone’s story ended when he encountered two cyclists making their way around the course during the race, one of whom darted across to seek cover on the left hand side of the road.

Despite throttling back the engine and braking hard, Giuppone clipped the bicycle, which was thrown into the ditch, while the Peugeot went into a lurid spin and threw Giuppone and his mechanic Péan out into the road. The mechanic was uninjured but Giuppone landed on his head, suffering a fractured skull that was to prove fatal.

The race was won by Paolo Zuccarelli’s Hispano-Suiza, marking the team’s first international victory. The second Peugeot followed him home, driven by Georges Boillot, while Pilleverdier’s Hispano-Suiza finished third. The event was filmed for posterity, with Zuccarelli’s drive attracting significant renown for the Hispano-Suiza marque.

Much was to change as a result of the 1910 Coupe de l’Auto. Boillot established himself as Peugeot’s new team leader and Zuccarelli was recruited to join him, with another fine driver/engineer called Jules Goux completing the line-up. The ‘superteam’ was completed when Ernest Henry became Peugeot’s technical mastermind.

Hispano-Suiza retired from competition – but the success of the 45CR led to demand for production versions of the car. The result has become regarded as the first purpose-built sports car: the Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII, named after the Spanish king (who added one to his ever-increasing fleet). This dapper little car with its race-winning pedigree caused a sensation, and Birkigt’s expansion of the Hispano-Suiza marque continued apace.

New factories were built in the Parisian suburbs of Levallois-Perret and, later, Bois-Colombes. Hispano-Suiza assumed dual nationality – French and Spanish. The range of cars also made their way across the English Channel, with a service depot opening in Fulham and a showroom in Shaftesbury Avenue.

alfonso_xiii

The world’s first sports car: Hispano-Suiza Alphonso XIII

In motor sport circles there was considerable ill-feeling directed towards Peugeot, which had begun to dominate the greatest races on both sides of the Atlantic using engine designs that many believed were ‘stolen’ from Hispano-Suiza by Zuccarelli. Yet such concerns were soon to be trampled into the dirt by the headlong rush into World War 1.

Hispano-Suiza became a prized asset for France, building trucks and aircraft engines. Traditionally, aircraft engines were manufactured by machining separate steel cylinders and then bolting these assemblies directly to the crankcase. Birkigt believed that it would be much more effective to make the block from a single piece of cast aluminium, into which thin steel liners were secured.

Manufacturing an engine in this way simplified construction and resulted in a lighter, yet stronger more durable engine that was capable of significantly more power than its predecessors. Thus was born his V8 ‘monobloc’ engine, one of the most significant advances in achieving air superiority over the Western Front and beyond.

HS_V8

Marc Birkigt (left) and colleagues with a ‘monobloc’ V8 engine

The enormous potential of the single overhead camshaft ‘monobloc’ V8 was finally revealed when if was fitted to the SPAD S.VII fighter, which reached front-line squadrons in the late summer of 1916. It was faster and more rugged than any other type on the front line, and was to seal the legend of France’s leading ‘ace’ Georges Guynemer.

The SPAD series was developed right through to the end of the war, by which time the Hispano-Suiza was pumping out 220 hp in the last of the S.XIII fighters to see service, piloted by men such as Eddie Rickenbacker. The versatility of the engine also allowed for the construction of a small number of S.XII models that featured a Hotchkiss cannon mounded between the two cylinder heads and firing through the propeller boss. When it worked, the effect on the wood-and-canvas aircraft of the time was astonishing.

In Britain the best-known recipient of Birkigt’s engine was the Royal Aircraft Factory S.E.5, which in many of the later S.E.5a models featured a modified version of the ‘Hisso’ engine built under licence in the UK: the Wolseley Viper. The S.E.5s were used as high-performance, high-altitude interceptors working in tandem with vast fleets of Sopwith Camel fighters flying below – the equivalent of the Spitfire and Hurricane during World War 2. Operating together in vast fleets, they did much to sweep the German Air Service out of the skies.

le-vieux-Charles

Georges Guynemer’s SPAD S.VII on public display, 1918

Hispano-Suiza returned to car production in peacetime, with a new series of cars powered by a smaller V6 design based upon Birkigt’s wartime ‘monobloc’. Hispano-Suiza became the byword for performance and innovation, and licences for Birkigt’s engineering were much in demand from prestige car manufacturers world-wide. Even Rolls-Royce used a number of Hispano-Suiza patents through the 1920s and 1930s, such as servo-assisted brakes for all four wheels.

The sleek, elegant lines of the Hispano-Suiza coupés by stylists such as Hibbard & Darrin and D’Ieteren between the wars were groundbreaking, and directly influenced the competition from Mercedes-Benz, Delahaye and other prestige marques. Most often they would be crowned by the radiator emblem of a stork in flight with its wings dipped, the emblem of Escadrille 3 of the 12th Combat Group: Georges Guynemer’s squadron.

Hispano-suiza-hood-ornament

Style et luxe: the Hispano-Suiza stork adorned some amazing engineering

This high summer was not to last, however. Birkigt was among the Hispano-Suiza holders to receive lawsuits from the French authorities in the early 1930s, who decided that the money paid for the tens of thousands of ‘monobloc’ engines in the war was effectively profiteering.

Lawyers settled that argument, but with the rise of a Spanish republic Hispano-Suiza’s longest-serving patron, King Alfonso XIII, fled into exile. The firm’s celebrated factories became a state holding for the construction of military trucks and aircraft engines. No more of its sumptuous cars would ever be seen.

1938_HispanoSuiza_H6CSaoutchikXeniaCoupe1

Hispano-Suiza went out on a high: 1938 Dubonnet Xenia coupé

In 1938 the story of Hispano-Suiza, the builder and innovator of automotive excellence, came to an end. Never again would it take leadership in aviation technology either. Marc Birkigt lived on until 1953 and his legacy remains that hint of Hispano-Suiza that resides in the best automotive engineering of today – both in luxury cars and utilitarian hybrids.

Once or twice attempts have been made to revive Hispano-Suiza as a modern brand. Thank God none have yet succeeded. It was a truly unique chapter in engineering history.

HispanoSuizaV10Supercharged_01

A modified Audi R8 is the latest attempt to relaunch Hispano-Suiza cars

Michael Burn: Birkin’s ghostwriter

The story told in the BBC film Full Throttle, that of the writing of Sir Henry ‘Tim’ Birkin’s autobiography, was just one landmark in the life of another extraordinary character – the author, poet and warrior, Michael Burn. His is a tale well worth the telling.

Burn was born in December 1912, the eldest son of a solicitor who was soon appointed secretary to the Duchy of Cornwall. The family moved to a grace-and-favour house diagonally opposite Buckingham Palace. As a child, Burn used to fire his air rifle towards the palace, trying to hit the first Belisha beacon to be installed in London.

Screenshot 2016-01-22 12.33.45

‘Tim’ Birkin and Michael Burn as portrayed in Full Throttle

While at school in Winchester, Burn suggested to his father that he was attracted to the other boys.  Sir Clive arranged an appointment with King George V’s personal doctor, who prescribed benzedrine. That didn’t work, unsurprisingly, so his father went to a different doctor, who pronounced the youth ‘normal’ and, with that little matter thus cleared up, his son went up to Oxford.

University life was not a success. It ushered in a year of utter debauchery, from which Burn retired to a villa in Le Touquet in the summer of 1931, where his maternal grandfather had built the first casino. Here he met with the celebrated racing driver ‘Tim’ Birkin, twice a winner at Le Mans and a genuine Boys’ Own hero. Burn decided not to return to Oxford and instead agreed to act as ghostwriter for Birkin’s autobiography, entitled Full Throttle.

birkin

Birkin also invented electric rail racing – precursor to slot cars

The book did brilliantly and led to Burn being commissioned to write a history of Brooklands, which appeared as Wheels Take Wings (1933). During his research, Burn met a student from Trinity College, Cambridge, by the name of Guy Burgess. Burgess was openly homosexual, a Marxist, and he utterly bewitched the younger man – introducing him to his circle of friends among whom was the novelist EM Forster.

In the early 1930s, fiery political rhetoric intoxicated many young men and Burn was among them. He decided to witness Hitler’s Germany for himself: renting a flat in Munich and allowing himself to be seduced by Nazism. Here he lived among a number of other expats including Donald Maclean, who would soon join forces with Guy Burgess as members of the ‘Cambridge Spy Ring’.

2015_39_guy_burgess

Burn’s first encounter with the Cambridge spy ring came through Guy Burgess

Burn drank his fill of Hitler’s economic miracle and marvelled at the levels of national pride he encountered. He then went on to witness Mussolini in Italy, where he lived as a guest of Alice Keppel, Edward VII’s mistress, and her daughter, Violet Trefusis, in Florence. Fascist Italy provided pyrotechnic politics of the kind he so desired – and also brought about more contact with the opposite sex.

Returning to London, Burn took up residence with the celebrated stage and film actress, Viola Tree. He helped her to edit the memoirs of her late husband while he perfected vocational training in typing and shorthand. A relatively sedate life then beckoned on the staff of the Gloucester Citizen until Burn decided to spend hid summer holiday back in Munich during 1935.

Among the British crowd in Bavaria this time around was Unity Mitford, the most fervent of the celebrated Mitford sisters in her admiration of fascism. Unity was completely besotted with Adolf Hitler, and her peers were sure that she was hell-bent on marrying him. Burn took tea with Unity in Munich’s Carlton tea rooms when the Führer popped in to say hello, and Burn recorded that Unity was positively vibrating with glee as she was ushered off to sit with him.

Micky Burn, Wales 2010 6580

Burn (centre) pictured alongside Unity Mitford (left) at Nuremberg

Eventually, Burn would also be granted an audience with Hitler – who invited the young Englishman to witness the Nüremberg Rally from one of the more privileged seats alongside Unity. He was utterly spellbound by “great lights in the sky, moving music, the rhetoric, the presentation, timing, performance, soundtrack, exultation, and climax. It was almost aimed at the sexual parts of one’s consciousness.”

Hitler also handed him a personally-signed copy of Mein Kampf – although he lost it soon afterwards. He was also treated to a tour of the Dachau concentration camp, which apparently didn’t phase him. Nevertheless, something sparked an almighty row with Unity Mitford in the days afterwards and, with that, Burn turned his back on Germany.

He returned to Britain after informing his editor that he wanted to leave the Gloucester Citizen for less tranquil waters. A glowing reference was presented to The Times, which stuck the newcomer on fairly light domestic duties until Burn’s unprecedented access to the royal family led to his covering the affair between King Edward VIII and the American divorcee, Wallis Simpson.

burn5_54063c

Burn and his father playing golf, 1931

When viewed from our age of phone tapping and litigation, this would appear to have been a staggering breach in court security. Burn’s father was firmly ensconced in the Duchy of Cornwall, and from this position granted his son access to court and everyone up to Walter Monckton, the King’s go-between with the prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, during the abdication crisis. Whatever else, it can certainly be said that coverage of the whole sorry spectacle in The Times did not lack authority.

Nevertheless, the growing threat posed by Germany loomed large over proceedings and soon the threat posed by Hitler trumped even the ongoing fallout of royal scandal. Burn enlisted as a reservist in the Queen’s Westminsters territorial battalion of the King’s Rifle Corps during 1938 but remained a journalist and travelled to Croydon Airport to see off the new prime minister, Neville Chamberlain, when he went to Munich to meet Hitler.

When war finally came, Burn volunteered for service in one of the ten independent companies that were formed to conduct guerilla operations in the battle to save Norway from invasion. After the fall of Norway, Burn joined the British Commandos, ending up in No.2 Commando and honing his skills in readiness for the assault on the world’s largest dry dock in Ste. Nazaire in March 1942.

St. Nazaire, Zerstörer "HMS Campbeltown"

Ste. Nazaire: HMS Campbelltown resting on the wall it would soon destroy

The dock was believed to be the only location large enough to accommodate the battleship Tirpitz, and if it was put out of acton the German Kriegsmarine would be less likely to send its flagship out into the Atlantic. Burn’s 2 Commando landed in advance to destroy onshore facilities and minimize the firepower that could be brought to bear on the attacking force. They were to clear the way for the destroyer HMS Campbelltown, which would be crashed into the wall of the dry dock, laden with concealed explosives.

The plan was for the Campbelltown sit astride the dry dock wall, the fuses on her explosive cargo delayed to allow the Commandos to escape. Then she would be blown to smithereens, taking the wall with her and ushering in a wave that would demolish the entire facility.

Burn’s commanding officer described the audacious plan as “the sauciest job since Drake”. Militarily, the operation was an unprecedented success in terms of destroying the base, but the Commandos paid a heavy price, made worse because the small boats that they were supposed to escape in were sunk, forcing them to fight their way out and attempt to escape over land.

Burn was among the wounded. His capture was filmed for use in the propaganda reels and, noticing the camera crew as he passed, Burn discreetly positioned his fingers in a ‘V-sign’ as he was marched off. When the newsreel was shown in occupied Holland, Burn’s defiance so moved the mother of future Hollywood icon Audrey Hepburn that she sent a food parcel to his prison camp.

Book Turned Towards The Sun

Caught on camera: Burn gives his defiant V-sign

Burn’s internment was to last to the end of the war, primarily in Oflag IV-C, better known as Colditz Castle, where he languished alongside such men as future Le Mans winner Tony Rolt. Burn recorded as much detail of life in the camp as he could and, when he was released, turned his recollections into another best-selling book. During his incarceration, Burn also became a confirmed Communist sympathizer.

In the hoary early morning of the Cold War, Burn was to be found in Vienna as correspondent for The Times. He remained in the city – a place of secrets and shadows on the fringes of the enlarged Soviet empire – for almost a year. He then went to Budapest, much closer to the Soviets, and took with him a new wife.

Mary Booker had been the subject of one of the most tragic and celebrated romances of the war, as the great love of Spitfire pilot Richard Hillary, who badly burned in the Battle of Britain and later killed in a flying accident during 1943. Mary had been significantly older than Hillary and was well into middle age by the time she married Burn. They lived contentedly enough together in Budapest while Burn was The Times’ Balkan correspondent.

burn4_54061c

Burn and his wife, Mary

The couple returned to Britain in the early 1950s, whereupon Burn forsook journalism for more creative writing. He put out a play, The Night of the Ball, which opened in 1954. It was at this time that he was arrested during a sexual encounter with a young man in Bayswater. The policemen concerned attempted to blackmail Burn, who called their bluff and prosecuted the men. They were found guilty of blackmail and sentenced to prison.

Burn continued a fairly prodigious output of poetry and novels throughout the Fifties and the marriage continued until Mary’s death in 1974. He lived for a time in some bohemian splendour amid the eccentric village of Portmeirion, later to become famous as the location for Patrick McGoohan’s surreal spy drama The Prisoner. North Wales was his home and from here he attempted to run a Communist-style co-operative mussel farming business without conspicuous success.

portmeirion

Portmeirion – the Welsh village has had a profound effect on popular culture

In 1988, Burn produced the book Mary and Richard, based the love letters that passed between his late wife and Richard Hillary up until his death. He wrote it as a means to end rumours that Hilary had chosen to kill himself because of unhappiness in the affair. As a defence of his late wife’s reputation it was a masterpiece: through their intimate words, Burn conclusively proved how profound their affection had been to the end.

In 1995 Burn added his voice to the BBC’s film Full Throttle, a dramatization of his three week stay with Sir Henry Birkin, where his young self was portrayed by Crispin Bonham-Carter, cousin of the celebrated actress Helena. Burn’s own autobiography appeared in 2003, entitled Turned Towards the Sun. He died in his sleep at home in North Wales in 2010, aged 97.

Micky Burn, Wales 2010 6573

Michael Burn in his final days in North Wales