Hooray for Tailspin Tommy

A recent discovery online has been one of the serials whose instalments were a weekly highlight of life for cinema-goers in the 1930s. Pretty much every major genre was represented in these movies, which broke a longer story into 10-12 chapters like a pulp fiction novel for the silver screen, but the antics of  Tailspin Tommy take some beating.

Just look at the hardware on show in these first two chapters of Tommy’s first tale! There’s an entire encyclopaedia of US Navy aviation in the Thirties on screen almost throughout the film, with the added joys of some proper barnstorming aerobatics.

Tailspin Tommy himself was a creation of comic strip artist Hal Forrest, a former WW1 pilot, who sought to capitalise on the popularity of barnstorming and the surge in popularity of aviators thanks to the record-breaking exploits of Charles Lindberg et al.

Tommy Tomkins made his comic strip debut in four newspapers during 1928, but such was the thirst for air-related yarns that this rose to 250 newspapers by 1931! The central character was America’s answer to Biggles, an aircraft-obsessed teenager from Littleville, Colorado who comes to the aid of an airman in trouble and earns himself a job with Three Point Airlines in Texas.

Once in Texas, Tommy soon earns his wings as a pilot and picks up a new best friend, Skeeter Williams, and a girlfriend, Betty Lou Barnes, and the tree of them buy shares in Three Point Airlines. Along the way the trio have many and varied adventures throughout the USA, usually with a ticklish problem to solve.

Hollywood soon beckoned and Universal snapped up the rights to these adventures. The first movie serial, Tailspin Tommy, appeared in 1934 as a 12-episode tale in which Tommy must help Three Point Airlines overcome an unscrupulous rival to win a major contract. Not only that but he must win Betty Lou’s heart from a rival suitor.

The second serial, Tailspin Tommy and the Great Air Mystery, is where the above clip hails from – an altogether bigger and more ambitious production.  Tommy must stop a corrupt businessman from stealing vital oil reserves, and along the way befriends an investigative journalist played by screen legend Pat O’Brien.

This was to be the last of Tommy’s serial adventures, although he would return for four full-length movies later in the 1930s. The cinema-going public’s affections had switched from air-minded melodrama to the utterly fantastical, which was good news for one of the stars of the Tommy Tomkins movies – Jean Rogers.

From playing the businesslike, if slightly flighty, Betty Lou Barnes she went on to become a genuine Hollywood icon playing Dale Arden, the love interest of Buster Crabbe’s Flash Gordon in the greatest serial of them all.


Jean Rogers went from Tailspin Tommy to Flash Gordon – doubtless to the envy of many girls of the Thirties


Alfa looking back to the future?

Here is a rather wonderful little film of Alfa Corse in its pomp at Monza and, rather brilliantly, against a screen at Cinecittà as it prepared to bid farewell to Grand Prix racing back in 1951. It seems that perhaps this grandest of all Italian marques may be making a Grand Prix racing comeback before long.

Quite how and why Alfa Romeo could be restored by its parent group, Fiat – which is of course owner of Ferrari and Maserati as well – remains to be seen. The restoration work began earlier this year, when the name made its reappearance on the flanks of Ferrari’s current contenders – as described here.

However, if one were in a conspiratorial mood, the fact that Red Bull elected to use an Alfa when it took Daniel Ricciardo back to his ancestral home in Sicily to experience the old Targa Florio course might be of interest. After all, it badly needs to wangle a works engine deal…

Daniel Ricciardo is the most recent F1 driver to sample an Alfa Romeo

Daniel Ricciardo is the most recent F1 driver to sample an Alfa Romeo

Such tomfoolery aside, it is indeed welcome news for the sport that such a return may be in the offing. Even the ghost of the scarlet cars from Portello – and, indeed, from Ferrari’s workshops in Modena – carry with them more charisma than 90 per cent of competition cars today, and hopefully reviving the brand and its deliciously stylish take on common-or-garden Fiat products will foster a new generation of enthusiasts for this celebrated brand.

Here are a few reasons why it’s OK to be just a little excited:

The remarkable Whitney Straight – Part 1: racing driver

It is undoubted that wealth and privilege could get you a long way in the age of adventure – but not without talent. One man who enjoyed more talent and privilege than most was Whitney Willard Straight.

Whitney Straight flies the mighty Duesenberg at Brooklands

Whitney Straight flies the mighty Duesenberg at Brooklands in 1934

Born in New York in 1912, Straight’s mother Dorothy was the beautiful heiress of prominent American politician and banker William Collins Whitney; a man who was credited with founding the modern US Navy in the 1880s.

His father, Willard Dickerman Straight, was an aspiring politician and financier who also involved himself in journalism and publishing – launching The New Republic magazine in 1914. This glamorous young couple married in Switzerland and moved to Beijing until Dorothy became pregnant with Whitney, having two more children – Beatrice and Michael – two years apart.

During the early years of World War 1, Willard Straight did considerable campaigning in America to support Britain and France against Germany. When the United States finally entered the conflict in 1917, Straight joined up and became a pivotal member of the US staff but succumbed to the Spanish Influenza epidemic of 1918 on the eve of the peace negotiations, leaving Dorothy to carry on philanthropic work in his name.

In 1920, Dorothy met and fell in love with Leonard Knight Elmhirst, an Englishman studying at the Cornell University. The university was one of the major causes of her and Willard’s life, and after Elmhirst had completed his studies and carried out philanthropic missions in India, Africa, Southern Asia and South America, he and Dorothy were married in 1925.

Dartington Hall, where Whitney Straight arrived age 13

Dartington Hall, where Whitney Straight arrived age 13

The couple moved to England, together with the three children, where they settled upon Dartington Hall in Devon as a new family home. While his mother and stepfather involved themselves in plans to revive traditional rural life among the population, young Whitney developed an abiding passion for speed and mechanization.

By the time he was 16 (long before he was allowed to hold a licence), Straight had accumulated 60 hours of flying time. He duly went up to Trinity College at Cambridge where, in 1931, he decided to become an international racing racing driver. It was clear that there was talent which he demonstrated at the wheel of a Brooklands Riley – often piloting his own aircraft to different events while keeping a weather-eye on his studies!

It was not long before Straight met a kindred spirit at Trinity – a younger student called Dick Seaman, who was being groomed for a life in the diplomatic corps but who, like Straight, also wanted to be a racing driver. Straight encouraged Seaman to follow his passions – which he did, but only after convincing his parents that a Bugatti Type 35 was the ideal student runabout!

Straight's contemporaries: Dick Seaman, Prince Bira of Siam and Count Felice Trossi

Straight’s contemporaries: Dick Seaman, Prince Bira of Siam and Count Felice Trossi

Straight, meanwhile, spent the 1933 season attacking a full schedule of both national and international events with his supercharged MG Magnette and a 2.5-litre Maserati that he bought from Sir Henry Birkin. Star performances took him to victory in the Brooklands mountain championship, Mont Ventoux Hillclimb, Brighton Speed Trials and the Coppa Acerbo Junior, putting the precocious American firmly on the map.

His talent and speed were evident and Straight himself even felt confident that he could take on the Maestro, Tazio Nuvolari, without fear – particularly if it was raining. Such was his confidence at the end of the 1933 season that Straight decided to drop out of Cambridge altogether and set about building a team with operations in Italy and Britain.

Straight ordered three of the new three-litre 8CM Maseratis direct from the factory and took delivery of two for the start of the season – together with three racing transporters, all of which being painted in the American racing colours of blue and white. These two 8CMs were passed over to Reid Railton for custom modifying at Thomson & Taylor. The modifications included different fuel tanks, different cockpit arrangements and the installation of a Wilson preselector gearbox.

The Wilson gearbox worked well enough but it sapped power and added weight. Frustratingly for Straight, the one time it failed cost him a certain victory in the Casablanca Grand Prix. The cars were certainly a talking point in the sport, and the most striking external feature of the Straight Maseratis was the replacement of the slab-fronted Italian radiator grille with a stylish heart-shaped cowl which was to become a Straight trademark.

Whitney Straight on his way to seventh at the 1934 Monaco GP

Whitney Straight on his way to seventh at the 1934 Monaco GP

To drive with him, Straight signed Hugh Hamilton, Marcel Lehoux and Buddy Featherstonehaugh. Among the key figures involved with the team were future Jaguar giant “Lofty” England, Reid Railton and Bill Rockell.

Fortune also smiled upon Straight’s ambitions when it became clear that Alfa Romeo’s celebrated chief engineer, Giulio Ramponi, had resigned his position with Enzo Ferrari’s team. A deal was quickly struck and the Adrian Newey of his era came into the employ of this young American star.

Nevertheless, while there was racing genius behind the experimental developments being carried on his cars, even the might of Whitney Straight’s wallet met its match with the arrival of the government-backed giants from Germany. The works teams of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union, with the full backing of their factories and the government, meant that even the indomitable Straight’s ambitions faltered beneath this technological blitzkrieg.

A 1935 Auto Union streamliner - Whitney Straight declined it

A 1935 Auto Union streamliner – Whitney Straight declined it

The 1934 season ended with a trip to South Africa. To make it a memorable occasion, Straight decided to fly his own aircraft, a de Havilland Dragon, down to East London for the race accompanied by Ramponi, his younger brother Michael and Dick Seaman.

Michael Straight had never raced a car before, but was entered in a four-litre Railton sports car developed by Jack Shuttleworth. Seaman was to drive Straight’s old MG, while Straight himself had the Maserati 8CM. Overloaded with fuel and racing spares, the plane ran out of runway while taking off in Rhodesia and landed in a ditch – but the party managed to effect repairs and carry on to reach their destination.

The six-lap handicap event is today considered to have been South Africa’s first Grand Prix – and Straight won it with panache. Nevertheless, this was to be his last competitive performance, for it was clear that conventional Grand Prix machines such as the Maserati were hopelessly outclassed by the Germans.

Straight (leading) knew that a privateer car couldn't beat the Third Reich's racers

Straight (leading) knew that a privateer car couldn’t beat the Third Reich

Initially, Straight decided to buy one of the German cars. Mercedes dismissed his advances out of hand but Auto Union did seriously consider selling him one of its 1934-specification V16s. Ultimately the team chose – or was quite possibly ordered – not to allow a foreign team to enter a German car, but instead invited Straight to join the works Auto Union team for 1935.

Having spent much of 1933 and 1934 travelling through Europe, Straight was only too keenly aware of the ways in which the ‘silver arrows’ were a propaganda tool for the Third Reich – and that taking up such an offer could only be an endorsement of Nazism.  While he had no interest in pursuing the pastoral, philanthropic ideals of his mother, father and stepfather, there was also no way that Straight could conscionably support Hitler.

Without a German car, Straight had no means of winning at the top level. So it was that after just one promising season the talented and determined young man abandoned his motor racing career. He made sure that Ramponi had a profitable business to run in Britain and also ensured that his services were available to Dick Seaman, who had completed a strong season in the MG through 1934 and, having reached his majority and inherited sufficient funds, was about to make the step to international racing in an ERA voiturette.

The ex-Straight 8CM in historic racing action

The ex-Straight 8CM in historic racing action

Straight, meanwhile, began to investigate the means of turning his passion for aviation into a profitable business. It became his new mission to ensure that, in the face of an increasingly bellicose and militaristic Germany, a culture of air-mindedness was fostered in Britain.

A new chapter was beginning in the life of Whitney Straight, of which more in Part 2…

‘Mad Jack’ and the Shuttleworths

The Shuttleworth Collection is one of Britain’s best-loved transport museums: a haven where the exhibits really do come to life and the only place in the world where you can often see a real 1909 Bleriot monoplane take to the air. But while its living, breathing artefacts are well-known, perhaps its ‘founding father’ is a little less so.

Ivan Berryman captures 'Mad Jack' in action - available here

Ivan Berryman captures ‘Mad Jack’ in action – available here

The Shuttleworth family originally came from Dogdyke in Lincolnshire, where this corner of the industrial revolution saw Joseph Shuttleworth ally his boat-building business with his brother-in-law Nathaniel Clayton’s iron foundry. Together they began to build steam engines and the new agricultural machinery that began to mechanise the British landscape in the late 19th Century.

The Claytons and Shuttleworths bequeathed a thriving business to their children, with Joseph Shuttleworth’s younger son Frank enjoying a privileged upbringing and education in Germany and France and becoming an accomplished yachtsman. His chosen career was as an officer in the cavalry, while also becoming a successful steeplechase jockey; buying an estate at Old Warden in Bedfordshire from which to breed horses.

The Clayton and Shuttleworth factory today

The Clayton and Shuttleworth factory today

At the ripe old age of 57 he settled down and married Dorothy, the beautiful 23-year-old daughter of Old Warden’s vicar, in 1902. The couple were blissfully happy, despite the age gap, taking a round the world trip in 1906 before Dorothy gave birth to a son, Richard, who was born in 1909.

Frank died just four years later, but his legacy of adventure and adrenaline lived on in his young son. Richard developed an abiding passion for aviation, enhanced no doubt by the fact that the Clayton and Shuttleworth factories were given over to war production during World War 1. Clayton and Shuttleworth became a major aircraft constructor and, in so doing, built a wide range of machines from the nimble Sopwith Camel fighter to the gigantic Handley Page 0/400 bomber.

The mighty Handley Page 0/400

The mighty Handley Page 0/400 was built by Clayton and Shuttleworth

Perhaps in anticipation of an inherited reckless streak, Richard’s father had ensured that his inheritance was to be held in trust until he turned 23. This prompted some inventiveness from the young scion to ensure maximum thrills on a tight budget – he chose to buy and tun old cars, taking part in the London to Brighton Run from the age of 19 at the wheel – or tiller – of a variety of pioneering pre-1906 machinery.

This was often done in the company of boisterous friends and peers, while Shuttleworth’s ebullience at the controls gave nim the nickname ‘Mad Jack’ which was to become very much part of his persona. Once he turned 23, however, Richard’s massive resources allowed him to indulge all his passions, and he immediately learned to fly, buying the Bleriot and Deperdussin monoplanes which remain at the heart of his collection today.

Aircraft were one passion but motoring was another. As his contribution to the family business, Richard invested heavily in Noel Macklin’s new Railton sports car marque. For his own motoring ambitions, meanwhile, he bought a Bugatti Type 51 Grand Prix car and won the Brighton Speed Trials.

Shuttleworth at the 1934 Mannin Moar (pic The Bugatti Trust)

He upgraded the Bugatti to a brand new Alfa Romeo P3 in 1935. The green-painted Alfa won the Brooklands Mountain Championship and ran competitively alongside the works cars of Scuderia Ferrari in Europe, but Shuttleworth’s finest hour came in the inaugural Grand Prix held at Donington Park circuit in Leicestershire at the end of the season.

It was a weekend of foul weather and the ‘crack’ Ferrari-entered Alfas of Giuseppe Farina and Raymond Sommer held sway through the early stages of the race. Shuttleworth ran in fourth but spun while attempting to remain on the lead lap and appeared to be out of the running completely.

In desperation he ditched the blue and white cork crash helmet and visor, opting instead to race bare-headed in just a pair of goggles as he attempted to fight his way back into contention. ‘Mad Jack’ was to the fore, powering the Alfa through the many bends of the parkland circuit in a string of lurid slides with his hair blowing in the wind… meanwhile the works Alfas hit trouble, leaving the British drivers a clear field.

The two Bugattis of Earl Howe and Charlie Martin looked to have the race sewn up, but Shuttleworth kept charging and when the more experienced men spun in the aqwful conditions he was able to pounce, In the end he finished 45 seconds clear of Howe’s Bugatti to claim a memorable victory – and his finest racing achievement, taking home the Donington Park Challenge Trophy and £400 for his efforts.

Early in 1936, Shuttleworth took his Alfa to South Africa and entered the East London Grand Prix. He lost control of the car at speed and suffered career-ending injuries – preferring to dedicate himself to aviation, except for his outings on the annual London to Brighton jaunt.

Fairey Battles on a training flight over England

Fairey Battle bombers on a training flight over England

At the outbreak of World War 2, Richard joined the Royal Air Force. For all his enormous experience, however, he was killed in an accident while piloting a Fairey Battle bomber over Oxfordshire while practicing night flying.

His mother, although devastated by the loss of her son, set up the mansion as a Red Cross Convalescent Home for injured airmen and created a small chapel, dedicated to Richard. In 1944 she decided to place the estate in a charitable Trust in memory of her son; she wanted to ensure that it would continue as one entity to be used for the purpose of agricultural and aviation education, two interests that Richard was especially keen on.

Shuttleworth College first opened its doors to students in 1946 and remains as part of the modern Bedford College. Richard’s collection of historic aircraft and cars were also preserved in working order, opening to the public in 1963. The Collection has since grown in scale and stature, while the family home at Old Warden Park is now also a renowned conference venue and is also home to the English School of Falconry.

Shuttleworth's 1912 Deperdussin in action today

Shuttleworth’s 1912 Deperdussin in action today

A perfect way to unwind…

A good weekend’s work: 1950s model kits reissued by Airfix

In the 1950s, Airfix released its first 1/72 scale model aircraft kits. The Spitfire was first of course, but among the aviation icons that followed soon after was the pre-war de Havilland Comet racer, hero of the 1934 MacRobertson Air Race and several other record-breaking flights through the late 1930s.

It was astonishingly basic, with just 24 pieces to glue together and a single colour to paint.

Recently, Airfix has reissued the kit for the umpteenth time but, this time, there’s a twist: rather than the winning aircraft from the 1934 race, ‘Grosvenor House’, it has released its two stablemates: ‘Black Magic’ and the unnamed aircraft known to all as ‘The Green’Un’.

The passage of 60 years and many, many hundreds of thousands of kits stamped out from the original moulds makes the kit quite hard work at times… sandpaper, plastic filler and a decent stock of swear words are required. But the results – even for a rank amateur such as myself – are well worth the investment in my view.

I hope you agree…

Britain to Melbourne: The Great 1934 Air Race

Now here is a great way to spend less than 10 minutes – enjoying the sights and sounds of the MacRobertson Trophy Air Race, which took place in October 1934 and created the legend of the De Havilland DH.88 Comet.

The race was devised by the Lord Mayor of Melbourne as part of the great Australian city’s centenary celebrations, and a prize fund of $75,000 was put up by Sir Macpherson Robertson, a wealthy Australian confectionery manufacturer, on the conditions that the race be named after his MacRobertson confectionery company.

The race was organised by the Royal Aero Club and would run from  Mildenhall airfield in East Anglia to Flemington Racecourse, Melbourne. There were five compulsory stops in Baghdad, Allahabad, Singapore, Darwin and Charleville, Queensland – but between these points the competitors could choose their own routes. A further 22 optional stops were provided with stocks of fuel and oil by Shell and Stanavo.

The basic rules were: no limit to the size of aircraft or power or to crew size, but no pilot was permitted to join the aircraft after they had left England. Each aircraft had to carry three days’ rations per crew member, plus floats, smoke signals and efficient instruments. There were prizes for the outright fastest aircraft, and for the best performance on a handicap formula by any aircraft finishing within 16 days of the outright winner.

Take off date was set at dawn on October 20, 1934. The announcement of the race and the generous purse ensured that 60 entries were registered, but of these only 20 made it to the start line. Among them was the trio of  purpose-built designed de Havilland DH.88 Comet aircraft, which were planned as soon as the MacRobinson race was announced. They were pre-sold to customers at a cost of £5,000 -each – significantly less than the cost of designing and building these advanced aircraft – because the de Havilland company felt that such a ‘loss leader’ was worth it if it ensured a British victory.

Against the Comets, the stiffest competition was expected to come from the advanced American all-metal passenger airliners, such as the Douglas DC-2. Nevertheless the field featured aircraft of every size and type by the time the race got underway.

First off the line, watched by a crowd of 60,000, were Jim & Amy Mollison (nee Johnson) in their Comet named ‘Black Magic’, and these two celebrated aviators were early leaders in the race until forced to retire at Allahabad with engine trouble. This left the scarlet Comet named ‘Grosvenor House’ and flown by Flight Lt. Charles Scott and Captain Tom Campbell Black well ahead of the field. This racer went on to win in a time of less than 3 days, despite flying the last stage with one engine throttled back because of an oil-pressure indicator giving a faulty low reading.

The third Comet was the green-painted example that was bought by the celebrated aviator and racing driver, Bernard Rubin. This aircraft had no name, but its colour scheme evoked strong memories of the Bentley team of which Rubin had been a key member during its triumphs at Le Mans. Originally Rubin was to have flown with K.F.H. Waller but he was taken ill, so Waller instead flew with O. Cathcart-Jones.

“The Green ‘Un”, as Rubin’s Comet was known, finished fourth in the race to Melbourne, but more significantly it picked up the very newsreel footage you see here and flew straight back to Britain, setting a new round-trip record in to the bargain!

Perhaps more significantly in the development of popular long-distance air travel, the second and third places were taken by passenger-carrying airliners, with the KLM-operated Douglas DC-2 Uiver gaining a narrow advantage over Roscoe Turner’s Boeing 247-D, both completing the course less than a day behind the winner.

The most dramatic part of the race was when the Uiver, hopelessly lost after becoming caught in a thunderstorm, ended up over Albury NSW. The townsfolk responded magnificently – an engineer at the power station signalled “Albury” to the plane by turning the town lights on and off, and an announcer on radio station 2CO Corowa appealed for cars to line up on the racecourse to light up a runway for the plane. The plane landed, and next morning was pulled out of the mud by locals to fly on and win the handicap section of the race. In gratitude KLM made a large donation to Albury Hospital and Alf Waugh, the Mayor of Albury, was awarded a title in Dutch nobility.

Here all the footage shot for the British newsreels has been assembled for your viewing pleasure. It makes for a spine-tingling spectacle almost 80 years later…