Oxford vs. Cambridge in the air

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fleming’s first assignment

With all the hubbub about James Bond that inevitably surrounds a new movie, the S&G can report that it is probably Daniel Craig’s finest hour. Not since Goldeneye has there been such a shameless parade of 007 iconography laid out in return for the entry fee, but it was sufficient to make beautiful women whoop with glee – something for which Ian Fleming would undoubtedly be thankful.

He would also doubtless be thankful for the high calibre of the car chase in Spectre, which is set in Rome’s rather claustrophobic, cobbled night time streets and featuring two visions of British-built loveliness, the stillborn Jaguar C-X75 hybrid and Aston Martin DB10.

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A licence to squeal: the ladies like a good car chase in Bond’s latest, Spectre

Cars were a major feature of Fleming’s life and work, and became such as early as July 1932 when, as a junior reporter for Reuters, he was dispatched to Munich for his first piece of overseas reportage.

The deal was that Fleming would act as navigator on the International Alpine Trial for a rather useful driver and WW1 pilot called Donald Healey, winner of the 1931 Monte Carlo Rally at the wheel of his 4½-litre Invicta. Fleming would write up the story to cast Invicta, and British motoring generally, in a favourable light while reporting upon one of the growing number of motoring events that had caught the public imagination.

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Healey and his crew celebrate winning the 1931 Monte with their Invicta

The event was extremely popular both with young British men and the burgeoning sports car manufacturers such as Riley, Sunbeam and Singer – all of whom were seeking to recreate the sort of fame and success enjoyed by the ‘Bentley Boys’ at Le Mans. Among the competitors in 1932 was a youthful Dick Seaman in the MG Magna that was normally his runabout at Trinity College, Cambridge.

Like Seaman and the other British contenders, Healey and Fleming drove 700 miles from London to Munich, crossing the Channel on the SS Forde before an overnight halt in Reims, then stopping in Freudenstadt in the Black Forest after a second day’s hard motoring.

They arrived in Munich in time for a torch lit parade before the start, which was held in torrential rain. Healey’s skill and the Invicta’s prowess catapulted them into the lead of the event, in front of continental ‘crack’ entries from the factories of Mercedes, Lancia and Bugatti to name but three.

Just months after joining Reuters on an unsalaried trial and being apprenticed by such tiresome work as updating obituaries, the whole event must have come as manna from heaven to the 23-year-old Fleming. Here he was among like-minded chaps, savouring the whiff of Castrol R and Healey’s furious working of throttle and gears at first hand.

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Future hero Seaman apace in his Magna

 

The Alpine Trial lasted a week and criss-crossed the borders of Germany, Austria, Italy, Switzerland and France on a route of 1580 miles. Healey was on brilliant form, setting the outright fastest time and a new record of 23 minutes 44 seconds for climbing the fabled Stelvio Pass, ending that day with a night at the Grand Hotel in St. Moritz – exactly the sort of excitements that Fleming would later give to James Bond.

At the end of the event, Healey would be awarded the Coupe des Glaciers for having completed the event with zero penalty points. The big Invicta did not carry off the outright honours and found itself swamped by hordes of smaller capacity cars on the final run to Grenoble – much to Fleming’s bemusement. It was reported in The Autocar magazine that this rather self-assured young navigator was to be found chastising the impudent little cars, demanding to know “What on earth are you doing among the grown-ups?”

Fleming filed his copy and parted ways with Healey – the former heading off into the arms of his Swiss paramour, Monique Panchaud de Bottomes, while Healey took in the Swiss Automobile Club’s annual hillclimb, finishing second.

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Monique Panchaud de Bottomes and Ian Fleming in Switzerland, 1931

While the young gentlemen enjoyed their sport, there was a small hubbub at home because, contrary to the story reported by Fleming and carried by The Daily Telegraph, it had not been a British victory on the event. Fleming’s editor called him to demand an explanation, to which came the reply that this was not a competition measured in first-past-the-post speed but in skill and bravery, at which the British contingent had won hands-down.

Remarkably, this explanation sufficed!

The impact of this odyssey was, of course, to be profound. It was the sort of drive that James Bond would later take, carrying millions of readers alongside him to experience the growl of two-inch exhaust pipes, to share the enjoyment of racing gearchanges and to learn the finer points of supercharging and back-axle ratios. It is also notable that Bond’s mother was called Monique and she was from Vaud in Switzerland.

Life for Donald Healey, meanwhile, would see him step back from competition driving and into the vanguard of British sports car designers, starting with Triumph. After working on the production of aero engines and armoured cars during World War 2, the Donald Healey Motor Company was formed in 1945, producing his own cars and in partnership with Nash and, most famously of all, with Austin.

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Donald Healey in later life with one of his celebrated creations

Thoughts at the S&G have turned to Fleming of late for reasons other than James Bond. More than 50 years ago now, that most unfettered imperialist gave his verdict on America’s rise to superpower status. As a nation, he declared, they were: “Totally unprepared to rule the world that is now theirs.”

In recent weeks, the behaviour of great swathes of Americans in the face of the Islamic death cult Daesh has hammered Fleming’s words home. Not least when that buffoon Donald Trump, stalking horse for the White House in 2016, suggested launching nuclear warheads at the barren desert of Daesh territory in Syria and Iraq – to rapturous applause: “I don’t know if sand can glow in the dark,” he said. “But we’re going to find out.”

No, Ian… they still haven’t got it yet.

The remarkable Whitney Straight – Part 2: aviator

The art deco splendour of Ramsgate's airport terminal - a Straight Corporation creation

The art deco splendour of Ramsgate’s airport terminal – a Straight Corporation creation

The prodigiously talented young American racing driver, Whitney Straight, abandoned his chosen career at the ripe old age of 23. With no prospect of winning at the highest level of the sport without representing Nazi Germany, he turned to his other great passion – aviation – and founded the Straight Corporation Ltd. in early 1935.

Immediately he began looking for ways to invest in the aviation infrastructure of his adopted home country, Britain, thus the Straight Corporation set about buying up operator’s rights and expanding existing airfields, setting up flying clubs and taking a lead role in civil aviation.

The business grew rapidly through the mid-1930s and among the many Straight Corporation properties were the airports at Exeter, Ipswich, Ramsgate, Weston Super Mare, Bristol and Inverness. Whitney Straight himself also joined forces with the Miles aircraft company to produce a beautiful touring machine, the Miles Whitney Straight, in 1936.

The Miles Whitney Straight was a rakish air racer and tourer

The Miles Whitney Straight was a rakish air racer and tourer

As with his motor racing exploits, Straight very quickly inveigled his friend Dick Seaman in the new venture. No doubt arguing that Seaman also needed something to provide him with a future beyond racing, the younger man also gained his pilot’s licence and was listed as a director of many Straight Corporation-owned businesses. He was even the registered owner of a Short Scion airliner at the tender age of 22!

The Aeroplane recorded that, in January 1936, the Straight Corporation Ltd. of Brettenham House, Lancaster Gate, Strand, London, WC2 reported increase in capital of £45,000 over the registered capital of £75,000. Whitney Straight was himself stated to be director and also director of General Aircraft Ltd. Dumium Ltd, Air Commerce Ltd and Sidco Trust Ltd.

As well as a prominent businessman, Straight had also become a husband. In a classic meeting of backgrounds, he married Lady Daphne Margarita Finch-Hatton, whose father was Guy Montagu George Finch-Hatton, 14th Earl of Winchilsea and 9th Earl of Nottingham, but whose mother was Margaretta Armstrong Drexel, an American banker’s heiress. The couple had two daughters together.

In 1938, with war becoming an increasing certainty, Whitney Straight became a British citizen. When war broke out, the British government requisitioned most of the Straight Corporation’s airfields while he himself joined the Royal Air Force.

Whitney Straight in uniform as an RAF officer

Whitney Straight in uniform as an RAF officer

Straight’s background in establishing, developing and managing successful airfields in peacetime doubtless played a key role in his first military assignment. He was dispatched to Norway in April 1940 to find frozen lakes suitable for use as airfields. The resultant RAF base at Lake Lesjaskog became home to the Gloster Gladiators of 263 Squadron, which fought a desperate battle against overwhelming forces during the Nazi invasion of Norway.

Straight himself was seriously wounded during the invasion and invalided back to Britain. After his recuperation, during which time the Blitzkrieg rolled its way through Belgium, Holland and France, he lobbied hard for a front-line role in the defence of Britain and was posted to 601 (County of London) Squadron, Royal Auxiliary Air Force – better known as the ‘Millionaires Squadron’.

Just like other Auxiliary units such as 610 Squadron, the early weeks of active service had taken a heavy toll on the wealthy ‘weekend warriors’ of 601. Straight flew with them from September 1940 until April 1941, during which time he was credited with two aircraft destroyed.

A 601 Squadron Hurricane being serviced in late 1940

A 601 Squadron Hurricane being serviced in late 1940

He then became CO of 242 Squadron, formerly commanded by Douglas Bader, and was able to bring his total score to 3 and 1 shared (with 2 ‘probables’) by July 1941. It was on July 31st 1941 that his front line career ended, however, when he was shot down over France.

Straight was flying a 242 Squadron Hurricane II on a ROADSTEAD anti-shipping raid near Le Havre when his aircraft was hit by the defending flak ship, knocking its engine out. He managed to make a forced landing in a nearby field and made a run for it.

Thanks to his upbringing and considerable time in Europe, Straight was a fluent French speaker and because he chose to fly in a non-regulation leather jacket he was able to make his way to Rouen and catch a train to Paris. Here he found the US Embassy closed but finally managed to telephone and persuade a member of the embassy staff to bring a thousand francs to a nearby café where Straight was hiding in the lavatories.

He then took a train to Tours and crossed out of Nazi-occupied France into the Vichy state by swimming across the river Cher. After gathering himself together and drying out, he then took a bus to Chateauroux and a train to Toulouse, from where he boarded another train heading for Pau. On approaching Bedous, near the Spanish border, he was arrested and, realising the potential propaganda value he could hold for the Germans, he gave his name and rank as Captain Whitney of the Royal Army Service Corps.

It was known that Vichy France was repatriating wounded prisoners at this time, and thus Straight claimed to be suffering ear problems from wounds received in Norway and was successfully certified as unfit for further military service. There was a long delay before repatriation could be arranged and it wasn’t until March 1942 that he joined a party being sent through Spain via Perpignan.

On arrival in Perpignan, however, it appeared that the repatriation policy had been reversed. The party was turned back and sent to detention in Nice, where Straight continued to complain of trouble from his Norwegian wounds and was duly sent to the Pasteur Hospital in Nice.

Meanwhile in London, word had reached the War Office from the US Embassy that Whitney Straight was alive in Vichy captivity and orders were given to the escape line operated by Pat O’Leary (the nom-de-guerre of Belgian army doctor-turned-spy Albert-Marie Guérisse).

A top secret vessel: HMS Tarana

A top secret vessel: HMS Tarana

O’Leary’s network ran from Gibraltar through neutral Spain and into Vichy France. One of his operatives, Francis Blanchain, traveled to Nice and visited Straight in hospital, organizing a diversion with the assistance of a nurse, Nicole Brugere, during which Straight together with two more POWs – Polish bomber crewman Sergeant Stefan Miniakowski and British soldier Private Charles Knight – simply walked out of the hospital.

The three men joined four other prisoners of war and one member of the Special Operations Executive at St Pierre Plage, near Narbonne. In what was known as Operation BLUEBOTTLE, a former French trawler used by the British secret services at MI9 as HMS TARANA, gathered up the 17-strong party in a rowing boat and then sailed them to Gibraltar in mid-July 1942.

In September 1942, Straight was appointed Wing Commander and dispatched to the Middle East as AOC of 216 Group, the air transportation and logistics operation for the region. He remained in this position until the end of the war, returning to England to take over 46 Group, the principal Air Transport operation in the RAF.

Straight and Shaikh Khalifa of Bahrain in 1945

Straight and Shaikh Khalifa of Bahrain in 1945

Straight returned to civilian life in 1946 and took up the position of deputy chairman at British European Airways before moving to the position of managing director and Chief Executive Officer of British Overseas Airways Corporation in 1947 – becoming BOAC Chairman in 1949.

Meanwhile, all around Straight there was plenty going on. His cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney was President of Pan-American Airways and was also appointed President Truman’s special envoy to the United Kingdom, Luxembourg, Spain and Italy, with the two cousins apparently embodying the ‘special relationship’ between Britain and the USA.

Straight was also involved in what would turn out to be a 30-year romance with Diana Barnato Walker, the daughter of Le Mans winner Woolf ‘Babe’ Barnato and a celebrated pilot in her own right. Together Straight and Diana had a son, Barney Barnato Walker, although he remained married to Daphne throughout his life.

Wartime heroine and long-term mistress, Diana Barnato Walker

Wartime heroine and Straight’s 30-year mistress, Diana Barnato Walker

In the meantime, Straight’s younger brother Michael was also getting some undesired attention for extracurricular interests. After flying with Whitney to South Africa in 1934, Michael Straight continued to travel and in 1935 he visited Russia – and later in the year went up to Cambridge, where he entered the circle of Communist ringleader Anthony Blunt.

Fearful of Nazism and disillusioned by British appeasement of Hitler, the teenage Straight was a ripe target for recruitment by the KGB – and legend has it that Stalin himself was kept abreast of the recruitment of the rich young American.

Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt

Cambridge spy, Anthony Blunt

When he completed his studies at Cambridge it was agreed that Straight would very publicly attack the Communist Party and its ethos, after which he feigned a nervous breakdown and travelled to the USA with his mother and stepfather.

Through his family contacts, Michael Straight was able to gain an audience with President Roosevelt, who refused to employ him on his permanent staff but offered to help him get a job at the State Department. It was a low-profile role and it allowed the young man plenty of opportunity to copy secret documents and smuggle them to his KGB controller, Iskhak Akhmerov.

When the USA entered the war, Michael Straight joined the Army Air Service and operations. At the war’s end he joined the editorial and management team of The New Republic political magazine, founded by his mother, but this venture foundered and his elder brother Whitney forced the closure of the business.

It was at this time that Whitney Straight, now on the board of Rolls-Royce’s aeronautics division, discovered to his horror that the Soviet Union had access to Rolls-Royce technology and that the MIG 15 front-line fighter was powered by a rip-off of the Rolls-Royce Derwent engine.

MIG fighters were powered by Rolls-Royce clones

MIG fighters were powered by Rolls-Royce clones

This was nothing to do with his brother – in fact Britain’s socialist prime minister, Clement Attlee, had sent 40 Rolls-Royce engines to Russia under an export licence agreed by the Labour government. Straight immediately sued the Soviet government for breach of copyright, demanding £200 million in unpaid royalties… without success.

Michael Straight meanwhile decided that he wanted to follow the family route into American political life, when a background check by the Democratic Party revealed his Communist affiliations before World War 2. At the height of the Cold War, alarm bells went off on both sides of the Atlantic.

For the next decade, Michael Straight became a cause celebre of the American secret services, with information drawn from him in 1963 giving up Anthony Blunt as the ringleader of the Cambridge spy ring which included Donald Maclean, Guy Burgess and Kim Philby. No action was taken directly against Michael Straight by the US government, but many believed that by not revealing his secrets earlier, he allowed Burgess, McLean and Philby a free hand.

After his long years in the wilderness under FBI and CIA observation, Michael Straight returned to public life in the late 1960s as a patron of the arts and wrote several historical studies. His older sister, Beatrice, had long been involved in the arts as an actress, taking to the stage in England in 1939 and winning an Oscar for her role in the movie Network in 1976.

Whitney and Michael Straight's sister Beatrice won an Oscar in 1976

Whitney and Michael Straight’s sister Beatrice won an Oscar in 1976

Michael Straight died in 2004 at the age of 87, three years after his sister. By that time their older brother Whitney, the pioneering aviator and racing driver, war hero and airline grandee was also dead.

At the age of just 66 – and yet with more life lived than many of far greater years – Whitney Straight died at home in Fulham in 1979, leaving a large family and a quiet but unshakeable legacy of adventure and achievement. They were, and remain, a truly remarkable family.

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…

Time for a Top 10

As we’re now 100 posts in to this little odyssey around the age of adventure, I thought I’d do a little stock take to see which subjects have been the most popular. After all it’s a fairly broad church here at the S&G, so one never really knows if it’s going in the right direction for people to enjoy.

Gratifyingly, all the subjects seem to be at about the same level of interest in terms of the number of people reading them – and that number’s going up all the time, so thank you! And if you’re interested then here’s the pick of the pops in your top 10 most popular posts so far – cue the music…

In at 10 it’s The Racing Driver’s Bride and the story of the beautiful Hollywood actress who married Ferrari’s 1950s ace Peter Collins.

At 9 it’s some classic pin-up action from Elvgren’s Skirt & Giggles.

In at number 8 it’s Airfix and its all-new Lancaster kit.

At 7 it’s time to hit the bar with Mike and the Members.

And at 6 we have the story of Tazio Nuvolari’s TT-winning Alfa.

In at number 5 it’s the bitter-sweet story of aviation heroine Jean Batten.

At four we’ve got Sir Stirling Moss falling foul of political correctness, and now it’s time to see where your mouse has been leading you most often here at the S&G

At number 3 it’s a mystery and a whodunit – and still we don’t know who tends Dick Seaman’s grave.

The runner-up spot is currently held by the Dornier Do17 that lay on the Goodwin Sands for more than 70 years before the RAF Museum pulled it up from beneath the English Channel. They got the whole thing up – not ‘arf!

Yet for all the many stories about cars and planes, it’s one of the few so far about boats which is holding sway. Yes, you style-conscious lot, you’ve put Brigitte Bardot at the top of the pile with the story of her love affair with Riva powerboats. So here’s a little something to keep you happy this summer, with BB on the quayside…

BB offers a little thank you to all the S&G's visitors - we hope to see you soon!

BB offers a little thank you to all the S&G’s visitors – we hope to see you soon!

A dark and distant start to the season

This weekend a new season of Formula One blasts off many miles from home in Melbourne’s Albert Park. Seventy-five years ago the Grand Prix crowd also ventured a long way to commence battle… to the Italian protectorate of Libya for the Tunis GP and what would prove to be another titanic outing for the silver cars of Germany…

Today's distant races are 'flyaways' but they were 'sailaways' in 1938

Today’s distant races are ‘flyaways’ but they were ‘sailaways’ in 1938

After the ‘anything goes’ years of 1934-37 when pretty well any car weighing less than 750kg was eligible to compete in top flight grands prix, the 1938 season saw a limit of 3.0-litre engines for supercharged cars and 4.5 litres for unblown machinery in an attempt to curb the excesses of the German teams.

Fat chance!

Auto Union, still rocked by the death of Bernd Rosemeyer in the impromptu record attempts made at the start of the year, didn’t have its new V12 cars ready in time to catch the boat to North Africa, but Mercedes-Benz had four of its new low-slung W154 machines available for Rudolf Caracciola, Manfred von Brauchitsch, Hermann Lang and Dick Seaman.

The Italians took one look at the potent silver cars and, fearing a whitewash, promptly capped teams to a maximum of three entries. The offer was made to paint Seaman’s car British racing green and enter him as a ‘privateer’ but this was turned down flat by the race officials. Hence German dudgeon ran pretty high when Alfa Romeo was allowed to enter its fourth car as a ‘privateer’ entry for Raymond Sommer!

Alfa Corse had been reinstated to prepare and enter the scarlet cars from Portello after five unsuccessful seasons with Scuderia Ferrari in charge. A somewhat mutinous Enzo Ferrari was initially retained as team manager but that relationship was doomed to failure and he had already abandoned the team which arrived in Tripoli with Sommer,  Giuseppe Farina and Eugenio Siena in the new V12 cars and Clemente Biondetti who, during practice, tried out a remarkable V16 that was made from two 158 Alfetta engines lashed together. He reverted to a humble 308 for the race.

Elsewhere there was a Bugatti for Jean-Pierre Wimille, a trio of Delahayes for Laury Schell, Gianfranco Comotti and René Dreyfus plus a pair of new Maserati 8CTFs for Count Trossi and the returning Achille Varzi, who was a shadow of his former self in the depths of his addiction to morphia.

The Tripoli Grand Prix required 30 starters in order for the celebrated lottery to take place, based on the race numbers of the cars and the order in which they crossed the finish line. As a result a raft of 1.5-litre Maseratis was brought in to make up the numbers.

In the end it was this decision which gave the race its mark in history. The Alfa Romeos were frustrated in all their attempts to hold back the Mercedes and Latin tempers ran high in the African sun. Siena thundered up behind the little Maserati of Franco Cortese, who hadn’t seen him coming and held his line into the next corner, forcing his compatriot to swerve. The Alfa hit one of the sand banks that lined the course, took off and hit the side of a house – against which Siena was killed instantly.

Cortese drove on, unaware of the disaster in his wake. Later in the race a similar situation arose when Farina found his progress hampered by the Maserati of Hungarian driver László Hartmann and began lunging impatiently at him with the long nose of the Alfa. Eyewitnesses said that the contact between the cars looked deliberate, from which Hartmann’s car skidded and flipped over. The Hungarian was thrown out and broke his back, dying in hospital the next day.

Meanwhile the Mercedes team swept home to an unopposed 1-2-3 finish with Lang heading home four minutes clear of Brauchitsch and Caracciola for the second of his hat-trick of victories in Tripoli. Marshal Balbo, the patron of the event, forwent the opulent post-race celebrations that usually accompanied the completion of his Grand Prix, with Farina said to be ‘inconsolable with grief’ in Lang’s recollection of the day.

László Hartmann’s grave in Budapest is somewhere that a handful of contemporary F1 folk have sought out over the years. In an era when so many drivers escaped from the very real dangers of the sport, the pride shown in Hungary’s first and only Grand Prix driver of the 20th Century remains touching. My photos were a bit grainy and fuzzy, taken on a cheap old camera very late one day, so here is a better one:

Hartmann's grave in Rákoskeresztúr Cemetery

Hartmann’s grave in Rákoskeresztúr Cemetery

The mystery of Seaman’s grave

Last month I paid a visit to Dick Seaman’s grave for the first time in a few years. I had almost forgotten that February 2013 marked what would have been his 100th birthday, but this pre-war hero has been a constant companion over the years so it seemed an appropriate moment to catch up.

Dick Seaman’s grave, February 2013

In fact it was thanks in no small part to the late Richard John Beattie-Seaman that I became a member of the accredited Formula One media. I wrote a little story about this young man who looked like the one character that Ralph Fiennes was born to play in what could be the most astonishing movie ever made. A few people liked it and soon enough I was on a plane to cover the inaugural US Grand Prix at Indianapolis.

Of course, we used to think that we knew everything about Grand Prix racing in the 1930s. We had contemporary newsreels and race reports but more than this we had the testimonies of the survivors, credulously recorded by the most esteemed scribes in motor sport.

The trouble was, of course, that many of the survivors didn’t half tell some whoppers. If you read their autobiographies, interviews and the great works of automotive literature that they inspired, the only insights on offer from the greatest sporting stars of the Third Reich were that Adolf Hitler was a curious little chap with an amusing moustache.

Dick Seaman's Mercedes at the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Dick Seaman’s Mercedes at the 1937 Vanderbilt Cup in New York

Then, in the late 1990s, came a change. For the first time a German writer, Eberhard Reuss, took an interest in the Silver Arrows. Here was someone with time to dig deep in archives written in his mother tongue, and who dedicated time and talent to follow evidence that was never going to be accessible to the mainly British chroniclers who preceded him.

Suddenly there was much less to laugh about… although that’s another story in itself.

Poor old Seaman never had the opportunity to tell tall tales of how he cocked a snook at the jumped-up little Austrian corporal and his cronies. He died from the severe burns that he suffered in a crash while leading the 1939 Belgian Grand Prix at Spa.

Today, his tombstone may be fading fast but the grave itself is conspicuously well kept – just as it always has been.

When the fleet of Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union heritage cars gathered for their over-blown ‘reunion’ at last year’s Goodwood Revival I was chatting with another historian and the subject of Seaman duly cropped up. ‘As far as I can tell,’ said he, ‘maintaining Seaman’s grave is probably the last of Hitler’s direct orders that is still being carried out.’

Hitler took a hands-on approach to Grand Prix racing

Hitler took a hands-on approach to Grand Prix racing

It’s one of those little comments that will always raise an eyebrow. It tantalises when, after all, the fact is now long established that appointing a British driver to the propaganda machine that was the ‘Silver Arrows’ required sign-off by Hitler himself.

That was in 1937, and for two-and-a-half seasons Seaman drove well while making himself at home in the Third Reich. Indeed, he even married the beautiful 18-year-old daughter of BMW’s founder Franz Josef Popp. This was exactly why he was approved: to underline Hitler’s good intentions toward Britain and display the virtues of the Reich to the British public.

Unfortunately for the Führer, nobody listened.

When Seaman took his first and only Grand Prix victory it should have been manna from heaven to the media. This dashing young Englishman beat a phalanx of all-conquering German drivers in their home race at the Nürburgring – with a spectacular fire in the pits to boot. But of the 14 daily newspapers in Britain only the Daily Mail gave it even a cursory mention.

Afterwards, in 1941, while the Luftwaffe’s bombs were raining down on British cities, the racing team owner Prince Chula of Siam wrote his biography Dick Seaman Racing Motorist. Even in those dark days he felt it important to emphasise that after Seaman’s death ‘…orders came from Berlin that he was to be given full honours.’

Indeed he was. The German ambassador in London, Herbert von Dirksen, stage-managed proceedings including liaison with Seaman’s widowed mother over the funeral arrangements. He also ensured that Mercedes-Benz’s British importers, headquartered in London’s Camberwell Road, ensured that portraits of the fallen star were prominent in all dealerships across the country.

At the service itself in Putney Vale, the Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams were present along with Ambassador von Dirksen and other dignitaries. It was said that the German contingent kept a low profile but many accounts remarked upon the gigantic wreath of white lilies with a red sash and a swastika, bearing the inscription ‘Adolf Hitler’.

The Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams at Seaman's funeral

The Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union teams at Seaman’s funeral

When leaving Putney Vale this year, I suddenly remembered my colleague’s allegation that Seaman’s grave was being tended at Hitler’s bidding. Thus a little detour was made to the cemetery offices and, after a bit of digging through files by the extremely accommodating staff, the answer came back: Mercedes-Benz has always tended the grave, they said.

Out of courtesy I called up Mercedes-Benz UK’s press office the next morning to find out more. “Oh! We had the cemetery on the phone yesterday,” said the helpful girl who answered. “Can we call you back?”

A short while later Angus Fitton from the Mercedes-Benz PR team rang to say that, in fact, they had no knowledge of who tends Seaman’s plot and indeed never had. “Since the question came up I’ve checked this with Stuttgart and can say categorically that Mercedes-Benz would not impinge upon the family’s private arrangements on such a personal matter,” he said.

Dick Seaman and his mother enjoying the Bavarian sunshine

Dick Seaman and his mother enjoying the Bavarian sunshine

I did remind Angus that the Beattie-Seaman family was effectively extinct. Dick left behind only an ageing mother and elder half-sister with whom he had no known contact throughout his life. His young German widow emigrated to the USA during the war and died in 1990 after two further marriages. Was he sure that they were somehow footing the bill?

“Richard played a very big part in Mercedes’ competition history of course, and we honour that memory at events like the Goodwood Revival last year,” Angus said. “But we would never directly involve ourselves in the private memorial of an individual driver.”

Golly! I thought. This was getting interesting.

Angus’s statement also came as news to the Official Mercedes-Benz Club, to whom I put in a call to check if they had anything about it in the archives. After all, Mercedes-Benz UK has only existed since 1990, so perhaps there might be a prior arrangement that the friendly young folk of Milton Keynes might not be aware of?

“Mercedes pays a small fee to the cemetery every year to keep it tidy,” was the response. “They always have done.”

Other graves around the Seaman family plot are long forgotten

Much as I would like to believe that there is a stack of post-dated cheques written in 1939 that gets passed, as some sacred rite, from each Superintendent at Putney Vale Cemetery to the next, I’m inclined to believe that payment is made annually. And that, despite protestations to the contrary, it is made by Mercedes-Benz.

I’m also inclined to believe that, despite such a ludicrous response, this is not in itself  evidence that Hitler’s last unbroken order is carried out in a Surrey suburb each year. It is simply yet another example of the cack-handed airbrushing of history that has been going on throughout the German automobile industry for almost 70 years.

This story should have been a positive one for those involved. One unseen little act of kindness each year does not atone for the Third Reich, but it does reflect an enormous credit on those responsible.  If only they had wished to accept it.

The way Audi and Mercedes prefer to remember the 1930s: no swastikas in sight

Audi and Mercedes prefer to remember their past with swastikas omitted