“He’d race his grandmother to the breakfast table.”

When somebody is given an epitaph of such utterly bonkers brilliance, it is unwise not to follow it up. Those words were not spoken with any great fondness, however. In fact, we are talking about a hard-bitten racer who managed to alienate most of his competitors, team mates and employers at some time or other. But in the long run he was often the right man at the right time.

His name was Kenneth Henry Miles, known as simply Ken or, more often, The Hawk. None of these is a name that ranks alongside such British success stories of the ‘Fifties as Mike Hawthorn, Stirling Moss or Jack Sears in today’s world but in terms of his impact on the history of motor racing, his career stood tall alongside them.

With his icebreaker nose and jutting jaw, Miles cut a distinctive figure in any paddock. He had been born in Sutton Coldfield, right in the heart of Britain’s industrial Midlands, just days before the end of World War 1. Like many young boys, he was enthralled by mechanical things and apprenticed with Wolseley, where he spent his pay on racing motorcycles.

All this ended with the war. Miles’ mechanical expertise kept him out of the firing line and he ended up engineering tanks until he was demobilised in 1946. After the war, Miles joined the Vintage Sports Car Club and campaigned a lot of what were fairly cheap ‘old runabouts’ like Bugatti T35s and Alfa Romeo Monzas.

Somewhat presciently, the first racing car that he built was a based on an old Frazer Nash into which he Inserted a Ford V8-60 engine and worked hard to turn it into a contender.

The problem was that the war had robbed Miles of his best years. He was in his mid-thirties and a new generation of young British drivers, more than a decade younger than he was, had begun its presence felt. Miles did not really belong with them, nor was he a member of the ‘in-crowd’ at Goodwood. He might well have remained a committed clubman, were it not for a cast-iron belief in his own abilities.

Instead of settling for a quiet life in Britain, Miles decided to head over to America. He found a blossoming motor sport community who wanted to campaign the European sports cars that they had fallen in love with – many of them while serving as GIs in the days after World War 2. Uprooting his wife Mollie and young son Peter, Miles moved to America and found work as the service manager for the Southern California MG distributor.

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The ‘Flying Shingle’ has been restored and polished to a mirror finish in recent years

While he was working on road cars, Miles built himself a ‘special’ – largely comprised of pre-war MG components. In 1953 he used it to win 14 straight victories in Sports Car Club of America-sanctioned races, building up funds to keep his family and build a second, more advanced ‘Special’ using his own bespoke racing chassis.

The resulting machine was extremely low, a little curvy and in its brownish-green paint it looked like a plaice on wheels. Miles’ wiry figure loomed out of this odd-looking car, his dark green helmet canted over as he worked the wheel, and he called it the ‘Flying Shingle’.

It might have looked like an ungainly homebuilt but Miles took the SCCA’s 1500cc class by storm throughout 1955, when competing against the new Porsche 356s and 550 spyders of wealthier drivers like Hollywood idol James Dean.

The ‘Flying Shingle’ earned Miles some recognition back home, and he travelled to Le Mans for the fateful 1955 race, campaigning the lightweight MGA EX.182 and finishing in 12th place overall. In the USA, he continued to be a thorn in Porsche’s side and so the man charged with selling these mid-engined wonders in America – an Austrian émigré called ‘Johnny’ von Neumann –invited Miles to drive for him rather than against him in 1956.

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Miles pressing on in one of Neumann’s Porsches during 1966

Miles duly won the first two races of the year and was a regular contender throughout the season, while Porsche relished not having to compete against his awkward little MG.

As well as driving, Miles got involved in race organisation. In fact, he assumed leadership of the Californian branch of the SCCA and managed every detail of race management, marshalling, ticketing and all else in between. He did so in an autocratic way that rubbed many people up the wrong way, but he also encouraged enthusiasts from all backgrounds to come and take part in motor sport.

American motor sport in the 1950s was as clique-riddled and elitist as it was in Britain. Miles hated that, and did his level best to encourage the local kids to ‘run what they brung’, to learn their craft and then to take no snootiness from the posh collegiate racers on the East Coast – or even from Los Angeles, for that matter.

Driving was fun and effective race management was important to him but Miles enjoyed engineering even more. In 1957 he mated the engine and transmission from a Porsche with an old Cooper chassis. These cars were known as ‘Poopers’ and became increasingly popular as more gleaming Porsche spyders got totalled in racing accidents and thereby more of their potent engines and transmissions became available to builders.

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Miles looks determined at the 1966 Le Mans 24 Hours

Miles added some of his engineering savvy to the Pooper that he built for 1957 and not only dominated the 1500cc class but also scored regular podium finishes overall against cars with far more horsepower. Once again, Porsche took a dim view of this freelancing and being shown the way home by a homebuilt ‘special’ so Miles was quietly dropped and by the early ‘Sixties he was simply a hired gun driving an assortment of cars for whoever could pay him.

He was undoubtedly still fast – in total Miles had racked up 46 career wins in domestic American sports car racing to the end of 1962 – but he was now getting well into his Forties and seemingly a spent force. It was at this time that Carroll Shelby came back from England with a little 2-seat sports car and a big idea. He invited Miles to join him in turning this idea into a car to beat the all-conquering Chevrolet Corvette.

The result was the AC Cobra.

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Miles at speed early in the Cobra’s racing career

Ken Miles was the man who engineered, test drove and raced the car that would not only carve a mighty legend in motorsport but ultimately lead the corporate might and muscle of Ford Motor Company into motor racing. In the laconic Carroll Shelby, Miles had a boss that he respected and for whom he was happy to knuckle down. It was to lead to an astonishing career twilight – of which there will be more in Part 2…

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A giant called Winkle

Captain Eric “Winkle” Brown has died at the age of 97. This remarkable man flew 487 different types of aircraft, made 2,407 deck landings at sea and 2,721 catapult launches. The odds on those achievements ever being equalled are decidedly slim.

Brown’s talent for aviation was spotted by none other than Ernst Udet, the World War 1 fighter ‘ace’, who met the 17-year-old Brown in 1936 when his father took him to witness the Olympic Games in Berlin. Udet, the greatest air display pilot of the 1920s and 1930s, took the teenager up and threw him around the sky – noting that he was completely calm and attentive throughout.

Brown did indeed learn to fly and he returned to Germany as a student teacher, where he was briefly detained upon the outbreak of World War 2 before being allowed to drive his MG Magnette back to Britain.

During the war, Brown volunteered for the Fleet Air Arm and saw active service piloting the Grumman Martlet (a ‘rebadged’ F4F Wildcat), in defence the Atlantic convoys until his ship, HMS Audacity, was sunk in late 1941. He was one of only two aircrew to survive the ordeal and, once back on dry land, became a leading light of the Royal Aircraft Establishment, evaluating all manner of aircraft.

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As a result of this job, Brown’s log book featured every major combat aircraft of the Second World War including gliders, fighters, bombers, airliners, amphibians, flying boats, helicopters jets and rocket-propelled aircraft. As the war in Europe drew to a close, Brown was attached to the Enemy Aircraft Flight, dispatched to evaluate the latest technology being produced in the Third Reich for potential future use.

It was while in this role that Brown’s German language skills were seconded to interviewing some of the most significant Nazis in captivity, including Josef Kramer ‘the Beast of Belsen’ and Irma Grese, ‘the Beautiful Beast’. It was while working among these killers that Brown identified a detainee who claimed to be called Heinrich Hitzinger but was in fact none other than Heinrich Himmler, the head of the SS.

After the war, Brown continued to work with new aviation technologies, including making the first deck landings by a jet and by an aircraft with tricycle undercarriage. He went on to become a leading light in the global aerospace industry, then a long-serving author and public speaker who was still appearing in person and in media interviews until late in 2015.  And now the story ends: we shall not see his like again.

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Eric “Winkle” Brown unveils his bust at the Fleet Air Arm Museum

 

Bader, Goodwood and another Battle of Britain commemoration

Another of the stories with which the S&G was regaling all and sundry at the 2015 Goodwood Revival surrounded the statue of Group Captain Sir Douglas Bader, one of the Battle of Britain’s best-known heroes, which stands before the Garden of Remembrance and, in its own way, commemorates one of the many historic links between Shell and Goodwood.

In 2015, the Goodwood Revival commemorated the 75th anniversary of the Battle of Britain with a spectacular gathering of wartime aircraft in the Freddie March Spirit of Aviation display and flying programme, supported by Shell as Official Fuel and Lubricants Partner to the event. It was therefore appropriate to look back upon the incredible life of Sir Douglas Bader, the ‘ace’ who later became Managing Director of Shell Aircraft Ltd.

Bader’s statue at Goodwood anchored the military vehicle area at the 2015 Revival

Lord March commissioned the statue in 2001 to commemorate the 60th anniversary of Bader’s final operational sortie, on August 9 1941, when he led his wing of Spitfires from Goodwood (then RAF Westhampnett) towards occupied France. Recent research has shown that another Spitfire, in the heat of battle near Le Touquet, accidentally shot down Bader’s aircraft in northern France. Forced to bail out of his stricken machine, the RAF’s celebrated airman was captured and taken as a Prisoner of War.

The German medical officer who examined him exclaimed: “My God, you have lost your leg.” Soon afterwards they realized that this was in fact the famous British pilot who flew with two ‘tin legs’.

Bader had graduated from the RAF College in Cranwell in 1930, where he captained the Rugby team and was a champion boxer. A year later, however, he crashed his Bristol Bulldog fighter and both of his legs were amputated as a result.

Although discharged from the RAF, Bader was determined to keep flying and had artificial legs made, learning to walk again while taking a role working for Shell.

After considerable lobbying by Bader – something for which he was famous –the RAF agreed to take him back as a regular flying officer in 1935. Upon the outbreak of war, Bader was once again tireless in his efforts, this time to get posted to a frontline squadron, and duly arrived at 222 Squadron, flying Spitfires, in time to help provide air cover to the evacuation of Dunkirk.

Bader (centre) and the men of 242 Squadron at Duxford, September 1940

On his first operational sortie, Bader shot down a Messerschmitt Bf109. He was promoted to Squadron Leader during the Battle of Britain and given command of 242 Squadron, flying Hawker Hurricanes in Cambridgeshire – away from the most intense fighting, much to Bader’s chagrin.

Once again, Bader relentlessly lobbied his superiors, demanding that they employ a ‘Big Wing’ tactic, namely a massed formation of up to 70 fighters that Bader believed would hit the German bomber formations harder. Once again, Bader got his way.

This remarkable period of service came to an end in captivity after Bader had been credited with a total of 23 victories – although, in captivity, another chapter then began. Soon after his capture, a parcel was dropped by parachute during an RAF bombing raid with a note attached to it, which read:

“To the German flight commander of the Luftwaffe at St Omer. Please deliver to the undermentioned address this package for Wing Commander Bader, RAF prisoner of war, St Omer, containing artificial leg, bandages, socks, straps.”

Thus restored, Bader set about causing the Germans as much trouble as he had his RAF commanders. He tried repeatedly to escape and was eventually incarcerated in Colditz, where his captors confiscated his legs each night to prevent further escape attempts.

After the war, he rejoined Shell and travelled the world as Managing Director of Shell Aircraft Ltd. providing guidance on air operations and flight standards to Shell group companies worldwide.

Douglas Bader with the Miles Gemini he flew with Shell in the 1950s

Throughout this time, and through his retirement in 1969, Bader also worked tirelessly to establish and raise funds for the Douglas Bader Foundation, which provides help to disabled people who want to achieve seemingly impossible goals.

He was knighted for his work on behalf of the disabled, adding to the Distinguished Service Order that he was awarded twice, two Distinguished Flying Crosses, three Mentions in Dispatches, the Legion d’Honneur and the Croix de Guerre.

Interestingly, the Bonhams auction at this year’s Revival was supposed to star Douglas Bader’s personal transport throughout the war years: his black MG Midget. In the end the car was withdrawn from the sale during the week before the event, but it was nevertheless heartening to see this fine motor car looking in such good trim.

One legend among many at Le Mans

Maison Blanche today – walled off from the modern circuit but still full of charisma

The Circuit de la Sarthe is one of the few active circuits in the world with more than 100 years of history under its belt and, in the Le Mans 24 Hours, it is without doubt home to the world’s most famous motor race.

Like all the great circuits, it has evolved through the decades – but its spirit is entirely untouched. That indefinable thing that makes Le Mans special has been jealously preserved by the Automobile Club de l’Ouest against much of the ‘progress’ that has afflicted other classic venues. Indeed, this race couldn’t – and arguably shouldn’t – happen anywhere else in the world. But since the country that created Grand Prix racing fell off the Formula One calendar, the Grand Prix de l’Endurance at Le Mans has taken on still greater importance in the national psyche.

As far as the circuit goes the one real concession to safety standards over the years has been the abandonment of the run through Maison Blanche, which once provided as stern a test as any to be found in motorsport. On today’s Circuit de la Sarthe cars exit the banked left-hand turn at Indianapolis and right-hander at Arnage and then have a quick squirt before turning sharp right into the vast chicane known as the Porsche Curves.

This track map shows the old, flowing circuit passing beneath the sinuous Porsche Curves

This track map shows the old, flowing circuit passing beneath the sinuous Porsche Curves

This is the only section of track that really resembles a modern Grand Prix venue – with its acres of gravel and run-off (although it is still somewhere that gigantic accidents can and do happen). All of that takes place on the other side of a wall that would not have looked out of place in Potsdamer Platz during the 1970s – and it means that the historic Maison Blanche section is there to explore at any time one might fancy doing so.

The old Maison Blanche on the left of shot and the new Porsche Curves to the right

The old Maison Blanche on the left of shot and the new Porsche Curves to the right

After arriving for the full modern Le Mans experience, the S&G found an opportunity to do a little motoring on the original circuit. The public roads that make up so much of a lap at Le Mans – from Tertre Rouge up the full length of the Mulsanne straight being the N138 to Tours, for example – remain open for as long as possible, giving one the opportunity to recreate that fantastic film of Mike Hawthorn’s lap in 1956.

This is the fast, tree-lined run from the exit or Arnage curving gracefully over the crest that was lowered as a concession to safety after the 1955 disaster and which still exists just as Hawthorn described it in his film. One then keeps barrelling downhill until just past the right-hand diversion into the Porsche Curves, where a roundabout now breaks what was once the long, long run towards the start/finish straight.

From the roundabout (which offers the main route in for the majority of the infield car parking at the 24 Hours), one then accelerates through the gentle right-hand kink up towards the fabled left-right around the old White House itself, visible on the left in this video, before the old circuit runs out and the Berlin-style wall cuts one off before rejoining the modern start-finish straight.

Impressions of driving down this stretch are primarily that it’s bloody narrow. Whether at 80mph in a Bentley 3-litre, 140mph in a Jaguar D-Type or 190mph in a Porsche 917 it would require superhuman courage at any time of day… never mind what it must have been like at night in the rain – as was so often the case.

Visiting Le Mans is essential to make one’s motoring life complete. Drinking in the sights and sounds of the 24 Hours is enough of a feast in itself, but when there is the opportunity to go and explore such riches as Maison Blanche at the same time, it becomes quite the most amazing location of its kind in the world.

Brooklands Reunion – A Racing Anniversary

Brooklands hosted a celebration of pre-war motoring enjoyment to mark 75 years since its last race

The air around Weybridge was ripe with the scent of Castrol R this weekend as Brooklands marked the 75th anniversary of its last competitive race meeting (albeit a little early – the last meeting was held in August 1939). With the aid of some fabulous weather, a bumper crowd turned out and many of them brought some delightful vintage motor cars along to play.

With only pre-war cars permitted within the grounds of the Brooklands Museum – the occasional Jaguar XK120 and kit car notwithstanding! – and with visitors invited to wear period clothing if possible or practical, the aim was to bring to life the lost days of motor racing in front of the right crowd for which it was renowned in the 1920s and 1930s. Certainly the addition of a little light ukelele in the paddock helped with the ambience…

There was much to see aside from the regular attractions of the Brooklands Museum and its incredible collection of artefacts and cars housed in the original buildings of the world’s first purpose-built racetrack. Mostly it was the selection of pre-war cars that had been driven to the event, of which a small selection can be seen here:

There were Bentleys aplenty

If you’re not a Bentley person…

There were quite a few Rollers…

…of many shapes and sizes

MGs by the horde…

A rare beauty of a K3 among them

Baby Austins almost outnumbered the MSG

Every corner was crammed with pre-war beauties

Plenty of ACs at their spiritual home

Aerial view of the paddock

Of course the principal stars of the show were always going to be the gigantic aero-engined Outer Circuit cars – and the event produced a memorable collection. As always, the Museum’s own 24-litre Napier-Railton took everyone’s breath away. As the outright lap record holder in perpetuity, John Cobb’s silver machine deserves such awe but it was given a close run for its money by the Leyland Thomas Special and 350hp Sunbeam – better known as Bluebird.

Outer Circuit cars drew the biggest crowd – quite rightly so

The day really took off when the organisers set about staging the ‘race starts’ to bring at least a little of the original Brooklands spirit back to life. Although the wartime Wellington Hangar continues to block the museum’s section of the start/finish straight until its lottery-funded relocation to the infield, there is still a good few hundred yards available before the Members’ Banking.

A modern day ‘Ebby’ Ebblewhite was on hand with the Union Flag to usher the runners and riders away. For most part this was at a fairly sedate pace, with cautious owners of cars and motorbikes now well into their eighth decade at least, but made for many wonderful moments. For each ‘race’ the starters would bound away to the foot of the banking, turn sharp right as though heading onto the Mountain Circuit, and disappear from view… only to return shortly afterwards, lest they thunder into Gallaghers’ car park!

The track surface is incredibly rough, but then it was hardly much better 75 years ago. Brooklands was made out of concrete – a relatively new invention in 1907 and one of which there was precious little understanding at the time. The concrete was simply set upon earth with virtually no coursing beneath, and thus regularly needed to be patched up from weather damage and racing wear and tear. This resulted in the famous film and photos of cars with all four wheels off the ground at 120mph and upwards.

Speeds were much more modest for this celebration event, but certainly produced a crowd-pleasing spectacle.

Some starts were livelier than others!

And then finally the Big Bangers of the Outer Circuit came and had a go. Given that it has taken 12 years and many, many man hours to get the Sunbeam running again, it is hardly surprising that a cautious approach was taken to its run:

Nevertheless, the sight, sound and smell of these evocative racing machines – coupled with an enthusiastic crowd and still more enthusiastic drivers – meant that the runs began to resemble motor races before long. This was the second attempt at running the big cars, resulting in the big Napier-Railton smoking its tyres in fine style to settle the hash of an impudent Voiturette!

It was a remarkable day carried out with all the dedication, good humour and style that sets the Brooklands Museum apart. Hopefully it has sown the seeds of an annual event worthy of sitting alongside the Revival. A few more ladies, gentlemen, boys and girls in pre-war attire are required to achieve this – but one imagines that all who came away from Brooklands this weekend did so looking forward to the next such event. Well done to all involved and many thanks to the volunteers who, as always, bring the place to life for visitors, be they regular or new arrivals.

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…

Stirling’s Land Speed Records

Stirling at 240mph in the 'Rolling Raindrop'

Stirling at 240mph in the ‘Rolling Raindrop’

The summer of 1957 was an incredible period in Sir Stirling Moss’s illustrious career. He had finally got a British car worthy of his talents for Grand Prix racing in the form of the Vanwall and with it delivered three victories – the first for a British car and driver combination in the world championship’s history. That the first race win came at Aintree in the British Grand Prix was also a boon.

The second win came at Pescara, a majestic and terrifying open road circuit – the last time that a world championship event would be held on such a traditional layout in Europe. Then, days later, Stirling hopped gamely on a plane and set off for the United States.

The reason was that he had been engaged by another British brand to fly the flag – M.G.

With the launch of its MGA in 1955, M.G. moved away from its familiar ‘square rigger’ sports cars such as the TD and TF and instead produced a modern, streamlined beauty with no echoes of pre-war design to be found in her. This had proven to be something of a shock to the marketplace… so honours needed to be won.

The MGA’s twin-cam 1500cc engine was duly mated to a supercharger which was almost exactly the same size as the basic powerplant, and its technical guru Syd Enever juiced it up on a special fuel mix of 86% methanol laced with nitrobenzene, acetone and sulphuric ether. The result was a rather manic unit that generated 290bhp at 7,300rpm.

This remarkable engine was placed in a dramatic setting – mid-mounted in a spaceframe chassis that was then wrapped in an extreme form of aerodynamic bodywork. Commonly referred to as looking like a tadpole and given the nickname ‘rolling raindrop’ the EX-181 was an extraordinary thing.

The complete car measured 15 feet long and only three feet high, requiring the driver to lie down underneath the steering wheel. It had been tested by the promising young American ace Phil Hill, who warned Moss to be particularly careful when slowing down, as the cockpit was liable to fill with toxic and highly inflammable fuel vapour so it was best to hold your breath and go easy on the brakes!

On 23rd August, at the Bonneville Salt Flats, Moss hopped inside the car and its bodywork was latched down over him. He then proceeded to shatter no fewer than five records in the 1100-1500cc class over 1km, 1 mile, 5km, 5 miles and 10km – with his fastest run being clocked at 245.64mph. This was more than 20% quicker than the previous record, and comfortably made EX-181 the fastest M.G. yet built.

Stirling looks well pleased with his day's work

Stirling looks well pleased with his day’s work

The dynamic young Englishman and his futuristic-looking steed took the world by storm, and M.G. saw its fortunes take a great leap. It would later add another 10mph to EX-181’s top speed and set new records with Phil Hill at the wheel, but in the summer of ’57 it was Stirling who was the fastest man in the world. Three weeks later he won the Italian Grand Prix at Monza in Vanwall’s final triumph of the summer.

For his combined achievements in racing and record breaking, Moss was awarded the Royal Automobile Club’s prestigious Segrave Trophy. Today EX-181 stands as one of the most prized exhibits in the Motor Heritage Centre in Gaydon, where her outlandish looks still attract considerable awe and interest from subsequent generations.