10-16 June: Motoring Milestones

Discover the momentous motoring events that took place this week in history …….

Ray Keech

130 years ago this week, the first sprint meeting in England was held on a public road just outside Colchester, Essex. Only one car entered, a Delahaye, which covered the flying-start one mile at 26.8 mph [13 June 1889]………110 years ago this week, the first races sanctioned by the American Automobile Association (AAA), which were also the first races staged at the Portland Road Course (OR), were run. The main event, a 7-hp lap affair for the Wemme Cup was won by Bert Dingley in a Chalmers-Detroit……..Crane & Breed of Cincinnati, Ohio, US introduced the first motorized hearse [15 June 1909]………90 years ago this week, Ray Keech (29) board track and brick track racer in the 1920s, best remembered for winning the 1929 Indianapolis 500, and for setting a land speed record, died from injuries from a racing accident at the Altoona 200-Mile Race in Tipton, Pennsylvania, US [15 June 1929]……..Bentleys swept the first four places at the 24 Hours of Le Mans [16 June 1929].

Just 25 competitors started the race.The duel that pitted Bentley, victorious, against Stutz in 1928 was still fresh in everyone’s mind. The British team was determined to continue its momentum, entering five cars. For the engine, Bentley continued to use their 4.4 litre powerplant, but also arrived with their secret weapon: the Speed Six, with a 6.6 litre monster of an engine, driven by Woolf “Babe” Barnato and Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin. Against the British fleet, the ten French cars were no match: for the B.N.C., D’Yrsan, S.A.R.A. and Tracta, did not produce enough power to match. To find the real competition, one had to look at the American contingency: Chrysler, Du Pont and Stutz were all hoping to make a splash. Come June 15 of that year, the competitors had barely started the race that the speeds clocked started to rise. Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin shattered the lap record, with an average speed of 133 kph. At the back of the pack, teams tried to organise an attack but the pace was so high, the race looked to be more difficult than ever. The race’s first retirement was recorded after seven laps: the Bentley driven by Bernard Rubin, winner the previous year, and Earl Howe. Meanwhile, the cars continued on their hellish pace and mechanical woes took their toll. After thirty laps, a third of the competitors had already stopped, and that wouldn’t be the end of it. As the hours continued to pass, the drivers had to stay concentrated on a circuit that looked more like a rally special than a race track: the trees along the road are painted white, so drivers knew to avoid them! There was no time to lose in the pits, in which only the drivers were allowed to work on the car! And despite team orders (even back then!) imposed by W.O. Bentley, the beautiful British cars flew to the finish.Bentley, once again, were the big winners, monopolising the first four finishing positions. The No.1 Speed Six of Captain Woolf “Babe” Barnato, who would win three times in three participations, and Sir Henry “Tim” Birkin, who was probably the fastest of the Bentley Boys, covered 2,843 kilometres with an average speed of 118.492 kph claiming its fourth victory, and third in a row, for the British marque. At the back, two French cars would finish the race. Two Tracta ended the day in ninth and tenth places, covering 2000 km with an average of just 85 kph!……….The British overseas territory of Gibraltar changed to driving on the right hand side of the road, in order to avoid accidents involving vehicles from Spain [16 June 1929]. Some public buses however, until recently were RHD, with a special door allowing passengers to enter on the right hand side. However, most passenger cars are LHD, as in Spain, with the exception of second-hand cars brought in from the UK and Japan and some vehicles used by the British forces……..70 years ago this week, hailed as a visionary by some and a con artist by others, Preston Tucker (1903-1956) was the man behind an innovative, futuristic-looking car that debuted amid great fanfare during the summer of 1948, was indicted for fraud [10 June 1949]. As envisioned by Tucker himself, the “Tucker Torpedo” (as the concept vehicle was

Tucker Torpedo

known) represented quite a departure from the standard fare offered by the Big Three automakers. Long, low, and substantially wider than other large cars then available, with sleek lines reminiscent of a rocket, it had doors that slid up into the roof and six chrome-plated exhaust pipes. Its unique safety features included headlights mounted in fenders that moved with the front wheels to illuminate the road as the car made a turn, a windshield made of shatterproof glass, seat belts, disc brakes, and a heavily padded dashboard to protect front-seat passengers in the event of a collision. In another unusual twist, the driver’s seat was positioned in the middle rather than on the left, with separate passenger seats on either side. The American public responded with unbridled enthusiasm to Tucker’s “car of tomorrow” and buried him in an avalanche of letters and inquiries. But first he had to secure some factory space in which to make his fantasy a reality. Under the auspices of the War Assets Administration (WAA), the federal government leased him a former B-29 engine plant outside Chicago, Illinois. Because the deal was contingent upon his ability to raise $15 million in capital by March 1, 1947, Tucker then set about lining up potential investors. However, he soon found out that in return for their financial support they expected him to surrender control of his company, a notion he found intolerable.Tucker then came up with a rather creative way to finance his dream. Although he had produced nothing more than an idea, he began selling dealer franchises and quickly amassed some $6 million that was to be held in escrow until he delivered the first Tucker. But the scheme prompted an investigation by the Securities and Exchange Commission (SEC), the first of many such probes. Tucker then devised a new strategy that involved issuing $20 million in stock. Before the SEC could rule on his plan, though, the head of the National Housing Agency demanded that the WAA cancel its deal with the Tucker Corporation so that the Lustron Corporation could use the factory to make prefabricated metal houses. By January 1947, Tucker had won the right to remain in the plant he had leased. In addition, his March 1 capital-raising deadline was extended to July 1. (The SEC’s decision on selling stock in the Tucker Corporation was still pending.) But all of the setbacks and squabbles had greatly undermined the public’s confidence in the would-be entrepreneur, and the struggle to underwrite the cost of his venture continued. By the spring of 1948, Tucker was ready to go into production with his car despite some lingering financial difficulties resulting from insufficient stock sales. In need of some quick cash, he came up with a new fundraising tactic that offered Tucker buyers the opportunity to pre-purchase certain accessories such as seat covers, radios, and custom luggage. But SEC officials took a dim view of his plan given the fact that not a single vehicle had yet rolled off the assembly line. In May 1948, working in conjunction with the Justice Department, they launched a major investigation into Tucker’s business practices and the viability of his car. The bad publicity and lawsuits that ensued effectively disrupted production, spooked creditors, and sent the company’s stock price plummeting. Finally, in January 1949, the Tucker factory was forced to close and Tucker was ousted from his own organization and replaced by two court-appointed trustees. The trial began that October, with government prosecutors using “The Tin Goose” rather than one of the actual production vehicles tried to prove that the Tucker could not be built or perform as promised. But many of the 70-plus witnesses called to testify against the company actually hurt rather than helped the government’s case.Tucker himself hinted darkly that the Big Three auto-makers and their supporters were behind the attempt to destroy him because of the threat he represented to their domination of the market. Indeed, some evidence suggests that officials of both General Motors and Chrysler actively sought to make it more difficult for Tucker to succeed. Whether they also tried to influence the government to pursue him is less certain. There is no question, however, that Tucker had made some powerful enemies in Washington who repeatedly denounced him as a con artist. The trial dragged on until January 1950. In the end, the jury found Tucker and his associates innocent of all the charges against them. However, Tucker was left bankrupt and with his reputation in tatters; as a result, he was forced to sell his remaining assets, including the 51 vehicles that had been completed before the plant was shuttered. They would be the only Tuckers ever manufactured. During the early 1950s, a more subdued but still optimistic Tucker tried one more time to develop and market a new kind of car. Before he could pull together all of the necessary financing, however, he was diagnosed with lung cancer. He succumbed to the disease in 1956 on the day after Christmas. Tuckers are now prized by car collectors (around 47 are still known to exist), most of whom are active members of the Tucker Automobile Club of America. Meanwhile, the debate continues over Tucker’s place in automotive history. His detractors still consider him a fraud who tried to pass off what was basically a lemon as “the car of tomorrow.” His fans regard him as a visionary who was brought down by sinister forces with money and power. Others believe the truth lies somewhere in between those two extremes. Even if his ultimate goal was to strike it rich, they argue, he was sincere about his desire to build an exciting, innovative new vehicle that offered a level of comfort, safety, and affordability not available in any other car at the time. What they do fault is his naivete and lack of business sense, which left the Tucker Corporation woefully under capitalized and in a constant state of financial crisis that doomed it to failure. Yet as Tucker himself once observed, as quoted in American History Illustrated, no matter what the obstacles, it was unthinkable not to try to make his fantasy come true. “A man who has once gotten automobiles into his blood can never give them up, ” he said. “A man with a dream can’t stop trying to realize that dream…. It’s no disgrace to fail against tough odds if you don’t admit you’re beaten. And if you don’t give up”……….[11-13 June 1979], the Isle of Man TT races held were dubbed the British Grand Prix. The three races, at 500, 350 and 250 cc, became the first races in the newly instituted World Motor-cycling Championships. At the FICM (later known as FIM) meeting in London near the end of 1948, it was decided there would be a motorcycle World Championship along Grand Prix lines. It would be a six-race annual series with points being awarded for a placing and a point for the fastest lap of each race. There would be five classes: 500 cc, 350 cc, 250 cc, 125 cc and 600 cc sidecar. The historic Isle of Man TT would be one of those races, and this toughest and most dangerous of Grand Prix motorcycle races would be a mainstay on the GP calendar until 1976. Harold Daniell, on a Norton, won the 500 cc Senior TT event at an average speed of 86.93 mph. Les Graham, on an AJS Porcupine 500 cc twin, led the Senior race until the last lap when his magneto drive sheared. He pushed the bike past the finish line in tenth place. As he had finished the race he gained one championship point for recording the fastest lap. Four clubman races were included; the Clubmans Senior, Clubmans Junior, Clubmans Lightweight, and the new Clubmans 1,000 cc. British 350 cc rider Ben Drinkwater was killed in the Junior Tourist Trophy race…….60 years ago this week, a jughandle is a type of ramp or slip road that changes the way traffic turns left (when driving on the right) [14 June 1959]. Instead of a standard left turn being made from the left lane, left-turning traffic uses a ramp on the right side of the road. The first mention of jughandles was in the New York Times on this day, referring to jughandles having been built on US 46 in Montville, US 22 between North Plainfield and Bound Brook, and Route 35 at Monmouth Park Racetrack. By the beginning of 1960, New Jersey had 160 jughandles, most if not all standard before-intersection jughandles. The 160th one was on U.S. Route 1 between New Brunswick and Trenton……..on the same day [14 June 1959], Richard Petty took the checkered flag at Lakewood Speedway in Atlanta for his apparent first victory in NASCAR’s premier series, but his win was overturned on a protest of the scoring — by his father, Lee. A recheck of scoring revealed that Richard had been credited with an extra lap. Lee Petty, who started 37th in the 40-car field after a draw for starting position, had lodged the protest in part to claim bonus money for winning in a current-year car. Richard Petty was scored in second in a two-year old Oldsmobile. Buck Baker finished third in the last race on Lakewood’s 1-mile dirt track……..50 years ago this week, John Woolfe (37) was killed when he crashed his Porsche 917 on the first lap of the 24 Hours of Le Mans, an event which

caused the traditional “Le Mans start” to be abolished the following year [14 June 1969]. The Le Mans race began with a traditional standing start: the drivers stood opposite their cars in the open pit-lane before running to them as the French flag was dropped to signal the start of the race, starting the engines and driving away as soon as possible. In the scramble to start Woolfe did not fasten his belts and started aggressively the race, making up several places on the opening lap. At the very fast Maison Blanche curve, however, towards the end of the lap, Woolfe lost control of the 917, which crashed heavily into the barriers, overturned and caught fire. He was thrown out of the cockpit by the force of the impact, and died from his injuries as he was being helicoptered to hospital. It was also reported that Woolfe had lost his door on the opening lap, but this was not confirmed. The 917’s fuel tank was torn off in the impact and struck the Ferrari 312P of Chris Amon, causing it to burst into flames. Amon was able to bring his car to a halt and evacuate the cockpit, narrowly escaping serious injuries, though sustaining minor burns………. Jackie Ickx and Jackie Oliver drovee a Ford GT40 to victory in the 24 Hours of Le Mans [15 June 1969]. It was the last event with the traditional Le Mans-style start, in which the drivers run across the track to enter their cars, as safety belts were now in use, which usually are strapped tight by mechanics. Jacky Ickx demonstrated against the start by walking slowly to his car, putting on his safety belts properly, and thus starting voluntarily at the back of the field. Later in the first lap, John Woolfe was killed, presumably due to not wearing belts properly. The traditional Le Mans-style start was discontinued after this accident, as drivers started in 1970 already strapped firmly into their seats. For this race, metal crash barriers had been installed around the circuit, especially at the Mulsanne Straight, where it was originally just an open road with no protection from the trees, houses and embankments……….40 years ago this week, Paul Newman, the blue-eyed movie star-turned-race car driver, accomplished the greatest feat of his racing career by racing to second place in the 24 Hours of Le

Paul Newman

Mans [10 June 1989]. In 1969, he starred in “Winning” as a struggling race car driver who must redeem his career and win the heart of the woman he loves at the Indianapolis 500. To prepare for the movie, Newman attended the Watkins Glen Racing School. In the film he performed many of the high-speed racing scenes in the movie himself, without a stunt double. In 1972, Newman began his own racing career, winning his first Sports Club Car of America (SCCA) race driving a Lotus Elan. He soon moved up to a series of Datsun racing sedans and won four SCCA national championships from 1979 to 1986. Newman’s high point at the track came in June 1979 at Le Mans, where he raced a Porsche 935 twin-turbo coupe on a three-man team with Dick Barbour and Rolf Stommelen. His team finished second; first place went to brothers Don and Bill Whittington, and their teammate, Klaus Ludwig. Drama ensued during the last two hours of the race, when the Whittingtons’ car, also a Porsche 935, was sidelined with fuel-injection problems and it looked like Newman’s team could overtake them to grab the win. In the end, however, they had trouble even clinching second due to a dying engine. The Whittington team covered 2,592.1 miles at an average speed of 107.99 mph, finishing 59 miles ahead of Newman, Barbour and Stommelen……..on the same day [10 June 1989], Bobby Unser drove the “Norton Spirit” Penske-Cosworth to victory in both races of the Trenton Twin Indy at Trenton Speedway in Trenton, New Jersey, US……..30 years ago this week, the  1989 24 Hours of Le Mans was the 57th Grand Prix of Endurance, ended [11 June 1989]. It was the last time the 24 Hours of Le Mans ran without the two chicanes on the Mulsanne Straight; for the interest of safety to reduce speeds after speeds reaching 250 mph (402 km/h) in the previous years and this race, these chicanes were installed the next year and remains in use. The speeds on the Mulsanne Straight were so high that many of the drivers were concerned if their cars would stay on the ground over the humps and bumps of the straight. There were no serious accidents, something Le Mans in the 1980s had many of. Having run his cars at Le Mans for a decade, Peter Sauber was aided by Mercedes in winning the 1989 race. His “Silver Arrows” Sauber C9s finished 1st, 2nd and 5th, with Porsches and Jaguars finishing behind…….30 years ago this week, Alain Ferté of France, in a Jaguar XJR-9LM (cover image) recorded the fastest lap in the Le Mans 24-hour race, 3 minutes 21.27 seconds, an average speed of 242.1 km/h (150.4 mph) [10 June 1989]………20 years ago this week, Canada, arranged the largest ever gathering of Volkswagen Westfalia camper vans when 489 were arranged at the Camping des Voltigeurs in St. Charles de Drummond, Canada [12 June 1999]…….Heinz-Harald Frentzen suffered a brake failure and had a massive crash with four laps to go at the Canadian Grand Prix [13 June 1999]. Frentzen was unhurt, but his crash caused this contest to be the first ever F1 race to finish behind the safety car. Mika Häkkinen won the race in a McLaren-Mercedes MP4-14………10 years ago this week, GM and Sweden’s Koenigsegg said they had struck a deal for Koenigsegg, a niche manufacturer of some of the world’s fastest and most expensive sports cars, to buy loss-making Saab Automobile from General Motors [16 June 2009].

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