Post 1945 Drivers

Rob Walker


LAST YEAR I wrote a story about the restoration of my Delahaye, which I had driven at Le Mans in 1939, and mentioned that I could have written a whole book about this car given the time and the space. I'm taking some of that time and space now to tell about one of the escapades in which that Delahaye was involved.                                  .

This story for a change is about not motor racing but smuggling. Britain, being an island, has had smugglers from time immemorial and theirs has always been considered an honorable profession, whether it involved bringing back the French aristocracy by the Scarlet Pimpernel or the running of rum and brandy from the coast. There is a lovely story about some locals smuggling brandy in Wiltshire, the county next to which I live. The excise men were catching up with the smugglers on the downs and were getting too close for safety, so the band decided to cut their losses and toss the brandy barrels into a dew pond with the hope of recovering them later. It was a beautiful night with a full moon, and when the excise men caught up with them the smugglers had a large rake and were around the pond. The law demanded to know what they were doing at that time of night around the pool and were told, "We be trying to rake out that huge cheese in the middle of the pond," whereupon the excise men thought they had come upon a lot of lunatic yokels and left them alone. The smugglers thought the customs men were equally stupid and retrieved their brandy. Ever since Wiltshiremen have been known as moonrakers.

My experience with smuggling doesn't have such a happy ending. During the war I got married, and before my wife would consent to the wedding she made me promise to give up road racing. I was allowed hillclimbs or speed trials, but that was all. As this was the time of Dunkirk and I was a Fleet Air Arm pilot, I doubted if I would ever see another motor race let alone take part in one, so I willingly agreed to the request. When the war was over and we began to sort ourselves out and get back to normal, I realized I had the Delahaye which, about three months before the hostilities began, had won the championship for "the fastest road-racing car in Great Britain" at Brooklands. Naturally during the war no racing cars were made, so it still stood as the fastest road-racing car in our country after the war.

I had something of considerable potential in my hands but was nofallowed to race it. This was when I first became a private entrant. I met a person who became a good friend and for the purpose of this story will call him Jim Allen, although that was not his real name. Jim was about my age, had the same interests as I and was not only a very good driver but an excellent mechanic; he seemed to be the one person who really understood the Delahaye and could tune it.

It seemed a shame that this beautiful car should be around still in its prime and not be raced, so Jim suggested that I sell him a half share in the car, that he be the driver and mechanic and I be the entrant and team manager. But if it was entered in a hillclimb or speed trial I would drive it.

I agreed and the scheme worked very well. There was little motor racing for the first few years after the war because petrol was rationed, but what there was we went to and usually won. When Goodwood opened up we went to the first meeting there and won our race. The famous Jaguar XK- 120 had just been introduced and met with great acclaim, but whenever it ventured forth on the circuit it was trounced by Jim and the then 12-year-old Delahaye.

In 1949 the international scene opened up and Le Mans was run for the first time since the war. I decided to enter the Delahaye. Why not?-it was only 10 years since she had last run there. I managed to get Tony Rolt to consent to drive the car. Tony, the best driver I had ever come upon at that time, had been taken prisoner during the war, escaped 12 times and was decorated twice for bravery. It was a very hot summer and I have seldom experienced such a temperature as at Le Mans. The Delahaye overheated a bit, but she was going very well and by midnight was lying 3rd. Then the bearings went and we were out. I had a lot to learn: I had not renewed them and they were the same ones I had used at Le Mans in 1939! Chinetti and Lord Selsdon won in a Barchetta Ferrari. (At this moment I am restoring that very, car for Anthony Bamford.)

Next we took the Delahaye down to the French GP, which was run as a sports-car race that year at Comminges in the South of France. We drove the car down there together, Jim and I taking turns, and had plenty of strife. because neither of us liked being driven by the other. I felt I had good reason as Jim insisted on driving flat-out over hill crests and I was sure we would find the road blocked at some time. We did. We came upon a slow car overtaking a slow lorry, There was little to do, but Jim violently waved them both to the opposite edges of the road and somehow we shot through the middle,

Again the race was very hot, and after some time Jim came in completely exhausted with heat. I longed to jump in the car and continue until he had recovered, as I was named reserve driver and had practiced. But I remembered my promise, so instead I flung buckets of cold water over Jim. It did the trick and he recovered, eventually finishing 3rd. Sommer and Schell led early on in a Lago Talbot, but they blew up, Then Chinetti took over the lead in the Ferrari, but he had to spin going down the straight because a female pushed a baby in a pram across the road right in front of him. Eventually Pozzi won in another Delahaye. Last year at Dijon Pozzi drove my Delahaye there in the parade of all the French GP winners.

Jim and I went to all the races together and always planned between us what races we were going to enter in the future. One afternoon I was sitting in my office at my garage, doing nothing as usual, when the telephone rang. That was an event in itself, but there was more. A friend on the other end of the line said, "Have you heard Jim Allen has just been apprehended by Customs at Newhaven for having 3000 watches in the petrol tank of his car?" I replied, "Ha, ha, it is just the sort of thing he would be caught doing." Then the voice went on, "and the car was your Delahaye." Well, I nearly hit the ceiling and it was a very high one too. The story of what had happened was soon to come out in the press.

Apparently Jim had entered the Delahaye for the 1000-kilometer race at Montlhery, just outside Paris, in September. Thank heavens he had told me nothing about the race and had not asked me to come along. I didn't even know the car was out of the country. The whole thing had been carefully planned beforehand by someone, and the Delahaye was the ideal car for the job for two reasons. It had two petrol tanks in the back, holding 30 gallons in all, and one fed into the other. It was perfectly easy, by disconnecting a hose, to run the car on one tank and completely isolate the other one just behind the driver's backrest. This is what was done, and then an altered tank, constructed at the Argonaut Engineering Company where Jim worked, was fitted. Jim told Customs this tank was designed especially for the 12-hour race, and it seemed quite normal. Jim had as his co-driver for Montlhery a friend of both of ours, whom I shall call Jack Booth.

The race looked like a red herring and a good excuse for the car to be sent out of the country. It did in fact practice, but before the race the car broke down. Then, according to Jim, Jack took the car away for six hours on his own, and presumably this is when 3434 watches found their way into the tank.

At this time smuggling watches from abroad into Britain was a big racket. They were coming in all ways: some in cars, some in speedboats and others even being dropped at night by parachute. It was a hangover from the war and various resistance operations. Obviously it had H.M. Customs and Excise very worried and anxious to catch some of the highups in the organization. The way Jim got involved was through Jack Booth, who was fairly regular in the business but not very high up. I don't think he knew who the top men were. Jack had recently been an officer in the army, and while he was stationed in Italy he had found rather a nice racing car. He and Jim had done a pretty good job with it too, but that is a different story.

The price at the time for bringing in a load of watches from the continent was said to be £100 if you were just the carrier. When they were discovered in the car Jim said it must have been a plant, as he had no idea they were there and only Jack could have done it.

When the watches were found in the Delahaye there was a terrific commotion and the incident made headlines in the daily newspapers. It might seem that Customs was very clever in discovering the watches, but this was not the case. It was the old story of how nearly all these things are found out: a tipoff. A witness came forward and said he had seen various unusual petrol tanks being made by Jim, who said he thought they were for use in connection with smuggling. Lots of people used to drop in and probably somebody who was not too keen on Jim, maybe someone to whom he owed some money, went and told Customs what was in the wind. I am only so grateful he never mentioned anything about it to me, as certainly I would have been looked upon suspiciously.

Anyway, as soon as the Delahaye landed in England and was driven into the customs house to be cleared, after the usual questions of "have you anything to declare?" the officers went straight to the tank. They saw where a metal panel had been welded back (although it had all been made to look old and dirty), opened it up and, presto, Ali Baba's cave and 3434 watches.

Fortunately they did not suspect me of any complicity or if they did they gave me no hint of it. But as part owner of the car I was soon to become involved, because the first thing they did was confiscate the car. I felt that I was not involved at all and should be given the car back, and I said so in no mean terms. But apparently there is a law in England that if smuggled goods are found when in transit the means of transportation is automatically confiscated. There was a test case on this involving a man in Bristol who was smuggling cigarettes and took a taxi somewhere. When he was in it he was stopped by Customs, and they confiscated not only the cigarettes but the taxi even though it had nothing to do with the smuggling. The taxi driver naturally appealed against the ruling, but the judge dismissed his appeal and upheld the decision of Customs to confiscate his taxi, although it could always be bought back again.

This was the test case quoted to me and as such there was nothing much I could do about it. But it made me rather hot under the collar, so I wrote a letter to them saying that I would be very interested to know how much the Cunard Line paid to buy back the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary every time they had been confiscated when smuggled nylons were found on board. I added that I hoped they would give me a correct reply because it would be very easy for me to find out the answer, as the chairman of Cunard happened to be a personal friend of mine. At the same time I sent my letter to the press as a protest.

I gathered later from the Excise people their offices were inundated with telephone calls from people saying "Well, what price did Cunard pay to buy back the Queen Elizabeth and Queen Mary?" As you can imagine, my letter had only gone to one department, so most of the Customs people did not know what the hell the people were talking about on the telephone. Incidentally, I never did get a satisfactory answer to my letter.

At one time Jim had made up some special tanks for Jack Booth, who was doing another run in a rather unusual Lancia. But he planned this journey quite differently and shipped the car to Jersey, which is a duty-free island anyway, and then put the car on a cargo boat to the comparatively small port of Hull on the East coast of England. Customs had an idea that Jack was going to make the run with the Lancia but they did not know the route. By the time they got onto it he had cleared Customs at Hull and disposed of the loot. But on information received they arrested Jack and built up a case against him which was to be heard at the same time as Jim's at the Crown Court at Lewes.

All this time I was trying to get the Delahaye returned. I was told I would be given an opportunity to buy it back after the trial, where it was to be used as evidence, and further, I was subpoenaed as a Crown witness for the prosecution. I really have no idea why they did this, because I had very little evidence I could give. Perhaps it was to stop me from being called as a witness for the defense, where I suppose I could have been more use as I was now obviously a slightly hostile witness to the Crown, having had my car confiscated.

Anyway, whatever the reason, it gave me a grandstand seat in what was to be a most interesting trial. The prosecution was out to get Jack Booth and prove him guilty as he was a higher link in the organization than Jim, whom they considered fairly small fry. Perhaps they thought if they nailed Jack they might get on to the head of the organization. But as far as I know they never did get any further. There was a firearm found in the Delahaye and in the U.K. this always caused a stir and a determination to get a conviction, which they knew they would succeed in doing.

At the trial the Delahaye case came up first. Jim had said he had no idea that the watches were in the tank but pleaded guilty to smuggling a gun. I was called upon to help them prove that it had never really seriously been intended to race the car at Montlhery. The prosecution did this by referring to the fact that the tires were practically brand new and asking me if it was not the practice in racing to scrub the tires before a race. Of course I had to answer that it was, because in those days it was far more vital than now; you can scrub modern slicks in three laps. It was not unusual then to start a race with the treads half worn down, as this was when they gave their best performance. (I remember that Stirling Moss was driving a Porsche for me at Syracuse in 1960, and by the time practice was over we had been too busy to scrub a set of tires for the race. So Hushke von Hanstein, director of Porsche racing, told someone to fit a new set of race tires on one of their standard Porsche road cars and drive around Sicily on them all night so that by morning they would be nicely scrubbed for the race.

I think Jim told them he had to fit a new set at the last moment so could do nothing about it, which didn't sound too convincing. That was really the only part I took in the trial. but the interesting part came when the prosecution got onto the Lancia and tried to prove that it had smuggled watches in it even though they never actually found them in the car. The prosecution attempted to show that the officer at Hull who cleared the Lancia through the Customs shed had noticed something unusual about the positioning of the petrol tank.

Well, Jack Booth had a very bright barrister defending him. The customs officer asserted that when the Lancia had been passed through his control and he had checked its numbers to make sure it was not being smuggled in, he had noticed that the petrol tank on the back had been repositioned about six inches or so from the normal place and was not standard. The prosecution stated that this had been done to make space for the smuggled watches. The barrister for the defense then started his crossexamination of the customs officer. He began by saying that he understood that me officer had taken particular note of the Lancia because it was a very unusual car and this is what had attracted his attention to the fact that the petrol tank bad been repositioned. The customs officer agreed that this was correct. The officer continued. "Perhaps you would be kind enough to tell the court where me chassis number is on this Lancia."After a considerable pause the customs officer admitted that he could not remember where it was. "In that case, said the lawyer, "perhaps you would tell us where the engine number is situated" after a further pause the now very embarrassed officer admitted that this also had slipped his memory. The barrister then said, "It would seem extraordinary to me that although it is your job to check both the chassis and the engine numbers, you cannot remember even where they were yet you seem to remember quite well that the petrol tank had been repositioned on this car. I would suggest to you that what you have told us about the petrol tank is a figment of your imagination and you noticed nothing of the sort. What indeed was occupying your mind far more was that your wife was about to have a baby that day." With that the barrister finished by saying there would be no further questions, leaving a somewhat deflated customs man in the witness box. The lawyer had obviously somehow managed to find out that the baby had been born or was due on that day. This account is not of course the exact words that were spoken, but that was the gist of how it went.

I must say, I could scarcely forbear to cheer and felt like leaping to my feet and clapping. However, as a Crown witness, I decided against it as I would have been clapped inside on the spot. It is sad to say that such brilliant oratory was to no avail: the Crown had further witnesses who proved conclusively that the watches had been smuggled in the Lancia and Jack Booth was sentenced to prison for two years. Jim got a £25 fine plus the confiscation of the Delahaye for having smuggled a firearm, but was found not guilty on the charge of smuggling watches.

The car was duly offered to me at the most reasonable price of £300. I took advantage of this and repurchased it. The poor Delahaye was thoroughly corroded, having sat there on the quayside for months, but I think she was pleased to be back with me and I was once more her sole owner.

This was to have a funny sequel later. A few weeks after I had got the Delahaye back, Les Leston telephoned me. He told me that before Jim had left for Montlhery he had borrowed a bonnet from Leston's SS 100 and put it on the Delahaye for the race. Now Les wanted it back. I replied, "I am afraid I don't know anything about your bonnet, Les. I have just bought the Delahaye from Customs and they sold me the bonnet with it, so if you want it back or the money for a new one you had better get in touch with them." I should think Customs wished they had never heard of the Delahaye in the end. Shortly afterward I sold the car for a few hundred pounds; it raced a year or so and was then sold to a museum in Scotland. About 15 years later the owner of the museum died and the cars were put up for auction; I bought the Delahaye back for nearly 10 times as much as when I first had her before the war. I then restored her as I wrote in my story a year ago, but she has no spare tank and no watches. I believe the tank is in a smuggler's museum in Cornwall.

As Rudyard Kipling said:

Them that asks no questions isn't told no lie.

Watch the wall, my darling, while the

Gentlemen go by!

Five and twenty ponies

Trolling through the dark

Brandy for the Parson,

'Bacey for the Clerk;

Laces for a lady, lellers for a spy,

Watch the wall, my darling, while the Gellllemen go by!