Wednesday, June 7, 2017

Douglas Hawkes at Indianapolis 

Part two – 1926

In 1926, Wallace Douglas Hawkes, the Bentley engineer who drove in the 1922 Indianapolis ‘500,’ lived in France and worked with wealthy amateur racer Sir Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge.

Eldridge, born to a wealthy English family, lived part time in France, did not look the part of a racer – he was stoutly built and wore eyeglasses. After his service as a Major in the French Army during World War One he owned a number of special race cars that he raced at the famed 2-3/4 mile high-banked Brooklands track an hour southwest of London. Eldridge became best known through his ownership of the engineering monstrosity known as ‘Mephistopheles,’ named after a demon from German folklore.

‘Mephistopheles’ began life as a 1908 Fiat 18-liter racer that literally blew up its engine during a 1922 race at Brooklands and crashed. Eldridge bought the remains and extended the frame rails to accept a massive Fiat A12 World War One surplus aircraft engine. The A12, an inline six cylinder engine displaced an incredible 1325 cubic inches, and while it produced a reported 250 horsepower, it stood nearly 45 inches tall and weighed over 900 pounds. A four-speed transmission fed dual chain drive that transmitted the power to the rear axle.

Eldridge debuted the two-ton car which used drum brakes on the rear wheels only at the Brooklands 2-3/4 mile steeply banked concave concrete oval in October 1923 and set new records. In July Eldridge and ‘Mephistopheles’ traveled to Arpajon, France to attempt to set a world’s land speed record in a meet held on a closed public roadway. Eldridge was opposed by 1914 Indianapolis 500 champion Rene Thomas who drove the six-cylinder 305-cubic inch powered iteration of the Delage DF “torpedo.”

It was clear that ‘Mephistopheles’ was faster, but the French team protested that the monster lacked a reverse gear as required by the rules and officials disqualified Eldridge’s run. Thomas’ run with the Delage with an average speed of 143.31 miles per hour (MPH) thus was recognized as the new world’s land speed record.  

Six days later, on July 12 1924 Eldridge returned to Arpajon with ‘Mephistopheles’ fitted with a rudimentary reverse mechanism and accompanied by riding mechanic John Ames (who was not required by rule) set a new world record of 145.90 MPH. Eldridge’s new record stood for less than three months as Malcolm Campbell set a new record of 146.16 MPH on September 25 1924 on Pendine Beach in Wales in a car that he called ‘Blue Bird’ powered by a 350-horsepower 1116 cubic inch Sunbeam V-12 aircraft engine.

In early October 1924 Eldridge had one final outing with ‘Mephistopheles’ on the 1.58-mile steeply banked concrete L’autodrome de Linas-Montlhéry oval near Montlhéry France. In a six-lap match race against John Godfrey Parry-Thomas’ eight-cylinder Leyland in the track’s inaugural event, Eldridge and his massive Fiat who out as he averaged over 121 MPH. The pair met again in the same machines at Montlhéry in May 1925, and this time Eldridge and ‘Mephistopheles’ retired with a blown rear tire while Parry-Thomas averaged 126 MPH over the six laps. It remains unclear if these were actual head-to-head competitions or single car runs.

As an interesting addendum to this story, Parry-Thomas took the worlds land speed record from Campbell at the end of April 1926. Parry-Thomas drove a car he called ‘Babs’ powered by an American 27-litre Liberty V-12 aircraft engine at 171.02 MPH on the same beach that had been used by Campbell. On February 4 1927 Campbell recaptured the record at 174.224 MPH in the ‘Napier-Campbell Blue Bird’ powered by a 900 horsepower 1460-cubic inch displacement Napier Lion W-12 aircraft engine that used three banks of four cylinders each that shared a common crankcase.

On March 3 1927 Parry-Thomas crashed the revised version of ‘Babs’ during his attempt to recapture the land speed record crown and was killed in a gruesome accident. After a coroner’s inquest was held that resulted in a finding of accidental death, the wreckage of ‘Babs’ was buried on the beach, but after 42 years the remains were unearthed and ‘Babs’ was restored.

In 1925, Ernest Eldridge commissioned two special racing cars, designed with Hawkes’ help, which were built at the Anzani engine works in Paris. One car, designed for road course racing, sported a two-seater body, but the mechanic's seat could be faired over. The second car, a single seater intended for record attempts stood only 31 inches tall at the cowling. Both cars used a 108-inch wheelbase chassis with the belly pan riveted to the chassis rails as a stressed member.

Both the new cars used the same advanced 4-cylinder 91-cubic inch Anzani engine which featured two valves per cylinder operated by twin chain-driven camshafts.  The intake side featured a single Solex carburetor and an aluminum case British-built Berk supercharger. With 5.2:1 compression ratio the engine reportedly delivered 122 horsepower at 5600 revolutions per minute (RPM).

Eldridge used one (it is unclear which) of his new “specials” to set multiple new Class E (91-1/2 cubic inch displacement engine) records at the Montlhéry oval in late 1925. Ernest raised the 10-mile record on three occasions finally setting the record at 121.5 MPH, and he also reset the one hour, 1000 kilometer (KM), 1500 KM, 2000 KM and 1000 mile speed standards.

The Chicago Tribune reported on May 2 1926 that Ernest Eldridge “the English sportsman” and “a young man of independent means” had entered a pair of cars for the 14th running of the 500-mile International Sweepstakes. Although the article noted the cars were built in Pairs it referred to Eldridge’s effort as the first “all British” entry since 1922.  Eldridge would handle the two-seater machine, while W. Douglas Hawkes the driver in the 1922 British effort was assigned to drive the low-slung single seater. The Tribune article stated that the cars were due to arrive in Indianapolis on May 10.

E A D Eldridge in the "two seater" Eldridge Special at Indianapolis in 1926
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection at the Center for Digital Studies at the IUPUI University Library

The cars both featured suspension system that used half-elliptic springs on all four wheels along with drum brakes at each wheel. While both cars featured a rounded nosepiece that enclosed the radiator and oil cooler, the single seater sat much lower, with the driver fully enclosed inside the cockpit with the steering shaft running horizontally. At Indianapolis, both cars were photographed with Rudge Whitworth wire wheels shod with Dunlop tires, although press reports indicated the cars were fitted with Duesenberg rims to accommodate Firestone tires.

W D Hawkes in the single seater Eldridge Special at Indianapolis in 1926
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection at the Center for Digital Studies at the IUPUI University Library

Reports suggest that the cars may not have arrived in Indianapolis until much later than anticipated accompanied by three mechanics - James Ames, Jean Orves, and Luke Lucas. The delay in arrival apparently did not negatively affect the effort, as Hawkes qualified his unpainted #27 machine on the second day of time trials May 28 with four-lap average speed of 94.97 MPH. Eldridge was one of six drivers that qualified on the third day in his #26 machine with a four-lap average speed of 89.77 MPH.  While the two “Eldridge Specials” were far from the slowest machines in the field, there qualifying runs were several miles per hour slower than the 28-car starting field’s 100.19 MPH average.

The 500-mile race was a surely a disappointment for the English team, as both machines were eliminated by mechanical failure before the halfway point of the race. Eldridge’s car was parked with 45 laps completed with a either a broken steering knuckle or a broken tie-rod. On lap 57 the team called Hawkes into the pits and Eldridge took the wheel of the low-slung #27. Shortly after it returned to the race, the car blew a tire on lap 73 and spun three complete loops. Eldridge managed to avoid hitting anything, returned to the pits for fresh tires and turned the car back to Hawkes, with the car was retired for good on lap 91 with a “frozen camshaft.”

Both the Eldridge Specials were entered for the next race on the AAA (American Automobile Association) championship circuit held June 12 at the high-banked 1-1/4 mile wooden oval outside Altoona Pennsylvania. In this era, long before teams traveled form race to race in semi-tractor trucks with enclosed self-contained transporters, race cars were shipped between race tracks in railroad boxcars.

Frank Elliott’s Miller which had finished sixth at Indianapolis arrived at Altoona on June 7, and Elliott was already on track practicing when a group of thirteen cars including the two Eldridge Specials arrived in rail cars on Thursday morning June 8, with the balance of the machines due to arrive later that afternoon. The two British-built cars the only foreign built cars entered at Altoona were described by the writer in the Altoona Mirror as “peculiar in construction” and “odd looking.”

Under threatening skies on the morning of the race neither Eldridge nor Hawkes turned laps fast enough to make the 17-car starting field.  A huge crowd had turned out to watch the 250-mile racing program and a pre-race stunt flying exhibition by former Army Air Service captain Harry Yost. After completion of a loop, the airplane’s engine quit and after a few moments of drama, Yost crashed into the ground from a height of 30 feet directly in front of the main grandstand. Yost was able to walk away from the crash which demolished the airplane to the emergency hospital in the infield where he was treated for a “bad cut on his chin.”

Thirty minutes later, AAA long-time starter Fred Wagner waved the green flag which turned the field loose and Ralph DePalma led the first fifty-two laps at an average speed of 115 MPH. The veteran pitted which turned the lead over to Harry Hartz who held the point for 15 laps before he yielded to Elliott. The #6 Miller which Elliott owned built up nearly a half a lap lead before it faded late in the race. Dave Lewis caught and passed leader Norm Batten led the last two circuits and won the race with an average speed of over 112 MPH as he edged Batten by just four seconds. 

Both the Eldridge machines were entered for the 200-mile ‘Independence Day Classic’ scheduled for Monday July 5, at the 1-1/4 mile wooden Rockingham Speedway in Salem New Hampshire. 27 cars were entered for the 18-car field after one powerful threat, the 1926 Indianapolis ‘500’ winner Frank Lockhart, was disqualified by the AAA Contest Board.

Prior to his surprising victory on Decoration Day, Lockhart had committed to race in the sixth annual ‘Speed Classic of the South’ held in Abilene Texas a race promoted by AAA Southwest supervisor D. H. Jefferies.  When Lockhart tried to back out of his Abilene commitment, Jefferies asked the AAA Contest Board to intervene. The Board ruled that Lockhart had to honor his original commitment and enforced the ruling by disqualifying his entry for the Salem board track race although he was third in AAA points at the time, trailing Harry Hartz and Peter DePaolo.   

During time trials on July 4 Jack Foley a young 25-year old British émigré who lived in suburban Boston crashed to his death in a supercharged Duesenberg owned by pioneer-era driver Jack LeCain who was also the general manager of the Rockingham Speedway.  After taking four warm-up laps, on the fifth lap the Duesenberg swerved up to the track into the guardrail then rolled down the banking of the track which crushed Foley.
Jack Foley at Indianapolis in 1926
Photo courtesy of the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Collection at the Center for Digital Studies at the IUPUI University Library

Foley had made his name a few seasons earlier behind the wheel of his own Model T based Frontenac–Ford racer with a win in an “All Ford” race held in conjunction with the Labor Day “New England Championship Race” on the 1-mile dirt oval in Readville Massachusetts. A period photograph of Foley and his car are contained in Don Radbruch’s book Dirt Track Auto Racing.

Foley had been entered in LeCain’s car for the 1926 Indianapolis 500-mile race but failed to qualify, and had made his first board track appearance just weeks before the accident at Altoona Pennsylvania. Buried in Lowell Massachusetts, Foley was another a sorry victim of the dangerous board track racing era, a time when there was no intermediate training ground between dirt tracks and the brutally fast board tracks.

Neither of the Eldridge cars was fast enough to make the starting field for the July 5th race at Rockingham and by the next race on the AAA schedule on July 17, Ernest Eldridge had purchased a supercharged 91-1/5 cubic inch Miller, chassis number 2307, from Harry Hartz.

The three year old car originally built as a “Durant/Miller” for the 122-cubic inches rules had a bit of a wicked history as it was the car driven by Hartz on Thanksgiving Day 1923 at the Beverly Hills board track that struck three men and killed two of them – 20 year old photographer Russell Hughes and sportsman and Harlan Fengler’s car owner George Wade. A Duesenberg team mechanic Jimmy Lee was also struck and suffered a broken right leg.  Lee recovered and three years later won the 1926 Indianapolis 500-mile race as Frank Lockhart’s mechanic.

The accident occurred after AAA starter Fred Wagner gave Hartz permission to make a test lap after Hartz had reported carburetor trouble. This approval came although the balance of the starting field was still lined up on the front straightaway with a group of men milling around the cars.

Hartz later told the International News Service (INS) reporter “I shifted gears and slowed down as I came into the stretch In front of the grandstand. I saw the other cars ahead of me. I could do one of two things hit the cars or make for an opening. I tried for an opening. I had understood that the upper part or the track was to have been cleared for me to pass.”

As he rolled past the crowd on the high side of the banked wooden straightaway Hartz’ car struck the three men.  Wade was reportedly thrown one hundred feet by the speeding car and died at a hospital an hour later, while Hughes was killed instantly. Witnesses testimony varied widely; Hartz estimated his speed at the time to be 50 MPH, while Wagner estimated Hartz’ speed as 110 MPH, and Hartz’  car owner Cliff Durant estimated the speed to be 70 MPH.  Hartz claimed that “I may have been doing 100 miles an hour on the back stretch but I wasn't going that fast when the accident took place.”

Hartz told the INS reporter “I didn't know I hit Lee and did not see Wade but I saw the photographer when he loomed in my path." Some witnesses claimed that the young photographer had darted into Hartz’ path in an attempt to get a photograph of the fire that had broken out under Joe Boyer’s car, while other claimed that Hughes was standing on a wooden chair.  Allegedly when the film in Hughes’ battered camera was developed the subject of the last photo taken by Hughes was a smiling Harry Hartz. After the accident, a distraught Hartz understandably withdrew from the race, so only 15 cars started the race won by Bennett Hill.

With the differing eyewitness accounts, the Los Angeles County Sherriff’s department investigated the twin fatalities. Hartz claimed the next day in questioning by Undersheriff Eugene W. Biscailuz that Wagner had given him permission to turn a couple of test laps, while Wagner claimed that he had warned Hartz to stop behind the cars which were lined up on the straightaway.  

At the coroner’s inquest held on December 1 the jury returned a verdict that the accident was “unavoidable.” While Hartz was criticized in the testimony of some witnesses “for the speed with which he circled the track” it was also brought out that the two men killed were on the track “against orders from speedway officials.” In an editorial in the December 2 edition of the Bakersfield Morning Echo headlined “Harry Hartz did his best at the track,” the writer stated that “those present say boy did not a chance to do anything different.”   One shudders to imagine the consequences if such a tragedy occurred today.

The Miller was repaired after the crash and driven by Hartz for Cliff Durant throughout the 1924 AAA season and he finished sixth in season points. For the1925 season Hartz became his own car owner added a supercharger and finished third in championship points. The Miller was rebuilt by Hartz again to meet the new formula rules for 1926.

The revamped car was driven by rookie Tony Gulotta to an eleventh place finish at Indianapolis and a seventh place at Rockingham by Wade Morton. With Hartz as the driver and owner, the Miller won two races and notched sixteen top five finishes. With Eldridge behind the wheel at Atlantic City, the grey #31 Miller broke a valve on the tenth lap of the first forty-lap heat race and was finished for the day. Meanwhile in the Eldridge single-seater, Hawkes once again failed to qualify for the starting field.

The three Eldridge machines were shipped back to Europe, with the two Anzani-powered specials having made no impact on American oval racing. In four race appearances the cars had qualified at Indianapolis but retired early and won a combined $1051 then failed to qualify in three subsequent board track appearances.  

Upon its arrival in Europe later in July the Eldridge Miller was rebuilt to its original 122 cubic inch engine displacement configuration used by Ernest to set new Class E records at the Montlhéry oval with the five mile distance covered at an average speed of 140.6 MPH and ten kilometers at 140.2 MPH. At the end of December 1926, Ernest Eldridge and the Miller reset Class E records for 50 KM, 50 miles, 100 KM, 100 miles and one hour, all in high 120 MPH range.

Eldridge returned to Montlhéry in February 1927 with the Miller engine rebuilt to 91-1/2 cubic inches, crashed in his attempt and was seriously injured.  The engine and transmission of the former Hartz Miller car was later used to power the “Lea-Francis Miller” record car and is today reportedly owned by the Indianapolis Motor Speedway Museum according the Michael Ferner who traced the history of the car.

After he recovered from his injuries, Eldridge, who had lost vision in one eye in the 1927 accident, continued to pursue records. In 1929 he and British driver/engineer Don Kay set a 71 MPH Class C 24-hour record at Montlhery in a 1929 six-cylinder 250-cubic inch Chrysler convertible stripped of its top, windshield and fenders. 

In 1930 Eldridge teamed with British driver/engineer George Eyston to attempt to set a new 1000-mile, 24 hour and 48 hour records at Montlhery in a class G Riley Nine roadster but their attempt came up short on speed. Later, Eldridge served as Eyston’s team manager for several world land speed record attempts. After Eyston set a new mark of 345.50 MPH at Bonneville Utah in the twin Rolls-Royce V-12 engine powered ‘Thunderbolt’ in August 1937, Eldridge became ill during the trip home and died in England at age 40 on October 27 1937.   

In the last installment of the Douglas Hawkes story we will review his final trip to Indianapolis in 1929.



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