Douglas Hawkes at Indianapolis
Part three - 1929
While his 1926 Indianapolis 500-mile race car owner Ernest Arthur Douglas (E.A.D.) Eldridge continued to set speed records, in 1927 Wallace Douglas Hawkes joined the British division of the French car manufacturer Derby. Founded in 1921 to build and sell motorcycle-powered cars, by 1927, Derby offered three models - a tiny 8-horsepower sports car powered by a 67-cubic inch four-cylinder engine and a pair of small displacement side-valve six-cylinder powered two-seat cars.
Derby which sold most of its cars in England used speed records to promote its brand, with its star driver Englishwoman Gwenda Stewart who often paired with Hawkes in pursuit of long-distance sped records. To further advance its record setting publicity efforts, Hawkes was dispatched to Indianapolis in May 1929 to buy a car for Mrs. Stewart’s use in setting records. The car Hawkes purchased and had shipped to Britain was a front wheel drive supercharged 91-1/2 cubic inch Miller which became known as the “Derby Miller.”
The “Derby Miller” began life as one of the two first front wheel drive racers built by Harry A. Miller Engineering for 1922 Indianapolis 500-mile champion Jimmy Murphy who was killed in a crash at Syracuse New York in September 1924 before the cars were completed. The cars were entered by Harry Miller for the 1925 Indianapolis ‘500’ but Bennett Hill disliked the handling of his assigned car, fitted with inboard brakes and withdrew. Dave Lewis in the other Miller front-drive finished the 1925 Indianapolis ‘500’ in third place.
Both the Miller front wheel drive cars made the Indianapolis starting field in 1926 and after the race driver Earl Cooper arranged to buy the car he drove and he built three semi-copies all paid for by Buick. Before the 1927 ‘500,’ Buick pulled its support, so all four front drive cars were entered as “Cooper Engineering Specials.” Julian Arthur “Jules” Ellingboe was assigned to the original supercharged Miller built machine but he crashed in the north end of the track as he completed his 26th lap. The car rolled over and may have ejected Ellingboe, who in his sixth Indianapolis ‘500’ suffered severe chest injuries and two broken legs and never raced again.
Phil “Red” Shafer bought the wrecked Miller and with funding reportedly from the AC Spark Plug Company a division of General Motors, rebuilt the car along with parts taken from another unidentified wrecked Miller. Shafer was a multi-talented man, as in addition to being a mechanic and car builder he started the 1924 Indianapolis ‘500’ after three previous relief driving appearances, and continued to appear as a driver at the Speedway through 1936.
Prior to the 1928 Indianapolis 500-mile race, AC pulled their support and the rebuilt front-drive Miller painted gold appeared without sponsorship driven by sophomore driver Elbert “Babe” Stapp. Stapp qualified fifth and finished seventh in the ‘500’ and then made four more appearances in the #7 Miller front-wheel drive car during the 1928 season, with a best finish of fourth at the season finale, the ‘International Motor Classic’ at the Rockingham Speedway board track in Salem New Hampshire.
When Stapp moved on to drive for millionaire William S. White for the 1929 AAA ( American Automobile Association) season, Shafer himself drove the car, painted black and silver and carrying number 17 in the 1929 Indianapolis ‘500.’ After he qualified eighteenth, Shafer had a troubled race and completed only 150 laps when he was flagged as the twelfth place finisher. After the race, Shafer sold the front-drive Miller to Hawkes and his associates and it was shipped overseas.
Gwenda Stewart was born in 1894 in England and served as an ambulance driver during World War One. In 1920 she married Sam Janson and became a motorcycle record setter, but in 1923 the pair divorced and Gwenda married motorcycle manufacturer Neil Stewart. In 1928 she moved into automobile record setting paired with W. Douglas Hawkes and the pair set a number of 12- and 24-hour distance records in a Vernon Derby, the nameplate for the Derby marque in Britain.
Beginning in 1929, Gwenda Stewart drove the “Derby Miller” in multiple record breaking attempts over the next five years at the steeply banked (51 degree) 1.58-mile long Autodrome de Linas- Montlhéry parabolic oval south of Paris. Unlike its British counterpart, Brooklands Montlhéry was designed and built with reinforced concrete beams and pillars to support the high banking concrete surface rather than being built on dirt embankments.
In September 1930 Mrs. Stewart and the “Derby Miller” set Class E (91 ½ cubic inches engine displacement) records for 100-miles at 118.13 miles per hour (MPH), one hour at 118.29 MPH and 200 kilometers (KM) at 118. 32 MPH. In another attempt later in October 1930 Stewart blew the Miller engine. After it was rebuilt, in March and July 1931 Mrs. Stewart reset the Class E records for the five and ten mile distances and the five, ten, and fifty kilometer distances and in August she reset the fifty mile, fifty kilometer and 100 kilometer records. In October 1931 she reset the 200 kilometer record at 121.75 MPH.
During March and April 1933 the “Derby Miller” and Mrs. Stewart reset the new Class E standard for one mile three separate times eventually setting the record at 143.29 MPH. During April 1934, Mrs. Stewart reset the Class E record for both the five mile and five kilometer distances at 140 MPH. In July 1934 she reached the highest speed in the “Derby Miller” so far and set new records for the one mile and one kilometer distances of 147.79 MPH at Montlhery. On August 6 1935 Stewart and the “Derby Miller” set the Ladies Outer Circuit absolute lap record at Brooklands at 135.95 miles per hour.
Gwenda Stewart and the "Derby Miller" on track at Brooklands in 1935
Courtesy the Brooklands Museum
During the early nineteen thirties, Douglas Hawkes moved to France full-time to work as a manager for Derby, and while there Hawkes arranged for the factory to build two cars for Gwenda to race in the 24-hour endurance race at LeMans. In 1934, there was a special Derby sports car, and in 1935 a hybrid Maserati-powered Derby, but both years, the cars retired early in the grind with mechanical failure. During the mid-nineteen thirties, the Derby car company, never a high-volume manufacturer, encountered financial difficulties and ceased business during 1936.
The “Derby Miller” was offered for sale during 1936 but failed to find a buyer even after the price was reduced to 750 pounds ($3700). Under the AAA “junk formula” rules, the car’s engine was no legal for competition and it would have been costly to ship the Miller back to United States and re-fit it with an AAA-legal engine. The car dropped out of sight and was reportedly parted out and considered lost by historians. The “Derby-Miller” reappeared in 1993 after a complete reconstruction and restoration by Dallas real estate developer and race car collector Mitchell Rasansky. The gleaning Miller is finished in black and silver with red wheels which is reminiscent of the livery it carried in the 1929 Indianapolis 500-mile race.
Gwenda's affair with W. Douglas Hawkes finally resulted in Neil Stewart divorcing her and a third marriage in 1937 to Hawkes. The pair returned to England and ran the Brooklands Engineering Company Limited which manufactured and supplied engine parts to racers. Hawkes and Stewart later retired to the Greek islands, where Douglas died in 1974 at age 80 and Gwenda passed away in 1990 at age 96.