Doug Nye: 'B Bira', Royalty in Racing

30th November 2016
new-mustang-tease.jpg Doug Nye

Thailand is essentially a determinedly-loyal royalist nation. Right now, Crown Prince Maha Vajiralongkorn has just been confirmed as becoming the country's first new king for 70 years, following the deeply-mourned recent death at 88 of his father, the man who had been the world’s longest-serving monarch, King Bhumipol Adulyadej. 


While King Bhumipol had been admired and revered with almost Godlike devotion and intensity, his son Vajiralongkorn, 64, is openly disliked amongst many Thais for his flamboyant lifestyle, and not least three very public failed marriages. But as King Bhumpipol’s only son, who has served as an army officer and fighter pilot, he was made heir to the throne in 1972, so for him, it’s been a long wait.

King Bhumipol, also known as Rama IX within the Thai system - so complex it’s almost impenetrable to any westerners with merely a passing interest – took the throne on June 9th, 1946. His predecessor, Rama VIII, had been his older brother Ananda. In his turn he had reigned for barely six months when he was found shot dead in his bed in very mysterious circumstances. Moving further back pre-war we get to Rama VII – King Prajadhipok – who had abdicated in 1935.

And when Prajadhipok had come to the throne – still with me? – there had been immense controversy and argument as to whether he should inherit the title at all instead of another contemporary claimant - Prince Chula Chakrabongse.

Chula – as he was known – was the son of the late Field Marshal Prince Chakrabongse Bhuvanath of Phitsanulok, who before his death had been the heir-apparent to the preceding King Vajiravudh. But that King had enacted a law of succession which actually barred Chakrabongse Bhuvanath (and therefore his son Prince Chula) from succession because Bhuvanath’s wife, and Chula’s mother, had not been Siamese. She had in fact been a foreigner – a Ukrainian – so Chula was of mixed-race.

The identification of Prajadhipok’s replacement as King saw the nation’s new quasi-democratic government split over the question of succession, before opting for Ananda – who was then only nine years old and at school in Switzerland. Prince Chula was living in England and – yes, I will now get to the point – he was mad keen on quality cars, and on racing cars in particular. Chula was educated at Eton and at Cambridge University, and in a kind of convenient exile in England, he was also made guardian of a younger cousin who shared very similar automotive interests, would prove to have considerable talents as an artist and sculptor, and, who would also become an extremely talented, skilful and successful world-class racing driver. His name was Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh – and he would become famous in ‘our’ motor sporting world under the pseudonym ‘B. Bira’.

‘Bira’ in the OSCA V12 being push-started in the rainswept Silverstone pits later in 1951

‘Bira’ in the OSCA V12 being push-started in the rainswept Silverstone pits later in 1951

I believe that in some respects poor Prince Chula never quite recovered from being passed over not just once, but twice in succession to the Siamese (or Thai) throne. He was, after all, the senior grandson of the great King Chulalongkorn. First of all his potential succession had been denied in 1935 – in favour of Prajadhipok - and then again in 1946 – in favour of Bhumipol.

He was a man who in some ways assumed to himself the airs and graces of a sovereign. When ‘Bira’ began racing cars that Chula had prepared and entered for him, it was Chula who attended as the team chief and patron. He became an extremely prominent figure at Brooklands, and his other persona – as a genuine enthusiast, keen, attentive, unbelievably well-organised and efficient, and much-liked by his loyal staff – often broke through what could be moments of extreme nose-in-the-air haughtiness.

My old friend and mentor Cyril Posthumus told me how one time at Brooklands the irrepressibly outspoken Charles Brackenbury had lined-up on the front row of the starting grid, only to find the space beside him vacated by its intended occupant, whose car had just developed some problem, pre-race. Seeing the space vacant, Chula ordered his team mechanics to wheel ‘Bira’ forward into the gap. Charlie Brackenbury was outraged at such presumption and angrily waved them back. When Chula ignored him, ‘Bira’ seemed intent upon staying there, ‘Brack’ exploded – and bawled something variously reported as “Get back, get back whence you came, you coffee-coloured nuisance…”. 

Ooh dear. Even in the 1930s that wasn’t quite what even an officer and gentleman could say, within polite society but in public, to a pair of Royal Princes, and especially not to a near-occupant of the Siamese throne – Chula Chakrabongse.  There was a fearful row. Charles Brackenbury was summoned before the Stewards and amidst tremendous shuffling of feet and embarrassed throat-clearing – not on the driver’s part – he was given a suspension and ordered (more probably begged) to apologise in person to Chula and ‘Bira’. I can’t remember whether he did or not but the matter was all glossed over and buried within the passage of time.

‘Bira’ went on to become a tremendously successful driver of three famous ERAs – each bought for him by Chula and run by the older man’s wonderful little White Mouse Stable team – so-titled after ‘Bira’s childhood nickname of ‘nou’ – mouse. Their ERAs would be named ‘Romulus’, ‘Remus’ and – after the Hindu God of the same name – ‘Hanuman’. There would also be a rebuild of the third ERA, known (predictably) as ‘Hanuman II’.

‘Bira’ racing the further modified OSCA V12 in the Formule Libre race supporting the British Grand Prix at Silverstone

‘Bira’ racing the further modified OSCA V12 in the Formule Libre race supporting the British Grand Prix at Silverstone

The White Mouse Stable went on to run other cars for ‘Bira’ including a Maserati and straight-8 Delage, but of course, their activities were curtailed by World War 2. Chula planned a Bangkok Grand Prix for 1940, but his ambitions in that direction were overtaken by world events. By 1939 Siam had fallen under the fascist military dictatorship of Field Marshal Luang Phibunsongkhram – what price Scrabble? – and he had tried to change the country’s name to ‘Muang Thai’ meaning ‘Land of the Free’ but the western democratic powers refused to recognise the change once Siam allied itself with the Japanese and in 1942 declared war on the United States and upon Great Britain.

In England Chula and ‘Bira’ had both married “English Rose” high society beauties but were still classified as being, in effect, enemy aliens – the regal former in particular feeling particularly insulted and outraged. They had long since vacated London, Chula for Rock in Cornwall – and their British detractors derided their new home there as “the Princes’ funkhole”, almost as far away as possible from a potential German invasion. In fact, Chula ran the local Home Guard there – but generally, still motoring and in ‘Bira’s case also flying, they lived a charmed, still-moneyed and comfortable life.  

Immediately postwar they resumed racing, while on May 11th, 1949, Siam would finally receive global recognition under the name Thailand. But within the revived White Mouse Stable motor racing environment, ‘Bira’ progressively chafed at his junior status, while he was the talented sportsman – in stark contrast to the remarkably uncoordinated Chula who seems to have lived out many of his personal ambitions by proxy through his young cousin’s success and prowess.

Eventually ‘Bira’ split from Chula’s patronage and became instead a motor racing privateer and his own man, teaming-up with his aristocratic and fun-loving Swiss counterpart Baron Emmanuel ‘Toulo’ de Gaffenried to buy a pair of ‘San Remo’ Maserati 4CLT/48s which they engaged Italian specialist Enrico Platé to prepare, enter, transport and run for them.

In both Chula’s ERA and in his own Platé-run Maserati, ‘Bira’ became quite a familiar Goodwood competitor during the Motor Circuit’s early years. When the highly-supercharged 1½-litre 4-cylinder Maserati became obsolescent at the end of 1950, ‘Bira’ became the Maserati Brothers’ only customer for a new 4½-litre un-supercharged Formula 1 engine, which was to be installed into the existing old chassis. The Brothers had long since sold and vacated their original company, and he re-established themselves in Italy under a new concern named the Officine Specializzate Costruzione Automobili-Fratelli Maserati SpA– or ‘OSCA’ for short. 

Happy times for the Siamese Princes down in Rock, Cornwall - with their model railway!  Prince Abhas with his older brother Prine Bira, then the senior Prince Chula - and the Princes’ English wives - Ceril and ‘Lisba’

Happy times for the Siamese Princes down in Rock, Cornwall - with their model railway! Prince Abhas with his older brother Prine Bira, then the senior Prince Chula - and the Princes’ English wives - Ceril and ‘Lisba’

‘Bira’s re-assembled Formula 1 car emerged at Easter Monday Goodwood, 1951, as the OSCA V12 – finished in his favoured pale blue and yellow racing livery. He drove it in the 12-lap Chichester Cup race for Formule Libre cars, finishing third – outpaced not only by Reg Parnell’s winning standard-model Maserati 4CLT but also by Brian Shawe-Taylor’s uprated ERA in second place. But in the 12-lap Richmond Trophy Formula 1 race, ‘Bira’ plainly felt he had got the measure of his new 4½-litre V12-engined mount, and while Parnell made the best start, it was the Thai Prince who cut inside him under power away from Madgwick towards Fordwater, and he screamed away to lead back across the timing line. On lap 2 entering St Mary’s, Parnell tried to out-brake ‘Bira’ into the left-hander but instead overshot, careered off the road and went for a length and wild trip across the infield, narrowly missing a haystack, before rejoining, many places lost.

The ‘Autosport’ report continues: “The Osca (sic) rumbled relentlessly on. Bira was cornering impeccably and proving that on his day he is one of the world’s greatest drivers. Despite his vast lead, he drove faster and faster, realising that at Goodwood no one can afford to let up with Parnell in the hunt.

“The red Maserati streaked through the field… However, if the Osca continued to circulate at the pace it was going, Reg would require to break his lap record each time round to get within striking distance. On lap six, Parnell’s great effort came to an end. Coming down to Woodcote, the Maserati belched out clouds of blue smoke… the Emperor of Goodwood had lost a scratch race on this circuit for the first time…

“Bira was in an unassailable position, and the Osca sounded as if it would go on indefinitely. His was a popular win, as the Goodwood crowd remembered his gallant bid last year to beat Parnell and the BRM. Bira has not been too fortunate recently, but with this low-built and very fast un-supercharged 4 ½-litre, he may have found the answer to the formidable Ferraris…”

In fact, he had not. But he did set a new lap record for the Goodwood Motor Circuit that afternoon – lapping in 1min 35.6secs, 90.38mph. And out for a third time that day in the Fourth Easter Handicap race, he motored as fast as he possibly could in the attempt to overcome his handicap time and equalled his own lap record. 


So, none too shabby for a right royal ‘nuisance’…

Prince Birabongse – who pronounced his self-chosen pseudonym as a clipped ‘Birra’ with a rolled ‘r’ sound amidships – adopted the habit later in life of saying to new acquaintances “just call me Oscar”. Prince Chula – having authored a dozen or so very good books - succumbed to cancer on December 23rd, 1963, aged only 55, leaving his widow – the former Elizabeth ‘Lisba’ Hunter – and young daughter Princess Narisa. ‘Bira’ meanwhile, drove for several factory teams postwar - including Ferrari and Aston Martin – and had some success. At one point Chula wrote to him a quite embittered letter, bewailing the fact that ‘Bira’ was still being accorded public fame, respect and adulation, whereas he – down at Tredethy in Cornwall – was entering the middle of his life, obscure, forgotten and unremembered. 

‘Bira’ certainly lived a hedonistic life, which without Chula’s firm and sensible administration - also bankrupted him, several times. And it ended tragically when – himself long forgotten, and living in virtual penury – he suffered a fatal heart attack at Barons Court tube station, London – also on December 23rd, 1985.

The Metropolitan police identified him from a handwritten note in Thai, found in his pocket, and addressed to him as ‘Prince Bira’. The Royal Thai Embassy was notified and only then was the poor victim’s true status realised - a sad postscript to an extraordinary life.

Photography courtesy of The GP Library


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