You won’t need me to tell you that, as a rule of thumb, you don’t want to be in the slowest car in any given race. I’ve been in the position a few times and know what I’m talking about. Memorably, I once did a six-hour race at the old Nürburgring in a Renault Clio while, up at the sharp end Le Mans-specification Dodge Vipers and BMW M3 GTRs battled for the lead. With closing speeds of at least 70mph on the straight, when they came past it was like being in a coracle caught up in a powerboat race. All in all it was, I confess, a race I enjoyed having done rather more than I enjoyed doing.
I’ll be on the back of the grid at the 73rd Members’ Meeting too, but this time I couldn’t care at all for I will be in one of the most special cars it has been my privilege to drive.
I shall be competing in, or at least trailing around at the back of, the Earl Howe Trophy race in a 1.1-litre MG K3 Magnette, against a field of purpose-built Grand Prix machinery including 11 Bugattis, five Maseratis and four Alfa Romeos. And yes, I’m going to come last. But at least I shall do so in Earl Howe’s own car – not only that, but the actual car he raced to such success in the 1933 Mille Miglia (of which more in a moment) and the very first production K3 in the world.
Earl Howe or, Francis Richard Henry Penn Curzon, 5th Earl Howe to give him his proper name, will need very little introduction to most GRR followers. Indeed there is perhaps no other figure in the sport who did more to further the cause of British motor racing and British motor racers. Among his achievements was the co-founding with Dudley Benjafield of the British Racing Drivers Club in 1928. He remained president until his death in 1964, and helped turn it into one of the most coveted racing clubs in the world. He was also one of the forces behind the very first British Grand Prix, held at Silverstone in 1948. As a driver, he won Le Mans in 1931 with Sir Henry Birkin and raced relentlessly throughout the 1930s.
But he was also the man who, appalled by the lack of British racing machinery after the demise of Bentley Motors, bashed on the door of Lord Morris and Cecil Kimber and persuaded them to make a racing version of their K1 road car for entry into the Mille Miglia. The K3 was the result and to give you some idea of the transformation wrought, consider that by the time its tiny 1087cc straight six motor had been race prepped and supercharged, its output had increased from 41bhp to 120bhp.
Apparently at the invitation of both the King of Italy and Mussolini, a team of three K3s set off for Italy. Chassis K3001 was to be driven by Howe and Hugh Hamilton, K3002 for Birkin and fellow Bentley boy and Le Mans winner Bernard Rubin and K3003 for Count Johnny Lurani and soon-to-be Land Speed Record Holder George Eyston. These really were big guns to wheel out for such tiny cars. But it worked: rather inevitably, Birkin was sent out as the hare to see off the threat from Maserati’s brand new 4CTR and broke down when the job was done (just as he’d done to Caracciola’s Mercedes when driving for Bentley at Le Mans in 1930). But the Lurani/Eyston car came home to win the class, followed 90 seconds late by Howe in this very car. It would be 42 minutes – almost three quarters of an hour – before the next fastest in the class crossed the line. MG had appeared out of nowhere and humbled an all-Italian opposition. In return, the organisers awarded the coveted team prize to MG, the first time it had been awarded to a team from abroad.
So if you’re going to the Members’ Meeting, do come and say hello and take at look at Earl Howe’s little blue car. It’ll look as it does in the pic left at Goodwood because the regs of the race oblige it to run without wings or headlights. I drove it once before, but briefly on public roads and years ago. I found it addicted to oversteer and me unable to wrap my small brain around its unusual pre-selector gearbox. I hope I’ll find it easier at Goodwood where at least I know what kind of corner is approaching. It’s also not moved for some years so I’m hoping a little gentle exercise will do it some good. Most of all I hope I am able to do some justice not only to it, but its illustrious former owner after whom the race is named.