Whitney Straight – Affluent Autosport

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Cut from the same cloth as many a ‘Boys Own’ hero, the honours that follow his name recognise many achievements and point to a life lived to the full; my interest is simply because I knew the man. My teenage years around West London included the compulsory part-time job and mine was the unskilled assistant to the assistant gardener at a rather large house near Osterley Park. How I achieved this weekend vocation has long since been forgotten but several things remain in my memory to this day. Occasionally cars could be heard revving up in the lock ups away from the main house, unfortunately I wasn’t worthy of a peak.

Caricature of the business man Whitney Straight complete with cigarMr Straight himself would patrol his grounds, shotgun in tow and always accompanied by a couple of small dogs plus a large cigar. As he passed he would often enquire as to my current task, one of which I remember vividly as trimming the edges of his large lawn with a pair of scissors. Not my idea obviously, but something my piers considered justifiable for my meagre wage plus the fishing rights to the large lake that filled the acres surrounded by woodland. I was aware of Whitney Straight’s business career, climbing to the highest offices of British European Airways and then BOAC and Rolls Royce but knew nothing of his Brooklands exploits and the household names he competed with and against on a weekly basis.

Paint Them Black and Race Born to wealthy parents in 1912 New York City, Straight’s father died in 1918 and when his mother had remarried Englishman Leonard Elmhirst, the family moved to Darlington Hall in Devon in 1925. The children were dispatched to the finest of educations available and Whitney attended Trinity College Cambridge where he evidently excelled and breezed through his exams, it was here his lust for adventure became apparent. Straight took to the skies over Cambridgeshire and accumulated over 60 hours’ flight training at just 16 but was too young for any official pilot’s licence. Funds were never of concern so his first car was an Alvis Silver Eagle Touring model, this was followed by a Riley Nine that was to appear at Shelsley Walsh in the summer of 1931.

Image taken at the Border 100 the last victory for Straight in the heat of South Africa (image Rivers Fletcher)Motorsport passions may certainly have been pursued with fellow Trinity student Dick Seaman and the pair would become team mates and great friends. It’s said Straight encouraged young Seaman (destined for a life in the diplomatic corps) to approach his parents for a runabout to get around Cambridge; a little old Bugatti Type 35 would do the trick. Brooklands for the Autumn meeting where an impressive 3rd just convinced young Straight something faster than his Nine (now painted black) would be required for the 1933 season. A non-supercharged Bugatti Type 35 got him up amongst the fastest at the Easter meeting, this was quickly followed by Tim Birkin’s old Maserati; also clothed in black hue complimented by shining chrome trim the 1931 2.5 litre Italian machine with Straight piloting would bring down the class record twice in one meeting, the time set by Birkin himself. Straight went racing in style, always accompanied by his chauffeur ‘Dewdenay’ who could be relied on for some mechanical assistance, fresh white gloves or indeed refreshments plus he was handy with a pre-war camera.

Whitney broke the course record at Shesley before taking on the continent and an event at Circuit d’Albi where he finished second. Another second in the Swedish GP before flying (himself) on to the Coppa Acerbo – Pescara, the hardest of the Italian road races, totalling 460 miles, where a class win was enjoyed with an MG. The Grand Prix de la Marne took place near Reims and Straight would trail an all Alfa Tipo podium with fourth in his Maserati behind the great names of Etancelin, Wimille and Sommer.

Team Straight 1934 with the 2.9 Maserati in Monaco discussing the performance with Ramponi (image Rivers Fletcher)With rising confidence came the formation of a team much of which was funded by Whitney himself, this included four Maserati’s (one ex works) his own 8 litre Bentley and Count Carlo Felice Trossi’s ex-Scuderia Ferrari Duesenberg. Team members included regulars Seaman, Hugh Hamilton and Buddy Featherstonehaugh a famous jazz saxophonist/race driver. Young Whitney’s life at Cambridge finished early, convinced a future with motor racing could be made to pay and it started well in 1934 with a win at the JCC International event at Brooklands.

At Montreux he was fourth, followed by a third being snatched from his grasp with a mechanical in Casablanca and then at Albi that year the team took a win with Featherstonehaugh, second Hamilton and Sommer guesting took the other Maserati to fourth. Another podium at Comminges before the 21 kilometre hill climb at Mont Ventoux and a sign of things to come; Straight finished a remarkable 20 seconds behind the 16-cylinder Auto-Union of King of the Mountains - Hans Stuck. Tragedy struck in August 1934 when the extremely talented Hugh Hamilton left the road on the final lap of the Swiss GP with front tyre failure. The Maserati hit a tree and Hamilton was pronounced dead at the scene. After winning the final Donnington Park meet of the season, Straight flew Dick Seaman, Chief Engineer Giulio Ramponi and his younger brother Michael from Heston to South Africa for the countries first GP at East London. Straight would take victory in the Maserati; a superb end to a hectic but memorable year.

In just a few years Whitney Straight competed against the likes of Nuvolari, Campbell, Sommer, Birkin, Bira and Cobb plus many more but he realised unless he joined the factories of Auto Union or Mercedes, victories would become thin on the ground for the foreseeable future. He had seen the Nazi propaganda machine at work across Europe and would soon be facing them as a Battle of Britain pilot. The initials CBE, MC and DFC after his name tell that part of his story; for me, I was the Edward Scissor Hands of lawn dressing without even realising my employer was a one of the great pre-war Grand Prix winners.