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Lot 152: Lagonda V12 Le Mans Team Car

Goodwood Revival Sale, Bonhams (15 September 2012)

It was shortly before Christmas, 1938, that Lagonda company Chairman Alan Good dropped a bombshell onto the desk of his Technical Director, none other than the legendary W.O. Bentley. Good had decided to enter a specially-tailored works-entered V12 Lagonda at Le Mans in 1939 and had asked Mercedes-Benz factory Grand Prix team member Dick Seaman to drive it.The leading British racing driver of his era would have had no serious objection, having a soft spot for Lagondas after previously running a 2-litre model of his own, and admiring both the new V12 and W.O. Bentley's record with the Staines-based company. He had also, of course, driven the Fox & Nicholl Lagonda at Spa in 1936, winning its class. However, at that time – with barely six months to go before Good's target date at Le Mans – W.O. Bentley had just returned to development work on his ideas for an electric gearchange, after having successfully brought the V12 Lagonda engine to production. Simultaneously, the rest of his technical team had just begun to concentrate upon Alan Good's entry for the 1939 Monte Carlo Rally. W.O. was unhappy with being allowed so little time to develop a Le Mans winner from the fast V12, but he succeeded in extracting Good's agreement that the immediate objective should be simply to finish the 24-Hour race in 1939, with a view to an all-out effort to win the great race in 1940. Of course, war would intervene, but W.O. did not know this at the time and so the Le Mans Lagonda V12s' eventual performance was indeed admirable... By March 1939, W.O. already had a V12 racing engine with four carburettors under bench test, and since Seaman had acceded to Mercedes-Benz's wish that he should not compete for Lagonda, Good announced that ERA star driver Arthur Dobson would drive instead, with a second driver to be decided (which proved to be popular Brooklands habituι, Charles Brackenbury). The V12 engine's new four-carburettor set-up boosted power output to 206bhp at 5,500rpm (220bhp being claimed publicly), and although the original intention had been to build only one car, Lord Selsdon's fortuitous inheritance of £65,000 changed Lagonda's plans. Before he had acceded to his title as the 2nd Baron Selsdon in 1938, Peter Mitchell-Thomson born in 1913 had enjoyed some success as a racing driver most notably with Frazer Nash cars at Brooklands. He was 26 years old, and - eager to compete at Le Mans - he approached Alan Good to order a second competition V12 Lagonda to drive there. The Staines Bridge-based company gratefully accepted his order, and the result is the car now offered here. As co-driver for Le Mans, Lord Selsdon invited a friend, the 34-year-old Lord Waleran, another keen Lagonda enthusiast, to join in the fun. William George Hood Walrond, 2nd Baron Waleran had been born in 1905. He was an Old Etonian and Oxford University graduate who had served as Assistant Private Secretary to the Governor-General of New Zealand 1927-1930. During World War 2 he would become a Wing Commander in the Royal Air Force Volunteer Reserve, but as a racing driver at significant level, Le Mans 1939 marked his debut. Only the works V12 Lagonda Le Mans car was ready for the unveiling ceremony on 7th June, and even then it was not complete. It was, however, able to run a few test laps around the factory site at Staines Bridge prior to setting off for Le Mans. The two cars were race-numbered '5' (works entry for Arthur Dobson/Charles Brackenbury) and '6' the private entry for Selsdon/Waleran. Their Lordships used the drive to Le Mans as their sole test and running-in opportunity. In fact, fine tuning would continue on both cars right up until the start of the race itself. While the Lagonda V12 No.5 (known ever after as 'Old Number 5'), successfully completed the 24-Hour classic, covering 239 laps – no fewer than 2,006 miles - at an average speed of 83.21mph, claiming a tremendous third place finish upon its competition debut, Lords Selsdon and Waleran in the works-supported V12 – despite their total lack of serious pre-race testing – brought this car home immediately behind No. 5, in fourth place overall. Not unnaturally all concerned were absolutely delighted to have achieved such an honourable and impressive result, with No. 5 winning its class, and this wonderful V12 Lagonda debut at Le Mans was regarded as a wonderful launching pad for a serious tilt at outright victory there in 1940. In retrospect it is absolutely evident that W.O. Bentley and his faithful and talented team had overcome enormous obstacles to have transformed in so few fleeting months a car which he had conceived and designed as a quiet and elegant fast sporting car into a genuine long-distance racer. It was a truly remarkable feat. Lord Selsdon himself described the race in an interview with Freddy Grisewood on the contemporary BBC radio programme 'World Goes By', relating how: "We started at 4 o'clock on Saturday afternoon driving right through the twenty-four hours until four o'clock on Sunday. We had to drive twenty-five laps each of eight miles around the ordinary public road, closed to traffic of course. When the starter drops the flag, you rush like a hare to get into your car, press the starter and then hare off. We all started all right, except for one car with a blown fuse. It's just like a madhouse for the first five minutes. Everybody misses each other by a hair's breadth. The leaders were going off at 80 miles an hour, getting round the eight miles in five and a half minutes. After about twenty minutes they thin out a bit. "Actually the average time of our car over the twenty-four hours was just over 83mph, which works out at five minutes 45 seconds per lap. The small cars did awfully well too. You see it's really three races in one. The first race is for the fastest car round irrespective of engine size, the second is a sort of handicap race but the calculation is so complicated – depends on engine size and a lot of things – that only the mathematical boys can understand. The third race is for a Cup; you have to qualify for it one year and go in for it the next. We both qualified. "The trouble was you went round a corner at one speed, and when you went round again the conditions were absolutely different, and if you tried taking it at the same speed things sometimes became a bit uncertain. In the early morning you got mist and fog on the road, and in the corners that makes things rather difficult. You go into a belt of fog and you don't know if there's another fellow in front, especially if his tail light happens to have gone out. "The remarkable thing was that the tyres ran through without a change. About five years ago we'd have had to change the tyres every five or six hours. Now it's possible to cover 2,000 miles at 90 miles an hour in twenty-four hours, which is actually higher than last year's winning speed. As a matter of fact we found a nail in one of my tyres at the end, but I don't know how long it had been there. If the tyre had exploded of course we might have had an interesting bit of motoring... "Fourteen British cars started and there were forty-two starters altogether. Only fifteen cars finished and ten of them were British, so I think you can say we did quite well...". Of course the basic chassis of these two Le Mans Lagonda V12s had been considerably lightened utilising narrow gauge steel and the 10-foot 4-inch-wheelbase chassis frame of each car was riddled with lightening holes. Even the brake drums had six large holes drilled in each, albeit capped with light aluminium lids to prevent water entering them. The front brakes were the newly-announced two-leading shoe pattern by Lockheed and were provided with cooling air scoops on the back plates. The cockpit left no room for a right-hand handbrake, and this was relocated to the centre in an upright position, while a centre throttle pedal was also fitted. The ultra-light bodywork which as originally fashioned was infinitely lighter than it may look to the eye was constructed in five major sections, all of hand-beaten aluminium sheet mounted directly on to the chassis with no interior framework whatsoever, and retained by quick-release fasteners. Closely fitting around the engine, it represented overall a most streamlined shape. Although both team cars were stripped and rebuilt at Staines after their Le Mans achievement, the same bodywork was used subsequently, when both cars were entered for the August Bank Holiday Brooklands race meeting. There on the Weybridge track, Brackenbury drove 'Old Number 5,' albeit renumbered '8', while Lord Selsdon drove his own (No.6 but renumbered as No.5!). The Le Mans wings and lamps were removed and much more skimpy silencers were fitted in place of the large Le Mans units, plus, of course, the inevitable Brooklands fishtail on the tip of each pipe. The original bodywork was retained on Brackenbury's car, with small patches riveted over some of the cracks (which had been apparent following Le Mans), and the rebuilt engines again went well. Both cars were, of course, handicapped by 'Ebby' Ebblewhite, the official Brooklands 'starter' and timekeeper but, unusually, he actually underestimated their potential. Consequently, Brackenbury won the race by 3.8 seconds from Selsdon at 118.45mph average, and after lapping the formidable – and formidably bumpy – Outer Circuit bankings at no less than 127.70mph. Even at this speed both drivers had been "soft pedalling" at The Fork to spare 'Ebby' too much embarrassment, while G. L. Baker finished third in a Graham-Paige, 7.8 seconds behind Brackenbury. During practice on the Brooklands Outer Circuit, Brackenbury set his fastest unofficial lap at an incredible 140mph (221km/h) that day, but although no one knew it at the time, this Brooklands event on 12th August 1939 was to be the last ever at the historic old Motor Course. Lord Selsdon entered his car for the 1939 Liege GP in Belgium on August 27, and made the trip there only for the race to be cancelled and he returned home just before the outbreak of World War 2 on September 2/3. Inevitably, with the outbreak of hostilities, the Lagonda factory was directed to war work, supplying the Royal Air Force. Although a few more Lagonda LG6 and V12 cars were produced in 1939 and even into 1940, armaments thereafter became totally dominant. The two great V12 teams cars were laid up in Staines, together with some other cars, drawings, tools, and structural parts from the body shop, but tyres were removed and even body parts damaged at Le Mans were removed and put to the crucible for their aluminium value. The car's lay there otherwise undisturbed until in 1944 a V1 'Doodlebug' flying bomb fell nearby, causing extensive damage both to the building and to the two team cars within, although fortunately the ensuing fire did not reach the cars themselves. The full extent of the damage became apparent when the vehicles were moved into the open during the clean-up operation, but fortunately Lagonda decided to restore the chassis units to running order, and this was done in a workshop opposite the damaged factory. We understand from Lagonda Club Registrar Arnold Davey that while the works-entered 1939 Le Mans V12 was finally road registered 'GRK 77' in 1948 and was chassis serial '14089', Lord Selsdon's sister car now offered herehad been registered pre-war as 'HPL 449' and is chassis serial '14090'. Somehow, in the winter of 1945-46, the ageing but forever irrepressible Charles Brackenbury acquired 'Old Number 5' and ran it on the road minus original body, and on trade plates as '168 PC'. He later sold that car to Robert Cowell, a partner in Leacroft Sheet Metal Works in Egham, coachbuilders. The second car, Lord Selsdon's, meanwhile found a new owner in Robert Arbuthnot of High Speed Motors Ltd, past campaigner of the ex-Hans Ruesch Alfa Romeo 8C-35 Grand Prix car. He fitted a vestigial new aluminium body and most optimistically entered the car for the 1946 Indianapolis 500-Miles Speedway classic – offering the richest prize fund in worldwide motor sport. Robert Arbuthnot shipped this V12 Lagonda across the Atlantic and began practice on 'The Brickyard' rectangle but could not better a 104mph lap speed when 114mph was necessary to qualify on the starting grid. While returning to the Speedway for another attempt, the tow parted and the car careered into a roadside obstacle. It was damaged, its extensively perforated chassis frame being bent where it rose over the back axle. We understand that the car was sold soon after to Indycar entrant Dr Sabourin. In an early Watkins Glen road race the car re-emerged, powered by a Mercury V8 engine and driven by future Mercedes-Benz 300SLR works driver John Fitch. By 1952 it was equipped with a Chrysler Hemi V8 engine and entered by one Garret Fuller for Sherwood Johnston to drive, finishing third in the Seneca Cup race at Watkins Glen. The original V12 Lagonda engine reputedly went into a power boat in the Lake Winnipesauke area of New Hampshire, and in 1959 the car was acquired as a rolling chassis by Bob Crane, President of the Lagonda Club USA. Steven Silverstein separately acquired the discarded Arbuthnot Indianapolis bodywork, while Mr Crane subsequently sold the car plus a quantity of relevant components – including substantial remains of the original engine - to a Mr Dale in Toronto, Canada, where it was eventually put on museum display. British Lagonda enthusiast Peter Biggs later acquired the car in the 1980s, repatriated it from Canada and commissioned specialist John Foy to undertake restoration to original 1939 Le Mans form, complete with 4-carburettor V12 engine. We understand that the chassis, gearbox, fuel tank, rear axle and crank case (with the original RAC stamp clearly visible) are the originals. The Lagonda is currently fitted with a race prepared, period correct competition engine mated to a fully rebuilt radiator, at a cost of £50,000. We can confirm that as offered here this imposing classic British Le Mans car – W.O. Bentley's last hurrah upon the site of his own company's legendary five 24-Hour race wins – goes and drives every bit as splendidly as it looks – a V12-cylinder Le Mans car fit, indeed, not for just one Lord, but for two.

Lot Details
Auction Goodwood Revival Sale
Bonhams, Chichester, Goodwood
Lot Number152
Outcome SOLD
Hammer Price£1150000
Hammer Price (inc premium)£1289500
Condition rating
Registration numberHPL 449
Chassis number14090
Engine number
Engine capacity (cc)
Engine - cylinders
Number of doors