Fascinating F1 Fact: 11

The recent news that Aston Martin hopes to enter Formula 1 in the near future, suggests that we will soon have a third chapter in the F1 history on the firm that was set up in 1913 by Singer Motors salesmen Robert Bamford and Lionel Martin. Their first car, which appeared two years later, was based on an Isotta-Fraschini, powered by a Coventry Simplex engine. They called this an Aston Martin, the Aston name coming from the famous hillclimb in the Chilterns, near the village of Aston Clinton. It was a struggle to survive, but after the war they were fortunate to find a patron in 27-year-old Count Louis Zborowski.

If you drive up to London from Dover on the old A2 road, shortly before you reach Canterbury, if you are paying attention, you may catch a glimpse of a grand mansion on the right hand side, close to the village of Bridge. This is Higham Park. It was bought in 1910 by Countess Margaret Zborowski, known as Maggie to her friends. She was the widow of Count Elliot Zborowski, who could trace his American forebears back to 1662. His name was Polish (probably) and with Poland famed for its extensive aristocracy, no-one seemed to question whether the Count had any right to the title he used. What he did have was a lot of money.

His family were successful entrepreneurs and landowners and once the family fortune was established, the later generations were able to take up gentlemanly pastimes, such as polo and fox-hunting. It was in pursuit of the fox that Elliot Zborowski settled in Melton Mowbray in England, a town famed for its pork pies and its fox hunting. He rode with great gusto in many famous hunts and, being a glamorous sort of chap, soon encountered Margaret, the Baroness de Steurs. Despite the Dutch title, she was one of the Astor Family, and owned a large chunk of Manhattan, which meant that money was never really a problem. She had a considerable fortune and soon a messy divorce as well. She and Elliot married and in 1895 their son Louis – known as Lou – was born.

Eight years later, while driving a Mercedes on the La Turbie hillclimb, Elliot crashed into a rock face and was killed.

A year after buying Higham Park, Maggie died young from heart trouble, leaving Lou as the heir to a vast fortune. He was 16 but would have to wait five years to get his hands on the money… He was briefly at Eton but was mainly tutored at home, where without parental guidance he became something of a wild teenager, one of his tricks being to ride a motorcycle on the scaffolding that surrounded Higham at the time. He was not involved in World War I because of kidney problems and in 1916 he finally got his hands on the money. It was not long before he married a showgirl, Vi Leicester, and she became the next Countess. He engaged an engineer called Captain Clive Gallop, a former Royal Flying Corps pilot, and together in the stables at Higham, they began building racing cars. He also built a mile-long narrow gauge railway on the estate, just for fun, and managed to get into trouble, being named in a divorce case as the lover of a lady called Pixi Marix.

The first car they built was a modified Mercedes, fitted with a vast 23-litre Maybach engine which had been used to power Zeppelins during the war. This monster dominated at Brooklands. It was called Chitty Bang Bang. It was followed by another revamped Mercedes fitted with an 18-litre Benz aero-engine. This was not as successful as Chitty I but proved to be very reliable and was even taken on a tour of the Sahara Desert at the start of 1922. That year Lou invested in Aston Martin and he and Gallop took part in the Grand Prix de l’ACF in Strasbourg racing Grand Prix Aston Martins, Gallop having nudged him towards cars built by others after Chitty I had a tyre failure and crashed through one of the Brooklands timing boxes. A third Chitty was built later but Zborowski was by then using customer cars and in 1923 he travelled to Indianapolis and raced a streamlined Bugatti in the 500. While in America he bought a Miller and brought it back to Europe and at the end of the year fought a stirring battle with Alberto Divo for victory in the Spanish GP at Sitges-Terramar. Divo won.

Back at Higham, he and Gallop built a speed record car, called the Higham Special but in the autumn of 1924 Zborowski accepted an invitation to race for the Mercedes factory team at Monza. Something went wrong in the Lesmos and he went off into the trees. The Count was dead at 29. Aston Martin soon went out of business. Higham was sold. The Higham Special was acquired by Parry Thomas and renamed Babs and he died at the wheel of this huge car on the Pendine Sands in 1927, while trying to set a speed record.

But that is not really the end of the story. In the 1960s an author who had been at Eton just after World War I and had followed the exploits of old Etonian Zborowski, decided he would write a children’s book, based on the stories. He added a second Chitty to the name of the car and his Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang was a huge success and soon became a celebrated children’s movie. His name was Ian Fleming, and if that sounds familiar it is because he had already made his fortune in a very different genre of writing, with a string of novels in the 1950s about a secret agent called James Bond, who always drove Aston Martins. The Bond franchise is one of the biggest in the history of publishing and film and is such a powerful brand that the character is used today by Aston Martin to promote its cars.

30 thoughts on “Fascinating F1 Fact: 11

  1. I can barely scratch the surface with my imagination as to how fascinating your library must be.

    Any chance it’s oak panelled, leather arm chair in front of an open fire, brandy poured and a Cuban cigar releasing its aroma?

    Amazing stories

    1. The Bentley was written off whilst giving chase to Sir Hugo Drax in Moonraker, the Aston Martin was introduced when Bond had to tail a Smersh agent across Europe in Goldfinger. He was kidnapped in Switerland and ended up in New York working for Auric Goldfinger planning to rob Fort Knox in collaboration with, amongst others, Pussy Galore.

    2. Initially, yes. Fleming liked the DB5 used in the movie version of Goldfinger and put Bond in an Aston in the books written thereafter. I believe Bond had a Bentley in one of the first two films but he never drove it but instead took a young lady on a picnic and took a call on its car phone!

  2. Every morning after having walked the dog and made my first cup of coffee I sit down with great expectation to read your blog, specifically the ‘Fascinating facts’. As with your travelogues the articles are riveting and beautifully written, and although the reader is always the wiser as a consequence this one is also astonished at the research and detail of your articles. With the season finished you could easily just go fishing or attend to all those things that are abandoned due to your travels, but instead you continue to educate and amuse us and I am sure I speak for many when I say ‘Thank you Jo’.

  3. I accept it’s not Motor Racing related but it’s also worth mentioning that following his garden railway building, along with fellow racing driver Captain “Jack” Howey, he set about the creation of the 15” gauge Romney, Hythe & Dymchurch Railway – still running today, but unfortunately he died before it commenced operating.

    1. The film owes more to Roald Dahl IMHO.

      Both Dahl and Fleming were intelligence officers for HMG during WW2, both working in the US as I recall.

      Can’t think of a motor racing Dahl link. Apart from Dahl was at Repton school, as was Adrian Newey.

      1. Apparently Captain Sir Mansfield George Smith Cumming, KCMG, CB the first “C” head of MI6 was a racer before he got into the service though so far I have no details of what or where he raced. No doubt Joe has details. It was mentioned in Sir David Jason’s new serieson MI6 on the Freeview More4 Channel. Though it is a very abbridged and simplified version. No mention of the many others involved or the massive infighting.

    2. Likewise the Bond books. But then they were writen back in black and white days before Technicolour and the films. Also the Bond books had little or nothing to do with Flemings real role in the security services.

  4. Nice little story! But please change Clives’ name from Gallup to Gallop! Interested people wanting to know more on this subject should read ‘The Zborowski Inheritance’ by David Paine (extremely informative but few illustrations) and/or The Racing Zborowskis (beautifully illustrated with many period photographs.)

  5. Can we have a post about the Aston GP cars of the 50’s please. Great looking cars but a couple of years out of date.

  6. Brilliant ! I also very much enjoy the responses your originals elicit. Not always strictly on subject but the better for that. I very much regret the opportunities I have missed during my life to note the stories of folk whose paths I have crossed and who have fascinating stories to tell.
    Wish I enjoyed writing and had the skills. Bored after 5 minutes !

  7. If you keep producing this kind of quality, you will definitely be considered an historian first and a journalist second.

  8. The loco from Higham, Count Louis is still running, There is also an archive film available of it at Higham on line. Isn’t there a story that when he died he was wearing a ring or something that his father had also been wearing when he had his fatal crash?

  9. The Higham Special, rechristened Babs by Parry Thomas was buried at Pendine Sands after Thomas’ death. It was subsequently dug up and restored. It spends some of its time at the Brooklands Museum at Weybridge. Last time I was there they wheeled it out and fired it up. Truly splendid despite the car’s tragic past.

  10. Great stuff joe. I particularly liked “no-one seemed to question whether the Count had any right to the title he used” ! 🙂

  11. I am surprised and disappointed that you failed to mention that the King of Cheese, STILTON is also made in the Melton Mowbray area. It’s not just Pork Pies and hunting. I have come to expect your FF1Fs to becomprehensive.

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