Air Commodore Whitney Willard Straight CBE, MC, DFC was a Grand Prix motor racing driver, aviator, businessman, and a member of the prominent Whitney family of the United States.
Whitney Willard Straight was born in New York to American parents in 1912, the elder of two sons and a daughter. His father died in France of influenza during the great epidemic while serving with the United States Army during World War I. And, when his mother re-married in 1925 to an Englishman, Leonard K. Elmhirst, the family moved to England.
Straight became the youngest pilot in England at the age of 17 in 1929 and, like a lot of other wealthy young men of his generation, he took up motor racing.
He was studying at Cambridge in 1931 when he purchased a Brooklands Riley and an 1,100 c.c. M.G. Magnette. His first race was in February 1932, in the Swedish Winter GP.
In 1933 took British citizenship and purchased the 1931 two seater 2.5 litre 8C Maserati which Tim Birkin had originally imported. He raced at Shelsley Walsh and Brooklands, before going overseas and entering the Marne GP, where he finished last with severe burns to his feet. He also entered the 1933 Coppa Acerbo from which he retired, and won the 1100cc Junior event, as well as setting a new record on his way to winning the Mont Ventoux hillclimb. He also won the Brooklands Mountain Championship causing a stir when on the 16th May 1932 he broke Birkin’s Mountain Circuit record. The record had stood at 56.00 seconds. Straight reduced it to 55.60 seconds and then bettering his time ten days later to 54.00 seconds at 78 m.p.h. To take two seconds from Birkin was quite an achievement and of course everybody sat up and took notice.
He was not entirely happy with the 8C and the following year he bought three single seater 2.9 litre 8CM Maseratis from the factory (the M standing for monoposto) and retained Thomson & Taylor to set about modifying them to his own specifications. The Maserati crash gear boxes were replaced with Wilson pre-selector boxes and along with various other modifications new bodies were constructed. Straight finished 2nd in the 1934 Vichy GP, 3rd in the Comminges GP, and 4th at Casablanca and Montreux. He then won the Donington Park Trophy and the Brooklands Mountain Championship. He also set a new record at Shelsley Walsh, and finished 3rd in the Klausen hillclimb.
Straight’s philosophy was to make racing pay and his commercial set-up was impressive with administrative headquarters in central London and a base in Milan which was convenient for the Maserati factory in Bologna and central to the major European Grand Prix circuits. He employed a number of top people including the ex-Scuderia Ferrari Giulio Ramponi and Birkin’s chassis man Billy Rockell. Dick Seaman who was at Cambridge with Straight entered into an arrangement to buy the M.G. and race it to gain experience and the ultimate outcome of this was that he joined the team. The Straight philospophy of making motor racing pay was one which Seaman maintained for the rest of his career.
Straight’s team was very successful, winning and taking good places in many Grands Prix and one of his later very interesting acquisitions was a 4,376 c.c. twin-ohc Straight Eight Duesenberg which now resides in the Brooklands Museum. This car had been built for Count Trossi of Scuderia Ferrari for European Grand Prix but was a disappointment. Straight brought it to Brooklands and on the 13th October 1934 wrestled it round the Outer Circuit to take the Class C record to 138.15 m.p.h. Considering that only two months previously John Cobb’s record in the Napier Railton had stood at only 139.71 m.p.h. this was an outstanding achievement. Straight returned to the paddock, announced that he could not possibly make the car go any faster and later sold it on to George Duller who raced it with Gwenda Stewart after modifying the rear suspension.
He was offered a works Auto Union drive for 1935, but he refused as he had decided to retire from driving. His last race was the 1934 South African GP, which he won.
On July 17, 1935 he married Lady Daphne Margarita Finch-Hatton, daughter of the 14th Earl of Winchilsea, and they had two daughters.
In his early 20s, as head of the Straight Corporation Limited, he operated airfields throughout Britain and ran flying clubs. In 1936 he helped develop the Miles Whitney Straight aircraft. He became a naturalised British citizen that year. On October 18, 1938, the Straight Corporation purchased control of Norman Edgar (Western Airways), Ltd. and renamed it Western Airways, Ltd.
During World War Two, Whitney Straight flew Blenheims and Hurricanes in 601 Squadron. He was seriously wounded in Norway in 1940 while laying out an landing strip on the frozen surface of a lake, and after convalescing he rejoined his squadron towards the end of the Battle of Britain. He was credited with four and a half kills and also recorded damage to many other planes. He was shot down over France in August of 1941 and initially evaded capture. Through the French Underground, he made his way to Spain where he was eventually captured and put in a German POW camp. However, he escaped and reached safety in Gibraltar. He was sent to the Middle East in charge of RAF transport command operations there with the rank of Air Commodore, and in September of 1943 took over the newly made airfield in Cairo.
At the end of the war, he became chairman of the Royal Aero Club and in July of 1947, at the age of only thirty-four, he was made managing director and Chief Executive Officer of British Overseas Airways Corporation. He reorganised the company and in 1949 was appointed deputy Chairman of the board. In the United States, his cousin Cornelius Vanderbilt Whitney was the President of Aviation Corporation of America which became Pan American Airways.
Later Whitney Straight joined Rolls-Royce as deputy Chairman, and it was while visiting Peking, China in 1958 that Straight was horrified to discover that the Russian Mig 15 planes had counterfeit versions of the Rolls-Royce Derwent and Nene engines. Russia had been provided with 40 of these engines under an export license provided by the government of Prime Minister Clement Atlee after the war. Straight tried unsuccessfully to claim back £200m from Russia in royalties.
Whitney Straight died in Fulham in 1979 at the age of sixty-six.
With thanks to The Brooklands Society and Wikipedia.