One of ERA's most famous exponents, Prince Bira also raced the ex-Whitney Straight Maserati. His outstanding performances were rewarded with the BRDC Road Racing Gold Star in 1936, 1937 and 1938. After the war, Bira returned to racing with several teams taking a number of wins in non championship Grand Prix. He was also an Olympic yachtsman sailing in the games on four occasions, one of 10 Olympians on these pages.
Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh, better known as Prince Bira of Siam, now Thailand. was a grandson of King Mongkut, who opened the country to Western influence in the late 19th century and was made famous by the musical comedy, "The King and I". Due to King Mongkut's liberal and progressive ways, his family became closely linked with Britain and in 1927, at the age of 13, Prince Bira was sent from Siam to attend Eton College. He then went up to Cambridge before studying sculpture at the Byam Shaw Art School.
After Thailand changed from absolute monarchy to a democracy in 1932, HM King Rama VII decided to abdicate the throne and moved to England. The Princes Chula and Bira thus became regular guests at the king's residence in Virginia Water.
Bira stayed on in London under the care of his cousin Prince Chula and at the age of 19 he went to Brooklands where he was particularly taken with Kay Petre. Attracted to her, he decided that the best way to get close was to take up racing.
Prince Chula and Bira set up a racing team, White Mouse Stable, which incidentally came from Chula's nickname, Nou, which is Siamese for little mouse, and a mouse was thus painted on Bira's cars to signify Price Chula's involvement. Bira first raced a hyacinth blue Riley Imp at Brooklands in March 1935. The shade of blue, taken from the evening dress of a Danish girl, became Siam's racing colours as well being known as Bira Blue. The Imp was followed by an MG K3 Supercharged Magnette. Prince Chula then presented him with an ERA (R2B), which he nicknamed Romulus, at his 21st birthday party in London. A week later he finished second in the Grand Prix de Dieppe despite having to stop for plugs during the race. A month later at Berne he again finished second and finished off the season with a fifth at the Donington Grand Prix and third in the Mountain Championship at Brooklands, both times winning the voiturette class.
For 1936 Chula and Bira, deciding that the previous season's results merited a second ERA, purchased an ERA B, nicknames Remus, to use in British events with Romulus retained for use in international events. Chula also purchased the ex-Whitney Straight Maserati 8CM. Bira won the Coupe de Prince Rainier at Monte Carlo, the voiturette race before the Monaco Grand Prix. He nearly didn't make the start having been temporarily blinded in his left eye the week before when a stone smashed his goggles in the British Empire Trophy Race at Donnington. Some glass had been removed from his eye but the drops rendered him temporarily blind in that eye. He used perscription lenses in his goggles as he was quite short sighted and needed glasses.
Bira won three more races in the ERAs that season: the JCC International Trophy, the Grand Prix de Picardie and the Albi Grand Prix. He was second to Seaman's Delage on the Isle of Man and finished 3rd behind two Maseratis at the Nürburgring. He raced the Maserati in the Donington Grand Prix, finishing 5th, and at Brooklands where he came home in 3rd place. He won the first of his three BRDC Road Racing Gold Stars that year.
When Seaman signed for Mercedes in 1937 the White Mouse Stable acquired his Grand Prix Delage. Chula also bought a second Delage and all the spare parts. The cars were upgraded with new chassis and independent suspension and much was expected. The cars were however a huge disappointment and Bira often had to revert back to his ERAs which by now hopelessly outclassed by the new Maseratis.
The Delages had put a huge financial burden on the team and belts had to be tightened. As a result the preparation of the cars suffered. Bira did take few wins in England, taking the Campbell Trophy at Brooklands with the Maserati, the RAC International Light Car Race on the Isle Of Man, the 12 Hour Race at Donnington and the Imperial Trophy Crystal Palace with the ERA. He won his second BRDC Gold Star.
In January 1938, Bira married Ceril Heycock. They had met while Bira was at art school as she was the sister of one of his classmates. On the racing front, the team bought the ex works ERA C type with a Zoller supercharger. It was named Hanuman after a Siamese god. Chula tried and failed to sell off the Delage and the team had to concentrate on British events to cut costs. Bira won the Coronation Trophy, the Campbell Trophy, the Light Car Cork Grand Prix, the London Grand Prix the Nuffield Trophy, the BRDC Road Race and the Siam Trophy. He also finished second seven times and third twice on his way to his third consecutive BRDC Gold Star.
Now equipped with a Thai racing license, he had raced with an RAC one for the past four years, a wide yellow line was added to the cars as well as matching yellow wheels for 1939. Outclassed abroad by the Maseratis, Bira's victories once again came in British events winning the Nuffield Trophy with Hanuman, the Sydenham Trophy and the Sydenham Plate with Romulus and the JCC International Trophy race at Brooklands with the Maserati. Unfortunately he destroyed Hanuman in a practice crash at the Coupe de la Commission Sportif at Reims-Gueux. Coming over the jump in the Le Garenne forest he landed with one wheel in the dirt, lost control and was throw out. Hanuman was destroyed but Bira fortunately escaped with only minor injuries.
Now no longer eligible for the BRDC Gold Star, though he would have been leading the points, and trying to organize a voiturette race in Siam, the Second World War broke out and racing came to an end.
During the war, with the Japanese occupation of his homeland, Prince Bira and Chula stayed in England, moving to Cornwall. Bira joined the Home Guard and with his interest and experience as a glider pilot, he became an instructor with the Air Training Corps, part of the RAF.
Bira returned to racing at Chimay on June 9, 1946, finishing 6th in the 8CM. He then won the Ulster TT on August 10th driving the rebuilt Hanuman.
In 1947 he blew the engine of Romulus to pieces at the Pau GP and subsequently purchased a new Maserati 4CL, winning the Grand Prix des Frontières with it. He also signed on as a works driver racing in F2 for Simca-Gordini, winning at Reims and the Manx cup.
In 1948 he continued racing the Maserati 4CL and a 4CLT/48 with some success but at the end of the season his long partnership with Chula ended. Their relationship had suffered for a number of reasons and the pair parted company.
Bira raced his Maseratis for Enrico Platé in 1949, winning the Swedish Grand Prix and a number of podiums. He divorced Ceril that year.
Staying with Platé in 1950, he took 5 points in the new World Championship with a fifth in Monaco and a fourth in the Swiss Grand Prix at Bremgarten, in a year dominated by the Alfa Romeos of Juan Manuel Fangio, Nino Farina and Luigi Fagioli
For 1951 Bira raced the Maserati 4CLT/48 with an Officine Specializzate Costruzioni Automobili (OSCA) V12 installed. A skiing accident destroyed most of the season and he only made one World Championship appearance in Spain at the end of the season, retiring with engine problems. On December 18th he married an Argentinean named Chelita.
His next two seasons were little better, his drives with Simca Gordini in 1952 and with Connaught in 1953 also failing to earn him any championship points.
He drove a works Maserati in the first Grand Prix of 1954, the Argentine Grand Prix, finishing 6th. That year he became one of the first privateers to order one of the new Maserati 250Fs. His order was fourth to be received and he was allocated chassis and engine number 2504. As the car would not be ready until the June, Maserati fitted his new 6-cylinder 2.5 litre engine into a 1953 Formula 2 chassis. Known as an A6GCM he finished second in his heat of the International Trophy, 6th in the Bari Grand Prix and took a win at the Grand Prix des Frontières in Chimay. His 250F was ready for the Belgian Grand Prix where he finished 6th, just out of the points. At the French Grand Prix at Reims-Gueux he qualified on the third row and after holding 6th for a while he dropped back. However with steady driving, he had to use third gear for much of the race, and a degree of attrition in front of him, he finished a fine fourth, scoring his first championship points since 1950.
Early in 1955 he scored his last win in the New Zealand GP on the Ardmore airfield circuit. And, after finishing third to Peter Collins and Roy Salvadori, also in 250Fs, at Silverstone in May, Bira suddenly announced his retirement and sold the car to British privateer Horace Gould.
The Prince moved back to Thailand in 1956, though he kept a European base in the form of a three-masted schooner berthed in Cannes, close to his other home, Villa les Faunes, at Mandelieu.
Intent on finding a job, Chelita followed but could not stand the life in Thailand and promptly moved back to France. They divorced that same year. Their son, M.R. Biradej Bhanubhand, lived with his mother until his death at 17 from liver cancer.
Back in Thailand, Bira had now time to turn to his other hobbies, which included yachting, flying and sculpturing. In 1956, he was sent to Melbourne to represent his country at the x. Together with Luang Pradiyat Navayudh, he entered the Star class, finishing 12th and last.
He married for a third time to a much younger woman, Salika Kalantanonda, a Thai, in 1957.
Bira did better at his second Olympic appearance in Rome in 1960. Now assisted by Boonpuen Chomvith, he again sailed in the Star class, this time finishing 19th out of 26 boats. Fellow Grand Prix driver, the Argentinean Roberto Mieres, was also racing in the Star class, finishing 17th.
In Tokyo in 1964 he entered the Dragon class, his crew consisting of his wife Princess Bhanuband Birabongse and Prateep Areeob. With their boat "Linglom", they only managed to finish in front of the Jamaican yacht in 22nd place.
The 1972 Olympic Regatta in Kiel saw other royal entries from the Spanish and Norwegian crown princes. Sailing in the Tempest class, Bira and Paitane Chulgatuppa finished 21st and last.
Although Kiel was Bira's last Olympic appearance, he would remain active in the sport and, as Commodore of the Fireball Association of Thailand, he managed to get the 1978 World Championships raced in the waters off the Varuna Club at Kasetsin Beach, Thailand.
After Salika left him and another of his business ventures failed, the Prince moved back to France and then finally to England. Throughout his life, Prince Bira remained in contact with his first wife, Ceril and often visited her and her companion, Bruno, in France. After Bruno's death, Ceril moved back to England, and met up with Prince Bira again in 1983. Bira was also as good a sculptor as he was a racing driver and had exhibited at the Royal Academy.
In 1963 Price Chula was diagnosed with cancer and died later that year.
Prince Bira collapsed and died at Baron's Court Underground Station in London from a heart attack on 23 December 1985. No one knew who he was however there was a handwritten note in his pocket. Scotland Yard sent it to be analyzed at the University of London where it was identified as being written in Thai and addressed to Prince Bira. The Royal Thai Embassy was notified, which then realized that Prince Bira had died, a forgotten hero who had once made such an impact for Thailand and whom all Siamese knew. A Thai funeral service was held at the Wimbledon Temple, and the Prince was later cremated according to Thai and Buddhist customs.
His achievements in auto racing and sailing are honored by the Bira International Circuit outside Pattaya in Thailand and the Prince Bira Memorial Regatta, which was instituted in 1990.