Luis Fontes

Luis Fontes

26/12/1912 - 12/10/1940

Fontes won the Le Mans 24 hour race for Lagonda in 1935 driving with John Hindmarsh. He also raced aeroplanes. However his racing ended when arrested and charged with manslaughter after a head on collision resulted in the death of a motorcyclist. He served three years in jail and was banned from driving for 10 years. He died in 1940 when the Wellington bomber he was flying stalled and crashed after an engine failed while circling the RAF base at Llandow, Wales.

Luis Goncelvis Fontes was the son of a Brazilian shipping magnate and London based government official, Antonio Fontes. After his father's death in 1913, he lived with his mother and sister Ruth at Froyle House, Chelston near Torquay in Devon. The family moved to the Reading area in the early 1930s and Luis became a student at Loughborough Engineering College. Inheriting a considerable fortune on his 21st birthday in 1933, he started motor racing that year and also took flying lessons at Reading (Woodley) Aerodrome. He qualified as a pilot on 29th May 1934.

His motor racing career really took off in 1935 when, as a late and relatively unknown entry in the JCC International Trophy Race at Brooklands on 6th May 1935, he surprised everyone by casually winning at 86.96mph. He had originally entered an MG, but as he had just bought John Cobb’s 2.3 litre Monza Alfa he raced that instead. The programme had already been printed and thus listed him in the MG. He requested the racing number 13 and then painted it in "unlucky" green. As an aside the race was handicapped in a most bizarre way. Different classes used different chicanes of varying severity.

Luis was becoming the 1935 season's driving sensation and he was invited to drive at Le Mans in a 4.5 litre Lagonda (BPK 202). He and his co-driver, Brooklands-based Hawker test pilot, John Hindmarsh, covered 1,868 miles at an average of 77.84 mph to win the race. But it was not all plain sailing and whether BPK 202 could have endured another lap is open to debate given that its sump contained little more than vapour when it crossed the finish line. Indeed, Fontes frequent stops towards the end confused the Alfa Romeo pit crew so much that they were convinced they held the lead. And they would probably not have won had it not been for a mechanic in the Lagonda pit, who explained to Luis Fontes how to coax some life out of the gearbox. Because having broken down out on the circuit Luis Fontes walked back to the pits to announce their retirement. However having had his lesson he went back to the car locked it in top gear and limped home to win.

Unfortunately Fontes’ flying logbooks have not survived, but we know that Fontes' first successful air race with his new Hawk Speed Six was on 13th July 1935 when he took second place in the Grosvenor Challenge Cup at Leicester, at an average 171 mph and winning £20 for the fastest time.
 
Two months later, he took part in the 14th King’s Cup Air Race on 6-7th September. Starting at Hatfield the race consisted of a 1,000 mile course around Britain. Luis had to make a forced landing with a broken oil pipe at Old Shotton near Easington in County Durham. He was uninjured but the Hawk suffered a starboard undercarriage collapse and bent propeller.

Worse misfortune for Fontes came exactly one month later, when his entire career came to a sudden dramatic halt when he was arrested and charged with manslaughter on 6th October, having killed motorcyclist Reginald Mordike in a head-on collision at Coleshill, Warwickshire, allegedly during a road race with another car. At his subsequent trial, Fontes' only defence was that he had had too much to drink and he was then sentenced to three years penal servitude. He also received a ten-year driving licence ban from the date of his release, had to pay all prosecution costs and his aviator's certificate and motor racing competition licence were withdrawn.

On 10th March 1938, after early release from prison, Fontes gained a new aviator’s certificate and resumed flying.

The aeroplane was advertised for sale at £850 in May 1939 with only 150 airframe hours recorded but did not sell. Fontes then flew it to fourth place in the London - Isle of Man air race on 27th May and, two days later, Tommy Rose came 12th in the Manx Air Derby at 186.75 mph. Just before WW2, the plane acquired an all-black colour scheme with white cheat line and a new low-profile bubble canopy for the 1939 King's Cup Race at Elmdon. Unfortunately this was cancelled when War was declared and Fontes' final flight in 'DGP was made on 17th August. Although the aeroplane was due to be 'Impressed' by the Air Ministry and had a valid C of A until 11th August 1940, it somehow escaped requisitioning for RAF communications duties. Instead, it was dismantled at Woodley in April 1940 and spent the war stored with a speedboat in a mews garage owned by Fontes at 3, Wimpole Street in Central London!

Luis Fontes joined the Air Transport Auxiliary as a civilian ferry pilot soon after its formation in 1940 and became a First Officer. Aged only 27, he died on 12th October 1940 ferrying Vickers Wellington Mk IC, R1156, which stalled after an engine failed while circling RAF Llandow, Glamorgan, and crashed in nearby Llysworney village.

Llandow accommodated No. 38 Maintenance Unit (an Aircraft Storage Unit) and Fontes was either delivering this new Chester-built Wellington for storage there or to an RAF Squadron after modifications. His obituary published on 25th October in 'The Autocar' recorded his death on active service with the ATA. He left behind a widow and at least one son.

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