Hugh Caulfield Hamilton

Hugh Caulfield Hamilton

18/7/1905 - 26/8/1934

Irish racing driver who led Nuvolari for much of the 1993 Ards TT until delayed by a pit stop. Fought back only to miss out on the win by 20 seconds after another stop for fuel. Died at the Berne GP when he suffered a heart attack on the last lap and crashed into a tree.

In the Golden Age of 1930s Irish motor racing, one outstanding figure is today little remembered, except by a handful of knowledgeable enthusiasts. Hugh Hamilton deserves better for in the brief five years between 1930 and 1934 he established himself as one of the outstanding drivers of his day.

Born in Omagh in 1905, Hugh Caulfield Hamilton was interested in cars and cycles from an early age. Indeed, when a neighbour acquired an early car, young Hugh, or 'Hammy' as he was more generally known, appeared and offered to wash it. When he was caught driving the car away, his excuse was that he was taking it home to wash it! After his father's death, his mother re-married and the family moved to England.

Hammy joined University Motors - the MG concessionaires - as a salesman and soon afterwards  started racing. He placed third in the 1931 Brooklands Double Twelve Race but it was his fighting drive in the Ards TT Race of that year which made his reputation. Against established stars such as Campari, Birkin and Earl Howe, the Ulsterman placed as high as second before a broken valve rocker ended his race.

The Ards TT Race was perhaps to provide his greatest moment when in 1933 driving an MG he led the great Nuvolari for much of the race until a disastrous pit-stop cost him no less than 7¼ minutes and the lead.

An extraordinary fight-back then began and incredibly, Hammy re-took the lead. But on the last lap he was forced to stop for petrol, handing Nuvolari a 20 second lead in the process. Despite Nuvolari also running low on petrol on the last lap the Italian took the victory after six close hours of intense racing.

In September Hugh had a serious accident in the Masaryk Okruh. He was racing an MG Midget in order to promote bussiness for the recently opened Prague MG dealership. Hugh suffered three broken ribs and severe internal injuries. It was several days before he was removed from the danger list and he was later taken to England for further treatment. He then went to India to reconvalesce on his brother Arthur's tea plantation.

For the 1934 season Hamilton was back in Britain but when opportunities arose for Hammy to drive in Continental races, he took them and acquitted himself with distinction. In 1934 Hammy made his Grand Prix debut in the Tripoli race driving a Maserati. Once again he demonstrated his outstanding ability, moving up to second place behind Achille Varzi before being side-lined with ignition problems. Over the rest of the season, Hammy took fifth at the Montreau GP and fourth in the Marne GP. At Albi he was second. Turning to the K3 MG, Hammy won at Pescara before heading with his good friend, Dick Seaman, to the Berne GP.

There, on the final lap, Hammy's story came to its end when his Maserati left the road and crashed into a tree. The post-mortem, however, showed that he had suffered heart failure before the accident.

Unfortunately, this was not the end. The news came to England, but with a mistake, as Hamilton was quoted as the winner of the voiturette race and Seaman as the victim of the fatal accident. Unconfirmed legend has it that Seaman's father, aged 76, suffered a heart attack whilst hearing the news, and when the mistake was corrected it was too late for his recovery. Whether it is true or not, the fact is Seaman Sr did die around that time.

Hammy was buried at Berne where the world's top drivers paid him their last respects. How good was he? It's generally acknowledged that it's impossible to compare drivers across the different eras of racing but I believe that in this case it's safe to say that Hugh Hamilton was perhaps the greatest Irish racing driver of any era.

© Bob Montgomery, Motorsport Ireland. With thanks to Mike Wylie for corrections.

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