Sam Collier

Sam Collier

14/5/1912 - 23/9/1950

From a wealthy background, Sam and his brother Miles played a significant role in the re-introduction of road racing into the USA after the war. He was killed in the 1950 Watkins Glen Grand Prix.

Barron Gift Collier made a substantial fortune in subway and streetcar advertising and in 1921 he purchased 1.3 million acres in Florida. He then built the 368-mile long “Tamiami Trail” highway, better known as Alligator Alley, to link Miami with Florida’s west coast.

In 1930 on the vast family estate at Overlook in Westchester County, New York his three sons Baron Jr (21), Miles (15) and Sam (17) along with their friend Tom Dewart designed a race track using the service roads on the estate. Initially they raced simple go-carts powered by lawn mower and garden tractor engines. Over the next two years more friends joined in the racing and the cars became slightly more sophisticated. Then in 1932, Barron, Jr’s fiancée, Barbara Mav, presented him with an MG-J2 as an engagement present. They married in November 1933 and in the same year the Colliers’ founded the  Automobile Racing Club of America.

Early in 1934 Sam and Miles traveled to Europe to look for better cars to race. They had a passion for European cars and came back with a 1929 Riley Brooklands for Miles and a six-cylinder MG L-type Magna for Barron Jr. Not only that but they successfully negotiated with Cecil Kimber to become the first official MG importers into the USA. Sam and Miles formed the MG Sales Company and arranged with George Rand, a fellow racer, to sell MGs through Rand’s foreign car dealership in Manhattan.

Also in 1934 the Colliers arranged for a 3.3-mile road course to he sactioned on public roads in Briarcliff, New York. Briarcliff had held a race in 1908, so ARCA renewed the tradition of the Briarcliff Trophy. 18 cars lined up on the grid in November including five MG-J2s. At the end of the year after five races Barron, Jr. was second, Sam third in their MG-J2s and Miles was a disappointing sixth.

Early in 1935 three MG-PAs were built for Le Mans. These works cars featured special tuning, suspension upgrades, and super-chargers. MG, looking for publicity entered three two-woman teams captained by George Eyston and dubbed by the press as 'Eyston’s Dancing Daughters.' All three cars finished the race and Miles struck a deal to buy one. Miles handed the PA to John Oliveau to built a light-weight aerodynamic aluminum body for it. The car was nicknames Leonidis.

Meanwhile Sam and George Rand went back to Europe looking for late Maserati and Alfa Romeo grand prix cars. However Sam had other ideas, he wanted to go racing. Briggs Cunningham, a Yale friend of Sam and Miles, had a MG K-3 Magnette in storage in England. Sam and George Rand raced it in the County Down Trophy in Ireland. They also drove in a series of minor races in France before returning to the States.

In 1936 the Collier's had lost the use of Briarcliff road circuit, but they managed to organise a road race at the Annual Cotton Carnival in Memphis in May. Sam won in an Auburn 12 Speedster. Barron, Jr. was third in his MG L-type Magna. As Miles was chief steward he had lent his MG-J2 to a friend from Chicago, LeRoy Kramer. It turned out to be a bit of a handful for him and after spinning a number of times in practice he handed the car back to Miles.

In 1938 Miles and Leonidis finished either first overall or first in class in every race they entered through 1938.

Then in 1939 he entered Leonidis in the Le Mans 24-hour race. Miles drove with Lewis Welch. As the race began, Miles drove the first four hours and was running second in class when he handed over to Welch. Welch maintained position, but at 3½ hours he came into the pits needing fuel. The tank was filled but after two more laps he was back. The fuel tank had split, and repairs could be made.

Throughout 1940 and 1941 America was preparing for war. October 1940 saw ARCA's last race, the World’s Fair Grand Prix, at Flushing Meadows, New York. The race was run on a tight course around various nations’ pavilions. Miles took his Riley Brooklands out of storage for the event and started installing a Mercury Flathead V-8 engine but ran out of time and ended up driving Briggs Cunningham’s Bu-Merc Special, a special Buick chassis and modified Buick straight-8 engine, under a modified lightweight Mercedes SSK body. Miles was up against some very fast machinery, but he worked his way

up to second behind Frank Griswald in an Alfa Romeo grand prix car. Three laps from the finish Miles left the course and hit a lamppost. Sam Collier in a new MG finished 5th overall and 1st in class.

Shortly after the race ARCA was disbanded as was The MG Sales Company. MG production had ceased at Abingdon in 1939. In the light of WW II such matters seemed irrelevant.

The Collier brother all served with distinction during the war. Barron, Jr. with General Douglas MacArthur’s staff, and Sam was a Navy pilot. Miles spoke French fluently without an accent, and became a member of the Office of Strategic Services, trained to drop behind enemy lines.

Barron Gift Collier had died in 1939, and Barron, Jr. sold off the Collier’s New York businesses. The brothers now all lived in the Palm Beach area. Each brother had a Beachcraft Bonanza airplane, which they used to commute to the Collier offices in Everglades City, Naples, and elsewhere. Just to add icing on their already very large cake, the Humble Oil and Refining Company discovered a large field of oil on their land in 1942.

On October 2 1948 the newly formed SCCA organised a series of races on a road cource at Watkins Glen. Sam and Miles entered finishing 4th and 5th respectfully in the main race.

The following year Miles had his Riley Brooklands with the 3.9 litre Mercury Flathead V-8 finally installed painted a lurid green which led to the nickname the Ardent Alligator. Sam and Miles drove in the inaugural Bridgehampton race on June 11, 1949. Sam finished third overall with his supercharged MG-TC but Miles did not finish.

At the Watkins Glen Grand Prix on September 17, in the Seneca Cup, George Weaver won in his Maserati R1 'Poison Lil', Cunningham was second in the first Ferrari to race in the 'States, and Sam Collier third. Miles had stopped to report an oil spill in one of the turns and finished back in the back.

In the feature race the Grand Prix, a Le Mans-type start was adopted. Unfortunately the Ardent Alligator refused to start and Miles finally left the line a minute late. 14th at the end of the first lap, he was up to 4th by the end of the second. Cunningham passed George Roberts who was leading on lap 8 and the pair of them pulled away. However unaware that Miles was now up to 3rd and flying.  Halfway through the last lap he passed Roberts for second and at Big Bend going downhill to the finish line, the Ardent Alligator caught the Ferrari. As they entered the last turn Miles passed Cunningham. Miles had turned in a final lap time of 5:12.2.

In 1950 at the Bridgehampton, Long Island races, Miles won the race for small-bore cars in his MG-PA 'Leonidis' and Sam won the second race in Cunningham's Ferrari 166 SC. In the main race Sam came second.

The Colliers had persuaded Briggs Cunningham to lead an All-American effort at Le Mans that year. So Cunningham prepared two Cadillacs. Sam and Miles drove a 61-50 coupe with Cunningham and Phil Walters in a special aerodynamic roadster. The Collier brothers drove in business suits, shirts, and ties and finished tenth overall, Cunningham and Walters were eleventh.

At the 1950 Watkins Glen Grand Prix, Miles was third in the Seneca Cup in the Ardent Alligator and then acted as pit crew for Sam, who was entered in Cunninghams Ferrari in the main event.Sam was up to third from the fifth row of the grid by the first corner and was in the lead at the start of the long straight on the second lap. On this, the fastest part of the course, Sam’s Ferrari hit a patch of loose gravel. The Ferrari left the road to the right into meadow and cartwheeled twice. As the car cartwheeled, the seatbelts pulled out and Collier was thrown from the car. The race continued and the ambulance had to drive against the oncoming race cars. Sam Collier was taken to the hospital in Montour Falls where he died at 6:30 PM. Bruce Stevenson stopped in the pits to report Sam’s accident and Miles ran the three mile to the scene but arrived after the ambulance had left.

Miles officailly retired from competitive road racing the next day. However he raced under the assumed name of John Marshall in some low key SCCA races. His last race was at Sebring in January 1954, where he drove a Bandini, retiring after 21 laps.

Soon after that Miles contracted polio and died in Everglades City, Florida, in the April of 1954.

Leave a comment

Comments