Ernest Eldridge

Ernest Eldridge

15/9/1897 - 27/10/1937

A truly colourful character, Eldridge drove and built a number of aero engined cars which he raced and attempted speed records with, setting a World Land Speeed Record in 1924. Raced at Indy in 1926.

Ernest Arthur Douglas Eldridge was born to a wealthy family in Hampstead, London. His father made his money through factoring (Factoring is a financial transaction whereby a business sells its invoices at a discount in exchange for immediate money). Ernest was educated at Harrow School but he quit while still in the 6th form to go to the Western Front. Rumored to have gone as an ambulance driver, as he joined the British Red Cross, it actually appears that he lied about his age and joined the French Artillery.
 
There are family myths about him flying with Count Zborowski, he certainly did fly and in 1919 he purchased his first plane, a Sopwith Gnu (G-EADB). In 1922 he survived a plane crash at Brooklands (Not in the Gnu) and qualified for his pilots license the following year at Stag Lane Aerodrome, Edgware and Brooklands.
 
He stated racing in the summer of 1921 when he appeared at Brooklands with the chain drive Isotta-Fraschini that had been raced in 1913 by A.S. Henderson. He finished second in the 75 mph Long Handicap turning in a lap time of 90.72 mph on his second tour.
 
As far as we can tell Ernest had no formal engineering training though his pilot's license listed his profession as Automobile Engineer. He was never the less a talented and imaginative mechanic and built and tuned his cars at his garage located at 31 Vauxhall Bridge Road, London. He could rightly be considered one of the world's first Garagisters.
 
Anyway come 1922 he managed to acquire a 240 hp Maybach Aero engine, number M73, and installed it in the now lengthened Isotta-Fraschini chassis. And though this motor was slightly smaller than the one used by Count Zborowski it was still 20,508cc! A new body was constructed by Jarvis and Co and featured a black two seater short tailed design. Quite naturally it was fitted with side lights so that it could be driven on the public highway!
 
He won the Lightning Long at the Brooklands Easter Meeting with a best lap of 101.43 mph and came second in the same race at the August meeting. However it was not that successful and though he continued to drove this machine for a while he sold it in 1923 to a Frenchman who went under the non de volant of L.C.G.M. 'Le Champion'. Le Champion used to have great fun with it bursting worn out tyres by doing doughnuts in it, something the youths of today might think they invented! About this time, he sold the Sopwith Gnu and purchased a Sopwith Grasshopper from Le Champion. Whether this was part of the deal with the Isotta-Fraschini we do not know.


He then drove a 10 Litre Fiat for a few races before acquiring the ex-Felice Nazzaro 1908 chain-driven SB4 FIAT Grand Prix car for a reported £25. The car FIAT used a four cylinder 18 litre engine, which consisted of a pair linked two cylinder blocks giving a square 4 configuration. By 1922 it had come into the hands of John Duff, who was racing it at Brooklands when he became the innocent party in one of the biggest blow-ups ever recorded in the entire history of motorsport. One of the cylinder blocks exploded and, separating itself from the rest of the engine, it departed skywards, taking the bonnet and several other supplementary components with it. Duff rather lost interest in the car after that and went off to help run the Bentleys at Le Mans.


He surveyed the shattered remains of the Fiat and the 18-litre engine and came to the conclusion that it was a little on the small side. It certainly was in comparison with his Isotta-Maybach. So Eldridge acquired a 21,714cc six-cylinder A12 FIAT engine from an Italian fighter to rectify this but was then obliged to lengthen SB4 FIAT 18 inches to accommodate it. The story goes that elements of a London General Omnibus Company bus chassis were used in the conversion.


The rebuilt car was quite elegant with new bodywork with a shapely tail and front wheels mounted ahead of the radiator. Eldridge had also breathed on the engine which was already fitted with four valves and two spark plugs per cylinder. Eldridge added a further two plugs to each cylinder thus giving a total of 48 spark plugs! The engine turned out a full 320bhp. Still with chain-drive and, of course, no front brakes.


After a few problems with reliability, he set a new Brooklands lap record of 124.33 mph and at the end of October he set a new standing start J class record of 77.68 mph. He had a night time match race against Parry Thomas and and Duller at Brooklands which was won by Thomas from Duller with Eldridge close behind. We can only guess what it must have looked like to see these cars at night belching flames from their exhausts as they sped around the banking. He also raced a Gwynne at Brooklands that year and was apparently involved in some way with their factory in Chiswick.


In 1924 due to troubles with local Weybridge residents, Brooklands introduced silencers. The specification of these resulted in Eldridge having to construct a unit with a capacity of over 23,000cc. It was not the only problem Brooklands confronted that year as speed were now getting too high to safe finish the races up the Finishing Straight, the finish line being moved to halfway down the Railway Straight, an unpopular move with the spectators. Never the less the spectacle of Le Champion in the Isotta-Maybach, Eldridge in the FIAT, Zborowski in the 27 litre Higham Special and Gallop in Zborowski's Ballot lining up for the Lightning Short at the Easter Meeting must have been quite a sight. Eldridge put in a best lap of 122.37 mph, while the Count managed 116.91mph. The win however was taken by Le Champion on handicap with a best lap of 114.75mph.


In July, two teams converged on Arpajon. One was the factory Delage outfit, for whom René Thomas was the driver, the other was Eldridge with the FIAT. The car was nicknamed Mephistopheles by a journalist who described the car as "a terrifying sight" as it hurtled past. It required all of Eldridge' skill, strength and nerve just to keep it under control as it snaked from one side of the road to the other. Eldridge being a proper 'Chap' didn't lift and beat the existing Land Speed Record with a two-way average of 143.26mph.


However the Delage team protested that the FIAT was unable to reverse which was correct and since it stated in the regulations that the car must be able move backwards under it's own power, the time wasn't ratified. Undeterred Eldridge travelled to Paris to modify the car, while Thomas set a new record back at Arpajon of 143.309 mph. The Delage was triumphantly taken to the company's Paris showroom in the Champs Elysées where it was put on display.


With a makeshift reversing mechanism in place, Eldridge returned to Arpajon. There, accompanied by his mechanic John Ames, whose nerves must have been even steelier that Eldridge's, he took the record from Thomas with an average of 146.013mph over the flying kilometre. Rumor has it that he then took the car back to Paris and parked it prominently across the street from the Delage showroom.


On the 12th October he raced Mephistopheles at Montlhéry in the Match des Champions. Up against Parry Thomas in the Leyland Eight and Arthur Duray in the D'Aoust Hispano-Suiza, Ernest took the win though Parry took the fastest lap at 212.25 kph against Eldridge's 194.37 kph.


He had another match race with Thomas in 1924, this time in the Autumn at Brooklands. Thomas took the lead at the start but, driving bare headed and with no goggles but protected by a small aero screen, Eldridge passed him and held a lead of about 200 yards by the time they arrived at the Byfleet banking for the first time. Mephistopheles then started fish tailing, sending spectators running for cover! However Earnest held on and though Parry closed, he still held a slender lead. Thomas attempted to pass but Eldridge held the FIAT low on the banking and was still ahead as he slid up the Byfleet Banking for the second time. On the last lap as he negotiated the Fork the engine missed a beat and Thomas nipped past. As they went low onto the Members banking a tread was thrown from the off-side rear tyre of the FIAT and went high over the trees but Eldridge kept his foot down. The Leyland then lost tread off a front tyre but, like Eldridge, Thomas did not ease up and crossed the line with an average speed of 123.23 mph to Eldridge's 121.19. Apparently the prospect of this duel was so frightening to some of the members that they retired to the bar for the duration.


In August he sold Mephistopheles to 'Le Champion' and decided to enter the world of Grand Prix racing with cars of his own design, The Eldridge Specials. These were based on Amilcar Chassis with 1.5 litre single valve twin ohc Anzani Engines. He took the car to France and raced in the Grand Prix de l'Ouverture at Montlhéry on 17th May 1925 and finished an encouraging 4th. He was then due to drive a Sunbeam in the Grand Prix de l'A.C.F. in July but the car was not ready. He drove the Eldridge back to Britain in late July and on the August Bank Holiday Meeting at Brooklands he entered the News of the World 100 Mile handicap however he disappointingly broke a con-rod warming the engine up in the paddock. Later in the month he was back at Brooklands where he set new F Class records for the two way kilometre, the one mile and 5 kilometres.


In 1926 he again raced the Eldridge Anzani but had a number of mechanical problems especially in September, retiring in the Gran Premio d'Italia at Monza when the magneto failed on the third lap. At the Gran Premio do San Sebastian on the 19th he went out with engine problems on lap 15 and could not get the car repaired and back to Brooklands for the Junior Car Club 200 10 days later.


That year he took two Eldridge-Anzani to the Indy 500, no doubt tempted by the prize money, one himself, the other for Douglas Hawkes (who later married Gwenda Stewart). Hawkes qualified 17th with Eldridge further back in 23rd. In the race, after Herschell McKee stepped in to drive relief for ten laps on lap 22, Eldridge took over again but went out on lap 45 with steering problems when a tie rod broke. Hawkes fared a little better and Eldridge took over on lap 57. Hawkes was back behind the wheel on lap 73 but then retired on lap 91 when the camshaft seized. It was Hawkes second visit to the 'Brickyard' having raced a Bentley there in 1922.


Ernest entered the two Eldridge-Anzani at Salem-Rockingham and at Altoona but neither he nor Hawkes made the start of either race. He then tried a Miller 122 and was so impressed he ran it at Atlantic City before returning to Europe to attempt some record breaking at Montlhéry. On one attempt over the Christmas period, the front axle broke. In the resulting crash Ernest was left with serious head injuries and the loss of one of his eyes.


Once recovered he continued record breaking with other cars, including a Chrysler at Montlhéry. He then found himself becoming the Record Attempt Manager for Capt Eyston. Ernest coordinated and sometimes drove during the record attempts with the MG cars. He helped design the Rolls-Royce diesel-engined 'Speed of the Wind' record breaker and went to Bonneville to manage the record attempt.


In 1929 they meant to co-operate in a joint assault on the 750cc world records with a French-built Ratier. When it was ready for testing at Montlhéry Eyston was away racing somewhere else and Eldridge took the wheel. Eyston recalled in his book Flat Out: "I heard afterwards what a comic sight this had been. Ernest is by no means slim, and here he was sitting in a little bucket seat on the bare chassis, the wind ballooning his trousers and coat. He, I was told, looked like a true 'Bibendum' as he manipulated the chassis round Montlhéry."


The Ratier project was scrapped, though, as the two friends became involved with the first-ever MG record car EX120. With Eyston at the wheel, it was the first 750cc car in the world to set records at more than 100mph.


Eldridge also played an important role in the development of the pioneering MG record-breaker, EX120. He designed a counter-balanced crankshaft as part of the tuning work on the engine before EX120's first visit to Montlhéry in December 1930 where it took several records at speeds up to 87mph. Then he told Cecil Kimber of MG that the car would have to be supercharged if it were to have any chance of heading off a rival 100mph attempt by Malcolm Campbell in a blown Austin Seven.


Kimber agreed, and Eldridge supervised the work as the engine was fitted with one of Eyston's Powerplus superchargers, and was there at Montlhéry as Eyston's signaler. Eyston said "Uncle Ernest stood out in the middle of the straight opposite the timekeepers' box with a little flag in his hand. He would raise or lower it in accordance with the lap speed I was putting up."


Eyston had also been successful attacking records over longer distances with Hotchkis and Panhard machinery, as well as the 'Speed of the Wind' at venues such as Brooklands, Montlhéry and Bonneville.


It was on a trip to Bonneville to supervise the Speed of the Wind record attempts that Eldridge contracted pneumonia while walking in the mountains with Eyston. He subsequently succumbed from this on his return to Kensington.


Ernest was certainly a colorful character. He spent the family fortune on gambling, racing and flying. He once lost £60,000  playing "chemy", in Monte Carlo in 1922, on the turn of one card.


A few years ago a pair of his racing goggles came up for auction, being sold by his wife. This was strange as his wife,  Marjorie M Tooth who he married in 1915, had died before the Second World War. It turned out that this was Ernest's 2nd wife, a French woman named Marie who he had married in 1925 whilst still married to Marjorie. So, by all accounts, he was a bigamist as well.
 

historicracing.com with thanks to Alex Eldridge

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