Mick Walsh was at Montlhéry during the emotional AC re-run to toast the Honourable Victor and Mrs Bruce, who battled through appalling conditions to break a raft of records in 1927. Photography Mick Walsh & Serge Cordey Archive Wendy Grimmond.
AC’s record-breaker Mick Walsh recounts an epic 15,000-mile run in the depths of winter. Remembering an incredible 1920s feat of endurance.
Endurance is not the most glamorous of motoring disciplines and has, from a publicity point of view, now switched to secret development with camouflaged vehicles at remote locations. But longdistance runs were headline news in the ’20s, particularly if they involved a woman driver. One of the most remarkable attempts was by the Hon Victor and Mrs Bruce with their AC Acedes Six at Montlhéry in 1927. The Bruces were popular figures in the motoring world and, although Brooklands was on the doorstep of the Thames Ditton marque, the team was forced to use the tight, banked track south of Paris because night driving was not permitted at their local venue. Cheaper fees also meant that the record run had to be staged during the winter.
After Monte-Carlo success and epic runs to north Africa, the publicity-hungry Mary Petre Bruce was looking for a new goal. A report that a Chrysler team in America had covered 10,000 miles at 60mph in 1927 inspired the couple to approach SF Edge – the director of AC and a well-known record man with Napier at Brooklands in 1907 – about a European challenge with the impressive Six. AC was struggling financially in the late ’20s, like many smaller manufacturers, but Edge agreed to provide a tuned car and a team of mechanics if the Bruces paid the £250 track fees and other costs. Victor’s trustees refused to release money for the risky quest, but the ever-persuasive Mary eventually talked her Aunt Maud into donating funds for the project.
In early December, the record car and support vehicle were driven to France; Edge and chief designer Sydney Smith joined the group of six mechanics. Despite its taller axle and tuned engine, plus wings and lights removed for streamlining, the AC was no trick special. The party stayed at the Château de Montlhéry, which had been a second home for teams since Alexandre Lamblin’s track opened in 1924. This made it easier for the Bruces to rest between their alternate three-hour stints.
The conditions were grim as the 8 December start day approached – with dense fog and freezing temperatures – but the hardy couple refused to postpone the booking. Both partners had driven a road car at Montlhéry, but tests at higher speeds in the record machine proved unsettling.
Mary said that the compact, 1¼-mile circuit felt like “a wall of death”, with both drivers dizzy and sick after short runs. Despite the poor weather, Mary valiantly set out at 7pm and, with no lights on the car, her route was marked by Hurricane oil lamps set four yards apart around the perimeter.
After three hours, she overshot the makeshift pits (the front brakes had been removed for lightness), and had to do an extra lap before Victor took over. As the week progressed, one slept while the other drove and sessions were eventually extended to six hours to allow more rest. Temperatures dropped and frostbite became a worry until a doctor advised massaging warm oil into their fingers.
It’s hard to imagine the monotony of the endless circuits through the day and night, plus the ice building up around the ’screen, which forced the intrepid pair to look over the top into the biting airflow. Mary made up a visor from celluloid and, by the sixth day, they had passed the 10,000-mile record, but fatigue was taking its toll. The track liquidators demanded extra fees (it went bust during the attempt), to which Mary retorted that she would “drive through the barriers” if they tried to stop the AC after so long.
Disaster struck on the seventh night, when Victor lost control at 95mph on black ice, the AC skidding luridly before rolling into the muddy infield. The car was lifted back onto its wheels by spectators – allowing Victor to scramble clear – but the task of returning it to the pits was down to the drivers alone. Victor woke Mary, and the two pushed the smashed AC the half mile to the waiting crew. Twelve hours were lost during repairs, including the steering, while an aeroscreen was fabricated using the numberplate. JA Joyce, an experienced AC racer and development driver, flew out to help with making up lost time, although he initially struggled with the severe cold. To make matters worse, Smith caught pneumonia but kept working until he collapsed.
The trio plugged on at higher speeds because the average had dropped to 65mph, with Victor refusing to shorten his shifts despite the scary accident. The forecast looked bleak on the final day, with blizzards moving in. With two hours to go, the white stuff arrived in force, but Mary requested to take the final laps and the AC roared on as snowdrifts built around it. As the last 10 circuits were signalled from the pits, the growing number of spectators cheered her on.
The press had followed proceedings, mostly because a lady driver was involved, and quite a crowd including a news film crew turned out to report the historic finish. After breaking 17 records, at an average of 68mph for 15,000 miles, the relieved team was too exhausted to celebrate. Mary was the focus of media interest while her reserved husband and Joyce were almost forgotten as the car was inundated with bouquets.
Drama continued back at the hotel when a mechanic fell asleep while smoking, and guests were woken with screams of a fire alert. The car returned to Thames Ditton and AC’s marketing men commissioned a victory poster with the slogan: ‘Through the world and back again.’ The Automobile Club de France was equally impressed by the brave couple, and presented a special gold plaque to the Bruces. The original Montlhéry record car was sold to AJ Mollart, a toolroom manager at AC, who trialled it extensively throughout 1928 before the body was removed for a lighter, fabric design in readiness for the Brooklands Double Twelve.
‘BLIZZARDS MOVED IN, BUT THE AC ROARED ON AS SNOWDRIFTS BUILT UP AROUND IT’
The old coachwork was sold to Ray Morley, a keen young enthusiast who fitted it to his newly acquired Six, PH 8013, which featured a tuned triple-carb engine and sported wire wheels. It continued to collect an outstanding number of awards including on the first RAC Rally in 1932. Morley subsequently traded PH 8013 back to the factory for £25 against an ex-works 16/80.
The 10-year-old, much-campaigned vintage Six was occasionally used by William Hurlock’s son Derek (the Hurlocks had saved AC in 1930) for trips out to their country residence at Glevering Hall near Woodbridge. The long driveway became a test track for various machines, including an Austin Seven special owned by Hurlock’s chum Ian Girling. His desire for something more usable prompted Hurlock to sell him the AC for £33, and it was a regular sight storming along coastal roads including trips to St John ‘Jock’ Horsfall’s workshop at Cliff House, Dunwich. Girling, now 95, has fond memories of the spartan AC: “It was great fun and, with encouragement from Jock, I fabricated aeroscreens, a cutaway door and a racy outside exhaust.”
“I loved the heat from the pipes in the winter and on runs back from late sessions working on Jock’s Astons,” recalls Girling, who also started courting his future wife in the AC. “She was only 17 when we met and her mother was nervous about letting her go out in it. We used it to attend dances at the Crown Hotel in Ipswich and the Spa Pavilion, Felixstowe. It was quite a struggle for her to get aboard if she was wearing an evening dress, and I always loaned her my old riding mac to keep warm. Jock helped me to tune the AC and was a regular passenger for trips to local car clubs and pubs. We fitted larger brakes, and moved the handbrake to outside the body. The steering wheel once dropped into my lap when the scuttle wood collapsed, and the remade engine-turned dashboard featured lots of extra dials picked up in the Air Force. I became very attached to the AC, but it had to go after three years to help finance a new family home.”
The AC, by then with cycle wings, was sold to Lt Col Michael Dracopoli, who, like Bruce, was a member of the Royal Antediluvian Order of Buffaloes (or Buffs). He used it regularly when he was stationed in Suffolk and later Kent. While Dracopoli was on overseas postings, the AC was stored in Ipswich until David Hales acquired PH 8013, and began the process of returning it to Montlhéry spec. Respected historian Hales tracked down key figures from the car’s history, including Bruce and Mollart, who provided vivid recollections and photos to aid the restoration.
Passionate AC aficionado David Hescroff acquired PH 8013 in a partly dismantled state in 1980. “I’d first met Ray [Morley] at Prescott in ’1979,” Hescroff remembers, “and we talked about finding his old car. No wings were fitted when it arrived, and we got it going for a run around the lanes. It looked just like the record car.”
Rod Jolley was enlisted to make new wings and sort the original bodywork. The rebuild was completed in time for the RAC Golden 50 with Morley co-driving. “Donald Healey was watching, but Ray was the only entrant who’d done the first RAC,” says Hescroff. “It was so frustrating when the back axle failed on day one.”
Hescroff believes in using his ACs, and PH 8013, now nicknamed ‘Monte’, is no different. As well as a few VSCC trials – “it’s pretty hopeless because the seating is too far forward” – Hescroff has raced it at Silverstone and Zandvoort: “It still has the low gearing (4.5:1) fitted for trialling, but it’s really torquey and will pull from 8mph in top. It weights only 16cwt and, with triple carbs plus 7.5:1 pistons, it’ll cruise happily at 60mph once you’re through the vibration period of the fourbearing motor. I’ve briefly seen 80mph on track, which made me think hard about the achievements of the Bruces. The steering is heavy, the brakes keep you focused and the handling is progressive, but the engine is its greatest feature.”
Hescroff had long wanted to take the car back to Montlhéry in tribute to the record drive. That plan was reawakened after a chance meeting with Wendy Grimmond (Victor Bruce’s daughter from his second marriage) at the Ferry Works AC centenary gathering in August 2011.
Grimmond had a wealth of evocative material from her father’s pre-war times, but he’d talked little about his motoring years with his first wife and focused on his new family. The AC celebration, and enquiries from American author Nancy Wilson, motivated Grimmond to investigate those early days. Bruce fastidiously kept diaries all his life, as well as impressive scrapbooks of his extensive AC escapades, but disappointingly not the gruelling 1927 runs. Grimmond also discovered maps from his trips to North Africa, rally medals, extensive cuttings, and a stack of photographs all carefully packed and preserved.
Hescroff became good friends with the Grimmond family and a trip to the biennial Vintage Revival at Montlhéry in 2015 offered the perfect opportunity to run Monte around the famous banked circuit. In the weeks prior to the trip, the Acedes was taken up to the Grimmonds’ home workshop. Wendy’s husband Richard and son Michael – both highly experienced with classic Jags (Richard worked at Coombs Garage) – set about preparing the AC and transforming it to look more like the record car. This included removing the heavy mudguards and headlamps. It was an emotional moment for all present when Wendy and Michael climbed into Monte and headed out of the paddock to the pits. The hot sunny morning couldn’t have contrasted more with the desperately cold week in December 1927. The direction was opposite to the Bruces’ anti-clockwise record run, but just sitting waiting in the pitlane for the green light graphically conjured those hasty stops for fuel and driver changes at the icy, fog-bound circuit.
It would have been fantastic to line the track with lanterns for a lap at twilight, but annoyingly the venue had to be cleared by 5pm. Yet even in the dazzling sunlight we could sense the history of this preserved autodrome, and ghosts of the past. The banking is very bumpy and chicanes now limit the speed for demonstration runs, but the Grimmonds returned safely after three spirited laps that even included a dice with another vintage AC. Michael was buzzing, the lack of grip from the old Dunlops allowing him to slide Monte through the tight bends. The Grimmonds were besotted with the vintage AC and immediately began talking about other trips, including a reunion with former owner Girling in Suffolk.
An even more ambitious plan had yet to be hatched (see box on right), but their eagerness is unstoppable. Wendy created a special tribute to her father in the Brooklands museum, a case packed with fascinating memorabilia that brilliantly highlights his amazing motoring life.
The chassis of the record car survived until the ’50s, when Lancia enthusiast John Vessey turned it into a special, although sadly it vanished when the MoT test was introduced in 1960 – most probably scrapped. But the spirit of that car, including the original body, continues with PH 8013. And there’s no better way to celebrate such valiant motorists than re-runs on the very tracks where they made history.
A marine with a yen for adventure
Born in 1897, the third son of Baron Aberdare, the Hon Victor Austin Bruce served with the Royal Marines in WW1 and, like many wealthy young chaps, was drawn to the motor industry in peacetime. An approach to AC led to Bruce representing the small firm at various events. A regular Gold Medal winner in MCC trials, he also raced the first Aston Martin ‘Coal Scuttle’.
Bruce was also involved with various AC publicity stunts including driving up Snowdon, which he conquered in 1 hour 50 minutes despite a puncture on the steep ascent. He made the headlines on the Monte-Carlo Rally, taking outright victory in 1926 despite breaking a crownwheel just before the final test. Immediately after the win, Bruce married Mildred Mary Petre against the wishes of his aristocratic family. His wife co-drove on the ’27 Monte, after which they headed south via Italy to Algeria and Morocco on a 9000-mile, eight-week jaunt. Other highlights included a Jowett trial at Montlhéry with a fuel bowser in tow that enabled him to drive non-stop for 72 hours.
Bruce’s relationship with Mary broke down in the ’30s, although they didn’t divorce until 1941 because the title was key for promotion and sponsorship. Bruce continued with engineering projects and, after WW2, developed an electric car conversion with Silent Travel. A keen motorist all his life, he died aged 81 in 1978.
Monte-Carlo or bust
Six months after returning the AC to Montlhéry, David Hescroff spotted a request from the Automobile Club de Monaco for a vintage AC to enter the Rallye Monte-Carlo Historique to celebrate the first ever start from John o’Groats (above left). Victor Bruce, a class winner with an AC in 1925, requested the remote Scottish venue for 1926 and went on through arduous conditions to claim the inaugural outright British win on the famous rally. Hescroff contacted the Grimmonds, who were equally enthusiastic about the 90th-anniversary re-run while Bruce’s grandson Michael, and Hescroff’s nephew Robert (above right, on right) took on the driving duties for the long trip south.
Just five pre-war cars competed, but the only snow they encountered was across the Highlands. A cancelled Zeebrugge crossing from Hull, forcing a detour to Dover, and an M25 bridge closure failed to deter the pair. “The AC cruised happily at 60mph and regularly passed lorries,” enthuses Grimmond. The determined crew progressed, despite long delays, across France through relentless rain and dense, freezing fog although they refused to raise the hood. Magneto problems eventually halted the pace but they were back on the road with the help of the Blue Diamond Riley équipe: “We made up a ‘Frankenstein’ mag from a spare, but it never ran smoothly. Working the advance/retard control while steering felt like playing a violin, and the backfiring through tunnels was dramatic.”
Finally, on day four, after yet another pre-dawn start, the AC team saw the twinkling lights of Monaco and the Mediterranean as they popped and banged down the streets to the finish. “Had we needed a trailer even at the last stage, I’d have turned back,” says Grimmond. “We had to make it under our own power as a tribute to granddad’s achievement. I couldn’t help thinking about him all the way down.” After clocking up 1568 miles over four days, they celebrated with champagne generously bought by the Riley crew and all toasted the Hon Victor Bruce. A neat touch was the weather-worn GB plate on the back, the actual one that Bruce fitted to his AC. The winning 1926 car may be long lost but its spirit continues with these passionate enthusiasts. What next: maybe a trip to Morocco or the Arctic Circle?