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Zborowski and the Chitty Bang Bangs

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Zborowski and the Chitty Bang Bangs.
The wealthy son of a Polish Count and an American mother, Louis Zboroswki lived at Higham Place a large country house near Canterbury where with his engineer Captain Clive Gallop he built three aero-engined cars, all called Chitty Bang Bang and a fourth monster the Higham Special, later known as Babs - the car in which Parry Thomas died at Pendine Sands in 1927 during his final land speed record attempt.

Chitty 1, a chain-drive lengthened Mercedes chassis with a 23 litre six cylinder Maybach aero engine caused a sensation in 1921 when on its first day out at the Brooklands Easter meeting it won two races and came second in a sprint behind another of Zborowski's cars. Chitty 1's first win was the 100 mph Brooklands Short Handicap at a speed of 100.75 mph. At this time Chitty, which was driven from Canterbury to Brooklands on trade plates, was fitted with a four seater body and had a very crude exhaust pipe, undoubtedly a ploy to fool the handicapper and the pundits as well as a ruse to avoid ridicule in case the monster failed on its first time out.

For the next meeting the car was fitted with a new two seater duck's back body, shown in this photograph, the radiator was cowled and the exhaust system was properly flowed in. By fooling the handicappers so effectively "Lou" was given a ten second advantage when he "took to the concrete" as he liked to put it, over his major competition the 350 hp V12 Sunbeam which he then beat hands down lapping at 111.92 mph. In the next race the handicappers got the better of Chitty but nevertheless she was clocked at almost 120 mph down the Railway straight. During the following months Chitty's handicap was unfavourably revised on several occasions but the car continued to impress.

By the summer of 1921 Chitty 2 was under construction, a car similar to Chitty 1 but with a shorter wheelbase, an early Mercedes chassis and an 18.8 litre Benz BZ IV series aero-engine. Both Chittys ran at the autumn 1921 Brooklands meeting but for various reasons neither was successful on the day. Chitty 2 never again ran at Brooklands in Lou's hands but was used as a very fast road car, even being driven deep into the Sahara desert on a January 1922 tour undertaken by Count Zborowski and friends. During the Whitsun 1922 Brooklands meeting Chitty 1 achieved her fastest lap of 113.45 mph. The car missed the August meeting but arrived in the Autumn for the September meeting. This was to be Chitty 1's last time out in the hands of Louis Zborowski, for in practice she shed a tyre and left the banking at high speed smashing straight through the timing box at the beginnning of the Railway straight. A track official who was in the box, one Mr. Chamberlain, saw Chitty coming but the car clipped him as it crashed through and removed three of his fingers. Chitty 1 was later rebuilt but never raced again by the Count. After Louis Zborowski's death Chitty 1 was bought by the Conan Doyle brothers, whose father had created Sherlock Holmes, and they subsequently ran her at a speed trial in the 1930s after which she was exhibited at Brooklands but subsequently abandoned outside. The elements took their toll and eventually someone sawed the chassis in half to get her gearbox out for use in another car. The gearbox turned out not to fit but inevitably this butchery was the end of Chitty 1.

Chitty 2 eventually ended up after many years and a court case in the hands of the Western Reserve Historical Society in Cleveland Ohio. In 1992 she was loaned to the National Motor Museum at Beaulieu in England where she resides, albeit temporarily, today.

The "Chitty Chitty Bang Bangs" were immortalised in the famous film and the modern car lives on as an exhibition piece which is of great interest to both grown ups and children.

Although Louis Zborowski looks deadly serious, this photograph was taken very much with fun in mind. To our knowledge Chitty was never actually raced or driven in anger with the top of the wood-stove chimney fastened to the end of the exhaust pipe. If this was meant to be the Zborowski prototype of the later to be introduced Brooklands fishtail silencer box, it would not have conformed to the regulation dimensions which were very specific and in any event not actually brought into force until 1924.

The Zboroswski team took their racing seriously but were known for their fun approach and jazzy clothing, one of their trademarks being spectacularly coloured chequered Florida golfing caps. For all this they were the masters of their powerful and dangerous aero engined monster cars.

Louis Zborowski was wealthy enough to own many cars which he raced both in Europe and America. 1923 saw him journey to the brickyard with a straight eight 2 litre Bugatti clothed in a single seater all enveloping body, the driver's seat being offset to one side of the propshaft. Four other Bugs competed that year: Number 18 driven by De Vizcaya who retired after 165 laps with a broken con rod, 19 by Cystria who finished ninth, 21 by Alzaga who retired with a broken con rod after six laps and another by Raganti who retired on the 20th lap with a hole in his petrol tank. Zborowski carrying the number 27 was never in the running, retiring after 41 laps with yet another broken con rod.

Although Indianapolis and Brooklands share the similarity of having banked curves and both were intended to be test as well as race tracks, the driving techniques needed were considerably different. The Indy 500 dictated over five hours of braking and acceleration, on a brick surface which set up non-stop vibration and put the drivers and the pit crews under a lot of pressure; pit work being particularly important. Brooklands on the other hand was a flat out record breakers' track with a very steep, almost vertical in places, gradient on the two banked sections. Indianapolis was 50 to 60 feet wide. Brooklands 100 feet wide all round. Brooklands was bumpy because the track had settled over the years. So, initially similar but in practice quite different to try to win races on. Imported Indianapolis cars with their hard suspension were never entirely suited to Brooklands although Louis Zborowski's Bugatti and his ex Indy Miller continued to compete there for many years, as did the Whitney Straight Duesenberg which is now on-site in the museum.

For the record, the 1923 Indy 500 was won by Tom Milton at an average speed of 90.95 mph. Unlike Jimmy Murphy the year before, he was not made an honorary Arapaho Indian for his troubles although he went home that day with his pockets jingling.

The following year Louis Zborowski was invited to join the Mercedes team as a works driver, to perish very soon afterwards in one of their 2 litre cars at Monza where he crashed into a tree at high speed during the Italian Grand Prix.

It is said that when he died he was wearing the same cufflinks that had earlier brought about his father Eliot Zborowski's death in 1903, when one of them had become caught up in the hand throttle of his Mercedes during a hill climb at La Turbie.

Louis Zborowski was a colourful character who, had he survived longer, may have gone down in history as one of the all-time great drivers. Sadly, like so many other young drivers of his time his career was tragically cut short before his thirtieth birthday. He will always be remembered for his monster Brooklands cars. Others built similar cars but only Louis Zborowski could have built four of them! Even Parry Thomas didn't build cars like these. So, we will never see the like of these brutal but romantic monsters again. - Unless of course you have the good fortune to achieve a pilgrimage to a Brooklands Society reunion one fine summer Sunday where the fearsome restored Babs can often be seen "taking to the concrete". But remember to bring your ear plugs. A 27 litre Liberty engine running on open pipes can make quite a noise!!