Thai prince who set off to England to study sculpture and ultimately
succeeded in carving a hallowed place on the racing circuits
of Europe "
HRH Prince Birabongse Bhanubandh
who was known to racing fans as "B. Bira" had been crazy
about cars ever since, as he was known as a little boy. He had sat
on the lap of a chauffeur and steered one of the royal cars. He didn't
get the chance to drive on the roads, however, until he was sixteen
at Eton; his elder cousin and guardian, HRH Prince Chula Chakrabongse,
allowed Bira, as he was known to drive 1928, 12hp, sleeve-valve Voisin,
a wonderful little machine.
Prince Chula presented Bira with an MG Magna, soon replaced
by 4 1/2 litre Super Sports Invicta, which itself was succeeded
by a 3 1/2 Rolls-Bently in June 1934. The cousin were keen
fans of motor racing, but refused to get Bira compete in speed
events. However he bought him a Riley Imp for reliability trials;
in 1935 Bira managed to get Prince Chula's permission to turn
the Imp into a racing car, and it was taken to Thomson & Taylor
at Brooklands for tuning.
For their racing livery, the cousins
used a light blue based on the colour of an evening frock belonging
to a young Danish girl, Barbara Grut: this later became the Siamese
national racing color (yellow was added to it in 1939).
Bira first appeared at Brooklands at the opening
meeting of the 1935 season; but the Imp proved too slow, and Bira
looked around for a new car. Cecil Kimber of MG offered him the very
last supercharged MG Magnette ever built, which had been specially
prepared for the Mille Miglia but refused entry papers for Italy.
The MG gave Bira much valuable racing experience, but its top speed
of around 110 mph was not quite fast enough to put him in the prize
money, though it enabled him to establish a reputation as a driver
of consistent ability and his distinctive Siamese pit signals caused
a great deal of attention.
The new ERA (English Racing Automobile)cars were
just beginning to enjoy their first international racing success,
so Prince Chula decided to buy a 1500cc ERA as a present for Bira's
21st birthday, which fell on 15 July 1935. Five days later, Bira took
second place in the 1500cc race at Dieppe, beating such polished drivers
as Earl Howe (Delage), Raymond Mays, Dick Seaman and Humphrey Cook
(ERA) and Veyron (Bugatti); only an oiled plug prevented him from
taking first place.
success inspired Bira to enter the 1500cc Swiss Grand Prix at
Berne; again he came second after a well driven race, this time
beaten by Dick Seaman. However, a drive for Aston Martin in the
Ulster TT ended in failure when an oil pipe broke on the second
Nevertheless, a few days later, Bira set
up a new Mountain Circuit lap record at Brooklands with the ERA and
then achieved fifth place in the Donington GP, the highest position
taken by a1/2 litre car in this race. He wound up his first season
by setting up fastest time at the Gatwick Speed Trials in the ERA,
then, at the other end of the speed cycle, won a gold medal in the
Veteran Car Run at the tiller of a 1903 Oldsmobile.
In 1936 Prince Bira won the J.C.C. International
Trophy and three International Light Car Races at Monaco, Peronne
and Albi, France. In 1937 he won the Campbell Trophy, the Light Car
Race at the Isle of Man, the London Grand Prix, the12-hour Race at
Donington Park and the Imperial Trophy. In 1938, he won seven major
races including the Coronation Trophy, the Campbell Trophy, the Light
Car Race at Cork, the London Grand Prix, the Nuffield Trophy, the
BRDC Road Race and the Siam Trophy. In 1939, his blue and yellow car
won the J.C.C. International Trophy, the Sedenham Plate and the Nuffield
He was the first driver to cover a lap
of Dublin's Phoenix Park Circuit at over 100mph for which he was awarded
a specially-designed silver star. For several years he held the speed
records at the Phoenix, Donington Park and at the Crystal Palace.
He also won the Road Racing Gold Star conferred by the British
Racing Driver's Club three years running: 1936, 1937, 1938.
Bira drove a wide variety of cars, but achieved his most notable
victories with ERA he eventually had three of them, Romulus, Remus,
both B-type, and the C-type, Hanuman, named after the Siamese
monkey-god. Most successful was his 21st birthday present, Romulus,
which took ten first places, eight seconds, five thirds, one forth
and one fifth in the 1935-39 seasons, only retiring five times.
Each car that he drove was emblazoned with a Siamese flag and
the word "Siam" by which Thailand was then known to the world.
Prince Bira returned to racing in 1946
with Romulus and Hanuman (which had been rebuilt as a B-type after
a crash in 1939) and won the Ulster TT. In the 1947 PauGrandPrix,Romulus's
engine disintegrated in full view of 20,000 spectators. The 1948 season
saw a third at Jersey and a win at Zandvoort, both in 1 ? litre Maseratis
(the latter victory in one of the new 4CLT/48 cars), and at the end
of the year his partnership with Prince Chula was dissolved.
In 1949 Prince Bira continued racing his
new Maserati, winning the Swedish GP, coming second in the Agentine
Mar del Plata GP and third places in the GP of the Associated French
Motor Clubs. In 1950, Prince Bira had an unsuccessful season with
the Masarati, gaining only a first and a fourth.
Bira returned to Siam in 1952-53, but was back on the
circuits in 1954 with a new 250F Maserati, gaining one first, two
seconds and a fourth; the next year he won the New Zealand Grand Prix
and came third in the Silverstone International Trophy, but decided
to retire permanently from racing and sold the Maserati.
Finally Prince Bira returned to his native Thailand to
run an airline. The racing Princes wrote several books of their adventures
that are told as enthusiastically as Prince Bira drove conveying all
the speed and drama of a race. Their spirit is infections and one
cannot help but wonder how much they influenced the Thai people to
experience the thrill of fast cars.