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The pre-war Talbot single-seaters



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Raymond Mays


Talbot Monoplace Centrale 90




1939 French GP


Antonio Franco Lago, son of a theater owner, was born in Venice, Italy, in 1893. A keen interest in engineering got him to Milan to study. There he met a man named Benito Mussolini and Lago became one of the first 50 members of the fascist movement. Lago spent the First World War in the Italian air force. After the war he became disillusioned with the fascists and wasn't afraid to say so. After an attempt on his life failed as Lago held a hand grenade in his pocket and threw it on the assassins, Lago fled to France, never to return to Italy. Later he settled down in England and changed his name to Anthony (Tony) and soon became involved in car selling and repair business and managed to get hold on the licence for the new epicyclic Wilson gearbox.

The British Clement-Talbot company was founded in 1903. In 1919 Clement-Talbot acquired the French Darracq company and a year later Sunbeam joined the group to create the Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq (STD) group. In the early 30s there was a crisis among car manufacturers and as a ruthless businessman with great charm Tony Lago convinced the almost bankrupt STD factory that with him as director the company could be back on its feet in 18 months. For the gearbox licence he actually managed to get an option to purchase the Talbot factory at Suresnes after two years at a price of £ 63,000. That option prevented the Talbot factory from being included in a takeover of the STD by the Rootes Group in 1934 and Lago found himself as Talbot's new owner.

Talbot produced their T150 sportscar in the mid 30s and was involved in sportscar racing with a works team using the 4-litre T150C. Inspired by their success in sportscar racing Lago announced great plans for the 1938 Grand Prix formula. He was to build a 3 liter V16 engine and 6 GP chassis. Talbot soon got a 600,000 francs subvention from the Fonds de Course committee for the project just by showing up some blueprints, a thing that enraged the Delahaye team. No V16 engine was ever seen (it is said that Lago used the money to build a successful factory for making Pratt & Whitney aircraft engines under licence) but the team used an enlarged 4.5-litre variant of their 4-litre sportscar engine for GP racing.

Talbot also started the construction of two new car models, the MC 90 and the MD 90. Meanwhile the 4.5-litre engine was put into a variant of the T150C sportscar chassis. It was not until January 1939 that Talbot unveiled the MD 90 "Monoplace Decalée" offset 4.5-litre GP car. It was followed two months later by the real GP car, the MC 90 "Monoplace Centrale" also with the 6 cylinder 4.5 litre engine.

The MC 90 made its debute at the 1939 French Grand Prix with British driver Raymond Mays behind the wheel. It faced an entry of German Mercedes and Auto Unions, quasi-works cars from Alfa Romeo (the Italians were boycotting the French GP for political reasons so there could be no official works cars), Lucy Schell's Delahayes and the two Talbot MD cars.

Raymond Mays was one of the most famous British drivers in the 30s. However, he will always be best known for his involvement in promoting and developing the ERA and BRM projects. He was born in Bourne, Lincolnshire in 1899 as the son of one of Britain's pioneer motorists. After serving in the First World War he started racing in 1921 with a Hillman he persuaded his father to buy for him and won first time out. He specialized in hillclimbes and sprint events racing Hillmans, Bugattis, ACs and Vauxhalls.

With the aid of Victor Riley he built the "White Riley" and with the sponsorship from Humphrey Cook the project developed into the ERA. Mays was co-founder and head driver of the team and the cars were built on his home yard at Bourne. Mays was a fast and clean driver who demanded the most from his cars. In 1937 ERA and Mays dominated the Voiturette season but soon afterwards declined as the Italians took up the challenge.

In 1939 Mays raced his ERA as an independent and was delighted when he was offered a drive in the new Talbot GP car by his great friend Tony Lago. The "Monoplace Centrale" was troublesome during the race and after 10 laps Mays retired with a split fuel tank. Auto Union took a double win with Müller taking his only GP victory while the two Talbot Decalée cars finished 3rd and 4th.

The MC 90 car survived the war and reappeared immediately afterwards in the 1945 Coupe de Paris. In 1947 the car won 4 times: the GP du Rousillon and the Marseilles GP with Chaboud as driver and the Comminges GP and the French GP with Chiron. After the war Mays continued to compete but after a while he became fully engaged in promoting BRM as England's new hope in GP racing. He therefore decided to retire from racing after the 1949 International Trophy.

The BRM made its debut at the 1950 International Trophy. Mays had not forgot his one-off drive with the Talbot and therefore as a sign of appreciation he had invited French driver Raymond Sommer to drive the BRM. However, as Sommer dropped the clutch at the start of the race, the drive shaft snapped and the car remained standing. The British press had a field day condemning that dismal failure. It was the start of a very long and hard time for the BRM team. It would take until 1959 before the team achieved their first GP victory but in 1962 BRM finally triumphed with Graham Hill taking the championship.

A full description of the 1939 French GP can be found here.

Reader's Why by Robert Blinkhorn

Raymond Mays was born in a well-to-do family whose fortunes came from the wool industry. Raymond was educated at public school and Cambridge University. From a very early age it was obvious that Raymond had inherited his father's love of cars and helped by his school friend Amherst Villers Raymond converted his Hillman and set off to go racing. Initially he concentrated on hill-climbs and speed trials, often held at Brooklands. His racing career really took off however when he invested in a Brescia Bugatti.

It was around the same time that he forged a friendship with Peter Berthon, a talented engineer. Between the three men they fielded the Bugatti at numerous club events over the next ten years where Mays usually performed well. This was the early 1930s and Britain was hardly the centre of the motor racing world. Mays elected to move up to the international stage and to do so he bought a Riley hillclimb car, which the friends used as the basis of a voiturette racer. That was the birth of English Racing Automobiles (ERA).

Joined by fellow Brooklands racer Humphrey Cook the company was set up in Mays' house in Bourne and the six-cylinder supercharged Riley engine was used as the foundation of the car. The ERA was a square-cut "sit up and beg" sort of affair that could never be seen as an attractive car. That of course was irrelevant because from the start it was bloody quick. Mays performed well in a wide variety of continental races, the most notable being a win in the 1935 Eifelrennen. Orders were soon coming in for replica cars and ERAs were often seen winning in the hands of a wide variety of drivers. In fact so great was the success of the car it soon became the basis for British club racing for the rest of the 1930s. The quality of the workmanship has also stood the test of time with the likes of Ludovic Lindsay still winning historic races on board his ERA "Remus" some 60 years later!

What then is our Raymond doing in a Talbot?

Like most great French designers, Antonio Lago was actually Italian although he had spent much of his career working in London, where he worked with the old Sunbeam-Talbot-Darracq organisation. When the firm folded in 1935 he was able to raise the finance to salvage part of it and so was born SA Automobiles Talbot. Lago subscribed to the theory of "win on Sunday, sell on Monday" and set about designing a racing machine to enhance the company's profile. Along with Walter Becchia he built a 4-litre engine and dropped it into a lightweight sports chassis. The cars performed well, winning the 1937 Tunisian Grand Prix, scoring a tremendous 1-2-3 in both the French and Marseilles GPs and taking first and second in the Tourist Trophy.

That success entitled Tony (as he preferred to be called) to a substantial grant from the French Auto Club. He used the cash to begin work on a supercharged 3-litre engine. At the same time he continued to enter stripped down sports cars in GP events. At the start of 1939 Talbot produced a new machine, the offset MD90 "Monoplace Decalée". With a 4.5-litre engine boasting 210bhp Tony expected to be able to compete with the big boys for a change. It didn't really work and the German dominance continued although the machines did bag a few third places. The first was at Pau with another coming at Reims and that leads us back to our photo.

Mays had spent most of his racing career in the Voiturette class with only a handful of Grands Prix to his name. However as a result of France and Italy disagreeing over the Spanish Civil War Mussolini had banned Italian teams and drivers from competing in France. This meant that when Lago introduced the MC90 - same as the MD90 except for the centrally located driving position - there were few drivers of quality to give the machine a run. Enter our Raymond.

The car received its first outing at the French Grand Prix staged on the incredibly quick Reims circuit. Mays qualified the car in ninth place alongside fellow Talbot pilot Étancelin, although within 10 laps his race was run. For some reason the "central" car couldn't match the performance of its offset sister cars and he quit after suffering a split fuel tank. Müller won the race for Auto Union and the MC90 was consigned to the history books. The offset Talbots failed to appear again until the end of the war when, with money and resources tight, they were brought out of retirement. On the whole they gave a decent account of themselves, whenever the Alfa Romeos were missing that is.

As for Raymond he quit ERA just before the war, taking Peter Berthon with him. The pair set about building a Grand Prix machine only to have their work interrupted by Herr Hitler and the Wehrmacht. During the war Berthon produced plans for an incredibly complicated 16-cylinder 1.5-litre supercharged engine. With Peter scribbling away Raymond concentrated on how to pay for the beast. In 1948 he hit on an unusual method of funding. He approached British industry and asked them to support the project on patriotic grounds. The government of the day liked the idea and offered moral, if not financial, support and even the Times newspaper came out in support of the project. Donations came flooding in and thus BRM was born.

In 1949 the car was unveiled and it was an extraordinary machine. The 1500cc engine was a V16 with two centrifugal superchargers. It sounded fabulous, the body showed echoes of Mercedes gone by and most importantly it was green. At the 1950 International Trophy the car was rolled out to compete for the first time. The driver was the great Raymond Sommer and the expectation of great things hung heavy in the air. The engines roared, the flag fell and the BRM lurched forward. The race was on!

About 3 seconds later it was off again. The complex machine had snapped a drive shaft and was wheeled away to the jeers and catcalls of the crowd.

Raymond continued to keep faith with the team, and was on hand to enjoy the sight of the marque's first victory at Zandvoort in 1959. By then he had relinquished control of the project and was little more than a sponsorship consultant, a role he continued to play until the BRM squad folded in 1976.