Le Mans - 17 June 1939
Morgan 4-4 arrives in Calais, June 1939 (Ref 12)
The Morgan party set off a week before the race. The specially prepared Morgan 4-4 was driven down to Dover in company with a standard Morgan 4-4 where the cars were lifted onto a ferry. The cars then continued their journey through France to the town of Le Mans where they set up camp at the Hotel des Ifs. The Morgan party comprised Dick Anthony, Geoffrey White, Charlotte and Lance Prideaux-Brune and Charlie Curtis the Morgan Motor Company’s chief road tester.
Also at the Hotel des Ifs were the Aston Martin team. The team from the Winter Garden garage were amongst friends!
1939 Le Mans scrutineering - White and Anthony pose for photograph (Ref 11)
The Morgan was presented at the Halle aux Toiles for weighing and scrutineering which took place on the Tuesday and Wednesday before the race. Earle Howe was representing the RAC on the AIACR committee. The car passed without comment.
The track had been considerably altered since 1938 and practice was key to all the crews. The road past White House Corner had been widened considerably and improvements had been made to the track surface over its entire length.
Practice took place between 1 am and 6 am on the Thursday and Friday night. Anthony and White took turns at the wheel with Charlie Curtis stationed at the pits. True to the rules of the day, only one nominated person was allowed to man the pits and that of course, was Curtis. During Anthony’s stint, the Morgan had problems with the head gasket which Charlie Curtis duly changed. Otherwise, practice was uneventful other than the drenching rain that fell on Friday evening.
Start of the Race
The Morgan party awoke on the Saturday morning to a fine day with high clouds in a motionless blue sky. Of the 49 entries, 42 cars lined up for the start. Dick Anthony was down to start the race in international company. The pre race favourites were of course the French. The French ace Jean-Pierre Wimille (the ’37 winner) was partnered by Veyron in a Bugatti Type 57 ‘tank’ with supercharged 3.3 litre engine and an advanced stream-lined body.
No less than 8 Delahaye-Delages of 3.6 litre, 2 Delages of 3.0 litre, 6 Talbots and 8 Simcas were also entered bringing the French entry to 25.
1939 Le Mans; Rob Walker in privately owned Delage (Ref 13)
The British had entered 12 cars led by the 2 Lagonda 4.5 litre V12s. There were also 3 Singers, 2 MGs, 2 Aston Martins, an HRG, a Riley and the Morgan.
The Germans had entered 3 BMW 328s, one a coupe and an 2.5 litre Adler with stream lined bodywork. Italy had one representative Raymond Sommer and Prince B. Bira driving the awesome Alfa Romeo 2.6 litre coupe again with stream lined bodywork.
At 1.00pm, White, Anthony and Curtis were positioned at the pit to drain the fuel tank in front of the stewards. The car was then filled with petrol and the tank being sealed by the official. There was nothing to do now but wait for the start. Lance and Charlotte Prideaux-Brune took their position in the stand above the pit where they could shout encouragement.
With the clock approaching 4.00pm, Dick Anthony in his pristine white overall and yellow armlet, stood on the orange circle painted on the track. The announcer built up the excitement by counting down the minutes to the start. At 4.00pm precisely, the flag was raised and the 42 drivers sprinted to their cars. First away was Arthur Dobson in the green Lagonda and accelerated past Wimille’s Bugatti the first car in line. The rest of the field took off in hot pursuit. The first lap was expected to take about 6 minutes and it was a stream of blue cars that came round first interspersed by Dobson’s Lagonda grimly hanging on in 2nd place. The Alfa was back in 10th place and the Morgan trailed some one and a half minutes behind the leading group together with the other smaller capacity cars.
Dick Anthony and Geoff White had agreed beforehand to refuel every 28 laps. This was 4 laps further than the minimum distance stipulated in the regulations.
For the first 28 laps, Dick Anthony settled down to a lap time of about 7 mins 28 sec, equivalent to an average speed of 67.5mph for the 8.4 mile circuit. This was some 40 seconds faster than the 1938 car. In contrast, the leading cars were lapping at an average of 89 mph. The speed differential on the Mulsanne Straight must have been some 30+ mph.
Sommers’ Alfa Romeo had been in the pit for the past hour to change the cylinder head gasket, but once complete was able to hand over to Bira for his stint. Meanwhile, Gerard’s Delage and Mazaud’s Delehaye were involved in a dogfight resulting in Mazaud setting a new lap record of 96.74mph.
Just before Dick Anthony’s scheduled stop, a series of crashes occurred. Breillet’s Simca FIAT skidded on the oil of Tremoulet’s Delahaye, spun and crashed into the fence. Madame Itier, also in a Simca FIAT overturned her car at Arnage. Both drivers were thankfully unhurt.
1939 Le Mans Morgan 4-4 with headlight covers (Ref 12)
True to the pre agreed schedule, Anthony brought the Morgan into the pits at 7.30pm for refuelling and a driver change. Refuelling took just 1 minute 22 seconds which included time for the steward to replace the broken seal. Geoffrey White, wearing the blue armlet of 2nd driver, then roared off into the clear summer evening.
White was able to maintain the pace set by Anthony and even a 13 second pit stop to remove the headlight covers at 9.30pm did not unduly impact his time. After a further 24 laps, Geoff had managed an average lap speed of 67.6mph which of course included that brief time in the pits.
Night time Racing
By now the circuit was in darkness save for the brilliantly lit scoreboard over the pits. The Lagondas were keeping up the pressure on the French cars at the front with the Aston Martin in 18th place then the next of the British cars was the HRG, MG, Morgan and the Singers.
At 11.00pm, White brought the car back to the pits for refuelling and a driver change. Again, just 1 minute 52 seconds were lost in the pits. Anthony took off into the clear, starlit night.
At the front, Chinetti in the Talbot Darraq took the lead from Mazaud’s Delahaye with the pre-race favourite Bugatti a watchful third.
1939 Le Mans Aston Martin LM23 at speed (Ref 7)
Meanwhile, Anthony was lapping consistently and fast with lap times in the 7 minutes 25 seconds, equivalent to a speed of 68.1mph. Whereas everything was going well on the track, there was a minor drama in the pits.
Just 30 minutes before Anthony’s scheduled pit stop, Mazaud’s Delahaye arrived, quite literally, blazing into the pits and stopped alongside the Morgan pit. With the car well alight, Mazaud jumped clear and the Delahaye crew set to extinguishing the flames. Sadly, the car was too badly damaged to continue and was pushed aside.
At 2.30am, Anthony drove carefully into the pits taking care not to skid on the vast quantities of water left by the Delahaye crew. Again, Charlie Curtis did a magnificent job refuelling the car, and White sped off after a pit stop of just 1 minute 38 seconds.
This was the graveyard shift for White when the body is at its lowest ebb. Even so, White put in some of the fastest laps of the race probably aided by the cool moist air of a rapidly approaching dawn. With lap times down to 7 minutes 25 seconds, Geoff had raised the average speed to 68.1mph.
Back at the front, Gerard in the blue Delage 3.0 litre had come to the front and had extended his lead to nearly a lap. Then came Chinetti in the Talbot, the Bugatti and Hug in the other 3.0 litre Delage. The Lagondas were still going in 6th and 7th followed by the surprise of the race the 3 BMWs.
With the track bathed in the morning light, White brought the Morgan safely in at 6.00am for more fuel and a driver change. Again, Charlie Curtis required just 1 minute 28 seconds to turn the car around. After 14 hours of racing, the Morgan had spent less than 7 minutes in the pits!!
As Anthony sped away, he could feel that all was not right with the car. As he approached Arnage, lifting his foot off the throttle did not retard the engine speed as quickly as he expected causing him to apply more pressure on the brakes. With each lap the problem was getting worse and his lap times were suffering accordingly. His average lap times had risen to 7 minutes 36 seconds a speed of 66.3mph.
All was not well with his competitors. At 8.00am, Mathieson in the Chinetti Talbot closely followed by Hug in the Delage came screaming around the bend leading onto the Mulsanne straight. The Talbot threw a tread, the tyre exploded and the Talbot plunged sideways into the bank. Hug, with nowhere to go, T-boned the Talbot both retired. The Alfa Romeo also retired with engine failure. By 9.00am, only 19 cars were left in the race.
The Last Day
Anthony was becoming increasingly concerned with the Morgan and brought the car in for investigation just before his scheduled hand over to White. Charlie Curtis swarmed all over the car and tried to free up the carburettor needles which had become sticky with tar deposits. Curtis was limited to using only those tools carried on board the Morgan, but thankfully it was now light. At the same time White refuelled the Morgan. After 19 minutes, Curtis waved Anthony away, he had done the best he could.
A few laps later, Anthony returned to the pits for the scheduled driver change warning White to go carefully the throttle was still effectively sticking. The driver change took just 13 seconds. It was now just before 10.00am.
Anthony’s advice fell on deaf ears as White set off to set the Morgan’s fastest times of the race. In an uninterrupted stint of 28 laps, White reduced the average lap time to 7 minutes 21 seconds an average speed of 68.6mph. Nothing wrong with this car he must have thought!!!
1939 Le Mans Wimille's Bugatti Type 57 'tank' takes the lead
By 1.00pm with White still going like a train, the Morgan appeared in 15th place overall ahead of the Riley and Singer. The HRG was in 14th, Goodall’s Aston in 11th and the Lagondas in 3rd and 4th. The pre-race favourites had now taken the lead in their Bugatti posting average lap speeds of 92-94mph. Gerard’s Delage was some 2 laps behind.
Right on schedule and after a magnificent stint, White brought the Morgan back into the pits for the last refuel and driver change. The clock was showing 1.30pm. The Morgan was stationary for a long 12 minutes 24 seconds as Charlie Curtis, once again, tried to resolve the sticking carburettor needles. With time marching on, Anthony was waved away for the final drive of the day.
Anthony was not happy though, after just 4 laps the Morgan was back in the pits for an unscheduled stop. The needles were still sticking open. Charlie Curtis whipped open the bonnet and removed the float chamber covers but there was little more that he could do. After an agonising 6 minutes and 8 seconds, Anthony was back out on track.
By now, positions were relatively settled and most of the cars were being driven to finish. The Bugatti had dropped its lap speed to 82mph but was still some 3 laps in the lead ahead of the Delage. The two Lagondas were on the same lap in 3rd and 4th but 9 laps behind the Delage. Then came the remarkable BMW.
The final laps of the race saw Anthony’s lap speeds drop to 58.1mph as he nursed the car to the finish.
At 4.00pm precisely, without a chequered flag but with the calm flagging in of each and every competitor, the race was ended. Wimille and Veyron had brought their huge Bugatti home to a record win in front a large and partisan home crowd. They covered 2,083 miles at an average speed of 86.8mph.
1939 Le Mans winning Bugatti parked next to Morgan 4-4
Anthony drove the Morgan back to the pits to a rapturous reception. The Morgan had finished 15th overall, covering 1545.8 miles at an average speed of 64.4mph.
Immediately after the race, the Morgan was inspected by the stewards to check that all the bodywork was still complete. Thankfully, they did not request the engine to be stripped. The news came through that the Biennial Cup had been won by the remarkable SimcaFIAT. The Morgan was the highest placed British car. In addition, the Morgan had finished 2nd in the 1500cc class behind the HRG of pipe smoking Clark and Chambers but ahead of the Riley.
1939 Hotel Des Ifs - flowers and congratulations (Ref 12)
After much time to reflect on the race, Anthony recalled “As you know, I have competed in many makes of cars (though mainly Aston Martins) in many types of events and my only criticism of the Morgan is that instead of building a car to last me 24 hours at Le Mans, HFS, as usual, built a car to last 24 years or more.
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Information on this page has been gathered from historical journals and contemporary text books.
Please refer to the reference page.
© 2002 John Clarke