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  • Writer's pictureReece Bithrey

My Sporting Heroes - Count Louis Zborowski

(Picture Credit - The Spectator)

Count Louis Vorrow Zborowski was a very eccentric man with a rather strange obsession. Motor racing. Zborowski's father Eliot (the man credited with inventing the colour British Racing Green) had died in 1903 during a racing accident in Nice, France and it's rather unfortunate to think that he would suffer that same end at Monza in 1924. As a man to look back on, Zborowski was a playboy, racing aficionado and a hero of his time.

Zborowski's father passed away when he was just eight years old; seven years later in 1910, his mother purchased Higham Park for the sum of £17,500 (around £2 million in today's money) and the estate included the farm, 225 acres of space and twelve houses. Louis was fifteen at the time. A year later, his mother died and he inherited this massive estate. He instantaneously became the fourth richest man under the age of 21 with a net worth of £11 million, as well as real estate in the USA, including seven acres of Manhattan, New York City. As a seventeen year old boy, the Zborowski's estate was his playground. He could have chosen anywhere to mess around and fettle, and he chose the stables and turned them into garages. Along with future "Bentley Boys" mechanic Clive Gallop, Zborowski built the first aero-engined racing cars in the world. In total, they built four of them, each being given the name Chitty Bang Bang and a corresponding number.

His first effort, Chitty 1, was powered by a 23-litre Maybach aero-engine and based on a Mercedes chassis. It won two races at Brooklands Circuit in Weybridge, Surrey in 1921, reaching speeds upwards of 120mph. During its second outing, Chitty 1 crashed rather spectacularly, flying off of the Member's Banking and into the Timing Box, removing three fingers from a timing official. The car was rebuilt and passed into the hands of the sons of Arthur Conan Doyle, the infamous writer of the Sherlock Holmes series. Chitty 1 was quickly retired as a racing car and soon bought as spares by a man named John Morris.

Then came Chitty 2 and Chitty 3. Chitty 2 was taken, in January 1922, across the Mediterranean for an expedition into the Sahara Desert. Along with himself, Zborowski brought his wife Violet, Clive Gallop (his long-time mechanic) and a couple of other mechanics for the journey. Chitty 3 was used as Zborowski's personal transport on a few occasions after racing at Brooklands, achieving speeds of 113mph or so after being tuned to produce around 180 bhp. He used it to go and see the Mercedes team after being invited to drive for them in 1924.

Chitty 4 has had an interesting life and does still run periodically today, although not in the same way. It was also nicknamed the Higham Special after the name of Zborowski's estate. It was Zborowski's largest car to date with a 27 litre capacity Liberty aero engine producing 450bhp. It also featured the chain-drive and gearbox from the Blitzen Benz. The Blitzen Benz is famous for once having set a speed record at Brooklands in 1914. Chitty 4 became the largest capacity car to ever race at Brooklands too. After Zborowski's death, it was never fully finished and was bought from his estate by JG. Parry-Thomas for the princely sum of £125. Parry-Thomas rebuilt the car with a new piston design and new Zenith carburettors and renamed it Babs. Parry-Thomas would go on to set a new Land Speed Record in April 1926 with Babs and a speed of 171.02mph. However, whilst trying to set a higher record, Parry-Thomas was killed in March 1927 and Babs was buried in Pendine Sands, Wales. It was later recovered, rebuilt and is on display at both the Brooklands Museum and the Pendine Museum Of Speed.

Being the rich playboy he was, Zborowski would often invite people to race with and against him. If you had the money, he'd let you race. Of course, at this time, motor-racing was a lot more dangerous and ultimately, the rich were driving motorised coffins at rather high speeds. The car would soon become your casket and Zborowski took great pleasure in burying these burnt-out wrecks in the woods in the grounds of his Higham Park estate. Stories told about Zborowski's obsession say that if anyone was found near his 'Pit', he would come out from behind the trees, fire a single shotgun bullet over your head as a 'warning shot' and you wouldn't be seen there again.

Zborowski was invited to drive for Mercedes in 1924 which would ultimately prove to be the last year of his life. A year prior he had entered the famous Indianapolis 500 race in a Bugatti and ended up retiring. He entered the 1924 Italian Grand Prix at Monza in what would prove to be his only start for Mercedes. A few days prior to the race, Zborowski had premonitions of his death and was unnerved when the race weekend came around. Of course, his father, Eliot had suffered the same end and that was traumatic and tragic enough for the Count at a young age. On the morning of the race, Zborowski decided to wear his late father's cufflinks and rather sadly, it was this decision that proved to be fatal. The story goes that the cufflinks got caught in the steering column of his Mercedes, causing Zborowski to lose all control and plough head-on into a tree. He was killed instantly.

Many people have looked to the Count for inspiration. I, for one, have looked to Zborowski in terms of technological brilliance but others for literary inspiration; namely, the author Sir Ian Fleming. As a child, Fleming would often go past Higham Park on the London to Dover coach. The number of the route was 007. More famously however is that Zborowski was the inspiration for the 1964 novel Chitty Chitty Bang Bang. This again comes from Fleming's childhood and his time spent at Brooklands seeing Zborowski race in his Chittys. Later on in his life, Fleming when driving near Sandwich, Kent, saw one of these Chittys and waved over the driver for a small chat about the car. The driver, Peter Harris Mayes told Fleming its rich history and it's said that after hearing Mayes talking, Fleming found the inspiration to write the children's classic.

The tale of Count Louis Vorrow Zborowski is a rather tragic one but, in a very special way, he was a pioneer and an inspiration to a good few people. His automotive exploits proved to be magnificent for the time and even now, we can look back on Zborowski as an unsung hero and a man never fully known or recognised for his talent and skill.


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