When ‘the King and I’ met Formula One

princebira

On this day before F1 in 1914… 15th July

James Hunt was considered F1’s playboy in the 1970’s and for some Lewis Hamilton is living the high life today. Yet the history of motor sport is littered with such colourful characters, who in their day were never far from making headlines.

On this day in 1914, Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh was born in Bankok and was a member of Siam’s royal family. His grandfather, King Mongkut, was the character depicted in the film ‘the King and I’.

Educated at Eton in England, Prince Bira developed a passion for motor cars and when he’d finished his studies at Cambridge, he decided to turn his hand to racing. Bira’s cousin fortuitously owned a racing team called White Mouse Racing.

biraBIra competed in 1935 in an ERA Voiturette R2B and regularly found himself placed in amongst the more powerful Grand Prix cars. Cousin Chula purchased a more powerful Maserati for the White Mouse team and Bira drive it to 5th at Donnington and 3rd at Brooklands.

The Prince won the BRDC road racing gold star three years in a row and set records which stood for many a year. He was the first driver to average over 100mph on a lap at Phoenix Park, setting 1500cc records at Donnington and Crystal Palace which were never beaten before the-war.

The heroics of the Siamese prince made him hugely popular in Thailand and at each motor sport event the royal Siamese cousins cut a dash, both in Europe and at Indianapolis.

In true King and I style, Bira married an English rose, Ceril Heycock, in 1937. He showered her with jewels from Siam, the collection was sold in 2013 for £60,000. The couple divorced in 1949 and Bira was married a further 3 times.

Following the end of the war, Bira re-established White Mouse Racing, but there were few events taking place in Britain so he moved to Europe to drive a Maserati for Enrique Plate’s private team.

Results were hit and miss so Bira acquired his own Maserati 250F and won the 1954 won the Grand Prix des Frontières along with finishing fourth in the 1954 French Grand Prix.

biraandcarWith the latest 250FG, Bira won the 1955 New Zealand Grand Prix at Ardmore and retired at the end of the season.

Bira decided to shave off his hair and imitate Yul Brynner, in the King and I, which did not endear him to cousin Chula. The prince then embarked on a lifestyle of extremes – which swung from celibacy to indulgence. His business was similarly volatile.

Prince Bira traded on his royal heritage attempting business deals, but Europe became awash with minor eastern royalty and he became just one of many. Yet Bira remained optimistic and good friends regularly kept him afloat, even if it was by the smallest of margins at times.

In 1983, Prince Bira was reunited with his first love Ceril Hancock, but he died two years later at Barons Court tube station in London on 23 December 1985, just a mile from the original White Mouse Racing base. He was staying with friends and on his way to Christmas shop when he collapsed having had a heart attack, but no one around knew who the old Asian guy was.

A hand written note in Thai was found in his pocket. Scotland Yard had it analysed and this revealed it was addressed to Prince Bira, the once famous racing driver who made an impact for Thailand on the motor racing world.

bira book

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