On this day… 24th July
The recent Brexit furore saw the name of Adolf Hitler invoked by both ‘leave’ and ‘remain’ camps as part of the pre-voting day propaganda war. Yet on this day in history, a young British racing driver was paid homage to the dictator.
Richard John Beattie ‘Dick’ Seaman, was one of the greatest pre-war British racing drivers. He was born into a wealthy family, was sent to Rugby School and then studied Trinity College Cambridge.
These were the days when Cambridge recruited both the brightest of academics and those of a certain social standing. Dick preferred racing his Riley sports car to studying, he came second in his first outing up the Shelsley Walsh hill climb in 1931
The winner was another Cambridge millionaire student and Riley driver, Whitney Willard Straight. The wealthy young American kept an aeroplane in Cambridge which Dick learned to fly. The two of them used this to hop from race to race during term time.
Having written off his new Bugatti, broadsiding a coach at Victoria Station, Dick’s mother Lilian thought some time out in the country would do him good. She hoped her son would become a barrister and Tory MP, so she bought him a country estate. Instead Dick ran off and joined Whitney’s new racing team.
Dick won his first race, the 1935 Prix de Berne, a junior grand prix at the Bremgarten forest circuit, in his supercharged MG K3 Magnette. The Swiss GP then followed on the same circuit, and Dick watched as his team mate Hugh Hamilton was killed as he drove his Maserati 8CM into a tree.
News of the tragic accident reached Dick’s parents, and his apoplectic father threatened to cut of his inheritance – around £10m at today’s value. But before he could enact this will his legal representative, William Seaman Beattie suffered a sudden heart failure and died.
The widowed Lilian tried her best to persuade Dick to stop racing, but in the end gave in to his determination and became his ‘sponsor’. She bought him a 1.5litre works ERA racer for £1,700 and Dick established his own racing team in the garages of Ennismore Gardens.
Whether more by luck than judgement, we will never know, but Dick engaged a world class engineer in Giulio Ramponi He had previously been employed by the Scuderia Ferrari Alfa-Romeo and was a master at setting up a car to a driver’s preference.
Racing car drivers (left to right) Dick Seaman (1913 – 1939), Prince Birabongse ‘Bira’ Bhanudej Bhanubandh of Siam (1914 – 1985) and Count Carlo Felice Trossi (1908 – 1949) before Britain’s first international car race at Crystal Palace.
In 1935, Dick won the 1935 Prix de Berne at 82mph, leaving for dust Raymond Mays, ERA’s official driver.
The pair went on to win a hat trick of European races in the ERA, when Dick instructed Rampoli to prepare for him a straight-8 Delage special. Seaman promptly won the 1936 RAC International Light Car Race in the Isle of Man.
Dick was a hero in the British Press, who printed the tale of a Cambridge student and his mate coming from nowhere to trounce the opposition with nothing more than a tuned up banger.
A telegram arrived for Dick, though at first his mother thought to hide it from him. The great Mercedes Benz had come calling for her sons services. Having spent around £20,000 (£2m today) on her son’s racing career, Lilian decided to allow the German’s to start picking up the tab for Dick’s job.
It was in fact Dick’s victory at the 1936 Grand Prix at Donington, in a borrowed straight-8 Maserati 8CM, which convinced Alfred Neubauer, head of the Mercedes-Benz racing team, that this Englishman was the fresh blood his team needed.
The Mercedes and Auto Union cars were part of a racing programme sponsored by the German government. This meant they were better financed, better built, more advanced and reliable and had the beating of all other comers. There was a real prospect that Dick could now win Grand Prix and become one of the European elite drivers.
Things did not start well for dick, as he crashed his 180mph Mercedes-Benz W125 into a tree at Monza, cracking a knee-cap.
Next up was the German GP. Again the day wasn’t the best for Dick. On lap 7 the Auto Union of Ernest ‘Titch’ von Delius crashed into Dick’s Mercedes at 170mph. Von Delius was killed and Dick was thrown from the Silver Arrow, his injuries included broken bones and he required some plastic surgery.
While recovering, Dick was enlisted to show the Nazi-friendly Duke and Duchess of Windsor around the Mercedes-Benz factory in Stuttgart.
1938 was to be a better season for Dick Seaman and his defining glory came about at the German GP where he powered his V12 Mercedes-Benz 154 to victory at Nurburgring – on this day.
The race was described by his engineer as a ‘white knuckle ride’ as dick lapped at an average speed of 83.71mph for three hours, 51 minutes and 46.1 seconds. ‘Der Englander’ was now a force to be reckoned with and concern grew amongst Neubauer’s top two drivers, the snobbish Rudolf Caracciola and the Junker, Manfred von Brauchitsch.
But the winds of war were blowing and Dick met and fell in love with the glamorous daughter of BMW industrialist, Erica Popp. A concerned Lilian was invited to Germany in a hope that her fears of bombs falling on Knightsbridge whilst her son was to marry a Nazi, could be allayed.
Lillian was overwhelmed by the persistent newsreels played repeatedly of her son’s victory, Dick receiving his laurel wreath from Herr Hitler, Dick saluting the Fuhrer as the oompah bands played ‘Deutschland Über Alles’ followed by ‘God Save the King’. These official broadcasts always finished with portraits of Dick, the Führer and King George VI. ‘I thought,’ wrote Lilian, ‘there will be no war. The German people are a friendly nation. They do not want war…’ [‘Dick & George: The Seaman-Monkhouse Letters, 1936 – 1939’ by Doug Nye, published by Palawan Press]
Erica’s father consented to Dick and Erica’s marriage on September 14th 1938 and on September the 16th Neville Chamberlain met Hitler in Munich. The British prime minister returned to London triumphantly announcing ‘peace in our time’ had been negotiated.
Dick also won the Swiss GP in 1938 and married Erica in December, but no one realised how short his time left really was.
Leading the wet Belgium GP in 1939, Dick mistakenly took the dry line through a corner that was anything but. His car hit a tree and caught fire.
The revered ‘Der Englander’ died hours later from his burns but not before he told his beloved Erica, “I am afraid you must go the cinema alone after all,” They both loved what Dick called ‘the flicks’. And, this was indeed ‘The End’. After the war, Erica went on to marry first one American millionaire and then another. She became a US citizen and died in Florida in 1990.
This was Mercedes only fatality in that era and every car dealership worldwide was ordered to prominently display his portrait. In Germany, Dick Seaman was viewed with much fame and heroism.
Dick was the first British driver to win a Grand Prix since Major Henry Segrave in 1923 – but his passing was treated as mere by-line in the Telegraph alone. Daimler Benz tend Dick’s grave to this day.