While people more readily associate American race drivers as appearing in Europe after World War II, it is worth reflecting on one individual, who through circumstances that were not of his own making, took up the mantle in the 1930s.
This was Whitney Willard Straight, born in November 1912 in New York. His parents had wealth beyond the dreams of most people, an asset that Whitney put to use in setting up his own race career as well as his own company. His father died of Spanish Flu, and his mother, an heiress in her own right, remarried agronomist Leonard Elmhurst. In 1925, the family moved from America to Darlington House in Devon, England. The young Whitney attended the progressive school that his parents had founded before going to Trinity College, Cambridge, where he studied philosophy.
While at Trinity College his thoughts turned to motor sport and he purchased his first car, an Alvis Silver Eagle. He did not race this car, but purchased a second vehicle, a Riley Nine (more commonly referred to as a Brooklands Riley), and it was this car that he entered at Shelsley Walsh, his first competitive event, in July 1931. Straight finished in third place in his class behind two other Rileys. It was here that he became aware of Dick Seaman who was attending Trinity College, and was also racing a Riley. Straight and Seaman were to become very close friends over the coming months.
Three more meetings were attended before the end of 1931, two at Brooklands and one at Southport. In each of these races, he finished well up in the classification but realized that he needed something more powerful if he was to really compete for honors.
His first race of 1932 was to see him travel to Sweden for the Swedish Winter Grand Prix, the only foreign racer to make the journey. He was embarking on an extensive program of racing that would occupy him fully over the next few years. The circuit was huge, nearly 30 miles over frozen roads in an area near Lake Rämen to the west of Stockholm, which the drivers had to cover eight times. Straight soon had trouble and was well behind after two laps, at which point he decided to drop out of the race.
Straight purchased a 2-liter non-super-charged GP Bugatti which he used at Brooklands. He came in first overall on a handicap basis, but was still not satisfied. As a result, Straight bought the ex-Birkin 1931 2.5-liter Maserati and used it in the two remaining races of the season that he had entered. He finished in the second spot in the Lightning Mountain Handicap losing out by one-tenth of a second, in what was described by motoring correspondents as one of the most exciting Mountain races ever.
1933 proved to be a busy year for Straight. As well as attending eight meetings in England, he was present at Rheims, Stockholm, Pescara, Comminges, Albi, Mont Ventoux and Monza. There were victories at Brooklands, Brighton, Nottingham, Shelsley Walsh and Mont Ventoux in the Maserati M26 as well as a victory in the 1100cc race in Pescara in an MG K3 Magnette. In the main event at Stockholm he drove Bernard Rubin’s 2.6-liter Alfa Romeo, before flying himself and his mechanic Berk Harris to Pescara in his own airplane. Mont Ventoux was the highlight of his season when the Maserati 26M broke the track record with a time of 14min 31.6 sec, taking no less than 40 seconds off Rudi Caracciola’s previous figure in a Tipo B Alfa Romeo.
The MG K3 Magnette was also driven to victory in a squall of rain at Brighton by Psyche Altham, and entered a hillclimb at Shelsley Walsh. She did not record a time due to a problem with the MG’s carburetor, but Psyche also raced the car at Brooklands finishing third in the Ladies’ Mountain Handicap race. After the 1933 season she disappeared from the motorsport scene. (It was reported in one motoring magazine that she was Straight’s fiancee, but in 1935 he married Lady Daphne Margarita Finch-Hatton.)
The latter half of 1933 was to witness some interesting developments for Whitney Straight, as he decided not to remain at Cambridge for his third year of studies but to take up racing more professionally.
He moved from Cambridge to London to form Whitney Straight Limited, and the Company was registered in December with a nominal capital of £5000, the directors being Whitney Straight, Reid Railton, and William Lambert. Having done that, he wanted to increase the number of cars to race and was interested in purchasing three Alfa Romeo Tipo B monopostos. However, Alfa Romeo could not supply the cars so Straight went to their rivals and ordered three of the latest 2.6-liter 240 bhp 8CM Maseratis which cost him £6,000. Giuilio Ramponi was appointed head mechanic and three trucks were obtained to transport the racing cars. Hugh Hamilton and Buddy Featherstonhaugh were contracted to drive the cars along with Whitney Straight for the 1934 season.
It turned out to be a season of mixed fortunes, starting well with a win at Brooklands by Straight in a Maserati 8CM, though come two weeks later both of the Whitney Straight entries retired from the race at Tripoli. Casablanca was an improvement with Straight taking fourth place but Hamilton went out on lap 42.
It wasn’t until the Albi Grand Prix on July 22 that the Whitney Straight team was to savor success again, with Hamilton winning in the Maserati 8CM and Featherstonhaugh coming second in the well-used Maserati 26M. This meeting was followed up at Klausen with a win for Hamilton in the under 1100cc race in the MG K3 Magnette, and again at Pescara two weeks later. A win at the Berne race on August 26 by Dick Seaman in the MG K3 Magnette was poor consolation for the tragic accident that happened in the Swiss Grand Prix when Hugh Hamilton was killed driving a team Maserati 8CM car, crashing into a tree on the final lap of the race. The accident put a dampener on the remainder of the season, though there was one last flourish at the South African Grand Prix when Whitney Straight brought his Maserati 8CM home in first place.
It was a fitting end to the season, and a fitting end to Whitney Straight Limited, as Straight had decided to retire from motor racing. One of two reasons was that the decision was undoubtedly influenced by the untimely death of Hugh Hamilton, and secondly, Straight had found to his cost that racing was a very expensive hobby. At the end of the 1934 season, all things taken into account, Whitney Straight Company had lost £2,775. Wealthy though Whitney was, he realized that to continue into another season would be unsustainable.