Racing driver Raymond Mays was the driving force behind behind Bourne's motor racing industry
Suzanne Moon takes a look at his extraordinary life and work.
It is 100 years since Raymond Mays persuaded his father to buy him a 'Speed Model' Hillman car.
Although resembling Chitty Chitty Bang Bang to modern eyes, with a top speed of 65mph and a price tag of £632 it was the kind of acquisition, a century ago, that marked someone out as having a passion for fast cars.
At the time, Raymond was an engineering student at Christ College, Cambridge. The Hillman would take 21-year-old Mays to his first races - hill climb events in which competitors tore up roads over courses about a mile in length.
Like many young people today, Raymond and childhood friend Amherst Villiers modified their vehicles to enhance performance and appearance, and soon Raymond took his first racing win, in 1921, on a banked track at Brooklands in Surrey.
Having tasted victory, Raymond, who had returned from Cambridge to live at Eastgate House in Eastgate, used his natural charm to persuade oil and car-part manufacturers to keep him supplied for free in return for 'future successes'. He also used the power of the press to raise his profile, taking part in a publicity stunt in which he hurtled over Skegness Sands in a Bugatti while racing a bi-plane which flew overhead.
John Sismey, who now lives in Kirkby Underwood, knew Raymond from the late 1950s, and remembers him as quite a character – persuasive, dryly humorous, and with friends in high places.
“He was well known in showbusiness circles and keen on the theatre,” said John, a former mechanic who went on to run Lahoma Engineers, and who is now a member of Bourne Motor Racing Club.
“Raymond Mays came from a wealthy family, which enabled him to afford good machines, but he was also good at persuading people and would go around his wealthy friends asking them to back his projects.”
Extended pic cap: During the 1920s, Raymond became the subject of the most famous photographs in motor racing, the moment captured when a wheel flew off his Bugatti during a hill climb race in Caerphilly and Raymond is seen watching it go. Despite safety not even stretching to a driver's helmet in those days, no one was hurt.
Raymond, with fellow car enthusiasts Humphrey Cook and Peter Berthon, established English Racing Automobiles (ERA) in 1933 and their cars, built in Bourne, were to take part in national and international races. At this time, Raymond was competing against the likes of land speed record-holder Malcolm Campbell, and princes from Germany and Thailand. Raymond and Prince Bira of Siam – who also drove ERAs – were both “deadly rivals and great friends” throughout the later part of the decade.
By the time Raymond retired from racing in 1950, his collection of trophies at Eastgate House was already burgeoning. But Raymond wasn't content to leave the sport altogether. He had founded British Racing Motors (BRM) at the end of the Second World War, with an ambition to build British grand prix cars that could rival continental players such as Maserati and Alfa Romeo.
The cars were constructed at workshops behind Eastgate House – a site now used by Delaine buses and an auction house – with the first BRM car unveiled in December 1949, and inspected by King George and his two daughters, princesses Elizabeth and Margaret, on a visit to Silverstone the following year.
It was at this time that the young John Sismey gained his first experience of seeing one of Raymond's cars up close – albeit at an agricultural show.
“I was a grammar school pupil in March, Cambridgeshire, at the time,” said John. “I had my satchel on my shoulder and paid 6d to go inside the marquee where Raymond Mays' most famous racing car, the ERA R4D, was on display alongside his trophies. Once in, I just stood there with my mouth open.”
The experience of seeing the car was to play a part in shaping John's future. “I took an engineering apprenticeship at Peter Brotherhoods in Peterborough and followed the progress of the BRMs in the mid-1950s,” he said. “At the time I was also seeing a girl from Manthorpe, near Bourne, and this also had something to do with me writing to BRM to see if I could get a job there!”
After completing his National Service in the RAF, John joined BRM and had his chance to meet its founder. “Everyone called him 'RM',” he explained. “I had seen RM around the place and he was an imposing figure. He had a deep voice and he used to call me 'Sismey'. He was also a gentleman who would come and talk to you, but in those days it was very 'them and us'.”
During the 1950s and 60s, Raymond wrote books, including Split Seconds: My Racing Years and another entitled BRM, which was co-authored by Peter Roberts.
“He had a dry sense of humour,” recalls John, who can still imitate Raymond's formidable tone from conversations they had more than half a century ago. “I remember him asking me, 'Have you read my book? What do you think of it?' before following it up with, 'I'm threatening to write another one, you know. I'm going to tell the truth in the next one!'.”
On another occasion, John was driving his own sports car on the chicane between Twenty and Spalding when another fast car came belting past in the other direction. The following day, Raymond rang John and told him - I said to Henry Coy, my manager, who was with me “There are only two people around here who drive like that, Sismey and myself.”
John also recalls Raymond acting as a 'talent spotter' for racing drivers he wanted to put behind the wheel of BRM cars. Among those he persuaded into the fold were the great Argentinian Juan Manual Fangio, Brits Stirling Moss, Graham Hill, Jackie Stewart and the Austrian Niki Lauda.
It was in 1962 that the success of BRM peaked, with a double victory: Graham Hill winning the World Championship and the Manufacturers' Championship going to BRM and its Bourne-based mechanics.
In that year, Mike Pilbeam first joined BRM as an engineer, and would later set up his own 'Pilbeam Racing Designs', now based at Graham Hill Way, off Cherry Holt Road in Bourne.
By 1977, Raymond's health had deteriorated and he suffered a slight stroke. He died, aged 80, on January 6, 1980. Having no children, he left mementoes from his career to friends, including more than 100 trophies and several paintings.
John Sismey and Bourne GP Dr Michael McGregor helped to clear Eastgate House following Raymond's death. “It was full of Frederick Gordon Crosby illustrations and paintings of racing cars, many with very ornate frames. As we went through his home there were so many items of interest in there – things you couldn't simply throw away.”
As a result, there is a permanent Raymond Mays exhibition at Baldock's Mill Heritage Centre in South Street, Bourne. The centre is currently open on Saturdays from 2pm to 4pm. Entry is free, although donations can be made, and visitors are asked to wear face masks.
With thanks to John Sismey, Dr Michael McGregor author of Raymond Mays of Bourne and volunteers at Baldock's Mill Heritage Centre.