Sir Henry Segrave (1896 - 1929)

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Sir Henry Segrave (1896 - 1929)

Sir Henry Seagrave
To many, Sir Henry Segrave epitomised all that was best in the British character. Segrave was in fact born in Baltimore, Maryland, of an Irish father and an American mother, in 1896, and only educated in England. The name "Segrave" dated back to the Vikings, and meant "Lord of the Sea".

The Sheepshead Bay Track

Segrave's interest in motor racing apparently dated from a wartime visit to the Sheepshead Bay track on Long Island; his first experience with fast motor cars was gained in America with Marmon, Packard and Stutz cars. Returning to England, he did war service with the Royal Flying Corps, using a 120 hp Itala racer converted for road use for military duties in London in 1916-1917.

When Henry O'Neal DeHane Segrave - he was always 'DeHane', never 'Henry', to his friends - left the Service after the war with the rarik of Major, he decided to go in for motor racing professionally. But the only British motor company which took racing at all seriously was Sunbeam, which was headed by a Breton engineer, Louis Coatalen.

The Lure of Speed

Segrave was determined to become a member of the Sunbeam works team, but not unexpectedly Coatalen told him that he must prove himself before he was even considered for the team. To prove himself, Segrave purchased an old Opel racing car, and in his autobiography 'The Lure of Speed', he commented; 'This had been designed for the 1914 Grand Prix, in which, driven by Karl Joerns, it had finished eighth. It was equipped with a four-cylinder engine, having four valves per cylinder, and taking it by and large was a very decent motor car. It was one of the two white Opels which had appeared at Brooklands on the August Bank Holiday immediately before the outbreak of the War, during the whole of which it had remained stored away in England. This Opel was raced fairly consistently at Brooklands in 1920, and succeeded in winning several races. I also ran it in the Southend and Southport speed trials and at the Kop Hill-Climb.'

Joining Coatalen's Sunbeam Works Team

Every time Segrave met Coatalen that season, he lost no opportunity to plead his ambition to become one of the Sunbeam works team: Coatalen agreed that Segrave appeared to be quite a competent track racer, but lacked any sort of experience in road racing. However, he was prepared to give him a chance. Coatalen had entered seven cars for the 1921 French Grand Prix - three Talbot-Darracqs, two Talbots and two Sunbeams, all mechanically identical - and gave Segrave the opportunity to drive one of the Talbots, on the condition that if he finished the race inside the time limit, he might be taken into the team on probation.

Because of insufficient preparation, the S-T-D cars were almost withdrawn from the race, but the Talbots and Talbot-Darracqs eventually made the start. Flying stones were the main hazard in the race, which was won by Jimmy Murphy's Duesenberg. Segrave's car's oil tank was holed by a stone early in the race, and repaired by his mechanic Moriceau, who blocked the aperture with a plug of cotton waste; Moriceau was later knocked unconscious by a flint hurled by the rear wheels of the Duesenberg. More time was lost by punctures: Segrave changed wheels fourteen times, and Coatalen had to borrow tyres from other teams to keep the Talbots and Talbot-Darracqs in the race.

Segrave was determined to finish, however: 'If, during this first road race of mine, the engine had fallen into two pieces or one of the axles had cracked in the middle, I would somehow have succeeded in finishing the full distance. To get there meant more than anything else in the world at that time.' Get there he did, finishing ninth behind the winner. Having qualified as an official member of the team, he next took part in the Coupe des Voiturettes, run two months after the Grand Prix, over the same course at Le Mans. The Talbot team drove an impeccable race to Coatalen's orders, and finished one-two-three. The order was Rene Thomas, Kenelm Lee Guinness and Segrave, and only ninety seconds separated Thomas from Segrave.

Sir Henry Segrave in the 1914 Opel, his first racing car
Sir Henry Segrave in the 1914 Opel, his first racing car.

Sir Henry Segrave pictured at the 1924 Lyon GP in his Sunbeam
Sir Henry Segrave pictured at the 1924 Lyon GP in his Sunbeam.

The Junior Car Club 200-Mile Race

Driving the same car, Segrave then won the Junior Car Club 200-mile Race at Brooklands, driving the last lap on a flat tyre. In 1922, contact-breaker trouble cost Segrave the Isle of Man TT when he was leading by a comfortable margin; already it was being noted that 'his breezy nature and his plucky attitude immediately made him a favourite with racing enthusiasts'. The Sunbeams entered for the Grand Prix at Strasbourg proved very fast - they were driven to the race, and could reach over 100 mph on the open road - but all three were eliminated by broken valves. 'Segrave, whose car was rather faster than that of his companions, drove a very fine race,' reported The Autocar, 'and raised British hopes when on the seventh and eighth laps he got into third place behind two Fiats'.

By the halfway mark, Segrave was forced to retire, though. To compensate for these failures, Segrave won the 2-litre and 5-litre Championships at the Essex Motor Club meeting at Brooklands, came third in the 200-Miles race at Brooklands and the Coup des Voiturettes at Le Mans, fourth in the Penya Rhin race in Spain (despite a broken inlet valve, which set the car on fire) and second in the Coppa Florio in Sicily. In the 1923 Grand Prix, Segrave was initially slowed by worsening clutch slip, but just as he was considering retiring altogether, a clutch stop fitted to his car broke off, allowing the clutch to grip properly. With only seventy miles to go to the end of the race, Segrave, with a car in perfect condition, which had not been overstressed because of the clutch slip, frightened the two leading Fiats into making stupid errors of judgment, and won the race - the first-ever British victory in the premier event of the motor-sport calendar.

The Coupe des Voiturettes

In September that year, Segrave triumphed again in the Coupe des Voiturettes in a 1500 cc Talbot. The 1924 season was not so successful: magneto trouble cost him the Grand Prix, while his third place in the 200-miles race, behind the sister Darracqs of Guinness and Duller, was pre-arranged. However, he won at San Sebastian and came second at Montlhery, Segrave's first race in 1925 was the GP de Provence, on the Miramas Circuit near Marseille, which he won at an average speed of 78.5 mph; he was third in the 1500 cc Grand Prix at Montlhery (in which the second place was taken upside down by Conelli in another Darracq, following a violent skid). He won the Brooklands 200-Miles race, again a Darracq, and repeated the victory the following year, in which he also won the GP de Provence.

The Sunbeam V12 Racer

The noteworthy feature of the 1926 season, though, was the appearance of the new and versatile Sunbeam V12 racer, with which Segrave set up a new land-speed record of 152.33 mph on South port sands, and was going well in the lead of the Spanish GP at San Sebastian when his front axle sheared in two. Subsequently, Segrave drove this car to victory in the Boulogne Speed Trials, at a hair-raising 140.6 mph, but his interest in motor racing was now waning; 1927 saw him concentrating on record breaking, and he became the first driver to exceed 200 mph, setting a new land-speed record of 203.79 mph in the '1000 hp' Sunbeam, which had two 22.4-litre Sunbeam aero engines.

Convinced that it would be unsafe to exceed 200 mph in England, Segrave had the car shipped to Daytona, Florida, at his own expense for the successful attempt. The car had maximum speeds of 90 mph in bottom gear, 135 mph in second and 212 mph in top. Segrave's track-racing career ended in anti-climax with disqualification in the Essex Six Hours race at Brooklands in 1927. It was around this time that Segrave propounded his unique theory of safety at cross-roads: 'Supposing you take the crossing at 60 mph, you are in the "zone of danger" for something less than a second, whereas if you cross at 20 mph you are in the dangerous area for three times as long, and consequently the risk of meeting cross-traffic is three times as great such a manoeuvre is only to be undertaken by people with experience'.

Death on the Water in Miss England II

His last great motoring achievement was the raising of the land-speed record to 231.44 mph in March 1929, driving the Irving-Napier Golden Arrow; but his enthusiasm for speed on land had already been supplanted by a new interest - speed on water. While in America with Golden Arrow he also won the International Championship for motor-boats at Miami. On Segrave's return to England, he was knighted for his motoring achievements. He was also developing a fast aeroplane, the Segrave Meteor, but on 13 June, having unofficially broken the speed-boat record on Lake Windermere with his Miss England II, Segrave struck a floating log at speed, tore the bottom out of the boat and received injuries from which he died a few hours later. He left an indelible memory of generosity and kindness.
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