Prince Birabongse "Bira" (1914 - 1985) - The Grand Prix Prince

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Prince Birabongse "Bira" (1914 - 1985) - The Grand Prix Prince

Prince Bira
ONLY A COUPLE of generations after the redoubtable Mrs Anna Leonowens had turned the Siamese Court upside down (which inspired the musical, The King and I), the English influence was still strong. So it was natural that the King's nephews, the three young Siamese Princes, Abhas, Birabongse and Chirasakti, should come to England in the 1920s for their education.

Birabongse, the second oldest (he was born in 1914), had been crazy about cars ever since, as a little boy, he had sat on the lap of a chauffeur and steered one of the royal cars. He didn't get the chance to drive on the roads, however, until he was sixteen at Eton; his elder cousin and guardian, Chula, allowed Bira, as he was known, to drive his 1928, 12 hp, sleeve-valve Voisin - 'a wonderful little machine'.

Starting With An MG Magna, Then Sports Invicta, And Rolls-Bentley

In 1932, Chula presented Bira with an MG Magna, soon replaced by a 4½-litre Super Sports Invicta, which itself was succeeded by a 3½-litre Rolls-Bentley in June 1934. The cousins were keen fans of motor racing, but Chula refused to let Bira compete in speed events.

However, he bought him a Riley Imp for reliability trials; in 1935 Bira managed to get Chula's permission to turn the Imp into a racing car, and it was taken to Thomson & Taylor at Brooklands for tuning. For their racing livery, the cousins used a light blue based on the colour of an evening frock belonging to a young Danish girl, Barbara Grut: this later became the Siamese national racing colour (yellow was added to it in 1939).

Cecil Kimber Offers The Very Last Supercharged MG Magnette

Birabongse decided to adopt the nom de course of 'B. Bira' and first appeared at Brooklands at the opening meeting of the 1935 season; the Imp proved too slow, and Bira looked around for a new car. Cecil Kimber of MG offered him the very last supercharged MG Magnette ever built, which had been specially prepared for the Mille Miglia but refused entry papers for Italy. The MG gave Bira much valuable racing experience, but its top speed of around 110 mph was not quite fast enough to put him in the prize money, though it enabled him to establish a reputation as a driver of consistent ability - and his distinctive Siamese pit signals caused a great deal of attention.

The new ERA cars were just beginning to enjoy their first international racing success, so Chula decided to buy a 1500 cc ERA as a present for Bira's 21st birthday, which fell on the 15th July 1935. Five days later, Bira took second place in the 1500 cc race at Dieppe, beating such polished drivers as Earl Howe (Delage), Raymond Mays, Dick Seaman and Humphrey Cook (ERA ) and Veyron (Bugatti); only an oiled plug prevented him from taking first place. This success inspired Bira to enter the 1500 cc Swiss Grand Prix at Berne; again he came second after a well driven race, this time beaten by Dick Seaman.

However, a drive for Aston Martin in the Ulster TT ended in failure when an oil pipe broke on the second lap. Nevertheless, a few days later, Bira set up a new Mountain Circuit lap record at Brooklands with the ERA and then achieved fifth place in the Donington GP, the highest position taken by a 1½-litre car in this race. He wound up his first season by setting up fastest time at the Gatwick Speed Trials in the ERA , then, at the other end of the speed cycle, won a gold medal in the Veteran Car Run at the tiller of a 1903 Oldsmobile.

Romulus, Remus and Hanuman

In 1936, Bira added to his stable, buying a 2.0-litre 8CM Maserati, with which he won the British Empire Trophy at Brooklands; two of the1927 1½-litre Delages (which were still capable of winning races in the hands of Dick Seaman) were subsequent additions. They were fitted with ugly streamlined bodies and independent front suspension, but these modifications seemed to break the winning streak. Bira drove a wide variety of cars, but achieved his most notable victories with ERA - he eventually had three of them - Romulus and Remus, both B-types, and the C-type Hanuman, named after the Siamese monkey-god.

Most successful was his 21 st birthday present, Romulus, which took ten first places, eight seconds, five thirds, one fourth and one fifth in the 1935 to 1939 seasons, only retiring five times. After World War 2, Bira returned to racing in 1946 with Romulus and Hanuman (which had been rebuilt as a B-type after a crash in 1939) and won the Ulster TT. In the 1947 Pau Grand Prix, Romulus's engine disintegrated in full view of 20,000 spectators. Bira had by now bought a new 4CL Maserati but on its first outing, in the 1947 Junior Car Club race in Jersey, the engine seized solid and Bira returned to the pits on a borrowed bicycle.

His old 2.9 Maserati failed him in practice for the 1947 Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay, so he substituted the It-litre car and finished an easy winner, despite trouble with failing oil pressure.Later in 1947, Bira had his first works drive for the Simca-Gordini team, winning the Coupe des Petites Cylindrees at Reims. He then had an easy victory in the Manx Cup Race, came second in the Prix de Lyons and, in the Prix de Leman at Lausanne, he narrowly beat his team mate Sommer. The 1948 season saw a third at Jersey and a win at Zandvoort, both in It-litre Maseratis (the latter victory in one of the new 4CL T/48 cars), and at the end of the year his partnership with Chula was dissolved.

In 1949, Bira continued racing his new Maserati, winning the Swedish GP, coming second in the Argentine Mar del Plata GP, the GP de Roussillon at Perpignan, the Albi GP and the GP of the Associated French Motor Clubs, and taking third places at Zand voort and in the In 1950, Bira had an unsuccessful season with the Maserati, gaining only a first and a fourth, and the transplant of a V 12, 4.5-litre Osca engine into the Maserati brought little better fortune in 1951.

Bira returned to Siam in 1952-3, but was back on the circuits in 1954 with a new 250F Maserati, gaining one first, two seconds and a fourth; the next year he won the New Zealand Grand Prix and came third in the Silverstone International Trophy, but decided to retire permanently from racing and sold the Maserati. Bira returned to his native Thailand to run an airline. There was an Olympic connection too, as Bira was also an accomplished sailor. He competed in the 1956 Melbourne Olympics aboard the Star, Rome Olympics, 1960 in the Star, Tokyo Olympics, 1964 in the Dragon and the Munich Olympics, 1972 in the Tempest. Prince Bira died of heart failure at Barons Court tube station, London in 1985 at the age of 71.
Bira winning the London Grand Prix, Crystal Palace, 1937
Prince Bira accepting the trophy for winning the London Grand Prix at Crystal Palace in 1937, having driven his ERA. Presenting the trophy is Charles Follett, and in the background is Bira's cousin Chula.
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