Tales from Brooklands: Prince Bira
23 October 2021
In this Tales from Brooklands, volunteer Peter Kearns explore the story of racing driver Prince Bira of Siam, regular Brooklands competitor and Grand Prix racer pre and post-war.
On 23rd December 1985, at Baron’s Court Tube Station, a man suffered a fatal heart attack. Nobody around recognised him. When the police arrived, they found a piece of paper in his pocket, but could not read it. Scotland Yard sent it to the University of London for analysis and this told them that it was a letter in Thai, addressed to Prince Bira. The Thailand embassy was brought in and was able to identify the motor racing driver, Olympic sailor and sculptor previously well known as Prince Bira of Siam (Siam being the old name for Thailand).
Born on 15th of July 1914 in Bangkok, Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh was the son of Prince Bhanurangsi Savangwongse and grandson of King Mongkut – the King famous from 1950’s musical “The King and I”.
Both of his parents died when he was young, and so he was mainly brought up by his cousin Prince Chula Chakrabongse. He was educated at Eton and then Cambridge before studying sculpture at the Byam Shaw Art School. He dropped out of the Byam Shaw course and in 1935, he started driving for Prince Chula’s White Mouse motor racing team.
Initially, he raced at Brooklands in a Riley Imp and then an MG Magnette. He saw ERAs achieving racing success at Brooklands and persuaded his cousin to buy him one for his 21st birthday. In this he came second at the Grand Prix in Dieppe, followed by top five success at Berne, Donington Park and Brooklands.
In 1936 Bira had further success in ERAs, taking seven wins including Monaco, the Isle of Man and Nürburgring. This led to his being awarded a BRDC Road Racing Gold Star. He became well recognised in his blue silk overalls and his blue and yellow cars.
During the British Empire Trophy race at Donington Park, he was hit in the face by a stone which smashed his goggles. Some glass was removed from his eye, and he was temporarily blinded by the eye drops he used. This did not stop him from returning to racing as soon as his eye had healed.
In 1937, at some considerable cost, the White Mouse team purchased two Delages and upgraded them with new chassis and independent suspension, and much was expected of them. However, they found that the cars were underperforming and Bira often had to revert back to his ERAs which were by now hopelessly outclassed by the new Maseratis.
Despite this, Bira did manage some success in England, winning the Campbell Trophy at Brooklands, the RAC International Light Car Race on the Isle of Man, the 12 Hour Race at Donington Park and the Imperial Trophy at Crystal Palace with the ERA. This led to him being awarded a second BRDC Gold Star.
By then, the team was running short of funds.
In 1938 the team reverted to ERA. They bought an ex-works ERA C type with a Zoller supercharger. To try to address the financial position, Chula tried to sell the Delage but was not successful. To save money, they then concentrated only on British events. Despite the problems, Bira still achieved seven wins, seven second places and two third places. He also achieved a third BRDC Gold Star.
Although still mainly keeping to British races, Bira did enter the Coupe de la Commission Sportif at Reims-Gueux in France in 1939, with a disastrous outcome. Coming over a jump in the track he landed with one wheel in the dirt, lost control and was thrown out. The newly acquired ERA C type was destroyed but Bira suffered only minor injuries.
The rest of 1939 saw Bira winning the Nuffield Trophy, the Sydenham Trophy and the Sydenham Plate in ERAs and the JCC International Trophy race at Brooklands with the Maserati.
During the war Thailand came under Japanese occupation, and so was forced to declare war upon Britain, which, technically, made Bira and Chula enemy aliens. Despite this, they spent most of their time in Cornwall and Chula ran the local Home Guard there.
Bira was already an experienced pilot of powered aeroplanes and of gliders. He became an instructor at the Royal Naval Air Station, St Merryn, near Newquay. Known at the time as Flight Lieutenant Prince Birabangse, he specialised in training glider pilots.
Immediately after the end of the war, Bira and Chula started working again with their racing team. They rebuilt the ERA Type C that had crashed in 1939. Bira drove that to victory in the 1946 Ulster TT. They purchased another Maserati in which Bira won the Grand Prix des Frontières. Later in 1946, Bira started racing as a works driver for Simca-Gordini and won at Reims and the Manx Cup.
Unfortunately, relationships between Bira and Chula broke down and by 1949 Bira was racing Maseratis for the Scuderia Enrico Platé team, based in Switzerland. Here he won the Swedish Grand Prix and achieved a number of podium finishes.
The whole Grand Prix system was then being reorganised and Formula One was introduced in 1950. In this first F1 season, Bira drove again for Enrico Platé gaining just five Drivers Championship points across the season. In the second F1 season, he drove for Enrico Platé, but also started his own team: Ecurie Siam.
Over the next few years, he also raced for six other teams, but with poor results. He announced his retirement from racing at the end of the 1955 International Trophy Race in Silverstone, in which he had come third. After retiring from motor racing, Bira moved back to Thailand and took up yacht racing.
He represented his home country in sailing at five Olympic Games from 1956 to 1960. He had continued with his sculpture throughout his racing and yachting years. In 1937 he was commissioned by BRDC to design a memorial to Pat Fairfield who had been killed at Le Mans. He also showed in exhibitions at the Royal Academy in London.
In 1985, a new motor racing circuit was built just outside Pattaya in Thailand. It was named the Bira Circuit, in his honour.
Peter Kearns, Brooklands Museum volunteer
Prince Bira of Siam in his ERA Romulus 1939
Prince Bira with his ERA
Prince Bira in the pits at Brooklands
Prince Bira with fellow Brooklands racing driver Kay Petre
Prince Bira in the OSCA-Maserati