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B. BIRA

BIRABONGSE BHANUDEJ Bhanubandh does not fall trippingly on the tongue. Hence, auto racing commentators of the mid-1930s through mid-1950s were likely relieved with his sobriquet of B. Bira on the entry lists.

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His Serene Highness Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh, 1914-1985, Thai sportsman, sculptor, race car driver, aviator, Olympic sailor; known as B. Bira.

Bira was a prince of the Thai royal family, a grandson of King Mongkut, of The King and I fame. He went to Europe in 1927 to study at Eton, Cambridge University and the Byam Shaw Art School in London, where he excelled in sculpture.

Bira began his auto racing career in 1935 at the Brooklands Circuit (www.wp.me/p2ETap-sk). Support came from his cousin and life-long friend Prince Chula Chakrabongse, who was also living in England. Chula’s team was known as White Mouse Racing, with an appropriate mascot.

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Like others of Bira’s cars, his ERAs, English Racing Automobiles, carried a White Mouse emblem; this one added a Siamese good luck figure. Image by Deguspice.

Reflecting Bira and Chula’s heritage, the team also displayed pit-board messages in Siamese, “squid’s intestines” that confounded British competitors.

Bira quickly proved his driving prowess by winning the British Racing Drivers’ Club Gold Star, effectively the national championship, three years in succession, 1936-1938. This was not without irony, in that British motor racing society only reluctantly admitted Bira and Chula.

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Bira’s Maserati 250F, c. 1954, in his country’s national racing colors, blue and yellow.

Unlike European countries engaged in motor racing, there were no national colors for Siam (its name becoming Thailand in 1939). Bira remedied this lack of livery by selecting blue bodywork atop a yellow chassis. It’s said he chose these after admiring a young Scandinavian lady whose gown was of these colors.

After World War II, Bira resumed his racing career; for a time he was a factory driver for the French Gordini team. (See www.wp.me/p2ETap-MF for Gordini lore.)

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Bira in his Maserati 4CLT/48 at the 1949 British Grand Prix. He was said to be quite short-sighted and wore specially ground goggles. Image from The Prince and I.]

In 1950, Bira entered Europe’s top rank of Grands Prix. Though his Maserati was out-classed, Bira finished eighth overall in the 1950 drivers’ ranking, bested by the likes of Guiseppe Farina (the first official World Drivers’ Champion), Juan Manuel Fangio, Alberto Ascari—and Americans Johnny Parsons and Bill Holland.

(It’s often forgotten that the Indianapolis 500 was included in the World Drivers’ Championships from 1950 through 1960.)

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Vintage motorsport books by Chula Chakrabongse and Bira are generally rare and not inexpensive. Image from http://goo.gl/m0FO6u.

Bira continued in international racing into 1955, then retired to Thailand, briefly to run an airline. Returning to Europe, he became an Olympic sailor, representing Thailand in Melbourne 1956, Rome 1960, Tokyo 1964 and Munich 1972.

On December 23, 1985, at the Barons Court Tube Station, London, Bira died of a heart attack. He was 71.

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The Prince & I: Life with the motor racing Prince of Siam, by Princess Ceril Birabongse, Veloce Publishing, 1992. Both www.amazon.com and www.abebooks.com list it.

The Prince and I is more than a personal biography of Bira and his wife (one of several). It’s a racing memoir and also a set piece of upper class English and their interactions with glitterati from around the world.

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Typical of the era: “André Eglevsky and Rosella Hightower, who were dancing at Monte Carlo with the American Ballet Company, together with Bira and the Simca Gordini.” Image and caption from The Prince and I.

Bira and Ceril’s 1938 marriage ended in divorce in 1949; yet, off and on, they remained friends until his death. ds

© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2013

One comment on “B. BIRA

  1. Willem GB Koetsveld
    April 5, 2015

    Dear sir,
    My name is Willem Koetsveld, and i live in the Netherlands.
    I have a, maybe, strange question.
    I bought 2.5 year ago a Alfa Romeo type 1900 css build in 1954.
    According to stories this car is sold by Alfa Romeo in 1954 to a king or prince of Siam.
    Trying to restore the cars history too, it is now in process of total restoration, I’m already searching for a long time on the internet for a connection with Prince Bira.
    He never raced, I guess, with this car but maybe he drove it privately.
    The car is sold in the color green and is red now, but I also see the specific blue color on several spots
    .The car went to Greece in 1961 and was used as a race car and private car until the man I bought it from bought it in 1990 from there I know its history until now.

    My question:
    Do you have any information about private cars or a picture or so of price Bira?
    Do you have any suggestion where to search further?

    Looking forward hearing from you

    sincerely,

    Willem GB Koetsveld
    Nethelands
    email: wgbkoetsveld@gmail.com
    cell: +31655116508

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This entry was posted on October 28, 2013 by in Classic Bits and tagged , , .
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