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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.
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.
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.
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.)
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.)
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.
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.
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