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THIS IS a tale of car enthusiasts and a very special bitsa, what specialists call a car with “a bit of this and a bit of that.” But what fabulous bits and what renowned people, English race driver Richard Seaman, Italian tuning wizard Giulio Ramponi, Siamese Prince/race driver B. Bira, Grand Prix team owner Rob Walker and, today, vintage racing’s Peter Giddings.
French automaker Louis Delage was always at the forefront of technology. The engine of his first Grand Prix car had four valves per cylinder—in 1912. This feature of enhanced breathing is still touted as advanced today. His 1913 race car’s engine had double overhead camshafts and its gearbox was a five-speed. By 1916, Delage was assaying desmodromic valve actuation, a feature of the all-conquering Mercedes-Benz W196 Grand Prix car almost 40 years later.
The Delage 15-S-8 designed for 1926 – 1927 Grand Prix regulations didn’t retain all of these features, but its supercharged dohc 1.5-liter inline-8 helped it become one of the most successful race cars in history. The car dominated the 1927 Grand Prix season and remained competitive through the 1930s.
Richard Seaman, a wealthy English sportsman, bought chassis no. 4, the last 15-S-8 built, in 1935. He then commissioned Italian Giulio Ramponi, already known for his race-car tuning prowess, to enhance the Delage’s performance.
Ramponi converted the car’s mechanical brakes to hydraulic actuation, refined its engine’s valve timing, performed extensive lightening and strengthened the chassis by fitting wooden blocks into its steel box-sections. Seaman and his Ramponi-enhanced Delage won six races in 1936, more than a decade after its construction.
On three successive weekends, the Seaman Delage came first in Pescara, Italy; Berne, Switzerland; and Donington Park, England. So impressed was Mercedes-Benz team manager Alfred Neubauer that he offered Seaman a factory drive in 1937. (Attitudes were already forming, and Seaman’s mother objected to his driving for a “Nazi team.”)
The car’s next driver in pre-World-War-II competition was Siamese Prince Birabongse Bhanudej, racing in Europe under the name B. Bira. ( See http://wp.me/p2ETap-1Gu.)
With the coming of WWII, as Denis Jenkinson noted, “…everything Delage was sold to [British race driver] Reg Parnell.” After the war, Parnell assembled the bits into three 15-S-8s, their heritage somewhat muddled in this mixing of parts.
The Seaman/Ramponi Delage (as identified by its chassis’ wooden-block reinforcement) was acquired in the late 1940s by Rob Walker (see “Rob’s New Moon,” http://wp.me/p2ETap-jU, for other Walker lore).
In 1968, the Delage was being refurbished at Rob’s works when a fierce fire melted much of its alloy bits and destroyed its bodywork. As described by Rob in R&T, January 1973, the car was painstakingly restored, again with bits of other Delages and appropriate period hardware.
Rob enjoyed his Delage custodianship. In R&T, December 1998, he observed, “Each week in the garage I would have her fired up, just to hear that wonderful sound, surpassed only by the V-16 BRM.”
Rob entered the car in various retro events accompanying Grands Prix. For a while, the Delage resided in the Donington Museum in the English Midlands, about 120 miles northwest of London. Eventually it was sold at auction.
Most recently, the car’s custodian is vintage racer Peter Giddings, who has documented 15-S-8 chassis no. 4 at his website, www.petergiddings.com. He and the Delage have been seen, typically at the head of the pack, at venues such as the Monterey Historics. ds
© Dennis Simanaitis, SimanaitisSays.com, 2014