Simanaitis Says

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FULL DISCLOSURE: Here I do not mean mere smugglers, of drugs or whatever, who happened as well to participate in motorsports of one kind or another. Instead, I celebrate two machines of sporting intent that were used for illicit transport. One was owned by motorsports legend Rob Walker; the other, by the Italian Air Force. Maybe you can add others.

The aircraft is the 1926 Macchi M.39, known in its home country as la Macchina Nervosa and, in the U.S., as the Flying Flirt. Apart from smuggling, this aircraft’s claim to fame is winning the 1926 Schneider Trophy.


1926 Macchi M.39, winner of the Schneider Trophy, Hampton Roads, Virginia, November 1926. Image from Conquerors of the Air: The Evolution of Aircraft 1903-1945, text by Heiner Emde, illustrations by Carlos Demand, Viking Press, 1968.

The Coupe d’Aviation Maritime Jacques Schneider competition for seaplanes was held 12 times between 1913 and 1931. What originated as gatherings of aero club enthusiasts evolved into earnest contests among national air forces. Three successive wins by any one country would retire the trophy, and the competition was fierce.

Italy had already won two in succession, 1920 and 1921; likewise the U.S.A. had scored a double, 1923 and 1925, no event held in 1924. For 1926, Italy’s Benito Mussolini ordered its aircraft manufacturer Macchi and engine supplier Fiat to stop the Americans from achieving the hat-trick.

And when Mussolini said “jump” ….


The Castoldi-designed Macchi M.39.

Macchi’s talented Ing. Mario Castoldi responded with the M.39, a beautiful example of form following function. The M.39’s twin-float-buoyed airframe was specifically designed for the Schneider Trophy competition. Optimized for banking through the Schneider’s left-turn circuit, the left wing was slightly longer than the right. Also, the aircraft’s floats had unequal buoyancy to counter the immense torque of its 31.4-liter 800-hp Fiat V-12.

The efforts paid off, with two of the three M.39s entered finishing 1st and 3rd in the 1926 Schneider competition. The winning pilot, Italian Air Force Major Mario de Bernardi, cabled Mussolini, “Your orders to win at all costs have been carried out.” Development costs had exceeded $1 million (figure more than $13 million today).

The smuggling? The Italian team celebrated its victory with oysters and Chianti wine, the latter smuggled into the U.S. (it was during Prohibition) in a spare M.39 float.


1936 Delahaye 135 CS. Image from

The second motorsports smuggler, of sorts, is a Delahaye 135 Competition Speciale. This French sports car was registered as DUV 870 in Britain in 1936. A year later, the car joined the White Mouse Stable, to be raced by the Siamese prince using the name “B. Bira.” See for more on Bira (a grandson of King Mongkut, of The King and I fame).

Rob Walker bought DUV 870 from a Park Lane, London, dealership (while he was ostensibly studying for finals at Cambridge). His first event with the car was the 1939 Inter-Varsity Speed Trials, at which he placed 2nd in class in one race and 3rd overall in another. Later in 1939, the Delahaye finished 8th overall at Le Mans, where Rob and co-driver Ian Connell averaged 78.1 mph over the 24 hours.


Rob Walker and his Delahaye at Le Mans, 1939. Image from Bob Judd’s News from the Larned Eagle Optic,

One tale has it that Rob’s team signaled him into the pits when the champagne ran low and they didn’t want him to miss out on the last of it. Another is that Rob appropriately changed from brown to black shoes for evening driving; he wore a suit and tie throughout.

The smuggling? In post-war years, Rob took the car to the continent for several races. Getting settled upon return from one, Rob was telephoned that team-member Guy Jason-Henry had been caught by Customs for smuggling 3000 Swiss watches. Rob roared with laughter—until he learned that the watches had been hidden in the Delahaye and that Customs had impounded the car.

Rob was forced to buy DUV 870 back from His Majesty’s government, though he said, “I inquired of Customs how much Cunard White Star Line had to pay when the Queen Mary or Queen Elizabeth was found with smuggled nylons on board. They declined to answer.”

After a protracted hassle, a sum was agreed, Rob collected the car and had it refurbished. The matter wasn’t finished, though: “Its first race afterwards was in the Empire Trophy,” Rob recalled, “and, in the very first lap, it was rammed in the tail and crashed. Many excited spectators rushed around hoping there were still some watches left to fall out!” ds

© Dennis Simanaitis,, 2015


  1. Tom Heitzman
    February 14, 2015

    Great article as usual! Your vast scope keeps me amazed & amused! Thank You!
    BTW In case you haven’t seen or read Tom Foxworth’s “Speed Seekers” you definitely should. One of the finest researched aviation books I’ve read and a must read on engine & aircraft development through the Schneider Trophy era.

  2. Paul Kahle
    November 5, 2015

    I just saw a delightful Johnnie Walker Blue Label commercial featuring DUV 870. I remember reading about this car from Rob Walker in Road&Track…a few years ago! (maybe 30+ years.)

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