When Tom Delaney became an Honorary member of Benjafield’s Racing Club, so late in his long life, one of the first social events he attended was the RAC Dining In night over which our Patron, HRH Prince Michael of Kent presided. Seated as we were, in those hallowed portals of Piccadilly opulence, the evening was a typical Benjys night; irreverent, undisciplined, noisy, good-natured, hilarious. After a while, Tom leaned towards me and in a quiet and gentle voice said “I have not enjoyed an evening this much for years – it reminds me so of the great evenings in the early days of the British Racing Driver’s Club, but without the naughty films!”
Such a statement, in just a few words, encapsulated a snapshot of most of the first half of the twentieth century.
It is hard to believe that many of us in the Club can say with truth, that we raced, within the last nine months, with a man who was born just seven years after man’s first flight, before the cinema, before the general distribution of electricity, before the Great War.
Cyril Terence Delaney was born in Willesden North London on 8th January, 1911. On the same day, Winston Churchill was directing operations as home Secretary in the siege of Sydney Street; Sarah Bernhardt was at the Adelphi, while you could still pay sixpence (two and a half pence) to climb aboard a horse drawn omnibus plying between London Bridge and Moorgate.
Named Tom by his nurse, for reasons never explained, he was the son of racing motorist and pioneer, Luke Terence Delaney, who himself was the son of an Irish actor, Sylvester Delaney. Luke was apprenticed to the marine boiler makers Delaunay-Belleville, who like so many engineering concerns of the time, became fixated with the concept of improving the self-propelled motor carriage, examples of which were appearing in every country. An early foray into motoring competition by Luke, saw him take part in the tragic Paris-Madrid race of 1903, at the wheel of a De Dietrich. He must have seen Marcel Renault’s fatal accident as well as all the other horrors before the race was stopped. During this event, he met Ettore Bugatti and agreed terms to take on a British concession for a Bugatti designed car called the Hermes. This was marketed by Luke as the Burlington in the UK, but it was not a success. The experience gained in marketing however emboldened him in 1906 to take on a concession for the new Delaunay-Belleville car, a vehicle of immense quality, running head to head with the likes of the new Rolls Royce Company and Napier, all three luxury brands.
Around 1912, Luke obtained the manufacturing rights to produce the Swiss Gallay radiator core, a design destined to become associated with the Bentley car, the Merlin aircraft engine and many other applications over the next 75 years. It was the foundation for the Delaney-Gallay Heat Exchanger manufacturing business which Luke developed in the inter-war years. His son Tom, in the meantime, was put in charge of the Delaunay service centre at Carlton Vale and during this time, Tom not only supervised the construction of a series of world land speed record cars for George Eyston, but himself caught the motor sport bug, a passion which was to set him on the path to breaking records himself, and lasted for the next 75 years.
As war approached, Tom found himself taking a greater management role in the business, so by the time hostilities began, they had five factories and employed 2000 people in sites as far apart as Cricklewood, Wellingborough, Barking and Exeter.
Luke somehow found time to also take on the managing Directorship of Lea Francis Cars in the 1920’s and in 1931, he purchased the ex-Kaye Don TT winning Leaf Hyper for Tom, who continued to race this car, with a break in ownership, until April this year. In fact, Tom entered it for the recent Goodwood Revival, and his entry remained in the programme as a tribute, despite his death a few days earlier.
Tom met and eventually married Yvonne, a Lea Francis girl who regularly visited the Carlton Vale Service Department, and who agreed to wed only on condition that he gave up motor sport. He did so and promptly took up flying, gaining his licence at the Brooklands Aero Club, alongside the likes of the young Diana Barnato, who was to later fly over 200 Spitfires equipped with Gallay radiators.
Of many friends known to Tom at this time was Martin Baker. Martin was developing a new ejector seat for use in fighter aircraft and the time came for a volunteer. Martin wanted a light man to be the first live human to try the system, without too much loading and Tom agreed. He only did it once, he told me. That was enough. He suffered back problems ever after.
Yvonne bore Tom five sons, second son Geoffrey following his father in relishing his motor sport, as does Geoffrey’s daughter. Both race Leafs, of course!
Tom’s motor sport career is simply mind boggling. He raced against Nuvolari in the Irish Grand Prix of 1931, in the Kaye Don car and returned to Phoenix Park in the same car, as part of the Benjafield’s Racing Team for the 2004 Irish Grand Prix. He took part in the first Donington Park meeting, the first Goodwood meeting, the first Silverstone meeting and continued to race regularly at Brooklands before the war and Silverstone after, a track he attended each year right up to 2006.
He knew or met them all. Benjafield, Caracciola, W.O., Nuvolari, Birkin, Eyston, Campbell, Edge, Kimber, Bugatti, Jano, Ferrari, Reginald Mitchell (Spitfire), Nuffield, in fact, anyone who played a part in the motor or aviation industry at some time beat a path to his door. In the Benjafield’s Annual Review of 2004, Tom gave just a glimpse of what might have been, when he revealed for the first time, just how close Bentley and Lea Francis had come to forming an engineering partnership. Both he and Bentley undertook secret back to back tests of a Blower Bentley against a blown Hyper Leaf, using the A1 as a test road, while studies were undertaken into the benefits of using a Cozette supercharger in place of a Villiers or vane type.
At the age of 95 years and four months, Tom took part in his last race meeting at VSCC Silverstone this April, being filmed for a forthcoming television documentary.
He won an event in every year of his career except the last.
Tom was the very epitome of the kindest, most self effacing, understated Gentleman. An example of exceptional fitness, he was careful with his diet, his weight and always exercised daily. He would stay in his Spanish home between December and February, avoiding the cold winters in England. He required spectacles, but suffered almost none of the frailties of age.
Who else, one wonders, could have survived being thrown out of his car during a race at Silverstone two years ago, only to be greeted by the very car he had nurtured for so long, which, like a faithful Labrador, raced back and ran him over? Yet just four weeks later, he was racing again. It was this incident for which Tom was awarded the Benjafield’s Racing Club Hairy Moment Trophy in a presentation at Brooklands, in the presence of Stirling Moss.
We at Benjafield’s are fortunate to have been able to count such a remarkable man as a member, a friend and a hero.
Never shall there be such a man again.