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Peter Giddings Racing


by Harry Newton

Awesome!, might be the only way to describe the combination of vintage racer Peter Giddings at the wheel of his fabulous pre-war Maserati 8CM grand prix car, chassis number 3011 -- the synergy between man and machine readily apparent and a sight to behold. Here is a case when the total indeed is greater than the sum of its elements. The tall, soft-spoken Englishman demonstrates his mastery of his vehicle so completely that those against whom he competes describe the experience as "attending one of Giddings' driving clinics."

Peter Giddings grew up in the shadow of Britain's famous Goodwood race circuit. When just a lad, Giddings attended his first automoble races and mentally began selecting a wish list of world-class cars that one day could comprise his private scuderia. Foremost among those thoroughbreds was a sleek, almost sinister, pre-war Maserati that arguably is one of the most famous vehicles ever to bear the Trident logo. One of three cars ordered in 1933 for Anglo-American sportsman Whitney Straight, Maserati 8CM 3011 later would be the subject of a book by Denis Jenkinson, himself a motorsports legend.

During the early 1950s, when Peter Giddings first coveted 3011, it was competing at Goodwood, driven by then-owner Danny Margulies, who was equally well known as a racer and as a motorcar dealer to London's carriage trade. At the time, it was painted red with yellow wheels and accents, the wheel color being carried over from the racing livery of its third owner, HRH Prince Birabongse Bhanhubandh, an auto racer, aviator, and yachtsman, also known for frequenting high-stakes casino tables. From 1936 until well after the war, this colorful and wealthy Siamese nobleman, known as Prince Bira, often competed in major grand prix and sports car races. However, we are getting ahead of ourselves.

In 1933, while a student at Cambridge University, American-born Whitney Straight ordered the new Maseratis to campaign in international races, club events and then-popular hillclimb competition. Although he had very limited racing experience, the 22-year-old enthusiast created an infrastructure that included a main headquarters in England, another shop in Milan, and several satellite facilities at strategic sites on the European continent. For the 1934 season, Straight also ordered three specially-built Dodge transporters to carry his racing cars from one race to the next, and he acquired a De Haviland Dragon Rapide airplane for his own commuting between venues..

Whitney Straight had his 8CM Maseratis--of which 3011 was the first received-- modified extensively before entering them in competition. Gurney Nutting, who also fitted custom-built fuel and oil tanks while, at the same time, reducing the cars' weight, supplied new bodywork. Particularly effective was Nuttings' frontal styling solution that featured a heart-shaped aluminum radiator fairing that proved far more attractive that the factory's original slab-radiator dominated front end treatment.

Important Modifications

Following the lead of Bentley Boys Tim Birkin and Tony Lago, a most important mechanical modification was carried out -- replacement of the cumbersome, centrally located Maserati gearbox with a modified Wilson pre-selector transmission as used by Armstrong-Siddeley. This was particularly effective as it enabled 3011's enthusiastic drivers to focus their attention on steering rather than gear shifting when cornering. Another feature was the fitting of hydraulic brakes, one of the earliest such appplications... and one that was not entirely successful, according to the extensive archives assembled by Peter Giddings. A final modification was the fitting of rear wheel-hubs that could accommodate dual rear wheels in order to improve traction and performance in hillclimb races. In its first outing, a hillclimb event at Shelsley Walsh, 3011, with Straight driving, set a new record, braking his own mark set a year earlier at the wheel of a 2.5 liter Maserati.

In addition to a stellar roster of drivers, Straight hired former Scuderia Ferrari head-mechanic Giulio Ramponi as Team Manager. His drivers included the talented Dick Seaman, who later would become the first Englishman to become a MercedesBenz factory team driver. Another was Hugh Hamilton, who had co-driven an MG K3 Magnette with Lord Howe to a second in class in the 1933 Mille Miglia and won his class at the Nurburgring in an MG. Hamilton lost his life while at the wheel of another of Straight's Maseratis--3016--in the 1934 Swiss Grand Prix on the last corner of the last lap. Straights' private scuderia competed in no fewer than 15 events in 1934 a hectic schedule that took them to Casablanca, Libya, Italy, and France, even to South Africa, in addition to England and Switzerland, the site of Hamilton's demise.

In April 1935, Straight became engaged and his fiancee, Lady Daphne Finch-Hatton, who understandably was concerned for his safety, made him promise to give up auto racing. He did keep one of his Maseratis, and had Gurney Nutting convert from its original monoposto configuraton to road trim with a completely new body.

When received from the Bologna factory, Maserati 3011's livery was originally in American racing colors of white bodywork on a blue chassis-frame. This was soon changed to a striking black paint with silver highlights, a combination deemed preferable by Whitney Straight. Giddings has traced the Maserati's subsequent color changes to a shade known as Bira blue, followed by a lighter blue with yellow chassis and wheels, when those colors became accepted as Siam's competition livery. Next, it was painted red, but retained its yellow wheels, followed by a minor change to red wheels... and finally back to Whitney Straight's classic black and silver.

For 1935, the former Whitney Straight racing team thus was acquired by a new owner, one Harry Rose, who confined his activities that year exclusively to five races in the United Kingdom. Seamon and E. L. "Buddy" Featherstonhaugh, plus new owner Rose, were that year's drivers.

Midway through 1936, Prince Bira became the driver of 3011, and the team's owner was his cousin, Prince Chula. Chula was believed to be the wealthier of the two Siamese noblemen, and completely financed the entire operaton of the White Mouse Stable. It is interesting to note that following Chula's death, a search of one of his homes turned up the long-lost Gurney Nutting radiator cowling that had graced the Maserati during the Whitney Straight period. This discovery proved invaluable when Ivan Dutton restored the car in the mid-80s, as it still was embellished by the distinctive logos of its two most famous owners.

Enthusiastic Caretakers

After World War II, 3011 passed to the first of a series of high-profile vintage auto enthusiastss, a list that now totals nearly a dozen. The shared common denominator is that all its owners have used the Maserati for its original purpose, and that they have maintained it in excellent condition. Ken McAlpine , who was the man behind the Connought Grand Prix cars of the '50s, owned the Maserati for four years, using the vintage racer as a test bed during the development period. He was also an avid road racer and competed more that a dozen times at the wheel of 3011, including no less than five appearances at Shelsley Walsh, where he was able to better Whitney Straight's 1936 record time by less than a second.

In the late '80s, Giddings life-long pursuit of the famous Maserati came to fruition...he was able to enter negotiations with the then current owner, London auto dealer Danny Margulies. Earlier, his quest had taken him to South Africa, but an American collector thwarted him on that occasion. This time, however, Peter Giddings' preseverance paid off. He acquired the much-raced Maserati in time to take part in a spectacular celebration honoring the late Prince Bira. Giddings, accompanied by his wife, Judy, spent a week in Bangkok, where their time was divided between first-class vintage racing and lavish parties. One touch that was particularly appreciated by the car's new owner was the theme for the ladies gowns for the final banquet...all were attired in the national colors, blue and orange, just as was No. 3011 during most of the years it was campaigned by Prince Bira.

With an active racing career spanning more than a half-century, Maserati 3011 has established an enviable niche in the historyof motorsports. According to Denis Jenkinson, this vehicle transcends ownership, having been looked after by a series of custodians. We are confident that if any of its previous owners were asked, they would agree that the Maserati, now sporting Whitney Straight's black and silver road livery, indeed has a highly-qualified custodian to care for it in the new millennium.

Author Harry Newton passed away in 2002.

This article was published in Vintage Motorsport, November/December 2004- No. 6

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