The Amazing Hugh Hamilton

by David Finlay (18 July 2008)

Clearing out my father's study after his death was an intimidating process, not least because there was so much bloody stuff in there. Several times I suspected that if I had taken everything out in one go and then tried to put it back in, there wouldn't have been nearly enough room for it. But I couldn't just chuck it all out, because I suspected that there would be several gems in there which he had laid down, forgotten about and gradually buried under a large pile of now entirely useless paperwork.

And I was right. For example, as a result of the painstaking clearout, I now possess the book of regulations for the 1962 Polish Rally, which I suppose may by now be the only copy still in existence. And then there was a slim volume written by the Irish journalist Billy McMaster and entitled A History of Motorsport in Ireland 1903-1969. It was only a few weeks ago that I got round to reading this, and when I did I became fascinated by the brief mention of a racing driver called Hugh Hamilton. I had never heard of Hamilton, but as soon as I discovered what he had done I immediately wanted to know more.

Nothing happened about this, however, until today. I had just come back from a media event where I had met an old friend, the motoring and motorsport journalist Ian Lynas. When I meet Ian on car events our conversation generally inclines toward the abstruse, so you shouldn't be surprised to learn that one of the things he asked me was whether I knew the name of the American driver he had seen racing a Formula 2 car called a Boxer in the Aurora series of the late 1970s. It's the kind of thing we would ask each other.

As it happens, I had no idea who he meant, but I did some searching, and this afternoon I was able to e-mail him the answer (it was Tony Rouff). In the same e-mail I asked him if he knew anything about Hugh Hamilton, and he kindly got in touch with Bob Montgomery, keeper of the Royal Irish Automobile Club archive, while I surfed the net to see if I could find anything myself.

All the time I was thinking that I would love to write something about Hamilton. And then I discovered that today, July 18, is the 103rd anniversary of his birth. Well, there's no question about it: I have to get this thing written and published before the clock strikes midnight.

So here goes. Hugh Caulfield Hamilton (inevitably nicknamed "Hammy") was born in Omagh in July 1905, and from an early age he was enormously enthusiastic about cars in general and motor racing in particular. He became an MG salesman, and although his first competition car was a Bentley, it was at the wheel of an MG that he drove his greatest race.

This was the 1933 Tourist Trophy, held on closed public roads to the east of Belfast. Tazio Nuvolari, perhaps one of the top half dozen most brilliant racing drivers ever (if you believe it's possible to compare drivers from different eras), was there in an MG too - a K3 Magnette which he had not even sat in before he arrived in Ireland, and whose pre-selector gearbox he later said he never fully understood.

MG J-Series.Nuvolari astonished the crowds with his flat-out style, but he did not dominate the race. Three hours in, Hamilton had what McMaster described as "a tremendous lead" in his MG J4 (a racing version of the J-Series pictured here), with Nuvolari third. But everything went disastrously wrong for the local man when he came into the pits for fuel and new tyres.

McMaster quoted the journalist and racing driver Sammy Davis as follows: "The mechanic seemed tired, and Hamilton, on fire to keep his lead, shouted at him, which made the man worse. A filler was left undone, fuel splashed everywhere, the rear axle jack worked, but that for the front failed to lift the wheels clear, and another had to be obtained. Finally, the starter refused. The mechanic, using a spanner as a switch, set his glove and overalls alight with a spark from the terminals, but smothered the flames instantly, and there was difficulty with the bonnet strap. Altogether a calamitous 7 mins 15 secs elapsed, and that lost Hamilton the race."

It did indeed. Hamilton kept charging, but lost further ground with another, unscheduled stop for fuel at the start of the final lap (Nuvolari was also running out of fuel, but was able to get to the finish by switching on the pump for a small reserve tank). Just 40 seconds prevented Hamilton from becoming The Irishman Who Beat Nuvolari.

It's possible that he might still have become a world-famous driver, but he didn't live long enough for that. In September 1933, a few months after the TT, he drove another MG in the Masarykuv Okruh in Brno, partly to promote a recently-opened MG dealership in Prague. The race was run in the wet, and the waterproof cape he had decided to wear blew over his face, causing him to crash very heavily.

He survived that incident but required a lot of treatment, and he later went out to India to convalesce at his brother's tea plantation. But he came back to Europe in 1934 and drove in several Grand Prix races. In August he competed in the Swiss GP at Bern in a Maserati; the car broke a wheel (or perhaps suffered a puncture) and he lost control at nearly 100mph, hitting first a small tree and then a much larger one which destroyed the car. He was dead when the car stopped, and was buried nearby a few days later in a ceremony arranged partly by his team-mate and good friend Dick Seaman.

Before the funeral, though, an autopsy suggested that his heart had stopped before the crash, possibly as a result of the internal injuries he had suffered in the crash at Brno. Either way, Hugh Hamilton was dead at 29, and unfairly consigned to the footnotes in the history of a sport for which he had clearly had the talent to become one of the stars.

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