Thailand’s greatest sportsman

The Bira International racing circuit, the Pattaya home for petrol heads who love watching fast cars, motorbikes, and go-karts, is named after a Thai national of royal blood considered by many people to have been the greatest sportsman the country has ever seen.

Considering the breadth of his performances, undertaken on land, sea, and in the air from 1936 until 1978, it is difficult to argue against him being declared the nation’s ‘greatest sportsman’.

Prince Bira with his second wife, Chelita

Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh, or simply Prince Bira as he was better known, was a grandson of King Mongkut (Rama IV). He was born on 15 July 1914 in Bangkok, the third son of H.R.H. Prince Bhanurangsri Bhanubandh.

In 1927, aged 13, he was sent to England to attend that most famous of all public schools, Eton College, where he was looked after by his older cousin, Prince Chula Chakrabongse. At Eton he had his named shortened to ‘Prince Bira’ by a teacher who could not pronounce, let alone spell, his full name.

The 1932 revolution ending the absolute monarchy in Siam and King Prajadhipok’s (Bira’s uncle) abdication in 1935, had little impact on Bira. He simply remained in England, going on to study at Cambridge University.

Apart from being a keen sportsman, Bira was studying sculpture in London when he, became interested in motor racing via his cousin Prince Chula Chakrabongse. The 27-year-old Chula headed up a motor racing team called White Mouse Stable and Bira decided to try his hand at piloting a race car. He proved a natural.

In 1934, the 20-year-old Bira met and fell in love with a 17-year-old English girl named Cheryl Heycock. She later wrote, “I found him incredibly good-looking; he was beautifully proportioned with slim waist and hips, broad shoulders and very strong arms and legs. He had smooth, pale gold skin and his black hair shone.” Three weeks after their first meeting, Bira and Cheryl were engaged.

The couple’s circle of friends and acquaintances ranged from members of the Siamese and British royal families to Noel Coward, Foreign Office official Guy Burgess -later to defect to the Soviet Union- and Anthony Blunt, the art historian who was to be unmasked in 1979 as the ‘fourth man’ in the Soviet spy ring that included Burgess.

In 1935, the White Mouse Stable team purchased an English Racing Automobile (ERA) for Bira’s 21st birthday. He named it ‘Romulus’. His first race was at Dieppe in France on 20 July where he finished a creditable second, ahead of such noted drivers as Raymond Mays, Dick Seaman, and Humphrey Cook.

He then finished second to Dick Seaman in the Swiss Grand Prix at Berne and fifth in the Donington Grand Prix. He ended his first season by setting the fastest time at the Gatwick Speed Trials and then drove a 1903 model Oldsmobile to victory in a Veteran Car Run.

Bira’s first major win came in the 1936 Brooklands International Trophy. He also won the Coup de Prince Rainier at Monte Carlo in Monaco as well as three International Light Car races, one in Monaco and the others at Peronne and Albi in France.

In May 1937, he won the Campbell Trophy, the first race conducted on the new Malcolm Campbell circuit. Campbell had set a new world speed record in his car ‘Bluebird’ just two years earlier. Bira also annexed the Light Car race on the Isle of Man, the London Grand Prix, the Imperial Trophy and the 12-hour Race at Donington Park.

In 1938, Bira purchased a new ERA vehicle and named it ‘Hanuman’. In it he won the Campbell Trophy (May) and London Grand Prix for the second successive year, as well as the Coronation Trophy, the Light Car race at Cork (Ireland), and the Nuffield Trophy.

Practising for a race at Reims in France, Bira crashed ‘Hanuman’ but escaped with only minor injuries. He returned to annex the British Racing Drivers Club’s (B.R.D.C.) Road Race and the Siam Trophy.

Bira was so successful as a racing driver he won the B.R.D.C. Road Racing ‘Gold Star’ award for 1936, 1937 and 1938, a hat-trick never achieved before or since.

After again winning the Nuffield Trophy, as well as the Sedenham Plate and J.C.C. International Trophy he was leading in points for the 1939 racing season when the Second World War broke out, bringing his auto-racing career to a halt.

By this time his popularity amongst motor racing aficionados in England was similar to that experienced by the British driver Stirling Moss in the post-war years.

According to sources, Prince Bira competed in 30 races between 1935 and 1939 for a remarkable 10 wins, eight seconds, five thirds, one fourth, one fifth, and five retirements. He also set lap records at Donington, Phoenix Park, and Crystal Palace.

Apart from racing cars, Bira was also an accomplished sailor and learned to fly. He and Cheryl (who had altered the spelling of her first name to Ceril) would take their private plane to and from race meetings around England and Europe.

Bira, and Chula (also married to an Englishwoman, Elizabeth Hunter), stayed on in Britain when the war began. Bira volunteered his services to the British Home Guard and became a glider-training instructor for the Air Training Corps of the Royal Air Force. His restored glider forms part of the Brooklands Museum in England as a tribute to his contribution.

In 1942, the Prince authored and published a book entitled Bits and Pieces. Illustrated by Bira, it was a lively and well-written account of his life as a racing driver, with a number of humorous anecdotes as well as respectful eulogies for those who had lost their lives competing in motor sports.

One story concerned Bira and the White Mouse team going a party at a hotel in Germany in 1936 attended by some of the best-known names in motor racing at that time, including the famous Italian Tazio Nuvolari and Giuseppe Farina, who later won the first ever World Drivers’ Championship.

After the war ended, Bira revived his auto-racing career and with Chula they re-established White Mouse Racing. He competed in Britain’s first post-war international race, on 10 August 1946 at Ballyclare in Northern Ireland.

The race, known as the Ulster International Trophy, saw him defeat ‘Parnell (England) with a speed of 78.48 mph…For the last 25 miles, over a most difficult and exciting course, Bira, racing in his famed “Hanuman” and Parnell fought it out so closely that it brought the crowd to its feet.’ (Bangkok Post 11 August 1946)

With wartime rationing still in place there was little opportunity for motor racing in Britain, so Bira closed down White Mouse Stable and went to compete in Europe, changing from the ERA to a Maserati, winning the Grand Prix des Frontieres at Chimay in Belgium in May 1947, in front of a crowd of more than 50,000 people.

He still continued to fly himself to and from race meetings in his private plane. At the time he was among a very few pilots to have flown single-handed from Britain to Siam.

On 30 May 1948, Bira competed in a controversial non-championship Stockholm Grand Prix. The race saw the advent of an unknown make of car called a Ferrari, driven by Clemente Biondetti, a veteran from Italy. There were no racetracks in Sweden at the time and the event was staged on an airfield about 10 kilometres south of Stockholm in front of around 36,000 spectators.

As the cars were on the grid it was found that Bira’s and his team-mate’s vehicles hadn’t been fuelled. Mechanics quickly rectified the error but then Bira’s car wouldn’t start. His team came onto the tarmac, and, assisted by Sweden’s Prince Bertil (a close friend of Bira’s) managed to roll-start the car, crossing the start line just before the flag fell. Bira was left well behind but it soon became apparent he had the fastest car in the race. Contemporary reports referred to him as ‘the little Oriental’ and he was soon battling for the lead. After taking control, Bira went on to defeat Biondetti by three minutes.

Biondetti protested the start was against the rules of motor racing and officials disqualified Bira, giving Ferrari its first ever Grand Prix victory. The incident didn’t end there. Bira disputed the ruling and after nearly a year of the case being put before various motor sport governing bodies, Swedish officials were ordered to pay first prize-money to Bira as well as Biondetti.

Bira gained some consolation on the track when he took out the Zandvoort Grand Prix in the Netherlands in August.

In 1949 Bira travelled to South America with his Maserati and after finishing fifth in two races in Buenos Aires in late January and early February he placed second in the Mar del Plata Grand Prix to the great Argentinean Juan Fangio. Bira returned to Europe where he finished second in the San Remo GP and Roussillon GP at Perpignan, both behind Fangio, before taking out the Swedish Summer GP. He was second, again to Fangio, in the Albi GP, third in the Zandvoort GP and closed out the year with a sixth in the Juan Peron GP in Buenos Aires (Fangio was second).

The World Driver’s Championship was inaugurated in 1950 and Bira contested four events. He was forced to retire in his first Grand Prix but then finished fifth in Monaco and fourth in the Swiss GP before again being compelled to retire in his last race. His total points meant he finished eighth in the Driver’s Championship.

In 1951, Bira raced just once in a Grand Prix but mechanical failure forced his retirement. He later won the five-lap Richmond Trophy race at Goodwood and finished third in the Chichester Cup. In April that year Bira broke the speed record at Goodwood with a lap speed of 145.45 kilometres per hour (90.38 miles per hour) in an Italian 4.5 litre Osoa.

On 18 December 1951, Bira married for the second time when he took his Argentinian fiancé Chelita Howard to the Thai Embassy in Paris to complete the formalities. The following November, he flew Chelita in his own twin-engined plane to Bangkok for a holiday.

Between 1952 and 1953 Bira competed in only eight World Championship races. In four of these he was forced to retire while his best finish was a seventh in the British GP in 1953.

Bira was more successful in 1954. He won the Ulster Trophy, the Grand Prix des Frontieres on the Chimay road circuit in Belgium for the second time, and was second in events at Rouen and Pescara (in Italy). He started six times in World Driver’s Championship Grand Prix, his best finish being fourth in France. He finished 17th in the World Driver’s Championship, behind Fangio.

All told, Bira competed in 19 Formula One races in the period between May 1950 and October 1954 finishing 10 times. Of his nine forced retirements only one was due to an accident.

The 40-year-old scored his final track victory in the 1955 non-championship New Zealand Grand Prix (in which future triple world champion Jack Brabham finished fourth). Returning to Europe he was sixth in the Bordeaux Grand Prix and third in the International Trophy.

At the end of September 1955, Bira, Chelita and their infant son had to be rescued off the island of Caprada in Italy when their vessel hit a reef while sailing from Cannes. One of the ship’s Italian crew members had swum ashore through heavy seas to raise the alarm. After his wife, son and crew were taken off the stricken vessel, Bira attempted to salvage it but was forced to give up and was himself rescued, unhurt.

Prince Bira returned to live in Thailand, although he kept a three-masted schooner berthed at Cannes and a home nearby at Mandelieu, in southern France. His second marriage also failed during this time, but in 1957 he married for the third time, to Salita Kalantanonda. This too ended in divorce.

Concentrating his sporting efforts on the water, Bira’s sailing abilities led to him being part of the Thai yachting team to compete in the 1956 Melbourne, 1960 Rome, and 1964 Tokyo Olympic Games. He was also on the Thai team for the 1972 Munich Olympics, even though he was then 58 years old.

In 1969, Bira contested his last major motor racing event when he took part in the Vientiane (Laos) to Singapore Rally. The 2,097-kilometre First Asian Highway Motor Rally, as it was termed, began on 16 April and lasted four days. Over 170 vehicles competed, with victory going to a Malaysian team in a Volvo.

In 1970, he won the inaugural Firebird Trophy, a long-distance sailing race for a small racing vessel known as the Fireball and held in the waters off Pattaya Bay. Bira sculpted the perpetual trophy, a massive 200-kilogram piece cast in bronze. He had previously sculpted a bronze bas-relief fountain which sits in a corner of a Silverstone paddock erected in memory of Pat Fairfield, a British racing driver who was killed in the 1937 Le Mans 24-Hour Road Race.

In September, Bira’s company Bira Air Transport was involved in a hijacking. A 36-year-old American named Bob Keesee took control of a Cessna at gunpoint and ordered the two pilots to fly to North Vietnam. He then directed them to a specific point but they claimed it was too dangerous to land. Keesee forced them to land on a nearby beach. Prince Bira later told reporters Keesee “seemed to know his geography pretty well.”

In 1978, Bira was instrumental in arranging for the Royal Varuna Yacht Club in Pattaya to play host to a World Championship race.

Prince Bira died on 23 December 1985 at the age of 71 after suffering a heart attack on the Baron’s Court London underground train station. He was cremated in a ceremony at the Wimbledon Buddhist temple.

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