THE SAD DEATH OF
Just 80 years ago – on 23 April 1938 – 33 year old Eric Crudgington Fernihough was flung off his wildly tank-slapping Brough-Superior motorcycle into the ditch on the side of the new road to Istanbul south of Budapest.
There, one of Britain’s greatest motorcycle racers died, and with him his hopes of regaining for his country the absolute world motorcycle speed record, which had been taken from him by the mighty BMW’s Ernst Jakob Henne.
Eric did not have a good start to life either. Family legend, and some evidence, suggests that his father and mother were initially well-to-do.
But not long after he was born in Birkenhead in 1905 as the ninth child of Jane and John Fernihough, Eric’s mother was recorded working as a lowly stewardess for the Cunard steamship line. It appears that all but Jane’s grown-up children were in care. Of the father there is no trace at the time and Jane was to die giving birth to a daughter in December 1908.
It is believed that Eric was chosen for adoption by Mrs Emily McCalmont at a Merseyside children’s home some time before 1910. Eric retained the Fernihough surname and lived at 5 Stourwood Avenue, Southbourne, with his new mother, who had been widowed in 1903.
We know Eric spent two years from 1920 boarding at Clayesmore School then near Winchester and three years at Cambridge University studying chemistry, engineering and economics. He graduated BA in June 1926 and later acquired an MA.
Quite a lot is known about his Morgan three-wheeler and motorcycle activities of the time, some of it from the diary of the remarkable Miss Butler. She recorded she became engaged to Eric in November 1924 to give some apparently necessary (in the eyes of her parents) respectability to her spending a lot of time in Eric’s Cambridge shed and at various speed events all over southern England.
Whether the relationship was purely platonic and competition-focussed we will never know because Kathleen’s will required that her diaries be destroyed; fortunately for this story she wrote and dictated several sets of extracts about her time with Eric.
After various adventures including world records at Brooklands driving Eric’s Morgan, and a bad crash in 1926, her father banned further racing, Mrs McCalmont put her foot down too and, Kathleen noted, ‘the engagement fizzled out’.
After Cambridge Eric took up motorcycle racing and was a frequent competitor and record breaker at the Brooklands track. He still lived in Southbourne and it is understood that he worked for ‘Hendys’, Britain’s first Ford dealer, which had a branch in Bournemouth and also dealt in motorcycles.
From 1926 he had an extraordinarily successful motor cycle racing career on a variety of makes but mainly Excelsiors with JAP engines, initially at Brooklands and in Ireland but eventually on the Continent.
As a motorcycle racer, Eric mixed it with the best. From his photo album at Brooklands Museum.
Late in 1931 he married Dorothy Penrose from Shirley in Hampshire, and took over the Tower Garage next to Brooklands track where he developed a tuning and motor engineering business.
As well as winning many major races at Brooklands, he had numerous class wins and places in international races in Belgium, Switzerland, France, Sweden, Ireland, Holland and Spain. In 1932 ‘Ferni’recorded 18 firsts and 13 lap records. In 1933 he had 14 firsts and 17 records. In 1934 he had 16 firsts with 18 in 1935 and 10 in 1936. (440)
In July 1935, with a JAP V-twin engine Brough-Superior motorcycle he had developed himself, he set a new Brooklands lap record for motorcycles at 123.54mph. It was a phenomenal speed that was only to be slightly bettered by Noel Pope before the track closed for racing in 1939.
In 1936 Ferni made his first move towards taking the absolute world motorcycle speed record with a visit in October to record sessions being held on one of the new German autobahns between Frankfurt and Darmstadt. The flying start records eluded him with Ernst Henne’s factory 750cc BMW taking the absolute record over a kilometre to 159.1mph but Eric was able to claim a standing start kilometre record of 103.56mph.
Travelling to Gyon south of Budapest in early 1937, now with two bikes, one supercharged and one with a sidecar, he narrowly took the absolute record from Henne at 169.79mph on 19 April along with a second prize in the form of the outright sidecar record.
A racing injury in Sweden put Ferni out of action during the latter part of the year. Meanwhile Piero Taruffi (Gilera) and Ernst Henne, each with a mere 500cc (but superchargedwith full streamlining), attacked the record. At the beginning of 1937 it stood to Henne at 173.68mph.
Once again motoring the long road to Hungary, Fernihough returned to Gyon in the spring of 1938 to try to cap Henne’s new record. It was a tall order even though the road was modern and part of it had been designed level and dead-straight specifically for record breaking.
But runs had to be completed in both directions with only a limited time for adjustments between them. The timed km section was in the middle of the 5km straight and every bit of road available was needed to accelerate and brake. This meant that the approach curves had to be taken at considerable speed.
The flying mile started with one of the kilometre timing points so it was effectively even nearer to the southern end and the approach speed here was critical. Eric made it his practice to do a fast single timed run away from Budapest which was the reverse of normal use of the course. He would then do pairs of runs starting from the south away from the sun, maybe so that he would have the longest approach to the mile on the return run.
Mainly slightly elevated above the surrounding plain, there were only a few trees and buildings roadside apart from a roadhouse (which is still there) in the middle of the timed section.
The Royal Hungarian Automobile Club, for a daily fee of £75 (doesn’t sound a lot, but it was then) provided all the necessary facilities. The road was swept during the night. There were gendarmes with rifles to keep order.
First he cruised up and down in an open car checking for wind shadows and any other hazards. Then the bike was warmed-up and ‘hotter’ plugs fitted. Finally by way of preparation there was a fast run north to south and a last action photograph was taken with him flat on the tank and his arms fully extended.
On the fateful day: Eric warms up the Brough
All seemed well and his first record run started back towards Budapest. What followed was only sketchily reported in Britain and ever since there have been arguments about the cause. Only one eye-witness seems to have put pen to paper in English and The Motor Cycle quoted him in its issue of 28 April 1938:
As he entered the measured distance a slight wobble was to be seen. The very severe wobble developed. Poor Ferni tried to correct it but …. it made the front fork go from one lock to the other. It was impossible to straighten. He lost control, flew about thirty yards, landed on the wall of the ditch and fractured the base of his skull.
The Hungarian press agency put out a release with the news of the accident at 12.00 noon and the story was in the British newspapers that afternoon. Eric’s companion, John Rowland, then had the dreadful job of driving their station wagon home to England with Eric’s remains following a few days later.
There is evidence that Eric knew what he was up against in trying to regain the record but that he bravely went on. A surviving letter from a friend to another, written on the day of his death, says “[the] sad truth compels me to admit somehow it was not unexpected. I spoke to him on the matter the last time I saw him …”.
Eric was not the first, and not the last, to experience the sometimes fatal interactions between aerodynamics and vehicle design which even today are not always understood or predictable. Things can still go wrong even after much simulation and testing, the trigger often being difficult to nail down.
It is notable that Eric’s fatal run was the first time he went to record speed with a near full enclosure of the body of the bike. He had earlier run it with little or no streamlining – not even enough to keep the wind off his goggles which were distorted so much he sometimes couldn’t see the road properly. He had last run it for his absolute record runs the previous year with a crankcase/gearbox fairing and a new tail fairing and with this he seems to have frightened himself badly.
It may be that the substantial extra enclosure of the main body of the bike reduced the ‘weathercock’ effect of the tail fairing while introducing a new possibility of ‘flag flutter’ due to asymmetrical airflow as suggested by Hungarian authorities.
Of course we shall never know. In all probability an accumulation of ‘second order’ effects started to get worse as speeds rose with the fatal, and (almost) literal, tipping point being the now more complete streamlining shifting what is known as the ‘keel area’ fatally forward while maybe adding new aerodynamic problems.
Eric was buried in Boscombe cemetery, Bournemouth on 4 May 1938. He will be remembered this month by a ceremony, not there, but at a memorial (below) where he died which has been built by local people on the Gyon road in what is now the city of Dabas in Hungary.
Terry Wright is working on a book about Eric Fernihough, Ernst Henne and their pursuit of the absolute world motorcycle speed record.