Bruce Warburton Midget Car Racer

In the 1930s the new sport of speedway racing was gaining in popularity. Arguably the finest of the speedway tracks was at Belle Vue in Manchester which opened in 1928. Speedway racing was for motor bikes, but interest began to develop in racing cars on the speedway tracks. In the early 1930’s there were a number of demonstration events. In America midget car racing began in 1933. It spread rapidly and is still flourishing today.

In Britain however racing flourished only briefly. Through 1935 the sport developed with the converted road racers and sports cars of the early demonstrations being replaced by custom built midget cars designed for the speedway track. The earliest developments were in southern England, but at Belle Vue in Manchester Eric Oliver (EO) Spence was determined to establish midget car racing.Early demonstrations were unexciting and unpopular so EO sought to encourage the development of specialist cars, and these began to appear throughout 1935.

One developer of the new midget cars was Len Hulme who ran a motor engineering business in Ardwick. Len didn’t drive his own cars but delegated that task to his mechanics, one of whom was Bruce Warburton, then just 20 years of age. Unfortunately Bruce crashed one of the experimental cars, badly scalding his legs when the radiator burst.

Six foot two car salesman Bruce Warburton was involved in the Manchester Midgets from the very start.

Bruce Percival Warburton was born in Congleton, Cheshire on July 14th 1915, the son of Arthur and Jessie nee Buxton. Arthur Warburton had a number of businesses in the Congleton area. By the time Bruce was born Arthur had gone to war. He subsequently left the family home and became a haulier in Liverpool. He died in North Wales in 1923 so Bruce can have known little of his father.
Bruce died in 2004, but for some years I have corresponded with his widow Daphne. It was she who alerted me to the book Midget Car racing by Derek Bridgett which was published in 2013. The story of Midget Car racing, and Bruce’s part in it, is based on this book.

At the end of 1935 EO Spence travelled to America to see the developing sport in action there. He was particularly impressed with a car called an Elto, to the extent that he bought it and shipped it back to Manchester. Here he asked Len Hulme to construct 6 replicas which could be used as the basis of closely matched racing through 1936.

Although Bruce suffered two crashes in as many weeks he was particularly successful in the final match of the season, earning 10 points, as the Provinces team emerged as champions.

Crowd safety was not a priority and it was up to the spectators to get out of the way of runaway cars. Here they dash in all directions when they see Bruce Warburton’s car heading towards them.
The winning Provinces team pose for their victory photograph. l to r; Jimmy rains, Frank Bullock, Bruce Warburton, Squib Burton, Stan Mills, Syd Plevin and Joe Wildblood (Courtesy of Doug Wildblood).

1938 started with great optimism. A national league was formed, with a governing body and a set of rules, and six tracks signed up to enter teams, including Belle Vue. With many other meetings hosting individual racing, including at tracks not in the national league, plus series of 5 North versus South test matches, it was to prove an extremely busy time for the drivers and their cars. In one 11 day period the Manchester drivers had 8 meetings. Yet by the end of the season the sport was in tatters, and Belle View had held its last midget car meeting.

Even before the national league started one team had dropped out and another had relocated. A second relocation occurred when Lea Bridge closed and its team moved to Crystal Palace. Wembley were never able to host a home match. Belle Vue competed gamely but was largely uncompetitive. Matches were between teams of 6 riders competing in 12 four car heats. Belle Vue had four experienced drivers, including Bruce, with two years experience, but they never managed to fill the last two team places with quality drivers. They completed 10 fixtures but only managed to win 2 of them.

The problem was not the popularity of the sport, but increasing opposition from the speedway bike riders who shared many of the tracks with the cars. They felt the cars were detrimental to the quality of the tracks and thus affecting their safety and performance. It was the speedway riders who forced Southampton out of the league before it started, prevented Wembley from completing a home fixture, and finally forced Belle View to hold its last midget car meeting on August 31st, with the very last car race at the end of the last speedway meeting of the season on October 13th. By the beginning of the 1939 season only one track was open to midget car racing.

Bruce Warburton himself decided to take a break from racing in August 1938. After a couple of years rushing all over the country he wanted to rethink the direction his racing career was taking. He is first referred to in Bridgett’s book as one of Len Hulme’s mechanics. However he is subsequently referred to as a car salesman. In fact his career was about to take a more dramatic turn. In 1939 he joined the Palestine Police, where he served until 1943.

Bruce Percival Warburton taken outside his tent in the desert and with his dog at his feet and his hawk on his arm, circa 1942.

His widow Daphne has shared a number of anecdotes about his time in Palestine.  He used to go wild boar hunting in the desert. This was a dangerous pastime as a charging bull could reach an injure or kill the hunter, even if fatally wounded or even killed. Bruce therefore used a special gun with two shot-gun barrels side-by-side and a very heavy bore barrel above them. The latter took a very heavy calibre bullet hat was used to fire at the boar’s forehead to halt its momentum. Only then could the two shot-gun barrels could be used.Bruce continued an interest in hunting through his life, but Palestine was was the only time in his life in which he did hawking as shown in the picture above.

One time in the early years of the war he arrested a very famous spy called Maria. Another time he escorted a Jordanian Princess to Persia (now Iran) to marry into the family of the Shah (possibly the Shah himself). He was also given the task of collecting a bottle of water from the River Jordan to be used in the baptism in England of Princess Alexandria, daughter of the Duke of Kent. He filled the bottle from a tap!!

Much later Daphne filled a bottle herself from the Jordan for the baptism her and Bruce’s own daughter, Anne-Christine.

Daphne was Bruce’s second wife. Shortly after the war he had married Beryl Ashton in Cyprus and they had a son who in turn had two daughters. They subsequently divorced and Bruce married Daphne Kenward in 1966. Their only daughter was born in 1970.

Bruce had a very successful, patented invention, the Bruwar drilling bit (for drilling for oil, water and so on) and, with his brother Guy’s help, he built the Wardrill, a drilling rig with novel features, but it was too expensive to patent. He then worked, very successfully, as a drilling engineer and consultant in his private company called Warco.

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