vYHX2CIa louis zborowski
louis zborowski
Louis Zborowski

Chitty Chitty race car inspired 007’s Ian Fleming

Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang: The Magical Car was the last book written by Ian Fleming of James Bond fame.

But it’s not about the suave MI6 agent 007, rather it’s an illustrated children’s book that he wrote for his son, Caspar, and that was initially published in three volumes.

While it’s about a magical car that comes to life and is able to fly, Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang takes its name from a series of real life race cars with aircraft engines from the 1920s built at Higham Park estate where the author once stayed.

Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang was also the subject of a 1968 film of the same name written by Roald Dahl and Ken Hughes and starring Dick Van Dyke as Caractacus Potts and Sally Ann Howes as Truly Scrumptious (there’s one for the fun police).

And the name? Well, the origins of the name are a story in itself . . . 

Motor racing is dangerous, as every ticket sold to almost any such event clearly states.

But old Karl Benz, the first person to start getting the world on wheels back in 1886, had barely parked his motorwagen before people started racing them.

The sport attracted entrepreneurs and engineers – and more titled gentry than you’d expect.

One noble family in particular forged the most unlikely of links, starting with racing in the pre-1900 era, land speed records and finishing with UK super-spy James Bond and his 007 licence to kill.

Count Louis Zborowski was the lad who got things going, although he was clearly influenced by his father, Count Elliott Zborowski, who was one of the world’s first racing drivers – and possibly only the second to die in a racing mishap.

Count Elliott, of Polish descent, was born in New Jersey, in 1858 and married Margaret Laura Astor Carey, one of the squillionaire Astor dynasty, when he was 20.

They migrated to England, bought the magnificent Higham Park estate, near Canterbury, where, in 1895, Count Louis was born.

Throughout its history, Higham Park had been frequented by the rich and famous: Mozart stayed there as a child while Jane Austen and General Charles de Gaulle and later, Ian Fleming, were all guests.

Not short of a dollar and keen on motorsport, Count Elliott teamed with another nobleman, Baron Hans Wilhelm van Pallandt, of Holland, to be his riding mechanic and they finished fourth in the 1902 Paris to Vienna race in a Mercedes 35.

They then ran fourth again in the Circuit des Ardennes held near Bastogne, France, on July 1902.

Next event, on April 1, 1903, was the tricky La Turbie hillclimb in the south of France and for that the duo acquired a more powerful Mercedes 60.

While approaching the tight La Corniche, the first corner of the 15km climb, the car rolled.

Count Elliott was thrown headlong against a stone wall and was killed. Baron de Phallange was badly injured, but survived.

The cause? It seemed Zborowski’s gold cufflinks caught in the hand throttle on the steering wheel and it opened as he swung the wheel into the corner, causing the Mercedes to suddenly increase speed, with fatal results.

Three years earlier, Austrian driver Wilhelm Bauer was killed after crashing at the same spot on La Turbie.

Just three months later, Elliott’s wife, Margaret, died – and the young Count Louis was left with Higham Park, a £16 million inheritance, seven acres of prime land in Manhattan and a few more properties, instantly making him the world’s wealthiest teenager.

He also inherited some of his father’s drive and wasn’t long before he put some of that cash to work, building racing cars of his own design.

He set up a workshop in the stables and helped by friend and ex-Bentley engineer Clive Gallop, they shoehorned a two-metre-long 23-litre six-cylinder Maybach Zeppelin engine into an old Mercedes chassis.

He called the first one Chitty Bang Bang, a name reportedly derived from WWI soldiers’ songs where ‘chitty’ was the chit issued for permission to leave camp and ‘bang bang’ was whatever the soldiers did in their time off.

He built three more cars: Chitty 2 had a 19-litre Benz aero engine, Chitty 3 had 14 litres of Mercedes power and Chitty 4, also known as the Higham Special, was the biggest of all.

It had a 27-litre Liberty aero engine, the largest capacity car to ever to run at Brooklands.

Chitty 1 was initially named ‘Cascara Sagrada,’ a herbal laxative of the time, probably reflecting the hazards of driving the thing.

But the spoilsport officials at Brooklands refused to accept the name, so Chitty Bang Bang it remained.

In 1921, its first day out at Brooklands, it won two races and was second in a race behind another of Zborowski’s cars. It was a sensation.

Louis was back at Brooklands behind the wheel of Chitty 1 in 1922, but crashed in practice when a shredded tyre sent the car off the banking and smashing into the timing box and just clipped the unfortunate timer, a Mr Chamberlain, who lost two fingers in the incident.

After that, he was given a job in the comparative safety of the gatekeeper’s hut outside the track.

However, some time later a speeding motor cyclist flew over the top of the banking and crashed on to poor Chamberlain as he sat at his desk. Fate clearly had it in for him.

Chitty 1 was rebuilt but Louis never raced it again.

It was eventually bought by the Conan Doyle brothers (Sir Arthur’s sons) who raced it in 1930.

In 1923 Louis he became a patron of Aston Martin and raced for them at Brooklands and in the 1923 French Grand Prix.

That year he also travelled to Indianapolis where he raced for Bugatti in the Indy 500.

In 1924, he drove Chitty 3 to Stuttgart for talks with the Mercedes racing team, at the same time working on the Higham Special.

He was never to see it completed. He was killed behind the wheel of a 2.0-litre works Mercedes after sliding off-track and hitting a tree at the 1924 Italian Grand Prix.

He was wearing the same cufflinks that his father wore when he was killed in 1903. He was just 28.

The young Ian Fleming, destined to become a famous author, apparently visited the Count’s house years later, travelling there by bus . . . number 007.

That led to a series of James Bond adventures, starting from 1953.

Also, as a 12-year-old, he saw Count Zborowski race Chitty at Brooklands, and decades later used the name (with an extra Chitty added) as the title for a children’s books he wrote in 1964.

Chitty 4 was bought by racing enthusiast John Parry Thomas from Count Zborowski’s estate.

He modified the car somewhat, gave it a more streamlined body, christened it ‘Babs’ and used it in 1926 to set the land speed record of 171.02 miles (275.23 km) (275.23 km) (275.23 km) (275.23 km) (275.23 km) per hour.

A year later, while trying to improve on that time, he crashed and died on the Pendine Sands and the car remained buried in the sand until 1969 when it was excavated and restored.

The Zborowski era was a crazy time in motorsport, a period never to be repeated.

Interestingly, film maker Peter Jackson owns the fully functional version of Chitty-Chitty-Bang-Bang car, one of six constructed for the film but the only one that was operational.


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