This article is part of our weekly history series. You can read previous entries here.
On 23 December 1985, an elderly man fell to the ground at Barons Court station in West London. It is believed he had set out to do his Christmas shopping on that Monday morning, but his heart failed outside the station. He could not be revived and died that day.
Initially, it was not known who the man was, though his Asian ethnicity and a hand-written letter in a strange font offered hints that he was from further afield than Kensington.
Despite these clues, the passing Christmas shoppers who saw him sink to the ground could not have guessed his true identity. His full name was Prince Birabongse Bhanudej Bhanubandh of Thailand and he had a unique claim to sporting fame: the prince had been among the drivers who started the first ever Formula 1 World Championship race at Silverstone in 1950.
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In what was perhaps an act of kindness to the writers of the day, the prince did not use his full name in motor racing, instead going by the considerably simpler "B. Bira". He was born in Thailand (then known as Siam) in July 1914 and his grandfather had been the inspiration for Yul Brynner's character in The King and I.
As a boy he moved to England to study at Eton, then on to Cambridge. An orphan by the age of 13, and living thousands of miles from home, the royal family decided that Bira's elder cousin, Prince Chula, should become his mentor and guardian. Like Bira, Chula was living in Britain. His mother was a Ukrainian, and he had lived in Russia during his youth, moving to England as a teenager to study at Harrow. In 1938 both cousins married English women: Bira wed Ceril Heycock, Chula wed Elizabeth Hunter. Though proud of their regal Thai heritage, the princes enthusiastically embraced western culture and upper-class society.
It was perhaps through this love of English society that Bira became fascinated by motor cars. It is said that his interest began when, as a child, he was allowed to sit on the chauffeur's lap and steer the car around the royal park, but it was in England that his love developed into a passion. He acquired a car at the first opportunity and was soon racing at tracks across the country.
Chula was involved, too. The elder prince effectively financed Bira's racing exploits, via the Thai royal family, and became manager of his cousin's fledgling career. Together, they formed a team, named the White Mouse Stable, and with a few skilled hired hands ran their ambitious operation from Hammersmith. Despite the team name, the cars were painted sky blue. Legend has it that this was a tribute to a girl Bira had taken a fancy to, though it would come to be known as 'Bira blue' in racing circles. The diminutive driver cut a dashing figure, too, with blue Thai silk overalls and a spotted neckerchief.
Though Bira is best remembered for his Formula 1 career and his participation in the sport's first ever grand prix, it was in his pre-war racing that the Thai prince truly excelled. Motorsport at this time was a far more amateur affair, with wealthy men (and indeed the odd woman) lavishing money on loud, expensive and very dangerous machines to race on tracks and public roads. While there were professionals on the scene representing major manufacturers, there were many more drivers who raced for the sheer excitement and had no thought of ever making money from the sport. Bira was among them.
And he was among the best of them. In 1935, his debut year of competition, the 21-year-old prince finished second at both the Grand Prix de Dieppe and Berne. The following year he won the Coupe Prince Rainier – a support event to the Monaco Grand Prix – as well as the JCC International Trophy, Grand Prix de Picardie, and Albi Grand Prix.
In 1937 the team overspent on a new car, which would ultimately fail to meet their lofty expectations and served to curb their ambitions. Bira's international results dropped off, but he was still successful in Britain. The budget shortfall meant a domestic-focussed campaign in 1938, which again yielded several wins for the prince's team.
The arrival of global conflict in 1939 put a halt to Bira's exploits and brought a close to his best years behind the wheel. He was back on-track when the war ended, but found a different atmosphere. A new generation of drivers had emerged, with bold young men who had narrowly escaped death in aircraft or tanks seeking out new thrills. Though still a wealthy man's game, there had been a departure from the more upper-class approach of the thirties, and it did not sit as well with Bira. What's more, the war meant there was less money coming from Thailand, and he had fallen out with Chula (who would die of cancer in 1963, aged 55) while they saw out the war in Cornwall. Things just weren't the same.
But there were still successes. To have been on the grid for the first Formula 1 World Championship Grand Prix at Silverstone in 1950 gives Bira a special place in history. He qualified a brilliant fifth for the race, but retired after 49 laps when he ran dry of fuel. He remained a semi-regular Formula 1 entrant from 1950 through '54, scoring the odd top-five finish, and was victorious in two non-championship grands prix – the Richmond Trophy in 1951, and the 1954 Grand Prix des Frontières. There was no more White Mouse Stable, however, with Bira entering under a variety of team names and in a range of cars. He ended his career after the '54 season, proving he could still win races until the end.
That a wealthy young man of aristocratic stock should take up motor racing was by no means unusual in the thirties. But, that he should be of anything other than European heritage was certainly not the norm. That was still the case post-war. When Bira lined up on the grid for the inaugural F1 race, he was one of only two non-European drivers. The other was the Argentine Juan Manuel Fangio, who would go on to become one of the sport's great legends. There were no Asian competitors present, nor would there be for another 26 years, until Japanese drivers began making inroads into the sport. It was 2001 before another Southeast Asian arrived on the scene, and Bira remains the only Thai to race in F1.
And so there can be no doubt that Bira would have stood out in the paddock, though that is not to suggest that he faced any opposition. Some may have considered him a minor curiosity, but he was more often seen as one of the racing crowd. In fact, while Bira's heritage did make him different, he was also very similar to his English contemporaries. He had gone to the same schools, moved in the same circles, and had similarly large financial resources to draw upon. Really, the differences were skin deep.
Though he did not return to racing, Bira's sporting exploits were not yet over. After leaving F1 he focussed his attentions on sailing, taking part in the Olympic Games in Melbourne (1956), Rome (1960), Tokyo (1964) and Munich (1972).
Details of his life outside motorsport are scarce – while race results are recorded for posterity, no one thought to chronicle the everyday life of a minor Thai royal. What we do know is that he was married six times to five women, eventually remarrying his first wife, Ceril, for the final few years of his life. He was involved in the running of an airline, among other business ventures, but it is generally agreed that his corporate career was rather less successful than his racing efforts. There was enough money from back home to keep him afloat, but the luxury that he and Chula enjoyed in the thirties was a thing of the past.
But, more than 30 years after his death, Bira is still remembered for his exploits behind the wheel. As Asia's first grand prix driver he was a trailblazer, a part of F1 history, and a perfect example of the daredevil amateurs who once made the track their own.