Sammy Davis

During the period 1976-1987 the late Eric Stapleton was Editor of the AOC Bulletin (numbers 272-354) and wrote a number of articles entitled “Reflections in Retirement”. This one, reproduced from Bulletin 315 from January 1981, sadly coincided with the death of the subject, S C H Davis, on his 94th birthday.


It is no overstatement to describe the subject of this article as a legend in our time.

This photograph adorned the front cover of the Bulletin in October, 1967.

A simple deduction from its caption reveals that he is now in his 94th year and can recall with singular clarity the early days of motoring in this country. The young Davis toyed for a time with the idea of becoming a soldier deterred only by the realisation that he would be unable to meet the recurring cost of mess nights. He forsook this possible career in favour of an equally rigorous training at the Slade School of Art under Tonks well known for his inculcation of sound basic techniques. His apt pupil’s later paintings, drawings and illustrations bear testimony to the thoroughness of his grounding.

His lifelong love affair with the motor car commenced in 1896 when he was taken by his father to see the start of the Paris-Madrid motor race an event which made a lasting impression on the boy. It is scarcely surprising therefore that un-certain career prospects for an artist prompted the notion of a further period of training, this time in the developing motor industry. After an interview at “The Daimler” he was taken on as an apprentice for the firm in Coventry where his working days began at 6 am and finished at 6 pm. a silent comment on those far-off times. His workmates had all received their early training in steam and were a rough and ready gang so that ‘Sammy’ Davis deemed it prudent to soil his new overalls in advance! The response to their asking what his name was — Sidney Charles Houghton Davis — produced an awe-struck silence and eventually the unanimous decision to call him Charlie.

His foreman was the well known Wormald an excellent mentor and an expert in such diverse activities as wielding a cold chisel and rapping the heads of his errant apprentices with his knuckles. His poor opinion of white collar workers was widely held amongst the workforce. He would send his raw recruit occasionally with a car to the purchasing department where the latter was forbidden to enter the office by a tall fair-haired young typist on the grounds that he was too grimy – the din on his overalls was now obviously genuine! She christened him “Little black Sambo” on the spot which in time was shortened to “Sammy”, a nickname which has remained with him throughout his life.

After this period of thorough training in automobile engineering he graduated to the Company’s drawing office, where he worked alongside Gordon Crosbie another artist and kindred spirit. Both men applied for posts as illustrators. Crosbie obtaining employment on Autocar and the other on Automobile Engineer where he spent several happy years prior to the first World War. Just before the outbreak of hostilities he accompanied the editor and his wife to Lyons where they were to cover the French G.P. The journey was accomplished in an early and somewhat rare Pilot car which was plagued with tyre troubles, most of the lady’s outer and undergarments being confiscated to replace the inner tubes. After a long and eventful journey back to the French port the three intrepid voyagers decided to have a slap-up final dinner before embarkation. In order to fulfil this intention a telegram was sent to their journal which read as follows: “Dear Firm, are we still with you? If so send £10”.

One of the tasks with which he was presented was to produce a full description of the new Fafnia chassis, a challenge which he thoroughly enjoyed. The opportunity for combining descriptive writing with illustrative art work appealed to him and it was not long before he was acting as a freelance journalist for a number of papers even cartoons coming within the orbit of his activities. A glint appeared in his eye as he dwelt briefly upon the early Rex motorcycle which had provided him in about 1907 with experience of 2-wheeled transport describing himself (not without some relish) as the terror of Hampstead. It is not widely known that later on he was the first to experiment with the use of motor cyclists as dispatch riders.

His later appointment to the staff of Autocar enabled him to obtain a wide experience of cars of different makes and no doubt drew his talent as a driver to the notice of the major manufacturers, amongst them Bentley Motors. Sammy emphasised that he would invariably wait to be approached with the offer of a works drive, as at Le Mans in 1926/7. Perhaps the main purpose behind the Alvis works entry in 1928 was the prospect of carrying off the Rudge Whitworth Cup an ambition which was duly achieved.

1928 Le Mans team portrait

In spite of Capt. Smith-Clarke’s insistence on the need for thorough testing when things were not right finance was not over-plentiful and his Directors were reluctant to spend what money there was in this direction. Such economies were highlighted in 1929 when Cushman and Davis were nominated as co-drivers of an 8-cylinder FWD. Although the new car handled well enough a change had been made from plain to roller bearings and the modification insufficiently tested. Cushman ran a big-end in practice, the mechanics under Tattersall having to work through the night to rebuild the engine which was run in slowly the following morning on the road. The car entered failed to complete a quarter of the race with the result that Smith-Clarke acquired a degree of unpopularity in certain quarters, perhaps not entirely justified. Later in the season however the problems were largely overcome and the car acquitted itself creditably in the TT.

Sammy, arms folded, at Le Mans with 23, an eight-cylinder f.w.d. Alvis in 1929

Sammy Davis commends these and other Alvis models of the period for their handling properties on the track, but considers them to have been frequently handicapped by excess weight. Indeed, he regards them rather as modified touring cars than as sports or racing cars against which they had to compete from time to time. There was a strong bond of fellowship amongst the drivers of the day which was fostered by participation in team events. This was the era of true amateurism in the sport of motor racing when courtesy and comradeship were seldom far removed, however keen the competition.

The story of his experiences in the Lyons GP as riding mechanic to Count Louis Zborowski in a 2-litre Miller typifies the spirit of the times. The two men put up at a farmhouse on the evening prior to the race, but Zborowski was too tense and apprehensive to be able to sleep. His companion still retains vivid memories of their long walk through the countryside during that idyllic moonlit night when they discussed God, infinity and the universe until a feeling of calm and peace descended on them and they eventually retired to bed at 3 o’ clock in the morning.

The race itself saw the first massed start ever in a French GP when most of the drivers held back deferentially and waited for the others. The Miller had originally been constructed as a circuit racer for Indianapolis and subsequently adapted to meet the different demands of European roads and tracks. Whilst its engine performed unfalteringly, the suspension set up originally for a banked oval track, proved unequal to coping with a long undulating straight where the car weaved from side to side, hitting both verges alternately. On their return to the pits it was discovered that practically all the bolts holding the front nearside shock absorber bracket had sheared, making the car virtually uncontrollable at speed.

Sammy disliked circuits in general and Brooklands in particular on account of its artificiality, considering it undemanding on gear-boxes and brakes. Whilst he agrees that racing improves the breed, he argues that those lessons learnt at speed on public roads had a more relevant and practical application to the development of production cars than those assimilated on the track. The quest for speed and reliability on the part of the manufacturers and the keen but friendly rivalry amongst drivers which characterised the formative years of motor racing slowly gave way to an overriding ambition to win at all costs and to turn results to advantage in terms of publicity and the promotion of car sales. Looking back over a long lifetime of achievement in a variety of activities, he modestly and unhesitatingly selects as its highlight the extraordinary help received from his friends in motoring. This lively minded nonagenarian at-tended the birth of the puny infant motor car, nursed it through its early life and helped to bring it to its present sophisticated maturity. We are proud of his long association as Patron of our Club and grateful for his continuing interest in its affairs.

Norman Routledge receiving an award from S C H Davis at Crystal Palace – K R Day Archive photo
Crystal Palace – the AOC Patron presents the awards – K R Day Archive photo (KRD with Bill Boddy on the right)