DRIVERS: PRINCE BIRA

Name: Prince Bira
Nationality: Siam
Date of birth: July 15, 1914 - Bangkok
Date of death: December 23, 1985 - London

Prince Birabongse Bhanutej Bhanubandh was a member of Siam's royal family and was a grandson of King Mongkut, who opened the country to Western influence in the late 19th century and was made famous by the musical comedy, "The King and I". As a result the Siamese royal family became closely linked with Britain and in 1927 - at the age of 13 - Prince Bira was sent from Siam to attend the most famous of all British public schools - Eton College. While he was there there was a revolution in Siam and after considerable disruption including several coups d'etat and other conspiracies King Prajadhipok - the Prince's uncle - was forced to abdicate. Prince Bira decided to stay in England and went on to study at Cambridge University. Another Siamese Prince - Bira's cousin, Prince Chula Chakrabongse, ran a racing team called White Mouse Racing and the 21-year-old Bira thought he might try his hand at motor racing.

In 1936 Chula's White Mouse team purchased an ERA for Bira to drive and he quickly became one of the leading exponents of this voiturette class of international racing, winning the Coup de Prince Rainier at Monte Carlo. He proved consistently successful up to the war. At the same time he met and married an Englishwoman. When war broke out Thailand (as Siam had become in 1939) was occupied by the Japanese army and so Bira decided to stay in Britain, living quietly in a cottage in Cornwall. When the war was over the 31-year-old Prince decided to reestablish White Mouse Racing. There was little motor racing in England in the immediate postwar years and he eventually closed the team and went to race in Europe driving a Maserati for Enrique Plate's private team. He briefly joined the HWM team, then Gordini and OSCA, but by 1953 he was driving his own 2-liter Maserati AC which he painted in the distinctive blue and yellow livery which were Thailand's international racing colors.

Bira later became one of the first private entrants to order one of the new Maserati 250Fs but while his new car was being completed he raced his 1954 machine with a new 2.5-liter engine installed. He used this to win the Grand Prix des Frontieres on the Chimay road circuit in southern Belgium and then finished fourth in the French Grand Prix at Reims with the new 250F. Bira raced to the end of the 1954 season when he married for the second time and scored his final victory with the 250F in the non-championship New Zealand Grand Prix before retiring.

Thereafter he returned to live in Thailand although he maintained a European base in the form of a three-masted schooner berthed at Cannes, close to his other home, Villa les Faunes, at Mandelieu. A versatile and cultured man, Bira died on a London underground station after suffering a heart attack.

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