The Short, Happy Life of Tom Cole

Privateer racer Tom Cole made a name for himself in the early 1950s, but paid the ultimate price for his love of motorsport.

Photo: The Short, Happy Life of Tom Cole 1
October 2, 2009

You may never have heard of Thomas Lionel Howard Cole, better known as Tommy, but in the late 1940s and early ’50s, this young Englishman was a racer to watch. The man behind the creation of the Cadillac-Allard in America, Cole later moved on to another breed of stallion, competing across Europe in a pair of Ferraris.

All that was in the future when Cole first came to America in the late 1930s. Then, after World War II, he returned to the States and quickly became enamored of the East Coast racing scene. He soon attached himself to the Frick-Tappet racing team.

“Tommy Cole would meet us at the gate at races all around the East,” explained team manager Bill Frick. “He’d get on the running board of the tow car and we’d tell the man at the gate that he was with us. At first, he didn’t know which end of the screwdriver to use, but after awhile he became quite helpful. In the parlance of the circle-track racing scene, we called these people [like Cole] ‘stooges’ or ‘pit stooges.’ They were just fellows who wanted to be around the racing scene and did not have a car.”

That soon changed. The well-to-do Cole (his family was in the shipping business) stepped into the driver’s seat himself in 1949, bringing an HRG 1500 and a Jaguar SS-100 over from England. He entered both cars in America at Bridgehampton on June 11.

“Tommy Cole was well known to all as a gentleman,” noted Bridgehampton founder Bruce Stevenson, “charmingly forgetful of his passport, his wallet, his helmet and the unimportant details of daily life. But in a thrilling exhibition of driving skill, he piloted the Jaguar to second place using only one hand on the controls—the other was occupied holding the battery in position!”

Photo: The Short, Happy Life of Tom Cole 2

The Jag was beaten only by the 8C Alfa Romeo of veteran driver George Huntoon. In the 1,500cc heat race, Cole drove the HRG to a fifth-place finish.

After this impressive debut, Cole didn’t race again for a few months. On September 17 at Watkins Glen, he drove the HRG to fifth in the Seneca Cup and fouth overall in the Grand Prix, winning class B. “His driving was good, aggressive and it pushed the limit,” remembers MG racer Denver Cornett, “but sometimes he was erratic and reckless.” Confirms friend Vic Franzese, owner of the famous Glen Motor Inn, “He was fearless, almost to the point of being reckless.”

COLE’S ABILITY SOON EXCEEDED THE POTENTIAL of the venerable SS-100. He asked Frick if a Cadillac engine would fit in the Jaguar; Frick measured the engine bay, and replied no. So in late 1949, Cole had his father ship over an Allard J2 to take the Caddy engine, and the Cadillac-Allard was born.

The first race for the new car was at Palm Beach Shores on January 3, 1950. Cole led for two laps before being passed by George Huntoon in a Ford-Duesenberg. Huntoon won the race, followed by Briggs Cunningham in his Cadillac-powered Healey Silverstone and George Rand in Cunningham’s Ferrari 166. Cole finished seventh after a spin.

On May 7, Cole raced the Cad-Allard at the Suffolk Airport in Westhampton, New York. He won the Fourth Race, finishing just ahead of Bruce Stevenson in the Meyer Special and Erwin Goldschmidt in a Jaguar XK-120. Cole also led the 30-lap feature until a crack developed in the left rear wheel. This made the car shimmy, allowing Cunningham to get by and win in his Ferrari Spyder Corsa, followed by the Cad-Allard.

Photo: The Short, Happy Life of Tom Cole 3

Cole won his first major race at Bridgehampton on June 10, leading from flag to flag in the Cad-Allard and setting a lap record of 2:55.5. He was followed by Cunningham, Huntoon, Jim Kimberly and Larry Kulok.

Later that month, Cole raced at the 24 Hours of Le Mans. There, he and car-builder Sidney Allard co-drove a Cadillac-powered J2 to third overall, finishing behind a pair of Talbot-Lagos. Cole had carried the car’s special dual-carburetor manifold on the plane with him as personal luggage, so that it wouldn’t get held up in customs.

Back in the U.S., Cole raced Cad-Allards twice more in 1950. In marked contrast to his earlier successes, however, he DNF’d at both events, first at Watkins Glen in September then at Sebring in December.

FOR THE 1951 SEASON Cole’s friend and racing patron, night-club owner John Perona, offered him a Chrysler Hemi-powered Allard. Its first race was the Argentine GP in Buenos Aires on March 18. In practice, Cole stripped second gear with the Chrysler engine’s massive torque. He found a replacement transmission locally and had that installed, but again lost second gear. The race win went to John Fitch, who, ironically, was driving Cole’s Cad-Allard.

The Argentine adventure wasn’t over, however. “After the race in Argentina, Cole sent me a letter,” said Franzese. “He was in a light plane that had crashed in the jungle. The pilot had a .45 handgun and a knife. They survived eating snakes. It took them two weeks to find civilization in Brazil. They were found by the natives.”

Photo: The Short, Happy Life of Tom Cole 4

Cole soon returned to the U.S. and climbed back into his Chrysler-Allard. He drove it to another win at Bridgehampton on June 9, finishing ahead of friend Phil Walters in a 2.3-liter Ferrari coupe.

In July, Cole traveled to Le Mans, partnering again with Sidney Allard, this time in a Chrysler-Allard. After an uneventful race, the pair dropped out around the 12-hour mark with clutch trouble.

Cole DNF’d again at Watkins Glen in September, then drove his Cad-Allard to second place at the Vero Beach 12 Hours on March 8, 1952. The winner in Florida was Jim Kimberly in a 4.1-liter Ferrari 340, while third place went to the 2-liter Ferrari driven by Walters and Bill Spear. The recurring Ferrari presence clearly had an effect on Cole, for he would soon join the Prancing Horse parade.

IN THE SUMMER OF 1952, Cole launched his European racing campaign. On June 14, he returned to Le Mans to drive a Vignale-bodied Ferrari 225 Sport coupe (s/n 0152EL) owned by Pierre Boncompagni, who raced under the name “Pagnibon.” Wearing #30 and entered by the factory, the Ferrari DNF’d in the 11th hour, at which time it was in 32nd place. In the third hour, it had run as high as 15th.

Later that month, he entered the Targa Florio. Rather than use one of his Allards, however, he bought his own Vignale-bodied Ferrari 225 S (s/n 0194ET). S/n 0194 started life as a factory team car, and had been driven in the ’52 Mille Miglia by Piero Scotti and Giulio Cantini.

Photo: The Short, Happy Life of Tom Cole 5

For the Targa on June 29, the Ferrari had been repainted in American colors: dark blue, with the tops of the hood and the trunk in white. There was a rumor floating about that Cole had applied for U.S. citizenship, and the fact that the FIA at that time required a car to be painted in the colors of the driver’s nationality tends to support the rumor. Whatever the case, Cole finished the race in 11th place, a result he blamed on poorly adjusted brakes.

Two weeks later, Cole entered the Coppa d’Oro delle Dolomiti in s/n 0194. He finished 15th overall after a collision with race winner Paolo Marzotto. “The event can best be described as a Marzotto family festival,” noted Ian Dussek, longtime head of the HRG Association. “Paolo won in a 2.7 Ferrari, brother Giannino was second in a 4.1 Ferrari, and two other Marzottos finished in the top ten.”

Cole’s next competition was the Daily Mail International Festival at Boreham, England on August 2. It was a major event, with five separate races for everything from big sports-racers to little Formula 3s. Cole finished third in the 2,000-3,000cc class, and fifth overall, in his Ferrari. The 100-mile race was won by the C-Type Jaguar of Stirling Moss, who also set the fastest lap at 90 mph.

Two weeks later, Goodwood held its inaugural 9 Hour Race. Cole again drove his 225 S, this time partnered with Graham Whitehead. The pair finished second overall, despite fading brakes, behind the Aston Martin DB3 of Peter Collins and Pat Griffith and ahead of the Ferrari 225 S of Roy Salvadori and Bobbie Baird.

S/n 0194 was featured on the cover of Motor Sport magazine in September 1952. Later that month, Cole drove the car to second overall at the Bari GP, on the Italian coast. He finished 20 seconds behind the 2.3-liter Ferrari of Francisco Landi, and ahead of Eugenio Castellotti in another Ferrari.

Photo: The Short, Happy Life of Tom Cole 6

ON APRIL 26, 1953, Cole contested the Mille Miglia in his new Ferrari, a 340 MM (s/n 0284AM). On a course he had never driven before, Cole and Swiss navigator Mario Vandelli put on a terrific show against some of the biggest names in racing. Giannino Marzotto won the 1,000-mile event in his own 340 MM, followed by Juan Manuel Fangio in an Alfa and Felice Bonetto in a Lancia—and then Cole in fourth. Local legend has it that one has to race the Mille three times to finish in the top ten, but a brave driver like Cole was able to break that rule, completing the race in 11 hours, 20 minutes and 39 seconds.

At the Silverstone Daily Express Trophy on May 10, Cole tried his hand in a single-seater. Driving a Ferrari 500 F2 (s/n 0208F) owned by Ecurie Francorchamps, he retired from Heat 1 of the Trophy Race with mechanical problems. Heat 2 wasn’t much better: He started from the back row and collided with Joe Kelly’s Alta.

Silverstone’s sports-racing event went much better. Cole started fourth on the grid in his 340 MM and, despite a poor start, moved into second place on lap 12. At the end of the 20-lap feature, after setting the fastest lap at 90.84 mph, he crossed the line still in second, just 16 seconds behind factory driver Mike Hawthorn’s 340 MM. Finishing behind Cole were the likes of Reg Parnell, Peter Collins, Peter Walker, Graham Whitehead and Moss.

The trio of Hawthorn, Cole and Bobbie Baird won the Team Award for Ferrari, to the disappointment of the British who were hoping for an Aston Martin or Jaguar sweep.

On June 7, Cole and co-driver Peter Whitehead won the rainy French International 12 Hours Race at Hyeres in a C-Type Jaguar. They had completed 204 laps at the 6 p.m. finish, and crossed the line well ahead of the next C-Type, third-place Ferrari and fourth-place Porsche; they also took the Index of Performance.

Photo: The Short, Happy Life of Tom Cole 7

Cole was making his mark, and likely had high hopes for Le Mans. On June 13, he started his fourth Les 24 Heures in his 340 MM, co-driving with Luigi Chinetti, Sr. The race started well, with the car running third overall in the second and third hours. The Ferrari had fallen back to sixth place by mid-race, but then, “Cole’s lap times really started to come down,” says Dussek. “He seemed to be taking 10 to 20 seconds a lap off the fifth-place Jag of Peter Whitehead. These were the Ferrari’s fastest laps, which was somewhat unusual after 14 hours.”

At 6:14 a.m., Cole went off the road at the Maison-Blanche bend, reportedly losing control after passing a slower car. The Ferrari hit a bank and demolished a wooden shed. Cole was ejected during the accident, and died of his injuries.

The news devastated his friend Phil Walters, who was in the Cunningham pits. “For a racing driver, it was out-of-character to be upset as Walters was,” said the late Phil Hill, who believed the accident led to Walters’ decision to leave racing a couple of years later. “You have to put those things aside and go on.”

Looking back on it all, Vic Franzese shook his head. “His father wanted him to give up all this nonsense, get married and buy a farm,” he said. “But of course he never did. He entered the 340 Ferrari at Le Mans, and died there. He was quite a driver.”

FAST FORWARD TO LE MANS IN 1972. Luigi Chinetti was still racing there, his NART team having entered a Daytona coupe, and Cincinnati car enthusiast Jim Ibold was a part of the pit crew. “Luigi had a Cadillac Eldorado that he shipped over to drive himself around in,” Ibold remembered, “and one time he said, ‘Get in, we’ll go to see an old friend.’ So we drove outside of town to see a man named Fernand Tavano. He had been a Ferrari sports-car driver and owned a hotel outside Le Mans—Auburge du Rallye. His wife, a large pear-shaped woman, gave us each a glass of Pernod. Then we left.

“We got back into the Eldorado and Luigi drove out of town to a large cemetery,” continued Ibold. “He parked the car at the entrance and then walked some distance to a large tombstone, where he stopped. On it was written ‘Thomas Cole. 1925–1953.’ The granite stone was dull and dirty, so Chinetti found a bowl of water nearby and took the handkerchief from his pocket. He dipped the handkerchief in the water and washed the grime from Tommy Cole’s grave stone. Then he went over it with the dry end of the cloth. That gave the stone a fine luster.”

Both men spent a few moments in silence and then got back in the car.

Thanks to Jim Ibold, Jim Sitz, Edward Ulmann, Larry Berman, George Jasberg, Tony Carroll, Ed Valpey, Bob Valpey, Bill Victor, the National Automotive History Collection of the Detroit Public Library and Julie Greene of the Bridgehampton Historical Society.

Also from Issue 98

  • Scuderia Spider 16M first drive
  • F1 race report
  • 166 MM returns to Mille Miglia
  • Carbureted Mondial 3.2
  • Goodwood Festival of Speed
  • Ferrari struggles in ALMS
  • Market Update: The Modern 12s
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