BQ Newsletter
Lord Elgin

A driving force

Thursday 22 December 2011 7:00

While Lord Elgin has been a leading business figure in Scotland he was also a seminal figure in the development of motor sport. He tells Kenny Kemp about life on the open road.

Few people know how close Scotland was to having a Formula One circuit.
Someone who does is Lord Elgin, who tried several times to build a world-class race track, first at his ancestral seat in Broomhall in Fife, and then at Polkemmet, 22 miles’ equidistance between Edinburgh and Glasgow. In the early 1960s, Lord Elgin – then Lord Bruce – enlisted the help of Dutchman John Hugenholtz, inviting him over to Scotland. Hugenholtz was a legend; he designed several Formula One Grand Prix tracks including his home track of Zandvoort in the Netherlands, but also Susuka in Japan, the Hockenheimring in Germany and the Jarama in Spain.

“We set up a company called Caledonian Motor Racing Circuits Ltd,” says Lord Elgin, sitting in the elegant drawing room of his Fife home.
“John Hugenholtz looked at the possibility of designing a racing circuit at Broomhall.
He came over and looked at sites. I approached the internationally famous firm of consultant civil engineers, Sir Alexander Gibb & Partners to undertake a feasibility study with David Murray (Scotland’s first professional grand prix driver) giving technical advice.
In the end, it was decided there was not enough room on the estate and there were old mineral workings and a public road in the way."

But the knowledge was useful and he looked at building a new circuit at Polkemmet, just off the A8 and a mile from Harthill. There was an original design for a 1.68-mile lap. Scotland was desperate for a new race track as Charterhall, the country's only track at the time, was not going to receive a RAC licence in 1965 for the motor racing season. However, there were problems at Polkemmet with the National Coal Board, which had options on the clay and coal beneath part of the site and there was a shortage of finance.

Board member Ian Scott Watson approached Grovewood Securities, owners of Brands Hatch, who were keen on looking at Scotland for a possible Grand Prix circuit of three miles.

“We got the chance to buy this land at Polkemmet,” says Lord Elgin. “The track would have been absolutely fabulous. It passed all the local planning and then one of our directors objected to the fact that in order to get the final amount of money we were going to get somebody from England who already owned Brands Hatch.
He made a very incautious statement to the press and Grovewood, who had other race circuit interests, withdrew. It was very annoying because we nearly pulled it off.”

And a Formula One circuit in Scotland might have given Scots the opportunity to see the likes of Jackie Stewart and David Coulthard winning Grand Prix in their homeland.
The motor car has been one of Lord Elgin’s lifelong passions. While he has been the motors – including two 1911 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghosts – and an amateur rally driver, his involvement in helping to bring motoring to the masses is less well documented.
Lord Elgin, the 11th Earl, now in his eighties and a descended of both Sir Robert the Bruce and Thomas Bruce, the 7th Earl of Elgin – famed for taking the classical marble sculptures from the Parthenon in Athens – is able to look back on an incredibly colourful life.
He is an immensely sociable aristocrat who, despite a serious war injury, was able to drive rally cars in the 1950s in his Triumph TR2, painted in the family armorial colours of brilliant yellow and red.
Lord Elgin, who took his title in 1968 after his father’s death, has enjoyed a more formal business life too.
He was president of the Scottish Amicable Life Assurance Society for 20 years, now part of the Prudential.

He was chairman of the National Savings Committee for Scotland and Lord High Commissioner of the General Assembly of the Church of Scotland.
Between 1987 and 1999 he was Lord Lieutenant of Fife, and he has dedicated time and energy as president of the Boys’ Brigade as well as the Arthritis and Rheumatism Trust.
He was Grand Master Mason of Scotland between 1961 and 1965 and was a Provincial Grand Master of Fife and head of the Royal Order of Scotland.
He was born Andrew Bruce on February 17 1924 and married Victoria in April 1959.
They have three sons and two daughters.

“My father – the 10th Earl – was chairman of the Scottish Council (Development and Industry) which originated in the 1930s, when Sir James Lithgow, the shipbuilder, established the Scottish Development Council and this led to the wonderful Empire Exhibition in Glasgow in 1938,” he says, clutching his well-polished walking stick which he made himself from a holly tree root and shoot.
The then Lord Elgin was president working with Cecil Weir, the convener of the exhibition committee.

It stated at the time: “The Scottish Development Council has come to the opinion that there are no better means of advertising the industries and resources of Scotland than by the holding of the Empire Exhibition which will proclaim the industrial and cultural genius of the Scots people. And promote the increase of trade between the United Kingdom and the Empire."

The exhibition was formally opened in May 1938 by King George Vl and Queen Elizabeth.
The King, at the last moment, decided not to come by motor car but to bring up the Windsor grey horses and landau in order to travel from the Central Station to Ibrox Stadium where the Lord and Lady Elgin greeted them.

“My mother always told me, after she learned of the King’s change of mind, she had a dream that, when the landau entered the stadium under the special welcoming bridge – which was constructed to allow a motor car – it was too shallow for the postilions sitting on the carriage and knocked off their hats.
She urged my father to contact the Royal Mews in London and, after careful measurement, it was discovered that my mother’s dream was accurate and the archway was swiftly raised.

“It was a very poor summer with the rain. My father worked hard to make the exhibition a huge success and when it closed at the end of October 1938, with war looming, more than 12 million visitors had seen the fantastic exhibits, many celebrating Scotland’s outstanding engineering heritage.” Lord Bruce was a keen motorcyclist, and learned to drive in the grounds of Broomhall along with his two older sisters.

He joined the Scots Guards, then preparing for the invasion of Europe, and was a young lieutenant and a tank commander after D-Day, involved in the breakout from Normandy.
On August 11 1944, during the tenacious battle for Chenedolle, his Churchill tank was hit by a German anti-tank grenade and his wireless operator, William Brand from Dundee, was killed.

Lord Bruce had a gaping wound; he had shattered his leg, and he returned to Scotland in an ambulance train in September. He spent 18 months convalescence, first in Stracathro hospital near Forfar, then at the Military Ward in the Princess Margaret Rose in Edinburgh.
“I didn’t realise that I’d been hit,” he says. “Guardsman Brand was sadly killed. The other three members of the crew were fine.” He attended Balliol College, Oxford, studying agriculture, where his dissertation subject was ground nuts in Africa, which agrarian economists said were going to save the world.

Then when the Broomhall estate factor died, Lord Bruce was called back from London, but not before he became steeped in a new financial idea. After the Second World War, the Scottish Council on Industry, which had been set up by the Scottish Secretary Tom Johnston, and the Scottish Board of Trade, merged to become the SCDI and it increased its influence by taking on board the smaller firms.

“It was a private body with support from government and subscriptions,” he explains.
One of those involved was James Gibson Jarvie – known as JG – who was among the first people to bring “instalment finance” into Scotland.
He formed Credit for Industry in Scotland.

“I think this was the first organisation in Scotland that offered companies financing in instalments,” he recalls. Lord Bruce became a director along with his father, the Earl of Elgin.

“We had a very interesting mix of clients all over Scotland. Although with government supplying funds for local development, people realised there would be a civil servant attending the meetings. And they didn’t know if that same person was going to another meeting with a rival firm, so Scottish firms were cautious about taking government finance because they had to bring in a civil servant.”

However, Credit for Industry was very popular and had a wide range of concerns. Lord Elgin recalls several farming enterprises, a laundry business and livestock production, but there was still a desperate shortage of capital for projects. Then in early 1950s he went to work with United Dominions Trust, founded by Gibson Jarvie. Hire purchase was already taking the United States by storm as the post-war generation wanted everything from cars, to fridges and washing machines.

The US banks had 40% of the “buy-now, pay-later” market, but the banks in austere Britain were more cautious. The post-war British car industry was export driven.
The Motor Show of 1948 was dubbed by the Daily Express as the biggest “please-donot- touch” exhibition of all time.

Although there were 32 British car manufacturers showing more than 50 different models – including the new Morris Minor – most of the production was compulsorily reserved for export, and people at home in the UK had to wait from 12 months to two-and-a-half years to get a car.

It is difficult to believe that in 1950s, the British motor industry enjoyed 52% of the world motor export market, although Germany, France and Italy were ominously starting to compete.

There was massive pent-up demand in the UK and the proportion of cars bought on hire purchase in the UK rose from 5% in 1948 to 22% by 1957.

Lord Elgin, with his agricultural background, encouraged UDT to lend money for tractors – including the new Massey Ferguson – new electric farm machinery, industrial equipment and lorries.

“An agent or dealer got a month’s credit and they could then sell their allocation of motor cars that they got and then pay in arrears,” he recalls. “Dealers had to fight for an allocation of cars, as the assembly manufacturing in the UK were still struggling to meet demand.” But one innovation which transformed the selling of cars in the UK was United Dominion Trust’s invention of RoC, or “rebate of charges”.

This was a car financing scheme that helped stimulate the UK’s motor industry, making cars affordable for millions more people. UDT made a bargain with the car dealerships selling the car. If the dealer had a customer who was interested in hire purchase, he was put in touch with UDT. At the end of the contract, UDT then paid a percentage of the profits on lending the money to the dealer who recommended UDT.

“This was a ‘rebate of charges’ and it was an absolute winner,” says Lord Elgin. “We creamed away a great deal of business over quite a period. No-one else had thought of this. There was substantial interest because many of the motor firms were tight on margin and monitored pretty closely.

Then they would get a cheque from us, which soon began to change their financial position.
It helped us grow.” In the 1950s, the then Lord Bruce was bringing electricity into the farms and houses on his estate in Fife but in every case the installation fees were hefty.
Fortunately, his mother, Lady Elgin, was a member of the Advisory Board for the South of Scotland Electricity Board.

He says: “Because of my experience with instalment finance, I felt that the Electricity Board was making a big mistake and that farmers and rural properties would far rather have a more modest installation charge of say £150 and thereafter the Electricity Board would make their profits once everyone was connected and started to use more and more electrical equipment.”

This scheme was adopted and extended all over the electricity board area and they went on to make money as farmers increased their electricity consumption with milking machines, and the like.

“Instalment finance was blamed for irresponsibly lending at first,” he says. “The way it was policed and regulated was not good. It was seen as ‘evil’. There were those who played the game unwisely, but for those who didn’t it was very valuable financial aspect.

“A lot of people in the financial world were horrified by instalment finance. My cousin on the board of the Bank of England was deeply concerned. What I didn’t think he realised was that properly done, the assessment of the risk was probably more acute and properly considered. And it was certainly being more widely spread.

“Of course, you have to assess the risk involved with lending. And we refused many people because they were simply not credit-worthy enough. However, we did good business and all kinds of clients come in every shape and form.”

Barclays Bank had been trying to enter the hire purchase market since 1954 but the Bank of England frowned upon it and it wasn’t until 1958 that hire purchase became acceptable.
“We realised that we were onto a winner with instalment finance and it was rolled out so people could purchase their motor cars – which was a major social change for many people in the 1950s and 1960s.”

In 1974, United Dominions Trust was one of the largest finance companies in the UK. There was a secondary banking crisis in 1975 when a property boom turned to bust, causing several prominent City institutions to founder. United Dominions Trust had been the pacesetter and all the major banks now realised that they had to have instalment finance.
Barclays Bank eventually bought UDT, which had more than 100 branches in the UK.
But Lord Bruce also played a significant part in Scotland’s motor sports.

In 1946 the motor racing enthusiasts began to return from the war – and they wanted some peacetime thrills and spills. Scotland’s foremost grand prix driver was David Murray, an Edinburgh accountant who owned several hostelries in the town.
At the time, Lord Bruce was involved in the Scottish Automobile Club and in Annandale Street.

In autumn of 1951, Ian Stewart and Ron Flockhart were invited to David Murray's office in Rutland Square where the idea of Ecurie Ecosse was formed, with the garage in Merchiston Mews. Then the Winfield Joint Committee was formed from all the motor clubs, driven by the powerful Lothian, Hawick and Berwick clubs, and in March 1952 Ecurie Ecosse was founded.

Ron, Ian and Alastair Birrell competed in the Monte Carlo Rally in January 1952, and then Flockhart and Ninian Sanderson won the Le Mans in 1956 with Jaguar Ecurie Ecosse – and Scotland was delirious the following year, when Ron won again with Ivor Bueb, an English racing driver who was killed in 1959.

In July 1957, following Flockhart’s double triumph, the Ecurie Ecosse Association was formed in Edinburgh. The man responsible was Bill Woolward, a former major from Fife who urged Lord Bruce to get involved. Woolward was a successful advertising man and his business became Woolward Royds, which had the Kwik-Fit account.

“We used to have great fun at the motor shows and rallies,” says Lord Elgin. “There were a lot of people who were thrilled with the idea of a Scottish racing team, so we formed an association which would provide a certain amount of money. We had 7,500 members around the world.

“There was a fascinating collection of people. It was set up in Edinburgh with members and branches across Scotland and overseas. There was a big dinner each year in the North British Hotel in Edinburgh.”

With the development of Ecurie Ecosse, Lord Elgin became association president and when it was wound up in 1972 he was custodian of the title. Hugh McCaig has been instrumental in reviving the Ecurie Ecosse racing marque. Lord Elgin was for many years the president of the Royal Scottish Automobile Club in Blythswood Square in Glasgow.

Could more have been done more to help Scotland as a motor manufacturing country? “The enormous power around Coventry for the manufacturing was difficult to compete with in Scotland,” he says.

“Every 50 miles away from this base made it difficult. It cost more for assembly 200 miles away and Scotland was always under that particular pressure from the automotive industry. All the components had to be brought into and added to the cost of the car.” Today, Lord Elgin isn’t so able to drive his collection of cars.

“My father was very friendly with the British Standard Motor Company.
I had a Standard Eight and I was allowed a special ration of petrol because I was 100% disabled. I used to drive down to Oxford from Fife and there was nothing on the roads.
I used to drive up to London, which made me very popular for dates.

It was a reliable car and it could do 61 miles per hour.” “I acquired a Silver Ghost Rolls-Royce from Grassick’s Garage in Perth. It had been owned by Gilchrist McBeath, a shipping magnate in Glasgow, and had been kept at Dunira, his Perthshire home.
He died in 1948.
It was an 1911 model – chassis number 1757 – with three forward gears and a special gearbox designed for Scotland’s hills, and then I acquired another one in Edinburgh.
I joined the 20-Ghost Club, the oldest club for Rolls-Royce owners, which was celebrating the 50th anniversary of the manufacturer at Derby.

Donald Grassick and Innes Ireland drove my more modern Ghost and accompanied me on the journey south.” The two cars set out, driving through mist, fog and snow and when they arrived at Derby all the other cars were immaculately turned out, while Lord Elgin’s two muddy Rollers swept in.

“There was a tremendous cheer when we arrived,” he recalls. “The younger of my two cars won second place for the Concours d’Elegance, only beaten by a remarkable entry from a member resident in the US.” The rally then drove to Crewe.

“The directors of Rolls-Royce in Crewe asked where I was staying. They said I couldn’t possibly be driving home and I replied, ‘But I’m driving one of your cars’. Donald and I set out on the way home and when we got to Shap Fell, I said to him, ‘You’ve got an extra gear in your car and an extra 10 mph speed, go on and I’ll follow’.

“It was one of the best drives I’ve ever had, chasing him all the way through the Borders on a clear, moonlit-evening. I crossed the Kincardine Bridge and arrived back at the estate.
Donald and Innes Ireland had been back only 10 minutes.

“We had a veteran car rally in Perthshire – where I took both my Silver Ghost and my 1912 Napier – and I met one of Gilchrist Mcbeath’s former chauffeurs. I asked him what it was like working for them. It was nothing like Downton Abbey, you know. He said there were three chauffeurs – all bachelors – and they all slept about the motor house. There was a fireman’s pole to slide down when the bell rang. The tycoon had a yacht, and cruised into Oban and then sent a telegram asking that a driver pick him up and take him to Glasgow Central station for the train to London.” Often, if it was a fine evening, when Gilchrist MacBeth arrived in Glasgow he would ask what time the night sleeper was expected in Carlisle.

He would then instruct his chauffeur to race the train to the Borders, so he could board the train at Carlisle, often with seconds to spare. This was before the First World War.

“This year it would have been 100 years old and I eventually sold it to an American – and you can buy it back now for £1.25 million!” While Lord Elgin has enjoyed a life steeped in Scotland's history and surrounded by a loving family, he has played a major role in Scotland’s business life.

But his involvement with motoring and cars has given him some of his most cherished memories.