By Jim Stratmann
Now I know that many Alfisti know a lot about recent events featuring those cars that we all love but old codgers, like me, have memories going back more years than is comfortable to remember. However, I think that it’s time for you young whippersnappers to learn a bit about a truly great Australian racing driver who you should know about. This bloke was a champion many times over in many different racing cars but what makes him of interest to Alfisti is his record with Alfas. He was lucky enough to be able to afford to race these cars when they were truly exotic and very expensive.
Alexander (Lex) Davison was born into a well to do family in Melbourne in 1923. The family firm was the Paragon Shoes Company which did very well for itself, particularly during the Second World War when it was granted a contract to supply the Australian Army with boots. After military service, Lex took over the firm when his father died in 1945. His father had bought an Alfa Romeo 6C 1.5 litre in 1928 which had become the family car. In those days it was common to import a bare chassis and then to have a body built locally to your personal requirements. The Davison Alfa began life as a fabric bodied sedan. You could have either a fabric fitted over the wooden frame of the car or a more expensive and heavier steel body. This was how the firm of Holden began in Adelaide, making steel bodies mainly for General Motors imports from the USA. I once owned one of these Holden-bodied Chevrolets, a 1929 Natson with a fabric roof and steel body. I must say that it was very well built and was rust-free when I had it in 1967. Pretty slow, but. Anyhow, by the time Lex got his hands on the Alfa, it was a stripped down two seater with a steel body. He used the car in races and hillclimbs immediately after the war finished when motor sport took some time to get back on its feet. It served the purpose very well to allow Lex to learn what this lark was all about.
After a year or so, Lex decided that more power was required. Talk about going from one extreme to another. He bought an enormous seven litre supercharged SSK Mercedes-Benz. This was much faster but a real handful. He had it stripped down with excess bodywork removed which must have helped a bit. In the 1947 Australian Grand Prix, the first AGP after the war, the Merc set the fastest lap at 119 MPH and finished third on handicap. In them days, most races were run as handicaps, based on practice times. Lex used this monster in many races and hillclimbs for a couple of years. His wife, Diana, also was a good driver and even wrestled the Merc up the Rob Roy Hillclimb in Victoria to win the Ladies’ Trophy in 1948.
By the time 1948 had come around, Lex had decided that it was time to upgrade to a real racing car. His scouts in England found an Alfa Romeo Monoposto Tipo B 2.9 litre Grand Prix car that was for sale. This was the real deal with 215 BHP at 5,400 RPM and a maximum speed of 160 miles per hour. Lex bought it and it arrived in Melbourne in 1949. Alfas already had established a strong reputation in Australian racing at the hands of Alf Barrett and Jack Saywell. The car that Davison imported was built in 1933 and was raced by Enzo Ferrari’s Scuderia Alfa throughout the 1934 European Grand Prix season, driven by Achille Varzi, Louis Chiron, Tonino Brivio and Guy Moll. The great Varzi had won the 1934 Tripoli GP and had come second in that year’s French and Belgian GPs and Chiron had come second at his hometown Grand Prix at Monaco in that very car. A well-known English driver, Charles Martin, bought the car from Ferrari in 1936 and raced it extensively in Britain and Europe. During the war, motor racing came to a halt, of course, and many fine cars languished in sheds all over the world. When Lex discovered that this famous car was for sale, he snapped it up. He raced it for four years all around Australia but I think that its complexity must have made life difficult. His best result was a second place in the 1951 Victorian Trophy behind Stan Jones (father of Alan Jones ) in his Maybach Special. Lex had the misfortune to roll the car at the inaugural race at Port Wakefield in SA when a tyre blew. Luckily he only had minor injuries. The Alfa was replaced with a more modern HWM-Jaguar in 1953. The Monoposto P3 Alfa ended up here in South Australia in the hands of Doug Jarvis. Doug restored the car and I remember seeing it race at the Easter historic races at Mallala back in the seventies. I was gobsmacked at the twin propeller shafts that came from the gearbox to twin diffs on the rear axle. It seemed to work alright and obviously the expense and complication of such a layout was worth the trouble.
With the HWM-Jaguar Lex won the 1954 Australian Grand Prix at Southport in Queensland. This was the first of his four Australian Grand Prix wins. Driving a beautiful Ferrari Grand Prix monoposto tipo 500 fitted with a 3 litre sports car Ferrari engine, he won the 1957 AGP at Caversham in WA and the 1958 AGP at Bathurst in NSW. Later on in 1961 he also won that year’s AGP at Mallala. He had borrowed Bib Stillwell’s spare 2.2 litre Cooper-Climax and, to everyone’s surprise, won. I saw that race and I saw Davison spin early on in the race. He’s had it, we all thought but he kept at it and, as all the frontrunners failed for one reason or another, Lex came through to win. Other remarkable cars that were raced by Lex Davison were an Aston Martin Grand Prix car fitted with a 3 litre engine, and many Cooper Climaxes. He even shared an Aston Martin Zagato GT with Bib Stillwell in the 1961 Le Mans 24 hour race. However, it all came to a tragic end in February 1965 during practice for the International 100 at Sandown during the Tasman series of races. Lex was driving his recently acquired Brabham BT4 Climax 2.5 litre when the car left the track on the fast back straight and ploughed into the boundary horse track fence. Lex died at the scene of the accident. He left behind him an amazing record of achievements -he not only won the AGP four times but also he was the Australian Hillclimb Champion four times and won the Australian Drivers’ Championship in 1957.
His legacy lives on for his sons Jon Davison and Richard Davison were successful racing drivers as well as his grandsons Alex Davison, Will Davison and James Davison. His wife Diana was a keen racer as well. She had restored the old Davison family Alfa Romeo back to its original shape and used it in many rallies and events. She even brought it over to South Australia when she entered the Grand Prix Rally, I think in 1994. You may also like to know that every winner of the Australian Grand Prix is presented with the Lex Davison Trophy. As with Lex, the great Michael Schumacher has won that trophy four times.