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24 Jun 2020

Gulliver’s Travels – the Le Mans connection

Written by Fiona J Mackenzie, Canna archivist
A black and white photograph of a white classic sports car, driving along a stony road with tall mountains in the background.
George Campbell driving his Invicta S-type c1936, with La Rhune mountain in the Pyrenees in the background
We explore the fascinating and unlikely connection between the Isle of Canna and the world-famous French car race Le Mans.

The Isle of Canna and Canna House are known for their precious archives of folklore, Gaelic song and Hebridean photographs from the early 20th century. Less well known is the unlikely connection between this tiny island and the world-famous Le Mans car race, held annually on the Circuit de la Sarthe in the town of Le Mans in the Pays de la Loire region of western France.

In 1936, 20-year-old Cambridge engineering undergraduate George Campbell, younger brother of folklorist John Lorne Campbell (who was, at this point, living with his wife Margaret on the island of Barra), bought a 1931-constructed Invicta S-type sports car from the mother of his best friend. His friend had bought it new but sadly died at a young age. As an undergraduate, George was not allowed to keep the car on campus but, as was the custom with students (and apparently still is!), kept it in a garage in a village not far from Cambridge. Thanks to John’s nephew (George’s son) Neill Campbell, I’ve been able to fill in many of the blanks in the story of how these images came to be in the Canna collections.

A black and white photo of a man sitting in a white classic sports car. It is parked on a gravel drive, facing away from the camera.
George Campbell in his Invicta

The Invicta car company was set up in the mid-1920s by car and boat designer Sir Noel Campbell Macklin, with the objective of producing British sports cars to rival companies such as Bentley and Rolls Royce. George’s S-type model, with its revolutionary low-slung chassis, was first launched in 1930 at the Olympia Motor Show. Only 77 of these cars were ever produced, due to the hefty cost; the last S-type was made in 1933. The cars themselves are still highly prized, with most of the originals apparently still on the road and many of them having nicknames! George’s name for his car was Gulliver (or Gully), and it remained in the Campbell family until 1988 when it was sold to a friend at a hugely below market value rate. Much to the family’s chagrin, it was later sold for £250,000!

George was obviously very proud of his rather splendid car, with its distinctive number plate of JJ634. He took it on holiday with him to Europe, where his mother Ethel lived at her Villa Italiena in the Basque village of Guéthary, near Biarritz on the French side of the Spanish border. It was here that the car was photographed in the images in our archives by George’s sister-in-law: photographer and folklorist Margaret Fay Shaw Campbell.

George’s prized possession, painted white, became a firm fixture on racing circuits such as the Prescott Speed Hill Climb and Shelsley Walsh in the 1930s. George formed an alliance with two friends, Donald Monro and Anthony Price, who also owned Invictas. Donald’s was painted red (Red Gauntlet) and Anthony’s blue (Shark), and when they drove with the white Gully, they resembled the Union Jack! The three friends became known as the Three Musketeers.

Neill’s memories of the famous car include an anecdote about the colour. Apparently during the Second World War, George put the car into ‘safe storage’ but someone stole the bodywork. After the war, George managed to source replacement panels and had the car repainted, but the pure white became more the ivory colour in which Gully still races today.

Gully was eventually sold to a wealthy German businessman Dr Helmut Rothenberger, a keen classic car racing driver. Dr Rothenberger has raced Gully at several Le Mans races. The below colour images of the car, taken by photographer Wouter Melissen at Le Mans in July 2006, were when Rothenberger was placed 43rd out of 72, beating amateur racing driver and international superstar Mark Knopfler (frontman of Dire Straits), who came last!

Who would have thought that the Canna archives could provide background information to classic car enthusiasts as well as Gaelic scholars! We do not currently have any knowledge of the car ever having reached Canna itself, but it’s very much part of the Canna photographic archive and is intriguing proof of the diverse nature of our wonderful collections.

A black and white photograph of a man driving a white classic sports car, along a stony road with tall mountains in the background. The car has a low chassis.
The Invicta in the Basque Country

Thanks to Wouter Melissen for the use of the Le Mans race images.

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