T.E.B. “Tommy” Sopwith

T.E.B. “Tommy” Sopwith – The Cowes Torquay Master

In the late fifties sports and saloon car racing was the sport of “amateurs and gentleman racers”. Goodwood was the place to go to watch the best racing in the country on a par with the big continental races, Le Mans, Spa and Reims. The best cars of the day were the Astons and Jaguar “C” and “D” types and of course the new “E”, plus the famous 3.8 Saloon so beloved of Police and Villains!

The drivers were household names, Moss, Hawthorne, Gurney, Salvadori, Sears, Sopwith …Sopwith? Yes, Tommy Sopwith Jnr. was a sports car racer of repute driving for the best teams and his own “Equipe Endeavour”. Tommy was often involved in on track tussles with Mike Hawthorne but with the death of his friend Sopwith withdrew from racing.

It was in the late months of 1960 as a refugee from the sport, kicking his heels , looking for something to do, when he was approached by Bruce Campbell, cousin of Donald, offering him a deal on a boat for the up and coming Daily Express International Powerboat Race to take place in August 1961. So lucrative was the deal that young Sopwith (28 yrs old) jumped at the chance to sample this new sport, imported from America by Max Aitken, son of Lord Beaverbrook the press mogul, and so it was on that August morning amongst the 27 starters was Tommy, his mount Thunderbolt proudly carrying the “Equipe Endeavour” badge on the cockpit flanks, went on to become the surprise winner of the event that was to establish the new sport in the public’s imagination and create a new path for the young Sopwith to follow.

The following year he was back for more but unfortunately Thunderbolt 2 was sidelined with preparation problems and a disappointed Tommy never raced. 1963 and he was back with vengeance driving Dick Wilkins’ THUNDERSTREAK, a new 31 ft Bertram with twin Holman and Moody Fords totalling 800hp. A battle royal ensued in the Solent on that August bank holiday between Sopwith , Lord Lucan in the Christina WHITE MIGRANT and Keith Schellenberg’s BLUE MOPPIE, neck and neck through the Solent at a timed speed of 42 knots…

Something had to give first it was Lucan who sank, next it was THUNDERSTREAK, Blue Moppie finished second behind one Renato “Sonny Levi ”who let the “Brits” burn themselves out.

1964 saw Tommy out in the revamped TRAMONTANA 2 with 4 Jaguar “E type” engines kicking out 1000hp, she had troubles on the way but finished 25th Tommy was now one of the main stay competitors in the sport and was back in 1965 again with THUNDERSTREAK only to break a con rod on the start line.

In 1966 Tommy Sopwith was giving the racing a miss as he was on the organising committee, adding his weight to ensure the race maintained its high profile, then came 1967 and still no return to racing.

Telstar
By now others were taking the headlines including one Don Shead, racer turned designer, and so it was in 1968 that Sopwith was back in a craft the same length as his 1961 Christina THUNDERBOLT at 25′, with a single engine of almost the same power as his twin Cadillac’s of 1961, a 600hp Daytona, and racing in conditions on a par with, if not worse than 1961… but and it was a very Big But! The race no longer finished in Torquay but turned round the mark boat and headed back to Cowes. The boat was called TELSTAR a class 2 design from Don Shead’s board a development of the 21ft AVENGER design and sporting the first Surface Style prop drive on a stainless extension from the raked stern.

The race saw THE amazing SURFURY and the Italian WHITE TORNADO battle across Lyme Bay in conditions that eventually sank the Italian the Gardeners thought they had the race sewn up but as they headed round the Torquay mark failed to notice the tell tell wake left by a high speed craft as they headed back to Cowes.

Little Telstar had outflanked them, and this is where “myths and legends” are made because Tommy was not the first driver to beat the Lyme Bay killer by skirting the coast he took the route that Bruce Campbell did in 1961 in his boat Christina, Thunderbolts twin…BUT it became Tommy’s route, because using it won him the race and tucked another first under his belt. He had now won the first COWES-TORQUAY and the C-T-C WHAT WAS NEXT?

1969 was the start of Don Shead’s ascendance as the offshore designer to use and Tommy’s next boat T2 was a development of Telstar this time a 33 footer built by Souters and was up against Shead in the Aluminium MISS ENFIELD of the same design, again both boats proved fast and seaworthy but both failed through engine problems. Not to be beaten by gremlins Tommy was back in 1970 with another new Shead design a further refined version of T2 and MISS ENFIELD called MISS ENFIELD 2, packing 950hp of MERCRUISERS into her 33ft hull , in what turned out to be the fastest race so far Tommy romped home over the 204 mile course at an average speed of a tad under 59 mph., 6th home that year was T2, last years boat now renamed HOT BOVRIL. Victory number three and one for the record books! Could there be more to come from the race that now belonged to him? With the dawn of 1971 and a new boat ENFIELD AVENGER…destined to become one of Don Shead’s most successful designs, but it was not to be so in Tommy Sopwith’s hands, it was also the last year he raced, he hung up the helmet and retired from the sport that had again made him the household name he had been in the late 1950’s and left a legacy that would not be beaten for quite a few years to come…

Post Script

  • Tommy always raced under boat number 40 or 400
  • His racing colours were ENDEAVOUR BLUE, RED AND WHITE
  • His first navigator was GEOFF FANNER and thereafter CHARLES De SELINCOURT.
Telstar with SopwithSopwith reunited with Telstar in the 1990’s

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Renato (Sonny) Levi.

Renato Levi, known to all as Sonny, was born in Karachi, India in 1926.
His father ran a shipyard in Bombay(now Mumbai), so Sonny naturally took an
early interest in boats & ships.

Sonny became an apprentice in his fathers shipyard in Bombay, but with the coming of World War 2, he joined the RAF, becoming a Pilot Officer. No doubt his interest not only in boats but also aircraft was heightened by this part of his life.

Sonny became primarily interested in marine design, especially in relation to smaller, fast craft, and the ability of such craft to withstand the varieties of sea conditions often encountered. He designed craft for his fathers yard during the 1950’s, but moved to Italy in 1960. In Italy, Sonny managed Cantiere Navaltecnica (Canav), in Anzio.

No one of a certain age can forget “A’Speranziella”, built by Canav to Sonny’s design for the 1961 Cowes-Torquay Race. She finished sixth, after experiencing mechanical problems, but had led the race for a considerable distance, dueling with the eventual winner “Thunderbolt”.

After partially re-building the boat in light of the experiences of 1961, success dawned with a win in the 1962 Viareggio-Bastia Race. Further developments resulted in great success with “A’Speranziella” winning the 1963 Cowes-Torquay Race.

Sonny became a world renowned designer of fast craft largely as a result of these successes, and the many fast craft he designed culminated in the 1965 launch of
“Surfury”, often thought of as one of Sonny’s most memorable designs. This boat
made a name for herself, winning Cowes-Torquay in 1967. “Surfury” was the first of Sonny’s much lauded Delta designs.

This success brought more commissions, and Levi designs were sought world wide,
where fast sea-going boats were needed.

In the 1980’s, Richard Branson commissioned Sonny to design “Virgin Atlantic
Challenger II”, which was successful in recording the then fastest trans-Atlantic crossing, despite contaminated fuel issues en route. This famous boat was certainly a fabulous marker in Sonny’s career. “VAC II” not only had its design by Sonny, but also the Levi Drive system too.

Developments in high speed propeller and drive systems have been part of Sonny’s
great contribution to fast boat development over the last forty or more years.

Martin Napier

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