Rich and charming, Dick Seaman was feted by even Hitler
Now she was ready to do as she had threatened so many times, and cut him off from the inheritance that would in six months’ time have made her son a very wealthy man. It was Richard Seaman’s last visit to the handsome townhouse from which, a small boy in a red cap, he had been taken to school.
This was where his friends had so often arrived for cocktails and laughter before trips to a restaurant or a fashionable Mayfair nightclub, and where, in the mews garage around the corner, he had prepared the racing cars whose successes had won him a place in the world’s best grand prix team. It was also where he had brought his fiancee to meet his mother. And that caused all the trouble.
At 26, Richard Seaman had the looks and sophistication of a 1930s sporting hero. In the five years since abandoning his studies at Cambridge University, he had raced at tracks from Donington Park and Brooklands to the Nürburgring and Monza.
From his first Riley sports car, given to him by his parents when he was 18, he graduated through MGs, a Bugatti, an ERA, Maseratis, a Delage and an Alfa Romeo, most of them bought with his parents’ money.
He liked dancing at the Embassy Club on Bond Street and dining at Luigi’s on Jermyn Street. He flew his own two-seater biplane down to Monaco and back. But he was no playboy. His approach to racing was highly professional.
Big wins at Pescara, Berne and elsewhere established him as the best British driver of his generation, with the potential to graduate to the grand prix circuit and compete against the German, Italian and French aces – if only he could get himself into the right team.
That team was Mercedes-Benz, and the invitation came at the start of 1937. His appointment required the personal approval of Adolf Hitler, for whom the display of crushing superiority of the state-sponsored German cars in grand prix racing was an important Third Reich propaganda tool.
Dick’s appointment needed personal approval from Hitler
As their state-sponsored cars crushed all opposition on the world’s race tracks, the relentless display of German superiority was carrying a deeper and more disturbing message.
Dick Seaman became part of that display. When he showed the Duke of Windsor around the Mercedes factory the day before the former Edward VIII met Hitler for a friendly chat, when he won the German Grand Prix the following year, and when he lined up to shake the Fuhrer’s hand on the eve of the Berlin Motor Show, he was doing his duty to the team.
His initial enthusiasm for Hitler’s Germany, shared by most of the English upper middle-class, was based on the way the new government had dragged Germany out of the economic ruin that followed the Great War. “Hitler stands no nonsense,” he told his mother during an early visit home.
English visitors saw a country whose people appeared prosperous and happy, while many British politicians viewed Hitler as presenting a barrier to the spread of communism.
A Mercedes-Benz win at the Grand Prix of Germany 1938
For Seaman, life there was good. He lived in a villa on the wooded shores of the Starnbergersee, a picturesque lake in southern Bavaria. There he could swim, sail, water-ski and entertain his English friends at house parties.
The Alps were nearby and on the advice of a German teammate he had taken up skiing to keep fit and beat the winter blues.
Eventually, however, the penny had begun to drop. Hitler’s warlike intentions were obvious, and his re-armament project was hardly a secret; after all, Mercedes’ factories were also busy making engines for the new Messerschmitt fighter planes.
Even before Kristallnacht in November 1938, with the destruction of synagogues across the nation, the Nazis’ intentions towards the Jews were coming out into the open and it was no longer possible to ignore the persecution.
The change in Seaman’s own attitudes was underway when he was introduced to beautiful 18-year-old Erica Popp at a dinnerdance in Munich in the summer of 1938.
Dick and reserve driver Hans Ruesch drink the champagne of victory
Richard and Erica on their wedding day
He was meeting a girl whose father, an important business figure, was falling out with the Nazis. Franz Josef Popp was the founder and general director of BMW, manufacturing cars, motorcycles and aero engines. He had taken Erica out of a school where she was told to join the League of German Girls, the female equivalent of Hitler Youth.
Although he had followed orders to fire his Jewish employees, his family still visited their Jewish doctor. Now, under pressure from Hermann Goering to shift production from civilian to military projects, he resisted. What, he said, if there was no war? The company would be ruined.
During his mother’s visit to Germany, Dick introduced her to his new girlfriend.
Lilian Seaman was impressed by the tall, slim creature with fine legs and ankles, a pure oval face, bright blue eyes, perfect teeth, flawless complexion, soft fair hair, dignity, poise and grace. She dressed beautifully, spoke perfect English, and showed sophistication remarkable in a girl of her age.
For Mrs Seaman, however, the qualities were not enough, particularly when Dick refused to deny an engagement.
It was on her way home, while visiting the arena in Nuremberg where Hitler addressed his huge rallies, that she made up her mind. Not only should Dick not marry a German girl but he should break his Mercedes contract as soon as possible. She was sure he would see sense.
Seaman’s father, William, who had made his fortune as the director of several Scottish whisky distilleries, had died in 1935, his poor health exacerbated by worrying about his son’s choice of career. They sent Dick to Rugby and Cambridge and bought him a stately home, Pull Court in Worcestershire.
Every time his father had resisted a plea for money to buy a new car, trying to divert his son towards a safer destiny in the diplomatic service, Dick had gone to his mother. In the end she reckoned she had given him £30,000 for his racing activities, the equivalent of £2million today. But now, as he left the house after their last meeting, she was determined that it was to stop.
Dick still had the income from two sizeable trust funds set up by his father when he was 21, as well as his earnings from Mercedes.
Racing through Coppice Farm during practice ahead of the Donington Grand Prix in 1936
He and Erica went ahead with their plan to marry at Caxton Hall, followed by a wedding breakfast for his racing friends. Then they returned to Germany, settling into a villa near Garmisch, a gift from Herr Popp.
There had been no further contact between mother and son when Dick took his place on the grid for the Belgian Grand Prix on June 25, 1939.
As the international situation deteriorated, he’d sought advice from military and political contacts over whether he should continue to race. Word came back that, since war did not seem imminent, he might as well stay put.
Nevertheless he and Erica made plans for an emergency return to London. On the night before meeting Hitler at the Berlin motor show he joked to his wife that he might ring the Foreign Office with an offer: “If I shoot him, will you give me a million pounds?”
The rain was falling in Belgium, making the circuit treacherous. Two hours into the race, with an hour and a half to go, and with Erica watching from the pits, he was in a comfortable lead when he lost control at high speed.
Th racing hero with his MG K3 Magnette, 1934
The motor, photographed in 1988, was in storage since 1955
His car hit a tree, he was knocked unconscious and escaping fuel set the cockpit on fire. The blaze inflicted severe burns from which he died that night, six months from his 27th birthday.
Six days later his young wife and his mother met once more, at his funeral in Knightsbridge.
Erica would spend the war in England and the United States, and they would not meet again. At the funeral, the attention of photographers was diverted by the arrival from Berlin of a wreath of white lilies so big that two men were needed to carry it.
The ribbon bore condolences from Adolf Hitler. As the coffin was taken away, the wreath was quietly returned to German hands. Two months later, war was declared.
A Race With Love And Death: The Story Of Britain’s First Great Grand Prix Driver by Richard Williams (Simon & Schuster, £20) is out now. For free UK delivery, call Express Bookshop on 01872 562310 or order on-line via expressbook shop.co.uk