FAMOUS NAMES: ALVIN 'SPIKE' RHIANDO Mar 27, 2009 20:19:47 GMT 1
Post by administrator on Mar 27, 2009 20:19:47 GMT 1
UNDOUBTEDLY the most colourful character in pre-war midget car racing was Alvin ‘Spike’ Rhiando - if that was his real name. At various times he was billed as an Italian, a Canadian and an American - and some sceptics even alleged he was born in Deptford in south London.
For all that, Rhiando made an indelible mark on the pre and post-war motorsport scene. As a speedway rider, he first came to notice riding a Douglas dirt track bike in novice meetings in East Anglia. These were in 1932 at Bradwell, a village six miles from Yarmouth. Among the starters was a supposedly Italian rider Spike Antonio Riando (there was no ‘h’ in the surname then).
The first meeting in which he competed was on June 25 1932. On the way from their south London base, Riando and his travelling companions Johnny Bull and A W Kempster were involved in an accident which damaged their van and left them with only on bike between them.
They had a similar tail of misery the following week, when they sent a telegram saying they had smashed the trailer carrying their bikes and would not be able to reach the track. But they did turn up the next week, and Riando had an excellent meeting, winning his heat and the semi-final in a one-mile handicap race, but crashing in the final.
Riando’s next recorded East Anglian speedway outing was on July 9, 1933, at Lowestoft. He crashed badly and was detained at Lowestoft Hospital, being discharged just in time to spectate at the track’s next meeting, when a collection raised £8 for him.
By then, local fans were beginning to question Riando’s nationality - he was then also being described as an American and an Italian-American. And one opinion was that Riando was English with a touch of showmanship.
And showmanship was certainly something that Rhiando - as he became known - exploited to the full. In early 1939, he wrote a series of articles for then the popular ‘Topical Times’ magazine. To say there were a colourful commentary on his life is putting it mildly.
Rhiando gave vivid descriptions of his car racing career in the USA, of his time as a motorcycle rider on the Wall of Death, as a Hollywood stuntman and meeting and knowing such film legends as Mae West and James Cagney and an odd spell in Egypt involving gun smuggling and how after his capture by tribesman the French Foreign Legion arranged his release. It was probably good reading for the late 1930s - in modern times most of his writings would have been proved to be nonsense.
The ‘Topical Times’ also carried some references to Rhiando’s car racing career in the USA. More than 70 years later many of his claims were disputed by USA motorsport historians.
Most of Rhiando’s American racing career was claimed to have been in the early 1930s, when he raced at tracks llke Tampa in Florida, at Syracuse in New York State and in Georgia. Rhiando’s lurid description - and the style of writing of the period - tell of dramatic crashes, of missing victory through problems on the last lap.
And he also records his horror when in a race at Syracuse his close friend Harry Wirth was killed. For his part, Rhiando also tells of a crash at a track in Georgia where he was actually thrown from his car’s cockpit. He had to repair his car to get back into the 80-lap race, managed to do this and finished third.
The ‘Topical Times’ articles, although published at a time when midget car racing was popular in Britain and Rhiando was at the the peak of his track career, carried virtually no mention of the sport.
He wrote of his links with British racing in the early 1930s: “When I arrived in this country I tried to popularise midget car racing at Greenford. I quickly lost £600 and was soon looking around for some way to make money.
“I tried to make the grade again at speedway racing after many years at other jobs. But the tracks are so small here compared to what what I was used to in the States. I could get round a couple of laps at record pace. But four was always too much for me. I never finished!”
In publicity for his British midget car racing career, the embelishments also claimed that while in the USA Rhiando had been a member of Red Herman’s air circus. Rhiando’s part in the group was wing walking a feat which it was said ‘America’s most famous stunt men refused to try.’ And, just for added measure, Rhiando also specialised in free-fall parachuting.
It was only years after his death that a serious analysis of Rhiando’s role in British motorsport was made. There is no disputing that it was significant and he was a leading performer in the period between 1937 and the outbreak of World War Two in September 1939.
Rhiando once told the eminent motorsport historian and photographer Guy Griffiths that “his parents had been trapeze artists in Canada. He was part of the act being thrown from one to another. Seeing little future in that, he had drifted into jalopy racing. He made some money, got on the American dirt track circuit, saved hard and eventually got to Europe.”
In 1934, Rhiando made a brave effort to establish Greenford as a car racing circuit. Meetings were organised by The Autodrome Racing Club with Spike as its technical adviser.
Rhiando came to the forefront of British midget car racing when efforts were made to establish league racing in 1937 and 1938. He was captain of the Lea Bridge team and stayed in that role when the East London team relocated to Crystal Palace late in 1938. And the 1938 season also saw Rhiando win what is still regarded as British midget car racing’s most prestigious event when he claimed the ‘Gold Cup’ at Wembley Stadium.
After the end of World War Two in 1945, Rhiando was involved in several unsuccesful attempts to revive midget car racing. He also became involved in various classes of big circuit racing at Goodwood and Silverstone and also in road races in the Isle of Man. In October 1948 Rhiando drove an 1100cc Cooper in the first ever meeting at Silverstone. He won the opening race for 500cc cars driving a Cooper JAP over 50 miles. Going up until the early 1950s, Rhinado then concentrated on 500cc racing and F3 racing in which classes his rivals included Stirling Moss and teh former Wembley speedway rider Alf Bottoms.
Away from car racing, in 1953 Rhiando built a motorcycle scooter fitted with a fibre glass body. To prove its worth, he attempted to ride it from London to Cape Town in South Africa. He broke down in the Sahara desert and was rescued by a French Foreign Legion patrol - and adventure which had some paralells to the tale he had told the 'Topical Times'many years before! Then later reports gave a different version of his breakdown and rescue. The 'Motor Cycling' magazine for March 19, 1953, said Rhiando was rescued by a team of French geologists who went to help him after a military saw his bright orange scooter near some rocks.
Spike Rhiando died in Ireland in 1975. His colourful lifetime was perhaps best summarised by his grand-daughter Romayne Lewis who said, "Spike died leaving behind many unsolved mysteries which I would love to piece together."
She added, "My father, Max tells me that Spike's father was a famous comedy juggler (whose stage name was Rebla) who also travelled the world during the early 1900s. Spike always told people that he was born in Canada but I am yet to find out if this is the case. My father was never told what Spike's birth name was, but he recalls seeing a cheque book when he was a small boy which Spike signed as Maxwell Alvin Earl Stevens. All we know is that Rebla's birth name was Albert James Stevens."
Romayne's father and Spike's son is named Maxwell Earl Rhiando.
(c) John Hyam 2009