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Count Louis Zborowski, Gentleman Driver

Cast your mind back to when you were a teenager and ask yourself what you would have done had you inherited a large - make that huge - amount of money and had already developed the first longings to spend some time in the company of fast cars...

The probable answer is that you would have devoted your attentions to becoming a racing driver, and thoroughly immersed yourself in an activity that most of us can only either dream about, or keep as a hobby.

By the time he entered his teens, Count Louis Zborowski was well and truly obsessed with what was then the exciting, new-fangled world of the motor car, despite his father, William, having died while racing at La Turbie in 1903 after a cufflink became tangled in the hand throttle of his Mercedes.

The heir of Higham Park

But young Zborowski was not to inherit his wealth from his father, but from his mother. She was an American heiress by the name of Margaret Laura Astor Carey, the granddaughter of the American tycoon William Backhouse Astor and a close relative of John Jacob Astor IV (famously the Titanic's richest passenger).

With the help of a 'Bentley Boys' engineer, Zborowski put together a series of cars called Chitty Bang Bang

Following William Zborowski's death, Margaret bought the rambling Higham Park near the English city of Canterbury, complete with 225 acres and 12 houses. It cost her £17,500, and she spent another £50,000 fixing it up - only to die in 1911 when Louis was just 16.

The result was that he inherited the property, together with a further £11m-worth of real estate around the world, including a useful seven acres of Manhattan and a large portion of New York's Fifth Avenue.

Sensibly, Zborowski decided to become a gentleman racing driver and, by his mid-20s, had begun to design and build his own aero-engined cars in the stables at Higham Park. With the help of Clive Gallop (the famous Bentley Boys engineer) he put together a series of cars which he called Chitty Bang Bang, the first of which was powered by a 23-litre Maybach engine - and won two Brooklands races on its first competitive outing.

The curse of the cufflinks

Being the dashing aristocrat that he was, Zborowski attracted plenty of attention - including that of James Bond author Ian Fleming, who was inspired by the young count's exploits to write the children's book named after Zborowski's cars.

His enthusiasm went beyond the bounds of marque loyalty and, as well as being a highly important patron of Aston Martin (it was he who insisted on the cars being fitted with Jaeger instruments), Zborowski also drove a Bugatti in the 1923 Indy 500 and a Miller 122 in that year's Monza Grand Prix.

By then known as much for his driving talent as for his money, Zborowski was recruited for the Mercedes works team in 1924 - with which he died back at Monza after hitting a tree. By morbid coincidence, he was wearing the very same cufflinks that had been attributed to the death of his father 21 years earlier.

But at least he went out in style.

Photos: Getty Images

This article is part of the 'Gentleman Drivers' feature series that is presented and supported by EFG Bank.