Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

Carbs and canapes

A party at Gregor Fisken's was also a chance to inspect a British record holder

I’ve been passing under this elaborate stone archway at intervals for 30 years. It leads to Queensgate Place Mews in Kensington, once merely a service road for the carriages and horses of the wealthy inhabitants living in the tall houses behind, then when horses had run their course, a cheap place to hire a workshop with large doors. London was full of these small mews garages, loose boxes and mangers replaced by benches and inspection pits, until a few bohemians discovered they could create a nice cheap little nest in these quiet alleys. 

Most of those garage businesses handled bread and butter Fords and Morrises, but this particular mews famously became a mecca for more exotic machinery, and you’ll see few more exotic vehicles parked on a London street than this – a Le Mans car, a Ferrari 512, a 12-cylinder brute in unfamiliar yellow paint, sitting outside on cobbles that might remind it of the Monza paddock where once it competed.

The Ferrari’s my excuse for visiting, but it doesn’t hurt that there’s also a party going on. Fiskens, which was celebrating its 25 years of business on the night, is the last flag waver for the great days of the mews where Charles Howard, Coys of Kensington and most memorably that racer and restorer Dan Margulies all based themselves, rolling 6CM Maseratis and 8C Alfas into the road for fettling. Now there’s just one specialist left, but instead of being priced out of its central London situation – eminently suitable for clients flying in – the firm under its unstoppably keen founder and racer Gregor Fisken has expanded, occupying a second bay where they chose to go underground effectively to double the space.

It took three years of digging but makes an impressive facility, with slick floors that would please Ron Dennis and striking photography around the walls, while lightwells and wall mirrors ensure the downstairs doesn’t feel like downstairs. But the highlight is a clever hydraulic scissor lift that takes vehicles between levels, a rectangular section of floor that sinks slowly out of sight like a scene from Thunderbirds, reappearing with some rare racing car on board. No glass frontages either; like their other showroom, currently filled with an Alfa T33, Vauxhall 30-98, ex-works Healey 3000 and other desirables, the bay retains the twin wooden doors appropriate to this traditional place. Customers for historic vehicles aren’t exactly passing trade to be tempted in by window dressing.

“This was Charles Howard’s bay, near Dan Margulies,” explains Fisken, adding “Dan was my mentor – and an old curmudgeon. But he knew everything about the cars he was working on, and I absorbed everything I could from him when I worked at Coys.” That was after an apprenticeship with bluff, moustachioed car restorer and trader Bunty Scott-Moncrieff – “Purveyors of horseless carriages to the nobility and gentry.” Which tells you the sort of character he was, the sort you’d invent to spice up a novel. (He once tried to persuade me to drive to Russia in his Packard roadster. Can’t recall why.) 

Scotsman Gregor’s parents run a car business in Angus and he says his move south was meant to be temporary – “They’re still waiting for me to return and do a proper job.’ With four Le Mans races under his belt in everything from LMP1 to GTs, not to mention plenty of success in historic racing at all the prime meetings, it doesn’t look as though the novelty of the first two and a half decades in business is likely to wear off any time soon.

* * *

So it was a hearty party, and outside (nose to nose with the 312T3 Carlos Reutemann drove to victory in the 1978 US Grand Prix) stood the 512, low and wide and very yellow. With Le Mans, Daytona and Monza mileage under its tyres plus a British speed record, it boasts plenty of history. Somehow seeing such a car out of context, in the road instead of on track, makes you look again at the construction and the details – the crude panel clasps, off the shelf door locks and mirrors, drag-inducing exposed hinges, the glued-on runners for the tiny window ventilation port. All absolutely typical of the time, especially as this ‘production run’ of 25 cars was created in a rushed nine months as part of Maranello’s catch-up response to Porsche’s 917, that loop-hole special that skirted the FIA’s intended 3-litre limitation by filling a 25-car space in the 5-litre class properly meant for stock blocks, not race engines. 

With a mechanical fuel-injected quad-cam V12 influenced by the Can-Am 612 and a chassis reminiscent of the 312P it broke no new ground, but then Maranello had no time to innovate if it was to hit the homologation deadline. Which it did, and thus 1970 saw an unexpected squadron of Maranello’s top-line sports car available to any team with the ready cash. With only two seasons open before the 3-litre rule strangled the front-line career of these big-engined beasts, Ferrari simply hadn’t left itself the time to refine the slightly disappointing speed and poise of the first 512S into a consistent Porsche beater, even though 1971 would bring a significant leap with the 512M. But in the model’s debut year it was the only machine that seemed a real challenger to Weissach, and no fewer than a dozen slotted themselves backwards into the traditional angled start formation. 

This one, chassis 1002, appeared in the livery of Spanish privateer team Escuderia Montjuich, in roofless 512S form. José Juncadella and Juan Fernandez got up to 10th before a collision scuppered their run, but later that season the car ran at Jarama and Montlhéry where Jean-Pierre Jabouille joined Juncadella to place second overall in the Paris 1000Km. It may not have been a works car, but it was proving itself a serious contender for a privateer outfit, showing impressive speed into 1971 at Buenos Aires and the Daytona 24. By now Maranello had honed and sharpened its weapon into the roofed-in 512M, 40hp pokier, pounds lighter and notably less draggy (if not as pretty), and Montjuich sent the car back for that upgrade in time for the BOAC 1000Km and Le Mans. One other go-faster mod helped the yellow device up to fifth place in the French classic before the transmission failed – Nino Vaccarella
in the driving seat. 

Further races at Monza, Imola, Österreichring and Montlhéry wrapped up two busy years for the car apart from one glorious late outing. These were the days when current Group 5 Le Mans machinery could contest the Tour de France Automobile, the circuit-to-circuit sprint around la patrie on public roads – as long as they were road-registered. With its MI plates attached, 1002 thundered through the French countryside with Juncadella and Jean-Claude Guénard crammed sweating and deafened into the notionally two-seater cockpit, now enclosed after the conversion to M-spec berlinetta form. But that unlikely enterprise brought the car’s biggest achievement, when the pair hustled the big yellow machine into second place following a 3-litre Group 6 Matra MS650 – the very class of racing car which had now made it redundant.

Happily 1002 was then acquired by British collector Robert Horne of the tailoring firm. Rather than enter it in Libre events or hillcimbs and risk knocking originality off it corner by corner, he kept it maintained by marque expert Bob Houghton as a fine historical artefact, with one unusual adventure. In 1977 Horne used it to raise the British flying mile speed record, which amazingly had lasted 50 years since being set as part of Malcolm Campbell’s 1927 Land Speed Record at Pendine. Down the extra-long runway of RAF Fairford, extended to handle H-bomb-laden Cold War aircraft, Horne outpaced Campbell’s 174mph with 192 – and if anyone should whisper that many a 512 surpassed that lap after lap at Le Mans, well, remember that Anglophile as the event is, the MSA doesn’t yet recognise La Sarthe as home territory.  

In 2009 the car passed to Dieter Roschmann who ran it for a season in the Ferrari-Maserati Historic Challenge, unsurprisingly taking three wins, and it has twice returned to Le Mans for the Classic. Now it has a new custodian, so we may be able to hear that Maranello yowl in the seasons to come. I couldn’t persuade anyone to start it up on party night, maybe because Fiskens had already been in trouble over the car. In the summer, while rearranging their stock, they briefly left it across the road where an eager traffic warden spotted it. It seemed to have a registration number – so it received a parking ticket, taped firmly to the same screen through which Vaccarella watched the Mulsanne Straight flash by at 200mph.

Twin Chittys

Ignoring its dubious origin, the name of Zborowski's giant car still intrigues

Writing about Count Zborowski and his Chitty racing specials recently reminded me of a note from Brooklands volunteer Brent Chiswick about the name minefield over the Count’s giant racers. It’s one of the tropes of working at Motor Sport that the real cars are ‘Chitty Bang Bang’ and only Ian Fleming’s fictional car comes equipped with twin Chittys. Bill Boddy dinned that into me years ago, which is why when writing about his Brooklands notebooks compiled while he was still at school, I commented on his reporting he had seen “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang” at The Track. 

Brent’s note says his fellow volunteer David Williams points out that in the Brooklands archive is a photo labelled as being one of the Conan-Doyle brothers, who bought Chitty 1, sitting what looks like Chitty 2 and clearly bears the legend ‘Chitty Chitty Bang Bang’. 

“So we wondered,” says Brent, “could it be the 14-year-old Bill Boddy actually very accurately described the car’s original name in his notebook whilst his older self had a slight memory lapse in this respect?”

He adds that “this will probably pose more questions than it answers”. He’s right. After Zborowski crashed the 23-litre Maybach aero-engined machine at Brooklands in 1922, Chitty 1 was rebuilt with more practical touring bodywork, before in 1930 the Conan-Doyles bought it and refurbished it again ready for the 1931 Inter-Varsity speed trials. But Chitty 2, the  surviving Benz-powered car (later bought and sold on by Bunty Scott-Moncrieff) was built very shortly after the first one and has carried the double name for many years if not when new. Did someone mis-remember the name when instructing the sign-writer?  

Hardly a vital question – but just the sort of arcane detail historians love to endlessly debate. A definitive answer would spoil the fun.