Letter from DSJ

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Motoring with a Capital M

Dear AH,
I was interested to read your views on the latest mid-engined Ferrari 328 GTB, especially having suffered the east London exodus in the dark and pouring rain with you the night before your happy day. It recalled memories of a journey I made to see WB in his Welsh lair 20 years ago in a road-going Ford GT40.

I picked the car up from JW Automotive in Slough, thrashed it round my local Hampshire roads to get used to it, and then set off across the Berkshire downs and through the lovely Cotswolds at ridiculous speeds, but with total confidence and in total safety. That GT40 was a landmark in motoring if you spelt motoring with a capital M, as we used to do in those glorious limit-free days of the swinging sixties.

I lost count of the number of times the speedo went beyond 130mph, but I do recall seeing 152mph on one occasion. You know how we all have our own favourite roads from B to C, the sort of stretch of road you would incorporate into a Grand Prix circuit if you were asked to map out a circuit on English public roads? Well, one of mine is the road from Burford to Stow-on-the-Wold, and I used to reckon on taking about nine minutes from centre to centre in the 4.2-litre E-type Jaguar.

Regrettably the GT40 did not have a clock and I never wear a watch so I don’t know what time it did, but it was a lot quicker than the old E-type, of that I’m sure.

Anyone who has not driven a well-designed, powerful mid-engined coupe on the open road has missed a lot. The overall stability, ride and handling is in a world of its own, and at the time I was convinced all high-performance sports and GT cars would go the mid-engine route.

Unfortunately the market-place was more concerned about luggage space, noise, rearward visibility and ease of getting in and out, than it was about the ultimate enjoyment factor of motoring. Fortunately some manufacturers like Ferrari, Lamborghini, Maserati and Lotus have persevered with the mid-engine theme for ultimate enjoyment.

On my way to central Wales I stopped off to see some friends and stayed too long, so that by the time I left darkness had fallen. It was raining, and trying to turn to snow.

Now at the best of times my night-vision is poor, and from the reclining seat of the GT40, with steeply-angled screen and none-too-good windscreen wiper, I was hard-pushed to get out of second gear on unfamiliar roads. As I was groping my way along, hating every minute of the journey, some headlights came up behind me and an Austin A35 van whistled by in a cloud of spray. I tried to hang on to his tail-lights as he was obviously a local lad who knew the road, but I’m ashamed to say that even with a Ford GT40 I could not keep up with that van. It wasn’t the GT40’s fault, it was entirely my inability to cope with the conditions.

As I said, I thought of that nightmare trip as you drove me out of east London in the Ferrari 328 GTB; I’m glad you didn’t ask me to drive. I would love to have met my A35 van driver, for the occasion must have made his day.

Next day Wales was dry and sunny and I was able to get back to normal Motoring, but it would have been nice to have taken the van driver for a dice over the deserted Welsh roads in the sunshine. Nightmares soon go away, especially when reality is so enjoyable, as you found with the Ferrari.

It is interesting how it never rains, it pours, I haven’t been near a Ford GT40 or even looked at one for years, and recently chance took me to see two, one a brand new MkV and the other an old second-hand original.

Peter Thorp and his Safir Engineering firm in Byfleet, Surrey, have been making new GT40 cars, with the blessing of the directors of JW Automotive who made the original cars for Ford. John Wyer and John Wilment, who formed the original firm, agreed to Thorp continuing production and using a series of chassis numbers following on from where JW Automotive left off. The Safir-built run of twenty-five cars are called GT40 MkV as they incorporate numerous detail improvements which would undoubtedly have gone onto the production cars had the series continued.

A friend had left his Peugeot with Safir and needed taking there to retrieve it, so a quick trip in a Porsche 924S delivered him to Byfleet. While there, we had a look at the seventeenth and last of the Safir series being finished, and it was difficult to believe that the concept and design was more than 20 years old.

It brought to mind some great days of long-distance sports car racing, when Ford set out to beat Ferrari, and took three years to do it, their ultimate 7-litre MkIV being an incredible car, by any standards. There is one of these 7-litre cars in the Ford Museum at Dearborn, and I am always impressed how small it is.

Not long after this visit to Safir, another friend called in and asked if I could take him over to Duncan Hamilton’s second-hand car showrooms at Bagshot. The reason for the visit was that he wanted to look at the Ford GT40 they had for sale.

This was an original Ford GT40 which had been modified for road use, with a very effective silencer mounted above the gearbox, so that it retained the pair of evocative exhaust pipes sticking out the back like a couple of cannons.

Instead of the impressive battery of down-draught double-choke Weber carburettors normally fitted, it had a 4-choke Holley carburettor and manifolding, helping to make it more tractable. Otherwise it was a GT40, on wire-spoke wheels with three-eared hubcaps, as raced in the mid-sixties.

The puzzling thing about this sudden interest in the GT40 was that the brand new MkV could be bought for around £60,000, while Duncan Hamilton’s son Adrian, who runs the family business, was asking £125,000 for the second-hand one. How 20 years of age can make an old car worth twice as much as a virtually indentical brand new one, is something I still cannot understand.

For the price of the 20-year-old Ford GT40 you could have the very latest Boxer-engined Ferrari Testarossa, with all the extras and enough money left over to fill the petrol tank! If it is a mid-engined sports car you want, the Testarossa must be the ultimate car. For the sort of money these people are talking about you could even have a 4WD Porsche 959, and there cannot be anything more exclusive than that.

My sense of proportion will return when I thrash off to Imola from Bologna airport in the Avis Fiat Uno, unless I get the short straw and end up with an Alfa Romeo Arna. Of all the hire-cars we use it was the bog-standard Peugeot 205 “Eurobox” which impressed me most of all. It was actually fun to drive. Yours, DSJ