My old chum “Titch” Allen, who founded the Vintage Motor Cycle Club back in 1946, always reckons that he and I were at the back of the queue when the legs were given out. We both suffer from being unable to reach things down off shelves, unless we put the shelves up ourselves, or to reach the pedals in many sports/racing cars.
I was also well down the queue when eyes were given out, unlike Ayrton Senna who must have been at the very front of the queue. There is little that you can do about natural physical disabilities or deficiences, though will-power, imagination and anticipation can make up for a lot of things. Scientific or medical people quote some sort of figure for eyesight, as if it helped. All I know is that eyesight has never been my strong point but I learnt to accept the fact a long time ago and used other faculties like anticipation and knowledge to help make up for the deficiency.
Had I taken up stamp collecting, using a strong magnifying glass, I would have been alright, but I became obsessed by cars and motorcycles and speed, with the result that many of my limitations have been influenced by poor eyesight. Visibility at night was one of the limitations, not helped by doing a lot of my early motoring during the war years when we were only allowed a minimum of candle-power. I got so used to riding a motorcycle in the dark with a bicycle lamp on the front, that it was many years before I had a machine with a proper headlamp. When the post-war headlamp development got under way I soon found it was a bit academic to me, as in all honesty I could not really see clearly to the end of the beams of the new super-lights.
If you add rain to the conditions of darkness then I might as well stop in a lay-by. I was always quite happy to ride as passenger in the dark, or the dark and rain, providing I knew my friends’ driving ability and they knew their car.
A long while ago I was running a little Lancia Aprilia and took a friend with me on a trip to Sicily. The last leg of our journey was from Messina to Palermo, along the Sicilian coast road, long before autostradas had been thought of in the south. Neither of us had been to Sicily before so we did not know the road and were merely following the signposts saying “Palermo”. I was groping my way along as best I could in the dark, and my friend suggested he took over. Whereas I had been going along at 40-45 mph, he set off at 65-70 mph and as it was my car I got a bit concerned that we were going to bounce off a rock or something. He assured me that all was well, and that he liked the Aprilia and the way it steered and handled and I began to realize that his “night vision” was exceptional. I got him to read the road ahead out loud as we went along, reading road signs, advertisement boards, road directions and so on, and it became very clear that his eyesight was at least 25% better than mine, if not more.
We got to Palermo in time for supper, having enjoyed the 200 miles of coast road which are an enthusiast’s delight, and I was quite happy passengering. Later on we did other tests of vision because he was such an excellent standard by which to judge things. As he was also a first-rate driver whose style was smooth and flowing and fast he enabled me to analyse myself very objectively.
When road cars began to go fast in the late Fifties and early Sixties, I found that 125 mph on a normal road in daylight was about my comfortable limit. I have occasionally reached over 140 mph on an autostrada, but I am very aware that I am treading in the unknown as far as my vision is concerned. If you are not a top-class racing driver and get the opportunity to ride with someone who is you will not fail to be impressed with his eyesight. When Ayrton Senna was starting out on his Grand Prix career he asked me what natural faculties were essential to becoming a front-line driver. I said that first of all you must have 100% eyesight; he looked thoughtful for a moment, then he smiled and said “Yes”. I went on to tell him that there were various other things, but without super eyesight you could not hope to get to the top. Many years ago Masten Gregory asked the same question, and as he wore glasses I said he would never make it to the top. He disagreed with me. I may one day be proved to be wrong, but I have yet to see a World Champion who wears glasses.
All this pre-amble actually brings me to the point of this letter! Back in 1966 I had a glorious week’s motoring in a Ford GT40, but there was one black spot in the 900 miles I did in that fantastic machine. This was a drive to the heart of Wales to visit the Editor in his Welsh hideaway and the last half hour of the journey was in the dark and it was raining.
Now the GT40 had a very sloping windscreen and a lying-back Grand Prix driving position, so I was not enjoying myself. Add to that a rather ineffectual wiper and conditions were as bad as they could be for me with my limited vision. It wasn’t my car, and Ford Advanced Vehicles who had loaned it to me would not have been amused if I hit a wandering sheep or something. The result was that I could barely get out of second gear and was going very slowly (for a GT40).
As if all this wasn’t bad enough there was an Austin A35 van on my tail and I just couldn’t get away from it! As I groped my way into the murk this van was fizzing merrily along behind me and I felt sure it was going to overtake me at any moment. The ignominy of the situation spoilt my day. I eventually turned off the main road to head for “Bud Hall” and was glad to see the back of that A35 van. All that was 23 years ago.
Last month I wrote a letter about vans, and received a response from Roger Sharpley of Ross-on-Wye. It reminded him of the days when he was running an A35 Austin van for his everyday transport. It had twin SU carburettors, decent inlet and exhaust manifolds and a brake servo, but outwardly was just a simple blue van. Yes, it was him in the van on that November night in 1966. As he says, having a dice with a GT40 Ford in Wales on a wet and murky November night is not something you forget. Since then he has intended to write to me every five years or so, but never got round to it. Still an avid reader of Motor Sport, he has at last put pen to paper, and how refreshing it was to receive the letter.
This Letter to Readers prompts a lot of letters to DSJ and they are all most welcome and read with the enthusiasm that prompt, them. One day I must persuade the powers-that-be to give me more than a single page and I will reproduce some of them. They cover every aspect of motoring and motor racing and are all about our enthusiasm for our sport and pastime. Yours, DSJ