These three pre-war raing cars have but one thing in common: each boasts the engine from an aeroplane under its bonnet. One damp day at Silverstone we discovered a uniwue form of motoring pleasure.
We were having a quiet coffee in Silverstone’s Paddock Diner when the Monarch arrived. I’ve experienced a small earth tremor before and the effect was not dissimilar. First came the tell-tale ripples scudding out from the centre of my white and no sugar. Then, more significantly, the faint ringing of cup in conflict with saucer presaging the far-off rumbling which made every human in the building look anxiously around.
Then it appeared; a couple of headlights, an implausibly long bonnet squirting flames from its flanks, a driver sat high above all he commanded and, well, save some wheels and a couple of terrifying-looking chains, not much else. And what of wings and windscreens? No sign at all, despite the fact that the Monarch arrived here courtesy not of a covered trailor but the 8.2-litre V8 Curtiss engine under its vestigial bonnet. It came from Bristol in less time than it took us to reach the track from London.
Duncan Pittaway, its relatively new owner jumps down, extends a grin and a gauntlet and, after introducing himself, does the same for his car. “It’s just great fun; you’re going to love it. It’s dead easy to drive; I take it everywhere… done thousands of miles in the thing.” He pauses. “There’s any number of things you could do to it,” he continues while, by way of illustration, idling tugging at a distinctly loose exposed rocker arm,”but why bother? It’s never let me down; goes like a train.”
It doesn’t sound like one. It sounds like a World War One biplane, which is surprising only until you team that that was one of the more conventional roles played by its engine. Only, of course, it’s not several thousand feet above my head, it’s right by my left ear and is consequently somewhat louder than in the traditional airborne application.
Duncan takes me through the hard points. “It’s got a four-speed sequential gearbox from a 1910 Panhard and, once you’ve learned it, you’ll never have to think about it again.” He points at the lever sprouting parallel to the gearshift. “This slows it down.” I point hopefully at the middle pedal but am deflated by the reply. “Oh that,” Duncan’s voice adopts a tone of mild curiosity. “Er, yes, that’s the transmission brake. Used it once in desperation as we sailed out of control into the hairpin at Cadwell. Don’t remember it making much difference…”
We agree my first experience should be from the passenger seat. “It’s quite advanced, really,” says Duncan only joking slightly as he juggles ignition and throttle settings while various VSCC members propel us down the pitlane. “The diff’s in the gearbox.” Before there’s a chance to explain the obvious reduction in unsprung weight brought by having only a solid beam linking the two rear wheels, there’s a bang, a lick of flame and pronounced forward motion. The Curtiss is back in business.
It is no exaggeration at all to say the Monarch was sideways some considerable distance before the pitlane joined the track, any more than it is to observe that the angle of the car followed the direction of its travel for no more than a few seconds at a time for the rest of the lap. The car was out of shape and, most of the time, utterly sideways through every corner on the track.
“You’ll see it’s the only way to drive it,” yells Duncan through his helmet and above the roar of the Curtiss. “You will never, ever have a problem turning into a corner and it will always oversteer. The trick is not to correct it until the slide is fully developed. Then get on the power and stay there. If you’re worried about it going too far and if you think you’re about to lose it, just use more power and it will be fine.”
I’m learning fast but it’s the approaches to the curves that worry me most. You don’t need a degree in advanced mathematics to know that if you are to hold onto the steering wheel, change gear and haul on a handbrake at the same time, you require fifty per cent more upper limbs than that with which the human frame is usually equipped. I watched Duncan yank on the brake (which operates on the rear wheels alone), pressing the button on the top of the lever to lock it in place, double declutch down a gear, return to release the brakes and then squeeze back on the power. And just to make sure you don’t get bored, the gear-lever has a button too, which you depress to disengage the gear but, if you don’t release it before it’s travelled the half inch to the next ratio (during which time, you must remember, you’re timing your declutches, steering, blipping the throttle and remembering that the brakes are still locked on), the lever will sail straight past your required ratio into the no-man’s land beyond.
My turn. You don’t sit in the Monarch or even really on it. The feeling is of being perched above it, looking along the bonnet to the beaded-edge front tyres. You can’t see the scarcely guarded chains whirring around below you, which is perhaps as well, nor can you hear them over the bellow jetting out of the Curtiss’ eight stub exhausts. I stalled it, of course. The clutch has 50 plates and requires a frequent fix of paraffin to stop it sticking. A push and a shove later and we’re rolling down the pit-lane, the Curtiss hammering out its menacing tune, driver searching for another gear which, mercifully, he finds.
You discover certain things before even reaching the track. The steering is as direct and quick as a kart’s and the throttle is very sensitive. Designed to run only at constant engine speeds, the aircraft engine is only really happy between 1800-2200rpm though, thanks to its unspecified but clearly monstrous torque output, this is less of a problem than it might seem.
The brakes, while predictably terrible, are at least consistently terrible and once you have adapted to the fact, they present no further problem. The gears, on the other hand, defy such logic. On some laps I am a seasoned professional, flicking up and down the box with all the ease Duncan suggested, on others I am the blithering idiot looking down to find the next notch.
Through this all, the Monarch feels swift and rather quicker than the modest 90bhp power figure suggested for its engine. There are three probable reasons for this: first the car weighs next to nothing; secondly, despite a modest power output, I’ll wager that there’s the thick end of 300lb ft of torque being spat out of that engine; and third – well, you try sitting up there and seeing if 100mph doesn’t feel at least twice as fast. ‘Exposed’ doesn’t begin to do justice to that driving position.
And it’s only when you have taken all of this on board that you start to appreciate that amid all the mayhem lies a truly delightful car. I’ve driven rear-drive rally cars that oversteer less readily and controllably than this, and racing cars with five times the power which are less than half as fun to drive. And the faster you go the funnier it is, right up to the point where the limit is defined by that moment when you realise that if you laugh any more you’re going to crash the car.
In racing terms, to be honest, it’s not that quick, losing out considerably to its more powerful VSCC bretheren down the straight, even if, as Duncan says, “You can surprise quite a few of them in the corners…” He has long since recognised that, armed with such a car, you don’t need to be standing on the top step of the podium every weekend to enjoy yourself.
It’s getting dark by the time our photographs are taken. Duncan swaps full face helmet for a woolly hat and jumps aboard for the trip home. I expect it will need fuel before nightfall but the suggestion is batted away. “Not at all; it’s got a huge tank, does 18mpg on the motorway. Very practical car really.” And with that the Monarch turns thunders out of the paddock.