Historic scene: April 2018

When I wrote my last book I said it was my last book. Well, this one is definitely my last one. Although there is just one in the pipeline…”

That was Jonathan Wood, award-winning author of 35 previous works, on the launch of his magnum opus on the rarest of rarities, the Triumph Dolomite. No, as I’m sure Jonathan is by now tired of explaining, not the four-seater family box that in Sprint form livened the British race and rally scene in the 1970s. Nor the uninspiring late Thirties saloon that tried to glamorise its merely adequate underpinnings behind a fancy grille and a foreign name.

No, we are (or at least Jonathan is) talking about one of the most gloriously doomed projects, commercially speaking, that ever soaked up money to no effect – the Dolomite Straight Eight conceived and developed by Donald Healey when technical manager at the Coventry firm. Only two were ever completed, and in January both arrived at the RAC club in London to herald the book – their first public appearance together since they were assembled at Triumph’s works in 1934.

It’s an amazing tale, not because it was a glorious conceit that evaporated in a puff of market reality – there have been plenty of those over the years, including the subject of Jonathan’s previous ‘last’ book, the Squire. Again one man’s conception, quality placed high above viability – result, a mere seven desperately costly cars made before Companies House recorded another sad winding up.

Meeting the owners of two pre-war British supercars. And homing in on a missing circuit in the grounds of a French château 

The Dolomite differed because of Healey’s completely open borrowing of another designer’s work. His supercharged 2-litre engine was identical in form to Vittorio Jano’s straight-eight Alfa Romeo 2300 motor, then the most sophisticated and successful power unit on the racing scene – not an absolute copy as parts weren’t interchangeable, but clearly a illustration of the adage that if you’re going to copy, copy the best. So Triumph’s people took apart an 8C to look at the works. Even the in-house body was reminiscent of the Touring coachwork many an 8C 2.3 wore. Seemingly Alfa-Romeo was flattered, not annoyed (in any case it had just stopped making 2.3s), and Healey briefly suggested calling it the Triumph-Alfa though that would have taken the wind from the ‘It’s British!’ flag the home crew and UK press wanted it to sail under. In fact, Wood Informed me at the launch, only Motor Sport pointed out the similarity at the time.

In the end it was never going to fly and in 1935, a bad year for Triumph, production plans died. Just three chassis were built, which by a convoluted route well described in Jonathan’s book have crystallised into the pair of magnificent machines we are all admiring in the Pall Mall clubhouse. And by a quirk of kismet these rare birds have come to roost only a mile apart, in Yorkshire – owners Tim Whitworth and Jonathan Turner, both present with their charges, are practically neighbours.

It was Turner, CEO of oil company Bayford Group and an arch enthusiast who frequently drives his cars on long-distance classic rallies, who triggered both of Wood’s recent works, as the author explained. Having acquired a Squire, Turner also purchased Wood’s extensive archive – and then along with three other Squire owners, commissioned him to do the book. He continued the pattern by purchasing the Triumph and then suggesting Wood write a Dolomite history.

“I said, won’t that be a bit dull? There are only two of them…” smiled the author. It’s not. There’s more than enough in the story to keep it rolling; the photo of what happened when Healey took one car on the 1935 Monte Carlo Rally and had an argument with a Danish train tells a drama in itself. That is now Turner’s car, and rare as it is he doesn’t baby it: he’s tackled the Flying Scotsman rally in it and raced it in the Brooklands Trophy at Goodwood.

“Goes like the clappers and corners on rails!” says the always exuberant collector. I’ve seen him described elsewhere as “swashbuckling entrepreneur” – not far wrong for someone who flies from Yorkshire to his lochside Scottish holiday home by seaplane, touching down by his own front door.

Turner had his car restored at Blakeney-Edwards Motorsports, and Patrick B-E was here too, telling me about the job and how they added stylistic tweaks such as the chrome side-sweep and vestigial fin to the 1930s Corsica body to reinforce a Touring flavour. Some say the British chassis improved on the Italian, and Patrick, who often shares Turner’s cars in competition, confirms its terrific handling.

The second car was restored in the 1980s by erstwhile restorer and racer Tony Merrick, and it was good to meet him again at the launch, inspecting his work. Faced with worn-out Corsica bodywork, Merrick replicated the original Triumph body – interesting to see the cycle-mudguard British take on flowing-winged Italian style. Choice? I’d be thrilled to find either in my Christmas stocking.

I also met Donald Healey’s grandson Peter, who recalled his grandfather reminiscing about serving in the Royal Flying Corps aged just 17. He was blown out of the sky by friendly fire, ending his aerial career. Another titbit new to me was that when starting his own firm after WWII Donald didn’t want to name it after himself, but his one-time employer Victor Riley persuaded him it was a good idea. Peter wrote the book’s Foreword.

So now that Wood has told us everything about a seven-car run and a two-car run, where can he go next? About the only thing more abstruse would be a book on the fabulous Viume, invented by graphic fantasist Bruce McCall – tag-line, ‘a car so exclusive that none will be built’.

ALL OF US must have dreamed of the perfect car collection and the perfect place to house it, plus somewhere to exercise the cars. Many years ago on a press launch I was bowled over to be taken to a private motoring paradise centred on a beautiful château. And like Le Grand Meaulnes in the classic French novel, I couldn’t remember where it was.

It was in 1986; the car was the new Renault GTA, which had dropped the Alpine part of its patronym so as not to confuse the British public with the Chrysler Alpine. (So easily done – bland FWD Simca-based Euro hatch versus low, sleek, rear-engined GRP sports car.) We toured Alpine’s Dieppe factory, source of the tail-happy A110s which had slid their way to so many rally victories, where I was impressed by the new 2+2’s design – rear subframe carrying complete Renault V6 engine, transaxle and suspension, radiator placed flat in the nose to leave luggage space above – and the construction process – floorpan bonded onto backbone chassis, then complete body sides and roof glued in place like a vast Airfix kit.

For me it was a fine package – eye-grabbing looks, luggage space, plenty of poke in the turbo version. Was it sorted like a 911? Not a hope. Unless you were Jean-Claude Andruet or some other rally hero you were inevitably going to be caught out some wet night when you backed off mid-bend, triggering torque reversal followed by total reversal. But on our launch trip as we headed towards lunch I didn’t push it, especially as I had ex-racer and colourful commentator John Bolster aboard and was concentrating on smoothness so as not to interrupt his flow of stories about racing characters.

Then we arrived: what a sight. A classic French château, towering roofs, lake and all. But the real treasure came after lunch – we were escorted to a long stone building with Formula 1 and sports cars racked up the walls, plucked off the shelf when wanted by a giant fork-lift. Ferraris – 312PB, T3, 625, 126; Tyrrell, Williams, Renault RS01, D-type, GT40. Plus – a private racetrack. Short and tight, yes, but somewhere to safely play whenever you wanted. It seemed like heaven to me. Aiming not to damage the nation’s favourite deerstalker wearer – he was happy to let me drive having enjoyed a fine claret at lunch – I didn’t push the whistling turbo GTA on the track, just fantasised about waking up and finding myself the owner of the place.

But where was it? We weren’t told the owner’s identity, and my photos are lost; for years I didn’t know the location, and part of me said that like the narrator of Alain Fournier’s book I should simply keep the château’s image as a mystery, a perfect memory. But when I asked Doug Nye he immediately identified it as the Jacky Setton collection at Château de Wideville, west of Paris. It was disbanded not long after my visit when Setton sold up, and the château is now owned by a fashion designer. On Google Earth I see – sacrilege – an empty grassy field where the track once ran; not everyone’s idea of heaven is the same.

So my romantic memory will remain just that – a memory.

Long-time staffman Gordon Cruickshank learned his trade under Bill Boddy and competes in historic events in his Jaguar Mk2 and BMW 635