A Racing Car's Birthday

On July 7th, 1908, three great 12-litre Halm started in the French Grand Prix over the Dieppe circuit and in due time, in fact eight hours, seven minutes and 56 seconds later, that driven by Cagno finished the 477-mile race in 11th place.

This remarkable motor-car later ran at Brooklands, only to vanish with the mists of time and the onrush of a World War. Fortunately it surfaced in Norfolk some years before the next Major European conflict broke out and its story has been told subsequently, from time to time, in Motor Sport. This historic and inspiring car is now owned jointly by Cecil Clutton and Jack Williamson and is a frequent and very effective performer in VSCC speed events. Moreover, it must be the oldest Grand Prix car still in regular exercise, and there are few others of its age extant, although a side-valve 1908 GP Austin is incarcerated in the Donington Collection. So it was fitting that the Itala’s owners should hold a party for it, on its 70th birthday.

The venue was Silverstone and as the course was not available on July 7th the day was moved forward to July 4th. The old car was looking very smart indeed as it stood in the Scutinters’ Bay viewing its guests. The red body has been altered to a near replica of that used in the 1908 Grand Prix, although as the car now carries four spare wheels instead of just tyres behind the oncevertical tail petrol tank has not been incorporated, because the wheels would not thread over it. The vast o.h.v. engine behind the equally vast radiator of gleaming brass still functions on low-tension ignition, of course, but originally the Itala had different-size back tyres, and wood-spoked wheels all round, the detachable wire wheels having been fitted for pre-1914 Brooklands. Immaculate as it looked, the old car was so overcome on July 4th that for once it was not running well, having lost all compression from its No. 4 (155 x 160 mm.) cylinder, although as you will read on another page, it recovered in time to compete at Shelsley Walsh the following weekend.

This in no way spoilt the party, where the buffet lunch was to Cordon Bleu standards – my wife endorses this – and the accompanying machinery of a very high order. For example, Roger Collings had come up from Somerset the day before itt his stripped-for-racing 1903 Sixty Mercedes and the first thing I saw was D.S.J. riding on the mechanician’s floor-perch. Bunny Tubbs had driven his enormous 1906 Gobron-Brillie opposed-piston tourer up from Kent Corner had come from Durham in the 1914 TT Sunbeam, John Bolster had arrived, also from Kent, in his 1911 40/50 Rolls-Royce, and Nigel Arnold-Forster had put new gears in the 5-litre chain-drive Bugatti just in time for it to be present. Also present were the 10 1/2-litre V12 Delage, Liddell’s Straker-Squire, the Rowleys’ Clement Talbot, and the 4 1/2-litre Bentleys of Toni Threlfall and George Daniels. Ron Barker came on his 1908 Sixty Napier with Sonia Rolt as the intrepid passenger, and across the way Summers and Black were testing their 6C and 8CM Maseratis respectively. Stanley Sears had come all the way from Portugal, many other well-known VSCC personalities were there, as well as all the VSCC staff. The Press was represented by Motor Sport, John Taylor of Country Life, and the photographer of the Northampton Echo who put his colleagues to shame by riding to Silverstone on his immaculate 1920 7-h.p. model-A BSA with hooded sidecar. In the background, out on the full circuit, Niki Lauda was busy testing a Brabham-Alfa Romeo; I think it would be true to say that as this excellent Itala party proceeded no-one heeded the F1 sound. Different worlds! When we left Threlfall and Collings were attempting to master a viciously-large penny-farthing bicycle…  – W.B.