As Lagonda scored its signature race win the Middlesex-based firm was staring death in the face. Richard Heseltine recounts the story of its Le Mans success and drives the sister machine
Thank you, you’ve been a beautiful audience. There’s nothing quite like having a few (hundred) rubber-neckers watching your every move to ramp up the pressure. Which normally wouldn’t matter much, but these spectators are ‘bikers and they’re as amused by your comedy headwear as they are by your choice of trackday weapon. Amid a mixed bag of eye-watering, multi-hued two-wheelers and a brace of Ferrari 360 British GT contenders, a 1934 Lagonda M45 being driven by what from a distance appears to be the Grand Cyclops of the Ku Klux Klan tends to enliven an otherwise dull lunch break. Glad to have obliged.
From the cabin of this glorious ex-Fox & Nicholl team car, Castle Combe seems much smaller than you remember, an impression only heightened by the two temporary chicanes that need to be negotiated at walking pace. Which gives you something extra to think about as you repeat the mantra ‘the middle pedal is not the brake’, the centre throttle not giving a moment’s anxiety until the end of the session when you forget to engage brain and hurtle towards the back of your own car in the paddock.
What this Lagonda needs is space. And lots of it. But then it was built to contest the Le Mans 24 Hours, in which it not only finished the 1935 running but also averaged 68mph. Not that bad considering that in the latter stages only fourth gear was on the menu. If the transmission hadn’t broken, it’s not inconceivable that it could have finished second overall — to one of its sister cars.
Among the forgotten Le Mans wins, Lagonda’s triumph at the Circuit de la Sarthe 70 years ago was all the more remarkable as the marque had lurched into receivership on April 18 1935, two months before the race. The Staines firm had introduced the M45, its largest-engined car to date, in ’33. Powered by a 4-litre Meadows 6ESC straight-six, this quick and egregiously expensive machine soon caught the attention of the competition fraternity, not least Arthur Fox of Fox & Nicholl who acquired, via London dealer Warwick Wright Ltd, ‘three 4-litre competition chassis in black with rough wood dashboards, special springs and batteries…’ Based on a 10ft 3in wheelbase (rather than the standard 10ft 9in), these frames featured uprated Girling rod brakes, negative-camber road springs, special friction dampers, Bishop steering box with additional bracing and a close-ratio ‘box.
Anxious for the Meadows engine to be as reliable as possible, Fox gained access to factory testing data, the units fitted to BPK 201, BPK 202 and BPK 203 incorporating custom-made crankcases made of high-tensile alloy, a higher compression ratio, a Scintilla Vertex magneto in place of a coil and distributor along with twin SU carburettors linked to four SU fuel pumps, the secondary set ready to be engaged should the primary items fail. Limited to 3600rpm, period figures talk of 140bhp along with planet-shifting levels of torque.
Entered in the 1934 RAC International Tourist Trophy around the 13.72-mile Ards road circuit, the Lagonda trio wore special dual-cockpit bodies finished in a vivid red, the dieting regime ensuring a kerb weight of 1524kg (with 27 gallons of fuel), a 123kg saving over the production car. With Brian Lewis, test pilot John Hindmarsh and future Land Speed Record ace John Cobb on the driving strength, it was Lewis who starred in a fierce battle with Eddie Hall’s Derby Bentley for much of the final 10 of 35 laps before being forced to relinquish the class lead after his tyres wore down to the canvas. A late pitstop meant he finished fourth overall with Hindmarsh in fifth and an apparently disinterested Cobb coming home in eighth place in ‘our’ car. They did at least win the team prize.
Retained by Fox & Nicholl as demonstrators, two of the M45s were entered for the 1935 Le Mans 24 Hours as black clouds hounded Lagonda Ltd. BPK 202 was assigned to Hindmarsh and Luis Fontes, with BPK 203 reserved for BRDC founder Dr JD Benjafield and Geoff Manby-Colegrave (though his seat was ultimately taken by Sir Ronald Gunter).
With further engine tweaking, scuttle-mounted cooling vents and specially-curved handbrake levers (so as not to cause any pratfalls during driver swaps), the two Brit leviathans proved surprisingly feisty against the hitherto dominant Alfas (Milan’s finest having triumphed in the preceding four runnings), their elephantine torque making up for any deficiency in horsepower. After two hours, Hindmarsh was running second in BPK 202 with Benjafield a comfortable sixth. By midnight they were running first and fifth respectively and, despite a lengthy pitstop at dawn to repair some offside-front accident damage, Lagonda’s lead entry was running second with its team-mate just two places behind. A few hours later BPK 202 was in the lead once more and a 1-2 finish seemed a possibility. After that transmission gremlins saw Benjafield stranded out on the circuit. After finding his way to the pits for instruction, he eventually returned to his stricken machine and managed to engage top before lapping 30mph slower than before. Lagonda took the flag in first and 13th.
Despite the late-in-the-day gearbox maladies, ‘Benjy’ evidently retained some affection for BPK 203 as he’s known to have purchased it shortly after the race (some speculate that he already owned it, having bought the car specifically for Le Mans), although the JH Bartlett dealership plaque suggests that it was sold on again before the start of WWII. Its immediate history is then a mystery, but by 1955 it was in the keep of Lagonda devotee Tom Goodman, who retained the car in remarkably original condition until passing it in ’72 to Mrs Anne ‘Robbie’ Hewitt. During her ownership the car was treated to a partial repaint and sympathetic overhaul by Denis Jenkinson.
Owned for the past 12 years by the manifestly enthusiastic Alison Moores, the car was shipped to New Zealand where it soon became clear that it wasn’t in the best of health. After stripping the car down with the help of an engineer friend, Moores comprehensively rebuilt all the mechanicals, straightening the chassis on discovering that it had been in a substantial accident at some point. Since then she’s raced the car at Pukekohe and Manfeild and also completed the 2000km Targa Rally. In June BPK 203 rejoined one of its sisters at Le Mans (but not the race winner as the Dutch owner bailed) for a reunion of the marque’s finest hour.
What impresses most about Moores’s approach to car care is that the M45 looks deliciously patinated: it hasn’t been got at. The paint is flat in places, the leather worn and it looks all the better for it (a dash plaque records that it finished last in an ’82 Lagonda Club concours). The old charger is set to go on the block at an H&H Classic Auction sale in July and you can only hope that the next owner doesn’t have it subjected to a Pebble Beach ‘it-ain’t-done-’til-it’s-overdone’ restoration.
Without doors, it isn’t the easiest of cars to get into: you climb aboard and then generally shuffle around until your lower limbs are clear of the wheel. Centre throttle aside, it’s about as conventional as ’30s fast tourers get. The steering is heavy — as is to be expected — but reasonably accurate with it despite perhaps a bit of play on the straight-ahead: four laps of Combe — which is hardly the most demanding of circuits — and your upper arms are soon flagging. The gear change is a joy despite the long throw. A period four-speed Alvis item in place of the original, notoriously truculent Meadows unit (which has since been rebuilt and is ready to be reinstated), it’s arguably the most user-friendly element of the entire car. That said, such is the torque spread from just about tickover that you can leave it in third and top pretty much all the way around the track. Which is a boon as placement of the accelerator pedal tends to loom large in your mind when braking and double de-clutching on the up and down changes. Not that this is strictly necessary as there’s synchromesh — it’s just that it’s very old synchro’. The brakes, too, are exemplary for their age and, according to the owner, at their best when being stood upon.
Not that there’s much chance of being required to do so as our allotted hour on the circuit has been whittled down to 20 minutes as a ‘celebrity TV pundit’ needs to get valuable track time for a Formula Three broadcast. One last lap for luck, and this time getting some speed up the Lagonda shows its trump card. It’s not quick by modern standards, but the way in which this car gains momentum is astounding. At about 60mph it gets second wind and romps along with the gusto of yore. But flat-chat into Quarry is sadly not going to happen and it’s back to the paddock. And some gentle ribbing by a tattooed bulwark and his significant other (proving that behind every really big man is a really big woman). You’ve got to laugh. No, really.
Thanks to H&H Classic Auctions (www.classic-auctions.co.uk), Alison Moores and to the Lagonda authority Arnold Davey.