Down on the farm

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GTO Engineering’s home may be in renovated agricultural buildings, but the only livestock in sight is painted on the scarlet flanks of the machinery inside. Words: Gordon Cruickshank. Photography: Charlie Hopkinson

A Berkshire farmyard. Around its four sides I see clay tiles, old brick, knotty beams, magnesium alloy glinting in the sun… Not the average farmyard, then. No Massey Fergusons, no straw; plenty of scarlet paint and the whiff of engine oil. This is where racing cars come for country air.

I’ve been here before, of course, as a chat with the man next door reminds me. Because the man next door is Tony Merrick, renowned vintage racer and restorer, who built up this business under his own name before retiring to the timber-framed farmhouse alongside. Now these attractive premises are home to GTO Engineering, proprietor Mark Lyon. Mark ran his own restoration company in Harrow and worked at Ferrari specialists DK Engineering before that. Which may be why the place is awash with Maranello metal.

Going from the blazing sun into the shade I almost collide with some black tubing; as my eyes adjust I recognise, even sans V12 engine, the squat haunches and huge twin fuel tanks of my favourite Ferrari, the 250LM. “Oh yes,” says Mark, “and there’s another one over there.” I scan over a Short-Wheelbase and a 250 Tour de France and see, high on stands, the toad-like but gorgeous form. This one is the ex-Ron Fry hillclimb car. “They’re both being prepped for the Le Mans Classic,” says Mark. “Both of them race with new engines – the original units are stored for safety.” I’m used to owners and restorers trying to convince me about the originality of a car, so this comes as a surprise. “I’m all for it, as long as you’re up front about it,” he continues. “If you put a rod out and slice an original block in half it’s gone for ever. This way the original engine is preserved.” I ask if there’s a performance difference. “You can rev the new ones higher.” Why? Clever materials? Synthetic oils? “Because the owners aren’t scared.”

Of course, as Mark openly agrees, new engines are good business for him. With its comprehensive machine shop GTO can supply all the parts, even build a complete Ferrari V12 race engine. All round the engine assembly shop are shelves and drawers packed with pistons, con rods, cam covers, even blocks. It represents a huge amount of money tied up, but as Mark points out, classic car owners are inevitably wealthy and often impatient. They want their new parts now, so a full stockroom is a good investment.

Business is always intense before the Goodwoods and the increasingly popular tour type events. Owners don’t help, says Mark. “We ask in November what they’re doing next year, but it’ll be February when they remember they need their car for April. But it’s always been like that, and aways will be.”

Now we’re looking at a 250 Testarossa – apparently. In reversal of the 250LM case, this is a completely new car with a period V12, which doesn’t upset Mark either. “I don’t object to the FIA issuing papers to a brand-new car, because it’s still up to race organisers whether they accept the replicas or not. What bothers me is, for example, the 340MM Ferrari we look after. Because it was rebodied, by Scaglietti, a year after it was built, the FIA won’t give it papers. It’s not in its original form. Yet a week later we got papers for a GTO replica.” Lyon isn’t grumbling too much, though; real or replica, it’s all good business for him. And business is plentiful.

Obscured by another competition SWB (the 1960 Tour de France winner, having the rear axle rebuilt) I almost miss a slim, dark-blue single-seater chassis with ‘Gurney’ writ large on the flank. It’s an Eagle, whose Weslake V12 is on the bench awaiting reassembly. It’s the only single-seater I can see, though until recently GTO looked after Carlo Vogele’s Alfetta and a 12C-37 Alfa. “We’ve seen fewer single-seaters lately,” agrees Mark, though it’s building up again.” That may be a consequence of the upsurge in Tour Auto-style events, which offer a series of races wrapped up in a week of rapid road driving. GTO does a lot of prep for these; one storeroom is packed with ‘race boxes’ – all the kit for each customer’s car. “We sometimes send eight cars and six support guys to Tour Auto,” says Mark. It’s a big commitment for a firm with only 12 employees; luckily Kevin Jones, in charge of the race operations, is an enthusiast and a competitor himself. In another barn I see the tapering green nose of an F1 car, an ex-Riccardo Patrese Benetton 185T complete with turbo V6 engine; Kevin plans to let it loose on hillclimbs.

It’s not all post-war machinery here; outside I meet Paul Mullins, who is hitching up a covered trailer. Inside it is R7B, the white ERA which Dudley Gahagan owned for so long. I can remember Dudley driving it at Brooklands Reunions a couple of decades ago, when it looked scruffy and time-worn. Mullins and GTO have worked hard to refresh it, yet retain as much old metal as possible. I follow it down the lane as it heads for VSCC Oulton Park, and wonder what the farmer who once rode along here on horseback would think of the ‘livestock’ in his barns today.

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