Historic scene: August 2018

Reporting to headquarters to review the troops – of concours cars gathered in the City. Plus memories of TVR in the very old days

The Honourable Artillery Company – you can tell by its name that it’s an old outfit. In fact it has a claim to be the oldest regiment in the British Army, with links back to Henry VIII. It’s at the HAC’s headquarters off Moorgate that the latest London classic car concours spreads its wings, bonnets and boots.

From outside there’s no hint of the open space within but this secret green square covers five acres, overlooked by the Georgian façade of Armoury House. I hadn’t been here for years, not since I used to go to balls here in my dancing days, but I know the area – it’s a few hundred yards from Standard House, once home to Motor Sport and Motoring News when this area was a shabby printing quarter, not the buzzing entrepreneurial hub it’s become. (The old place has been spruced up – the cracked Formica, dangling blinds and broken terrazzo have gone, but shamefully there’s no green or red plaque to record the bizarre things that happened there as MS and MN careered towards press day.)

Crowded it wasn’t, this event. Taking place during the week this is not a mass public show; it’s £35 to get in and if you want the champagne lunch it’s £180. I had a sandwich, looking round at a row of stands offering fabulous watches, artworks, champagne and advice on how to manage your wealth.

But we were there to look at cars and the scene-setter was Duncan Pittaway’s S76 Fiat which towered over newly arrived visitors, and seemed to puzzle people standing around it.

Unusually the display featured Very Fast, Super Fast and Hyper Fast classes among others; I suppose it’s a good a way as any of distributing prizes. Hypercars from McLaren (720S), Aston Martin (One-77), Mercedes (AMG GT R) and Bugatti (Veyron) squatted on the grass adorned with colour slashes and gaping air intakes, and it was noticeable how compact and restrained a three-seater McLaren F1 looked in comparison. Not that much bigger than a Miura, part of the ‘Era-Defining’ class, which is still in my top five most beautiful cars ever designed. Others defined as ‘definers’ included the Mercedes 300SL coupé, Jaguar XK120 and Mike Timms’ Panhard et Levassor, winner of the 1898 Paris-Amsterdam race. A true era-maker, that one – an early adopter of pneumatic tyres and steering wheel.

Of present-day McLarens, I paused by a 720S thinking that this is the first of the new Woking cars that has a coherent shape to it, and the first I’ve found attractive.

Reverting to the F1, there was a De Tomaso Mangusta on the field with its butterfly engine covers opened to the skies. I didn’t realise before that it puts its luggage ahead of the rear wheels – I thought that was a Gordon Murray invention for the F1.

Another Murray connection was the new TVR Griffith (which I’d been able to inspect at our own Hall of Fame event earlier), developed around Murray’s iStream concept. It’s a far more serious machine than any previous TVR – it will pass Euro crash tests for a start – though the new firm was emphasising a continuing history with a Sagaris and both generations of Griffith on display. Confession time: I have a crush on the ’90s Griffith – a simple, clean well-proportioned shape. From the same people who brought you the Sagaris – the car that looks as though it got caught up in a sabre duel.

Outrageous bodywork shone in the sun; one of Ghia’s Supersonic creations on a Fiat 8V, a rare RHD Alfa Giulia SS (surprising similarities of form between the two) which won its class, a Zagato Lancia Flaminia 3C, the 1990 Alfa SZ which always looks as though it was once forced into a too-small crate. Attractive, in a jolie-laide way. Looking so tiny you could stick it under your arm, a bright blue Abarth 750 showed how the Zagato ‘double bubble’ roof arrived – no full-grown man could sit in this flyweight without it, yet a higher roof and screen would have looked absurd. Pragmatism becomes a trademark.

Two custom jobs stood out: a block-long Lincoln Continental convertible with what looked like pre-war Lucas P100 headlamps the size of dinner plates grafted in, and a Lancia Aurelia B20GT. I had to look twice – was this clean-lined Lancia always quite so low or quite so wide? No. The Outlaw is the limited-edition product of restorers Thornley Kelham who took a Series 6 car (a rough one, they point out), widened the wings, sliced 3in out of the roof, cleaned up the details and inserted a more modern Flaminia V6. It’s a Lancia, but not as we know it. As a professional I feel I ought to tut, but I think I liked it.

Much more radical was start-up firm Eadon Green’s Zeclat, an outrageous, swooping, low-line confection which is effectively a Corvette C7 in new clothes, having its first London exposure. Entrepreneur Lewis Eaton explained that its current glassfibre panels had upped the Corvette’s weight so he wouldn’t be releasing a car until he had perfected full carbon-composite clothing. But exclusivity isn’t cheap – a car will cost around £1.2m, more if you want to redesign the interior.

Among these symbols of extravagance was one vehicle that will have more effect on most of us – Geely’s new clean-air taxi. Built around Volvo technology with more than a nod visually to the traditional smoky, brake-squealing FX4, this cab can run 70 miles on volts alone, with a 1.3 petrol motor to get you to the next powerpoint. If the ‘no more petrol’ policy actually happens, that’s what we will all be riding in to visit static car displays.

In the end, Best of Show went to the huge Fiat, proving there’s no substitute for vertical inches…

I ONCE WENT to TVR’s Blackpool factory, about 30 years ago. I had a 350i then which I mostly liked, despite its lack of sophistication, feedback, predictability or ground clearance. After seeing inside the scruffy tin-roofed workshops I didn’t feel quite as secure as I drove away. Welding seemed to go on anywhere; wiring looms wandered across tatty plywood templates and the mess on the floor would have given Ron Dennis conniptions. I’m not disparaging the skills of the workforce – my TVR was more reliable, and watertight, than some of my Alfas – but this was no palace. And I hate to think about crash-worthiness – seeing the unforgiving tubing between me and the accident slowed me down for a while. But even now the tang of glassfibre resin wafts me back to Blackpool.

Back in the paleolothic era of digital journalism, I and all of Motoring News worked on the then-new Amstrad 256 computers. This was the future! And how excited we were about their abilities. Not so the portability: the poor MN guys would carry their Amstrads, complete with bulky television-sized cathode-ray screens, to each race meeting. One day I had mine on the luggage shelf of my 350i, screen wedged behind the seat. The top was down as usual (I only ever put it up overnight, so comfortable was the open cockpit) and as I paused at the lights in Battersea two young lads ogled the car.

“What’s this then, mister?”

“A TVR.”

“Coo. It’s even got a TV in it!”

THIRTY YEARS AFTER Brimingham’s Superprix, competitive motor sport returned to a British city centre when Coventry ran its two-day MotoFest in June. Sprint driver Olly Clark, who has previously been fastest up the Goodwood climb, topped the timings in his Subaru Impreza on the main 1.1-mile circuit while on a separate short oval Ryan Milton’s MX5 conquered the sprint shoot-outs.

Closing much of the city’s ring road, the event brought 130,000 spectators, say organisers, who saw Andy Wallace bellow through the underpass in his 1988 Le Mans-winning Jaguar XJR-9 along with other TWR and Group 44 Jaguars, touring cars, supercars, classics and a 250-bike parade lap. And to remind viewers that the Midlands was once the UK’s ‘petroleum valley’, Gaydon sent over the 1908 100hp Austin Grand Prix car.

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