Preserve or perish!

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The opinions which follow do not necessarily comprise those of this paper, but they merit an airing as representing the point of view of a well-known enthusiast. Real motorcars, too, become scarcer every day. – Ed.

I have often met enthusiasts who go round trying to locate historic racing cars with the laudable view of putting them into good order and letting other enthusiasts share their pride of possession. These same enthusiasts wrinkle their brows and furrow the surface of the cranium with distress at the apparent nonentity of the aforementioned racers. “Where,” they say, “are the racing cars of yesterday?” Often they see them, but fail to recognise their old loves, so thick is the layer of enamel and false trimmings.

It is time that the subtle frame of mind known as “good taste” was more apparent among the pure enthusiasts. I will go so far as to say that there are many who will let their zest to be up and doing get the better of them before they have given the matter due consideration. If you had an Old Master, would you like to see it in a chromium frame? Would you like to see the Old Berkeley Coach swing silently round the corner with wheels and horses shod in pneumatics? Why not chromium-plate all your old copper warming pans to save cleaning them? Very bad taste, you will say, quite ridiculous, and what has this got to do with voitures or voiturettes de pur sang?

There seem to be two main classes of misguided, and the first is not such a menace as the second. He buys a good example of a particular decade. The car is spent, but it is all there. It matters not that it will consume more petrol in a day than he can afford in a month, and may even be a difficult car to handle and quite beyond the capacity of the owner. He scorns all textbooks on workshop practice and armed with the equipment beloved of “Bill Sikes,” namely, a hammer and chisel and perhaps a jemmy or adjustable spanner with the jaws spread, he gets to work. The engine must be dissected in the shortest possible time in order that he may inform his admiring cronies that “there is literally no wear in the cylinder bores, old boy; not a trace of play in the big ends.” The gearbox, brakes and back-axle receive the same treatment. At this point Fate steps in and he is either called to serve King and Country, or the car changes hands in boxes which range from old Players’ tins to packing cases. Sometimes the “Any old iron, guv’nor?” gentleman comes along just as our hero is beginning to blame it all on the designer of the vehicle. If the new owner is keen and his bookshelves contain other things besides purely documentary works on motor-racing, and he has a respect for tools and machinery, there is yet hope. This leads me to the second line of attack. I implore the new owner to try to get as much data about the car as possible before starting on the job. Ancient or modern, a photograph of the car as it originally started life will help; please do not have a horn that plays “Le Chemin du Paradis” on a Monza Alfa.

Why must enthusiasts with real technical ability try to modernise a car that in its own age was pre-eminent? I have seen independent suspension on Bugattis and Bentleys. I have seen chromium-plate and electric bells on Mercédès of the old school. There is also the radiator cowl school, who must put one of these excrescences on anything that comes their way. (The dictionary says: “Excrescence – that which grows out unnaturally from anything else.”) As for non-period silencers, why should a Bentley suffer in silence, or be made to produce an almost improper noise? Last, but not least, we have the engine-swapping fraternity. I will excuse anyone who puts a 4 1/2-litre Bentley engine into a 3-litre “Red Label” (provided it is not a team car), but can you excuse anyone who puts a Ford V8 engine into a Lancia “Lambda” or a Type 55 Bugatti? Here are some of the cars which have come to untimely ends, or suffered major alterations. The owners were entitled to do what they liked with them, but I mourn them, both good and bad:–

The Vauxhall Villiers.

A Type 54 Bugatti.

The Bi-motore Alfa-Romeo.

A 2-litre Grand Prix Sunbeam.

A Thomas Special.

A Grand Prix Delage.

A Type 37 Grand Prix Bugatti.

The Birkin single-seater and Birkin 4 1/2-litre Blower Bentleys.

An Alpine Talbot, a team car; and also many lesser known.

I will admit that I did once fit a downdraught carburetter to an Edwardian. It is still on my conscience…