A test to destruction

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The Hon. Alan Clark M.P. tells of the outcome of a challenge, in the best tradition of a past age, involving his 1923 Rolls-Royce Silver Ghost and a 1928 H6B Hispano-Suiza.

Readers of MOTOR SPORT will already be familiar with the exploits of the notorious bi-carburettor Ghost which terrorised the RROC Alpine Commemorative Rally in 1973, as also will they be with the sweeping and assertive claims that the owner makes for its performance. (As a matter of fact I only realised how offensive our behaviour must have seemed when, on reading the account of the Rally in the American RROC Journal, I saw that no mention whatever was made of the hospitality which my wife and I had extended to every member of the Rally at Saltwood Castle on the eve of departure and the only reference to my name was that coupled with accusations of ‘arrogant’ driving!)

I have long maintained that although there may be faster vintage cars than the bi-carb’ there must be very few with its combination of speed and endurance. A possible contender emerged in Charles Howard’s 1928 H6B Hispano-Suiza with Hibberd and Darrin coupe bodywork. This Hispano had enjoyed a long period of hibernation in the United States in the Forties and Fifties and had only covered the (relatively) small mileage of 50,000. A duel between the two cars along the A20 had shown a more or less equivalent performance, although Howard was confident of the Hispano’s superiority because he twice overtook me under acceleration on a clear road. Anyhow, we decided to settle the comparative merits of the two cars by a non-stop run from Calais to Cannes. Howard believed that the slight extra edge on the Hispano’s performance would accumulate over the long route and give him a substantial margin on arrival, but I, having much experience of using the Ghost flat-out for hours on end, on everything from Autostrada to bumpy Routes Departmentales, know that there are very few vintage cars today that can take this sort of punishment indefinitely in the summer heat.

Of course racing on the roads is illegal, even in France, so any rumours (some of which have already appeared in print in other journals) that a substantial wager was attached to the result, could not possibly be true. But we did agree to divide the route into a series of stages with a gentleman’s understanding to halt at pre-arranged points in the major townships to avoid any temptation to dice in restricted areas. The girls were left behind and in the tradition of the early ‘twenties we were each accompanied by a mechanic, Jonathan Harley riding with me, and John Leyland the Senior Vintage specialist at Coys going with Charles Howard in the Hispano.

Owing to pressure of work the trip could only be undertaken on a weekend, as we both felt that by August the roads would be too crowded and any Saturday in July would be highly congested and uncomfortable. Fortunately, I managed to get a ‘pair’ for the afternoon and evening of Thursday 17 July (though what the unsuspecting Minister of Agriculture would have said had he known that his ‘pair’ was to prove the relative merits of Silver Ghost and Hispano-Suiza, I don’t know probably, being a great sportsman himself, he would have been highly delighted).

The two cars took the five o’clock boat from Dover and disembarked at Calais with enough daylight left to reach our overnight destination at the Chateau de Montreuil. It very soon became apparent that the superior acceleration of the Hispano in the 30-50 mph range using its middle gear (slightly lower than third on the Ghost) gave the French car an advantage in overtaking. But the handling and braking of the Silver Ghost were markedly better, and I was confident that the peace of mind that this generates would pay off in the long run. How far this was due to better weight distribution, how far to the 23in Dunlops which the Ghost was wearing compared with the US ‘Lesters’ made in Pakistan which were on the Hispano; and how far due to the difference between the 360 degree vision from the Ghost cockpit and the rather claustrophobic view from the American Doctor’s coupe, was hard to assess. Certainly my own memory of driving the Hispano with its somewhat alarming habit of leaping some 6 to 8 ft to the left when the servo brakes were put on hard had been one of the reasons that I so readily laid down the challenge.

In this style the two cars thundered, always within sight of one another, along the open undulating roads from Calais to Montreuil. Bad camber, frequent assertions of priorité but local bourgeoisie emerging from the side roads and gathering dusk, tested our reactions. I was glad to notice, however, the effortless way in which the Ghost would close up on the Hispano in that succession of sweeping downhill curves that will be familiar to the many generations of motoring holidaymakers from the U.K. and which seem always to be scarred by hideous brake marks and bruised Armco barrier.

We had stopped briefly en route to reserve our rooms, illustrating a useful maxim that reservations made when one is vingt minutes away are more likely to be accepted than those made at cross-channel distances (we had asked for identical accommodation the previous afternoon by telephone from London). The dinner at the Chateau was delicious, the specialité of omelette d’homard being served discreetly, but in no great haste, by a retinue of middle-aged ladies, more or less identical in appearance and wearing a subtle variety of beige dresses almost as if belonging to an Enclosed Order of Gastronomie.

In spite of frequently repeated avowals of an early start our departure the following morning did, in fact, occur at the more or less standard time of 9.50 a.m. and the two cars drove in close company to Abbeville. Here I was due to collect some spares for the family 2CV and noted that the frustrations at the parts counter (always an experience comparable only to trying to get a subscriber’s number from Directory Enquiries) were marginally but only marginally less than doing the same thing at a British Leyland agency. For some reason the Hispano had been parked at a distance from the Ghost and Jonathan Harley reported to me that his opposite number had spent most of the interval about 40 minutes ‘fiddling about’ under the dashboard, which naturally started a rumour that the French car, which still presumably carried a lot of 1928 wiring, might be suffering from defects in the L.T. circuit. However, it started up easily enough and at around midday we were motoring along the increasingly open roads between Abbeville and Poix.

This was the first time that we had the opportunity of comparing the cars’ performance at maximum and here an interesting fact emerged. Although the Hispano would draw steadily away from the Rolls from 45 to 70/75 mph, the higher final-drive on the Ghost did permit, in the ultimate, higher maximum speed. Consequently where the road was long and open enough or, better still, where it ran down-hill for a mile or so, the Ghost would go past its adversary again. A quick sideways glance at the Hispano crew while we were doing this revealed an expression of extreme seriousness, not to say anxiety.

All the same at this stage the Hispano was pressing us hard, and though I tried to draw consolation from the fact that the clatter of his valve gear seemed to be becoming more and more obtrusive, twice found myself holding third on long inclines so far beyond the original safe rev-limit that centrifugal force made it almost impossible to move the gear lever back into top. The modifications to the Ghost engine have already been described in an earlier article and suffice it to say that meticulous electronic balancing (which was unknown in 1923) is the essential complement to the improved breathing which allows higher revs. But one is still reminded of the old safe limit by an indefinable roughness which sets in at about 1,800 rpm and continues until 2,200. Thereafter the engine becomes uncannily smooth and the new limits seem to be set by sheer inability to induct through its side valves at much over 3,000 rpm.

After we had overtaken the Hispano for the second time (in the first instance he had got by us again quite quickly in heavy traffic) we eased off the throttle so as to run at about 2,400 rpm about 72 miles an hour, and fully expected him to close with us. In fact, the Hispano seemed to become much less aggressive. Its image in the mirror was smaller, and its tendency to allow other vehicles to lie between us more marked. Jonathan and I both put this down to tactics and decided to counter by increasing our own speed to the maximum that safety would permit. For six or seven miles we drove at between 2,700 and 2,850 rpm (i.e. considerably over 80 mph) and it seemed that we had shaken him off altogether. Then in conformity with our agreement we arrived at Poix and stopped by the roadsign on the town boundary.

Minutes ticked by, and after we had been standing for more than five we knew the French car must have stopped for some reason. At Abbeville we had taken on a joint total of 43 gallons of fuel (!), so the stop must be involuntary and, presumably, mechanical. Now we were actually accumulating points for the elapsed time differences on previous stages had been so small as hardly to count in the total journey time. And after we had been waiting for a quarter of an hour an English family towing a caravan behind a yellow Ford Granada Estate car thoughtfully drew up and told us that ‘the other vintage car’ was stationary at the roadside with the bonnet open. We thereupon turned round and made our way back down over the undulating countryside coming, after about 12 miles, upon the very much en panne Hispano with bonnet louvres badly blistered by fire. The cause of its breakdown was unexpected a thick gasket between exhaust manifold and downpipe had disintegrated under the pressure of continuous flatout driving and the crew’s attention had been aroused by flames licking back past the bulkhead, coupled with a strong smell of burning enamel. A makeshift repair allowed the car to limp as far as Poix but there the manifold turned nasty again and it was plain that a major (and time-consuming) operation was required.

If there had been a wager this, of course, would have been the moment when it was settled. And while such hypotheses were being discussed at a pavement cafe a charming French enthusiast materialised and offered the facilities of his workshop to repair the damage. At the same time I noticed a broken valve spring on No.2 cylinder on the Ghost engine (which can, of course, be observed visually by the simple process of opening the bonnet on the near side where the valve springs operate exposed to the naked eye) and was reminded of those two occasions when I had over-revved in third.

However the performance of the car seemed hardly to be affected and it still managed to mingle freely and aggressively with French holiday traffic on the return journey. Continuous driving in this style got us back to Boulogne in time for the last boat on Friday evening, and the valiant Ghost was back in its garage little more than 24 hours after its departure, remaining unofficial ‘open road’ champion.

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