The classic restorers Hall & Hall
Hall & Hall
On a windswept Lincolnshire Airflied, once the home of BRM, the Shriek of a supercharged V16 can still sometimes be heard. But there's no supernatural agency at work: 20 years after the team folded, Gordon Cruickshank visits a firm which is perpetuating the legend
The instructions say, 'Turn left at Owen's Barn'. There are no signs, just a big black construction looking more military than agricultural. You turn onto a concrete roadway, two lanes wide. Too broad for a farm track, too rough for a public road, it strikes off fenceless across flat fields, veering round a wood, then steamrollers ruler-straight across the landscape towards a cluster of windowless buildings.
Nowhere is there a sign to tell you this is Hall & Hall, specialists in mending broken BRMs. But if you have read your histories of that troubled and sometimes triumphant company, you should recognise this site from the photos — Folltingham aerodrome, Lincs, where the V16's shriek was heard for the first time, 51 years ago. In a remarkable example of continuity, BRM employees are still building BRM engines and cars here.
Until recently, H&H was Hall & Fowler, founded by Rick Hall and Rob Fowler. Both worked at BRM in the '70s, but after the disappointing 1977 race season, the pair went to see 'Big Lou' Stanley, the firm's owner, who admitted things looked bleak. So the pair decided to bale out and look after privately-owned racing cars. Says Rick now, shrugging his shoulders, they never intended to specialise in historics, but after starting with a complete rebuild of a P139 for local man Arthur Carter, and then taking on Bobby Bell's P153 and Maserati 250F, "it just happened".
'Folkingham aerodrome Lincs - where the V16's shriek was first heard'
When BRM folded in 1981, the partners took over the engine test house at the aerodrome (BRM's main plant still stands in nearby Bourne, close to Raymond Mays' house), as well as the entire library of BRM technical drawings, an amazing 25,000 of them, which are still to hand, racked up in cramped repository nearby. This means you can order a new part made to BRM works spec by a BRM employee — service that's not just after-sales, but after-liquidation.
Recently Fowler decided to take a rest from restoring racing cars, and resigned amicably from the firm. His name on the masthead has been replaced by Rick's son Rob, who's been in the business for 14 years now. Actually the company name should really be Hall, Hall, Hall & Hall: daughter Karen runs the office, and I talk for a long time to the man reassembling 'Old Faithful's' engine before I discover he is Rick's elder brother John.
Many makes of historic racing car end up here, not just the Boume marque; I can see a Lola Mid sportscar, Maserati 250F and 150S, Brabham BT37, Talbot-Lago sportscar and, nearing completion, the McLaren M5A in which Jack Brabham crashed at Goodwood last year. No pre-wars?
"We've done a few," says Rick, leaning back in his cramped and untidy office where engine parts and paperwork clutter the desk. "We used to run R4D for Anthony Mayman, and we assembled the Alfa Bimotore for Tom Wheatcroft, so we're used to them, but we just seem to be packed with post-wars. And we seem to be shifting forward, too." The evidence is in the shop, looking vast and menacing against the narrow, upright '50s cars — an F1 Alfa Romeo 182, once the mount of Andrea de Cesaris. It hasn't run for several years, and new owner Robs Lamplough wants H81i to check it over before racing it. It's an advantage that both Rick and Rob have healthy racing records: Rick has been a frequent winner on the historic scene for years, often in BRM or Connaught, while Rob has twice won the European Historic F2 title. He seems unperturbed at the thought of stepping into the slick-shod Alfa and unleashing the screaming V12 around Mallory Park.
But then they're used to going racing here: they often take six cars to a meeting, 11 or 12 to Goodwood or Coys. It's a huge commitment for a firm of only 14 people, especially as Rick likes to have a mechanic to each car. Inevitably, racing damage takes priority over long-term restoration projects. How do they fit it all in?
"We're at capacity now," Rick says. "The market has recovered, which is bringing more cars out, and it makes our services a smaller proportion of the car's value too. I don't really want to expand and risk dropping standards, so we're just going to have to learn the word 'no', especially as the winter is getting shorter and shorter. Last year we only had from Kyalami in November to Australia in January, as our off-season." But in the next breath he is telling me proudly about their increasing amount of re-manufacturing — making brand-new parts. "We can now make a complete new BRM V12 or V8, and soon we'll be able to do an entire Ferrari 750 engine." This leads to the peculiar situation of BRM people finding themselves machining and assembling from raw castings exactly the same jobs as 30 years ago.
Most of this trade comes as replacement parts. "As a business venture, building new V8s is crazy. In fact we've only sold one complete, but it has brought us a huge amount of trade in V8 components." For a moment I feel a twinge of alarm. In the shop earlier, a grubby chassis piled with cardboard boxes turned out to be 'Old Faithful' — Graham Hill's favourite BRM, the 1357/8 which won three GPs.
'Two low brick-built bays: this is where the F1 engines used to be tested'
Surely they wouldn't consider throwing away the venerable engine and replacing it? I shouldn't have worried; not only has owner Miles Collier specified "a sympathetic restoration", he has forbidden them even to blast the block clean. "I have to wash it but not polish it, and not use new bolts on the outside," John Hall tells me as he works on the heads. At this point photographer Best asks for the fluorescent lights to go off while he sets up his lighting. I notice John goes on working in the half-dark. "Oh yes, I've done so many V8s I could do one blindfold." And he's only half-joking: he sticks a finger into the valve-gear and wiggles it. "I know that backlash is within the 10-thou tolerance, but now I have to get a gauge on it and record the figure. Clients expect that nowadays. What they don't realise is I could do the job in half the time if I didn't have to write everything down."
Much of the lofty workshop space is recently built, but at one end are two lowceilinged brick-built bays: this is where the F1 engines used to be tested. Huge shatterproof lights still hang above, though instead of V16 shrapnel the worst they will encounter now is a bit of swarf fium the lathes which have replaced the dynos. Outside, though, is another test-house where BRM tested its commercial projects, the Can-Am Chevrolets and the BRM-Avenger engines. There is still a dyno here, where H&H can assess engines of up to 800bhp knowing that there's no-one to annoy for miles across this windy plain.
These buildings are the last BRM structures on the airfield; the sheds where the first V16s were built are long gone, but down in the town of Bourne there is still a Raymond Mays Garage, one-time focus of the ERA and BRM adventures. Until recently many locals had no idea of the significance their small town once had in the racing world. They do now; Rick smiles wryly as he recalls how a casual remark about last year's 50th anniversary grew into a "BRM on the streets of Bourne" parade. "It was a big success. We had 40 racing cars running through the town in front of a crowd of 15-20,000 people. But we were exhausted. And now they're asking when we can do it again. Maybe on the 60th."
In parallel with ever-more race meetings, more owners are now using historic cars for non-competitive track days. A Maserati 250F, one of the Cameron Millar 'continuation' cam, is being readied for one of Wheeltorque's Niirburgring days, and a Lola T70, sitting where BRM's rolling road used to be, has only the same low-key challenge ahead of it.
There are a couple of chassis in the shop I don't recognise at all, and Pm forced to ask. One is the mid-engined Vanwall, its tubby frame and unprotected pannier tanks exposed because the body is being digitised to make a copy for its sister car in the Collier museum — 40-year-old technology meets the digital age. The other, an empty frame swinging over our heads, is a Scirocco — one of those brave, mad, backstreet Fl efforts from the '60s, but more accomplished than most. I comment to Rick that I look forward to seeing it complete. "Well, come and see the other one!" This I didn't expect.
'The body is being digitised - 40-year-old technology meets the digital age'
As if mending, making and racing the cars wasn't enough, H&H also sell the things fur clients. Rick takes me down the road to Bourne, to their showroom. It's crammed with cars, any one of them worth a story. Here indeed is a Scirocco, elegant in design but starved of cash, and the only Shannon grand prix car, an even briefer tale. There's Jochen Rindt's Cooper-Maserati, with a bizarre historical twist: The block had been cut away to fit over a cappuccino machine," Rick tells me with straight face. And BRMs aplenty: a pair of pot-bellied 153s, the BRP car, two of the angular 201s with their stealth-fighter body-shape, Stewart's troublesome H16, the simpler V12 126 which replaced it, and BRM's first mid-engined experiment, the P48, complete with the welds which show it was converted from a front-engined frame.
And there are engines — especially ones with 12 cylinders. A Gurney-Eagle block, never used; a Matra V12 sportscar unit; a Weslake from a Mirage. Why are they sitting here? Rick smiles happily. "I just love V12s. Someone will want one of them someday." When someday comes, that someone will be very grateful to Rick Hall.