Last month on this page, I attempted almost certainly in vain to elicit some sympathy for the fact that for the first time in 16 years, I was unable to participate in the Spa Six Hours race. You may recall I was irked by the fact it would deny me an outing in Bell Sport & Classic’s lightweight Aston DB4. The season, it seemed, was over.
Not so. A call came from Bell Sport’s Peter Smith: would I like to share the car at the Aston Martin Owners’ Club St John Horsfall Memorial Meeting on its 70th anniversary? It was only a 45-minute race, so little more than 20 minutes each with a Covid-compliant pitstop, but if you’re a starving man expecting a three-course dinner but offered only canapés, you still bite.
Turning up at Silverstone, I did wonder whether it was a good idea. Sensibly, AMOC had amalgamated some grids so we found ourselves in a near 60-year-old car expected to duke it out with a host of modern GT4 racing Astons and one fearsome GT2 Vantage driven by BTCC driver Jake Hill that had done Le Mans in 2008. And the weather was absolutely filthy.
I’m not going to dwell on the race because it will sound immodest but I will say that despite the opposition and to my astonishment, we’d got the old girl up to ninth before propshaft failure sidelined Peter.
Perhaps more interesting was the way the meeting was run. It was like clockwork. Actually it was better than that because the fixture list didn’t just run on time but ahead of it. No corners were cut on the Covid front. The event was well-policed by uniformly non- judgemental marshals and we had to wear masks outside as well as in and sanitise our cars as best as possible during stops. There was an air of friendly professionalism that I wish some other race organisers could have seen.
It’s also the first meeting I’ve been at in years where I didn’t see a dodgy move pulled by a single driver all day. Which meant there was little if any chaos to collect at the end of each race. Despite the absence of spectators and the fact the weather meant we were pretty much confined to our pit garages there was a fine atmosphere, and competitors rejoiced in the simple pleasure of just getting out and doing some racing. Now my season really is over, it has provided me with many happy memories to see me through the winter.
Over the weekend I dimly recalled during my time as MS editor 20-something years ago asking the late Bill Boddy to write some words about St John ‘Jock’ Horsfall, in whose memory the meeting has run for the last 70 years.
A successful driver before the war, like so many of his generation Horsfall was denied his best years behind the wheel by the conflict. But he still gained fame by winning the 1948 Spa 24 Hours with Leslie Johnson in the Aston Martin 2-Litre Sports prototype, latterly known as the DB1. More heroics came in the same event the following year when he joined an exclusive club of drivers who have completed a 24-hour race solo, coming second to Luigi Chinetti’s Ferrari in the 2-litre class.
“HIs most unusual job was driving a dead tramp to Greenock
Tragically Horsfall died shortly thereafter when his ERA overturned at Silverstone. What I’d forgotten about him until I re-read GC’s sidebar to Boddy’s story was that he spent the war working for MI5 in a variety of roles from passing duff information to the Germans to spying on the Americans. He was also charged with testing the defences of army, navy and air force installations, routinely getting officials drunk to see if they would leak information.
But undoubtedly his most unusual job was driving a dead tramp from London to Greenock near Glasgow, where the deceased was loaded onto a submarine and dumped off the coast of Spain. This was the famed Major Martin of Operation Mincemeat who was found floating in full Royal Marines uniform and handed over to Nazi agents. Entirely false papers found with his body convinced Hitler that the Allied invasion of southern Europe would come through Sardinia and Greece, not Sicily.
We often think of drivers such as Robert Benoist, William Grover-Williams and Jean-Pierre Wimille, who joined the Special Operations Executive to help the resistance in France, but it is worth remembering that, albeit at less risk to himself, Horsfall played an important part in the defeat of Germany, too.
There are certain cars whose fabled status and the reverence about which they are spoken by knowledgeable friends I have never understood. Top is the Citroën DS. A Chapron is a fabulous thing to behold, but I’ve always been more interested in how cars handle than appear, and the only DS I’ve driven, a DS23, left me stone cold. That was 20 years ago and I’ve never felt the need to alter that judgement– until a couple of weekends ago.
I was meant to be at Spa with Chris Harris and sundry family members, so instead we met at one of our homes, and to my surprise Harris turned up in a DS19 Safari, into which we all piled and headed off to the pub.
In that context, just loafing along, it was superb. It rode better than almost any modern car, oozed character and with no attempt made to drive fast, was utterly charming. On arrival we informed my nephew he’d be driving back, had a few pints and were expertly chauffeured home. There and then, there was barely a car in the world in which I’d prefer to have travelled.