Time the great muddler

Hysterical Historics

There are people in the advertising world who say that if you tell the public loud enough and long enough, they will believe anything. In the journalistic world there is a similar feeling, especially as regards historical facts. Someone made a statement in print in 1924 and every now and then succeeding journalists have copied this statement so that it passes from legend into gospel and becomes fact. As time goes by some of these journalists call themselves historians, or to be more accurate their colleagues call them historians, so that if they perpetuate the 1924 story unchanged, then it must be true. Thus is a lot of motoring history established. The absence of any official historical society dealing with motor racing history means that anyone who has bound volumes of Motor Sport and The Autocar back to their beginnings can set himself up as an historian and continue quoting the 1924 statement as historical fact, and few people bother to cross-check or verify. With the spread of television-activity and documentary programmes these historians have had a field day. Instant information, right or wrong, and tomorrow it is forgotten, except that the recent spread of video recording means that you can now challenge some of these statements by a replay like taking your bound volume off the shelf and saying "but, in 1961 you said here... " which makes the writer more careful. The television scriptwriter is going to have to be more careful as well.

A recent television documentary made the statement that the 1924 Sunbeam 2-litre was the first supercharged Grand Prix car. Nobody would argue with that statement, except those of us who know that the 1923 Grand Prix Fiat was supercharged. Similarly, the 1938/39 Formula cars were said to have developed "the four-wheel drift", a statement that suggests, that the writer had never read any technical books dealing with slip-angles, understeer and oversteer. To show a Mercedes-Benz in the throes of an oversteering power-slide caused by bigger slip angles on the rear tyres than those on the front tyres and to call it "a four-wheel drift" is ludicrous. And to show a very rare piece of period black and white film of Etancelin winning the 1936 Pau GP in the equally rare V8 Maserati and to describe it as Dreyfus winning in 1938 in a 4½-litre 12-cylinder Delahaye makes one lose confidence.

However, that is just words and pictures and anyone can make a mistake when writing and we know full well that the camera can lie, but when motor racing history is standing before you on four wheels and you can touch it and sit in it, and on rare occasions even drive it, then that is something else. "We know that this is the actual car that won the 1936 Le Mans race, because the owner told us so, and he should know, as he has done a lot of research on it and has documentary proof." How many times have you heard that, substituting any known race, date, driver or circuit to taste. Nine times out of 10 it is true, but the odd one out is what worries me, for as the years go by the 10 becomes 100 and the odd one becomes the odd 100, and when the original 10 have become 1,000; the odd one out has become 100. If you have 1,000 historic cars and one of them is a fake it is not too serious, but if 100 of them are fakes then you have a problem. One fake is easy to keep an eye on so that it doesn't become muddled up with the real ones, but if you have 100 fakes, one or two can easily "disappear" in amongst the genuine 900 and then where are you? "It is only one odd one" you say, but there are nine more lined up behind it waiting their opportunity to slip under the blanket and .appear as the real thing. A genuine D-type Jaguar might be worth £130,000 in "trade terms", while a fake D-type (and there are plenty of them) would only fetch £30,000. If you can lift the blanket and slip your "bastard" underneath and get away with it, it must be worth £100,000 to take such a chance, and you'll have quite a bit of spare cash to "grease palms" and "close mouths".

A much better and safer way is to Iet "Time" do its work. You produce a fake car that you openly call a "Replica" (other words such as copy or clone will do), but after a while you forget to use the Replica and if you can get the old car magazines to feature the car often enough and always "forget" to add the word Replica, you are well on your way to "authenticity". One of the first fake historic cars I can remember seeing in the course of construction was Roger Pichon's copy of the 1928 record-breaking Renault 45 saloon. The original car was destroyed, as he well knew because he was chief mechanic on the car. The original car had sentimental memories for Roger, so in his retirement he collected up various bits of Renault 45 (40cv in France) and made a copy of the original car. His one regret was that he could not find any original wheel centres and hubs as used on the record car, so had to make do with production items. This irritated Roger but there was nothing he could do about it, but he never failed to point this out when people looked at the car. It wasn't the original record breaking Renault 45 and he never even hinted that it was, it was a fake made with the best intentions, but that was a long time ago. Roger Pichon has been dead a number of years now but the great car lives on and to me it will always carry with it his own personal reason for building it, and as nice a reason as anyone could wish for. Time the great decider has taken its toll, and Roger's car is now described in articles and films as being the famous record-breaking Renault 45.

In one of our museums is a very fine, Le Mans-type 4½-litre Bentley, except that l recall it being built from a rather dreary old 4½-litre Bentley drophead coupe. At the time I was staggered by the cost, but then I was naive. Even as a fake Le Mans car it is probably wort a lot more than it cost to build, and as a genuine Le Mans car... It could be a genuine Le Mans Bentley because there is nothing to say it isn't! In an Italian museum is what appears at first glance to Cugnot’s original steam-powered three-wheeled device, but a plaque on it explains that it is a ¾ size model of the original. A laudable effort and an interesting project, but the trouble starts when people make scale models of the original historic vehicle to a scale of one-to-one and the plaque falls off! Also in Italy is a one-to-one scale model of a 250F Maserati that had a small identification stamped on it by the builder, but since leaving his hands it has been endowed with a genuine 250F Maserati identification, from a car thought to have been broken up irretrievably. Another 250F in this country has been built and given the identification of a car that was presumed broken up in 1959 or 1960. The original car has now surfaced in America! This well-known American racing man bought the car from the Maserati factory in 1960, never used it, and it has sat in his garage until last year when another American persuaded him to sell it. It must be the most original 250F Maserati there is. What the builder of the fake one is going to do is anybody's guess. Time can help, but just occasionally it can hinder the old car movement.

The number of fake cars in the historic racing car world grows every year and most of them are beautifully made, the workmanship and craftsmanship being remarkable, but as the years go by some of them become genuine, in the eyes of the media and the public, who rely on the media for information. Already we have a single-seater Cooper-Bristol that started life as a sports car, 250F Maseratis made from spare parts, numerous Bugattis made from scratch, Lotus 16s built from scrap parts, TT cars that never went near the Ards, circuit, D-type Jaguars that owe their parenthood to E-types, SS100 Jaguars made from old saloons, competition-type Delahayes made from bulbous great post-war Delahaye saloons, Lagonda Le Mans cars that do not match up when the real thing turns up, and so on. Our industry of new car manufacturers may be struggling, but the manufacture of old cars is a thriving industry.

The resurrection of some historic cars from oblivion is a worthy project, no matter how much has to be replaced and Nigel Arnold-Forster's Bequet Special is a splendid example. The resurrection of the Bi-motore Alfa Romeo as carried out by David Black and Tom Wheatcroft's Donington Museum will be a sight worth seeing and heating, even if it isn't the actual original Bi-motore. It is not a fake as the project started with the last remaining bits of the car being rescued from Australia. Not quite the same thing is the very fine Tipo B monoposto Alfa Romeo made by a Northern enthusiast from surplus spares from a real monoposto, with a whole lot of new parts made from scratch. It cannot possibly have an identification unless there is a black spot in monoposto history which it could conveniently fill, but only the Alfa Romeo Section of the VSCC could tell us that.

Some people do not approve of resurrection from the grave. There are still opponents to Owen Wynn-Owen who dug up the remains of "Babs", the Parry Thomais record breaker that was buried in Pendine's Sands, especially as many major components had to be replaced in order to make it run again, but that is a matter of personal choice. In the new Bomber Hall of the RAF Museum at Hendon are the remains of a Handley Page Halifax bomber, retrieved from the bottom of a Norwegian fjord. It lies on a bed of shingle just as it was found and the RAF Museum explain that it is going to stay that way because to rebuild it or restore it could mean replacing so many of the original parts that they would merely end up with a replica, and they can see no point in that. Praiseworthy sentiments. It is the only known Halifax, but every bit of it that lies in the Bomber Hall is original. Perhaps "Babs" should have been exhumed in the same way and laid out on a bed of sand in the Beaulieu Museum.

At any gathering of historic old cars, and these days even a Trojan or a Butler-Lacey sports model are historic, there will be a percentage of fake cars. The worrying thing is that the percentage is growing, and the "odd one" is mingling with the real nine. I will not name the names of the fake cars for their proud owners would get very agitated, but when you see an old car that appears to be historic, ask the owner about its origins. You will be amazed at some of the stories you will be expected to believe. But be warned, the honest fakers will say “—— off', from which you can draw your own conclusions

There are those who say "the sooner the genuine D.S.J. is laid out on a bed of shingle in a museum, the better for everyone". Trouble is, there are lots of fake D.S.J.s about, and how do you tell the fake from the genuine? Patrick Lindsay once said to me in all seriousness "are you a replica or the real thing?" to which I replied "no, I'm a fake" which confused him. With "Time" on my side I could become authentic! – D.S.J.