Letter to readers, February 1989

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Vans!

Dear Reader,
The first time I saw a racing car being unloaded from a van in the paddock for a Speed Trial, I was fascinated, because up to that time racing cars were things I had only seen in photographs, racing on circuits. It had never occurred to me to consider how the racing car got to the circuit.

Vans with the name of a well-known tuning establishment, or racing driver, on the side were exciting things to see even before the rear doors were opened. Some vans were a bit puzzling as they might be sign-written with the name of a shop or material supplier that had nothing to do with motor racing, yet they had a Bugatti or an MG in the back, and I eventually began to realise that racing drivers owned firms that made the money which they spent on their racing, and at weekends the firm’s van was used as a racing transporter. There were vans that had nothing written on the sides at all, and these were really intriguing, for you never knew what was going to be unloaded; it could be a home-built Austin 7 Special or it could be the latest Maserati. I watched the opening up of the rear doors with keen anticipation.

Today racing cars are carried in enormous vans emblazoned with more writing on the sides than you can take in as they go by. The colour-schemes range from the dignified to the horrendous, but there is no doubt about the contents. In professional racing, transport vans have become 38-tonne articulated vehicles with the whole team locked away inside, and to see one of these vehicles among the ordinary everyday traffic is quite a sight. Heading for Silverstone one day I saw the Benetton team’s transporter taking a roundabout amid the chaotic weekday traffic west of Oxford. As always, it was immaculate and scintillating, and shone out like a beacon amidst the mass of Sainsbury, Bejarn, Crosby and similar working transporters probably in the middle of a 500-mile trip in filthy weather. There was no need to follow it as I could guess what it contained.

But small vans are a different matter, and it always pays to glance in the back window. At one Vintage Sports-Car Club test-day I noticed a small white Renault van, in itself of no impartance. What was important was where it was parked, for it was among the Historic racing cars. I looked in through the rear windows and quickly went back for another look. Sitting on the floor of this little van was a V12 Auto Union engine, complete with its two-stage supercharging system, multi-choke carburettor and all the ancillaries. It was the most exciting thing in the paddock, and was being taken from Neil Corner’s home in the north of England down to Crosthwaite and Gardiner in Sussex. The driver had called in at the Vintage test-day on his way by.

Another very interesting “plain van” was a white Ford Transit I met at Thruxton. It looked a bit different as it was wearing alloy wheels and racing tyres. When the rear doors were opened, there in the middle of the floor sat a “full house” Ford GT40 engine, but that wasn’t all. This engine was protruding up through a large rectangle cut in the Transit floor-pan, and it was coupled to a racing rear end with ZF transmission. A look in the driving cab showed a racing bucket seat, racing steering wheel and some rather special instruments, especially the tachometer.

I was allowed a drive in this plain van, and it was memorable. When I commented that the steering was very light coming out of the Thruxton “chicane”, the Ford man in charge said: “Not surprising really, as the front wheels were off the ground.” They called it Supervan. I wonder what happened to it. At a modern race meeting most of the vans, large or small, proclaim to the world what they are carrying. One might say “Fred Bloggs, Racing Sierra-Cosworth, Champion of Lydden Hill (Group 26)”, another might say “Joe Soap Racing, BMW M3, Champion of Mallory Park (Group Z)”, but at Formula One events you will see three smart MercedesBenz vans, painted white with the name Allsports on the side. They can usually be seen on Saturday afternoon, but rarely on race day. By then they are miles away, heading for Switzerland, England, Germany or Italy.

Allsports will transport anything, but its main activity, in connection with Formula One is the transport of engines, either back to the manufacturer’s factory, or to a specialist engine-builder such as Heini Mader. The chaps who drive these vans seldom see a Formula One race, for once the practice and qualifying engines have been removed on Saturday afternoon they are loaded into the white vans and are gone. When I queried as to why Mercedes-Benz vans were used the answer was simple: “Speed and reliability, as well as durability”.

When I was at a small meeting with my plain red (“unwritten” as the trade would say) Ford Escort van, with my 1935 International Norton in the back, We left it in the paddock while I went to sign on. When I came back there was a man standing by the front, and he asked “Do you want to sell that van?” I looked at him, a bit puzzled, and replied “No, why?” In all seriousness he said “I’ll give you a good price for it”. As I hesitated he broke into a grin, and the penny dropped. As I got in I said “You’ve been looking through the back window, haven’t you?” “Yes”, he said, “and it looks lovely”.

Only last month I looked into the back of a blue Ford Transit van, and there in the middle of the floor sat a complete Alfa Romeo Tipo 158 engine, with its two-stage supercharging and “elephant trunk” intake.

Actually, this was no surprise as I was at Terry Hoyle’s premises in Essex, where the Alfa Romeo engine was about to undergo a test-bed session, and the blue van belonged to Jim Stokes who had just finished a total rebuild of this most exciting 1951 Grand Prix engine. Until two years ago a Tipo 158 Alfa Romeo had never left the Alfa Romeo racing department to go into private hands; this one left the Portello works with the blessing of the management of Alfa Romeo, and with its full co-operation during the rebuild. The complete car should be appearing in Historic racing this season, but more about that later. I smiled to myself as I thought of that van travelling from Hampshire to Essex round the M25, and the number of racing enthusiasts who probably overtook it having no idea what it contained. It always pays to look in the back of small vans, but don’t run into the back of them in your eagerness!

One final word on vans comes from the Bulletin of the 750 Motor Club, which I know they won’t mind me quoting. It is a letter to the Club Chairman from the Thames Valley Police: Dear Mr Clayton, On the 29th August this year, an injury Road Traffic Accident occurred on the M1 Motorway at Hanslope, near Newport Pagnell. Prior to the Police arriving at the scene, I understand that members of your Motor Club Rescue Unit came across this accident and protected the scene by using their own vehicle, and at the same time, cared for, and later conveyed to hospital, an 18-month-old child who was injured. My officers tell me that there is little doubt that the prompt assistance by your members helped to minimise to a great extent the problems that are often caused following accidents of this kind. Your members clearly knew what was required of them, and undertook this task in a most professional manner.

I understand you are the Chairman of this Club and as such, I would ask that my appreciation in respect of the assistance rendered, and that of my Officers, is passed to those members concerned. Yours faithfully, Chief Inspector, Thames Valley Police.

That speaks for itself, doesn’t it? “Unsung heroes” hardly does justice to this example of the true hard-core of our sport. Yours, DSJ

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