Thunder from Down Under

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The Maybach began as a scrapyard special, but for a decade it was Australia’s most famous home-grown racing car. Simon Taylor fulfils a boyhood dream and drives it

Throughout the 1930s and 1950s, oil company Castrol produced a little annual called Achievements, a portfolio of cars and motorbikes that had raced during the year using its lubricants. As a boy I hoarded these carefully. If, like me, you were a MOTOR SPORT reader, you could send off a reply-paid card obligingly inserted by Castrol in the magazine, and also get a lubrication chart for your (father’s) car.

The 1954 edition had a Gordon Horner painting of the Mercedes W196 streamliner on the cover, and was full of Ferraris, DB3S Astons and Porsches, not to mention Gileras and MV Agustas. But the picture that caught my 10-year-old imagination was of a car and driver unknown to me: a brutal, lanky open-wheeler with a big triangular grille, offset cockpit and long tail.

It looked uncannily like the drawing in my well-thumbed Dick Barton story book of the “Roscoe Special”. The Roscoe’s driver was shot just before the start of the big race by a baddy in the grandstand, but Barton, who happened to have a track pass, leapt aboard with seconds to go and, still wearing his blazer and cravat, drove to victory (after a wheel-to-wheel battle with another baddy who, needless to say, had a gun in his cockpit).

In other words, the car in the picture looked like a real Boys’ Own racer. The caption said it was the Maybach Special, driven by one Stan Jones.

Of course, if I’d been an Australian 10-year-old I would have known all about the Maybach, which can lay claim to being perhaps the most famous indigenous racing car in the Southern Hemisphere. Years later, when Stan Jones’ son, Alan, was winning the World Championship for Williams, I asked him about it. He told me the car was already six years old when his father bought it, and began its racing career in 1947. Then I read Howard and Wilson’s wonderful 50-race history of the Australian Grand Prix, and became even more fascinated by this extraordinary old warhorse.

And suddenly, as I wander around the paddock at last year’s Australian Grand Prix at Melbourne, there it is. In the metal, the very car whose picture captivated a small boy 40 years before.

It’s unmistakable, silent and gleaming, resplendent in dark blue with polished wire wheels, its distinctive triangular grille fronting a louvred, leather-strapped bonnet. Down the left-hand side, a long, shining, snaking outside exhaust system: on the right, mounted low beside a mammoth straight-six engine, a huge supercharger suckles greedily on two hefty SU carburetters. The exposed cockpit boasts one little aero screen, one offset bucket seat with the transmission alongside, a huge rev-counter, a polished four-spoke wheel. Central on the pointed tail is a fat quick-action filler cap, and you realise this must be a seriously thirsty car. Everything about it is big, brutal, basic: It is still very much the storybook racer.

People in Australia are very friendly. Historic car enthusiasts are even more so, and they enjoy sharing their enthusiasms. I waste no time seeking out today’s owner of the wondrous beast, and find Bob Harborow eager to show me around it. Its pristine condition implies that the Maybach is now a museum piece, but to prove it isn’t I hear, to my astonishment, Bob telling me to be at the track at 8.30 on Monday morning. If no-one’s looking he’s going to let me drive it. Forty years on, I’m going to make like Dick Barton…

My Australian GP work done, I make a point of finding Clerk of the Course Tim Schenken at the hotel to tell him of our plan. I would hate bureaucracy to prevent it. But the Australians have little time for that, and Tim is nonchalant: enjoy yourself. We’ll be taking down the grand-stands and dismantling the circuit by then, so mind you don’t hit any course cars or run any of us over.

As I drive into the deserted Albert Park on Monday morning, with the debris of yesterday’s 120,000 spectators being rapidly cleared, I hear an unmistakable sound. I’ve never yet heard the Maybach run, but I recognise that duet of deep straight-six thunder and supercharger scream, whooping up the musical scale as the car is warmed up, because I’ve heard it before in my childhood fantasies.

Now I’m in the car, the red leather bucket seat hugging me, my right hand on the fourspoke wheel, the gearlever under my left. Plenty of room for elbows and feet. That long, louvred bonnet stretches ahead, with the big 18-inch front wheels either side. Behind my right elbow is one of the chunkier 16-inch rears. The gearbox, a later Jaguar item, snicks into bottom, and I rumble lumpily to the paddock gate and on to the Albert Park tarmac.

No crash-hat, no goggles, and as I prod my right foot the torque picks me up and rushes me down the track, while the whine of the supercharger blends with the deep exhaust note to make a creamy, blissful six-cylinder sound. I’m trying to get the feel of the thing as wind tears at my face and hair, finding the steering direct and heavy, the suspension hard, the brakes worryingly vague, that hugely torquey engine pulling like an express train. The old Maybach now gives over 300bhp on the brake, and the car weighs around 15cwt. So it’s quick, and feels it.

Parts of the new Albert Park track use some of the roads of the old, and as I settle into the car I realise I’m driving where Stan Jones led the 1954 Grand Prix, setting fastest lap at a 91mph average before he needed more fuel, and then his clutch went. Around the twists and turns where modern Formula 1 cars were battling yesterday, the big old car handles surprisingly well, and the understeer that I’d been expecting (the Maybach lump makes up a large percentage of the overall weight) can, at my respectful speeds, be easily offset by judicious use of the right foot.

But to drive this earthy, powerful car in anger, and in long, hot races of up to three hours, must have taken a strong, brave man. Stan Jones, when I met him in the 1970s, was elderly and unwell, but you knew at once what a tough competitor he’d been. And if you were In any doubt, you could look at his World Champion son, a chip off the old block if ever I saw one.

Bob’s cast in the Stan Jones mould, too. The Maybach shares workshop space with a 1965 F2 Cooper-BRM and an ex-Penske/Donohue Lola T192, and he races them all. Now he’s planning a trip to Europe with the Maybach, to spend a summer campaigning it in British events.

I do half a dozen laps in this priceless piece of history, with unpredictable hazards round every corner a truck loading up grandstand scaffolding, crew dismantling kerbing, an official’s Holden crossing the track. But it’s enough to fulfil a childhood dream, to go up through the gears along the back straight, to hear the revs shrieking that eternal duet between supercharger and exhaust, to feel the mechanical thrumming through the rim of the wheel and the torque pulling endlessly, regardless of gear. Now that I can take these sensations back to England with me, it’s time to stop, to bump over the grass back to Bob’s trailer, to stammer my thanks, and turn my hire car towards the airport.

The history books will record Melbourne 1996 as the highly successful first Grand Prix at the new Albert Park circuit, the start of Damon Hill’s title chase, and the day Jacques Villeneuve nearly won his debut Grand Prix. But my own memory bank will always have filed away, under Melbourne ’96, the noise of the car I waited 42 years to hear.

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