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Racing cars on the road

Driving a single-seater Grand Prix car on the roads of England, Scotland and Wales in full racing trim is very much against the law. It was outlawed in the 1920s and every decade has been made more and more a law-breaking activity. Some people have got away with it by the application of minimal mudguards, a bulb horn and ‘trade plate’ and others have gone to a lot of pains to equip a single-seater racing car with all the requirements of the Construction and Use Acts.

I was chatting over motoring experiences with Charles Mortimer, who used to race motorcycles, then took to car racing, passed through the boat phase and returned to the motoring scene with his book shop and is now more or less retired, though he will never give up his enthusiasm for motoring and motor racing. He was recounting how he bought a 1935 Maserati 8CM Grand Prix car in 1947 and having the need to “try it out” he took it for a blast down the A3 Portsmouth road early one morning. Quite unintentionally he stopped to make some adjustments alongside the grounds of a private school and was suddenly aware of a row of small heads looking over the fence in wonderment. He had completely upset the early morning routine of breakfast. We mused over the fact that it was a pity no-one had a photograph of the incident, and that today if you did the same thing with a Tyrrell or a Williams every schoolboy would produce his pocket size Japanese camera and record the occasion.

This naturally led us to other similar occasions that were missed for posterity such as the time (also on the Portsmouth road in Surrey) when Johnny Claes’ mechanic arrived at the Connaught works to collect the yellow-painted Formula 2 Connaught A-type. Rodney Clark and Mike Oliver thought it would be nice to let him hear the car run before it was loaded into the transporter, so they put him in it and push-started it across the factory yard. Imagine their horror when Bianchi promptly motored off out of the yard and disappeared up the main London road amid the morning traffic. In Belgium there was no law about driving racing cars on the road and it was the normal thing to do, so naturally Bianchi had gone off as if he were at home in Bruxelles. He returned full of smiles, very happy with the car, totally innocent of how many laws he had broken. Fortunately the police did not see the yellow single-seater Connaught and unfortunately no-one with a camera seems to have seen it either.

Some years ago I was doing some research on Alta racing cars and had a letter from Basil Tye, the RAC Motor Sport Director, in which he told me about buying an Alta racing car about 1947. He went down to the little Alta factory on the Kingston bypass at Tolworth, not far from where the Brabham factory is today, and viewed the single-seater Alta that had been specially built for Hugh Hunter in 1938. Geoffrey Taylor, who built the Altas, said “you’d better try it out” and promptly set Basil Tye off up the Kingston by-pass to do a lap of the dual carriageway between the roundabouts that then existed at Tolworth and the Ace of Spades, where today there are complex underpasses. It was a wet and miserable day but none-the-less Basil Tye did his test lap up one side of the dual carriageway, round the roundabout, down the other leg to the factory. Another splendid sight never actually recorded on film.

The list of such occurrences is continuous from those early days of the re-birth of the sport to recent times. There was the Christmas road-test by Motor Sport when a bearded member of the staff set off on Christmas Day for an 80-mile blast round Hampshire in a Formula 2 Lotus, or the number of times a well-known ERA has been seen “going round the block” in a Hampshire military town. One memorable sight that no-one seems to have seen was when Frank le Gallais came over from the Channel Islands with his rear engined Jaguar-powered single-seater hill-climb car to compete at Shelsley Walsh, and drove it from Southampton to the Worcestershire venue and back. Various Le Mans cars have been tested “unofficially” at first light on motorways, in order to get the feel of 200mph ready for the Mulsanne Straight but the single-seater Formula One car of today is not a very practical machine to take for a “blast up the by-pass”.

Having been thinking about racing cars on the road, with particular interest in local occasions, out of the blue came a letter and photograph from Mr W Innoles of Bristol. The photograph shows Prince Bira driving his 250F Maserati (2504) on the wrong side of the road, followed by an MG Magnette saloon. The occasion, as recounted by Bill Innoles, was 1954. “We were travelling by coach to Silverstone to see the British Grand Prix and were held up in a massive traffic jam some two or three miles from the track. Behind the coach, the Bira Maserati was being towed to the track behind a private car and Bira was getting very worried as time was getting short. He had a word with the local police who were most helpful and the Maserati was started up and Bira drove off up the wrong side of the road past all the stationary traffic. For us in the coach it was a stirring sight which I have never forgotten and I took the accompanying photograph through the window of the coach as Bira drove by. The line across the bottom right-hand corner of the photograph is actually the metal edge of the coach window frame.”

Naturally this letter and photograph sparked off many more memories and the thought occurred that many Motor Sport readers must have similar memories and possibly photographs .to record the occasion. DSJ

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