Car people meeting at a nice pub goes back to the dawn of motoring. Despite breathalysers, it still happens today
You can’t stop people having fun with cars. During WWII, when there was no motorsport at all, enthusiasts still gathered to discuss what they would build and race when peace returned. Bill Heynes and Wally Hassan dreamed up the immortal Jaguar twin-cam six while on fire-watching duty in Coventry. And there’s the story of two army officers meeting during the African campaign and wistfully reminiscing about Brooklands — whereupon one pulled from his pack a bottle of Castrol R, dribbled a little into a saucer and lit it. Reverentially they inhaled the evocative perfume, remembering in a far-off land days that had gone forever.
At other times in history, when petrol rationing stopped all frivolous motoring, coupons would be hoarded for trips to a pre-agreed pub for mutual car talk. Most of the drinking happened in the car park as bonnets were raised and carbs, compression ratios and clutch slip were debated. This was blimpishly labelled as having a ‘Noggin and Natter’. Petrol might have been in short supply but beer was plentiful, and in those pre-breathalyser days no-one thought it wrong to drive home on near-deserted roads after an evening’s sociable drinking.
Today there’s plenty of petrol, but if you value your licence you wouldn’t dream of drinking any quantity of alcohol before driving home. The 70mph speed limit, originally introduced as a three-month experiment, has just clocked up its 40th birthday, and speed cameras abound. Yet these pub meetings continue and, on odd occasions during the year, proliferate. There is no better way to chase away the hangover left by New Year’s Eve than getting into a primitive open car and blasting away the cobwebs with an icy run to a nice hostelry.
Many pubs have long-established motoring connections, and none more than The Phoenix, on the old A30 west of Hartley Wintney. In the 1930s a tall Irishman called Tim Carson owned the pub, and also the coachworks in the sheds beside the car park. He raced a TT Vauxhall and a 30/98 at Brooklands. His friend John Passini operated the filling station on the other side of the pub as well as the well-stocked breaker’s yard behind, and used a 1911 Silver Ghost as a breakdown truck. It was in the Phoenix in 1934, as a group of young enthusiasts were bemoaning with the landlord the passing of what they saw as a vintage era, that the Vintage Sports Car Club was born.
For many years, January 1 has been a day for drivers of cars that are old, or interesting, or both, to congregate at the Phoenix. This year, as I approached the village green near the pub, I thought there must have been a serious road accident, because traffic was jammed back into Hartley Wintney. Not scores but hundreds of cars lined the kerbs for half a mile in either direction. The variety was remarkable, and not all were models that Tim Carson would have recognised: here a Jaguar XJ220 was casually parked on the verge, there an Abarth-Fiat 695 was nose to tail with a Jensen 541R and a Bristol 400. While a couple of unpainted V8 hot rods rumbled in, a tiny two-cylinder Subaru 360 was dwarfed by an R-type Bentley and a brace of modern Ferraris. Several proper motorcycles were in evidence — Triumphs, Nortons and Vincents — and a svelte Lancia Aurelia GT contrasted oddly with one of those corrugated Citroen H-Vans.
The pub was doing a roaring trade — dispensing as much coffee and cola as beer — and the car park itself was jammed with cars and people. In one corner were three Bugattis, a Calthorpe tourer and a wicker-seated Lancia Lambda. A Rover Eight was dwarfed by a very lofty Edwardian Standard; an Alvis with workmanlike station-wagon body lined up beside a stark M45 Lagonda. The VSCC pioneers might have turned up their noses at a couple of charming 1930s commercials — a three-wheeler Reliant van and a two-cylinder Bradford — but they would have been delighted that the old Vintage Coachworks building has been reborn as the Phoenix Green Garage in the hands of Nicholas Benwell. January 1 was Nick’s first day of trading, and he displayed his glorious ex-Fane twin-blown Gough-engined Frazer Nash, CMH 500— the car that DSJ called the ultimate ‘chain-gang’.
Everywhere there was fervent conversation, about journeys undertaken and journeys planned, about mods and breakages and tweaks, about long-sought spares stumbled upon in unlikely places. A superb SS100 had a notice stuck in the windscreen: its owner was seeking history for another SS he’d just bought. A fascinated small boy asked intelligent questions about a superb MU Aston Martin and received patient, courteous and educational answers from its owner.
It all seemed so much better than any organised rally or concours. Instead of neat ranks of polished machinery and officious marshals, these were just car people dropping in, comparing notes, exchanging anecdotes and queries and boasts, and driving home again to a late lunch. It was the sheer higgledy-piggledy mixture that made it so entertaining. Tim Carson would probably have been dumbfounded by this immense gathering around his old licensed premises, but he would have been delighted too.