Actor’s life isn’t for me
How restorer Paul Grist chose the roar of vintage engines over the sound of theatre applause
Sometimes you get a feeling about someone. While watching an embassy scene in a rather hokey 1960s film about Secret Service business recently, I noticed one actor and thought ‘he looks like someday who’d make a top-notch racer and restorer of old Alfa Romeos’. And I was right. The credits confirmed that the diplomatic sidekick was played by Paul Grist, well-known fixer-up and racer of vintage Alfas, who set out many years ago to be an actor. As the racing season wound down I wound my way up to his quiet rural patch just north of London to ask him how acting turned to engineering
It’s years since I last visited Paul’s discreet coachyard of red brick buildings, and I don’t think a thing has changed. No expansion, no vast metal sheds, no double-deck transporters, despite all the racing Paul and later his son Matt have done over the past 40 years. You’d swear it was the same spread of maroon 6C and 8C Alfa Romeos inside, too.
“There are hardly any little yard restorers like us left,” Paul says, as we settle in his small office, packed with books, models, a Bob Freeman drawing of an 8C motor and the gearshift from a V12 Ferrari, the gift of a grateful client. “It’s all big trucks and flash facilities now. We’re out of our time.”
As cheery and energetic as ever despite his 75 years, Paul has actually retired from the business, in a way that means he’s still in the office most days, and Traction Seabert is now run by his long-time business partner Terry Butler. But it’s not where Paul set out to be.
“I went to RADA and had a full career as an actor,” says Paul. “Three years in the West End, played in rep, did films and TV. I was in two series of Dr Who, and I still get royalties!” (It’s only later he mentions playing in the film of Under Milk Wood with Elizabeth Taylor and Richard Burton.)
But he had always driven old cars, he says. “My everyday transport at college, which I maintained myself, was a Delage D8. It was a different world in the 1960s – you’d see vintage Bentleys standing by the kerb with flat tyres.” When a restorer friend died he was persuaded to help finish off the man’s car projects, “and as an actor you’d have lots of days with no work so it fitted well. The restoration became more and more successful – very few people were doing it then – until I had to choose one career or the other.” Going into business with Terry, they got into vintage Alfas. “People were frightened of them then,” he recalls. “They were all avoiding them, so they were cheaper than Bugattis and I was able to buy an 8C in bits.”
As well as reviving them, Paul became a bit of a hot-shot behind the wheel, especially in his well-known Alfa Monza (the car Terry Cohn would sacrilegiously later use to tow a trailer…) and the 8C35 he assembled.
“In those days it was only the Brits who were running these cars. We used to camp at the first HGPCA races, and back then we even got start money!”
Over the years Paul has tackled many endurance road events including early revivals of the Mille Miglia, which led to a memorable meeting.
“I was with my son Matt driving the Monza with its Scuderia Ferrari badge on the side. We were following the other cars out of town when a man stepped out and directed us down a side road. At the bottom another man stopped us and pointed to one side. Sitting in a leather armchair in his dark glasses was Enzo Ferrari! He spread his arms wide and began talking about the great days when he was running these cars, taking off his glasses and dabbing his eyes. Then we were waved on, and as we drove away Matt – he was only about 19 – said ‘Who’s the old geezer?’”
Those fabulous supercharged Alfa Romeos have been a mainstay of the outfit’s work, so it’s no surprise to see the splayed driveshafts of a Tipo B on the bench. They’re from chassis 50003, the Scuderia Ferrari team car Matt used to win this year’s Monaco historic race, even beating the ERAs.
“Absolutely nerve-wracking to watch,” says Paul. “I’ve raced old cars for years, but watching your son on that circuit with those barriers…”
Matt now lives in Italy so the Tipo B hasn’t been out much, but Paul aims to run it in 2015, “maybe at a VSCC event or the Grand Prix car race Sean Danaher organises”. Before that, it needs to be back in one piece by January, when it is going on display on the Motor Sport Hall of Fame stand at the London Classic Car show. Paul has used it on the road – it has removable wings and lights and now has an electric starter as it’s almost impossible to crank. “It produces between 360 and 400bhp on methanol,” says Grist, “and about 600lb ft of torque. And that’s from below 1000rpm”.
Meanwhile Terry and their small staff maintain various Alfas for clients and are working on a 20hp Rolls-Royce and a beautiful Lancia, a sleek Castagna-bodied coupé Astura V8. In another building sits a real find – a Healey 100M that did the Mille Miglia twice in the 1950s and had been more or less mothballed since; it still carries the scrutineer tags on its steering column, along with bug screen and lights fitted by Scaglietti in Italy for the event. Its American owner told Paul he remembered Moss and Jenks passing him in their 300SLR “like an airplane”.
Its slightly matted maroon paint is not as old as it looks – it needed repair so the team matched its faded patina using well-honed skills at ageing. “I must have been the first to do that,” Grist reckons, “but I’m appalled how badly it’s often done now”. I concur – I’ve seen cars completely covered in ‘craquelure’ paint more suited to antique furniture, whereas when I first saw Paul’s Monza in the 1980s I asked how old the faded, grimy, worn paint was, to be told with a grin “six months…”
Much else has changed in Paul’s time. “We used to have a lot of German customers because there was nobody over there doing Alfas. Now there are plenty. And by now all the good cars have been found and restored, and lots are sitting still in private collections.”
Which is a shame for the rest of us, but if Paul takes the Tipo B to a VSCC meet it will give spectators a proper flavour of the old days.
Our clogged motorways could run better with a little more courtesy and forethought
I’ve discovered a new way back to London. It’s one car wide, smooth and virtually empty of traffic, and leads towards the heart of town. The name? It’s called The Inside Lane. Hardly anyone uses it; they’re mostly in the middle lane alongside, cruising in dreamland, throttling following traffic and causing queues, cursing and concertina crashes.
Often cited as a top driving annoyance, middle-lane hogging is far more frequent in the south-east – we’ve had a release from Direct Line Insurance showing the M4 and M25 as hotspots. Any trip on London’s orbital will confirm that: on one recent run I had on six occasions to move from the inner to the outer lane to pass cars that had three and sometimes four empty lanes to their left. Is it ignorance? That survey says most drivers know it’s wrong. Is it insecurity? Fear of lorries? Some weakness of the arms that makes it too tiring to change lanes? Or lack of brain power to compute traffic movements? Maybe it’s a secret policing thing: I’m going fast enough – he shouldn’t go any faster. Yet it’s not the job of the individual to police our roads.
It’s about stratification: it doesn’t matter whether lanes are running at 20/30/40mph or 70/100/130 in limit-free Germany; if you keep left you clear the passing lanes. That’s what they are: the left lane is the driving lane, all others are overtaking lanes and cited as such in The Highway Code.
Look for yourself how a lightly trafficked motorway quickly develops a high-speed knot when three or four faster cars encounter one of these mirrorless drones. Whatever the reason, creating a danger zone by forcing drivers of differing speeds to close up and queue to pass you is not an acceptable attitude. The government spends millions in taxpayers’ money expanding motorways from three to four and even six lanes, but one selfish (or to be charitable, unaware) driver in the wrong lane effectively squeezes the highway to a two-lane road with a five-lane hard shoulder. And it’s an offence, worth £100 and three points. Not that I’ve ever seen anyone being pulled over for it.
A common response is “Oh, you shouldn’t swerve from lane to lane.” Correct. And nobody is suggesting that. What ought to happen is called forward planning – keeping left, but looking more than 50 yards ahead and also watching anyone coming up from behind. Plan your passing move, signal before you cross the white line, move smoothly out and smoothly in again. It’s not difficult. Of course in the densely packed south there can be constant traffic in the lane you want to join, but if you signal right and wait a few moments, someone will make room.
One solution might be to allow passing on both sides, as in some US states, but that’s only really workable where everyone is travelling at similar speeds. My favourite idea I saw in another magazine years ago: that the law should specify a new offence punishing not the ‘undertaker’ but the undertaken – the offence of allowing yourself to be passed on the inside. I’d vote for that. Rant over.
Fill ’er up – but where?
Signage scarcity can contribute to forecourt frustration
Plea to fuel companies and filling stations: could we please have better advance labelling facing the driver as he approaches? How often after queuing for fuel do you roll up to a pump and discover it only serves premium, which you don’t need, or doesn’t have diesel, which you do? Now that filling stations are as rare as an NHS dentist, my home-time fill-up queue is as long as a Soviet shopping line, yet you can’t read the front of the pump until you get there. Gamble on the wrong slot and there’s no chance of backing up.
French forecourts do it right, as this Total fuel station picture shows. It just takes a little signage…