My remark recently that I had ridden at Brooklands in a road-equipped 2.9-litre Maserati, before the similar ex-Birkin car so beautifully restored recently for Cameron-Millar, was so fitted out, has brought some interesting information from Richard Winby, about the elusive FGC 412 which I encountered briefly before the war.
I had my exciting ride at Brooklands with Harry Torin, then a Naval Lieutenant, in 1939 (see Motor Sport, March 1939, p. 68) before the racing season commenced. The day was very wet and the Track was partially obstructed at the Fork, but I was able to time the car over a s.s. 1/4-mile and 1/2-mile, at 16.4 sec. and 29.2 sec. respectively, the former equalling that at which I had timed the famous Forrest Lycett 8-litre Bentley on a dry Track in 1938. The Maserati must have been doing over 100 m.p.h. at the end of the 1/2-mile. The rain and obstructions made a flying 1/2-mile difficult, but Torin did it at about 104 m.p.h., getting onto the Byfleet banking at some 130 m.p.h being difficult under the circumstances. The origin of this car was unknown, but it was said to have won the 1933 Belgian GP, driven by Nuvolari, to have been owned afterwards by a Belgian enthusiast, and to have come to England in 1938/9. After my ride with Lt. Turin I awaited with much interest the appearance of FGC 412 in Brooklands races. The red car with silver wheels was entered for the Opening Meeting but it failed to run. The same thing happened at Easter and it was not entered thereafter, so I was disappointed. Had he raced it, Torin would have used it over the Mountain and Campbell circuits. Mr. Winby’s comments:
I was most interested to read that you had had an exciting ride in PC 412, the road-equipped 3-litre GP Maserati owned by Lt. Harry Torin, RN. It was originally imported, fully road-equipped, from Belgium, but we could never find out what its previous history had been. If I remember rightly its chassis number was 3004, so perhaps with your encyclopaedic knowledge you can throw some light on it.
I came to be heavily involved with the running of the car soon after Torin acquired it. He was serving at HMS Daedalus at Lee-on-Solent (experimenting with deck landings on HM ships with an autogyro), and somehow he had managed to put a connecting rod through the crankcase. It so happened that a friend of mine, Peter Woozley, who worked with me, was also a friend of Torin’s, and through him, the car was towed from Fareham, Hants, to my workshops in Richmond.
The damage was fairly severe, there was a gaping hole in the electron crankcase, a very mangled connecting rod with the remains of a piston, and worst of all, two of the eggshell-thin cylinder skirts (where they intruded into the crankcase) were shattered. There was evidence that something similar had happened before because there was a patch on the crankcase. This time we found a marvellous little Belgian in Alperton who carefully and painstakingly built up and invisibly mended the hole by some secret process of his own. The cylinders were re-sleeved, the con.-rod and piston replaced and the rest generally overhauled. Eventually the car was ready for the road again.
To run it in, I drove it fairly quietly to Oxford (with Woozley as my passenger), but though the engine had sounded fine in the workshop, it seemed to be as flat as a pancake on the road. On our return, it was dark and raining and the car was popping and banging like blazes when I suddenly spotted the trouble, the advance and retard lever had retarded itself. I happened to be in the middle of a corner at the time and gave the car full advance with the result that we suddenly found ourselves going sideways up the road owing to the sudden surge of true Maserati power. We had a very exciting drive after that, including eluding a police car which was evidently interested in us.
To complete the running in, we took the car to Brooklands and ran it in steadily for a few hours, then Harry Torin and I both tried a few fast laps at about 125 m.p.h., but we both found it very difficult to hold on the bankings and there was much lifting off the throttle pedal. Peter Woozley, I suspect, thought us a couple of ninnies completely without guts, so decided to show how it thould be done by entering the Byfleet banking much too fast. He slid the car sideways from top to bottom, just missing Torin and myself and our hack Morris with mechanics in a tuning bay and finished up in one piece sitting just about three feet from the telegraph pole at the end of the bay. He was very, very lucky and so were we. No harm appeared to have been done to the car and, despite our entreaties to have the car thoroughly checked over, Harry, as happy as a sandboy, shot off back to Lee-on-Solent with it.
He ran it on the road for several months very successfully, during which time he probably gave you that ride, and we saw it and drove it from time to time. Then Harry decided to enter it for the “Fastest Road Car Race” at Brooklands (no doubt you recall that it was won by a 3.5-litre Delahaye driven by Arthur Dobson). It was taken down to the track with a view to tuning it up and sorting it out. Harry tried it and after a lap complained of loss of power. We found that the plug gaps were far too wide and were badly corroded, so a new set was fitted (which I admit should have been done before we started). I then got in and had completed one lap at a fairly cautious 4,000 r.p.m. to get it warmed up and then started to open it up. Halfway down the Railway straight I heard a faint tinkling sound and promptly switched off and coasted until I came to rest about halfway round the Byfleet banking. As I stopped there was a “whoosh” and she went up in flames in the blower / carburetter area. Fortunately there were some chaps sweeping the track nearby who came and beat out the flames with their bezoms and great clods of earth (not a recommended beauty treatment). The damage to the bodywork with a few dents and blistered paintwork was as nothing compared to the havoc under the bonnet. We subsequently found that Torin had filled the tank with some entirely unsuitable brew from a village pump and what I had experienced was a chronic case of detonation with even more disastrous results than had obtained when I first made the car’s acquaintance.
On my way back home that evening I was intrigued to see an Evening News placard reading “Blazing Car Drama At Brooklands” and I wondered who was the unlucky driver because it couldn’t possibly refer to me, could it? I bought a paper and read in a tiny paragraph on the front page that a “racing car driven by Lt. Torin had burst into flames at 140 m.p.h. and that the driver had bravely managed to bring it to a stop, leaping to safety from the flames”!! I wondered who had given them this grossly exaggerated version.
Harry then decided that if he was going to enjoy the car, he must give up any thought of racing it and must concentrate on getting reliability on the road. The cylinder block this time was really beyond repair, and it was therefore decided to have a new block made with thicker and stronger skirts which would mean a reduced bore giving a total capacity of 2.8-litres.
Harry was still keen to race so negotiations began with the Maserati factory to purchase a new 1,500 c.c. Maserati 4CL. It is interesting to reflect that the price quoted was £1,750 at the factory. Of course delivery and customs duty would have bumped the price up but it makes you think, doesn’t it?
A new cylinder block was made by Sheepbridge Stokes and new pistons were specially made by the German firm, Mahle. The crankcase was repaired by our Belgian friend and a new con.-rod obtained from the factory. Unfortunately just as we had everything ready to assemble, the war began; so the car, still in bits, was locked away in a rented lock-up in Kew to await the end of hostilities, as our premises in Richmond had been promptly taken over.
Harry Torin distinguished himself by dropping a bomb from his Skua aircraft down the funnel of the German cruiser, Koenigsberg, in a Norwegian fjord, for which exploit he was awarded the DSC. Sadly, he failed to return from a later sortie.
In 1946, I was still in the RAF at lwakuni, Japan and had undertaken to give first refusal to buy it from an RAF doctor there, when I had a letter from my father (who had my power of attorney) to say that the owner of the lock-up wanted it back and, in any case, my father was fed up with paying rent for it, no he had sold the Maserati at a give-away price to Robert Arbuthnot (I think it was he). I was furious because I had hoped that there would have been something over for Torin’s estate, bearing in mind that we had spent a considerable amount in obtaining the cylinder block, pistons, etc., which usually Torin would have paid for.
I believe that Dan Margulies subsequently raced a similar car with a capacity of 2.8-litres at Goodwood just once. This must have been the Torin car, but after that it disappeared without trace. Does anyone know what happened to it?