Letter to readers, January 1993

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Special Builders

Dear reader,

You cannot really define a special builder, even though we probably all know one when we meet him, and like me you have probably got friends who are natural special builders. I know people who will rebuild or restore a vehicle so that when it is finished it is as near to the way it left its parent factory as makes no odds. A worthy job of work and very satisfying for the worker, but not very interesting to look at as far as I am concerned. If you are in the category of “the man in the flat ‘at with the pipe” then such a rebuild or restoration will interest you enormously. This well-known phenomenon abounds everywhere, and just when someone has finished a long rebuild or restoration, he appears and taking his pipe out of his mouth he pronounces to all and sundry, “Very nice, but that gold line there should have been 7/I6ths of an inch wide, not half an inch,” or, worse, “That screw holding the cover on was only quarter-inch BSI on the Mark I model, this is a Mark 2 and it should be 5/16ths of an inch.” His knowledge is unbounded, and he is invariably correct.

Now, a born special builder defeats “the man with the pipe” at every turn because his finished work bears no relation to anything that might have come out of a factory. It is the way he made it, or rebuilt it, and the nice thing is that the finished article probably reflects more about the worker’s character than any part of the vehicle. At one club gathering there was a newly-finished project of a vehicle containing all the bits from the same manufacturer and on it was a notice which read: “This vehicle has not been restored, it is not pretending to be something it isn’t, and is the way it is because I built it myself and it is the way I wanted it.” The man with the pipe didn’t say a word, but the bowl of his pipe glowed merrily as he sucked on it in silence

Probably the best special builder most of us have known, or known about, was Colin Chapman, who was described, to use modern jargon, as a conceptualiser. Chapman’s first car, built in a lock-up garage, was a special, just as his last Grand Prix car was, and you only have to look through his list of racing cars to appreciate the work of a born special builder. Even today’s Formula One World Championship car is, by loose definition, a special, with chassis by Williams Engineering and engine by Renault Sport and almost every component benefiting from the engineering input of numerous firms in the outside industry. A one-off pure racing vehicle must surely represent the ultimate in the art of special building, at the pinnacle of sophistication and technical expertise and to be in charge of the whole engineering department of a successful racing team must be every special builder’s dream.

Special builders are usually technical and engineering people who are audacious in their thinking. Among the most audacious were Enzo Ferrari and the numerous engineers who came under his influence. The recent appearance of Tom Wheatcroft’s reconstruction of a Bi-motore Alfa Romeo makes you realise that, in 1935, when Luigi Bazzi created the two cars for Enzo Ferrari, they were examples of the special builder’s aptitude – ie imagination and audacity.

At the time a Grand Prix car with a super charged straight-eight engine ahead of the driver was fairly orthodox, but to produce a single-seater with a longer wheelbase and an engine behind the driver in addition to the one in front must be a classic example of special builder’s audacity. With the proliferation of racing in the 1950s the demand for cars prompted a lot of natural special builders to go into business. They put into small production the products of their ingenuity and inventiveness. John Cooper, Colin Chapman and Eric Broadley were the three most successful leaders in this new motor racing era. Today competition is so prolific that no matter what form it takes there is a specialist firm providing a ready-made racing car. Ingenuity and audaciousness are left to the tuners who work on improving the standard product, in categories where it is allowed, and also in some where it is specifically forbidden!

In the days before competition cars were so readily available, a lot of special one-off cars were made, using production components, and a lot of these examples of the special builder’s art still exist and are in constant use in VSCC events. Some have been ‘improved’ and others are still almost original, but all are in the fascinating realm of special builder. I find these are the ones that automatically attract me when I wander through a VSCC paddock at Silverstone. In addition to these pure specials, made from bits of this and that, almost every marque produces special versions of what were standard production cars. Bentley, Lagonda, Rapier, Riley, MG, Frazer Nash, Alvis, Alfa Romeo, Singer and others have all produced specials of the pre-classic period of motoring. Some are beautiful, some are horrendous, but good or bad, they show that the special builder is still with us and enjoying his self-chosen art. At the moment I would put the MG enthusiast at the head of this very active and enjoyable pastime, some of the results looking as if they had been conceived in 1933/34 at the heyday of MG racing. Some marques are not best suited to converting a tired old saloon model into a single-seat vintage racer, but nonetheless there is always someone who will give it a go. I love chatting with all those intrepid souls, for their enthusiasm is unquenchable. Some will say “looks awful, doesn’t it, but it’s the best I could do out in the shed”, others will say “I didn’t mean it to come out looking like it does. Somewhere along the line I lost my way” or “it doesn’t look funny to me” and “you might think it looks horrendous, but I think it looks beautiful. After all, I made it.” Like the man at the beginning of this story, they all made their car themselves and that’s the way they made it. Good luck to them, I say.

One rather nice special was made from a production Alfa Romeo, many years ago. Not only was it nice looking but it was very successful. Recently it has undergone a restoration and it now looks just the way it did when it left the Alfa Romeo factory. From being an interesting special, and a successful one, it is now just an Alfa Romeo like any other Alfa Romeo, except that a lot of it is brand new, and it is not particularly successful. A good example of the work of the anti-special building faction in our midst. Very boring people, some of them.

My request for readers to let me know the occasion they first saw, heard and smelt, a racing car in action, not on film or TV but in the metal so-to-speak, is gathering momentum coming from readers from 18 to 80, all being bitten by the same bug. For the moment we are still on Memorable Moments, and this month’s come from Michael Dennis in Hertfordshire, with an interesting alternative, namely three Memorable Moments he did not see, but would love to have seen:

I. French GP 1979 at Dijon-Prenois to see Rene Arnoux and Gilles Villeneuve fighting wheel-to-wheel for second place.

2. Belgian GP 1970 when Chris Amon nearly scored a well-deserved victory at Spa-Francorchamps. The consolation was that a BRM actually won!

3. The Spa-Francorchamps 1000 km race in 1970 with Joseph Siffert and Pedro Rodriguez in those wonderful Porsche 917 cars, fighting for the lead right from the start of a 1000 km race. (Ooh! Yes, see December 1992 MOTOR SPORT page 1139 — DSJ.) Happy New Year to you all, and here’s to another season of Memorable Moments.

Yours, DSJ

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