One of the side-effects of making friends with car people is that your entire calendar can end up concentrating on cars. And holidays, too: staying with friends in the USA, I fancy I attended more motoring socials than in a season at home. My host Dave George restores cars, but only prime, mainly pre-war, European stuff: on my latest visit, his capacious workshop housed 1 1/2-litre Aston, 3-litre Bentley (apparently the last of the Gardner diesel conversions to be returned to proper power), an 8-litre, one of the three Alfa 2.9s which are his regular responsibility, and the squat and imposing bulk of a T33 flat 12 Alfa sports-racer. Not to mention the Mercedes S engine for, rebuild, though it has had to wait until Dave made a new scroll for the clutch of a local 75hp Edwardian Merc, off the road for 20 years waiting for someone with the skill to fix it.
So cars were bound to figure in our “off-duty” time. There was the motoring garden party, for friends and clients of a local classic car dealer, where, amongst owner Lou Frame’s collection of impressive Mercedes (a selection of 500 and 540, matching pair of 300 coupe and cabrio, Gull-Wing, as well as a spread of US machinery) the guest of honour was another old friend, Ray Carr, celebrating his latest motoring achievement — crossing America on a 1912 Baker Electric. He took 38 days for the 3100-mile coast-to-coast trip on the 30mph machine. It only runs about 50 miles between charges, so Ray’s crew followed with a support vehicle carrying a generator, and quick-charged twice a day as well as overnight. It’s far and away the oldest electric ever to make it, but Ray, who is now 70, also boasts the honour of driving the oldest petrol vehicle to cross America.
Last year, Ray drove his 1902 single-cylinder Northern across the land, carrying a flask of Pacific water to ceremoniously pour into the Atlantic 23 days later. His 5hp tiller-steered machine (prepared by Dave George) performed faultlessly, just as it does on the London-Brighton Run — 1995 was Ray’s eighth on his little chain-driver, which, thanks to Dave’s fettling, will now cruise at a fuss-free 30mph and even touch 40mph, despite splash lubrication.
Ray’s business interests centre on property and hotels, and his biggest plan has a novel motorsporting high-light. Ten years ago he founded a new municipality west of Philadelphia, aimed to be a model township and leisure resort. The New Morgan Recreation Park has miles of traffic-free roads and trails for walkers, bikers and skaters, but while carless transport is central to it, Ray is nevertheless also keen on motoring. Hence the newest element — Formula Motorsports Park, a country-club. for car-nuts centred on a three-mile road circuit, with 150 lock-ups, workshops, clubhouse, autotest/skid-pan, kart track and landscaped concours area.
If there are enough subscribers to keep it afloat it could be a paradise for car-lovers, where they can store and drive their own cars whenever they want (the track will be safety-manned at all times) and meanwhile the family can enjoy the sports facilities, pool and health-club nearby. The track itself, with its twin-loop options, is planned to international safety standards and the aim is to hold one or two (possibly IMSA) races a year. It’s a bold and, as far as I know unique idea; but Mario Andretti is a partner, and work began in August, so it seems to be happening. All the car enthusiasts at Lou’s party were talking about joining.
A lunch invitation from Alfa aficionado Henry Wessells took us first to his motor-house, idyllically sited in a wooded valley, where his Alfas live: the recently rebuilt 3000CM, a 6CI500 Testa Fissa (one of only seven team cars with fixed cylinder heads) beautiful 1900SS Touring coupé, Giulia Spider and Moto-Guzzi Falcone ‘bike. (Only a fortnight later, driving the 1500 in the Philadelphia GP, Henry stopped with a vapour-lock in the electric fuel pump, switched to Autovac and from last place recovered to second, and was rapidly gaining on Bill Serri’s MM 8C2900 Alfa when the flag fell.)
From here we went (in Henry’s Autodelta-tuned GTV) to meet race veteran Jim Carson: he still races a TD MG and Bentley 3 1/2, and runs the only car dealership I’ve ever seen which boasts a four-face steeple clock, rescued from a demolition.
Henry next invited me to join him at a dinner with The Clots — an unofficial group of vintage racing enthusiasts which has met for over 40 years. We gathered at the Ship Inn in Exton, which dates back to before the Civil War, and we talked old cars over good food — bliss. There were Al Garthwaite, racer and fast-car importer since the Fifties, VSCC of A secretary Tony Carroll, Hispano collector Ian Hughes; racers, restorers or collectors, the cars they loved were Siatas and Delages. OSCAs and Jaguars. Jim Carson was there too; he has so many cars he had to be prompted as he recited them.
But we had a common thread — we had all known Jerry Sherman. Sherman collected and drove mainly French sportscars from the war onwards, and was central to the old-car scene on the East Coast until his death five years ago. A trip to his wonderful old Pennsylvania farmhouse was a delight, the house filled with antiques and oddities, the barns and outhouses with dilapidated Hispanos and aero-engines, the man himself drawling out tales of sportscars bought, sold and crashed. Jerry rarely got around to fixing up his cars, but drove a cut-down Bugatti 57 with plywood open body as a shopping car. It was burnt out, along with a supercharged BNC, when a local fired his barn in 1990, but the .Hispanos and the Bedelia cyclecar in the basement survived. Luckily the 45ft Twenties speed-boat and Talbot-Lago GP racer had by then found new homes. The boat now throbs to a Hispano V8 aero-engine, courtesy of Ian Hughes.
Later I visited Al Garthwaite’s home to admire his Pourtout-bodied Bentley 4 1/4, sister to the streamlined Embiricos car but with conventional upright grille and two-seater, four-light styling. His father bought it from Franco-Brittanic Automobiles in Paris just before the war, and while exotic Ferraris have come and gone, it has been part of the family stable ever since.
A trip to the mountains above the sprawling town of Harrisburg then introduced us to a rapid Edwardian. It is a 1907 Renault 35/45, one of the 12 built by the firm to trumpet Ferenc Szisz’s 1906 French GP victory. They were smaller four-cylinder versions of the Grand Prix monster, but still boasted 7433cc; a number were bought by wealthy friends of the Vanderbilt family who indulged in the unofficial “Parkway Sweepstakes” in Long Island. The best-known of the three survivors lives in this country — Agatha, mentioned often in these .pages and now owned by John Bentley — but her American sister has only just been retrieved from 25 years storage by Kirkland Gibson. His father took over the huge machine in 1928, after it was left behind at Harvard by wealthy graduate and amateur racer George Rand, and he used it as an everyday car for years, adding only some wings. Kirkland recalls as a kid clinging to the passenger seat as his father went wheel-to-wheel with his uncle’s 1907 Benz.
Gibson Snr was a major early collector, saving many important US machines, and the Renault was retired to this large collection during WWII. It’s all dispersed now except for two cars: a De Dion retained by Mr Gibson Snr, and the Renault which his son is coaxing back to health. Apart from a starter (added in the ’20s) and a Winfield carb fitted by Rand, the imposing blue machine is very original, down to the separate mag and distributor; Mr Gibson Snr tells me that he has never had the engine apart.
It didn’t take long for Kirkland to coax it into life, cranking the handle and pulling the brass decompression lever on the front tie-bar; it was quite a sight, chuffing and quivering as the exposed push-rods clacked up and down on the paired blocks. It needs a little more TLC before its next public appearance, but it should be a sensational debut.
Although I missed the Philadelphia Grand Prix, I did have the chance to go to Lime Rock Park in September for the VSCC of America Fall Finale. Set in a wooded valley in Connecticutt, this compact circuit sits in a grassy meadow surrounded by a wonderful panoramic backdrop of mountains. The few circuit buildings are built in rustic grey timber and there isn’t a grandstand to be seen — except for the high grassy bank which overlooks the Esses.
As a closed event, the entry was of an assortment which made it difficult to properly segregate them; thus Formula Juniors and sportscars ran in the same race, and road-cars squared up to modified racing versions. Only nine were pre-war cars, racing with TD MGs. To tempt owners with more fragile machines, a Preservation class catered for anyone whose lap-times were over 1min 20. In a place the size of the US, people will drive eight or ten hours to a meeting, but that’s still only a relatively small catchment, given that VSCCA activities are centred in the north-east — Connecticutt, Vermont, New England.
But this field was further depleted by noise problems. Even though the limit was ostensibly the same as for all the season’s meets, 39 cars failed noise scrutineering at least once, leading to a surge in the price of steel-wool. There were dark comments in the paddock about local politics: noise testing is done by the local police, and lately there has been a campaign against the circuit, which is near a church and a couple of houses. Not that there’s been any Sunday racing since 1959. . .
Though the feel is very VSCC, the methods aren’t. All races have rolling starts to preserve machinery, and over-exuberance is penalised — if you spin, you’re black-flagged. But there was some hard racing — a three-race needle-match between Jim Freeman’s Aston DB4GT and Girvin’s bellowing coupe Allard was a highlight — and it was good to see Henry racing the Alfa Romeo 3000CM to third place. There are no championships, or even trophies; the aim is to pack in as much track time as possible. If there’s time left, they simply invent another race (like the “24 Minutes of Le Mans”).
Most entries were disappointingly familiar for a British visitor, but the sea of MG, Elva, XK, Healey, Morgan and Lotus badges was enlivened by a gleaming pair of oval racers, one Ford V8, one Offy-powered, a Gran Sport Siata, two Bugattis, and some Yankee specials.
Spectators? Well, as a closed-to-club meet, this was a non-spectator day (VSCCA members got in free by password!). But it was interesting that I had just read Art Eastman’s editorial in the American magazine Vintage Motorsport warning that the wider US vintage scene needs to sort itself out if it wishes to draw onlookers, and thereby sponsorship. He cites mis-matched grids, the lack of proper classifications (Ferrari F40s and Mazda MX-5s can race at some “vintage” meets), and the rise of fakes and fudges with modern technology, leading to a “winning is all” philosophy which leaves spectators bewildered and vintage owners dissatisfied. It’s probably a wider set of problems than we face.
But this Lime Rock meet was purer than that, and in the September sunshine no-one seemed too worried: as one driver said to me “Aw, hell, we’re just a bunch of middle-aged guys having fun!” It was a great party on Friday night, too. GC