Much more than just another transport vehicle, the Ecurie Ecosse transporter became as famous as the cars – and drivers – it carried. And it’s still playing the same role 50 years on.
Words: Gordon Cruickshank. Photography: Tim Kent
It’s almost like walking into Merchiston Mews in Edinburgh in the 1950s: open the wooden doors and there’s a row of metallic blue sports-racers. On the flank of each, a shield with a white-on-blue cross flies the flag for one of the most romantic private teams of the lot –- Ecurie Ecosse. But in place of the granite cobbles of the Scottish capital underfoot we’re on English soil, in Oxfordshire, where Dick Skipworth has assembled, or perhaps reassembled, a second privateer stable in blue. It’s an impressive spread: not only a D-type but a 120, a C-type, a Tojeiro-Jag, Cooper Monaco and even the Austin-Healey Sprite which was the team’s final runner at Le Mans. (Yes, I’m ignoring the various team rebirths of later years.) All of these have proper history: they’re all cars which the Scottish team raced at one time – except the replica D. Yes, like a society lady wearing costume jewellery while the real things safely reposes in a bank vault, Dick can go out on the road in his long-nose, fin-tailed Lynx D-type and enjoy the comfort of independent rear suspension, knowing that, as he puts it wryly, “the cost meter is clicking over more slowly”.
But we’re not here to look at the cars. Behind us, its sweeping tail ready to swallow some of Dick’s stable, sits the large but tidy blue bulk of the only proper way to cart the blue cars around – the famous Ecurie Ecosse transporter.
Presentation is everything, they say, and if there was one person who knew that, it was David Murray. Around his small race team he created such a strong identity that spectators and organisers alike were excited when they knew that Ecurie Ecosse was coming. With the cars dressed in their signature blue, and their debonair drivers, the team had a presence even before the great days of Le Mans victory in the mid-50s, helping it to build one of the strongest supporters associations in racing – which included a young Dick Skipworth. And it was to the EE Club that Murray turned first when he decided that the two converted coaches which the team, like most others in the 1950s, used to ferry its cars around were no longer up to the mark. He had a vision of something eye-catching and practical to carry three cars; the machine he fathered made even grand prix truckery look insipid. Unique in form and swaggering in style, the EE transporter cemented the team’s distinctive image and was even immortalised as one of Corgi’s biggest-selling toys. Thankfully the vehicle itself has lasted longer than many of those miniature playroom versions, and it’s still carrying EE cars from circuit to circuit.
As well as donations from the supporters club, Murray used his personal charm and conviction to conjure up a whole set of deals and sponsorship for it. A truck dealer supplied the Commer forward-control coach chassis, and conveniently Murray was friends with the boss of Alexander’s, the bus and lorry coachbuilders; thus a new project slipped quietly in between the firm’s other jobs, labelled ‘Bread van No140’.
Alexanders’s chief stylist, Selby Howgate, happened to be a car enthusiast and took on the ‘bread van’ as his personal adventure, a chance to break out of the restrictions of bus design. Having inserted 18in into the wheelbase he had room for two cars on the first floor plus another below, with a workshop space between it and the cab, above the compact engine which sits low in the frame. Howgate articulated the bluff front with a reverse-angle screen and vestigial bonnet, curled a partial coaming over the top, and flicked the rump up into a pair of fins. In aerodynamic terms it’s probably worse than the average bread van – but it looked sensational. From the moment it rumbled into the paddock at Charterhall in May 1960 it became the team’s rallying point. An editorial in a 1960 issue of News from the Mews, the Association’s magazine, comments that at a Goodwood meeting more people were admiring the transporter than were watching the racing. Cars came and went – the last of the D-types was sold in 1960 as the team switched to a Cooper Monaco and then Tojeiro-Jaguars – but the big blue bus remained the outfit’s much-loved focus.
Until 1967. That year another of Murray’s frequent money crises forced him to make a sudden one-way trip to the Canaries, leaving the team to unravel. Historic racer Neil Corner bought the transporter and used it to carry his cars to meetings, still painted blue but with his name on the side, up to 1971. Then racer and restorer Tony Merrick took it on. He was used to it, having been its pilot when he worked for Corner. “Noisy and slow,” he remembers, “but it always caused a stir.” However, an open vehicle wasn’t the right thing to deliver customers’ cars in, so Merrick passed it on to Campbell McLaren, an Ecosse enthusiast who wanted to preserve the team’s heritage in some way. McLaren disposed of his collection in the mid-80s, at which point the Jaguar Drivers’ Club considered buying it. Luckily they asked Roger Ludgate, one of Lynx’s founders, to inspect it. “I was horrified to discover they wanted to cut the back off and make it a sales kiosk for their merchandise,” he told me a few years ago. He knew it should be saved, and in the absence of competition he felt obliged to rescue it.
Roger did what he could, overhauling the running gear with the help of an engineer who worked at Tilling-Stevens, the firm who made the weird three-cylinder, six-piston TS3 engine. It looks frankly mad in the drawings, but the unusual layout did produce a compact, low unit with a central drive output which would fit between the relatively narrow chassis rails of a bus or truck. The opposed-piston design is shallower than a vee and narrower than a horizontally opposed design. Think of three cylinder bores lying crosswise, each with a pair of pistons moving crown-to-crown to form a shared combustion space into which the fuel injector nozzles point. The con-rods actuate chunky vertical rockers which in turn use secondary con-rods running inwards to turn a central crankshaft under the bores. A Roots blower scavenges and charges the cylinders, giving it a unique scream when piling up a hill fully laden. As a two-stroke diesel it has no valves or ignition system, helping to make it reliable and efficient; even the small version, of a mere 3.2 litres, turns out 90bhp accompanied by generous torque. Dick says you don’t even need bottom gear (of six) to pull away.
It was the body, though, which proved the sticking point for Ludgate. He couldn’t get it under cover; as water found its way in, it began to rot and to smell, as he put it, “like a church crypt”. With no workspace big enough to continue the work, the vehicle sat there with some flimsy plastic between it and the weather, patiently waiting for another flash of good luck.
That happened in 1992, when Dick Skipworth was driving back from a race in his Lynx D-type. It was pouring with rain, and the soaked driver knew that just behind him, in Dick’s own road car, Lynx boss Chris Keith-Lucas was having a warm, dry run. When they reached home Dick announced that he needed some waterproof transport for the D and the Ecosse C-type he had just bought. “I know what you need,” said Keith-Lucas. Despite being an Ecurie Ecosse fan in his youth, Dick didn’t recall the transporter, so Chris quickly sketched it. That sketch remains in Dick’s very comprehensive file of information on the huge machine, recalling the moment he was hooked on what turned into a monster restoration.
It was a huge project in every sense, from the low-loader which took the vehicle to Lynx’s workshop in Worthing to the thousands of corroding magnesium rivets which had to be individually drilled out and replaced. Most of the aluminium body panels, though, were saveable, so what you see is pretty much what Alexander built. As the task spiralled there were often five of Lynx’s men working on it, but the core of the job was John Hay, whose commercial vehicle experience solved a lot of problems with the complex hydraulics and the unconventional power plant. Hay died two years ago, and there is a small plaque inside the transporter’s cab to his memory.
Lynx and Skipworth were both keen to keep the vehicle as near original as practical, so the ramp still rises by the force of the original hydraulic ram hauling on steel cables; “but we’ve doubled up the cables and fitted proper ramp locks” as Skipworth points out. There have been several incidents in the past of ramps falling and catches unlatching… And the car winch, once sourced from a Wellington bomber, couldn’t be saved; an unromantic modern lightweight unit now tugs the cars upstairs. Ludgate carefully preserved all the brightwork and fittings. In the spartan cab the crew sit on the original seats (recovered) and watch the same dials in the dash; there’s a period radio, not a CD player, and the big steering wheel still has no power assistance. There is now, however, carpeting. Such decadence.
In the car section metal sheeting replaces the rotten plywood floors, but otherwise the only real changes are in the rear compartment. Instead of the basic workshop where Wilkie Wilkinson, the legendary long-time Ecosse mechanic, worked his magic there’s a simple bench upholstered in a suitably period maroon plus fridge, cooker and sink; but all clad in marine mahogany and decorated with historic photos of the team cars and drivers. It allows for a simple meal and the essential cup of tea during a cold race meeting, and the crew have been known to sleep aboard, although more to ensure security for the vehicle than anything else. One discreet change involved replacing an upper trim strip with a channel to take an awning, so the guys now have a large weatherproof work space alongside.
The one thing Lynx didn’t need to refurbish was the engine, which performed well for three years before a piston broke on the way back from Le Mans. That gave Dick an excuse to fit the spare motor, a 3.5-litre unit with a hearty 310lb ft of torque which doesn’t flinch at hills even with three cars up. And, says Barrie ‘Whizzo’ Williams, who often gets to drive the transporter as well as race the cars it carries, it’s good for 17mpg. Which is just as well: this thing works for its living. The big blue bus has been to Copenhagen, the Isle of Bute for the Mount Stewart retro, Monaco (“we can do that in just over a day,” says Barrie) and even Pebble Beach, where the vehicle was part of the concours. “We had a brake failure on the green so we couldn’t drive away afterwards,” says Dick. “We had to dismantle the system with puzzled golfers teeing off all round us.”
As for me, Santa never did bring me the Corgi one, but seeing the real thing doing what it was built for at Goodwood and Silverstone is almost as exciting. And in this era when someone has faithfully replicated just about every famous car, we can be sure that no-one is going to build a copy of this. Can’t we?