Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank: January 2018

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There’s a busy timetable during London Motor Week – but first there are hard choices to be made for the RAC Motoring Book of the Year

It’s never easy deciding the ‘best’ in any disparate group, but picking out which of a year’s offerings is worthy of claiming the title RAC Motoring Book of the Year is especially fraught. But finally we judges made our decision and the envelopes were opened at a smart event at the Royal; Automobile Club premises in Pall Mall. In the end it wasn’t difficult for us to give the award to Damon Hill’s searingly frank autobiography Watching the Wheels, and Hill was present to receive his award which he waved in the air like a Grand Prix trophy.

Speaking engagingly about the process of writing his revealing tale, which discusses the thrill and stress of growing up with exciting but demanding Graham Hill as a father, his devastating loss and Damon’s own later struggles with depression, Hill said he’d overthrown the original plan for a ghost-writer and instead did it in his own words. The judges felt the result was a compelling read, all the more so for appearing almost 20 thoughtful years after the close of the world champion’s career. Hard work too, said Hill – “I’d go downstairs and start at 5am every day, and just hammered away until it was done.”

A very different work on the short-list, Stephen South – the Way it Was by Darren Banks probed into a very different racing career, one which South himself tripped up by his own behaviour. Though hardly a glossy work, we appreciated the dogged research by a first-time author on a driver whose impressive talents are forgotten by many.

A panel discussion before the announcement highlighted book collectability, now that so many include limited editions at high prices. Ben Horton of specialist motoring bookshop Hortons, one of my fellow judges, made the surprising point that the limited editions often don’t appreciate as much as the ‘reading’ copies which can soon double and treble in value – if they’re one of the latest breed of super-detailed, chassis-by-chassis, ‘must-have’ investigations.

That’s something that has changed over the years, the panel agreed. Today’s specialist car books are far ahead of what were considered fine works in their time, often capitalising on first-time access to factory records. Prolific collector Dean Butler, whose library includes some 20,000 books, added that there was still more information to mine – Peugeot, for example, retains records of every single car it has made, back to car 1.

Typical of this new breed of work is Porter Publishing’s comprehensive Great Cars – Jaguar C-type, by Chas Parker and Philip Porter, on our short-list along with Continental Journeys, in which David Bassoli presents the complete history of Bentley Continentals with details of every car built.

But for our RAC Specialist Book of the Year (a ‘labour of love’ prize with no price limit, whereas the other award cuts off at £75) we chose Delage – Champion du Monde, by Daniel Cabart and Christophe Pund.

There’s been surprisingly little written about the low, slim 1.5-litre machines that brought Delage brief glory in 1926 and ’27, but Cabart, who has restored and researched Delages for many years, and Christophe Pund, who owns one of the six cars built, have magnificently filled the gap. It’s not only the tabular information, including designer Albert Lory’s hand-drawn graphs, but the rare picture selection that make this work a valuable historical source.

As the discussion confirmed, books like this with an apparently small market look expensive when new, but if you need access to this history later on you’ll find yourself paying much more.

On the same day as the book award, another highlight of the RAC’s London Motor Week was the presentation of the Dewar Trophy and the Simms medal, both recognising British technical achievements.

With electrification of our roads the current hot topic, Jaguar made a worthy winner for its forthcoming I-Pace, Jaguar’s first all-electric vehicle, which seems to offer that Holy Grail combination of speed, handling and range – over 300 miles is the claim – plus quick charging. And it doesn’t look weird. After Jaguar Land Rover CEO Dr Ralf Speth had accepted the Dewar Trophy, design chief Ian Callum made the point that electric drivetrains free designers from previous constraints, while adding “Elon Musk’s secret was that Tesla didn’t look odd. I hate the perception that EVs must look odd.”

Even more striking and offering staggering performance is the forthcoming HIPERCAR, created by a consortium of Ariel Cars, Delta Motorsport and Equipmake, who collectively received the Simms Medal for engineering the 1100hp five-motor (four electric plus a micro-turbine topper-up) design, slated for production in 2019. It’s a sign that smaller specialist firms are just as capable of advancing technology as the big players.

LONDON MOTOR WEEK builds up to two major public events, the Regent Street Motor Show on Saturday and Sunday’s RAC London to Brighton veteran run, but on the way offers talks, this year from Hans-Joachim Stuck, Jean Todt and Prodrive chief David Richards among others, presentations on transport design by the Royal College of Art, and an impressive display of motoring art. I went along to the Mall Galleries to investigate, and while there is a blizzard of poor automotive art around, the exhibition proved that the best should be more celebrated than it is. Tim Layzell is now well known for his vibrant pop-art style but here he showed black and white sketches as well as a figurative Targa Florio landscape. “Only finished it on Friday night,” he told me. “But I’ve always painted these as well as the stuff that’s got me known.”

Other techniques ranged from Yahn Janou’s impressionistic heavy impasto on coarse canvas to Ella Freire’s cool and pure prints on Perspex. With my background at the drawing board I liked Geoff Bolam’s very technical profiles painted onto aluminium complete with chassis numbers, forming a contrast with John Ketchell’s fractured, atmospheric images of 917 and Cobra almost leaping off the wall.

Exhibits were three-dimensional too, both Gary Smith and Esteban Serassio showing bronzes of famous machinery, Smith’s Jaguars and Bugatti crisp in shape while Serassio lets himself distort forms to emphasise speed – the element hardest to represent in artistic form.

It was noticeable that all the chosen artists leaned more to history – 917s and GT40s, Birkin and Bugattis – than today’s racing. The only work based on modern F1 was Nick Roe’s Art of Aero collection, which I’ve written about before – Williams CFD aero images turned into art, backlit on Perspex. Very effective, and a long way from the classic gouache and pencil work of the great motoring artists from history – de Grineau, Nockolds, Gordon Crosby – some of whose work was also on display. It would be fascinating to know what they, who drew Segrave and Nuvolari from life, would make of today’s images of history reconstructed from photos.

Featuring 17 of the top automotive artists, this is reckoned to be the biggest curated show of its kind, as opposed to the selling stands at the big classic gatherings – although even at the private view the orange ‘sold’ dots were going up again and again. It made an impressive show, in spacious premises. If you’re in London for the next RAC Motor Week, go along. Entry is free.

IT’S YEARS SINCE I watched my first London-Brighton, wondering where people get the fortitude to sit atop a puttering de Dion, sometimes in miserable rain, yet while it no longer makes our January front cover as it always did in Bill Boddy’s time, it remains one of the great motoring events. Now we have an extra chance to inspect the veteran voyagers without standing by the roadside as the day before all the cars assemble for the Regent Street Motor Show, along with some of the eco vehicles that will shape our driving future.

The sheer novelty of strolling along the centre of this major London artery, closed for the event, makes this day special. And all the veterans are there for public inspection, including the high-chimneyed Salvesen steam cart that Bonhams had sold the day before for £158,000. The rows of gleaming machinery, all now more than 11 decades old, are a reminder that there was no obvious pattern for this emerging technology, so engines pop up front, rear and middle; steering is by lever, tiller and wheel; and driving controls sprout in bewildering array from columns, dashboards and steering wheels. They were finding their way, as we are now with low- and zero-emissions vehicles, on show alongside les anciennes. But I thought the future tech shown was disappointingly conventional; I was expecting some form-factor novelty – banking trikes and pedal power, maybe – but apart from Renault’s tiny Twizy, already available for some years, the others were all cars you might see on the road today – Prius, BMW hybrids, one hydrogen-fuelled hatch which would blend in at any car park.

It seems Ian Callum was right – that our brilliant new technologies are likely to arrive wrapped in relatively conventional forms.

Long-time staffman Gordon Cruickshank learned his trade under Bill Boddy and competes in historic events in his Jaguar Mk2 and BMW 635