A Question of Identity

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Hidden away in darkest Wales I have a large single-seater Duesenberg racing car that was brought from America by the Scuderia Ferrari in 1933 and driven briefly by Count Trossi at Monza. Then Whitney Straight borrowed it and later it was bought by Jack Duller, and it spent the rest of its life at Brooklands Track. Among others it was driven by Dick Seaman and Gwenda Hawkes, and I get immense pleasure from looking at it and sitting in it and thinking of all the famous people that sat in that same cockpit. How do I know it is that self-same car? Mainly because it was the only one to come to Europe and its history can be traced through the bound volumes of Motor Sport. The only disturbing thing in this story is that it is no longer the same as when Count Trossi and Straight drove it, for when Duller bought the car his tuning establishment made it more suitable for Brooklands by altering the driving position, having a new tail-cum-fuel tank made of much larger proportions, widening the rear spring base, fitting different shock-absorbers and re-upholstering the cockpit. I cannot say I have the original Duesenberg, merely the 1936/39 modified Duesenberg, everything about the car being as it was in 1939 when racing at Brooklands ended.

In another hidden corner is being built up a Sunbeam racing chassis of 1924 vintage, this being number 2 of the Sunbeam Motor Company’s team of three Grand Prix cars, little remaining of number 1, and number 3 being complete and recently given away to Monte Carlo by the Rootes Group. History records that there were only three Grand Prix Sunbeams built in 1924, and when I found mine I compared all the details with the Rootes Group car and they were identical. When I cleaned the dirt and paint off various parts I found them neatly stamped “No. 2”, and inside the right front-brake drum was “No. 2 Right Frunt”, a delightful Wolverhampton way of spelling “front”. The other drums were similarly stamped. While I was investigating my “find” a Sunbeam expert told me to scrape the paint off the front of the dumb-irons and there I would find stamped the chassis number and the last two figures of the year of manufacture, which was 1924. On the Rootes Group car the stamping records “No. 3/24”; on mine it is clearly inscribed “No. 2/26”, yet Sunbeam did not make any Grand Prix cars after 1924! The only explanation is that No. 2 had a crash and was rebuilt with a new chassis frame in 1926, no doubt a spare from the G.P. racing days. So I cannot honestly say that I have the No. 2 Sunbeam G.P. car, but I can say I have the 1926 development of it. This sort of thing is bound to happen over the years, so that a truly original historic car is hard to find.

In the E.R.A. firmament some well-known cars hardly bear resemblance to the original, apart from the chassis frame, with 2-litre engines instead of 1½-litre, different brakes, different shock-absorbers, different radiators and so on. There are many cars in vintage racing that only faintly resemble the original, with much-modified engines, improved suspension and brakes, new bodywork, smaller wheels and tyres, and such-like; all things that must be done if they are to pass the scrutineers and race successfully, for all the owners want to be winners. A classic example of “necessary improvement” is the 10½-litre V12 Delage, which used to have twelve separate cylinder barrels, each held to the crankcase by a base-flange like a motorcycle engine. When one of these flanges broke while the engine was running at high speed there was an awful mess, and no spare cylinder barrels existed. Over many years the owners rebuilt the engine and instead of having new cylinder barrels made to the pattern of the originals, they re-designed the layout and had the cylinders made in blocks of three, thus ensuring stronger holding-down flanges as well as imparting more strength to the rather flimsy crankcase. The car is running again and they have “a V12 Delage”, but can we honestly say it is “the V12 Delage” of which only one was built in vintage times.

There was also a famous racing car that appeared to have the wrong chassis number. When the metal plate carrying this dubious number was removed the original and correct number was found underneath! There was quite a fuss. Identification of racing cars has always been a problem, and for years it was fairly straightforward and honest, but now and then unscrupulous people have invaded our ranks and a little fudging of the truth has often taken place, no doubt a throw-back to the days of “horse-copers” for undoubtedly the early motor-car dealers came from the ranks of the horse-and-carriage dealers. Not so long ago a well-known builder of Grand Prix cars was doing some financial juggling in order to pay for a successful Grand Prix team and only three cars existed officially, whereas he had built twelve in fact, which makes an accurate historical record impossible. Another builder of racing cars actually had three on the same row of the starting grid, all carrying the same identification number, but this was a case of force majeure rather than unscrupulousness.

In these days of “do-it-yourself” Grand Prix car kits, when racing cars are held together with a quick dab of Sifbronze and a few Pop-rivets, it is virtually impossible to identify a particular racing car for very long. With identification numbers stamped on alloy plates attached to a tube or monocoque by rivets the only real identification is the plate itself! The days of tool-room workers who put their own stamp on things they made went long ago, and modern design does not encourage such individualism. In vintage years the construction of a racing car was an outstanding event, nowadays they can be made in batches of ten, twenty or fifty, and there is such reliance on specialist manufactures that some components are interchangeable between as many as six different makes of Grand Prix car. Over the years certain racing-car owners have given their cars names, usually with a personal angle, in the way all boats have names, and these have stuck even though the car has been modified or rebuilt. A case in point is the 4-litre V12 Sunbeam of 1925 that was known as “Tiger”, its sister being called “Tigress”. Even though “Tiger” was completely rebuilt by Thomson and Taylor for Sir Malcolm Campbell, with a new front axle, new brakes, new bodywork panels, an entirely different gearbox and a new chassis frame, the resultant car was still known as “Tiger” and still is to this day. Prince Chula gave names to his three E.R.A. racing cars, Romulus, Remus and Hanuman, and these have lasted throughout their life. Hanuman suffered a gigantic accident and had to be rebuilt with a new chassis frame, and a different form of front suspension, but the new car retained the name Hanuman, for, after all, it was a resurrection of the original car. Apart from one or two feeble attempts by private owners, the idea of giving a racing car a name, that it carries with it through all the vicissitudes of the racing game, has died. Dare I make the suggestion that it is revived for Grand Prix cars, or will the purists descend in droves, like they have over advertising on racing cars. Surely it would make life more interesting and amusing to know that Graham Hill was driving “Borborygmus” rather than T70/301 /Mk. 2/1071.

In power-boat racing the boats all have names and seem to develop personalities appropriate to the name, or is it vice versa? “Thunderfish”, “Sea-Fury”, “Tramontana” all mean something in the boating world. In drag-racing in America and in England the cars all develop a personality and have appropriate names, such as “Bounty Hunter”, “Swamp Rat”, “Pandemonium” or “Pulsation”. In motorcycle sprint racing there are some classic examples, the most famous being George Brown’s two machines “Nero” and “Super Nero”. Even though they have been rebuilt over the years, with new frames, engines, gearbox, wheels, they are still known affectionately by everyone in the sprint world as “Nero” and “Super Nero”. Other well-known sprint bikes are “Thor”, “Rumblegutz”, “Satan”, “Methamon”, all of which conjure up the character of the machines, and they do have character. Perhaps modern racing cars have become so cold and efficient that they do not have sufficient character to justify a name, and a row of letters and figures are symbolic of the design. Many Grand Prix cars are constructed from so many different manufacturers’ parts that if they were all mentioned the name would be longer than the car, such as the McLaren-Cosworth-Ford-Hewland-Goodyear-Lockheed-Champion-Ferodo-Specialized Mouldings-Shell-Special. We call it a McLaren M7A, but is this fair to all the suppliers and helpers with the design and construction. If Bruce McLaren’s car was called “Tuatara”, after a speedy little New Zealand lizard, it would be much more to the point. In Texas Jim Hall called his car “Chaparral” after the scrub or bush in which the “road runner” lives, this being a skinny chicken-like animal that can run very fast but cannot quite take off due to a fault in its wing design. Probably when the first Chaparral was built Hall did not anticipate a series of them, so he had to designate subsequent cars Chaparral 2D and so on. What I have in mind is one name one car, so that while McLaren’s own M7A might be called “Tuatara”, Hulme’s M7A would have another name.

In Brooklands racing many cars were given names, some rather silly, some almost obscene, no doubt a throwback to horse-racing days, for British motor racing was developed along horse-racing lines, while in British hill-climbs names for cars were the order of the day, especially as most of the cars were home-made specials. Such cars as “The Terror”, “Bloody Mary”, “The Spook”, or “Kim” all had character and personality; surely such present-day cars as “The Marsh Special” or the “Cooper-Chrysler”, “Brabham-Buick” deserve a little more imagination from their constructors, or has motor racing become such a serious technical activity that we can only think in terms of M10/4/810F/34. Even the space-age people, who must think more seriously and technically than anyone name their rockets and space craft; “Atlas” and “Saturn” speak anyone, themselves.

Historians could still amuse themselves tracing the activities of famous cars, and the not-so-famous as seems popular these days, and as long as the fundamentals and character of a Lotus 49, for example, continued to be driven by Graham Hill it could be called “Gold Strike”. Even though it was on its third engine its second monocoque, the ZF gearbox had been changed for a Hewland, and newer and wider wheels had been fitted, it would retain its name, and when the rigid-axle 4-wheel-drive Lotus is ready, “Gold Strike” would no doubt pass to Oliver or someone; and guess whose car could be called “Jack Pot” or “La Viennoise”. To many this may all sound sacriligeous, but “Bluebird” was accepted many years ago, as was “Remus” and “Kim” or “Black Bess”, or has imagination and personality really gone from motor racing, as many people suggest?

D. S. J.

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