Letter from Hampshire

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From D.S.J. to the Deputy Editor

Dear M L.,

With a weekend off from Formula One I took the opportunity of having a look at the other end of the motor sport spectrum, by visiting Prescott hilIclimb, near Cheltenham, where the Bugatti Owners’ Club was running its “Classic Hill Climb”. I was not at all sure of what I was going to see, or whether it was a Hill Climb for Classic cars or a Classic hill-climb. The word “Classic’ is one of those that the popular media has got hold of and worked to death. At one time I knew what classic meant, for I only used it with reference to music or art, and occasionally for sporting things like the Derby. Nowadays, I am confused for as I drive round the parish in my tatty old Morris Minor 1000 which I view as a workhorse for carrying things, people refer to it as “a classic car” and they ask me if I am going to restore it. I look at them blankly and point out that I am using irregularly and work is purely involved with keeping it mobile and more or less legal.

I went down to Gloucestershire the day before the Prescott meeting, to stay with friends, and made a gentle and leisurely run down the old Bath Road, through Hungerford and Marlborough and the lovely Savernake Forest. It had to be leisurely as I was towing a trailer behind an estate car, but the journey was made for me by the succession of Lotus cars heading the other way. There had obviously been something going on at Castle Combe or somewhere and the first inkling was the sight of a white Ford Cortina that instantly looked just that bit different. It was really motoring and looking rock steady through the curves and as it went by I could see it was a Lotus-Cortina, with the twin-cam engine by the sound of it. Shortly afterwards across a wide open plain I saw an Elan Plus 2 heading towards me and it was closely followed by a normal Elan. These two were obviously friends and having a glorious dice together, running in that close convoy that you can only do with someone you know well There was minimal traffic about so they could really get on with their motoring, and it was a ioy to watch them in my mirror as they wound their way across the open countryside Lucky lads, the spirit of motoring is not dead After that came a brand new Elite, then another early Elan, a Europa and another Elan Plus 2. There had definitely been a Lotus gathering, and it made my day. On my way home from Prescott, meandering across the Cotswold country a pair of tweaked up Triumph 2000 Saloons overtook me running in that glorious “close convoy” where you help each other with road-craft by ‘pathfinding’ and ‘giving cover’. More lucky lads enioying the open road.

At Prescott there was the most relaxed atmosphere and pleasant gathering of people and cars that you could wish for. There was not too much noise, as the rules now insist that all competitors vehicles must have silencers even when competing; the racing motorcycles all had to have silencers as well. Apparently this rule is going to apply to all hill-climbs and speed trials next year by the decree of the RAC and Prescott has succumbed already. There were not many real racing cars at this meeting so the silencer rule was not too noticeable, but it is difficult to think of a Type 35B Bugatti or an E R.A not making its characteristic noise. A friend suggested that it might be an idea intake along a tape recording of the V16 BRM and play it on your car stereo while the silent Bugattis and ERAs climb the hill at the VSCC meeting in August. No doubt that would provoke a rule that silencers must be used in the spectator enclosures!

In the paddock I met Sheridan Thynne, who used to race Mini-Coopers many years ago. Today he is the Commercial Director of Frank Williams Grand Prix Engineering, and we normally meet among the “millions of pounds and thousands of people” atmosphere of Formula One where you are nobody if you haven’t got a sponsored multi-coloured rally jacket and are not talking about 1000 horespower. He too was having a day off from what our friends think is the real world. He smiled and remarked quietly. “You know, this is the real world which is why I am here” to which I replied. “Me too”.

I had expected a paddock full of XK Jaguars, Aston Martins, Austin Healeys and Triumph TR2s as it was a “classic” meeting, but it was actually much more interesting that for there was everything there from vintage Bugattis through Morgan three wheelers and Cooper-JAPs to home-made specials. There were a lot of “classics” as well, naturally, but there was a complete absence of “beautiful cars” or “trailer-borne exotica” and nothing scintillated. All the cars looked real and used as did most of the owners and drivers and their friends. Looking at some of the vintage-style home-made sports cars that were taking part my friend remarked. “You know in every old saloon there is a sports two-seater trying to get out”. Many of them had got out. But it prompted the reply that a new trend could be that, “in every sports two-seater there is a single-seater trying to get out”. This was illustrated by two chaps running a nice-looking aluminium bodied single-seater built from Triumph TR2 components. They had not upset the TR owners by breaking up a TR2, but had built it from bits from crashed and written off cars. It had not cost them a fortune, it was not historic or classic but it was giving them a lot of fun and if it destroyed itself it was not a piece of history lost. They could build another one. And above all, it was not trying to pretend it was anything else but a home-made special. More power to them!

Certain people who like to analyse the human being and its behaviour, and compartmentalise everything, have a bad time when they come to the motoring enthusiast. They will look at me seriously and say absurd things like. “Isn’t it dangerous?” or, “Why do you spend so much time and energy on such a fruitless pastime?” and sometimes they ask what strata of life I am on.

Heading westwards out of London recently, I called in an AFN Limited, the Porsche Centre in Isleworth, where the old Frazer Nash cars used to be built. There is always something going on at AFN as the motoring enthusiasm that started the firm way back in 1927 is still very prevalent. On this occasion the main showroom had but one car in it, standing in the centre and illuminated by spot lights. It was a Porsche 911 Turbo with all the optional Sport Equipment on it, so that it was ready to deliver 330 bhp from its 3.3 litre engine and had all the aerodynamic goodies on it to keep it on the ground at all times. Finished in metallic silver with red leather interior it looked like the ultimate dream car and the sales staff was awaiting the arrival of the buyer. With a price tag of £80,000 they felt there ought to be something a bit special in the way of a hand-over ceremony, and a tasteful little private party had been arranged. Not being in my £80,000-style suit, I went on my way, leaving the staff awaiting the owner. I feel sure that the sight of that Porsche in solitary splendour must have taken his breath away. It certainly impressed me, and it wasn’t my car.

In the other showroom at AFN Limited were three Frazer Nash cars, as the firm always has something on show from its past. Lined up and looking very dignified and aloof from the scintillating Porsche next door were a 1924 three-seater tourer, a 1934 TT Replica and the 1948 Fast Tourer, the last two having the distinction of knowing that they had been built on the premises. The 1924 car was built at Kingston-upon-Thames, before AFN Limited was formed and moved the manufacture to Isleworth.

After putting some “running-in” miles on a new Porsche 924S for a friend, and attending a couple of vtritage motorcycle gatherings, it was time to pack the bag again and head off for London Airport to fly away to Formula One. The last time I was at Heathrow I saw a pleasant little domestic scene. I am like a taxi-driver friend of mine who once told me that he never got tired of sitting on a cab-rank because there were always people going by and he found endless pleasure in just watching them, I am much the same, I never mind waiting and watching the world go by. On this occasion there was this fellow about to take a plane to Bruxelles and his wife had brought him to the airport. When they got to the “Passengers Only” barrier he kissed her goodbye and as they parted they waved privately to each other. She then turned and went out to the car park to drive back home and he went through the customs to catch his aeroplane. Obviously a business man going off on an important trip to Belgium, I thought. Wrong It was Jacques Laffite going off to race for the Ogler team at Spa-Francorcharnps and his wife Bernadette was returning to their home in Stoke Poges. Jacques and his wife moved to Stoke Poges when he was driving tor the Williams team, and they become so enamoured with the English way of life that they stayed on when Jacques moved to the French Ligier team. It was a business man going off to work, but one with a difference.

Yours etc., D.S.J. 

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