When Duncan Rabagliati phoned last December to ask if I would like to join Team Rabagliati on the RAC Classic Run, he kindly offered me a choice of cars. There was no hesitation, it had to be his Kieft-MG. This car, LDA 5, had been exhibited at the 1954 Motor Show, touted as a possible road car. The following year, fitted with a 1500cc Turner engine, it ran without distinction at Le Mans and retired with gearbox problems. It is not a great history but it is a history, and the thought of driving any sort of sports-racer on the road was irresistable.
There are six hundred stories in the Classic Run. This is one of them.
Last year the first Run started from three points; this year the starting points were Brands Hatch, Beaulieu, Bath, Buxton and Norwich, with all routes converging on Silverstone. Our patron had six cars entered: the Kieft, a Connaught L2 (MPH 996, Rodney Clarke’s own car), an Ogle SX1000 (car 66, the last one made), the only RHD de Tomaso Vallelunga ever made, the unique Alexis GT (Rochdale body, spaceframe built by Buckler but designed by Mike Bendall) and the only 21/2-litre Lea-Francis tourer still with an original Westland four-seater body. Drivers were Duncan’s family and friends and our starting point was Bath.
First we had to get to Bath, and as the team gathered everyone looked at the rain and asked “Who’s driving the Kieft?” Having chuckled disconcertingly when my hand went up, they set about choosing a foolhardy volunteer to be my passenger.
My designated co-driver, Jane Mann, was excused on the grounds that she had been ill of late. Such was her story, and everyone was too gallant to demand a medical certificate. Still she cheered me up by saying “Last year the gear lever fell off in Duncan’s hands, then the dynamo packed up and we got 25 miles before the battery flattened.” Cheery soul.
Once on the road you find the windscreen infringes the Trades Descriptions Act. It screens no wind. Rain is not deflected over your head as lore says it should be. It is motor cycle time, and I had no protection. Rain drops were like buckshot in the face.
That is not the least of a Kieft driver’s problems. I should have smelled a rat when everyone asked how tall I was. The trouble is that the scuttle is low, the brake pedal is far back and the dashboard is not only badly laid out, but also obstructs your right leg when looking for the brake pedal. It is no wonder there were no takers when it was offered as a road car. There is no boot space either, and though the son and heir loyally tried out the passenger seat, he could not fit his 6ft 2in frame into the space.
Nick Conyers, a Healey enthusiast from Leeds, volunteered to ride and we headed to the west. The car now has an MG XPAG engine fitted by Kieft and, observing a 3750 rpm limit, we settled down to a painful 60-70 mph, not helped by drivers who wanted a good look. A Datsun can be intimidating at close quarters in the wet, when you have no great reserves of power and are having to use the marginal brakes with your left foot.
We stayed in a delightful seventeenth century hotel near Glastonbury, rose at an hour I have read about but try hard not to experience, and set off to Bath. With the weather fine Jane had rallied, crediting some miracle antibiotic, and took the wheel. With the first cars leaving at 8am there were few to see us off, but the start was pleasant, as it should been a summer morning in one of the world’s most beautiful cities and surrounded by lovely cars and the sort of people who care about such machinery.
Jane made an early wrong turn (modesty prevents me from naming the navigator) but brought us safely to Dereham Park where we went down the old hillclimb course, had our card stamped, changed places, and set off to Castle Combe.
At the circuit I was preparing to be flash on the track when I noticed the oil pressure needle dippiing. Going over one of the bumps into the circuit the sump drain plug had caught and torn a small hole in the plug. Duncan insisted I took over the Connaught while he and Nick set about repairing the damage with plastic padding.
You can soon see why the Connaught is Duncan’s favourite car. Even restricting the revs, the engine pulls sweetly and the chassis is enormously responsive, though the car has to be driven on the throttle through bends. Despite a small cockpit, the driving position is very comfortable and the steering light. While those who understand such things worked with the plastic padding, I took those of the team (we were 21 strong) who had come along for the ride on trips round the circuit.
While few will argue with the “classic” status of most of the cars in the run, some will suck their teeth at the likes of a Hillman Imp qualifying. The young man who drove one around Castle Cumin had his inner front wheel four inches from the ground in the tight corners. So you can argue about the car, but not about the spirit of that driver, or the many like him.
Young Jonathan and Mister Rabagliati took it in turns to navigate me first to Cheltenham, then to Prescott, and a splendid job they did too. In the queue outside Prescott the de Tomaso overheated but the Lea-Francis, which had given problems on the drive to Bath, had cleared its system and behaved impeccably.
Confession time: I once went to a hill climb, was bored rigid, and have never been back to one. I have never seen the point of the excercise. Driving up Prescott in the Connaught (the scene of the model’s competition debut, when Kenneth McAlpine won his class) put things in a different perspective. The mere thought of driving seriously up that track in a serious machine was boggeling. I’ll be back.
At Prescott a couple of harrased ladies, struggled, with good humour, to feed us (“We were told nobody would want to eat”), and hero time, Duncan Nick arrived with the Kieft and took the hill. Then we set off to Blenheim Palace, along the sort of interesting road which characterised the whole route, and from there to Silverstone.
Strictly speaking, we were just out of time (all those joy-rides around Castle Combe) but a nice gentleman handed over a finisher’s medal. Then Duncan arrived in the Kieft and sent me off to do the driving tests in it.
Along the way, reverse gear had decided it was tired of being at anyone’s beck and call, and had gone into a sulk. This did not help in the first test, where reversing was required. Still, it gave the commentator and spectators good value as marshals had to push the beast back. We did not win.
The day ended with a series of parade laps around the Grand Prix circuit which started sedately but (surprise, surprise) became quite spirited.
I would not have missed a minute of it, even the rain in my face in the Kieft. It was such a happy event, and the atmosphere was helped in no small measure by the good humour of the marshals who selflessly turned out in their hundreds so that others could enjoy a day on the road.
I would go back any time, though perhaps next year there should be something to do when drivers arrive at Silverstone. An autojumble would be good, and so might be a gathering of the car clubs. There needs to be something to arrive to. ML