Thunderbirds are go!
It was a quiet day in the country until the turbine Howmet lit up and spiralled towards its piercing 57k red line
Instruction manual — check. Aviation fuel — check. Big fire extinguisher — check. Saucereyed spectators with hands over ears — check. And we’re only starting a car. But then it does have a helicopter engine.
The latest toy in the amazing ROFGO collection — the Gulf liveried paddock of cars assembled by Adrian Hamilton for German racer Roald Goethe — it’s the Howmet TX, the turbine-driven ear-piercer that made a brief splash in sports car racing during 1968. This is chassis GTP2, which has previous at Sebring, Daytona, the Glen,
Brands and Le Mans, and I’ve come to Duncan Hamilton Ltd to peer down its vast exhausts. Its minders Ted Higgins and John Bright have rolled it outside, ready to light the blue touchpaper.
Schemed up by US racer Ray Heppenstall, the TX aimed to be a flying billboard for Howmet’s metals and castings business. Andy Granatelli and Colin Chapman had shown turbines could be quick and, despite those famous failures, turbines are in general extremely reliable. You can’t get out of your helicopter and push-start it. They chose a Continental unit, which despite chucking out 325bhp and a ton of torque weighed less than a big V8, and slid it into a tubular steel McKee chassis.
We’re used to an overhead air intake now, but the three mortar barrels firing skywards are still an eye-opener. Two handle the main exhaust flow while the smaller one is fed by a wastegate, which as on a conventional turbocharger helps keep the turbine spinning and cuts lag. But in case you thought it was simple to drive because there’s no gearbox or clutch, beware of the throttle: twothirds of the travel controls fuel flow, but the last stretch closes the wastegate, throwing more flaming gases at the power turbine and hence the wheels.
That direct clutchless drive — a multi-stage reduction box to gear down the 57,000 max rpm — means that even at idle the thing will do 40mph and, while you can hold it on the brakes, there’s a 30-second limit before it consumes itself. That’s why Ted and John are jacking up the tail and propping it on a cradle, after scraping gravel off the tyres to avoid collateral damage as they whirl, and aiming it away from trees to avoid a forest fire. Now Ted plugs in the 24v starter battery.
As John slides under the butterfly door, he props a ringbinder of instuctions against the dash and I ask how often he has started this thing. “Once,” is the cheery reply. “But we had a day’s tuition from the French wizard who sorted it.” This is Olivier Richez, turbine guru who restored it for the last owner. Along the line it lost its original engine and now packs an Allinson unit, which Richez tweaked after finding a suitable wastegate.
That blow-off valve pitched this chassis into the wall in the Daytona 24 Hours, the first race for the grounded missile, when it jammed shut into a corner — the equivalent of full throttle. It happened again in the Brands BOAC 500, one of a string of glitches that kept knocking them back, though they did finally score two wins in US races. As the rest of the Hamilton staff gather round at a respectful distance, John flicks switches, turns a page, adjusts controls, turns a page. With no fanfare a low whir starts, rising smoothly, spiralling exponentially louder, the fat tyres blurring as they spin up. When the fuel/air jetstream ignites, the whine becomes a roar and suddenly the view over the tailpipes dances in the blowtorch heat. We have to shout as the revs pile on. I can see the needle but I can’t process the figures — that’s not 4000 but 40,000 and it’s still climbing. John’s eyes are glued to the flicking dials; everyone else is grinning Neighbours? There’s an army helicopter base nearby — protective camouflage. On the dash there’s a digital screen. “Data capture?” I ask. “Rear-view mirror,” says John. “Camera round the back.”
Roald plans to run it at Goodwood, so he’ll have to get used to the lack of both gearlever (a switch engages the electric reverse) and engine braking. Whether he’ll employ the methanolwater injection that boosts it from 420 to 500bhp is a different matter…
With a last grin John snuffs the flame and the whine plunges, winding down to shocking silence. Birds start up around the pond (these are very rural premises) and the scent of Jet A fuel tangs the air. I haven’t had this much fun just starting a car since I fired up the Bizzarini P538 on a suburban driveway.
I know you all saw our Gulf feature a few months ago, but I wasn’t going to argue when Ted took me to see some highlights — the GT40 No1084 which Roald bought because he once had a model of it, the short-tail 917, the 2007 Le Mans class-winning Aston in its original grime. “I know it’s more valuable like that,” winces Ted, “but as a mechanic I hate it!” We divert to look at the glorious Gulf transporter, too: when the sister car to the ROFGO 917 is ready they’ll take them both down to Le Mans in it, just as Porsche did 40 years back. I don’t have time to see much more, but there’s a McLaren-Offy M16 Indycar on its way over from Oz. I think I might head back to the Duncan Hamilton operation quite soon.
A weekend affair
VSCC’s Saturday/Sunday format put plenty more Spring in the season Start
I wish VSCC hadn’t made its Spring Start a two-day affair — I missed 50 per cent of an excellent meeting. But it’s good news that the club was confident it could provide two full days of quality racing. It was a fresh mix, too — I was sorry to miss Sunday’s HRDC Allstars race, but the vast grid for the Commander Yorke Trophy was the largest grid of 500cc cars since the Fifties. With the HGPCA serving up serious Grand Prix racing, an epic three-way Pre-61 argument among Philip Walker’s Lotus 16, Julian Bronson’s Scarab and the snarling Tec-Mec of Tony Wood, plus the healthy idea of a two-driver swap in the 1950s sports cars, the weekend was packed with action — and memories.
George Abecassis, racer and car builder, brought us some much-needed success in the 1940s and ’50s, and a commemorative race for Altas, HWMs and Aston Martins backed by a large display of cars celebrated his centenary, even to the bare bones of his first racer, the Almack Austin. One absence was YPG3, which lives in America. In 1954, then registered HWM1, it ran the Mille Miglia with Abecassis at the wheel and DSJ alongside. Near Padua, Jenks recalled later, rain and mist closed in. “Abecassis shouted ‘can you see anything?: to which I replied ‘not ‘Neither can I; he said, and continued to drive into the gloom at 100mph.
Opposite, Christopher Scott-McKirdy had assembled an Aston centenary display including my choice of the day — Andy Bell’s menacing 12/50 coupe with a barrel of a supercharger strapped to the block and no bonnet sides. With scowling lowbrow cabin it howled around Silverstone despite being fully furnished indoors, complete with rear seat and vanity sets. Andy, boss of Aston specialist Ecurie Bertelli, tells me that it was almost cut up for a racer a few years back before he rescued it, and in its colourful history it packed a Sunbeam twin-cam and then a Rover 2000 engine before he installed the 2-litre Aston block, close-ratio Ulster ‘box and Godfrey Roots blower The result is a tractable155bhp four-seater that Andy says he can drive to the shops if he wants, but which can pick up its skirts when the flag falls.
I hadn’t seen Tom Dark’s T73C Bugatti close up before. Molsheim made five sets of parts for the blown four-cylinder 1500 in the late 1940s but this one was never completed, and marque devotee Uwe Hucke began the build that Dark finished last year. With its semi-streamlined body it’s a rare device, though Tom says it would be a lot quicker on 16in tyres instead of 18s — “but it’s the right thing to do”.
Elsewhere, Bentley racer Stanley Mann’s new monoposto (bottom) scared me — a 49cc orange paddock runabout that resembles a crash between a kart and a giant pumpkin and apparently does 50mph. Is it stable at that rate? I asked Stanley. “As long as you don’t try to get out.”
Rolling, rolling, rolling
The forgotten face of restoration putting your car onto the right tyres. If Ha!fords doesn’t have them, where do you go?
Dropped in on vintage tyres during a visit to the National Motor Museum recently. I see the firm’s marquee at just about every historic race meeting, but not running a racer I’ve never needed their services. However, there’s always a tower of tyres being fitted, so I thought I’d visit HQ in the museum grounds. It’s a riot of rubber — anything from slicks for Minis to 28in cartwheels for interwar American iron. MD Chris Marchant emerged from between roof-high racks of shiny rubber to explain how the firm was sparked off in 1962 by Dunlop’s decision to phase out production of old car tyres. Worried this would ground many veterans, Lord Montagu and Philip Pollock started the firm to market these specialised products. With the UK being in those days the core of the historic car world, the range and the company blossomed.
Today, says Marchant, Vintage Tyres can supply boots anywhere in the world for anything on two, three or four wheels right back to the 1890s. That includes racing rubber, so there are racks of R1 Dunlops as well as snow-white clinchers for your US veteran, though Chris says it’s early low-profile wide road tyres from the 1970s that are hardest to source. Inevitably the rarer sizes — some only made in handfuls per year — become costly: re-shoeing your R-R Ghost could be 12000, so the company also sells its own value brand, Waymaster, made out east to its own specs.
Often I see in the history of an ancient auto that in the 1950s it had to run on lorry tyres, the only thing available in vaguely the right size. We worry about authentic-looking bodywork, but it would all be pointless if our pride and joy had to ride on the wrong rubber.