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One wheel in the past: searching out what’s new in the old car world

FAST AND CURIOUS

An aviation visit turns into another car-fest at a Farnborough museum 

Like I said last month, cars follow me everywhere. A visit to an aerospace museum turned into a car conversation the moment I arrived at FAST – Farnborough Air Sciences Trust. This is the museum for the Royal Aircraft Establishment whose history ran from canvas biplanes to Britain’s space race and beyond, so I was expecting lots of aero science, but even before I got out of the car I’d met FAST trustee Richard Buckroyd and his Aston Martin and guess what – he’s a member of Hants & Bucks MC, second home to this magazine’s stalwarts Bill Boddy and Jenks, both of whom worked here at RAE during WWII. He gave me a personal tour with added automotive highlights.

Packed with beautifully crafted wind tunnel models, Concorde sections, bomb sights, balloon parts, satellites, ejector seats and all the various elements investigated at RAE through the 20th century when it was Britain’s dead-secret high-IQ incubator for brilliant ideas (including carbon fibre, developed here), the museum is a fascinating overview of this world-leading outfit. There’s even a Polaris missile warhead, making a bit of a contrast with the Cody biplane, a replica of the machine that began Farnborough’s intimate links with British aviation. Outside stands an array of aircraft including Harrier, Hunter, Jaguar and a Trident flight deck. Yet Richard tells me the displays are only about 5 per cent of the records, drawings, models and components the trust holds from 110 years of RAE history.

Remarkably, they had a wind tunnel here in 1916. It’s long gone, but two others remain, one of them built in 1946 and huge enough to take a full-sized Hurricane. Or a D-type Jaguar, for this was where Malcolm Sayer brought the Le Mans cars to confirm his open-air wool-tuft testing in the airflow of the thundering 30ft fan. Earlier, Frank Costin stuck his streamlined Vanwall in here and even as late as the 1990s Benetton came here for aero experiments before moving-floor tunnels became the norm. And as Farnborough Airport is now owned by TAG and used for business jets, many a driver and team principal drops in here, even Lewis Hamilton in his blood-red Bombardier.

So far you can only visit the wind tunnels on special tours as they’re detached from the museum (itself housed in the 1907 Balloon School building Bod and Jenks must have known well), but the trust wants to open up these Grade II-listed relics to the public. If you like things that go fast, and that’s all of us, FAST is a good day out. And free! (But feel free to donate…)

www.airsciences.org.uk

Meeting Eaton

A chance encounter and a lesson in why you should always seize the day

Handling so many reader queries I see a lot that say “my great uncle was a Brooklands racing driver…” Family legends frequently expand themselves over the years, and often a bit of investigation establishes that rather than being a hero of the Outer Circuit the chap in question once entered a concours at the Clubhouse. So when I arrived in Devon for a weekend house party during the 1980s and was introduced to a lady who said “you must meet my husband – he raced at Le Mans in 1930”, my mental mode clicked into polite wariness. This lady was perhaps in her 50s then, so the chronology didn’t add up. But then I met the husband, obviously much older, who said, “Oh yes, Brian Lewis and I finished third in a Talbot in 1930.”

This cheery, tweed-clad figure was Hugh Eaton, who indeed shared a works Talbot 90 with the Hon Brian Lewis (later Lord Essendon to the confusion of many a researcher) to chase home the Speed Six Bentleys of Barnato/Kidston and Clement/Watney. He was very modest about it, waving it off as just one of the things one does in one’s youth, though he did chuckle about the results sheet: the first six crews home that year were British, in five British cars plus Lord Howe’s 6C 1750 Alfa Romeo, and the first French car in the list was driven by two ladies, Mademoiselles Mareuse and Siko in a Type 40 Bugatti. All of which, according to Eaton, was less than pleasing to the home establishment, not known for waving the feminist flag all those years ago. 

It was a busy weekend and I didn’t get the chance to ask Eaton much about his racing, but later I took Bill Boddy to the Eatons’ London flat where WB did a short interview. Hugh’s first wife Colleen was also a racer, one of George Eyston’s ‘Dancing Daughters’ who raced a team of MG PA/Bs at the Sarthe in 1935, but the lady I met was his third wife Barbara who cheerfully denied any interest in cars. 

Re-reading WB’s story (December 1985 in the Motor Sport archive) I wish I could go back and resume the conversation: Eaton was not only a Brooklands regular in Aston Martin and GN cars and a round-the-world sailor, but had a pilot’s licence before he could drive. He learned to fly in the RNAS in WWI and flew his own DH Gypsy Moth from home to The Track when racing. But what intrigues me now is that during WWI he was one of the Sopwith Camel pilots conducting experiments in launching aeroplanes from ships – and we’re not talking aircraft carriers but makeshift ramps on cruisers, sometimes built atop the gun barrels. Amazing and heroic stuff. Why didn’t I ask more questions?

RARE ROLLS CHOICE

Tripping over a Silver Spirit that Crewe never knew

In the hunt for a BMW 635CSi I found myself on the fringes of Redhill Aerodrome, where AutoContinental was advertising a red one. The BMW was standing out front, but I barely noticed it because behind I could see swooping razor-edged curves surmounted by the Spirit of Ecstasy. It was like no Rolls-Royce I’d ever seen, and at first I thought someone had grafted that Parthenon grille onto a concept car. Or perhaps it was a refugee from a film set – a supporting player in Blade Runner or Lady Penelope’s courtesy car while FAB 1 is being serviced. But no, I soon learned that within the sweeping wings and glass bubble roof lurked a genuine 1987 Silver Spirit, currently sidelined with blown gaskets.

After inspecting the sci-fi coupé with its aluminium dash, LED door panels and rear-view TV monitor (rare back then), I did a bit of research.

The work of Indian designer Dilip Chhabria, it was assembled for a Dubai-based Indian businessman who clearly found everyday Royces too dull. After being stripped of all bodywork down to scuttle and wheelarches, it was clothed in this fantastical confection, all hand-beaten from steel: judging from the two-man effort to raise the bonnet the whole thing must weigh about the same as the Parthenon, yet it’s very precisely built. Those stainless steel fillets are crisp, the knife-edge Perspex lights are machined from solid and the fishbowl glasshouse is an achievement in itself.

Chhabria went on to shape a gull-winged coupé from a 2005 Phantom that is worth Googling, but whatever you think of the styling there’s no doubting the fit and finish – which is presumably why his Mumbai-based DC Design firm now has an unheralded niche in the motor business assembling one-off concept and prototype cars for other manufacturers. Even Aston Martin’s V8 Vantage concept, designed in the UK initially by Ian Callum and revealed at the 2003 Detroit Motor Show, was hand-built in Mumbai on a cut-down DB7 platform long before any production prototypes were born at Gaydon. 

I could only grab some rushed ‘phone shots of the ‘Scarlet Spirit’, but you can make your own judgment about aesthetics. Incidentally, if you’re wondering why there’s a stripped Shadow behind, AutoContinental both breaks and mends R-Rs, and the proprietor is building all the running gear from a Bentley Turbo into a Shadow shell. That’s a Q-car and a half.