Rob Walker describes his Trip To Sebring With The Aston Martin Team
When I managed to get invited on this trip I thought it might he a good idea to offer to make a report of the race for Motor Sport, and so make some extra money on the side. But then I realised that I never know what has happened in a race that I have seen until I read the paper next day and, as I don’t read so good, I didn’t think I would be thanked for my report, so I scrapped the idea. I felt a little sad for the income tax inspector — that he should be losing so much good lolly. My first thought when I knew that I was going to Amerca was that I should have to take a car with me, as I should need the petrol tank to smuggle the watches in, otherwise how else could we get dollars? Unfortunately, we were limited for space and weight and the only car I could take was the 2-ft. model of my Aston Martin DB2-3 1/2S.* searched around for a bag that would fit it, and eventually packed it up. Only then did I realise how silly I was, because of course they don’t make watches small enough to fit in a 2-in. petrol tank, and I had no time to have them specially made. By this time I was determined to take the model anyway, and it turned out a great success with the Americans because not only is it an identical model, but it also has a petrol engine, with remote-control throttle, forward and reverse gear, and steering.
We were due to leave by Pan-American on Sunday, February 28th, at 7 p.m., and the party consisted of John Wyer, team manager, Reg Parnell and Roy Salvadori driving one car, Peter Collins and Pat Griffith driving the other, and myself. I was the odd man out, not being a regular member of the team; odd man probably from birth, and out definitely after our final departure homewards from New York. Shortly after our arrival at London Airport, we were asked up to the private office of Pan-American to have a drink. After three stiff ones, Reg, who is not easily fooled, said that this was just the softening-up process before they announced a delay, and, sure enough, shortly afterwards they said that they regretted that there would be a three-hour delay due to engine trouble, for which they later deducted 25 dollars from the price of the ticket; in the meantime they kept serving free drinks.
At 10 p.m., after they had given us dinner, we all trooped out to the waiting stratocruiser, and I must say I have never seen a more impressive machine. The whole lower deck was devoted to a bar, free cigarettes were distributed, and drinks were free all the time, with champagne at the five-course meal. Not a bit like my old war-time Swordfish — it even had a stewardess instead of an air gunner — but of course that is all according to taste nowadays. We arrived at Shannon at midnight, where a B.O.A.C. aircraft was stopping the night owing to bad weather on the New York run, but we just refuelled and got cracking. We slept well, and in the morning John Wyer and I awoke first, to see the sun pouring in through the port window. We looked at one another and, with one accord, said that we were going the wrong way. How we knew I shall never guess, because the sea looks much the same whichever way you look at it. At this moment the chief engineer appeared and we demanded what was afoot. I think he was a bit disgusted that the P.-A. hospitality of the night before had not taken more effect, as he had not expected any of the passengers to be sufficiently conscious to realise which way they were going. Anyway, it turned out that after getting within three hours of New York, the weather had closed down and we were returning to the Azores. We stopped there an hour for refuelling, and then off for New York again. They gave us a very good lunch and, after about 10 hours’ flying, I was dozing when I heard someone say “U.S.” Remembering all the u/s. aircraft of my Fleet Air Arm days, I jumped up to find myself a parachute, but, no, it was only that we were crossing the United States coast. As we approached New York the weather began to close in fast and, although we got the O.K. to land, we made an approach, got within 100 ft. of landing and then had to give it up and go off again. It reminded me of the Marx Bros. film when they had just done a record flight of the Atlantic “and then we got within three feet of landing when we ran out of petrol, so we went back.” We circled New York for hours in some very bumpy weather, and then they re-routed us to land at Washington, which was clear of the bad weather, and we landed there after 13 1/2 hours in the air since leaving the Azores.
We cleared customs in Washington, and then found that we had just 10 minutes to catch the aeroplane for West Palm Beach, which we did all right but without time to spare. The journey took us about 3 1/2 hours at 20,000 ft., doing about 420 m.p.h., with 68 passengers. They gave us a very good dinner and we made a couple of stops on the way to drop passengers and pick up others, and landed at West Palm Beach about 1 a.m. New York time. Briggs Cunningham had a taxi at the airport to meet us and took us to the hotel which he had laid on for us, and we were not sorry to get to bed. In the morning by 9 a.m. the boys had come round to join us at breakfast — Briggs Cunningham, Bill Spear and Phil Hill — and all the latest about motor racing was discussed. John Wyer was even disposed to talk about the 4 1/2-litre four-cylinder Lagonda they were not building, but no mention of the 12-cylinder one they were building.
Briggs very kindly lent us two beautiful cars for the whole of our stay. One was a Hudson Hornet, with a very large capacity — it easily took five of its with all our luggage — and it had very fair acceleration; you could spin the wheels in second gear, but it tailed off at about 80 m.p.h. The other was a most interesting and exceptional car, called a Studillac; that is to say it was a Studebaker with a Cadillac engine; and it certainly did not hang about. It had quite a pretty body, which was very low for an American, and the Hydramatic gearbox was fitted. There was a little wizard — whom I shall call Harry, as they all had HY drive written on the back — in the box, and he surely knew how to sort them out; if one got stuck in soft sand or mud Harry used to work overtime, and he always selected the right ratio at the right time, making it almost impossible to get bogged. The Studillac had amazing acceleration for a large saloon, and several times on one journey I did 112 m.p.h., but I did not feel that I wanted to go a lot more owing to the brakes and handling, although I should say it had another five or so m.p.h. to go. I asked Briggs how it compared with his Continental Bentley, on which he is quite keen, and he said that the trouble with the Studillac was that after three good applications of the brakes you had none, whereas the Bentley was unaffected, but he reckoned the acceleration was equally as good, and there was always Harry in the box for the lazy. I did not mention to him that you could probably buy four Studillacs for the price of one Bentley, because I don’t think the matter would concern him greatly, and he would probably have replied that he would not be able to stop four any better than he could one. David Brown remarked that the Studillac was one of the few saloons he would not mind owning.
We set off from Palm Beach at about 10.30 a.m, to drive the 140 miles to Sebring. The roads were very poor to start with; in fact, there were 10 miles of mud surface at one time where they were still building the road, elsewhere they were narrow and on the whole badly surfaced. I was amazed to find in Florida they have a 60-m.p.h. speed limit everywhere and, what is more, they roughly stick to it. The cops were quite aggravated with Lance Macklin and fined him 20 dollars when they found that he had averaged 100 m.p.h. for the last 10 miles. Of course, as Lance said, had he known they were there he would have hurried and they would not have caught him, but, as it was, they got him ambling through a town. It was actually his second fine that day, so I should say he was getting a bit short of lolly by the time he arrived at Sebring.
[To be continued]
* This is a DB2 with a 3-litre engine in it which is almost converted to “S.” so we call it “1/2S.” Rather a complicated formula but you get used to it in the end; at least I do, as I made it up.