Taking Notes

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Dear Reader,

I receive a lot of letters and phone calls from readers during the course of a month, and most of them are about old cars, either sports cars or racing cars. Many are in response to something that has appeared in MOTOR SPORT and the really interesting ones are those from people who owned a particular car in the past and worked on it. A good mechanic or engineer, in my book, is one who makes notes of what he is going, while he is going it, and keeps the notebooks on the shelf.

While researching this history of a well-known racing car I contacted the chap who worked on it more than thirty years ago, and he still had his big notebooks from those days. It was wonderful, for he had noted down all the measurements he had made while dismantling the engine, for example, everything that was done to it, and all the measurements before re-assembly. There were dates and notes of engine numbers, chassis numbers, race records and so on. It was irrefutable stuff, and so valuable when researching the past.

Not long ago a famous piece of motoring history was claimed for an old racing car because a certain number had been discovered on the chassis during a rebuild. Much publicity was given to this, even though some specialists doubted its authenticity.

I received a phone call from a chap who used to work on this particular car some 25 years ago, who had read about this wondrous revelation. He recalls going over the whole car when it first passed into his hands, to record details, dimensions and numbers, and was puzzled that the only number he recorded all that time ago was not the number now claimed to be authentic. As he said, in a puzzled tone, “I don’t ever recall seeing that number on the chassis, and if it had been there I would have recorded it”.

Then there is the case of someone claiming to have rebuilt or restored a certain car, and a voice comes on the phone to me saying “What’s he talking about? I rebuilt that car, he only paid the bills”. I just love it when the truth comes out.

A remarkable thing about all the letters and phone calls which are about cars, is the way somewhere along the line the talk turns to motorcycles.

Writing about one of the first post-war speed events in England, a speed trial on Elstree Aerodrome, with cars running in pairs, a reader mentioned that there were classes for cars and motorcycles and the highlight was the final run at the end of the day – the fastest car, Peter Monkhouse’s Bugatti 51, against the fastest motorcycle, David Whitworth’s Mk VIII Velocette, A beautifully matched pair in all ways, from mechanical details to performance, and though the motorcycle made a better start, the Bugatti caught it and passed just before the end of the quarter-mile. There was no championship at stake, no points being chased, just a sporting wager. Happy days.

Another reader started to write to me about the current trend and fashion in old cars. He said “Some people look at an old Austin 7, all bulled-up with polished copper piping and think it is marvellous. To me it is hideous because it has involved a lot of time and money to resurrect something which was pathetic when it was new”.

I think our Editor will agree with this sentiment, and other remarks about “beauty shows”. Exhibits at proper Motor shows have never done much for me, for all their glittering lights, masses of chrome, reflective mirrors and fancy lighting. I cannot really assess a new car until I see it standing in the road, or going along amid everyday traffic. Then cars really come into perspective. If I am bowling long in my van and a Jaguar XJ-S goes by I have time to reflect and think “that is a very good-looking car”. Mounted on a glittering plinth, the same car does very little for me.

To return to our reader who doesn’t like the bulled-up Austin 7, he then went on for twelve pages full of happenings he and his friends got involved in over the past thirty years. Inevitably it all started with motor-cycles, visits to the Isle of Man, “burn-ups” on the happy unrestricted open roads of long ago, before graduating into cars.

Clearly it has been a life devoted to motorcycles and cars – full of excitement, heart-breaks, laughter, heaven and hell – but he wouldn’t change it. He is till motoring far and fast, and is currently struggling with a Marxo Mantula, but remaining cheerful through all adversity. He finished his long and interesting letter: “Must stop, plenty of work to do in the garage”. A “grass roots” reader if ever there was one.

A recent television film about the restarting of motor racing after the war, showed a bright and shiny DSJ at those Elstree Speed Trials in 1946. at a motorcycle meeting shortly afterwards (once the happy banter and mickey-taking about “star of stage, screen and television”) had subsided, the lads all said how much they had enjoyed the old films that had been dug up, but they all wanted to know about he “Norton at Silverstone”.

I had not seen the television film, but later I looked through a replay of it and can confirm that the Norton was the 1948 works bike, ridden by Artie Bell on a demonstration at the opening of Silverstone before the 1948 British Grand Prix. Bell had won the 1948 Senior TT in the Isle of Man, and with him, but not seen on the piece of film, were Freddie Frith, the 350cc winner on a Velocette, and Maurice Cann, the 250cc winner on a Moto-Guzzi. As Bell accelerated along the front of the pits the commentary said “and a travelling marshal sets off…”! It was a nice piece of film.

While this letter is motorcycle-oriented, I must mention a recent Sunday afternoon when I was not committed to any form of competitive event. I went to see a friend on my Triumph TR6 motorcycle and sidecar, and took him over the hills to visit an old friend of ours who was a bit laid-up, but recovering well and basking in the spring sunshine. As we sat chatting over a cup of tea, Wilf said “haven’t run the bikes for a bit, due to this illness, would you like to fire them up for me?”

Like all my friends with motorcycles he has quite a collection, so we wheeled out this three best ones, from the shed at the end of the garden – a Velocette, a Triumph and a BSA – and fired them up, mainly just to listen to them, but also to get the oil going round. It was a very pleasant little diversion.

Yours D.S.J