With my personal season of F1 activity, starting in Europe, rather late this year I was able to have a look at a number of diverse home events at grass roots level, where everyone is just playing around with motor cars for the sheer enjoyment of the activity. I am not suggesting that these events are not taken seriously by the competitors, far from it, but they are all part of a hobby and a way-of-life, rather than life itself.
The 750 Motor Club, who champion the cause of low-cost motor sport for the clubman, organised an event for Sporting Trial cars in a large dell just two fields away from where I live. I think this was the first time in my life that I have actually walked to watch a motoring event! I have been to events by bus, train, aeroplane, bicycle, motorcycle, car, lorry, even a coach, but I cannot ever remember walking to an event!
A walk across the fields brought me to the dell where a dozen or so spidery trials cars and their crews were preparing to tackle an amazing number of sections of an ‘up the bank and round the tree’ nature. The banks are quite long and steep and the convolutions in and out of the trees bewildering. Trials cars are built to a strict set of rules and are little more than an engine and gearbox, front and rear axles, and two people, the whole assembly held together in close proximity by a selection of tubes and brackets. Functional is the only word to use. They appear to be able to climb a vertical bank, and they can certainly descend a vertical bank, ground clearance is effectively unlimited, and the front wheels can turn at nearly 90 deg.
They are so light that the weight of the average passenger can have a remarkable effect by being in the right place at the right time, though rules make them stay within the confines of the skimpy body. Effectively they are a trials motorcycle and sidecar with four wheels, with a lot more stability than a motorcycle and sidecar. Watching this event, everyone seemed to be having fun and enjoying themselves, organisers, marshals, competitors and spectators alike, and two people on a trials car seemed to have more combined enjoyment in the minimum of time than any other form of motor sport that I could think of. The whole event took place in this very deep dell, so that unless you were standing on the lip of the dell you would not know that anything was going on.
When the speed season began I was able to visit three very different types of club events, a simple straightforward standing-start acceleration test on a kilometre course, marked out on an airfield runway, with cars running in pairs, a speed hillclimb and a speed trial, the last event being in effect a ‘wiggly sprint’ or ‘flat hillclimb’. The kilometre event was all about power and traction, and rapid gear changes up through the box. Times were recorded for the first quartermile and the kilometre, and there was a speed timing-trap astride the finish line.
This was one of those informal club days, for members and friends only, where everyone knew everyone and there was no need for raucous tannoy systems blaring away all day, calling up competitors, giving out results, imploring the spectators to keep off the course, pleas for parents to come and collect their lost children, or music to fill in the talking gaps. The only music was the sound of racing engines on full song.
The event was for pre-1940 racing and sports cars, run by the VSCC, and there being a strong following wind, a lot of cars were going through the speed trap at well over 100 mph. Fastest time of the day was 143 mph, by one of Motor Sport’s regular old car advertisers, in his two-litre Alta single-seater, a fine recreation of the 1939 Alta that Tony Beadle used to race. During the 1950s it got ‘used up’ as a competitive racing car, and was made into a roadgoing special. In recent years Paul Jaye and David Baldock have resurrected the car to its 1939 specification, and it was fitting that it should make FTD.
The whole purpose of the VSCC is to live the past (though some people don’t really understand this) and from 1936 to 1939 an Alta was a good car for short speed events. If you wanted to do 250-mile races you needed a Maserati or an ERA, but in sprints an Alta would go very fast for a short time. Geoffrey Taylor, the man who built the Alta cars, was also a star performer in speed trials in the south of England. An occasion I will always remember was Taylor in his works two-litre Alta at Brighton, along the Madeira Drive, having the engine literally burst asunder as he crossed the finish line. From the starting area you could see bits and pieces flying in all directions, the heavier bits actually bowling along the road. He must have been doing 130 mph at the time, and I think he had just set FTD!
The VSCC event was most enjoyable, and one of the happiest competitors was the chap with his home-made sprint car who has been doing this event for a number of years, recording speeds of 97-98 mph. The magic 100 mph always eluded him, no matter what he did, but this time, with the strong following wind, he achieved his ambition. With a beaming smile on his face, he told me: “I think I shall now retire.” Somehow I don’t think he will, for once you are bitten by the competitive bug there is always something to urge you on. He’ll probably set his sights on 105 mph from now on.
Speeds in themselves at an event like this are not really important, but mean a lot to the people concerned, the drivers, the builders, the mechanics, the friends, all those who love to play with old cars. In the VSCC world there are lots of members whose children have grown up, and drive dad’s car: in many cases the car has been in the family longer than the son or daughter. When the 19 year-old daughter goes faster than dad, or a lad of 18 beats father on his first outing, the parents are not sure whether to display chagrin at being beaten, or pride. Secretly, I think they are all chuffed or they would stop letting their children drive their cars.
Finally, I went to a new speed trial course, near Oxford, that was used for the first time last autumn. The event was run by the Midland Automobile Club, which runs the Shelsley Walsh hillclimb, and was a fairly low-key affair for their club members and some invited clubs, and open to sports cars and small capacity racing cars. The course wound its way across open parkland, amid trees and shrubs, rising slightly for about two thirds of its length and finishing on a downhill section. Altogether a very pleasant and restful venue.
Diversity is a very satisfying way of life, and in the world of motorsport the available diversification is enormous and all run on enthusiasm.
This month’s Moments to Remember come from Mr Petty in Bedford:
1. Sitting in the Woodcote stands at Silverstone watching Mike Hawthorn spin backwards down the grass verge, gather it all up and go on in the four-cylinder Ferrari.
2. The new BMC Minis taking Copse Corner, on the inside of Mk2 Jaguars, with their little inside rear wheel pawing the air.
3. Seeing my son finish 19th out of a field of 60, in the 125cc Kart GP at Silverstone in 1988.