From the archives with Doug Nye

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Filler up, Mister…
A highly original Porsche proves that its beauty survives – deep beneath a layer of body filler

In 1968, the Sebring 12 Hours was dominated by Porsche’s little 907 coupés such as those driven by Jo Siffert/Hans Herrmann and Vic Elford/Jochen Neerpasch, which cruised home 1-2. The works team’s winning 2.2-litre flat-8 907 is recorded as chassis ‘024’. These cars are very rare today – most of them having seemingly been recycled into 3-litre 908s (despite the factory’s protestations to the contrary) – but the Sebring winning ‘024’ has indeed survived, being a recent addition to the magnificent Collier Collection in Naples, Florida.

Miles Collier has run an essentially biennial Connoisseurship Symposium there since 2000, which (I am delighted to say) he has invited me to co-present since its inception. This year Porsche 907 ‘024’ was one of the star cars under discussion. It was sold directly from Porsche to Jaime ‘Jimmy’ Ortiz-Patino – Franco-Spanish son of the Bolivian tin billionaire Simon Patino. Jimmy’s 907 was to be campaigned as a private entry by his godson, Dominique Martin under their Team Zitro name – ‘Ortiz’ backwards – and after its retirement from racing it was retained by the family.

At some stage in the 1970s they entrusted it to Swiss specialist Franco Sbarro for conversion into a road car. For reasons best known to himself, the former Scuderia Filipinetti mechanic opted to stiffen its film-thin glassfibre bodywork by larding it overall with filler. This went on fully a quarter-inch thick (and more), covering every surface apart from the screens and door windows, while internally the 907’s originally translucent natural-GRP body panels were oversprayed in sticky black paint.

For some 40 years ‘024’ survived in its one-family ownership within this eggshell cocoon of larded-on pug. Despite Sbarro’s attentions, it was hardly used as a road car and thankfully was stored in plainly excellent conditions, but the covering’s weight was so extreme it virtually collapsed the suspension onto its bump stops. When it was finally sold to Collier last year, another 907 – Antonio Nicodemi’s ‘030’ – also found a new owner after more than 40 years in a similar single ownership, though without ‘benefit’ of a Sbarro plastering…

Through the winter months into this year, the Collier restoration team – led by Miles himself – has spent literally hundreds of man hours carefully cracking open this amazing Swiss Easter egg.

The filler had been applied without first removing the Porsche paintwork, so happily it had not taken too firm a grasp on the car’s underlying 4-5mm thick GRP skin. Eventually a pug removal plan evolved in which a burr was used in an electric drill to rout out parallel furrows in the filler, down to original skin level. With the car’s outer surface striped with these grooves, a super-sharp wood chisel was then wielded to chip out the intervening filler strips. With care – and a lot of manual labour – they proved to crack off beautifully.

The black spray paint obscuring the panels’ original inner finish was more difficult to remove, various solvents and strippers being tried until the original beige-yellow of 1967-68 GRP finally resurfaced. When we used to see the Porsche factory team cars being race-prepared, the whippy, willowy, flapping flexibility of the super-thin bodywork always impressed, and sunlight would glow straight through it. Porsche’s priority was plain.

Weight-saving for sheer performance was all-important. Cosmetic finish was utterly irrelevant.

And after all the Collier crew’s work on 907 ‘024’, how much filler did they remove? Well, as I write they have chipped away more than 200lbs, with maybe 30-40lbs more to come. No less. Now, after this cosmetic surgery-cum-crash diet, ‘024’ is virtually back to its perfectly original Sebring-winning form.

Formula 1 reaches a dead-end
Our man Nye solves an exhausting puzzle in the Goodwood paddock

At the Goodwood ’73’ members’ meeting in March, apart from shivering in the bitter cold despite early-spring sunshine, I spent quite a bit of time studying the 2013 Mercedes-Benz W04 that Anthony Davidson was to demonstrate. Early that Saturday morning the car was sitting pretty much unattended.

Its left-hand sidepod cowling had been removed, exposing all the beautifully packaged high-tech that makes modern major-league racing cars such compellingly fascinating machines.

I was gawping at its ancillary fixtures and fittings, its cabling runs, piping and electrickery when I got as far back as its 2.4-litre naturally aspirated V8 engine. Its exhaust system was fascinating. There is precious little space on each side of the engine bay, so exhaust system packaging had plainly given the design team – headed by Aldo Costa, Bob Bell and Geoff Willis – some sizeable headaches.

The primary pipes are all radical curves, first sweeping far forward before hairpinning down and round and back beneath themselves towards the underfloor tail-pipes. But what really intrigued me was what looks rather like a human appendix, projecting forward as a dead-end, capped-off, cul-de-sac. And just like a human appendix, opinion was divided on what on earth it could be for…

I thought at first it must have been some capped-off failed experiment, or maybe a stand-by test-car exhaust gas take-off for some obscure purpose. But this was a no-nonsense F1 racing engine, so what was this ‘appendix’ malarkey all about?

Finally, I was advised that this pipework dead-end was in fact a resonance chamber, adopted to smooth the individual pressure pulses generated by the 18,000rpm V8 engine. It was to provide more consistent exhaust flow from the tail pipes beneath the car’s rear diffuser surface. I believe that swirl vanes were also placed within the tail pipes to put some leg-spin on the resonance-smoothed gas flow, and all to provide a higher-energy vortex spinning away into the car’s slipstream from the tailpipes exiting on each side of the diffuser.

So why would they want to generate such vortices? To provide an effective air curtain, preventing outside ambient air from spilling in and reducing the low-pressure effect – the suck – generated between the diffuser’s working underside and the track surface. In effect these vortices did the job that the solid sliding skirts used to do in early ground-effect cars of 1978-79. Just a fine modern-era detail – but intriguing to study for one more comfortable with earlier high-tech…

Have you got a light, mate?
You don’t normally need a cigarette lighter to start a car – unless you drive one of these

We ran a selection of early ‘brass headlamp’ era pre-WW1 cars at the Symposium, the earliest being an incredibly original 1890s Panhard et Levassor with Daimler V-twin engine on hot-tube ignition.

It was on February 28, 1896 that Señor Dromceus of Antequera in the Spanish province of Málaga took delivery of this car.

British specialist restorer Eddie Berrisford demonstrated its start-up procedure. Amid some ceremony, he opened the doors on the front-mounted brass hot-tube ignition chest. Pinching ourselves to remember that this was the frontier technology of its era, we watched as he tweaked, turned, tapped and double-checked, before applying a cigarette lighter.

With a discreet wheeze of hot air the de-natured alcohol, or meths, ignited in the small cup at the base of each ignition hot tube. After two minutes, Eddie carefully cracked open the burner fuel (petrol) control, and, if he’d got his timing right, the burners would begin to roar gently like a tiny blowtorch. Once the tubes heated up to cherry red, it would be time to start cranking. The ignition would be effectively ‘retarded’ and, as Eddie explained, it’s better to start cranking before the tubes become bright red when the ignition would be ‘advanced’ and the risk of a kick-back would increase.

Daimler originally made its hot tubes of platinum, but they proved prone to cracking and bursting, often necessitating ‘an involuntary halt’. A period article recommended that: “Care must be taken that the new tube is of the same length and quality as the old tube, to ensure accurate timing of the ignition.”

Due to the enormous cost of platinum, today a modern stainless steel is used which is much cheaper, far stronger when red hot and able to resist the explosion pressures. But with the high wind gusting around us off the Gulf of Mexico that day it took a while for Eddie to get a consistent flame, and even longer to heat the hot tubes adequately as the blustery wind was cooling them. Eventually, after some 10-15 tense minutes he judged the glow just about right for an exploratory hand-crank.

Ph-toompf. No effect. Ph-toompf. No effect. Adjust the brass ignition box doors to protect the area critique. Wait a while longer. Red glow. Hand-crank. Ph-toompf – but still no effect. A little while longer, careful adjustments to fuel flow, intent assessment of hot-tube glow colour. Try again. Ph-toompf. Nada.

Eddie turned to the eager audience and remarked in best Derbyshire: “Well, I never said these were great getaway cars…”.

But then one more crank – ph-toompf, spit, ph-toompf, toompf-toompf-toompf…and the 115-year-old lady was quivering and rocking, boogie and bop, spirit lamps flapping like a pigeon’s wings in time to the V-twin engine beat. And then ker-krunch into gear, and the Victorian-era automotive marvel tuf-tuffed into activity, cruising forward from beneath its sun shelter and out onto the Floridan tarmac drive. She lives! After such effort – a great moment.

We also ran the Museum’s majestic 1908 Grand Prix Mors. No tuf-tuf, this monster – a 12½-litre four-cylinder. Every ear-splitting detonation in those 3.1-litre cylinders punches a 7lb 10oz (3.5kg) cast-iron piston, to thump 100 horsepower through the chain-drive to the rear wheels. Engage the clutch in gear and she lunges forward like a pouncing Tyrannosaur. Drum brakes (on the rear wheels only) barely rein it in, so that day it was a case of dodge the Mors for fun…

Now the Mors’ hand-crank kick-back could put a man in orbit. In fact it’s arguable that any man would have enough muscle to turn it over without the assistance of a half-compression device to ease the job. The Mors’ camshaft comprises eight individual cams for the valves , plus four more to operate the low-tension ignition, all keyed and pinned to a hollow shaft.

Pre-start, the Mors’ camshaft is slid back axially within its housing to bring into play a second cam formed on the back of each exhaust cam. Each one then holds its exhaust valve open for a little over two-thirds of the compression stroke, which is just about sufficient to make single-handed cranking feasible, while sliding the camshaft also retards the low-tension ignition. With ground-shaking concussion this early Grand Prix car thundered into life, and Eddie was away around the car park in a series of chain-drive lunges. Never doubt for one moment the sheer performance of such early racers. An 18,000rpm Mercedes-Benz W04 they are not, but a neck-bending 90-100mph artillery shell they most certainly are. I just love ’em all.

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