Racing lines with Dickie Meaden

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The paradox of historic racing

What do you love about historic racing? Is it the history? Or is it the racing? Sorry if this sounds like a trick question. It’s not meant to be, but it is a conundrum I’ve been pondering on and off for years.

If you’re drawn to the history then I suspect your kicks come from just being close to cars of great significance. Whether they are racing, being demonstrated at speed, fired up in a paddock or simply parked for you to pore over probably doesn’t matter so much. 

The enduring popularity of the Goodwood Festival of Speed is proof that there are plenty of people who simply like to get close to famous old cars and the GT1, Group A and Group 6 demos at the Goodwood Members’ Meeting in March proved that high-speed demonstrations of evocative cars are also real crowd-pleasers.  

If it’s the racing you love then doubtless your buzz comes from seeing cars from bygone eras being driven to – and sometimes beyond – their limits by talented owners and top professional drivers. This is certainly the direction in which historic racing is going, but this increased professionalism comes at a price.  

When I look back at old period motor racing photographs, whether taken in the pits and paddock or from trackside, the thing that always strikes me is the rough and ready presentation of the cars, even in F1. There were exceptions of course. Most notably the, er, ‘state-funded’ Mercedes-Benz and Auto Union Grand Prix teams in the pre-war years, while Ron Dennis made McLaren the most fastidious team in the pit lane and paddock well before other teams felt it important. Still it’s surprising how simple and low-key – the art world would call it ‘naïve’ – much of motor sport was well into the late Eighties and early Nineties.  

I’m not sure quite when modern motor sport’s obsessive compulsive approach to car preparation and presentation filtered down into historics. I suspect it was when car values first took a leap. Or maybe it was when cars that originally raced in the Fifties, Sixties and Seventies finally needed full nut-and-bolt restorations rather than remedial work to make them raceworthy. What’s certain is that in every passing season fewer and fewer cars seem to retain any tangible patina, their oil-smeared, stone-peppered originality erased in the pursuit of perfection.  

If you, like I, enjoy both the history and the racing then perhaps we have only ourselves to blame. After all you can’t expect someone to race hard in a car that’s about to fall apart around them just because its original. Nor can you expect preparers to do a less than immaculate jobs for their clients, when the sums of money involved stretch into the tens or hundreds of thousands of pounds. It’s an almost impossible balance to strike, but much like renovating an old house, when done with vision and sympathy it can yield magnificent results. 

To me, patina is magical. Like wrinkles or scars, a racing car with a few stone chips and scuffs or scratches and stains shows signs of a life lived to the full. Yet look round any historic paddock and even these more superficial cosmetic signs of race-to-race ageing are unusual. I’m not expecting owners to field cars that look like Penske-Donohue’s war-torn Ferrari 512S or Lola T70 at the end of the Daytona 24 Hours (though on reflection that would be magnificent), but a bit of patination wouldn’t go amiss. Perhaps that’s why I fell in love with the oily, smelly wonders contesting the S F Edge Trophy at Goodwood Members‘ Meeting. The cars weren’t bad, either.  

Back in the late-Eighties I was fortunate to be taken under the wing of a man by the name of Dudley Gahagan. A great friend of Motor Sport’s esteemed founding editor, the late Bill Boddy, not to mention Denis Jenkinson and other characters from that golden era, Dudley’s cars were the personification of patina. His Type 37 Bugatti was a particular delight. Acquiring it in 1940, Dudley initially used this two-seater as his only road car, in all weathers, during WWII and afterwards. Indeed it remained his and was still being used both on the road and in hillclimbs pretty much until the day he died, in February 1997.

Never restored and only ever given a vestigial clean, his beautiful Bug wore its wear and tear with pride; blue paint streaked with oil, tail stained with sooty exhaust fumes and bonnet rubbed through to polished metal by its retaining straps. Inside, the original leather seat was cracked and embossed by the repeated application of Dudley’s sizeable left shoe as he stepped in, and the wooden steering wheel was bent into a curious helix from decades of being used as a useful grab handle. That car was a true survivor, as unique and inspiring as its owner.  

The same was true of his ERA – the ex-Arthur Dobson R7B – which he painted red and campaigned at countless events, including many Brooklands Reunions, from the Sixties through to the Nineties. He drove it with the abandon and enthusiasm of a man who had little truck with rules or the rising scourge of Health & Safety. In hindsight I have no doubt it was probably a bit of a shed compared to the pristine, highly developed examples raced today, but its careworn state gave it immense appeal and authenticity. 

Is there a difference between originality and patina? Well, I suppose a car is only truly original once in its life, but to me originality means cars that were raced in period, then parked at the end of the season (or, in the case of winning Le Mans cars, the end of the race), never to be driven competitively again. How else can that lightning be caught in the bottle? 

The best examples of these cars tend to be found in the museums and collections of the big marques – Audi, Jaguar, Porsche etc – but even these are being used more and more for demonstration runs, at events such as the Festival of Speed or the Mille Miglia. The Eggenberger RS500 Cosworth I drove in the last issue is a perfect case in point: raced in period, then preserved in Ford of Europe’s Classic Collection. Nothing had been replaced or removed since the late Eighties. Not even the smell of stale sweat. The car literally reeked of history. 

Would I want to see this car racing again? No, I wouldn’t. Not least because in preparing the car for the rigours of racing its time-warp originality would be lost in the process of making it safe and, inevitably, the desire to apply modern thinking to make it quicker than it was in period. We’ll return to that particular hot potato in another column. 

Historic racing is a dichotomy. We love to see these old cars going hammer and tongs, in races or demos. But the cars lose something of themselves in the process. Racing is more fraught with risk than demonstrations, but any running in anger means wear and tear, and sadly the occasional shunt or blow-up. Each and every time this happens a little bit more of the early history – the original – history is erased. Or rather it gets over-written with newer history.

Does it matter? Is there an answer? Do we accept that the beauty of active historic competition cars is that their authenticity is somehow bound up in them continuing to race, even if that means they continue to change? Or should we look to freeze their ephemeral magic and preserve their originality for posterity by sparing them the rigours of hard use? Honestly I don’t know, but as historic motor sport continues to become more popular, more competitive and more professional one thing’s clear: we can’t have it both ways.  

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