Recollections of last year's racing
Another Amateur Driver—J.E.G. Fairman—Tells of His Experiences in 1947 Sprint Events with 2-litre G.P. Bugatti and 4 1/2-litre Bentley Cars.
Pre-War experience with old Alvises, a blown B.N.C.. and a Bugatti had pretty well convinced me that trying to do everything with one car, i.e., everyday pottering, fast touring, speed hill-climbs and racing, was never likely to be satisfactory. So I decided to split the available cash between a fairly normal road car and a reasonably satisfying racing job. This may sound plutocratic, but by sticking to vintage types the total cost of the two cars finally chosen was still far less than the inflated figures being quoted for more orthodox family cars.
Having driven nothing other than a W.D. 15-cwt, truck for over six years, I thought that a faster-than-average road car would provide valuable "brushing-up" before I let myself loose in a racing car again, so I acquired an excellent 4 1/2-litre "blower" Bentley. This was magnificent for road work, but the fantastic petrol consumption finally forced me to change it for an unblown short-chassis of about 1929 vintage. Before the change, however, I ran the blown job at a couple of events in 1940, namely Elstree (fastest time in Vintage Racing 5-litre Class), and West Court (fifth fastest in Unlimited Racing Class). The unblown 4 1/2-litre turned out to be a most satisfactory compromise which I have never tried to better. It gives instant starting, complete reliability without tinkering, plenty of luggage space, and an ability to potter. Yet it has enough performance to see off most things, and an even be raced in vintage events. It is the same car that Margaret Allan drove at Brooklands before the war.
However, I still hankered after something which could be used for hill-climbs and any racing which might be organised. The bank balance was a very limiting factor. After much looking round and being offered lots of rubbish at silly prices I had almost abandoned the idea when I found a 1929 2-litre Type 85C -Bugatti at Continental Cars, Ltd., of Ripley. This seemed to have enough possibilities to make me take the plunge, and a trial run clinched the matter. Incidentally, I must say that dealing with this firm was a very pleasant experience. Their honest efforts to advise and assist were in direct contrast to the large number of money-grabbing and unprincipled folk I had already met, and whose minds one could almost hear ticking over to the effect that here was another sap of an ex-soldier who ought to be relieved of his gratuity as soon as possible.
The Bugatti was in racing trim, so I faked up some primitive wings, borrowed trade-plates, and motored it around the roads for a couple of weeks until I was fairly satisfied that I knew how everything worked, including myself. The first event of note on the 1947 calendar which the pocket would run to was the Bo'ness Speed Hill-Climb. Having put my name down in a weak moment for the British Hill-Climb Championship. I decided to have a crack at this, though getting the Bugatti there was a problem. The original intention was to send it by train, but the cost quoted shook me to the core, and there was still the question of getting the fuel, etc., to the hill. Luckily, my brother came to the rescue, by offering to tow the Bugatti to Scotland with my old 4 1/2-litre. I feel that this tow must have been something in the nature of a record, as the round trip was about 900 miles. Although we took turns in the Bugatti, I must admit that by the time we were home again I was developing a jaundiced outlook on a pastime involving so much trouble in order to get a couple of quick climbs lasting a total of about 85 sec. ! Anyway, it certainly made me proud of the old Bentley—modern cars of many types would have coughed pretty badly at some of the hills. And as the Bugatti finished eighth in general classification, 42 sec. dead—we felt that the season had started reasonably well.
Shortly after this I was lucky enough to get the use of an old Bedford van belonging to my firm. The Bugatti fitted into this very well, and we were able to use it as required for the remainder of the season. This seems to me to be about the best way of getting a car about. It eliminates the awful mess the towed car gets in, and the impecunious can justify the cost of an old van over a couple of seasons by sleeping in the back and avoiding all hotel bills and attendant expenses.
June found us at Shelsley Walsh, where on the first run we came to a standstill, without any gears, after 30 feet. After being pushed back to the paddock, the top of the gearbox was removed, and I had to summon quite a lot of courage before daring to look inside. To my amazement and relief the box did not contain a mass of jagged bits—the first and second sliding pinions bad merely jammed in neutral, owing to a minute piece of metal-chipping from one of the teeth wedging itself between pinion and shaft. A spot of levering with a couple of screwdrivers soon shifted the pinions, and we were able to get to the line in time for the second run. This took 48 sec., but considering the appalling rain and the fact that I was a bit nervous about the gearbox, we decided that it was reasonably satisfactory.
This meeting taught me a useful lesson about the evils of bashing the gears around, and since then I have been careful to "wait for it" even in speed trials where saving a fifth of a second on the last run would make one's time look so much better in print.
On July 18th came the V.S.C.C. and C.U.A.C. affair at Gransden Lodge. The organisers really earned gold medals for their success in getting things laid on in the face of what seemed insuperable difficulties. The show certainly gives much food for thought. If the committees of comparatively minor clubs can run a Gransden, why not something from the R.A.C., who have so many high-level contacts ?
However, as it was evident that this was going to be the only race of the year (apart from Jersey, etc., which ordinary folk cannot afford), I decided to have a Field Day, so entered the Bugatti in two races, and ditto with the Bentley. For some reason I found the course took quite a lot of learning—probably something to do with the wide open spaces and lack of landmarks. However, both cars seemed to be going very well, although I wished I had removed the Brooklands' silencers from the Bugatti. The first event for whiich we had entered was Race 6—the Bugatti Handicap. On paper it looked as though I had a a good chance in this. For once I made an excellent getaway and fairly clattered down the first straight. But the thing worrying me was not the few cars in front which had to be caught, but the thought of George Abecassis sitting on the scratch mark with the 3.3-litre Bugatti. As a result I motored much too fast into the hairpin, left the road travelling backwards, and stopped the engine. The nearest spectators were about 50 yards away, but after what seemed minutes a couple ran up to push me off the grass. One of the pushers was Peter Clark, the H.R.G. king, who informed me during the pushing that I was an unmentionably stupid clod. Which was rather true, as even after this delay I still finished fourth, and Abecassis did not catch up ! In other words, a little more restraint would have meant keeping on the road and getting a place.
Anyway, there was still the 10-lap affair for vintage racing cars, and as the Bugatti had been hitting well over 110 m.p.h. on the straight, I felt that all was not yet lost. The next event, No. 7, was the scratch race for standard vintage cars, in which the poor old Bentley was entered, so I had to do a very rapid changeover in order to get to the line in time. The getaway was poor, owing to the usual over-enthusiasm and too many revs., which resulted in clutch slip. However, after two laps I was lying third or fourth (I forget which) and holding on just behind Forrest Lycett. After that, on each lap I found I was getting about 150 less r.p.m. on the straight, so steadily lost ground. Afterwards the trouble was found to be trivial but irritating—the distributor cap had dropped off the nearside magneto, so with plugs firing on one side only the poor old motor ran hotter and hotter.
After an extremely interesting spell watching the 20-lap race from the hairpin (and pushing a remarkable number of cars back on to the road), the Bugatti was brought to the line again for the 10-lap event. At the fall of the flag I committed the awful blob of stalling the engine. By the time I had been pushed off, the rest of the field was almost out of sight. After about six laps I had overhauled several cars, but I had no idea where I lay in the race. Throughout the last four laps the cockpit was filled with thick clouds of smoke, at times making it difficult to see where we were going. It was obvious that oil was leaking from somewhere in large quantities, but as the Bugatti carries the usual tank beside the driver, I was able to keep pumping oil into the engine. I was scared stiff that it would seize solid at any moment, as the oil pressure got steadily lower. However, as I had never driven the car so far at high speed before, I thought there was a fair chance that this was simply the result of the oil warming up, so I continued. On what I thought was the ninth lap a chequered flag was waved at me, and someone with the waver stuck up two fingers in what I thought was rather a rude gesture. To my astonishment I found, on entering the paddock, that we had finished second behind Habershon's Delage, so the finger merchant was forgiven when I realised what his signal was intended to mean !
The cause of all the smoke was that an oil-union leading to the overhead valve gear had slackened, thus allowing oil to run directly on to the exhaust. Had the race been for eleven instead of ten laps, the noises would have been horribly expensive, as despite my frantic hand-pumping the sump was almost empty ! The day's racing taught me several important lessons, the least of which was the risk of trouble if one tried to do too much. Had I not been jumping from Bugatti to Bentley and back like a frantic flea, there would have been time to raise their respective bonnets and detect such things as loose distributors and oil-unions. However, we live and learn. [This is most interesting because Peter Clark, last month, made just the same observation.— Ed.]
Although entered for Prescott and Great Auclum, various circumstances kept us at home. (By the way, by "we" and "us" I mean wife and self ; an integral part of the organisation. While I am kept busy getting the car warmed-up, plugs changed, etc., she gets the Primus going and transforms the interior of the old Bedford into a kind of weekend caravan.) Being still officially in the running for the Hill-Climb Championship, we had entered for Craigantlet and had the car all ready. But at the last moment we were faced with an unexpected setback— it proved to be impossible to get the car across to Belfast, as I had left it too late before seeing about the booking. Never having wanted to ship a car across the water before, I had a hazy idea that it was almost as simple as crossing the River Humber by ferry. As things turned out, we might well have finished quite high on the list of fastest times. The melted tar made the course so slippery that people like Mays and Hutchison could not begin to use their power, and my modest 120-odd b.h.p. might have been quite enough to propel the Bugatti to the top fairly quickly. Always provided, of course, that I kept it on the road, which Bear failed to do with his Bugatti—and he has vast experience with the marque.
Anyhow, the next event was the Brighton Speed Trials, where we ran both Bugatti and Bentley. The elderly Bugatti was rather overshadowed, having no corners to help it compete with the faster cars—and there was a mass of extremely potent stuff running. But the Bentley put up a rousing show in the vintage sports-car class, dead-heating with Marechal's "Speed Six." Several people remarked that the two vintage Bentleys thundering along neck and neck provided one of the best sights of the day.
September 14th found us at Prescott for the International event, and the last climb to count in the Championship— not that this affected us any more, as our non-arrival at Craigantlet automatically counted us out. This was my first effort here, and I found that the sudden corners needed bags of practice. However, a practice time of 50.2 sec. was achieved, which did not help much, as rain on the day made the road incredibly slippery. The best I could manage in the wet was 55 sec., and even that frightened me considerably, especially on the last long right-hand semicircle, which I took in the most ham-fisted way with the wheels scrabbling in the gutter on the outside of the bend.
Owing to the long ride back to Horley we decided to stay the night at Prescott. There being nobody about to help push the car next morning, I tried to drive it into the van, with almost disastrous results, as one ramp slipped and left the car with its front wheels in the van and the tail on the ground. Luckily some stout-hearted chaps who had arrived to clear up produced a large hydraulic jack, and we got the car back on the ramps. Then, with the help of Tony Curtis, of public-address fame, who has the strength of two men, we pushed the car in. After all this exertion we fortunately had enough beer in the Bedford to go round ! But no more driving up ramps for me.
The following Saturday was booked for the Southsea Motor Club event at Merston, near Chichester. No practising was allowed here, so one had to try to size up the sharpish right hand corner by watching the sports cars go round. This does not help one much with a fast car—as Whincop demonstrated very convincingly by turning his "2.3" Bugatti completely round. Despite my muffing the easiest change on the car—third to fourth—we found on the last run that we were one of the few to cover the course in less than thirty seconds.
The next event, unfortunately, was the last—Shelsley Walsh on September 27th. (Turning over one more page in my diary shows an entry for October 4th—the Donington Grand Prix. Will this course ever be released ?) As usual, I nearly mucked things by making a silly mistake. This time, on checking the sump level on Saturday morning, I assumed it to be low, as nothing ran out of the level cock, so I pumped some oil in. Actually the sump was full, but the Castrol "R," having been out in the cold all night, was naturally not going to drip out instantaneously. Had I checked it again after warming-up, all would have been well. On presenting the car at the line for the first run, the gradient at the start was too much for an overfull sump. As soon as I left the line, the two rear plugs oiled up completely. On returning to the paddock I turned on the level cock and about half a gallon ran out!
For the second and last climb things should have been O.K., but the two spare plugs I used in No. 7 and 8 cylinders were a shade doubtful, and I had intermittent misfiring most of the way up. However, the time was 43.8 sec., which was satisfactory. And so the season ended. Although enjoyable, it lacked something from the point of view of myself and so many others who have spent lots of hard-earned savings on a "raceable" motor-car—if only there was somewhere to really "have a go" without the added and (at any rate in my case) impossible expense of going overseas.
Before the war, when I was a regular spectator at Donington, Brooklands, and the Crystal Palace, I made up my mind that by hook or by crook I would do a bit of "dicing" myself, when I had saved enough pennies. Having survived the war despite much ambling around in tanks, and finding that enough pennies had been saved to cover the purchase of an elderly car, it is demoralising to see no signs at all of Donington, Brooklands, the Palace, or any equivalent.
The following dozen points, which have occurred to me during the scribbling of this treatise, are added with the idea that some of them may be of use to intending competitors.
(1) Get your fuel mixture approximately right in good time, and if it gives reasonable results, then stick to it. You will get dozens of "positively jet-propelled" ideas from well-meaning folk— but things which work in their cars may not work in yours.
(2) Don't mess about with "tuning" in the paddock more than you have to. Such things as altering the timing and experimenting with rocker clearances a quarter of an hour before the event won't get you far.
(3) Be very careful about shock-absorbers and tyre pressures. (While towing to Bo'ness I slackened the Bugatti shock-absorbers for comfort and forgot to re-adjust before the first practice run. Result—an almost disastrous bank-clouting act.)
(4) Don't leave the administration to the last minute. There is little fun in paying entries for nothing ; e.g., my non-arrival at Craigantlet through lack of a ship.
(5) Don't try to do two things at once. I found at Gransden that the change from Bentley to Bugatti with only a five-minute interval was an easy way of looking for trouble, particularly when cornering and also from the health aspect of an expensive gearbox.
(6) Don't try to compete even in a speed trial until a fair mileage has been covered in the car. If the car cannot be tried on the road, half an hour on the nearest aerodrome perimeter is invaluable.
(7) Wait for the gears. Don't try to kid the onlookers that you are tough by fairly slamming the lever about—it only leads to damaged cogs or worse. A bad change should make your stomach turn over !
(8) Try to strike a medium between "careful preparation" and "leaving well alone. It is surprising how a car will settle down with a bit of running, whereas constant tinkering sometimes has no effect.
(9) Keep a happy medium between "restraint and keeping your foot down." (On second thoughts, I still haven't succeeded in sorting this out myself !)
(10) Do as much work as possible yourself. If you can afford mechanics, at least hang around and get a fair idea of what they are up to. After all, it's your neck !
(11) Make sure the spare plugs are O.K. It is useless oiling one on the line and replacing it with a dud. (Yes, I have !)
(12) Don't get disheartened because your car is much older and slower than the others. They may break down, or conditions may favour your lack of power.
By the way, in case my opening remarks about needing a second car should be misunderstood, perhaps I should add that I was speaking purely from the out-and-out racing car angle. Should sportscar events, such as the T.T. and Le Mans, turn up again, there are, of course, a few firms whose products perform equally well for pottering and racing, such as the Allard, H.R.G., Aston-Martin, Lea-Francis and M.G.