When people ask me what I do for a living, I find it rather hard to define accurately what it involves so I lump everything together and say that I just “mess about with cars and motorcycles, and watch motor racing, and travel, and write, and generally enjoy myself with things with wheels and engines”. Sometimes they look puzzled and insist that “surely you do something specific” but it is impossible to categorize. Just messing about with cars and motorcycles keeps me very fully occupied, and every now and then one or other of these activities finds itself the subject of an article in Motor Sport, but more often than not it doesn’t. If all the activities were chronicled there would not be time to have any activities, I’d be spending all my time writing, and then there would be nothing to write about and the whole process would stop. The only way is to let it all happen willy-nilly and some things to appear in print and some not.
During each season I am afraid I disappoint a number of readers, for quite often I turn up at some sort of club activity, to join in the fun as a competitor, and people immediately assume I am preparing an article on the event or the car or motorcycle I am using; when I say I am on holiday and just enjoying myself with no thought of writing about the activity these people look rather puzzled and slightly disbelieving, presumably because they are used to journalists and writers who only do something if they can see a story at the end of it.
Whenever I get the opportunity, I take out my 650-cc. Triumph sprint bike and have a blast up the standing-start 1/4-mile at club meetings run by the National Sprint Association. Last season I managed to get in four meetings, including a standing-start kilometre one as well. While my bike is now dated and obsolete in the sprint world, lacking a supercharger and nitro-methane fuel, and great steel rods to clamp the head to the crankcase, all of which can give you 1/4-mile times knocking on 10 sec., my “girl’s bike” will still come close to 12 sec. though I haven’t succeeded in breaking 12 sec. for the standing-start 1/4-mile yet.
Apart from the sheer physical satisfaction of powerful acceleration, a ride on my Triumph keeps my sense of proportion. This was brought home very vividly at the first meeting I rode in last year, where I did my first run very gently, just to get the feel of the bike after nearly a year away from sprint-bikes, and to make sure everything was working properly. The time was 14.1 sec. Before this meeting I had been talking with a friend who had just tested a very potent sports car in which he had done a standing 1/4-mile in 13.9 sec., in one long frenzy of revs., wheelspin, smoke and lightning gear-changes. It is all relative.
There was another instance during last season when Ford and Southern Television were making films at Thruxton with Kenny Lynch and the Ford Truck Division’s “Transit Supervan”, the white van with the 5-litre GT40 engine and gearbox in the back. I happened to be down there and a driver was needed so it was easy to see who was going to do it. That van was one of the funniest, and yet most enjoyable, things I have ever driven. By the end of the afternoon I had got down to lap times that would have been reasonable for a Group 2 saloon car, and I thought no more about it until a colleague was telling me how he had lapped Thruxton at such-and-such a speed in a Mexico or Avenger saloon, or something similar, I forget exactly which. I couldn’t help enjoying, with fiendish delight, saying “That wasn’t very good, I’ve been round ten seconds faster than that in a van.” Just as my young friend was about to destroy his crash-hat and his Nomex overalls I relented and mentioned that it was no ordinary van.
It is all a matter of sense of proportion, or should it be dis-proportion; I think perhaps it should be the latter when I look back to last September when I drove a pretty little 1928 Amilcar in a vintage race. For a whole lap I had a meteoric dice with Tony Mitchell in his belt-driven 1914 GN vee-twin. I think we achieved a maximum of 47 m.p.h., the Amilcar being slowed by a head-wind and the GN gaining speed in my slipstream! It was all very pleasant because we could talk to each other as we progressed, and time was on our side for we were not winning anything, we were just having fun. Where time is not on your side is in hill-climbs or autocross, where every split-second counts, and last season I dabbled in both types of event, driving the 2-litre AC-engined Semmence Special at Prescott and a 650-cc. Triumph I built up out of spares from the Sprint-bike project, at Wiscombe. Being neat and tidy up a hill-climb looks nice, but is never very fast as I found out with the Semmence. To be competitive you’ve got to be on the ragged-edge from start-to-finish and put aside finesse, but not so far aside that you bounce off the banks. Perhaps it was because I had borrowed the Semmence from Bob Wood that I was safe rather than sorry.
Down in Devon, at the splendid Wiscombe Park hill-climb, which is one of our best hills, the NSA had their annual “bikes only” meeting, and being free from motor racing that weekend, I hurriedly screwed together a Triumph and joined in. As it was my own machine I did not mind if I “stepped off”, or “threw it into the bushes”, so really enjoyed the dice up the hill and didn’t disgrace myself. Similarly, I didn’t disgrace myself when I had a go in an autocross down in Hampshire driving Derek Argyle’s very successful Autocross Special called “Turfsmoker”. When it is somebody else’s engine, and you know how much work they have put into it, you settle for 6,500 r.p.m., even though you knew the owner uses 7,500 r.p.m., stretching the Cortina-based engine to its limit. This ingenious special, built around an early Buckler space-frame, with the owner’s suspension design, and the Ford’s cooling system behind the passenger seat, is one of the quicker autocross specials in the South of England and was a new experience to drive on a muddy field. It was a never-ending source of amazement as to just how far out the tail could go, without spinning off, for an off-course excursion in autocross entails automatic exclusion. Its wide Goodyear Rally tyres on the back seemed to have unlimited grip at all angles, providing the power was kept hard on.
Having the owner about can be encouraging, or it can be off-putting, and on one of the wettest and murkiest days last Autumn I found myself at Silverstone driving the Hon. Patrick Lindsay’s famous 1 1/2-litre ERA “Remus”. It was for no special reason other than a long-standing desire to drive an ERA and a long-standing promise that I could drive “Remus” when the opportunity arose. It all arose as the weather clamped down, so I just had to suffer. Actually it was most enjoyable, for I could savour all the excitement of driving an ERA, at relatively low speeds, the bald back tyres spinning or sliding whenever you wanted them to. To drive an ERA at that limit of adhesion in the dry with good treads would call for more skill and bravery than I can muster. Even in the pouring rain the way the ERA kept in a straight line at 100 m.p.h. down the Club Circuit straight was almost uncanny, and the pre-selector gearbox made everything very easy once you had settled on a routine of moving the lever immediately after each gear change, into the next one you are going to need. When I set off in the ERA, Lindsay had not arrived, Dick Crossthwaite and John Gardner, who look after it down at Crossland Engineering in Sussex, being in charge. He was hoping to literally “drop in” in his vintage aeroplane, but the weather put a stop to that.
After a few laps I experienced the phenomena of all the gauges going the wrong way, apart from the rev-counter, for normally the faster you go the warmer get the water and oil and as the oil warms up the oil pressure drops, until the three gauges settle down to their working figures. It was so cold and damp that from leaving the paddock with everything pearly to working condition, the water and oil temperatures gradually got less and the oil pressure became more, so a stop was made to blank off the radiator and start again, and this time everything settled down the right way. I was soon busily enjoying myself, noticing each lap that the ERA “guardians” were sitting unconcernedly in the pits, so I thought I might as well keep going until they decided I’d had enough, for I could have gone on forever, even though viability was not much more than 100 yards. On one lap I was just about to change from 2nd into 3rd when I saw the owner leaning on the pit rails, and with a terrible feeling of being “caught in the act” I promptly changed into 4th! The weather having grounded his vintage aeroplane, Lindsay had arrived in his GTB Ferrari, just to see that all was going well.
Another occasion when I could have gone on round a circuit until the fuel ran out was when Ford let me drive their prototype GT70 coupe round their Boreham Test Track. Again it was pouring with rain, and being the first prototype quite a lot of water was coming inside, but having the whole track to myself and no limit to the time available I just went on and on. They didn’t signal me in, so presumably they didn’t want the car back, and the more laps I did the more I learned about the car. When I finally stopped and apologised for wearing it out, the man from Ford said he didn’t call me in as I seemed to be enjoying myself. I certainly was, which reminds me that I must go back to see how their six-prototype test-programme worked out over the past year, and how near the first production car is to being built, as I think my name was in the first dozen customers for what must be the nearest thing to a Dino Ferrari.
1971 proved to be a very busy and varied season, both officially and unofficially, or if you like, both at work and at play, but whether I was playing more than working, or vice-versa, I’ll never really know. All I do know is that I enjoy “just messing about with cars and motorcycles”. Now aeroplanes, they are something different, they are for the birdmen, not for me. I was born with a wheel in my mouth.—D. S. J.