Around and About, March 1981

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As young as you feel!

Motoring magazines tend to devote a considerable amount of space to the varying merits of up-and-coming drivers and how teenage youngsters desperately joust at the wheel of their Formula Ford cars, trying to become the youngest World Champion ever. So often, however, an intensive “professional” involvement in the sport results in drivers retiring and turning their back on the business of motor racing, often by the time they are thirty years old. We’ve seen several such examples over the years and, in the Grand Prix world, we tend to think of Mario Andretti, 41 this year, as a really experienced “old hand”. But the American’s years in the sport are fleeting in comparison with one enthusiast we at Motor Sport visited a few weeks ago.

Christopher Le Strange Metcalfe — known to his family and friends as “Dickie” for reasons he cannot remember! — first competed at Brooklands in a Morgan three wheeler in 1929. That in itself may not be unique, but what is pretty stunning is the fact that Dickie Metcalfe is now in the throes of preparing for another season of motor racing at the modest level he’s always enjoyed — and he will be 73 years old next month. By our reckoning he succeeds the late Basil Davenport as the oldest active holder of an RAC Competition licence and he feels that there’s still some life in the old dog yet!

Successfully mating an army career with his enthusiasm for amateur motor racing, Dickie Metcalfe’s first contact with the Brooklands fraternity came through his friend Clive Gallop. This friendship was responsible for Metcalfe being invited to dine at Count Zborowski’s country seat in Kent where he arrived in a rather motley Austin Seven. Greeted on the steps by his host, Zborowski is said to have noticed Metcalfe’s tiny little box on wheels and asked, incredulously, “what is that?” On Metcalfe’s reply that that, was in fact his Austin Seven, Zborowski replied sympathetically “Oh dear, I’ll have it taken away!” Happily, the baby Austin was merely taken round to the family garage and reappeared full of petrol and meticulously cleaned, for Metcalfe’s homeward journey. “People do not live like that today— not in this country anyway” said Metcalfe.

Quickly graduating from his Morgan three wheeler, Metcalfe then acquired the ex-Douglas Hawkes 1921 Anzani engined “200 Mile Race” Horstman “from Thomson and Taylor’s scrapyard”. This was a rare machine with its twin port engine, but Metcalfe recalls that its wooden chassis had definitely seen better days and, when the Brooklands Stewards discovered that its owner had actually raced it in an event on the Mountain Circuit, with no front wheel brakes, they warned him off! His enthusiasm undaunted, he acquired a chain drive Frazer Nash chassis into which he transferred the Anzani engine and then commissioned Abbots of Farnham to build him a neat fabric single-seater body for the resultant machine.

The outcome, according to Metcalfe, was “quite pleasing” and he used this car for the next five years in Brooklands meetings, having a great deal of fun during his time off from the army. On one occasion he recalls being hauled in front of the Stewards after a protest from G.L. Baker who said that Metcalfe went beneath his Minerva on the banking rather than on the outside, thus winning the race by a short-head. “I was hauled up in front of Earl Howe, Algernon Lee-Guinness and Tim Birkin and asked to account for my performance. I did some very quick thinking and then explained that I felt one ‘had to have a go if you wanted to win’ when one was motor racing, quoting a passage from Birkin’s book Full Throttle to support my argument! Not only did I get off, but the chap who’d protested me was fined for making what they called ‘a frivolous complaint!'”

Confining his activities to Brooklands, except for an excursion to drive at Donington —”1933, it was, I think” — in an ex-Vic Derrington San Sebastian Salmson, Dickie Metcalfe acquired a Fiat Balilla in the mid-1930s, leaving the Abbot-Nash, as his special was titled, “in a garage in Esher” [J. P. Munch Engineering — Ed.] when he went off on some army business. When he returned he found that they had sold it for him to somebody in America, so he enjoyed himself in the few years up to the start of World War 2 with the little Fiat. “Then I decided to spend a great deal of effort and money giving it a really good tune up for the last meeting of 1939, scheduled for October 1st. Of course, by that time there were other things to worry about, so I squirted a bit of oil into the bores, left it in Fox and Nichols’ yard on the Kingston by-pass and went off with the army. Six years later I came back, started it up and drove away. . . .”

After the war Dickie Metcalfe became involved in all sorts of fascinating business exploits in Libya, starting a company which got the Admiralty contract to clear the wrecked shipping from Tobruk and Benghazi harbours. By that time he was in “Government service” having left the army, but still found time to race in England, selling the Fiat Balilla and acquiring the Aston from an Aston-Butterworth special in the early 1950s. He fitted the Bill Aston chassis with a 1.1-litre Coventry Climax engine and Maurice Gomm, a good friend, clad it in an attractive, stylish body which resembled a small Aston Martin DBR1. It was with the Aston-Climax that Dickie Metcalfe scored his most “prestigious” result, third in the International Daily Mail Trophy at Boreham, in 1952, behind Ken Wharton’s Frazer-Nash and the Jaguar XK120 of Mike Hawthorn.

Dickie Metcalfe raced his Aston-Climax through to 1964 when he transferred the Climax engine into one of the pretty little Lola Mk 1 sports cars, continuing his racing mainly at Silverstone and Castle Combe as well as venturing to Thruxton when it was reopened in 1968. The Lola was followed by a Lotus 23B, fitted with an 1150 Holbay Formula Junior engine, and this led to the current Lotus 23C powered by a Cosworth BDA “which I happened to have around” and clad, distinctively, in a chopped around Can-Am McLaren body. His most recent success was in a Goodwood sprint on July 27th last year when he established FTD and he can still lap Silverstone club circuit in 1 min. 4 sec. “although I’m not so keen on diving up the inside of the youngsters going into the corners any more. I tend to let them go and come up on them when they’re not looking!” Despite a serious road accident near Silverstone last autumn, Dickie Metcalfe plans his usual schedule of “two or three races a month” throughout the 1981 season, still preparing the car himself in Gomm’s Old Woking premises.

As far as road cars go, he’s tried most sporting machines “including a Bugatti, a shared 3-litre Bentley and an eight-cylinder Wolseley, a most awful car” although in recent years he has been an Alfa Romeo fan, currently running a 1.5ti Alfasud. In 1970 he also enjoyed a spell as entrant, providing a Lotus 59 for David Cole to race in Formula 3 — ”his father was in my regiment”.

Aston Martin’s new driving force: enthusiasm, tempered by hard business

From Dickie Metcalles charming country cottage near Maidenhead, we pointed our road test Porsche 928S (borrowed from our sister weekly newspaper!) north east through sleet and slush to Newport Pagnell, home of the troubled Aston Martin Lagonda company. Although turning up on Aston’s forecourt in Porsche might be calculated to provoke a dispute to make the FOCA/FISA row pale into insignificance, we nonetheless received a welcome from that great enthusiast Victor Gauntlett who, as readers will probably know, is now Executive Joint Managing Director of the English sports car manufacturers.

Gauntlett who admits that “my problem is that I’m a car enthusiast” openly confesses that one of his reasons for becoming involved with AML (1975) Ltd., is “sheer enthusiasm”, although he thinks the company has a worthwhile product and, potentially, a quite realistic future within the specialist motor car world. But there is another side to this Bentley enthusiast’s approach and, in conjunction with CH Industrials Ltd., a large public concern incorporating the former Coventry Hood and Sidecar concern (amongst others). Gauntlett’s Pace Petroleum company has increased its shareholding in the Newport Pagnell company to just under 50 per cent. CH Industrials Ltd., hold a similar percentage which, together, gives them overwhelming control; the shares were acquired from Alan Curtis, Peter Sprague and Denis Flather, the architects of the last Aston Martin “rescue attempt”.

A mathematical mind is needed to work out how much the AML involvement has cost Pace Petroleum, but reading from the CH Industrials press material, it can’t be much short of three quarters of a million pounds. Victor Gauntlett told us politely that we would have to work that out for ourselves, but added “I always make a point of never going into business deals which haven’t got more going for them than against them. There is what I would call a ‘containable loss’ if we don’t make Aston Martin work; it’s by no means a runaway situation.” What’s more, lest anybody should think that this new “take over” means a vast change to the Aston Martin Lagonda character overnight, Gauntlett insists “we have to make work what we have got. We must make the best of what we are and of the situation in which we find ourselves. Our current level of production amounts to three V8 coupes and five Lagonda saloons every fortnight. We have to be very careful how we expand from this point”.

Several avenues of development are currently under consideration by the new AML management. Victor Gauntlett feels that a new power unit is needed, but this can only be funded out of profit. “We might do some deal with another manufacturer for the design of smaller power units and we are examining the possibility of a racing project of some sort for a development programme. But it’s early days yet. One thing that I am very pleased about is the amount of interest shown in the Lagonda. We have taken sales from Rolls-Royce and Ferrari owners, which is heartening.” To date, seventy Lagondas have been sold — at a price tag just short of £50,000 — and AML is very conscious that they should allow Lagonda to carve its own niche in the luxury car market. There certainly was no shortage of enthusiasm and optimism at Newport Pagnell nor of awareness over the merits of rival products. Whilst we were talking to Victor Gauntlett, the AML engineering department was having a very close look at our Porsche 928S! Nothing wrong with scrutinising a trend setter is there?

Bowing out quietly

When the day comes for a top-line racing driver to retire, it’s interesting to watch how they handle it. Some “stage manage” the announcement on a Cecil B. de Mille scale (like Jackie Stewart), others depart abruptly, such as James Hunt and Niki Lauda, while others simply fade away quietly without any fuss. Denny Hulme fell into the last category at the end of 1974 and now the man who partnered him in his last year at McLaren, Emerson Fittipaldi, has done the same.

At the start of the last decade, Emerson Fittipaldi’s arrival onto the Grand Prix racing scene certainly raised an eyebrow or two. He had mastered the junior formulae with such aplomb that he was quickly wafted into a Formula 1 car in time for the British Grand Prix. In this works Lotus 49C, he finished seventh in a race won by Lotus team leader Jochen Rindt. After Rindt was killed at Monza, Fittipaldi boosted Lotus morale by winning the 1970 United States Grand Prix at Watkins Glen, only his fourth F1 event. He led the team in 1971, but this was a “learning year”; it took him until 1972 to mature sufficiently to drive his Lotus 72 smoothly to five Grand Epreuve victories and the World Championship. In 1974 he left Lotus and moved to McLaren, winning the World Championship again. At the end of 1975, he stunned the “establishment” by announcing that he was moving again this time to his family Grand Prix team, run by his elder brother Wilson. At the time everybody criticised Fittipaldi for this decision, but they should have realised that this was simply the realisation of a childhood ambition. The two brothers always dreamed of building their own Formula 1 racing cars and now they were doing just that!

For five seasons, Emerson Fittipaldi struggled loyally with his “home team”. Sometimes his cars were quite reasonable, often they were not competitive. By the 1980 season, the likeable Brazilian driver had lost his edge and clearly wasn’t driving as quickly as his team mate Keijo Rosberg. Quietly, without fuss or drama, he made the decision that he was going to retire, only his enormous love of the sport having driven him on to continue racing after his best days were over. We look forward to seeing Emerson Fittipaldi’s happy countenance “on the sidelines” for many more seasons to come, sharing that tremendous experience and racing wisdom with his young compatriot Francesco “Chico” Serra who has taken his place in the team.

Panther returns

The Panther Car Company went into the hands of the Official Receiver at the end of 1979, after some six years of activity in the specialised field of making cars of a classic appearance with modern components, comfort and characteristics. Now the company has been bought by a Korean organisation, the Jindo Group, headed in the UK by Mr. Young C. Kim, and production has started again, albeit in a small way with a workforce of only 25 in comparison with the 200 employed at the time of the Receivership. Jindo, who amongst other things make cargo containers and mechanical handling equipment for export to Europe, will be producing many of the basic components for the Panther in their Korean plants and shipping these over to the Weybridge factory for assembly.

Robert Jankel remains in charge of design and engineering, Chris Sweetnam joins the company from the London School of  Economics as general manager and Graham Arnold (late of Harold Radford) will be looking after publicity and marketing. The company will work to a policy of operating at the production rate to satisfy only the minimum demand — if demand grows, the production rate will not be increased to meet it, for therein lies the pitfall into which the original Panther Company fell: when they went into liquidation, through cash flow problems, they had full stocks and were working at full production. A sudden, unpredictable, slowing of sales changed the “can’t make them fast enough” comments of one month into “sorry, we can’t pay because we haven’t been paid” story of the next. With production kept to a minimum level, this, Graham Arnold feels, is unlikely to happen again.

The Lima, as used by Chris Meek to win the Production Sports Car Championship in 1980, will be the first of the Panthers back in production, follovved by the J 72 (modelled on the lines of the pre-war SS 100) and the de Ville, which the short sighted might (just) mistake for a large Bugatti. Prices for the three are £10,987, £27,384 and a staggering £67,275 respectively, presumably prospective purchasers of the de Ville will hardly notice the £150 (admittedly refundable) required for the “brochure” – a hide brief case containing samples of upholstery, colour cards, photographs etc.

Alfa Romeo

Alfa Romeo owners will be pleased to know that the UK importers, Alfa Romeo (GB) Ltd., have recently invested a large amount in a new headquarters, built alongside their original Head Office, near the junction of the Edgeware Road and the North Circular Road in North London. This new complex, which was opened recently by His Excellency Andrea Cagiati, the Italian Ambassador, has enabled Alfa Romeo GB to house all its different departments under one roof, and to increase its stock of spare parts considerably, thus offering a more efficient and effective service.

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