Around and about, March 1982

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North of the Arctic Circle with Saab

January 1982 gave the British Motorist one of his rare glimpses of Arctic conditions and, for the most part, he didn’t like it. With night time temperatures going down to below –15°C, even as far as – 30°C in parts of Shropshire, locks froze, bottoms were chilled on frozen seats, plastic trim became extremely brittle, breaking in some cases, engines would not start and the roads, if passable at all, were extremely treacherous. We only suffer conditions of such severity once or twice a decade and therefore have an excuse for not being prepared, inconvenient and uncomfortable though the result may be.

In Finland, however, things are different. With winter lasting for half the year and, in the northern parts of the count, daytime temperatures of –10°C being considered “mild”, Snow and cold are the norm. Saab, coming from Sweden whose more northerly parts share the same extreme climate, gave us the opportunity recently to see how well various of their cars (mainly the Turbo versions) behave in the Finnish winter.

Rovaniemi is on the Arctic Circle, the airport to the north, the town to the south. We were met by a group of Saab personnel and whisked away in 900 Turbos, first across the Arctic Circle and then across a frozen river to our hotel. Temperatures that night dropped to nearly –35°C. The cars were left in the open, but frost covered though they were, starting the next morning was no more trouble than one would expect on a mild day in the UK. Modern oils help considerably, of course, but it was very impressive to turn the floor mounted ignition key and have the engine fire straight away. It needed but two attempts for the engine to catch and settle down to a fast idle, the fuel injection system instantly adjusting to the temperatures. As soon as the ignition switch is turned on, the automatic front seat heaters (written off as gimmicks in this country, but near essential in the Arctic and standard fittings on all Saabs) start to function, warming the scat to a comfortable 28°C before cutting off. A good heating system is obviously another essential for comfortable Arctic motoring, and the Sub Turbo proved to be well endowed in this department. It must have taken less than five minutes to scrape the screens of frost after starting from cold, but in that time the heater had begun to deliver are which was hot to the hand, if placed near the vent, and after a were three miles motoring, it was necessary to turn the controls off maximum. We were particularly impressed with the way the heater would maintain a steady temperature inside the car whether travelling at speed or sitting still with the engine idling.

The Finns salt and grit their roads very lightly — the salt does not depress the melting point of the packed snow and ice enough for it to melt in the very low temperatures, the effect of the salt that is applied to the roads being to roughen the surface and assist grip. Combine this with the fact that only the main roads are kept free from snow (and even these take convenient short cuts across frozen lakes, often to avoid bridges and other structures which can then be maintained or repaired without inconveniencing traffic), and studded winter tyres become essential. The authorities, however, fearful of the effect of too many studs on the surface of the main roads, limit the number of studs in any one tyre to 120.

Saab had contrived an ice circuit on a frozen river for us to sample the cars with different combinations of tyres. First we tried vehicles fitted with elderly 55 section Pirelli rally tyres equipped with 560 studs each on the driving wheels and “normal” 185 section Michelin winter road tyres with 120 studs on the back. The effect was to simulate front-engine, rear-wheel-drive over steering characteristics. With plenty of grip on the front wheels for traction and straight line braking (about on a par with driving a car with near bald cross-plies on a wet road) but little on the back, the car was definitely a handful, the initial understeer into a corner snapping rather suddenly into massive oversteer, and often a complete spin until driver and car were completely acclimatised.

The next set up was with road tyres all round. Although the grip on the front was considerably reduced (bald cross-plies on a damp road), and the power had to be controlled much more carefully to prevent chronic wheelspin, it was soon apparent that the car was much better mannered and could be driven round the circuit rather faster and much more smoothly than previously. If a corner was approached too fast, understeer set in to a greater or lesser extent depending on the speed of entry, and backing off the throttle soon brought steering back. Practice enabled us to promote oversteer with this set up (no. not with the handbrake, which operates only on the front wheels) but by swinging the steering wheel gently into the corner, then away and once more in. The effect was to cancel the basic understeer tendency, which in extreme situations is just as inconvenient as massive oversteer, and to maintain steering control at speeds which would have had as in the snow banks, backwards with the first set up and nose first with the second. The experts use left-foot braking, but our initial attempts to use this technique landed us in the bank and we did not try again.

Thus educated in the art of ice driving in front-wheel-drive cam, we were let loose on a cross-count,’ journey. The population in those parts is somewhat sparse, and we could have seen little more than 20 other cars on the roads between villages. With such little traffic, and with the distances between settlements being quite significant, iris essential that the motorist be well equipped. Not only are Finnish cars well kept (not a rusty panel or dim headlamp bulb in sight), but they all carry shovels, heavy outdoor clothing and a survival kit in case of becoming stuck.

As has been mentioned, the main roads, two lanes wide, are kept clear of snow but the side roads, of little more than two cars width, are of packed snow between snow banks. Ploughs occasionally push recent snow falls into the banks to keep the roads clear. With no salt and no slush, there is nothing to change the colour of the hard snow, and it is often difficult to distinguish between white bank and white road. Unfortunately for the motorist, the banks are very treacherous, for they are not hard enough to prevent a car ploughing into them and they often cover roadside ditches. Concentration of a high order is necessary if a reasonable cross-country speed is to be maintained without leaving the road and we soon discovered that it is essential to slow right down on the narrow roads if there is any oncoming traffic, for just that two or three inches into the snow bank can mean much digging, as we discovered — twice.

To round off our brief visit, we indulged in some timed circuits of the ice track, using Turbos fitted with 560 studded tyres all round. We all thought we were beginning to get the hang of this ice racing, indulging in long, smooth slides between corners, flicking the car from one side to the other at will (well, nearly) until we were privileged to ride with our masters, Erik Carlsson and limo Lampinen — they make it look so easy, the former massive and calm, making apparently gentle movements both of steering wheel and gear lever while the car points this way and that but hardly ever in the direction of travel, and the latter small and nimble, feet dancing on the pedals, arms never still, hand flicking at incredible speed from wheel to gear lever and back again, sliding the car in unbelievable fashion and finding time to manage a 360° pirouette on the 300 yard straight each lap and still catch up with the rest of us…

Call on a Stunt-Driver

All aspects of motoring, if of an exciting nature, are of interest to sporting enthusiasts and we became aware the other day that we had never investigated the world of stunt-driving, so we asked our Secretary to fix an interview with someone whose profession is crashing motor vehicles more or less safely, in direct contrast to racing drivers whose task it into avoid accidents.

This resulted in driving roan outwardly-normal garage on the outskirts of Gloucester to meet Daredevil Dick Sheppard, the “man of a thousand crashes”. This was rather embarrassing, because we had not realised how famous Mr. Sheppard is, in his chosen profession — rather like saying “find me someone who knows something about F1 racing to talk to,” and being sent to see Niki Lauda… For Dick Sheppard, 52, who runs the Whitepost Garage, has gone into the “Guinness Book of Records” as the man who had written off 1,577 cars in hair-raising stunts up to the middle of 1981, sometimes disposing of as many as 30 in an hour. Yet, like many professionals who know their job and are masters of their trade, Dick is easily approachable and willingly answered our questions.

He runs a season of stunt performances for Carnival, Civic-galas and the like (using the name of “Dick Sheppard’s Disaster Squad” until a similar name caused confusion), from the Spring Bank Holiday to the Autumn, and fills-in with stunt-driving for films and TV productions.

We were interested to know whether he used highly-tuned engines, for attaining the required speed up the ramp before jumping a car over a line of parked cars or through a burning can or whatever, and rally-type suspension to soften the landing. Very much to the contrary! The cars used are almost exclusively “old-bangers” out of breakers’ yards, and Sheppard finds that the bigger ones, such as Ford Zephyrs, Morris-Oxfords and the like, have enough power for the most blood-curdling feats. Such cars, being expendable — up to 30 or so be be required for a showground performance, and iris a proud boast that none will be a runner at the end of a show — they are literally bought from the scrapyards. Sheppard told us he can usually spot by instinct 30 suitable ones from a yard containing, say, 500 scrap vehicles. He avoids those with “Go Faster” stickers etc., as likely to be more mechanically clapped than others… A working clutch, even brakes, are unimportant, however.

Some four hours will then be spent checking over each old vehicle before it starts its exciting new career. Petrol tanks are punctured to avoids fire risk, a gallon-can connected to the fuel pump being substituted, to be filled half-full (or ¼-full on the bigger cars), which suffices for the exciting job intended. The old fuel tanks would be useless anyway, as dirt in them could easily block the fuel-feed. Dangerous internal projections, such as control stalks, old-type door handles etc., are removed and the ignition leads are carefully checked to ensure that they won’t pull out and cut the power at some terribly vital moment. The battery is covered over to prevent acid splashing about.

Certain cars are especially suited to given types of stunts and the old “angle box” (the 80-bore o.h.v. Ford Anglia with the reverse-angle rear window) is a great favourite of Sheppard’s, whereas a gutless Ford Squire is less useful. The ploy is to commence the show with lesser cars and after they have become, shall we say, unserviceable, use them as obstacles for the more powerful cars to leap over, etc.

Sheppard wears a crash-hat, obviously, goggles, standard Rally-type harness with an aircraft-type quick-release, and “long-johns” beneath smart red overalls (which can be worn afterwards when working in the garage,. He does not wear Nomex fireproof underwear like F1 drivers, saying this gives them up to six seconds’ protection before they get out of a burning car, whereas he reckons to get clear in a second or so. But, like an aeroplane pilot before take-off, he does check his equipment very carefully before each stunt-drive. He made the honest point, when we mentioned crashes in racing, that in his case high speed is not entailed and that he weighs up the problems and reckons to avoid hurting himself, whereas when a racing driver “loses it” this is unintentional and therefore cannot be premeditated, with a safe ending worked out beforehand. Yet we cannot see many F1 “millionaires” emulating the courageous Mr. Sheppard! Not that they may want to, of course.

The depression has affected Carnivals like everything else, and Sheppard now gives perhaps 20 displays a season. In such a long career a, a top stunt-driver and (and motorcyclist) it is impossible to cover all his great stunts, but a few we saw on his video-stereo and in his photograph album merit a mention. We saw an old Jaguar and a Zephyr land on their noses and go end-over-end, after which not even the engines or back axles were salvaged. We saw a highly spectacular double roll by two cars, and others crumping into the line-up of cars they were trying to leap over.

Back in 1972 the Chrysler Rally Manager produced four prototype Hillman Avengers with 1,500 c.c. engines, welded-up body seams, etc., which were used for side-by-side rolls off ramps etc., at gala showings. Also in 1972, a pyramid of six Datsuns was made up and driven in Namibia on public roads as a publicity stunt, and it was Sheppard who did the stunts in a hilarious Kelly Monteith film, when Kelly calls on an Italian taxi-driver to rush him from his hotel to the airport — and. of course, everything happens en route, the taxi, a Fiat 132, “catching fire” at the end of, to put it very mildly, a hair-raising drive. Sheppard supplied the taxi and Kelly rode in it for most of the stunts, including crashing through a substantial five-barred gate, after which prudence prevailed and another passenger was substituted.

There are tricks to all trades, but we are not going to expose those in the stunt-driver’s repertoire — and, believe us, these do but a tiny mite to minimise the apparent risks, which so few other drivers would be prepared to face.

Finally, before leaving we asked the ultimate in stupid questions — what about life insurance? “There isn’t a chance.” replied Dick Sheppard. You cannot get a mortgage without life insurance, but fortunately Dick enjoyed building his own house, on the site of his garage.

His sales stock varies widely and he confesses that sometimes, if he is short of cars for his stunts, he is not adverse to taking one that has been a poor part exchange transaction — he likes one with a bit of MoT cover still to run, as less likely to need any attention.

Dick Sheppard is a very pleasant fellow to meet, it must be obvious that he is a skilful, resourceful, brave man, so if anyone wants a stunt show…  To us talking to him was a fascinating insight into another kind of motoring. Purists may object to the destruction of old cars but it is no worse than stadium stock-car racing and they have long been abandoned, anyway. Thinking of stock-car racing, we asked Dick if he had clone any, saying we used to enjoy watching it at Aldershot. “Aldershot”, he said. “that is one of my best recollections, I only raced there three times but I cleaned up the heat and final each time thus scoring a triple hat.trick. A versatile virtuoso…