Corridors of petrol power
A brief elevation to the House of Lords proves that some of ‘them’ are really some of ‘us’
Who’d have thought that MPs fought a constant battle on behalf of the historic car community? Or that David Cameron was ‘one of us’? That was the surprising message from a trip I took to the House of Lords in January. The occasion was the release of a survey by the British Federation of Historic Vehicles Clubs into just how big the old car business is in the UK, and if the people who responded aren’t exaggerating, then the answer is – it’s huge.
We knew that Lord Steele was a keen old-car man – he has competed on many historic rallies, and turns out on a hard winter’s night to marshal on LeJog as it passes his Borders locale. So it was no surprise that he was on the microphone once we had found our way though the security checks to the River Room and been welcomed by Lord Montagu and the Lord Speaker – who’s a lady. “Sorry to rush off,” she concluded, “but I have to go and sit on the Woolsack…”
In this lofty green and gold apartment, thick with Pugin’s gothic detailing, David Steele and members of the Federation told us that while old cars rack up only 0.24 per cent of vehicle mileage, the historic car business totals an astonishing £4bn a year and supports 28,000 jobs. Most of this is in maintenance, and before you assume that it’s all due to multi-car millionaires restoring Figoni & Falaschi Delahayes, it turns out that while our 850,000 pre-1981 cars are collectively worth over £7bn, two-thirds of them come in at under £10,000.
Even in these tough times most businesses reported that they were stable, if not expanding, so it seems that even as the crunch bites, we are still looking after our prized machines – even if half of them cover under 500 miles a year. Some only come out for an MoT, and even that won’t be necessary if the current Euro proposal to exempt pre-1960 cars from the test goes through.
We sometimes hear tales that Brussels wants to clamp down on using old cars, perhaps by limiting mileage. Our gathering overlooking the Thames was a chance for that faceless entity ‘the Government’ to tell us that far from seeking restrictions on old-car use, there’s an all-party group of Westminster car enthusiasts working on our behalf. Mike Penning MP, who is Under-Secretary at the Department of Transport and a keen car man – he spent several chilly hours last November on a 1902 Mercedes heading for Brighton with his mate Nigel Mansell alongside – told us that the group meets regularly with the Federation, FIVA, and DVLA to fend off any restrictions. “Usually,” said Penning, “these are due to simple ignorance of our needs.” He went on with a cheering message: “the Government has no plans to restrict old car usage. In fact we want to see more use made of them.” And if you need some confirmation that this isn’t just a minority view, it transpires that the PM himself used to be on the all-party group.
Noises off on the Riviera
It’s not easy to keep up with your neighbour when there are Formula 1 cars in his garage
This motor racing business follows you everywhere, even on holiday. A few years ago I was revelling in the hospitality of a racer friend at his house in the South of France. It was early Sunday morning on my last day there and I was hoping for a lie-in, so I wasn’t thrilled to be woken by the sudden noise of an engine being revved. Not just an engine, but a race engine, working gradually up to piercing high revs. In fact, the phrase ‘Cosworth DFV’ leapt into my fuddled brain. Which was absurd, as the house was on a corner of Cap Ferrat and bounded on two sides by the Med. No one could even drive past, let alone at speed. Before long the racket died and I fell back to sleep.
By the time I rose and found my host on the terrace I‘d decided I must have dreamt it. Slightly hesitant, I said that I thought I’d heard some funny noises…
“Yes,” said my host. “That was the man next door warming up one of his F1 cars. Did it wake you?”
I had to finish my coffee before I could proceed with the conversation. It transpired that ‘the man next door’ was Count ‘Guggi’ Zanon, the wealthy one-time patron of Ronnie Peterson, Michele Alboreto and Lella Lombardi, and that he kept a collection of racing cars in the garage of his villa. Frustratingly, I had to leave for the airport before I could ring his doorbell and ask “can I look at your cars, mister?”.
A hotel with racing history
Now it’s a multi-story city block, but this site once echoed to blare of race engines on test
I write this in between arranging my visit to Retromobile, the Parisien classic car extravaganza. This time I’m forsaking my usual hotel, the Mercure on the corner of Rue Vaugirard, where I used to stay partly because it’s close by and partly because I could park underneath. That’s an adventure in itself, which starts with launching the car over a precipice of a ramp down a dark plunging concrete tunnel, then swinging it into a tiny box of a lift a bare inch larger than the car and waiting with sweating palms to see if the guillotine doors are going to slice off a bumper, followed by horrible graunching as some unseen ancient mechanism lowers you further into the underbelly of Paris. And oh, the relief of getting the car back to street level again without being mangled like a mouse in the clockwork.
But there’s a strong racing connection to this place: it’s built on the one-time site of Amedée Gordini’s headquarters. From this corner of suburban Paris The Sorcerer, as he was known, conjured up ever quicker machinery from simple Simca and Renault origins, achieving success in F2 and minor F1 races and through the ’50s progressing to beautifully engineered straight-eight Grand Prix cars of his own design.
That heritage is remembered in the hotel, where shelves of 1/43rd–scale models of Gordinis and other racers line an upper corridor. One day I was marvelling at how many variations of Gordini there were when a familiar voice boomed “loovely, aren’t they, lad?” It was Tom Wheatcroft, bending his bulky frame over the tiny cars. “Ah’ve only ’ad one Gordini. I think it were that one. But,” he continued, moving on to models of other makes with a gleeful twinkle, “I’ve got one of those. And that one. And that one. Only mine are full-size. Hee, hee, hee…” And he stomped off towards the show.
What’s your history?
This business started in 1983 with two employees and built up to our present 18, which includes mechanics, panel beaters, coachbuilders, trimmers and painters. Over 57 years working on veteran, vintage and classic cars, I’ve concluded it’s best to cover all trades in-house. We also train our own apprentices. As a result we can claim to have some of the most skilled craftsmen in the field.
What’s your range of skills?
Our skills and facilities cover all aspects of restoring and maintaining veteran, vintage and classic cars. Our workshop includes a machine shop, clean area for building engines, gearboxes etc and working area with wheel-free ramps. The panel shop has a folding machine, English wheel, rollers, swaging machines and louvering equipment. We also have a paint booth and oven and paint-mixing facilities.
Do you have a specialisation?
High-quality work on all types of car. Rolls-Royce, Bentley and other top marques form a large part of our business but we apply the same degree of care to all our work.
What’s in the workshop now?
A 1929 Phantom II tourer rebuilt from a wreck, being readied for display at the RREC rally. A 1938 Rolls-Royce Wraith for complete coachwork rebuild, including replacing the entire frame with new seasoned ash. A 1952 Bentley Special being built on an altered MkVI chassis. A Jaguar XK150DHC, ready for paint and re-trim after complete restoration, and a Corniche convertible having new hood made and fitted.
What projects are you proud of?
Restoring a Radford Countryman Bentley MkVI which won a recent concours award, also a rare BMW-Glas coupé (top). Converting a Bentley SIII saloon into a two-door convertible with power hood, involving complex structural alterations. One of our technicians winning a major award for developing an electronic fuel injection system for Rolls/Bentley V8 engines.
GC was talking to Charles Palmer
What we’d blow the budget on this month
Hall & Hall
A pretty monster, and sire of the GT40 project. Built in 1963 for John Mecom, it has plenty of history, not to mention a potential 540bhp from its big V8.
Alpine-Renault A110 1600s
Biggest, fattest version of the French rally rocket. In rare Gp4 spec with all the best options, this did a few rallies in early days but retains a pleasing patina.
Zwakman Jaguar XJR-15
Road-going one-make series car, with race-developed V12 inside lovely Peter Stevens-styled bodywork. Loud, raw adrenaline pump. Total mileage – 350!
And here’s the car the XJR-15 is based on, the design that recaptured Le Mans victory for the marque. Raced by Lammers, Dumfries and Brundle in 1988-89.