Historic scene with Gordon Cruickshank

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A triumph of spirit

Barbed wire and searchlights didn’t prevent British prisoners of war producing a motor magazine

Imagine if you couldn’t get your copy of Motor Sport, or any other car magazine. Or any reading material at all. That was probably fairly low on the list of anxieties for prisoners in German POW camps during World War II, but it was something that some of them decided they could do something about. The result was The Flywheel – the only motoring magazine produced in a prisoner of war camp. It was a regular full-colour production, too, even if there was only one copy of each edition. That was because it was hand-written and illustrated on school exercise books, then passed hand to hand or pinned on a hut wall.

It’s a remarkable story, and if those precious sheets hadn’t survived it would just be a tale told back at home by the liberated inmates. But the pages did get back, rolled in Red Cross tins. Although they are now in the Imperial War Museum, Tom Swallow, the man behind the enterprise, and his accomplice Arthur Pill had the enterprise to publish some of their work in book form. Released in 1987, Flywheel – Memories of the Open Road simply reproduces many of the ‘magazine’s pages, and an impressive sight they make.

It began at POW Campo 70 in Italy, where Tom Swallow and Dick Green ended up after being captured by the Germans at El Alamein. Both car enthusiasts – Dick would later work for Aston Martin, MG and Ken Miles – they kept boredom at bay with a hand-written motoring journal. After 1943 when Italy switched sides, the Germans ferried them to Germany and there they stayed.

As well as worries about food, hygiene and accommodation, one of the main strains was simple lethargy. Concerts, plays and lectures all helped to boost morale, and in Stalag IVB Swallow, Green and Pill, finding many fellow car enthusiasts around them, decided to form the Muhlberg Motor Club. Every club needs a journal, so the committee trawled the camp for knowledge, experience and artistic skills and began publishing The Flywheel – with the meaningful four-stroke subtitle ‘Keeps the works going round on the idle strokes’.

Raw material came from a mixture of personal memory, conjecture and information collared from the occasional cuttings or magazines sent to inmates, but the result is both readable and surprisingly informative. The painstakingly hand-lettered text is completely legible and the artwork stretches from crisp to terrific, mostly in watercolour using inks home-made from anything that could be snaffled, such as quinine pills. Fermented millet soup proved to make a good glue for the illustrations and latterly the issue was carried round – good exercise as there were 150 readers! – in cardboard covers decorated with a badge cut from a mess tin. The ingenuity of these men is amazing. It took endless hours to produce – but then, that was the point.

Articles cover Austin racing cars, George Eyston’s Thunderbolt, motoring in Egypt, ‘road tests’ of motorbikes, a remembered interview with Raymond Mays. There’s a Motor Show issue filled with pictures, and discussions about the ideal post-war car – diesels and turbos are both favoured. Even the vehicles the Germans used in and out of the camp were good material – a DKW, a Wanderer and an Opel are all described after a staff visit. There’s also a ‘contact’ section for men to track down other enthusiasts for their favoured marque; with more than 20,000 inmates, Stalag IVB was a small town. As readership increased the team produced a ‘wall supplement’, carried from hut to hut and pinned up for half a day in each. 

The club seems to have had an active programme, (lectures taking place in the wash-house of Hut 47A) and even a small library of car and ’bike mags. Murray Walker’s father Graham, then editor of Motor Cycling, gets a special mention for sending magazines through. But to offset the invariably cheery editorial tone, every issue bears a ‘Geprüfte’ censorship stamp – a reminder that the content of this astonishing production was, as Swallow says, “Taken from memory and filtered through barbed wire at that.”

I have the book in front of me, but I know some extra background because after I reviewed the book in 1987, Dick Green contacted me from the USA and I was able to put him back in touch with Swallow. Dick’s wife Doreen recently gave me useful material about her time at Aston Martin, and their son, classic biker and racer Michael Green, feeds me snippets from the American historic scene. Dick and Tommy have both passed on, but Doreen tells me that Swallow was a remarkable man: as well as running Flywheel and a drama group (they had to build a stage first) he obtained a violin kit from the Red Cross, assembled it, taught himself to play and then began teaching other inmates.

I can’t imagine the strength of will needed to keep despair at bay in long-term captivity, but if anything illustrates human resilience, this unique book does.

Woking on big data

The F1 team is just one client of McLaren Technologies; it can help win a Tour de France too

There’s another new McLaren road car in this issue, and it’s all due to ‘big data’. That’s one of the things I learned at the Royal Academy of Engineering, where Ingenia magazine presented a talk on racing wheelchairs, and McLaren’s Technologies arm. It seemed an obvious double for me. Sadly the super-sports chairs are aimed at serious paralympians, not ageing journos, but Dr Caroline Hargrove’s outline of McLaren’s huge data modelling capabilities was fascinating for someone who’s not close to the F1 paddock.

Before good simulators arrived, Hargrove said, 90 per cent of parts built weren’t raced. Now it’s 10 per cent, and that’s down to the spooky accuracy of the sim. Not only can they compare components and repeatedly try different approaches to the same lap, but after every Grand Prix the drivers back-compare the real race to the digital model, so that the sim gets exponentially closer to real life. Developing its own sims from scratch (Dr Hargrove’s task – she is Technical Director) the Woking firm at first out-paced the graphic power then available, but by as early as 2006, as a slide showed us, it was impossible to tell real and simulated telemetry traces apart. 

It’s not possible to physically simulate high g-forces, but McLaren even modelled the human vestibular system to learn how to deceive the brain into feeling the force, aided by a helmet loader. So good was the second-generation system (no pictures were ever taken of MkI, so paranoid was the firm about security) that Technologies built a second for other teams to use – but, says Hargrove, “As we’re not doing so well Ron stopped that…”

Formula 1 is just a part of all this. McLaren Technologies’ fields also cover instrumentation for NASCAR and Indy, major data processing and sports engineering. Hargrove’s team worked on the Specialized bicycle which brought Mark Cavendish the Tour de France green jersey and on the skeleton bob Lizzie Yarnold used to take gold in the Sochi Olympics. They have algorithms to monitor athletes’ gaits and year-to-year fitness, and they’ve even instrumented rugby players; apparently how slowly they get up after a fall indicates tiredness early – useful for managers. 

And, yes, the simulators are flexible enough to apply to road cars, both performance and handling. That, according to Hargrove, is how McLaren has been able to produce so many new versions in only six years since its first supercar, the MP4-12C – all are different, albeit spun off one monocoque design. Right now the data-chomping Woking super-computers are humming tirelessly away on how to bump up the figures yet another notch; wonder if they could do anything for me?

Crossing the county line

Celebrations for a motor club that involved Bill Boddy and Jenks from the start 

June MARKs an anniversary that WB would certainly have featured in these pages. One of the first clubs to organise motor sport events after WWII, Hants & Berks MC was born 70 years ago out of a group of enthusiasts at the Royal Aircraft Establishment, Farnborough – where both Bill Boddy and Denis Jenkinson worked in the war years – and Hampshire car people such as vet Holly Birkett and garage owner Harry Hopkinson. Very soon the club was running multiple events including one of the earliest post-war sprints, at Eversley in 1946, where Jack Fairman, Ken Wharton, Roy Salvadori, Sydney Allard and John Cooper, in the first Cooper 500, all competed. This was replaced by the Great Auclum hillclimb with its high banked bend, and later the club was one of those running the popular Eight Clubs events at Silverstone. WB was very involved in the club-run but nationally respected 1000-mile Mobil Economy Runs which began in 1955, not to mention the social events when he, Jenks, Birkett et al gathered to talk cars and plan the next complicated activity. Even Holly’s treasure hunts were devious, with marshals disguised as factory workers or once as a couple in a car seemingly involved, in WB’s words, “in an advanced case of snoggery”. 

Seven decades on it’s still a busy, active group in classic car events and marshalling. Let’s assume WB is raising a glass when the party happens, and we do too.

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