A Grand Touring Day
The Assistant Editor Spends a Day at Aintree with Abarth, Lotus and M.G
THE name Longbacon has probably puzzled racegoers over the past couple of years, and those who know that the word is a Yorkshire term denoting mild derision are probably still wondering what it has to do with motor racing. So are we! But perhaps it has something to do with the fact that the Longbacon Mk. II poked fun at the regulations in the 1,000-c.c. class by using a Coventry-Climax engine. The regulations said that cross-flow heads were barred but omitted to mention that overhead camshafts were also barred, so for a season the bright red coupé on the Lotus Eleven chassis did very well until it crashed at Aintree, the Longbacon’s home circuit, as the team’s headquarters are nearby. Prior to the use of the coupé the team raced a Lotus Seven-based car which was considerably modified, and thus a new name was considered desirable. This car had considerable success, winning six races in a row during 1959 and together with the coupé a total of twelve wins, four seconds and fourteen third places were gained in the 1959 and 1960 seasons.
At the end of last season, with the Mk. I sold and the coupé written off, the decision was taken to go into Gran Turismo racing and to this end a Fiat Abarth 750 and a Lotus Elite were purchased, so covering both the 750-c.c. and 1,100-c.c. classes, while Ted Lund has been co-opted into the team to share the driving in long-distance races with Nigel Hermann and his special-bodied Twin-Cam M.G.-A, which won its class at Le Mans last year, will be used in long-distance races, including Le Mans once again.
To see something of the preparation of these cars and to sample them on the Aintree Club circuit the writer was invited to Aintree on a showery April day. After a few familiarisation laps in the passenger’s seat of the Abarth beside Ted Lund the car was handed over to me with the instruction from the mechanical man of the team, Paul Kelly, not to exceed 6,000 r.p.m. if I could help it. Entering the low-built coupé is quite easy and the bucket seat grips the driver properly as well as being comfortable. The driving position is somewhat unorthodox as the pedals are considerably offset to the left because the wheel arch intrudes into the cockpit. Forward vision is rather restricted as the low roof line dictates a shallow screen and the steering wheel is rather high set, so that the driver has only about six inches of windscreen space, and a driver of around 5 ft. 10 in. wearing a crash helmet will come in contact with the roof quite often. The two main instruments are a rev.-counter, red-lined from 6,600 to 7,000, and a 120-m.p.h. speedometer, the claimed top speed of the car being 112 m.p.h. A combined water-temperature, oil-pressure and petrol gauge is at the extreme right end of the instrument panel and an oil-temperature gauge is in front of the passenger’s seat. The engine is started by pulling the Fiat-type floor-mounted lever and blipping the throttle as the tiny twin-cam engine is fitted with twin-choke double Weber carburetters which start the engine quite readily from cold. The cable-operated throttle requires a high pedal pressure to overcome the return spring, which is just as well as the engine revs so readily that an inadvertent blip could send the revs off the clock quite easily. The gearshift is the normal H-pattern, the gears being selected by a rather slender lever which has an extremely long throw between gears.
The Aintree Club Circuit omits the Grandstand area of the course and takes in only Bechers, Village and Country corners on the main circuit, the Club course leaving the main circuit along the Railway straight and bringing the cars back into Country Corner via a 186″ bend appropriately called Club Corner. Members of the Aintree Circuit Club are able to use this circuit for private practice every Tuesday evening for a couple of hours for a small fee, while a Club house is available for refreshment. This is an eminently safe course as there is plenty of grass on the outside of-the corners, although if one spins too far off course it is possible to contact the Grand National jumps and incur the wrath of Mrs. Topham, as several people have discovered. The performance of the Abarth is of course not too startling, an indicated 6,000 r.p.m. on Railway Straight being equivalent to about 80 m.p.h. Being a rear-engined car it has a fairly strong oversteering tendency and the technique for the corners, which are all taken in 3rd gear, is to give the steering wheel a twitch on entering the corner to get the rear end sliding, then the requisite amount of lock can be paid off to hold the car below spinning point. The drum-brakes are not the car’s strongest point and although no actual fade was detected they lacked power. Some Abarths use disc-brakes but these are not yet homologated with the F.I.A. although this state of affairs should soon be modified. The Fiat-Abarth is undoubtedly an extremely pleasant car to drive and in the form tested it would be perfectly drivable on the road as the free-revving engine was not unduly noisy and reasonably tractable.
The same could not be said of the team’s Lotus Elite, which I drove from the workshops to the circuit. Basically the car is a normal Series II model completely stripped and rebuilt by Mr. Kelly and fitted with a full Stage 3 Climax engine giving well over 100 b.h.p. The M.G.-A gearbox is fitted with close-ratio gears and a ZF limited slip differential is also included. The suspension has been stiffened for racing use and all interior trim and sound-deadening material removed, and since in most places this is over an inch thick a good deal of weight has been saved; in fact a board has had to be fitted on the floor of the driver’s compartment to enable the driver to reach the pedals. With all this trim removed the noise from engine, gears and differential is quite deafening, and as the engine gives little power below 4,000 r.p.m. and the clutch is of the ” sudden death ” type it is definitely not a road car; in fact the team will treat it as a racing car and it will not be driven on the road. Having previously sampled an Elite on the road and at Goodwood I was familiar with the layout and general handling and had already formed the opinion that it was the finest-handling road car I have ever driven; driving position, pedal layout, quick steering, positive brakes, superb vision and absolutely unequalled road-holding indicate what can be done by a designer if he puts his mind to it. The transmission of noise through the body-chassis unit is a problem and other troubles have been reported by owners who use them as road transport; whether these are of the teething type or more permanent remains to be seen. However, no such problems were evident with the Longbacon car; it was meant to go and stop as quickly as possible, and it certainly did. After some more lappery with Ted Lund, during which we discovered that the gear-lever occasionally jumped out of 3rd gear, I took over the wheel and was soon enjoying Elite motoring. The Elite understeers and can be thrown into corners at incredible speeds, adding more and more lock through the corner with the stiffer suspension allowing hardly any roll. On its 4.2 axle ratio my 6,000-r.p.m. limit showed 105 m.p.h. on the speedometer, but of course in racing the needle will be taken well past this point. The Elite’s road-holding even overcame the problem of losing 3rd gear suddenly, and when the lever popped out half way round Country Corner the car just sat down a little more at the back and carried on cornering! However, I deemed it wise to come in after that as the revs tend to rise rather suddenly when there is no gear to pull! Mere words cannot conjure up a picture of the fascination of driving the Elite; as I drove round, the words of Cliff Richard’s latest hit song came to me for some unknown reason : ” You are my theme for a dream.” There’s no girl in my dreams—just a bright red Elite.
Finally we came to the Le Mans Twin-Cam M.G., and who better to demonstrate it than the man who drove it into 13th place overall and first in its class at Le Mans, along with Colin Escott, last year. As the racing engine is being prepared for the season a standard Twin-cam was fitted at the time of our test but performance was certainly not sluggish although, of course, the handling cannot compare with the Elite as the rigid rear axle tended to spin its inside rear wheel on the slow Aintree corners. When I took over I found it difficult to become accustomed to the long travel of the brake pedal and the initial soft feel; a brake booster is fitted to save wear and tear on the right leg at Le Mans. Steering is of course heavier than on the Abarth and the Elite, but in action is fairly neutral, neither understeer nor oversteer being apparent. Just when I felt I was getting the hang of the M.G. with its made-to-measure dicing seat, the rains came down and the car became decidedly skittish so I decided to call it a day.
Longbacon Engineering have a fairly ambitious calendar of National and International races for their third full season, including Le Mans, Nurburgring 1000 Kilometres, Nurburgring 500 Kilometres (for the Abarth) and several races in Ireland including the Leinster Trophy and Phoenix Park, where road racing still exists and the hospitality is lavish, and where the scrutineer, on seeing an Elite for the first time, merely said, ” Ah, that’s a foine car ” and passed it without a further glance. With their varied machinery the Longbacon team may not be the quickest on the circuits but they are certainly going to have a lot of fun.—M. L. T.