Motoring at Easter may mean frustrations, anxiety and being held up in innumerable traffic tangles for the ordinary driver, but it often represents something a bit special to enthusiasts. It used to be (and still can be) a time for taking part in the M.C.C. Land’s End Trial, although it is no longer possible to hurry back from the West Country to attend the Bank Holiday Monday Meeting at Brooklands.
How fascinating it all seemed to me when I was a boy, a period made rosy now by nostalgia and the passage of time. The London traffic of the ‘twenties, composed of cars of so many different makes, taxis of similar diversity and mostly satisfyingly antiquated, and solid-tyred L.G.O.C. and Tilling-Stevens ‘buses, seemed intent on going somewhere with a purpose, jostling for passage to the accompaniment of a fine grinding of gears and beat of vintage-type engines. The offices of the B.A.R.C. were in Piccadilly, and away in distant Surrey a small boy visualised what might be happening at the Track, a place more prominent in his affections, more excitingly mysterious, than Heaven itself.
Today London seems to me a sprawling mess, out of which I like to drive as quickly as I can. I commenced Easter 1969 by doing just that, leaving the Standard House offices, not in a Coventry-built car of that name, which would have been appropriate (but they don’t make them any more) but in a Rover 3500 which I had borrowed from the ever-helpful London Rover depot at Seagrave Road in order to try the latest automatic transmission fitted to these pleasant V8s. I was bound for my hide-out in Mid-Wales and we were on the A-40 at last. It was a relief to find that the terrible tedium of the run to Oxford has been alleviated by the completion of the M40 Motorway bypassing High Wycombe. Unfortunately it ends 20 miles short of the City of Learning and B.M.C. cars. But when this Motorway links up with Oxford’s ring-roads something will have been done to improve one of the most disgraceful main thoroughfares out of the Metropolis.
While I was in the lorry-made queues typical of this highway I had time to reflect about the Rover. I have no intention of writing about it in detail, because I did this when it was a brand-new model. Suffice it to say that it is a very nice gentleman’s carriage, rather like buying a compact Automatic Mk. 6 Bentley or Rolls-Royce Silver Cloud, but with disc brakes, modern suspension, a better performance and a warranty, all for £1,830. Moreover, you get an all-aluminium V8 engine, which you only get in an S2 Bentley or Cloud II. But maybe R.-R. and Bentley fanatics can destroy this comparison . . . ?
Anyway, this Rover corners quite well, its acceleration is more impressive than the fact that it will wind up to some 114 m.p.h., and it is splendidly quiet and effortless and now has Hold-1 and Hold-2 positions for the Borg-Warner automatic transmission. There is de Dion rear suspension which the might of German/General Motors engineering has recently decreed to be desirable for the latest range of Opels but which Solihull has used for years. And although I am not yet quite ready for automatic transmission I confess that it was a very restful negotiating the London traffic at the commencement of this pre-Easter drive. The latest Borg-Warner installation suits the Buick-inspired Rover V8 power unit very well. And it was impressive, when I changed from 2000TC to 3500 at Seagrave Road, to be unable to tell whether the engine of the latter was running, so quiet is it at idling speed. . . .
Incidentally, I find it interesting that although Rover were said originally to have copied Citroën when planning the 2000, causing us to coin the name “Solihull Sitroëns”, these cars, and the 3500, do not feel anything like a DS when cornering, whereas the NSU Ro80 which I drove immediately before I took over the V8 Rover, does. Anyway, getting tired of the Oxford-Cheltenham road, I turned off through picturesque Burford and climbed past the Slaughters to Stow-on-the-Wold and Tewkesbury and so to Ledbury with its black-and-white Tudor buildings, and on to Kington, where, although yellow no-waiting lines have arrived, time has not advanced with them, so that they are universally ignored, in spite of traffic delays, even the Kington policemen not seeming to bother about such new-fangled regulations. But then I was now quite close to Wales, with its greeting sign at the Radnorshire border. The Avon Radial-shod Rover did not seem to have been going outrageously fast but I completed the journey in four hours door to door, which I regard as good going.
On Good Friday I set off to see what Formula 5000 racing at Oulton Park was like. I had been to Silverstone the previous Sunday and seen an interesting if not wildly exciting Formula One race, when Brabham not only won, but contrived to do so with just enough fuel to the last distance of the race, Stewart failed to fulfil the promise expected of him, but Rindt made a lasting impression, whereas the Ferraris were disappointing and the works B.R.M.s not even there. And Graham Hill appeared to be asleep. I figured out that by being at the Cheshire circuit and at Thruxton over Easter I could see F.1, F.2 and F.5000 racing within a space of nine days.
Oulton Park is less than 100 miles from my Welsh house and going via Knighton, ancient Clun, past the letters “ER” formed by cutting down some of the trees in Clun forest as a greeting to H.M. the Queen and Prince Philip when they used that road some years ago (Welsh Nationalism was perhaps less pronounced then), and through the imposing riverside town of Shrewsbury, I had the road virtually to myself on this Easter holiday morning, so that it was possible to average not far short of 50 m.p.h. without pushing the Rover very much over 60. (Do you recall how, in vintage times, average speed was thought to be half maximum speed?) It was only when I joined at A41 just before Whitchurch that the 40-m.p.h. nose-to-tail procession began.
I have never seen a bigger crown at Oulton. It reminded me of how the appearance of the Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Union teams at Donington in 1937 brought the first really big crowds to British motor racing. Presumably they anticipated F.5000 thrills; the programme announced that “The motoring Press are unanimous in saying that Formula 5000 is the most exciting new attraction on the circuit for many years” (Motor Sport didn’t!), and the commentator was busy getting everyone he could to endorse this opinion over the p.a. John Surtees was asked, amongst others; I thought he had a point when, on the subject of aerofoils, he countered criticism of them by saying he remembered when racing cars shed wheels but he didn’t recall anyone advocating racing without them. . . .
The meeting commenced at the civilised hour of 14.00, when there was a saloon-car race which was a bit of surprise to me, because it was won by a Vauxhall Viva GT, driven with verve by Gerry Marshall for Shaw & Kilburn, which beat a Ford-Lotus Cortina, whereas I was under the impression that Fords, big and small, had this kind of racing buttoned up. After this the enormous crowd had nothing to watch until 15.30 hours, because the Formula Ford race, scheduled for 14.40, was postponed, to leave the course clear for F.5000 cars to have some more practice. Andrea de Adamich had crashed a Surtees TS5 the day before, it had been frantically rebuilt at Slough overnight in typical Surtees panic-fashion, and was reputed on its way out of London at 9.00 hours. So everything came to a halt to let Adamich try the car when he arrived, but only Kroll’s Lola went out, and Adamich was never in the race anyway. . . .
Then the race itself started 10 minutes late, and was fiasco. The only drivers going quickly were Gethin, Hobbs and Hailwood, with Walker keeping them in sight. The cars were not as noisy as we had been led to expect (noisy, yes, but not in comparison with the scream of 1937 Mercedes-Benz and Auto-Unions approaching through the Donington Woods), looked about as stable as F.1 cars, but impressed by their great bursts of acceleration. (The best noise came from Mitchell’s 2-litre B.R.M., which was attended by Wilky Wilkinson.)
Nor was there any close racing, Gethin in the McLaren Lola led a procession of Hobbs’ Surtees, Hailwood’s Lola and Walker’s Lola, with the rest of a 13-car field trailing behind. The big-engined single seaters were about as reliable as a lot of home-built specials, so retirements and pit stops were frequent, there wasn’t even the fun of a Ford/GM battle, because the seven finishers were Chevrolet-powered. If I say that after 20 of the 37 laps there was only eight cars running, and that only Gethin, Hobbs and Hailwood were racing, with Gethin half-a-lap ahead of Hobbs and going about a second-a-lap faster, and that next lap Hailwood was out with a broken drive-shaft, and Hobbs was in the pits four laps later, you can judge just how much the spectators got for their money. Certainly not the “tremendous start” to F.5000 predicted in the Press hand-out from Motor Circuit News. . . .
Knowing how long it can take to escape from Oulton, I was in the Rover, through the Paddock gateway, over the Bailey bridge, and making for home, as Gethin was doing a lap of honour in a white Rolls-Royce Silver Shadow convertible. During this rapid drive the Smiths Radiomobile informed me, as the Rover, which accelerates very quickly, but in a gentlemanly, smooth and quiet multi-cylinder manner, in “Hold-2”, swept past a line of crawling vehicles, that road accidents for the previous day were up on those of 1968 and that chancy overtaking was a killer. I wondered why such statistics are always about road and never about other kinds of even more frequent accidents, and whether stopping suddenly, without warning, on blind bends, to point out a nice piece of scenery to their passengers, which I encountered more than once over Easter, isn’t just as much a killer as wild overtaking? Later bulletins had the decency to say that there were about double the number of vehicles on the roads, compared to 1968.
After tea on Easter Sunday I drove the 170 miles back to Hampshire, because my other address is within 40 miles of Thruxton, and so was more convenient for attending the B.A.R.C. races on the Monday.
I enjoyed the F.2 racing at Thruxton better than F.1 at Silverstone and F.5000 at Oulton Park. Although I am not very fond of Heats and Finals, preferring one race, on this occasion there was interest in seeing whether Rindt could get going again after this puncture in Heat 2 and thus qualify, and of seeing Hill beaten by Stewart and Beltoise in French-blue Matras in Heat 1. The Final was good because of close racing as Rindt came through the field to displace the three Matra men, Stewart, Beltoise and Pescarolo, and Courage, and take the lead, although after he had done this, on lap 19 of the 52-lap Wills Trophy race, the result was a foregone conclusion, for the Cosworth engine of the Lotus 59B sounded about the crispest on the circuit, and unlikely to break. World Champion Hill lasted less than a lap, otherwise this might have been a more intense race.
Apart from that, there were such antics as some excellent model aeroplane flying, the ascent of Duckham’s hydrogen balloon “Venus”, a band of H.M. Royal Marines, and a flying display, for mere motor racing on its own isn’t enough for the customers, these days. The Group 4 sports-car race went on too long but there was interest when Redman poked past Bonnier, both driving Lola T70s, five laps form the end. Having to return to Wales that evening as my eldest daughter was getting married the next day (to show that we still applaud Issigonisism, she afterwards left for France in an Austin-Cooper), I did not wait for the saloon-car race. Which was just as well, because we had to make several detours to avoid some monumental traffic jams on the journey.
So that was Easter 1969. Nothing like as exciting as the runs the Continental Correspondent is accustomed to, and about which he writes in his Letters from Europe, but a fair slice of British-style motoring. When I returned the gentlemanly Rover V8 to its makers it had covered 1,324 miles since I took over and, although driven at times in a by no means gentlemanly fashion, it gave better than 21 m.p.g. and did not need any oil for the duration of the holiday.–W. B.