Five famous cars shared fifty-six cylinders between them when the Deputy Editor went testing at Silverstone.
WHEN Vic Norman organised a private test day on the Silverstone Grand Prix circuit for a number of his historic car owning friends and customers of his Rosso Racing company, he very kindly invited me along, with the bait that I might be able to persuade myself behind the wheels of sonic of the mouth-watering machinery assembled. Thanks indeed then to Vic, Nick Mason, Michael NeiIan and Steve O’Rourke, who so generously loaned the cars described in these pages, to make a fascinating day’s testing. Alas, Vic’s lightweight Maserati 250F, Fangio’s Argentine and Buenos Aires Grands Prix winner, succumbed to a misfire before I could drive it and a big black cloud relieved itself over Silverstone to prevent a promised drive in Robert Home’s record-breaking Ferrari 512. Earlier the sight and sound of this and Nigel Chiltern-Hunt’s 512 circulating line astern was enough to set ablaze the heart of any red-blooded Ferrari enthusiast. The following isn’t by way of a proper track test, just a few impressions and details of a collection of magnificent cars.
First on the list came Nick Mason’s outstanding Bugatti Type 35B. This isn’t a car with a history, being something of a melange of parts, but it must be one of the finest examples extant of the supercharged, straight-eight Grand Prix car which made Bugatti dominant in motor racing in the late 1920s. Mason acquired it literally as a box of bits accompanied by an original chassis which appeared to have been unused. The consequent build project by Tula Engineering, then of Harpenden, now of North Cerney, near Cirencester, took five years, culminating last autumn. Vital parts missing or unusable which had to be manufactured included the pair of four-cylinder blocks, crankcase and the crankshaft, the last item machined from a steel billet by Gordon Allen, “The Crankshaft Man of Slough” (see Motor Sport, March 1974). This ‘shaft runs in three two-row ball races and two split roller races, with a sixth thrust race at its rear end and carries roller bigend bearings. The live rear axle and hollow-tube front axle are original, as are the Roots “blower”, Zenith triple-diffuser carburetter and cam box. The aluminium body is new and the horseshoe radiator a re-cored genuine article. A set of new 19 in. cast-alloy wheels, part of a batch specially made for the Bugatti Owners’ Club, is fitted for circuit use, the fragile, original, detachable rim wheels retained for less arduous pursuits.
I was more than a little apprehensive about driving this French racing blue gem in view of its value and imagined temperament and idiosyncrasies. But who could refuse a chance to try the racing car which typifies probably more than any other the romance of pre-war motor racing? Tula’s Richard l’Anson ministered to the starting handle, the ignition lever in the dash beneath the SEV magneto set on full retard, then shifted down its saw-tooth gate to full advance as the 2.3-litre 60 mm. x 100 mm. eight-cylinder, SOHC, three-valves-per-cylinder engine rasped crisply to an accompanying fragrance of Castro! R and “boot-polish”.
This nominally 1927 Grand Prix car proved much easier to understand than its daunting cockpit, full of brass fuel taps, hand pumps and bared gearbox, suggested. There were only three instruments to watch (ignoring the clock), the tachometer, driven by a belt from the magneto driveshaft, “huile” gauge and fuel pressure gauge, the needle of the last instrument kept in the right area by an occasional pump of the handle in the left of the aluminium dash. Another big, wooden-handled lever on the left controls a pump for topping up the wet sump from a tank under the mechanic’s seat, unnecessary in short vintage races or my few laps.
The outside gearlever slots through the body to a positive alloy gate. A button in the top of the lever controls a reverse gear lock-out. The peculiar gear pattern goes thus:
Another peculiarity I discovered was the pedal arrangement. They are in conventional order, not with a central throttle pedal as I had expected, and are extraordinarily close together. A big brake pedal has a roller-type throttle to its right and to the left . . . well, I had to look twice for the clutch pedal, a little instrument tucked away in the brake pedal’s shadow. There was insufficient room between the brake pedal and the gearbox shaft cover to deploy the ball of my foot: the art seemed to be to keep the toes perched over the clutch and stamp downwards the mere inch or so of movement clutch withdrawal required.
The crash gearbox was easily mastered, thanks to the so light and positive gearchange. Instructions from Mason were to bang the lever through quickly on the upward changes, usually accompanied by the merest mechanical grunt, and double-declutch on the way down, sweetness itself. In fact once under way on the Grand Prix circuit, only third and fourth were required. The close-knit pedals made heeling and toeing a little awkward, even with racing boots — tiny feet must have been a definite asset for Bugatti Grand Prix drivers.
The commanding view over the high scuttle, through the tiny Brooklands screen along the meticulously louvred bonnet to the spindly 5 in. x 19 in. Dunlop, steered by a huge, wood-rimmed wheel, said everything about the contrast between the 1927 Grand Prix car and the current aerodynamic devices.
W.B. has said much about straight-eight engines recently: that in the Type 35B was surely the most successful of all, with an even better record than the Mercedes of the ’50s. Mason’s engine was a fine example, smooth and fastrevving up to its 5,500 r.p.m. limit, even in top, pulling willingly from 3,500 r.p.m. The Roots-type supercharger is constantly engaged so the rise in boost is progressive, unnoticeable to the driver. The glorious noise from the eight pots dominated almost every other sensation.
Fed on photographs of tail-sliding Bugattis I had expected this 35B to be tail-happy, yet it was pretty neutral most of the time, with much more grip than anticipated, the pointed end just beginning to shift under power on the slower exits. Modern surfaces and an ultra fast circuit bear no comparison with contemporary vintage circuits. The steering was heavy, but smooth and accurate and thc cable-operated brakes needed a fair old push to achieve very creditable, in-line stopping power from the big drums, integral with the alloy wheels. Silverstone’s smooth surface took out much of the kidney-shaking ride that stiff, leaf sprung suspension must have created for those vintage aces. All-in-all I enjoyed this Bugatti tremendously.
From a vintage Grand Prix car I switched to two of my favourite cars from the post-war period, a Ferrari short-wheelbase lightweight Berlinetta and its successor in Ferrari’s GT racing history, a 250GTO. I have written about both these cars previously in Motor Sport, Vic Norman’s lightweight Berlinetta (the prototype, chassis number 1539) in the November 1977 issue and Nick Mason’s GTO, third at Le Mans in 1962, briefly in the March, 1979 issue. To have them both lying there together at Silverstone seemed too good an opportunity to miss to compare the changes Ferrari development brought. They were as chalk and cheese, the GTO’s handling so much more responsive, particularly when turning into corners, and better balanced. The Berlinetta’s steering felt quite low-geared. Even though a more restrictive exhaust system had cropped some power off the GTO since I last drove it, its more powerful version of the 3-litre, SOHC V12 gave it a lot more urge than the SWB Berlinetta and its five-speed ‘box a gear for every situation, though to be fair the four-speed SWB was running a low final drive ratio. The SWB brakes were suffering from non-availability of the correct front pads, but the GTO’s weren’t all that brilliant either.
From these classic Ferrari racing GTs of the early sixties, it seemed a logical step to shift next to a 1972 Group 4 racing Ferrari Daytona, proffered generously by its current owner, West End fashion house proprietor Michael Neilan. Chassis number 15681, this is the tenth of 16 special competition Daytonas laid down by the factory for the 1972 season after the success of the NART Daytona in the 1971 Le Mans race. This one went straight to Col. Ronnie Hoare for the Maranello Concessionaires team, for whom Westbury/Hine/Konig drove it at Le Mans in 1972. Five Daytonas finished fifth to ninth, but this wasn’t one of them: it broke a piston in the early stages. It did better in the Kyalami 9-hour race, winning Group 4 and finishing 12th overall driven by Sytner/Brown. For the 1973 Le Mans 24-hour race it adopted the yellow livery of new owners JCB and had been up to 11th overall, driven by Green/Corner/Moores, before the transaxle broke on the Sunday morning. Green/Corner finished sixth overall and third in Group 4 in that year’s Le Mans 4-hour race, however. JCB laid-up this Daytona at the end of the ’73 season, until it was sold to Geoffrey Marsh in 1976. He rebuilt it and repainted it in original Maranello Concessionaires livery. Richard Bond had a few outings with it in ’77/78 and Michael Neilan bought it from Marsh last year.
Obvious modifications shared by this and the other Group 4 Daytonas are the big wheel arches and 9 in. wide front, it in. rear, rims. Less apparent, the 4.4-litre, four-cam V12 engines give anything up to 440 b.h.p. thanks to larger exhaust valves and 512-type camshafts, pistons and con.-rods. Ferrari removed the brake servos and fitted special calipers to accommodate extra-thick pads, capable of lasting seven hours at Le Mans. The interiors have minimal trim, roll-over bars and none of the standard luxuries like electric windows and air-conditioning.
Michael Neilan drives this very fast machine on the road when suitably silenced (though he does have a standard Daytona as well), which denotes how tractable it is. Not surprisingly it felt much heavier to handle than the earlier Ferraris, the wheel being required to turn fat Michelin “slicks” which gave adhesion unheard of when the SWB Berlinetta and 250GTO were built. Just as noticeable was the advance in braking, the Daytona’s being superb, and needing to be, because I kept missing third gear thanks to a gear selection problem. In the end I stuck to fourth and fifth all the way round, thus demonstrating the torque of this big V12, which revved almost as happily to its 7,000 r.p.m. maximum as the smaller V12s. In spite of stupendous performance, this Daytona felt a very safe and forgiving car, save at the fast Maggotts left-hander, where its rear end lurched disconcertingly.
I can’t say that I enjoyed Steve O’Rourke’s Modsports V12 E-type so much, through no fault of the car: Steve is tall, I am not and the seat was fixed … I could barely turn the heavy steering at arms stretch nor depress the pedals fully and to cap it all it was raining, with this Jaguar’s paws slickly shod. Enough said then about driving impressions, save that it is shatteringly quick in a straight line, as you would expect from well over 450 b.h.p. in less than a ton. This is the Modsports E-type which Guy Beddington campaigned for several years. Since O’Rourke acquired it last year it has been totally rebuilt and revised by E-type specialist Michael Cane. Two hundredweight has been trimmed off, partially by fitting an aluminium tail section, CanAm brakes came from the works Jaguar coupe programme and coil springs have been added to the front dampers to assist the torsion bars. Under-bonnet, Beddington’s TJ fuel-injection has been replaced by a battery of six Weber carburetters and various Cosworth bits have crept into the innards of the engine, which has been dry-sumped by Cane using his own design of sump and a Weaver pump. O’Rourke has shown some of this Jaguar’s new-found potential already this season and the combination should develop into a force to be reckoned with in Modsports.