Speed

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Some personal landmarks

I do not remember when I became obsessed with speed, but it must have been at a very early age, and I have no idea why. It was not due to family influence or environmental influence, but speed and racing attracted me long before my parents bought me my first pedal cycle. I had already found a lock-up garage within walking distance of my home in which two lads were preparing a 2-stroke DOT motorcycle for grass-track racing, and the total lack of frills and road-equipment, plus the knobbly tyres on this simple machine fired my imagination as I peered through the open door as they worked away. As soon as I got a pedal cycle it had an imaginary twist-grip and a piece of cardboard stuck in the front brake caliper so that the spokes, hit as they went by, made a lovely “engine” noise. The faster I pedalled the more exciting the noise and my imaginary twist-grip was “up against the stop”.

The next “accesssory” I acquired was a speedometer driven off the front wheel and with a friend I made up a test-rig on the kitchen table and calibrated it more accurately than the production dial, using a borrowed stop-watch and rev-counter. I don’t think my long-suffering parents really understood what we were up to as one of us wound furiously on the pedal crank and the other applied the counter to the tyre and operated the stop-watch; optimistically we calibrated it up to 50 m.p.h. The next move was to borrow a tandem bicycle, to which we fitted our corrected speedometer and with my friend Frank on the back we soon found we could knock up 25 m.p.h. down the slightest slope and that was the first speed landmark passed. We reached a terminal of about 43 m.p.h. down the 1 in 9 slope of Westerham Hill on the North Downs in Kent, which was exhilarating, even if the long slog back up again was hard work.

After 25 m.p.h. came double that figure, 50 m.p.h. I had been in an express train by this time, which in those far off days attained the remarkable speed of 60 m.p.h., but that didn’t count as the car and motorcycle were the only things that really meant anything in my life. Eventually 50 m.p.h. came up on an old-fashioned strip or ribbon-type speedometer on a four-seater Rugby touring car in which I was being taken on holiday by a friend of the family.

Obviously 75 m.p.h. was the next goal and this came up with a friend in his Matchless engined Morgan 3-wheeler down the long slope across Ashdown Forest in Sussex. It was made more memorable because we ran out of petrol just as we reached our terminal speed. In the far distance we could see a garage and petrol pumps but the question was “could we stop in time”. If we overshot we were going to have to push the Moggy back up the hill, so while Geoff applied the footbrake as hard as he could I hauled on the handbrake with both hands. We swerved into the garage forecourt with everything on, but unfortunately the surface was loose gravel, so all three wheels locked up and we slid helplessly past the pumps. By sheer luck we stopped about a foot from the fence at the end of the forecourt and we didn’t try to explain to the garage man what that was all about!

The target of 100 m.p.h. was another matter altogether. Three-figures, or the ton, as 100 m.p.h. was known in the late nineteen-thirties was only for the gods. There was virtually no production car that would attain this magic figure and the only sports cars that would do this were expensive race-bred models. Today any self-respecting family hatch-back or Eurobox will see 100 m.p.h., but in those days the equivalent family car did about 67 m.p.h. if they were good ones, and a bare 60 m.p.h. if they were mediocre specimens. By 1939 I had got a part-time job as mechanic to a man racing Alta cars, a 1 1/2-litre single-seater and a 2-litre sports model. The sports Alta was supercharged, running on petrol-benzoic fuel and was always driven to race meetings, so if I wasn’t being towed in the single-seater there was a chance to ride in the 2-litre and that accelerated up to 100 m.p.h. very easily and it was very exciting.

The war years put a curb on opportunities for speed on the road, and speed in the air was of little interest, so it was not until 1950 that I saw the next obvious landmark, which was 125 m.p.h. This was at the Nurburgring where my Belgian friend Marcel Masuy was racing an all-enveloping Veritas sports car powered by a methanol-burning BMW 328 engine. During practice he said “come for a lap” and without screen, goggles or crash-hat I leapt in and we were away. This was before Germany was allowed back into FIA International racing, and as neighbouring Belgians we were allowed to compete in Germany before the rest of the world. That Veritas was very quick for a 2-litre sports car and we did an easy 125 m.p.h. along the undulating straight from Dottinger-Hohe back to the start. Nobody was perturbed about a competitor taking a passenger round during official practice — happy days of freedom.

It was an equally happy time of freedom that the next landmark was passed. This was in 1954 in the HWM-Jaguar with George Abecassis while “testing” before the Mille Miglia. We took a blast up the Brescia-Milano Autostrada and the HWM with its tweaked-up “works” Le Mans engine went straight up to 150 m.p.h. and sat there for rninutes on end, until Abecassis felt it was “going all right”. The Mille Miglia race round the roads of Italy offered wonderful opportunities for undiluted speed for mile after mile and in 1955 a nice round 175 m.p.h. landmark was passed with Stirling Moss in the Mercedes-Benz 300 SLR sports cars. Its ultimate speed was actually 177 mph.

Having reached 175 m.p.h. the only possible next landmark was 200 m.p.h. but regrettably that never came up for opportunities never came and “civilisation” and “safety” began to obsess the minds of those who control our destinies and the freedom of the open road disappeared. I managed 180 m.p.h. in the big 4 1/2-litre V8 Maserati and rides in potential 200 m.p.h. cars like the Porsche 917 and Porsche 935, as well as Can-Am cars came along, but never anywhere where the ultimate maximum could be exploited. I did once do 200 m.p.h. above the A11 road on the way to Snetterton with Jim Clark in his Piper Twin Comanche, but that did not count. Clark agreed with me that it would have been more fun doing (hopefully) 200 m.p.h. past Lakenheath, Instead of over it, in a Lotus 40. Unless somebody takes me round the Fiat Nardo test-track or across Bonneville Salt Flats I’m afraid my target of 200 m.p.h. is never going to be reached, which is just as well, for I would only want to do 225 m.p.h. after that and 250 m.p.h. after that.

I think it was Sir Henry Segrave who used the expression “the endless quest for speed” and he was absolutely right. I look at Stirling and Phil Hill and think “you have driven the MG record breaker at 250 m.p.h.” and I used to look at dear old George Eyston as he poked around amongst the Formula 1 cars at Brands Hatch, and think “he has driven at 350 m.p.h.”. When I met Art Arfons my reaction was “here is a man who has been at 500 m.p.h. on land”. Craig Breedlove has been at 600 m.p.h. and Stan Barrett has been at 700 m.p.h. Speed is an obsession and I am happy to be obsessed by it. — D.S.J.