Veteran Edwardian Vintage, May 1985

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A section devoted to old car matters

Vintage Racing Philosophy

The racing of the older motor cars is a very healthy sport, which gives enjoyment to many drivers and to a great many spectators who go to watch. But why do they do it? Originally, soon after the VSCC was formed, when this Club was quick to organise racing for pre-1931 cars, it was presumably, if only partly, because such racing was comparatively inexpensive. This no longer applies in the same degree, especially where the 1950s Racing Cars are involved. I rather think you could race, say, a 750 Formula or FF1600 car for the same, or less, outlay than racing, for instance, a 250F Maserati or similar. So what is the psychology behind vintage and historic racing? One might presume to think that basically it is a desire to live in the past, preparing and driving the sort of machinery the participant used to read about or see in action at Brooklands and other historic circuits a long time ago, or in a very few cases as an extension of racing he took part in, some twenty or more years ago. That is a worthy reason and vintage racing must give much enjoyment to those of this mind, cast in such a role. I know one keen ERA driver who, when he is waved through the gates of Silverstone during VSCC race meetings, is I am sure looking down the straight and almost persuading himself he is back at Brooklands, — or when he is at Oulton Park, that he is about to compete at a pre-war Donington Park Meeting. And why not?

Nostalgia, I am told, is a terribly overused term, but a love of, and an affinity with, the past is no shameful thing. The Brooklands Reunions have shown that lots of people, not necessarily dyed-in-the-methanol enthusiasts, like flocking there once a year to see pre-war cars and motorcycles assemble, as they did long ago, at a hallowed motor-racing place either remembered or read about. If such cars and bikes can break into song and be seen, if only briefly, on the scarred banking of so many memories (the runway isn’t strictly authentic), so very much the better. . . One must assume. though. that the whole point of racing a vintage car is to capture. to the best of the owner’s ability the atmosphere of the when his car was a proud new entry — to re-live if possible what it was like to drive it anger in those now far-away days. To make this at all possible it seems logical that all parts of the car, whether a humble A7 or a £50,000 Historic Racing Car, and whether an original or a copy, should be as closely as possible as they were in pre-war or appropriate times.

In this respect, perhaps an aeronautical analogy may help to put things in perspective. The original Avro 504 or a Sopwith Camel would have had a rotary engine. This called for very different control tactics than later aeroplanes powered with radial engines. For instance, the Gnome Monosoupape rotary engine ran either at full throttle or not at all. It was persuaded to run by judicious use of a fuel lever, which controlled the mixture that was going into the engine, and by blipping an ignition cut-out button on the top of the joy-stick. As the height and speed, even the pressure in the petrol tank, affected the strength of the mixture, the fuel lever, or ‘fine adjustment’ control as it was called, required constant attention. Moreover, the rotating cylinders flung back liberal doses of castor-oil over the cowlings and pilot and forever there was the acrid aroma of this burnt castor-oil from the Mono engine. With a radial engine things were quite different, speed being variables under the control of a normal carburetter, throttle, and the oil normally being decently contained.

So, if someone steeped in old flying lore, in the fortunate position of being able to restore to flying order an Avro 504 or a Sopwith Pup or Camel, was able to install a rotary engine one presumes he would do so. It well might not be possible, in which case radial would have to do. But obviously much of the atmosphere of the early days, would be lost, whether our aeroplane restorer was hoping to experience what or was like to dog-fight in WW1 in a Sopwith Fighter or take people up for barn-storming joy-rides as in the 1920s, in an Avro. In the, same idiom, changing things about in vintage and historic racing cars must reduce the chance of discovering what similar cars were like to race in former times..

It might be possible to fit a crash gearbox, to an ERA but the driver of such a car would be then handling something different from the ERAs that Mays, Bira, Walker, Dobson and the rest ran before the war and which to the ERA Club’s lasting credit are still raced in mainly original form today. Why, then, do some owners of vintage cars mess than about before competing with them at the very meetings where a love of the past. and, forgive me, nostalgia, is supposed to count, for something? Kenneth Neve, for one must have a pretty good idea of how Burgess, Tuck and Wright must have felt when driving a 1914 TT Humber in the 1914 loM race. Others, who fit larger carburetters, bigger brakes, more modern shock-absorbers and the like to their old cars, have departed from such an exact comprehension of what it was like to race in such cars when they were new.

So why do people do it? Could it be that winning has become of more concern to them than recapturing, and recreating for others, a whiff of the old days? If you stiffen a chassis frame, convert brakes from cable to hydraulic operation, alter the layout of a dashboard even, your races in such a car must differ in some degree from those of a driver from a past age. As no circuit remains exactly as it was then, it could he said that I am splitting hairs, yet surely most of the purpose behind running an old vehicle is a liking for the past and the hope, however faint, of recapturing a bit of it? Quite drastic modifying of an old car used for vintage and historic racing seems to me to flaunt this ideal, presumably in the interests of going faster and hopefully getting some “gongs”. In which case, why not go in for “proper” racing, in anything from a 750 Formula car to an F3 projectile? Rumour hints at non-original rods and camshafts, even later engines in entirety, getting into vintage machinery, and although the handicappers can take account of this, not all short VSCC races are handicap affairs, as was the case at Brooklands. It may be the greatest fun to create, let us imagine, a go faster A7 with frame flexion reduced, more power from the engine, and overheating ingeniously obviated on the start-line. But will that convey to its occupant what Dodson, Driscoll, Goodacre, Hadley and Kay Petre had to contend with in the racing A7s of the mid-1930s?

And those who fit hydraulic brakes to cars that didn’t have them before the war might remember that, apart from the Duesenberg that won the 1921 French GP (the exception that proves the rule), racing cars did not use this form of brake operation universally until 1935, and that hydraulic shock absorbers in GP racing were a novelty (by Mercedes-Benz) in 1937. A driver going into a corner, any fast corner, in a car with cable brakes, friction shock-absorbers and a three speed gearbox must have found things different, to a smaller or greater extent, surely than a driver racing with hydraulic anchors, telescopic dampers, a close-ratio four-speed gearbox, and on larger-section tyres of modern rubber-mixes, if I make my point! And think, too, of those competing VSCC sports cars which are quite unlike anything pre-war spectators remember and which can only confuse students of motoring history!

Maybe, as vintage racing is so enjoyable anyway, it doesn’t really matter? But I thought I would mention it. — W.B.

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