Letter from Spain

From DSJ to the Deputy Editor

Dear M.L.,

By now you will have come to the conclusion that D.S.J. is a mythical figure from whom reports, stories and articles arrive at Standard House by pigeon-post, railway trains, air-freight and even by telefax. You will have failed to find his office desk or telephone or even the space in the Motor Sport office where he should be, for the simple reason that way back in 1953 when he gave up motorcycle racing as a profession and tried to become a full-time journalist he explained to the management that he did not want an office desk at Motor Sport as it would be too obvious when he was not there! By sending a letter to the Editor every now and then he vaguely kept in touch with what was going on, but changing times and conditions eventually saw the need for such letters diminish. The roving reporter was still moving, but by different means and in different places and it looked as if the circumstances might force him to settle down, but the moment passed and he is still roving, writing reports and articles in hotel rooms, airport lounges, car parks, by the roadside and sometimes at home, thanks to modern air travel.

Over the past few years people have asked why I do not drive about Europe all the time now, like I used to; there are probably 10 reasons, which I will not go into now, but one of them is that air travel allows me to do many more things than just living the world of Grand Prix racing, and though I am writing this in sunny Spain during the Spanish GP, during the week before the event I was able to indulge in some activities that help me to keep a sense of proportion.

The weekend was a busy one, with Saturday at the old Goodwood Circuit in Sussex for a test-day, and Sunday at a hill-climb in the Wild Lite Park at Cricket St Thomas in Somerset, but to fulfill both engagements meant a lot of pre-weekend work and planning. All was progressing well with the preparation of my motorcycle hill-climb special (a 650 cc twin cylinder Bitza) and it was just about ready for starting up when a tiresome oil leak developed, and due to the constricted space in the frame caused by squeezing a Triumph engine and Norton gearbox into a heavily modified BSA frame, it meant taking the whole lot out to fix the leak. Anyway, by Friday lunch-time it was all back together, it fired-up beautifully at the first push and by Friday evening it was ready for loading on the trailer and all the tools and the kitchen sink were ready to go into the Fiat Estate tow-car.

Saturday morning saw a splendid run down to Goodwood, taking in the superb road near Petersfield that would do justice to a European Hill-Climb Championship round if only Hampshire would allow us to close the roads, and we also took in South Harting Hill, where hillclimbs used to take place prior to 1924 when you could close public roads for speed events. The object of the Goodwood visit was to see a section of the 750 Motor Club at play, and to sample some of the cars. It was the 750 Motor Club which kept us all together during the dark days of 1939-45 in the war when all motor sport stopped, though a number of people at Goodwood were quick to point out that Motor Sport didn’t stop during those years and WB kept our sport alive in the magazine. The 750 Club began with enthusiasm for Austin 7 motoring, mainly because it was cheap and cars were plentiful, and there was plenty of scope for special-building and tuning. 750 cc racing developed after the war, as did the specials and the standard of design and technical ability within the club out-stripped the humble Austin side-valve engine. In recent years there has been a revival of interest within the club logo back to basics and to race Austin 7 specials again, not at the expense of present-day 750 cc racing, or Austin 7 preservation, but in addition to, and the Goodwood day was a preseason outing to give members and friends the opportunity to get things under way. The calendar for this branch of racing is a simple one of one race a month, giving six races at six different circuits, and as the racing is on handicap it means that anything goes, as long as it is basically Austin 7 and built within the spirit of the activity. I would imagine that if you have to ask what is meant by “in the spirit” you are in the wrong world, and should go to Formula Ford or some sort of Saloon Car racing.

There was a very good turn-out for the test-day with Austin 7 specials of all shapes and sizes, from brand new ones to old ones from the 750 Formula days of 1958, with a good supporting cast of road-going Austin 7 specials and standard Austin 7’s. I was able to drive a variety of cars round the circuit, thanks to the generosity of the owners, and it was a day of bubbling enthusiasm, with no big-business problems, no sponsorship or PR problems, no back-biting or jealousy, no sour-grapes, just everyone enjoying themselves and messing about with cars like Ratty and his “messing about in boats” in “Wind in the Willows”. The attitude of the owners and builders was marvellous, Dave Gregson, who had just completed the prettiest little Austin 7 special imaginable, based on a Grand Prix Delage, with the little SV Austin engine angled to the left to get the propshaft alongside the driving seat said, “Keep it down to about 4000-4500 rpm as it hasn’t run before and I’m still running-in.” Graham Harris who lent me his stripped out “box-saloon” devoid of all interior trim and all glass, merely said, “If you can get it up to 5000 rpm in third, I’ll be delighted, but I warn you, it’ll all die away if you change into top.” Tim Myall said, “Have a go in my special, there is no rev-counter, but don’t worry, I’ve got another engine if this one blows up.” When I enquired about the small brass pig mounted on the scuttle he explained that the car was known as the “PigSty Special” as they had found the chassis in a pigsty many years ago. It was a happy day among competition-minded enthusiasts.

At the end of the day it was a brisk drive back home, put the Porsche away, load the trailer and tow-car and to bed, ready for a 6 am start on Sunday morning for the drive down to Cricket St Thomas for the Taunton and Burnham-on-Sea Motor Club’s hill-climb to which the motorcycle hill-climb group are invited, to add to the entry list of saloon cars, GT cars, sports cars and road-equipped specials. This was another good day “just messing about with motorcycles” amid an equally happy-go-lucky bunch of enthusiasts as had been at Goodwood. While I have never aspired to winning anything in these motorcycle hill-climbs (apart from FTD by an OAP!) I enjoy the spirit of competition; in my case the competition is not to be last. This time, however, I scored an own goal by falling off, due to braking too late for a hairpin bend, arriving at the apex with the front brake still hard on, locking-up and doing a somersault over the bars. When I got back to the paddock the lads said, “What happened to you?” I explained that I over-did it and fell off and they said “Very undignified for a man of your age, you shouldn’t say you fell off, more that you toppled over.” Fortunately it was on my last run of the day so I only lost about 10 sec of my quota of unrestricted speed. Hill-climbing is a peculiar pastime for you spend maybe 30 hours in preparation, travel 200 miles, devote a 16 hour day to the event and ride or drive for less than 50 sec on each climb; if you are really good at it you only get 40 sec riding. You spend time, money and effort and the more successful you get the less time you spend on the car or bike. I’m sure we need psycho-analysing, but at least we are all in it together and we all enjoy it

The evening before flying out to Seville and driving down to the new F1 circuit at Jerez, I was able to make my weekly visit to our local jazz club for a restful evening listening to New Orleans jazz played in the old style. We have a number of amateur bands who play regularly and the interesting thing is that they all have players who read Motor Sport avidly. It wouldn’t be difficult to make up a Motor Sport Dixieland Jazzband, for we have readers on piano, double bass, trombone, clarinet, trumpet and drums among our regular visiting bands, though I’m not sure we have a banjo-player. We certainly have a lot of readers among the audience, and I suspect it is the same in any part of the country where there is a regular old-style jazz club.

As soon as the Spanish Grand Prix was over it was back to England, firstly to meet a man with some 300 interesting old photographs of prewar motor racing that I have not seen before, and then to the Vintage Sports Car Club’s April Silverstone to spend a couple of days with people who enjoy “messing about with old cars”. After that it is off to Europe for another Grand Prix. You can see why I do not need an office or a desk at Motor Sport.

Yours etc, D.S.J