The famous Scottish team’s flagship has brought Paddocks to a halt since 1960. Gordon Cruickshank takes a look at this HGV’s impressive CV
Few teams have enjoyed such loyal patrons as Ecurie Ecosse. Privately funded by a selfeffacing benefactor and a desperately keen supporters’ club, it rode high on a tide of national pride to international success. One of the keys to this hearty support was its strong and visible identity — the unique blue livery and slick presentation brought by founder David Murray. And one of the best weapons in the publicity battle was VSG 7 — the Ecurie Ecosse transporter.
Striking and adventurous, this doubledecker hauler hit the paddocks of 1960 like a UFO, and was quickly immortalised by Corgi as the model every little boy wanted for Christmas. It only carried Ecosse cars for a few years, and those well after the days of Le Mans triumph, yet it remains a symbol of the little team’s style. And against the odds, the most famous race transporter of all not only survives but once again carries Ecurie Ecosse cars to meetings across Europe. Charming and passionate, Murray drained his own accountancy and wine businesses as well as cajoling funds out of anyone who stood still too long in the paddock.
By 1959 his two converted coaches were weary; he wanted a sleek three-car vehicle which would fly the Ecosse flag, and he set about persuading people to pay for it. Helped by the very active Ecurie Ecosse Association, he pulled in deals and sponsorship from many sources, including the dealer who supplied the Commer chassis. Even building it was a back-door job. Murray happened to be friends with the boss of Alexanders, commercial bus and van coachbuilders, who offered to slide the vehicle in alongside the paying projects. It was sheer luck that their flamboyant chief designer, Selby Howgate, had aeronautical training and was a Bentley-owning car enthusiast Here was a project which excited his creative juices, and he gave it bold lines which lifted it far above the average truck.
From its beetle brows to its upswept tail fins, it had a degree of flair unmatched even in Formula One. According to ..a colleague of his, quoted by Graham Gauld, Howgate’s inspiration for the upswept tail was a fish, the most streamlined form in nature, though its practical benefit is actually to conceal the ramp lifters. If anyone had been counting, his constant revisions would have cost a fortune; as it was, there were more people working on this moonlighter than on anything else. Soon the company accountant got twitchy about how to account for all these man-hours; the solution was to label it as one of a current run ofjobs. That’s how this blue bombshell began life as ‘Bread van no140’. Constructed on a coach chassis, it used Commer’s wild TS3 engine design, a supercharged 4.2-litre flat two-stroke with three bores but six pistons, each pair going head to head in a shared combustion chamber. Drive comes from the outer ends, via meaty rocker-arms and con-rods back to a central crankshaft underneath. Power was a lowly 114bhp, but the extensive torque peaked at 1250rpm. With a crawler first and five other (non-synchro) ratios, it made a complex but strong power unit easily able to haul three racing cars over the Alps to Monza.
Downstairs there was room for one car behind plus a small workshop and a couple of bunks. Above, on the terrace, space for two cars ‘al fresco’, with an elevating ramp lifted by cables pulled by a hydraulic ram under the floor. By today’s standards it was not luxurious — no air-con, icebox, or even power steering — and you had to unbolt a seat to check the oil. But it was a hell of an advance on the two old buses.
Its first appearance came at Charterhall on 29 May 1960, and immediately it was the talk of the tracks. Through the early Sixties it became a mobile mascot for the popular team. It only carried D-types to a few meets, as by 1960 the Jags were obsolete and the last was sold in December that year From then on, the team ran a Cooper Monaco and the custom-designed Tojeiro coupes. Sometime around 1967, during another cash crisis when Murray’s personal financial troubles forced him to flee to the Canaries, the vehicle moved on. Neil Corner bought it and used it regularly until 1971, still in EE blue but with his name on the side. Racer and restorer Tony Merrick worked for Corner at the time, and often drove it: “Noisy and slow, but it always caused a stir.”
Coming back from a meeting with R4D and Corner’s Maserati 250F up top, Merrick pulled up at a traffic light and glanced at the rig’s reflection in a shop window. “I thought, ‘Hang on, they’re touching!’ So I jumped out, climbed on top and discovered that two ally tie-downs had fractured. The only thing holding the ERA on was that it had hit the Maserati’s tail and holed it, and a nut on the steering idler was caught.”
Despite these adventures, Merrick bought the big blue bus from Corner in 1971 and used it for a year or so, reinstating the EE sign writing. “But an open vehice wasn’t practical for delivering customer’s cars,” so in 1972 he passed it on to EE fan Campbell McLaren. When the latter was disposing of his collection in the mid-Eighties, including the transporter, the Jaguar Drivers’ Club became interested and asked Roger Ludgate to inspect it. Roger, one of Lynx’s founders, recalls, “I was horrified to discover they wanted to cut the back off and make it a sales kiosk for their merchandise.” Instead he decided somebody had to save it — so he took it on himself
For a while he used it to take friends’ cars to meetings at nearby Brands Hatch, but its condition was deteriorating. “It smelt like a church crypt; someone had fibreglassed its leaky roof, but it was rotting away underneath.” Finally he removed the roof and made a new aluminium panel and, with the help of a friend with commercial vehicle experience, overhauled the chassis and running gear. “The engines were made in nearby Maidstone by Tilling-Stevens, and I knew one of their engineers. He checked out the engine, and also gave me a lead to a spare, which I tracked down to the fifth floor of a docklands office; we had to lower it down on the building’s Victorian hoist.” Now serviceable, but bare of paint and fittings, the Commer’s restoration stalled, a victim of its sheer size. “I would have finished it,” says Roger, “WI could have got it into my building. We built a sort of plastic igloo over it for protection, but no-one wanted to work on it there, out of doors.”
That’s how things lay in 1992 when Dick Skipworth came on the scene. Having added an Ecurie Ecosse C-type to his Lynx D, the enthusiastic racer already had a strong interest in the Scottish team. Though Ludgate was in no hurry to sell his prize, he had recently had a tempting offer from Holland. “But I knew we’d never see it again. They were offering more money, but I felt Dick was the right owner for it.”
In October 1992, the huge machine was winched onto a low-loader and delivered to Lynx’s Worthing base, where even their large workshop struggled to cope; they removed a staircase to fit it in. Some hard-worn areas such as the tail valance needed new metal, and some of the ash frame was rotten, but most of the aluminium panels were sound; however, the rivets had gone brittle which meant drilling out and replacing. Thousands of them. Before long, five people were working on the vehicle.
Yards of dubious wiring were replaced, and the hydraulics recommissioned. Sadly the original winch was too corroded to keep — it had come from a Wellington bomber and bore the date 1945. A modem electric unit now hauls cars up the steep ramps, with improved locking devices to keep the cargo in place. Very wise, given today’s values.
Ludgate already had the motor running, and the bus chassis was essentially sound. Brakes were refurbished but not updated — they just about cope with its 58mph cruise. Spares are naturally rare now, but Lynx’s John Hay once worked on commercial vehicles and knew where to find replacements and how to look after the completed project.
After a trip to a local commercial vehicle paint shop able to handle a 29ft 10in billboard, reassembly began. In stripping the vehicle, Ludgate had carefully retained the parts down to the lights, bumpers, trim, even the ignition keys and the documents, so most of what you see is what arrived at Merchiston Mews in 1960. (What you see through is new — Ludgate had the potentially dangerous plate glass replaced with laminated.) In order to fit an awning, Lynx neatly fitted a slide channel in place of one trim strip. It’s almost invisible, yet allows for a covered race-prep area — this machine does work for a living. There’s little concession to modernity in the cab: the dash has been repainted in the same spartan flat black as before, carrying the original dials; the 41-year-old seats have been recovered, and instead of hi-fl and air-con there’s a Sixties radio and the Commer heater. Luxurious it’s not. But they have added a cigarette lighter — not for a quick Marlboro but to charge a phone.
Only in the back room are things different. Instead of a small workshop with bench and vice, Skipworth felt the vehicle should be more hospitable in its new life. Now you can rest on an upholstered bench and enjoy the benefits of a cooker, sink and fridge, all clad in marine mahogany — appropriate, as Skipworth is a keen sailor. It’s restrained and tasteful, in tune with its Sixties surroundings.
It required five solid months’ work, but Skipworth now has a practical vehicle which is a show-stopper wherever it goes. And it goes everywhere: “We’ve been to Monaco, three times to Copenhagen, Scotland four times, including a visit to Merchiston Mews. The only drama was shedding a piston coming back from Le Mans. We were towed to Calais at 70mph — that’s the fastest it’s ever gone!” Ludgate’s spare engine saved the day.
“It’s a lovely old thing to drive,” says its fond owner. “Apart from the brakes — there’s very little engine braking with a two-stroke. But it’s quite economical — around 18mpg.” Not bad for 30ft of mobile multi-storey car park.