A day at the museum
A new National Motor Museum exhibition celebrates motor sport in all its guises
Stirling Moss seems to get everywhere – and I say that envying his stamina. But he was undoubtedly the right person to perform ribbon-cutting duties at the National Motor Museum’s new motor sport gallery as he had driven several of the cars on display. He shared the honour with the equally indefatigable Murray Walker, after the pair conducted not so much a Q&A exercise as an entertaining story-swapping session in the museum’s packed lecture hall. It focused on Moss’s career and I was surprised to hear Stirling assert that a C-type would be quicker than a D over a twisty circuit. Then Murray asked what had attracted Stirling to rallying. Answer: “£50!”
Titled A Chequered History, the new exhibition splits into two layers, one about Grand Prix racing that stretches from the 1912 Coupe de l’Auto Sunbeam (in front of the absolutely massive trophy it brought back) to Kimi Räikkönen’s 2012 Lotus E20 via such as Bugatti T35, V16 BRM and Tyrrell 001. Film and interactive displays expand the story, along with race suits and driver helmets of seven world champions.
Down below, the Road, Race and Rally section features rally cars including a Blomqvist Audi Quattro and a Vatanen Escort, one of the handful of Ford GT70s – it looks like a kit car – and an RS200. I still remember driving one on the road and being amazed not just by performance and grip but by the super-supple ride. That would make a sensational entry for something like Tour Britannia, now it has its Targa category for younger cars.
Other competition cars cover sports and formula racing: Cooper 500, trials cars, the Bolster Special ‘Bloody Mary’, Spa 24 Hours-winning BMW 320, Jaguar XJR-8, the Allard dragster – a wide spread, surrounded by more photos and memorabilia, some of it from Williams’ and McLaren’s own collections. There’s even a ‘start-up area’ where visitors can see cars being worked on and hear them come to life, as chief engineer Doug Hill proved with a melodious blast from the NMM’s supercharged Bentley 4½.
Along with the recent Land Speed Record gallery, this is a fine excuse for a return visit to Beaulieu if you haven’t been down in a while.
Drama at the track
A forgotten film recaptures some of the atmosphere of Brooklands in the 1930s
While making a ‘quota quickie’ B-movie around motor racing in 1935, I doubt the makers imagined their sensationally titled Death Drives Through would resurface 80 years later. But it has been released on DVD in the engrossing Ealing Rarities series and though packed with awful acting, a dead script and those pregnant pauses once thought to display intense emotion, it repays a look because of the footage filmed at Brooklands.
The plot (written by a young John Huston) involves a plucky and talented driver who has also invented a clever transmission and stirs up established racers with his ‘Lark’ special. Taken up by ‘Lord Motors’ he gets a works car that looks remarkably like a 2.3 Alfa, in which he beats everyone including the baddie, his jealous team-mate.
All this happens at Brooklands, including some surprisingly well filmed on-board footage and much assorted racing on the banking in which I could spot the Napier-Railton, 10½-litre Delage, a ‘flatiron’ which could be Frank Ashby’s Riley 9, Type 35 Bugatti, Mercedes SS, Amilcar, and scads of Austin and Riley specials. There are wonderful atmosphere scenes in the paddock, too, and on the airfield when love interest ‘Chili’ Bouchier takes the hero for a flight in her DH Gypsy Moth.
‘Chili’ was hot news in the 1920s, Britain’s answer to Clara Bow, and Brooklands’ Paul Stewart adds an amusing detail about her. Before being discovered she worked at Harrods, only to be dismissed for going out with another staff member. Several decades later, when she was still on stage, Mohamed Al-Fayed invited her back to the shop and apologised with flowers.
Chili also appeared in another film set at the Surrey track, called The King’s Cup, about the air race of that name; it has been lost over the years and Brooklands would love to hear from anyone with information – or a copy.
Death offers buckets of period detail – I liked the scene in the Racing Drivers Club, a lavish nightspot equipped with a four-lane slot racing track on which our hero crashes his slot car, prefiguring a terrible accident. For this the director chose to use actual footage of Clive Dunfee’s fatal accident when his car went over the top, and it’s a bit grisly, though viewing how he handled another crash using shapeless animated cars you can sense his difficult choice.
Paul tells me that the wooden lead, Robert Douglas, went on to direct Columbo and Fame on television, while Chili acted until her eighties, in the 1980s. Death Drives Through can’t have been her proudest moment, but it makes an enjoyable hour for Track atmosphere.
And it comes with three other forgotten Ealing B-movies too.
Check your paperwork – you could save money on your classic
Don’t forget that the new rolling car tax exemption is now in force, exempting any car more than 40 years old from road tax. If your cherished machine was built before January 1, 1975, it now escapes road tax, regardless of when it was first registered. But it’s up to you to ask DVLA to reclassify it as historic. If you are unsure of the exact build date and you own a British car, the Heritage Motor Centre’s Archive department at Gaydon can help. They have access to the build records of most UK manufacturers, and will trace your vehicle and issue a certificate. There is a fee, but your tax saving will almost certainly outweigh that… http://www.heritage-motor-centre.co.uk
Historic rallying loses a central figure with the death of the man who got it rolling
It was a shock to hear that Philip Young, who more or less created the sport of historic rallying, has died following an accident in Burma in February. Founder of the Endurance Rally Association, Philip was a big character, whose thick skin allowed him to bulldoze ambitious long-distance rallies through countries where diplomats feared to tread – Iran, Albania, Afghanistan. He was involved in a motorcycle crash just after seeing another triumph, the arrival of his Road to Mandalay event in Burma, or Myanmar, the first rally to enter that country.
I met Philip when he invited me to contest the first of these historic endurance events, the 1988 Pirelli Marathon, and I found a man driven by self-assurance and determination, and to hell with popularity. He refused to hear the word ‘no’ from politicians and border guards, which is how he managed to run so many complex events including Peking-Paris and a round-the world rally, still the longest ever. Though I had my arguments with him on events, I admired his bulldog tenaciousness, great knowledge of rallying history and fund of entertaining stories. He will leave a yawning gap in the rally world, but also a sporting legacy not only through the ERA and its broad portfolio of events but in the wider, thriving sport of historic rallying.