Before the first flag fell at the Members’ Meeting there was a frenzy of preparation. We visited one prep firm as the big day approached
Every race preparation firm goes into overdrive as the season’s first races loom, but now that Lord March has created another plum date, this time before spring has fully sprung, the deadline has leapt forward. High-profile outings used to be in May or June so that earlier meets provided a shakedown, but this kick-start to the season means historic racers now have to hit the ground revving.
You’ll already have enjoyed the Members’ Meeting in person or streamed on the Motor Sport website when you read this, but all that excitement only happened after the intense effort of thousands of people in dozens of establishments around the country. Before the first race grid could form up, anxious owners were calling up stressed preparers all over Britain to check their precious mounts would be ready, while transporters were cleaned and fuelled ready to head for Sussex bearing glistening race cars worth millions of pounds.
In the run-up we thought we’d raise the pressure by picking one of these firms and sticking our lenses into the workshop as the days ticked away. Our choice was Herts-based Blakeney Motorsport, who fettle and field anything from vintage specials to ’70s touring cars, often at the same meeting. They took eight cars to Sussex – there was a dramatic Blakeney 1-2 as the boss’s GN chased home the LSR Delage in the S F Edge event.
If you’ve watched a tall, narrow saloon with a Frazer Nash radiator towering over vintage rivals round Castle Combe or Donington, then you’ve seen Patrick Blakeney-Edwards enjoying himself. Owlet, as the device is called (look at it from behind and you’ll see why) is his careful recreation of a 1928-built car whose body was later destroyed. The original chassis is in other hands with different body and engine, and Patrick’s first hope was eventually to get his body onto that chassis. “But now it’s been in its current form for so long that wouldn’t be right either.” It’s a sign of his love of ’Nash history, which has been at the centre of his restoration and preparation firm since it started.
We announce ourselves at an unpretentious main door. Patrick, dark and cheery, bounces down the stairs from his office, plonks himself down on a tyre in the workshop and tells me why from vintage origins we’re now surrounded by a Cobra, Healey 3000 racer, a C-type and a Le Mans Bizzarrini. “Sometimes we take 22 cars to an event,” he grins. “But this was never the plan. I baled out of anything academic because I’m too thick. Until I was 30 I played drums in a rock band – main stage at Glastonbury one year! It was hand to mouth, but I still managed to race a ’Nash.” That was the fault of a father who raced them, and finally Patrick submitted to the urge, learning the restoration business with pre-eminent specialists Dan Margulies and then Paul Grist, whom he calls his mentor.
Blakeney Motorsport started in the 1990s with a single building; now there are five units and plans for another. “Slow and steady growth has been the secret,” he says. “We have maybe 85 cars here and there but the new unit will allow us to separate restoration from race preparation – the business is split about 50/50 between them. I’m lucky to be surrounded by excellent staff, and when we take on a trimmer, we’ll be doing everything in house bar painting. Including engines – we have a full shop with dyno.”
Patrick is not only readying cars, at Goodwood he will be sharing some of them with their owners too, like Fred Wakeman’s ex-Tommy Sopwith Cooper-Jaguar, sitting on axle stands nearby (look at its curly gearlever if you can – it threads through chassis tubes like climbing ivy), and Martin Hunt’s E-type. The splendour of a historic paddock is a long way from Glastonbury mud – yet in Patrick’s office, surrounded by pedal cars, trophies, tether racers, posters and car models, sits his drum kit. What a great way to wind down. Although he tells me he has recently discovered another escape valve – shooting. “Sensational! And sociable too. Like trialling.” Patrick is still buzzing after a muddy weekend bumping a Bentley up some absurdly muddy hills on the Exmoor Trial.
He’s a handy racer, whether in vintage, saloon or GT races, solo or sharing with a car’s owner – it’s useful when your preparer knows exactly what your car is capable of, and Patrick has twice won MRL’s RAC Woodcote Trophy with Wakeman in the Cooper. Driver tuition is part of his portfolio, while after our meeting he is taking six Members’ Meeting entries to Goodwood for testing, including the sinewy V8 GN that he’ll drive in the S F Edge race and the Lister Costin coupé that Sargent and Lumsden took to Le Mans in 1963, a Goodwood regular. Yet while he’s at home giving Mini, Mustang or Lola T70 the beans around Silverstone, chains still rattle round his system. He has won the VSCC’s Pomeroy Trophy three times in a ’Nash. “And my goal is to win a vintage sports car race at Goodwood in the saloon ’Nash. I’ve come third before, but I’m sure a win is on.” The Sussex meetings sit high in his estimation; he is full of admiration for what Lord March and his organisation have done for the sport.
Patrick and his 25-strong team enjoy a novel challenge, too. They restored Jonathan Turner’s rare as hen’s teeth Triumph Dolomite 8C (the pre-war Alfa Romeo copy, not the ’70s saloon), they look after two steam-powered London-Brighton regulars, and in another shop I find Tudor Summers at work on a sleeve-valve Voisin C27 Aerodyne.
That’s the huge saloon with curved roof featuring three portholes which slides back in an arc. Among other things it’s being restored to its original, and frankly odd, paint scheme with clashing yellows, while the jazz-era interior fabric, considered to be a touch late for the car, is coming out in favour of orange leather. Don’t judge – there’s evidence inside that this was how it left the Voisin works. As Tudor shows me, almost every part was specially made by the French aircraft designer who created these bizarre, impressive machines. He didn’t even buy in a tail lamp or a door lock. Tudor points to the complex row of five knoblets which locate each door, like tiny fingers striving to keep it in place as the body flexes. “I get sucked in to details like these,” Tudor tells me, “so it’s not a quick job.” Which is why Patrick later says “We never estimate, we never quote. It costs what it costs. And we constantly have more than enough work.” Luckily, while most of the staff around us are pushing to get cars on the button for the forthcoming meeting, the Voisin is not facing the same deadline.
If Blakeney is typical of all the race prep firms sprinting to ready cars for the Members’ Meeting, and it must be, there are millions of man-hours racking up on hundreds of build sheets all around the United Kingdom. Recent figures from the FBHVC estimate that the old-car business in Britain directly employs almost 35,000 people and turns over some £2bn. With the surge in interest in historic motor sport, specialist firms like this are clearly contributing substantially to the economy. Racing old cars may seem an indulgence, but it keeps many hands at work.
Swishing through rain to another building there’s a true contrast – a Jaegermeister Alpina BMW 3.0 CSi, ex-Derek Bell, Dieter Quester and John Fitzpatrick, gleaming in Satsuma orange right across from the looming radiator of one of the three surviving Type 18 Bugattis, the Garros-type 5-litre, also being readied for the Members’ Meeting. In front of another TT Replica Frazer Nash there’s a complete engine, one of the Gough units Frazer Nash manufactured. Now they have an heir: “Gough parts are so scarce that we now make the whole thing – block, crankcase, everything,” says Patrick, before picking up a hefty, beautifully machined stub axle from the Land Speed Record Delage V12, also heading for Goodwood in March. “We found a little crack in one, so we have to replace them. We strive to keep every piece of original metal, but safety comes first.”
Another example of that desire for originality: the CSL ran on lovely gold Alpina wheels, but the 30-year-old ones aren’t a safe bet for racing. Patrick shows me one of the set he has ordered up in the correct magnesium alloy; there are less costly alternatives, but they just wouldn’t be right.
Squeezing past a sensational dual-screen Hispano-Suiza H6B and Patrick’s Speed Model Bentley, there’s no time to nip upstairs and admire the Rimoldi Alfa, the 8C 2300 that stayed in one owner’s hands for over 50 years, or CMH 500, the twin-supercharged works development Frazer Nash campaigned by A F P Fane. I swear Patrick’s eyes sparkle when he talks about this car, one of the gems of marque history.
But replacement, repair and restoration is just part of the story for each car heading for a race meeting. Even if it’s in perfect shape all the brake and engine fluids must be changed, compressions tested, brake pads bedded in, tyres scrubbed, dampers tweaked, tried and tweaked again. And as I don’t know of a prep firm with its own test track, that all means loading, transporting and unloading hundreds of cars to and from various test venues ahead of every meet.
There are still entrants who prepare their own cars and tow them to events, but as the profile of the top meetings rises you are more likely to see the articulated lorries of firms like this disgorging half a dozen cars each than the estate car and trailer of yore.
It’s pretty full-on, this place, even off-season, yet Patrick seem relaxed, confident that the cars will be ready on time. “It’s always busy,” he agrees. “We’re going to 30 meetings this season, but I still manage to do the school run and read bedtime stories to my kids.” It’s only later in the pub he admits that after the bedtime stories he goes back to the office. “I am a bona fide workaholic,” he grins over a pint of Doom Bar, before we release him to reapply nose to grindstone. It can be hard work being an enthusiast.