Letter to readers, November 1991

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Special Brews

Dear Reader,

One of the things I enjoy about Vintage Sports Car Club meetings is the variety of interesting vehicles and in particular the ‘specials’, cars created by the owners from a collection of second-hand parts from various makes and models. There is always someone to talk to about the philosophy behind special building. The rank amateur is usually perfectly frank about the business, and says: “I cobbled it up from bits I had under the bench and in the shed.” The nice thing about that sort of car is that you don’t have to worry about authenticity, or originality, or genuineness, or any of the other ‘in’ words used by the purist, the historian, the salesman, the collector or the auctioneer. A special is a special, and it can never be said to be finished.

I do not have time or facilities to build a four-wheeled special, though I have always had the inclination and have collected bits and pieces under the bench and in the shed. Circumstances have limited my special building to racing motorcycles and the end result has always given maximum “pleasure to cost and effort” ratio. My present machine has evolved over 25 years of activity. The basic frame is on its third type of engine, and the engine itself has been through four frames and I have already got some more modifications planned for this winter. As I say, a true special can never be considered to be finished while it is still in use.

Talking with one car special-builder recently he was saying how he enjoyed letting his imagination run free, even if it is only the shape of the tail, or the intake manifold from the supercharger. There is always something to be improved, and when it is done, that’s the way it is, because that is the way he wanted it. A lot of people think they are special builders, but when their car is complete it looks like a particular production model, and then along come the purists who say “that is wrong” or “the shock-absorbers were never like that.”

People who really bore me are those that make genuine fakes, spending a lot of time and effort on getting things absolutely right, so that the end result is indistinguishable from the real thing, except that such cars always look too new and clean. These people will then stand up whiter than white (or some of them will) and say: “Of course, I admit that it is not an original car, it is a replica.” Some will add, with all sincerity: “It is such a good replica that it is probably better than an original car.” My reply to these people is usually: “Hmm, it looks like a rather unimaginative special to me.”

My idea of a real special is something that when complete (I won’t say finished, for reasons explained) is something I have never seen before. It is a car built to a certain specification because that is the way the owner wanted it, and while some are attractive to look at, others are interesting to study, and others are just simply exciting. It is cars in the last category that I really enjoy. Back in the summer I enjoyed looking at, and actually sitting in, a vintage-style single-seater sprint car that was not quite complete, though the engine had been run on a test-bed. It was a Frazer Nash gathering where there were lots of genuine cars, a sprinkling of home made cars to Frazer Nash style and some very historic Frazer Nashes, but this special fascinated me and I could not leave it for long. It was the narrowest single-seater imaginable, long, low and evil looking. The methanol-burning, supercharged, V-twin motorcycle engine drove through a motorcycle gearbox to a chain-driven rear axle and the independent front suspension was Morgan-style by vertical slides and coil springs. It came under the “fiendish devices” category, and the builder/constructor laughed (rather hysterically, I thought) as he said “I haven’t driven it yet, but it should be fun. After all, that’s what special building is all about.” That sums it all up for me.

Someone else I was chatting with rather floored me when he said “What I like about Formula One racing cars is that they are the pinnacle of the special builders’ art, apart from Ferrari who makes everything in-house.” A Williams chassis, powered by a Renault engine, a McLaren chassis powered by a Honda engine, a Leyton House powered by an Ilmor engine, a Dallara chassis powered by a Judd engine, a Jordan powered by a Cosworth engine and so on. . .a special builder’s paradise. A Ferrari chassis with a Ferrari engine is rather dull, but a Minardi chassis powered by a Ferrari engine, now that is a special. We warmed to this theme, but it lost its edge when we remembered that most of the Formula One special builders had made five or six identical cars to the first one. A question arose. Were they building replicas, or had they started a limited edition production run? We went back to basics and decided that the essential thing about a true special was that it was unique, the only one. When I look at some of the more exciting, and fiendish, specials I feel certain they will stay unique.

To return to what some people call the real world, last month I asked you to send me memorable moments in motor racing that influenced you personally, and while I cannot publish them all, I will pick one at random, every now and then. Needless to say the post cards came from far and wide and most of them caused me to say “Oh yes, I remembered that occasion.”

The first card I have picked out, from Jeremy Lowe, quotes the following:

1. The Hungarian Grand Prix when Senna was leading, and was slightly baulked by Johansson, letting Mansell nip by after a split-second decision.

2. Gilles Villeneuve and Rene Arnoux, wheel-to-wheel at Dijon in 1979, and enjoying every minute of it.

3. Le Mans this year at dusk, watching the Mercedes-Benzes braking for the Esses with their brake discs glowing orange.

Replies suggest that the Motor Sport readership still encompasses people of all ages, from eight to 80 and they love motor racing, as I do. More next month. — DSJ

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