Motoring sportsmen - Roger Collings

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Gordon Cruickshank

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One of the most charismatic exponents of veteran cars, his real love is for his aero-engined monster

A Zeppelin-engined road car which does 120mph could not belong to a shy and retiring motorist. Anyone who follows vintage motoring will connect immediately this thundering leviathan with the ebullient Roger Collings racer, triallist, veteran car collector, sometime motor manufacturer, currently a cartographer, and creator of this mad, wonderful machine. A vintage meeting is somehow incomplete without Roger sweeping past, on foot or a wheel, tails of his battered leather coat flying behind him.

Brought up with the Foclen brothers, for whose firm his father was sales manager, Collings first ‘official’ car was the Alvis 12/50 his father provided for transport to and from Roger’s REME base during National Service, and he remains a fan. “Even now I can think of nothing else that will do everything race, trial, and simple transport like a 12/50.” His father’s generosity was brave, considering Roger’s secret motoring past. At the age of 16 he had already built a special of Morris, MG and Ford parts, and was an experienced driver before the law allowed it. It was nearly the end of him; returning from a jazz club in the early hours he turned his home-built car over three times and finished in hospital, the first his parents knew of the machine.

Out of the army, he ran a Lagonda and he had an efficient system to cope with its weak big-ends: a local garage kept a spare rod ready metalled to size. Every time the Lagonda ran a bearing, Roger would have the spare sent over and the other returned. “Many’s the time I’ve changed a big-end at the road-side.”

It was in 1959 that he confirmed his old-car bias by buying his well-known Züst, and it has been a faithful servant ever since. “I went on honeymoon in it, we brought all our newborn children back in it, my sons passed their tests in it, and in November my son Ben, who now owns it, will use it for his wedding.” And it was regular London transport; I recall it sometimes outside Standard House, dribbling fluids while Roger conferred with WB or Mr Tee.

The Züst was soon joined by Roger’s first Bentley, a 3-litre saloon costing £26, in which he once packed the entire Australian rowing team plus girlfriends (the Commonwealth Games were on in Cardiff). When it promptly caught fire in protest, the team managed to extinguish it with quick thinking and what Roger calls “available resources”. Notwithstanding, he entered his first race in it, at Oulton Park, and was hooked. An open 3-litre supplanted it, which was the basis of the 3/8-litre the junior Collings now race.

And then the veterans arrived. A 1904 Humber took him to Brighton for the first time in 1964, and there were an 1899 Benz and a 1904 Darracq before the car which became his emblem, the red 1903 Mercedes 60hp he bought in 1970.

In this automotive landmark, the Porsche 959 of its clay, Collings astonished spectators at races, trials, and the Brighton run, outrunning machines decades younger and winning the VSCC Edwardian Trophy for 10 years on the trot. (WB reminds me he got into trouble for arriving at Brighton too early, with the Founder Editor aboard.) In 1973 Collings and WB commemorated the 70th anniversary of the Gordon Bennett Trophy by matching the mileage of the race, hammering from Glamorgan to Beaulieu and back in the Mercedes with barely a stop. Roger was, says WB, the only person who would do it.

In 1970 Sam Clutton proposed Collings for the VSCC committee, and he has been central to the club since, serving as President from 1986-90. They were, he says, “extremely happy days, especially as I was leading a vintage club with a veteran car”.

But he also ran the ex-Border Reivers DBR1/3 Aston Martin, just to redress the age gap a little.

In the midst of this, the Collings family bought Gilbern, Wales’s only car firm, and for three years Roger struggled to make the elegant glass-fibre Invader a success. He commissioned Trevor Fiore to design a rear-engined two-seater, but economic reality put paid to the enterprise. WB recalls it was Gilbern which introduced them, when he collected a Genie for test in 1968.

Eventually the Mercedes had to go, but its replacement has, if anything, brought Roger more notoriety, and sparked a surge of aero-engined cars (Collings is, naturally, Chairman of the Aero-Engined Car Club). WB has coveted the genesis of the Mercedes-Maybach in detail in Motor Sport, but the salient points are the 1906 Mercedes chassis into which Roger has inserted a 19-litre 1916 Maybach airship engine with six separate cylinders and exhausts like stormdrains. Remarkably, Collings built the thing in just three months, in 1993. Output is said to be 350hp, but of course these venerable long-strokers churn out larger-than-life horses; Collings thinks the torque runs into four figures. It has lapped Millbrook at 120mph, and has, he says, “never been overtaken”. Except, presumably, during pit-stops: the mpg can be counted on one hand. Minus thumb.

Between the huge chain sprockets perch four seats, rather than any serious bodywork; Collings likes the family around. “Old cars have been the centre of our family life, and I believe in the saying about the family that plays together, stays together. All the children race, girls and boys, and the grandchildren are keen already.”

They won’t have to wait for racing licences; they’ll soon be ‘active ballast’ in Züst, Bentley or M-M on vintage trials. “Trialling is the very zenith of motorsport,” Collings declares. “Four people can truly enjoy it, and it’s a real team effort. And afterwards there is nothing like steaming home four-up at 110 mph.” That is why, though he enjoys racing, it is really his off-season; he’s just keeping his hand in for the winter, ready to get muddy and wet on some Welsh hillside. GC

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