When the giants returned
Part of the appeal of going to VSCC meetings is seeing giant cars from a long-gone age of the great road races in action. When some of these monsters from the past reappeared, the impression they made on spectators was one of astonishment and admiration.
First to appear was the 12-litre 1908 GP Itala lost behind a pub for 16 years and found by John Pole, who competed once before Cecil Clutton acquired it, to campaign it in wonderful fearsome style from 1936 onwards. Next to make its VSCC re-debut, in 1937, was the 1912 15-litre grand prix Lorraine-Dietrich which Dick Nash had rescued from oblivion. By 1938, Anthony Heal had joined in with the 1910 10-litre Fiat, and a 1914 21.5-litre Benz was raced at Crystal Palace by John Morris in 1939. All of these were ex-Brooklands.
Space precludes a full summary, but very good results were also achieved in speed trials and races.
In 1948, Clutton decided that the Itala should celebrate its 40th racing birthday — it finished 11th in the 1908 French GP at Dieppe — by driving to Reims, scene of that year’s GP. They say the old never die, they just fade away; but a long road journey in such a car was surely an adventure supreme.
Moreover, Peter Hampton then decided to join in aboard his 1913 5-litre Bugatti ‘Black Bess’ and Laurence Pomeroy with his 1914 Prince Henry Vauxhall. The Itala now had the Vincents of Reading four-seater body it had worn since 1911, so Dr Bob Ewen, who had a part-share in the car, Mrs Ewen and Kent Karslake could also go.
Karslake, an ex-Etonian, parodied the Harrow School song to commend this epic venture:
Forty years on,
Still sound in wind though
your story is long,
Still [full?] of poke, though
betrayed by your solder,
What is one piston to those
who are strong?
Give us plains, or French
hills to beleaguer
The wind in our faces,
come rain or with sun,
Speed for the fearless and
revs for the eager
Twenty and thirty and
forty years on.
The train ferry was used from Dover to Dunkirk and they were off over the pavé, through Cassel, Arras, Cambrai and St Quentin, the faster Itala following the Vauxhall and Bugatti. The rough road caused a petrol leak in the Itala’s tank, but it was cured and the other cars caught up with it at some 85mph (1400rpm) along the straight N44. But worse was to come. A little-end was clearly at fault. But in typical French style this, a holed cast-iron piston and the petrol tank were repaired, after some slight confusion when Kent thought tête de bielle was little end, but it actually meant big end. That having been explained, only the back cylinders, and not the entire engine, had to be dismantled.
While the willing garage worked overtime the Prince Henry took the party to see the French GP from the village of Gueux. It may have been an Alfa Romeo walkover, Wimille winning at 102.9mph from Sanesi and Ascari, but Kent asked if they would rather have witnessed Szisz on the Renault, Nazzaro’s Fiat, the Lautenschlager Mercedes, Boillot on the Peugeot, Segrave’s Sunbeam, Benoist driving the Delage, some of the Bugattis, or perhaps the pre-war German GP cars. But he thought Wimille’s Alfetta was as historic a sight as any and in another 40 years would look as much so as did the Itala in 1948.
Pomeroy and Karslake had business in Paris, so used the Vauxhall to return. It cruised easily at 60mph, never missing a beat in those 400 miles, nor did Hampton’s Bugatti. Sadly, the Itala ran onto a railway line at the docks, damaging its first and reverse gears. But for Clutton and his friends what an epic journey; worth remembering, I think.
The Itala went on to more excellent performances by Clutton and later the Williamsons, and is today in the hands of another 100 per cent enthusiast, George Daniels. He drives it in sprints, and only this year made, with Roger Collings, another stupendous journey round France, taking in the Le Mans circuit, going to see a 1922 racing Sunbeam, making social calls, etc, a distance of 1550 miles, 160 of them in driving rain. The only time the old car needed attention was to clean two of its low-tension ignition igniters.